CHRIST AND THE CHURCH
PART 6 THE LOCAL ASSEMBLY
We live in a day of confusion about how Christians should come together. Some meet as they do because of force of habit, others because of their upbringing, or the nearness of the place of meeting. Still others feel that they have no need to be loyal to a particular group, but move from place to place. God is not the author of such confusion, however, therefore its cause must lie elsewhere. He can be relied upon to guide us in this, as in all matters, especially as proper church fellowship is described as “the fellowship of His Son”, and our God is very careful as to what He associates with His Beloved Son. ‘
THE MEANING OF THE WORD CHURCH
We must first of all establish what is meant by a church. Nowadays the word is used in several different senses. We shall look at these first, then test these usages by the only standard, the Word of God.
The church as a building:
Of course the New Testament does speak of the church as a building: “I will build My church”, Matthew 16:18; “the whole building…groweth unto a holy temple in the Lord”, Ephesians 2:21. But this is using the idea of a building as a metaphor, to put across a spiritual concept. So the church is indeed a building, but not a physical one. It is a spiritual building composed of living stones, 1 Peter 2:5. The Acts of the Apostles speaks of tidings “coming to the ears of the church”, Acts 11:22, so it is people that are in view, not material buildings.
The “church” in connection with a country:
For instance, there is the “Church of England”, meaning those congregations of people, professing to be Christians, who meet in a certain way in England, and have as their leader the Archbishop of Canterbury, and over him the Queen, who is described as the head of the Church of England. Then there is the “Church of Rome”, consisting of those who recognize the Pope as their head. This use of the word church is foreign to the word of God, since no man on earth is the head of the church, for the head of the true church is in heaven. The Scriptures never speak of the church of a particular earthly location, such as Galatia, or Judea. What are spoken of are “the churches of Galatia, Galatians 1:2, or the churches of Judea, Galatians 1:22.
The church as a denomination emphasizing a particular Scripture doctrine, or a prominent Christian leader:
So there is the “Baptist Church”, with the (commendable) insistence on the baptism of believers. But no doctrine of Scripture should be elevated above another, and then made a label for a particular group of Christians. There are Charismatic churches, who emphasize the gifts that were given to the early believers. Apart from the fact that these gifts have been withdrawn, it is wrong to make them a badge, and thus divide the people of God. There is the “Lutheran Church”, named after Luther; but this detracts from the preeminence of Christ, who alone should be to the fore.
The church on earth:
In some circles the idea of “the church on earth” is prominent, by which is meant all Christians on the earth at any one moment. But the church is not an earthly concept, for it is linked to Christ its Head in heaven, and each believer is linked to Him there, as we have seen from Ephesians 2:5,6. It is true there are churches in a particular place on earth, but that is a Scriptural use of words.
Faced with these varying ideas about the church, the only safe course is to resort to the Scriptures, and enquire, by the help of the Holy Spirit, (who is the Spirit of truth, and who guides into all truth, John 16:13), what it has to say on this important subject. God desires that His people should meet together in a way that conforms with His mind on the matter, for in so doing Christ will be glorified. This will ensure that conditions prevail in which growth in Christian virtues and intelligence may be fostered. God’s way is always the best way. So we turn now to the New Testament, for the idea of the church is not found in the Old Testament.
The Greek word rendered church is made up of two parts, the first meaning “out of”, the second meaning “a calling”. The two together indicate a called out company of people, separated from men in general and called together for specific purposes.’
The English word “church” does not come from the Greek word “eklesia”, but from the Greek word “kuriakos”, which means “belonging to the Lord”. Whilst it is true that the church does belong to the Lord, the word eklesia relates both to the way in which the church is brought into being, and also to its ongoing character. By the gospel God separates people to Himself, and then bonds them together so that their separate character might be maintained.
The use of the word “church”
The word is used in four main senses in the New Testament, but not always in connection with Christians. A brief look, however, at the way the word is used in other senses will help us to see why the Holy Spirit took it up to use in relation to believers.
The word is used in the following ways:
By Stephen, Acts 7:38, of the nation of Israel when they were in the wilderness.
By the town-clerk of Ephesus, Acts19:39, of a company of unbelievers.
By the Lord Jesus and His apostles of all the Christians of this present age, Matthew 16:18, Colossians 1:18.
By the Lord Jesus and His apostles of the Christians who meet together in a particular locality, Matthew 18:17, 1 Corinthians 1:2.
Stephen’s use of the word church:
Stephen uses the word church of the nation of Israel because they were a called-out company. They had been redeemed by the blood of the Passover lamb, as described in Exodus 12; “baptised” in the Red Sea, Exodus 14:21,22; 1 Corinthians 10:1,2; and brought to the foot of Mount Sinai to listen to God’s word, Exodus 19:17, 20:1. As such they give to us an illustration of those in this age who have been called out of the world by the Gospel; redeemed by the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God; baptized in water to signify, amongst other things, allegiance to Him; and gathered together as a church in a locality to bow to the authority of the word of God. This illustration should not be pressed too far, however, or else we shall arrive at the unscriptural notion that since infants crossed the Red Sea, then infant baptism is in order. The Scriptures are crystal clear that this is not the case.
