THE LOCAL CHURCH
By Wayne S. Walker
The word “church” is used in the New Testament with at least two different applications. Sometimes it occurs in a universal sense (Matthew 16:18). The universal church is a spiritual relationship of baptized believers with God and Christ, encompassing all saved people on the earth at any given time and can even be extended to include New Testament Christians of all times (Hebrews 12:23). It is not an organizational unit nor does it have any organizational structure. There is no such thing as the “visible” universal church. It is impossible to activate the church universal except by perversion of God’s word, and any attempt to do so will result in the formation of a denomination, even though it may be called “The Church of Christ.” This is how Roman Catholicism, the Christian Church, and institutionalism among “churches of Christ” came about.
The second usage of the word “church” is in the local sense (1 Corinthians 1:2). The church of the Lord exists in many places as local congregations of saints (Philippians 1:1). The church does not exist as denominations, as some sectarians have offered, for there were no denominations in New Testament days. A local church is an independent, autonomous, self-sustaining, and self-functioning of non-denominational, New Testament Christians who meet together to worship God and labor together to do His work in their local area.
Each Christian is part of the church universal and establishes his spiritual relationship with God by obeying the gospel. The terms were revealed in Acts 2:38. “Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’” Then in verse 47 we learn that when folks obeyed those terms of the gospel in repentance and baptism, “…the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” So whenever a person is saved by God upon his repentance and baptism, he is automatically added to the church of the Lord, i.e., the universal church, by God Himself.
Next, the saved one should seek to become part of a local church as we read in Acts 9:26. “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.” Saul of Tarsus, a known persecutor of the church, had received a miraculous vision of Christ. He evidently believed that this Jesus, the very one he had been persecuting, was the Son of God because He asked Him what to do. The Lord told him to go into Damascus and there it would be told him what he must do. Saul then waited in the city for three days and nights, evidencing his repentance by fasting and prayer. But he was not saved by prayer. Ananias, a preacher sent by God, came and told him what he must do. “And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord” (Acts 22:16).
When Saul thus obeyed the gospel and was saved, he was added to the universal church by God at that time. He worshipped with the brethren at Damascus for a while, but had to leave for Jerusalem because of a plot by the Jews to kill him. It was in Jerusalem that he sought to “join himself” to the local church there. We likewise need to recognize the essentiality of local church membership. Every local church is to have elders, deacons, and evangelists. But all other members have responsibilities as well.
Membership in the universal church is something determined by God alone (Luke 10:20). However, in the local church it is determined by acceptability to the group (Philippians 2:29). Membership in the Lord’s church involves fellowship, defined as “communion, sharing in common, being a partaker, participation, partnership” (Philippians 1:5, 3:10). Fellowship with God, a spiritual blessing in Christ, is based on obedience to the gospel (Ephesians 1:3, 2:12-19). It is conditioned on continued faithfulness or “walking in the light” (1 John 1:3-7). But fellowship in the local church is based on the judgment of the members guided by New Testament teaching (2 John vs. 9-11). So a relationship with God centers around one’s having obeyed the gospel and his continued adherence to the will of God. A relationship in the local congregation is maintained upon the discernment of the local saints concerning a person’s past obedience and present faithfulness to God’s word as ascertained from the truth revealed in that word.
Then how does one initiate fellowship in a congregation? Placing membership or identifying first requires the expression of a desire to do so (as in Acts 9:27-28), and then an acceptance of that request by the members (Galatians 2:9). This is sometimes accomplished by a letter (Acts 18:27, Romans 16:1-2). However, Scripture does not require any “formal procedure or ceremony” such as “coming forward to place membership” or “reading one’s letter before the assembly” (though these may at times be expedient means of accomplishing the purpose) or conducting any other official “transfer of membership.” Just a simple “We want to worship with you” and a response of “We’re glad to have you” will do. According to Acts 11:25-26 and 14:27-28, whenever one abides with a group of Christians, assembles regularly with them, and participates in the local work, with their approval, he constitutes himself a member.
Indeed, the Bible teaches the necessity of being in fellowship with other Christians in a local congregation. There is no such thing in the New Testament as “floating membership.” This writer seriously doubts that under normal circumstances God recognizes as faithful one who refuses to “settle down” with a local group. Neither is there anything such as “membership back home.” It is simply not scriptural to attend one congregation for years while claiming membership somewhere else. We need local church membership because we need association with the saints (Acts 2:42-46), oversight of elders (Acts 20:28), scriptural discipline (Galatians 6:1-2), collective worship (Acts 20:7), and service together in the church (Ephesians 3:20-21). We receive many blessings from our membership in a local church.
However, the benefits come only as we discharge our obligations as members. We must demand that only the truth is taught (Ephesians 5:14). We are told to obey the elders (Hebrews 13:17). We ought to live righteous lives as good examples to others (Matthew 5:14-16). We need to admonish our brethren (1 Thessalonians 5:14). We are commanded to maintain unity and peace (Ephesians 4:1-3). We should give of our means (1 Corinthians 16:1-2). We are asked to participate in the program of work (Ephesians 2:10). And we are required to attend all the assemblies possible (Hebrews 10:24-25). This is not to say that we should not be interested in the work at other places nor that it is always wrong to be in attendance somewhere besides the local church where we are members. It is all right, and even necessary at times, to be away and visit occasionally with other churches. But no Christian should do so to the neglect of his responsibilities “at home,” because of the Biblical emphasis on the essentiality of local church membership.
—taken from Gospel Anchor; Nov., 1982; Vol. IX, No. 2; pp. 17–18