The Local Church: A Unique Entity
by Rick Shrader
I remember hearing an older preacher say that he grew up in church and was bored most of the time. Frankly, I cannot relate to that because it wasn’t my experience at all. I certainly did not know much of what went on in the whole church nor did I understand the complexities of church organization but, for my part, I always thought of church as an important responsibility that I had before God. I would later realize that taking an obligation seriously never allows boredom.
The church, however, is not being taken seriously today. From many on the inside, the church is being made like the world in an effort to combat the otherwise boring services. From many on the outside, the church is being pushed into becoming a social/political/medical resource in order to fill in where society has failed. In either case, the church is not allowed to be what it uniquely is: the body of Christ in the midst of a foreign and hostile world, boldly displaying what it alone can display—peace with God.
The average citizen no doubt thinks that the church exists to serve humanity in whatever way humanity happens to display the greatest need. It is now being proposed by liberal thinkers that the church should join hands with the government to support government controlled healthcare, a moral imperative, they say, which the government and religion have to all humanity. At the same time, it is being proposed by conservative thinkers that the church should be building hospitals and healthcare organizations as a kind of “faith-based initiative” to take the load off government taxation. Tax exemption, then, becomes a political issue in order to maintain the church’s ability to fund these programs through charitable giving.
Both perspectives display a lack of understanding of the fundamental and unique nature of the church (and government) as described in the New Testament. If the general needs of humanity become the moral imperatives of the church, why only consider healthcare? Since food is essential for life, perhaps even more so than healthcare, maybe churches are obligated to be in the grocery business, providing economical and sufficient food for all the community or city. Maybe it is the church which should be in the car business and not the government, since it is imperative that people be mobile and able to get to places of employment and other obligations. The mistaken notion that the church exists for the social good of the community knows no limit (nor unique perspective) as to its role in the world. This is also the government’s problem. It has lost its perspective of why it exists as well. It sees no limit to its moral obligation to humanity and therefore expands far beyond what it can and should attempt to do. Oh, there are always those who see the obvious advantage of being in charge of such processes and benefiting by being in influential positions—both in religion and government. In the end, however, government will fail to govern and religion will fail to convert and humanity will suffer from both.
We see clearly that government should enable, support, and protect free people to engage in the process of making an honest living (1 Tim. 2:2). Some honest citizens will naturally be in the healthcare business. But the church is even more narrow (and therefore more important) than that in its New Testament perspective. It is engaged in preparing men for the next world regardless of their station in this one. It must maintain a unique assembly for those who believe so they may be able to carry on this important mission of eternal truth available to all humanity (1 Tim. 3:15-16).
The church is a local entity
Of the 115 times that the Greek word for church appears in the New Testament, well over 100 of those refer to local churches. Christ is the Head of every believer and therefore of every church comprised of believers (Eph. 5:23). Local churches are autonomous in their operation, answering to Christ, His Word, and the body of believers making up that church. We call this the visible church because you can go there and attend if you like. Most of the New Testament books are epistles written to particular churches or to the pastors of those churches. The subject matter is local church polity, doctrine, and evangelism.
The church is a volunteer entity
No one is forced to be a member of a local church although all believers ought to be. The first church in Jerusalem was made up of those who had done three things: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:41). One must be saved, then baptized by immersion (which is the mode of every New Testament baptism), and then make a conscious effort to join with the other believers. This is the pattern throughout the book of Acts and described in every epistle. The New Testament does not entertain the idea of an unbaptized believer separate from a local assembly.
The church is a gospel entity
The saints of God, dwelling in local churches throughout the world, have a commission from Christ to evangelize the world. The gospels of Matthew and Mark clearly give this commission in their closing remarks and Luke records a further commission in Acts 1 just before Jesus ascended into heaven. The ordinances that belong to the local churches are there for those who have received this gospel. No person can be forced to have faith. The gospel is inclusive in that it is to be offered to every person, and it is exclusive in that it presents Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven (John 14:6; Acts 4:12).
The church is a closed entity
This means that it is designed and built by Jesus Christ for His believers (Matt. 16:18). Though lost people are always welcomed and would benefit greatly by attending, the purpose for the church gathered is for the edification of the saints so that they will be able to go out and be witnesses (Eph. 4:11-12). In times of revival and peacefulness, evangelism has taken place within the church to a great degree and invitations should always be given when the lost are present. The things that happen there: the singing, the praying, the ordinances, the teaching, the accountability are all for the saints. We understand that the lost person can hardly understand most of what is going on but we know that is best for them and for us. The great difference is Spiritual regeneration. This must be the only thing that changes a person from one on the outside to one on the inside.
