Broadly put, the Church is the invisible body of elect Christians that have ever existed. And while the universal Church may be relatively easy to define, it starts to get a bit more tricky when one attempts to define the local church. Nevertheless since the Jerusalem Church in Acts 2 to the mega-church of the late twentieth century, I believe the Bible presents a standard pattern: a local church is a group of Christians that regularly gather together for the right preaching of God’s word and the right administration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This definition begs for explanation and what follows is such an unpacking.
It must be noted that a true Christian local church is composed of Christians.
Obviously, there is disagreement among paedobaptists and craedobaptists over the inclusion or exclusion of non-regenerate church members. However, regenerate church memberships seems to be most clearly practiced in the New Testament. And we should be quite wary of going beyond the example or command or Scripture! For example Acts 2:47 states, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved”. Whose number is Luke referring to? It is obvious from the preceding verses that he is referring to the local church in Jerusalem. The connection seems to be between salvation and being added to the church rolls. Furthermore, if baptism is the necessary prerequisite to church membership (Acts 2:41), and only believers are to be baptized (Acts 2:38), then it is necessarily the case that members are to be regenerate.It might be objected that such qualification for church membership (regeneration) places too much authority and power in the judgment of fallible churches and church leaders. But this position simply has no biblical precedence. This perspective is more akin to twenty-first century post-modern American culture than first-century biblical ecclesiology. The provision of church discipline is itself evident that the Lord Jesus recognizes he was appointing fallible guards to the front door of the church! Furthermore, the misuse of political authority against the apostle Paul (Acts 16:23) did not dissuade him from commending submission to worldly governments (Romans 13:1-7). Imperfect use of authority does not inherently remove the authority.Next, I contend that a local church must be made up of a group of Christians. This means that no individual Christian can call himself or herself a local church! Matthew 18:20 makes it clear that two or three brothers are necessary. A church is composed of more than one member! And these Christians must meet regularly. While the Jewish people worshipped on Saturday, the Christian churches (significantly) began worshipping on a new day. The Sabbath had transitioned from a day to a Person. That left Christians to find a new time to worship the triumphant Christ. The seventh day was chosen and it became known as the Lord’s Day (Revelation 1:10), because the Lord Jesus had risen then and because the Lord’s people worshipped on that day. So it seems normal that these of Christians would normally meet on a weekly basis and would normally do so on Sunday.
This regular gathering of God’s people has roots in the Jewish calendar of festivals, feasts, and fasts and the New Testament promotes the importance of weekly coming together. Indeed, the word translated as ‘church’ is simply the Greek word ‘ekklesia’—gathering or assembly. The writer of Hebrews stresses the importance of this coming together when he writes, “And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Hebrews 10:24-25). This meeting together is one way Christians love one another—by being present to encourage and exhort one another to persevere in faith. The writer then expresses his joy that these Christians even met with persecuted Christians, almost inviting persecution in there own lives! It seems that meeting together and identifying with other Christians is an integral part of ordinary Christian discipleship.And what are churches to do when they gather together? Acts 2:42 indicates that the believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” and we see these elements present in Paul’s writings. In many ways, the book of 1 Corinthians was written to address such issues. In chapters 11-14 he outlines proper participation in the Lord’s Supper, the unifying and loving use of spiritual gifts, and orderly worship. Importantly, these meetings were apparently primarily for the edification of the saints (12:7, 22-25, 14:3, 4, 5, 12, 17, especially 26, 31). This means that Sunday morning services should not be aimed at non-believers. They are not essentially evangelistic. Christians should invite outsiders to come, that they might declare that God is really among them (v.24), but that is not the primary aim of gathering. Another element of corporate worship that is clear in the New Testament is the place of singing (see Ephesians 5:19, Colossians 3:16). This is singing to God and to fellow believers. In a letter to a pastor, Paul also commands Timothy “to devote [himself] to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13).However the most prominent and formative aspect of a local Christian assembly is the preaching of God’s word. This is prominent throughout the book of Acts, as the apostles seek to make disciples in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. We see the importance of preaching/teaching beginning with John the Baptizer (Mark 1:7) , Jesus (Mark 1:14-15), the apostles (Acts 6:2), the apostle’s disciples (1 Timothy 6:2ff), and those disciples’ disciples (2 Timothy 2:1-2). Paul describes the ministry of reconciliation as the message of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-19). The center of Christian ministry is primarily using words to witness about the Christ (Acts 1:8).And that gospel preaching is primarily in the local church. Writing to the pastor Timothy, Paul lays a weighty charge at the (perhaps timid) young man’s feet:
I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but have itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wonder off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill you ministry (2 Timothy 4:1-5).