The use of the word by the town clerk:
The town clerk of Ephesus used the word in its secular sense in Acts 19:39, when he spoke of a “lawful assembly”. The townsfolk would understand that he meant by this a gathering of those possessing civic rights in a free Greek city, who were called together for the carrying out of public affairs. Strangers, and those deprived of citizenship, could not be part of this called out company.’
Characteristics of the members of a local church:
When we put these two uses of the word together, and apply them to a local church, we can say it has the following characteristics:
1. Only believers. It is composed only of those who have responded to the call of God in the Gospel, and have been redeemed with the precious blood of Christ, just as a civic assembly did not include strangers.
2. Only those sound in doctrine and morals. It is composed only of those who have not forfeited their rights because of moral or doctrinal evil, just as a civic assembly did not consist of those who had been deprived of the rights of citizenship through misconduct.
3. Only those baptized. It is composed only of those who have been baptized by immersion in water after they were saved, just as all the people of Israel went through the Red Sea to get to the wilderness.
4. Only those subject to God’s Word. It is composed only of those who are prepared to submit to the authority of the Word of God, just as Israel gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai to hear God speaking to them, and then said “all that the Lord hath spoken we will do”, Exodus 19:8. Moses called that day “the day of the assembly”, Deuteronomy 9:10.
5. Only those who have joined. It is composed only of those who have been exercised in heart to join, just as the Israelites had been exercised in heart to sprinkle the blood, cross the sea, and gather at Sinai. When Paul went to Jerusalem, he “assayed to join himself to the disciples”, Acts 9:26. The word for join means to cement, or glue, and therefore indicates an act of commitment, not the start of a casual relationship.
The use of the word by the Lord Jesus and the apostles of all believers of this present age:
We have been considering this aspect of things in the first parts of our studies, so will not repeat it here.
The use of the word by the Lord Jesus of a company of believers gathering together in a particular locality:
The Lord Jesus speaks of those who can be told things, (“tell it to the church”), and make decisions about local matters, Matthew 18:17. They may only be two three in number, but he promises to be present if they gather in His name. Also, Paul writes to the believers at Corinth as “the church of God which is at Corinth”, 1 Corinthians 1:2, and Luke writes of “the church that was at Antioch”, Acts 13:1.
It is important to see that, despite both having the same name, the church which is Christ’s body, and church in a locality, have differences, as well as certain similarities, as follows:
The church which is Christ’s body consists of all who are truly saved from the whole period between the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, when the church was formed, and the coming of Christ into the air to take His own to be with Himself.
A local church obviously cannot consist of all believers of the present age.
The church which is Christ’s body consists of all believers, whatever their spiritual condition, simply because they are credited with the work of Christ, and God looks at them in the light of what His Son means to Him, what the apostle calls being “accepted in the Beloved”, Ephesians 1:6.
A local church should ideally only consist of those who are morally and doctrinally sound, but in view of the human limitations of those in a place of responsibility in the church, this might not always be the case.
The church which is Christ’s body, being a concept in the mind of God, consists of all who believe in this current age. That is, it includes believers who have died as well as those who have not yet believed, but will, in the foreknowledge of God, do so.
A local church consists only of those who are alive in the body. Those who die are no longer members of the local assembly.
The church which is Christ’s body is a spiritual building of which Christ is the builder. As He Himself said, “I will build My church”, Matthew 16:18.
A local church, however, is entrusted to believers to build and adorn, as 1 Corinthians 3:9-15 explains.
The church which is Christ’s body is an eternal concept, for in the ages to come God will display the exceeding riches of His grace in His people, who have been linked indissolubly to Christ, Ephesians 2:7
A local church may cease to exist for several reasons. The Lord may remove the lampstand of testimony if there is a persistence in sin, Revelation 2:5. Or the believers may become so depleted in numbers that they are unable to function as a church. And when the Lord comes, all true believers will be transported to heaven, and thus there will not be a local church anywhere on earth.
The church which is Christ’s body is completely united, for there is such a thing as the unity of the Spirit, Ephesians 4:3, which is unity that the Holy Spirit forms and maintains. It is the answer to the prayer of the Lord Jesus to His Father before He died, when He asked that His people might be one, and so they are, John 17:21.
A local church however, may, sadly, be divided. This was the case at Corinth, for the apostle found out that there were divisions among them, 1 Corinthians 1:10-13. Some were making Paul their favourite, others Apollos, and others Peter. There were even those who were claiming to be super-spiritual, and saying they, to the exclusion of the others, were of Christ.
The church which is Christ’s body has a membership which is constant, for none can be excluded from it, for each member is linked to Christ for ever, for “he that is joined to the Lord is one spirit”, 1 Corinthians 6:17.
A local church, however, may have members who fall into doctrinal error, or moral sin. Such, after careful assessment of the situation by spiritual men, must be put away from the company. When this happens they are no longer part of the local assembly until such times as they repent, and are received back. When a person is put away from a particular local church, because the decision of the church is final, and is confirmed in heaven, Matthew 18:18, no other local church should receive them. If it does, then it not only undermines the decision of the first assembly, but also makes the repentance of the offending person less likely, and so hampers his restoration to full fellowship again.