The church is a working entity
The service of the saints for one another is a beautiful thing. Love is always shared within the family of God (John 15:10); sharing of wealth and goods provides for members that are in need (Acts 4:35; 1 John 3:17); taking care of widows and orphans who have no other believers to do it is a responsibility of each local church (Jas. 1:27; 1 Tim. 5:1-16); discipline and accountability to the Scriptures are sacred obligations the saints have for one another (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Cor. 12:21). All of these things and more were done among the brethren. This was the blessing of being in the church that far outweighed the antipathy from those outside the church. In these cases water (baptism) was thicker than blood (relatives) even to the point of laying down one’s life for the brethren.
The church is a free entity
Believers have obligations to the church by covenant. These cannot be ignored by members without the reminders of accountability. But the obligations of Christians to humanity lie in love and evangelism. In all things that pertain to life and godliness, the believer is free to participate as his conscience leads, in nothing, however, violating Biblical teaching. A believer may feed the hungry or clothe the naked; he may rescue those in danger or help those in need; if he is able he may donate to any moral cause such as hospitals or schools or homes for unwed mothers. In these things, he is the Lord’s freeman but in things specifically Scriptural he is the Lord’s bond-slave (1 Cor. 7:17-24).
The church is not a state church
Baptists especially have objected to the state controlling the churches in any way. Neither have they desired to control the state. The Catholic Church and most Protestant Churches have at one time or another been the “state church” in a particular country. Often this was enforced by persecution against all other religious beliefs. Infant baptism was, from its first use, an identification of the church with the state and placed the child not only in the state as citizen, but also in the church. Government will not be able to force Baptist (and other independent) churches to do its will. Even when such a project might be a good thing, local New Testament churches may only give their allegiance to Christ and may refuse to do the thing because it can only give unto Caesar what does not already belong to God.
The church is not a denominational church
Many in the world still think of churches as referring to the denomination. I am in favor of denominational names because I believe they are good and honest identifiers but any Baptist is opposed to a denomination which would control individual churches and take away their sovereignty. Baptists have always had ways of organizing local churches into fellowships or associations for the sake of missions and other inter-church projects. But these are always voluntary and carry no authority over the individual churches.
The church is not an activist church
Though a church may have individual members who legally and morally participate in social or political causes, the New Testament is silent in command and example about the churches “as churches” doing these things. As terrible as the Roman Empire could be, we have no example of churches or believers protesting or trying to pressure the government in any way. Even the apostle Paul was beheaded by Nero without a protest. Ignatius and Polycarp were martyred denying intervention. Jesus explained that the wheat and the tares would grow together in society and that we would not be able to separate them by force in this present age (Matt. 13:24-30). When the church begins to fight social and political causes in the world, it soon loses its biblical focus and then loses its moral authority to speak about anything. This is not to say that believers should not speak out as individual citizens if the country they live in gives them that legal right. But when the local church ceases to be a spiritual church with a greater spiritual purpose of the gospel and a life of separated holiness, its candlestick is removed from the place of blessing (Rev. 2:5).
And So . . . .
God has ordained a few entities in this world. The family was first designed by God to consist of husband, wife, and children. The family is sovereign also. No power on earth can force people to live another way or even honestly define the family another way.
God has also ordained government. From the time Noah left the ark, the power of human government was established (Gen. 9:5-6). It is also sovereign in the sense that it cannot be forced by another country to practice in any way other than for the good of its people. To do so is to invite God’s displeasure and to remove His blessing.
God has ordained Israel to be His earthly people in the coming kingdom of God. Though they live under “the times of the gentiles,” they will yet be His chosen people dwelling in the land of Israel with the Seed of David sitting upon His throne.
The church as a whole is the Bride of Christ but She exists today in local communities of believers. These churches are sacred groups of believers who have accepted Christ as their Savior and have testified of that faith in the burial waters of baptism. They live in the world but are not of the world. They are the world’s best citizens but are pilgrims and strangers within it. They allow tares to grow in the world but not in their churches. They live for the good but they die for Christ.