Of the many noteworthy aspects of Paul’s admonition, perhaps most critical is his command for Timothy to preoccupy himself with preaching the word. And this make complete sense, for how God would create and sustain his church. He has always done it this way. In Genesis 1, God creates his people through his word. In Genesis 12, God begins his word of re-creation by calling Abraham and his family. In Exodus 19-40 God creates the nation of Israel by addressing them. Ezekiel 37 illustrates how God’s Spirit uses God’s word to create God’s people. Climactically, in John 1:1 the Word begins the work of redeeming God’s people. And Romans 10:17 instructs us that saving faith comes from hearing of the word of Christ. So it makes complete sense that Timothy would preach the word! The word of God is the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17)—it is what the Spirit blesses and uses.
The question then turns as to how a local church can rightly promote the preached word. Should the pastor simply preach through a systematic theology textbook? Or perhaps important biblical theological themes? Or should the congregation choose the content? Options abound, but one particular method seems to be most God-glorifying and word-exalting: expositional preaching. When the preacher makes the point of the sermon the point of the text he is submitting his own ideas and agendas to Scripture. Week after week the Bible is implicitly recognized as both authoritative and sufficient. For as 2 Timothy 3:16-17 states, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for truing in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work”. It is no coincidence that Paul follows this impressive statement with his enthusiastic exhortation to preach the word! It is important to preach the Bible, in all that it means and says, because it is God’s words that are always true and practical. Put another way, God’s words are authoritative and sufficient.
The final mark of a local church is the right administration of the ordinances. Space does not afford a lengthy treatment of baptism or the Lord’s Supper, but most basically these are God-ordained means of marking off his people. By honoring and remembering different aspects of Jesus’ work in salvation, Christians are delineated from those who do not partake. In baptism, the Christian identifies with Christ’s death and resurrection (Romans 6:5-11; Colossians 2:11-12). The Christian proclaims to the world that Jesus, “[is] the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), and that the old man is dead and the new man alive to God (Romans 6:11). When a professor is baptized, it is not simply that the person up front professes faith. The congregation, by approving and authorizing the baptism, also professes affirmation in the person’s salvation.
And by approving and authorizing to the baptism of the professor, the local church is publicly welcoming him or her into membership. Put another way, to be baptized is to be joined to Christ, to be joined to Christ is to be joined to his body (the Church), and to be joined to his body takes tangible expression in joining a local church. A local church should never baptize a professor whom they do not take into membership. If he is not able to become a member (because of age, improper profession, improper living, etc.), then he should are not able to be baptized. Put differently, if a local church is willing to baptize someone, why would they not take him or her into membership? If a professor is willing to be baptized, but unwilling to join and submit to a local church, then that is evidence that the person may be unregenerate (or simply uninformed) (see 1 John 4:20-21).
If baptism is the ‘mote’ that define who has entered into God’s kingdom, the Lord’s Supper is the kingdom meal which continues to illuminate who is in and who is out. It is here that kingdom citizens look back to the meal initiated by Christ (Matthew 26:26-29) and look forward to the meal consummated by Christ (1 Corinthians 11:26). If the Lord’s Supper is only for Christians, then normally, only local church members would partake in the Lord’s Supper. This is because only they should have assurance of their salvation and participation in Christ’s kingdom. For those non-members who eat and drink, one has to wonder what has given them the assurance that they are qualified to partake? If Christ is right that there will be self-deceived professors (Matthew 7:21), then assurance should come from a local church and not the individual!
However a question remains: who makes decisions regarding baptism and the Lord’s Supper? The congregation. Jesus grants this divine, judgmental, and declarative authority to the assembly of Christians in Matthew 18:15-20. And what grounds does the gathering have for denying someone fellowship? Either a false profession (16:16) or false living (18:15-17). This authority does not reside in some spiritual leader, but in the assembly of Christians. It is the normal Christian church member who contributes to the authority of discerning what is true and what is false. We find further evidence of this congregational mandate in 1 Corinthians 5. There Paul admonishes the local Corinthian assembly for not disciplining a member for unrepentant and severe external sin. In 2 Corinthians 2:6 Paul mentions a majority in a discipline case—indicating that there were a visible and known group of people responsible for the spiritual care of members and disciplined individuals. A defined congregation removes and the defined congregation also accepts back into membership.
