Should there even be a local church?
Being a senior at UMass I’ve been blessed to meet a good amount of Christian students and faculty over the years. As a freshman I discovered that many Christians I met through a club or student organization, although attending a campus fellowship weekly, were not active members in a local church. Three years later I’m learning that this wasn’t a fluke—it’s a trend that affects not just students but resounds in other places I visit across America.
This points out some pretty important questions for all of us today. I wrestled them myself and I want to do my best at responding to them with scripture and reason.
- Should there even be a local church?
- What does it mean to be a part of a local church?
- Do Christians need to be a part of a local church?
- What comes out of being a part of a local church?
- What is the future of the local church?
The question I’ll be looking at now is whether or not there should be a local church at all. If we don’t need to have a local church, then there is absolutely no problem with the trend I was highlighting earlier. If, however, the local church is actually a part of God’s design for those who walk in faith then we need to step it up and get into gear.
What is a church?
Basic but fundamental. To go anywhere we need to make sure we’re in the same boat about what I’m talking about when I use the word church. There are a lot of ways that we can look at this, but here’s what we’ll use: the church is a body of people who believe in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll expand and construct this on a much deeper level as the series continues. Please note that the church is not a building, it’s the people. The church is not a building, it’s the people.
Local Church vs. Universal Church
The next step, purely for discussion’s sake, is giving us some new vocabulary when talking about the church. Notice that our definition for a church doesn’t have a size, or limitations in time. Scripturally speaking, there is no distinction. The same word (Gk. Ekklesia) is used since the establishment of the early church to refer to a church in a house (Romans 16:5), to the church of whole city (1 Thess. 1:1), to the church of an entire region (Acts 9:31), and to the church of the whole world (Eph. 5:25). Although it’s the same word, it is used in different contexts. To avoid confusion, we will use “local church” when referring to a local body of Gospel believers who physically interact on a regular basis, and “universal Church” to refer to the whole church of all believers.
Looking Back to see the Present
I will say at this point that since we believe that all of scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16) and his inerrant Word (see Pastor Nate Cartel’s latest sermon on biblical in errancy), we need to look back to see what the bible has to say about church to figure out if we should have a local one or not.
Has there always been a local church?
When we understand that a church refers to the population of believers and not just a pretty building or cathedral, then yes; a body of people who believed in Jesus and his teachings existed as soon as Jesus died on the cross and “gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25) So there was a group of believers but did they fit into our “local” definition of interacting regularly? According to Acts 2:44, “all who believed were together and had all things in common.” Yes, from the beginning, the local church existed.
Was the local church acknowledged?
As we saw earlier, the local church was referred to specifically in Romans 16:5 (“Greet also the church in their house”) and in 1 Thessalonians 1:1 (“The church of the Thessalonians”). More than this, all of the letters that Paul wrote (excluding the personal letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon) are addressed to groups of believers and directed to the local community who lived life together. He not only acknowledged Christians living in the same community but commanded it. “Complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mine. Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:1-5). These are not commands for the Church at Philippi in regards to interacting with non-believers—God is showing us how the local church ought to behave as they live together on a day-to-day basis. While this could be interpreted on the Universal Church level, in context it was written to a local church.
Was the local church just around at the beginning?
The office of Apostle may be the only special “limited-time” aspect of the early church, depending on where you stand theologically and how cessational you are. Regardless, one might argue that, “the local church was just a response to Jesus’ resurrection and was only meant to kick-start the spread of the Gospel.” What I see in scripture, however, is God commanding that the local church be taken care of (“Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which [Jesus] obtained with His own blood.” Acts 20:28. There is no conditional given for when this is care-taking should end, so we should understand it to be indefinite until otherwise noted.
Reading the first few chapters in the book of Revelation you will also see that Jesus cares for the local church and actually judges them (which would make sense considering he obtained them with his own blood, Acts 20:28). Chapters two and three deal with seven local churches which Jesus addresses personally the things they are doing well, and the things that need to change. The local church was not just designed as a platform for spreading the Gospel at the beginning, but was established by Jesus and designed to be taken care of and watched carefully through the present time and into the future.
The original question we tried to answer is whether or not there should even be a local church for people to attend. We came up with three major facts: The local church was always around since the very beginning, the local church wasn’t just a coincidence of believers living together but acknowledged by God through Scripture, and the local church was designed to be taken care of and exist beyond the early stages of faith in the Gospel. The idea of a local church existing isn’t absurd or fabricated after the scriptures, but is an integral part of Christian doctrine. It’s a part of God’s design for those who walk in faith.
If you’re a Christian and actively a part of a church (we’ll discuss what this means in great detail later), then know that you’re not crazy and add this to your understanding of the Gospel for your encouragement and its defense.
If you’re a Christian reading this and don’t attend a church, this probably won’t convince you to start (don’t worry, I have four more of these to do that). Hopefully what it will do, however, is soften your heart to the local church enough to see that it’s scripturally warranted in being there.