The removal of fellowship cases from 1 and 2 Corinthians also reinforces the evidence for a fellowship—for a determined and specific group of people who have committed to one another. To put someone out of communion (1 Corinthians 5), you must have a defined group that is in communion. And to have a majority, you almost have this defined group of eligible persons (2 Corinthians 2:6). That is, a local church is composed of its individual church members. The book of Hebrews commands Christians to, “Remember you leaders…obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Hebrews 13:7, 17). To remember and imitate their leaders, Christians first need to know who their leaders are. And to lead, keep watch and give an account, leaders first need to know who they are responsible for. First Peter commends elders to, “shepherd the flock of God that is among you” (1 Peter 5:2).
Ultimately, church membership and discipline are subsumed and implied by the right administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. To be a church member is to be committed to a specific local body, to oversee the use of authority in the right administration of the preached word and visible sacraments, and then to partake in those means of grace. When a local church admits someone to membership, they affirming his or her profession of faith. For when a professing Christian partakes in the Lord’s Supper, and the local church allows her to do so, the congregation is affirming her salvation. And when a church no longer allows a man to partake, they have effectually removed him from communion with the saints and with the Lord. Of course, they have not actually removed the person’s salvation. But the local congregation has removed their confidence in his salvation.
One topic that has yet to be discussed, except in passing, is the role of biblical leadership in the church. The New Testament makes clear that there are two roles/offices in a local church: elder and deacon. Both of these positions can be traced the early days of the church and we see that they have become official titles when Paul writes his first letter to Timothy. Paul first outlines the qualifications for elders in 1 Timothy 3:1-7. There is nothing particularly remarkable here, except that elders are charged with being capable teachers (v.2). Acts 6:2, 4 also indicates that the role of pastor is primarily one of teaching. Some see a distinction between two types of elders in 1 Timothy 5:17 (those that rule and those that teach), but this seems unnecessarily bifurcated. It seems more natural that Paul is encouraging congregations to especially honor those elders who labor in preaching and teaching most often—and to honor them by paying them well! In Acts 20:17-35 we also see the use of multiple Greek words to describe the same Ephesian leaders—that is, these different words are actually describing the same biblical office.
And in 1 Timothy 3:8-13, Paul lays out the qualifications for the office of deacon. Exemplary character aside, there is again nothing particularly noteworthy here. This office seems to be the consummation of the ‘proto-deacons’ of Acts 6:2-3 who serve tables and fairly distribute funds to church members. A church can be a true church without any leaders—especially if there are no men (or women for deaconesses) who are qualified—but it is naive and unbiblical to insist upon a polity that excludes biblically appropriate leadership.
A local church is a group of Christians that regularly gather together for the right preaching of God’s word and the right administration of the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. This was my thesis in the beginning of this essay, and I hope to have shown how much the Bible must inform and dictate our ecclesiology! And as local assemblies faithfully order their corporate life in these ways, they proclaim and image the gospel in all that they say and do. For this reason and many more, may God raise up many healthy local churches!
- This would imply that all new converts, who need to be baptized, should be voted on for membership before their potential baptism. The pastor would present (before the congregation) the testimony and new life of the professor, and should the assembly see sufficient fruit as to affirm salvation, then they would vote to accept the person into membership. Only then would the professor be properly authorized for baptism. When a pastor baptizes without consulting the congregation, he is usurping the authority that Christ has entrusted to the congregation. He is publicly affirming their salvation, when only the entire local church has that authority. For example, what would happen if the pastor saw sufficient reason to baptize, and did baptize, only for the congregation to reject the professor? If professors are baptized into membership, and guarding the membership is the responsibility of the congregation, then the congregation is also responsible to guard the baptismal pool.
- Evangelists would do well to withhold assurance from professors, even in the face of great emotion and sincerity, until the professor joins a gospel-preaching and discipline practicing church. If you call yourself a Christian and are at a church that does not practice discipline, watch out! You might be a wolf and nobody has told you. Your case is an urgent one—you have been visiting a doctor too afraid or too ignorant to give your actual diagnosis. Quick, find a church that will tell your actual spiritual condition. If you join a church that rightly practices discipline against sharp-toothed wolves, and you haven’t been disciplined, rest in knowing that other members see fluffy white wool in you!
- And not only does this authority apply to matters of membership and discipline, but the congregation must also use this authority as it applies to teachers and right doctrine (Galatians 1:8; 2 Timothy 4:3; 2 John 10-11; Jude 3-4).
- However when the church fails to practice discipline, they actually make their affirmation meaningless. If a church keeps the faithful husband on the same rolls as the cheating wife, then he should have no more confidence in his salvation than her. For their affirmation has lost all legitimacy. Church membership is necessarily meaningless until discipline is meaningful.