This is the sixth in a series of articles dealing with the uniqueness of the church purchased with the precious blood of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 20:28). We’ve learned that the “My Church” of Mt. 16:18 is singular in number, universal in existence and that Christ is the Supreme Head with headquarters in Heaven. However, the New Testament reveals that the Church, in its local aspect, is plural in number, independent in operation and overseen by men according to the Divine plan as prescribed in the New Testament. Therefore, when we speak of authority, we must understand whether it is universal or local authority. When we refer to membership, we should know whether it is universal or local membership. When we speak of fellowship, we should understand whether it is universal or local fellowship. And when we talk about the work of the Church, we ought to know whether we are talking about the universal or local Church.
As we’ve learned, membership in the Universal Church is by birth — a birth of water and the Spirit (Jn. 3:5). This is accomplished by obeying the gospel and being added to the universal body of believers, the “My church” of Mt. 16:18. However, this does not make one a member of a local congregation or church. This membership is obtained by the mutual consent of both the baptized believer and the congregation with which he desires to be identified (cf. Acts 9:26-28;18:27;Rom. 16:1-2).
Some Christians have the mistaken idea that they are members wherever they attend just because they are members of the Universal Church. If all Christians made the same assumption, there could be no local congregation, for such persons remain independent, free from responsibility and free from discipline should they be disturbers of churches. The progress of God’s work in a local area cannot depend upon such people. On the contrary, when one joins or identifies himself with a local church, he pledges or agrees to enjoy and participate not just in the local worship, but in the local fellowship in aiding and financially supporting the cause of Christ in the community and elsewhere. Now, it is true that one can be a member of the Universal Church without being a member of a local congregation, as was the case with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:39).
Therefore, it must never be argued that one must be a member of a local church of Christ in order to be saved. Nevertheless, the question is: Can one remain faithful, and therefore saved, if he refuses to become a member of a local church? Again, there may be some exceptions, but I think the general answer is “No!” In other words, the mindset of the “floater,” who argues for automatic membership in any local church, and in fact all local congregations, because he is a member of the Universal Church, is contrary to the truths taught in God’s word. The Bible teaches that each Christian ought to be a part of a local congregation, and participate in the activities of that group of believers. Except in rare circumstances, it is impossible to fully obey the Lord without such participation. Why? Because Christians are taught to not be “forsaking” the “assembling” of themselves “together” (Heb. 10:25). This passage does not say, as some try to make it say, “forsake not the assembly,” referring to the Lord’s Day morning assembly, as if that assembly is essential and all others are optional. Instead, it is the practice of assembling together that is under consideration: “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together…” (KJV). But there is more to this subject than just attending services and warming a pew. Instead, we must come together to engage in those things the local church is prescribed to do.
The whole church comes “together” only as each individual participates. Individual action is made clear in the NASV: “not forsaking our own assembling together…” (Heb. 10:25). Consequently, the person who willfully absents himself from any assembly has a spiritual deficiency. He may do so because he does not feel a sense of “community” with the saints. He may not understand or appreciate the benefits to be derived from community in worship. He may consider the call to assemble as “man-made.” This is often the attitude toward evening and midweek services. However, such assemblies were first called because spiritually minded brethren felt the need for them. So, if we have a sense of “community,” then it would seem reasonable that these would be important to us.
The N.T. reveals that the early saints, as a group, engaged in five activities when they assembled for worship. Two of these (#1 and #5 in the list below) were authorized as first day of the week only activities. The others were engaged in on other days in addition to the first day of the week.
- They met on the first day of the week to eat the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34; Acts 20:7).
- They had preaching and teaching when they came together (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 14:15).
- They engaged in singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).
- They engaged in congregational prayer (Acts 2:42; 12:5; 1 Cor. 14:12-15).
- They laid by in store into a common treasury on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:1-2; Acts 5:1-6).
According to the Bible (cf. 1 Tim. 3:1-13; Tit. 1:5-9; Phil. 1:1; Acts 14:23; Eph. 4:11-16) those who are to serve the local church are:
An example of the whole congregation (“the multitude of the disciples”) being involved in the selection of servants is found in connection with the church at Jerusalem (cf. Acts 6:1-6). This “seek[ing] from among you” (v. 3) was done according to the apostles’ instructions. Because faith comes by hearing God’s word (cf. Rom. 10:17), Christians today, exercising faith in God and His word, follow this example in appointing those who will serve the local congregation. This means that the local church, apart from the instructions in the Bible, is not subject to any outside control or oversight. This is what we are talking about when we say the local church is completely autonomous. Synods, conventions, and all denominational structures are unwelcome and anathama to churches of Christ functioning after the New Testament order.
The local church has been given work to perform. There is:
- The work of Evangelism.
- The work of Edification.
- The work of Benevolence.
Each individual should participate to the extent of his or her ability in every teaching effort planned by the congregation. This would include attending the scheduled services of our “Gospel Meetings,” and making efforts to bring others to hear the gospel on those special occasions. By freely giving of their means into the common treasury of a local church, Christians have fellowship in supporting evangelists. This includes not just those evangelists who are members of the local church, but also those who are laboring in other places. Paul, you recall, received “wages” from other churches while ministering to the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil 4:10-11).
There is much that we can do as a congregation to “edify one another.” One way is to participate in the Bible classes a church offers. What, pray tell, is the purpose of “joining the disciples” in a particular area if one is not going to be “coming in” and “going out” with them in their various spiritual activities (Acts 9:26-28)? In order to be successful, every member who is able ought to be participating in the scheduled Bible studies offered by a church, putting forth his or her best effort. The Bible teaches us that we are to “consider one another in order to stir up love and good works,” and this in the context of “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some” (Heb. 10:24-25). Some had, for whatever reasons, given up on meeting together. For these, the Scriptures tell us, “there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries” (Heb. 10:26b-27). Those who were converted on that first Pentecost after the Lord’s resurrection and ascension into heaven “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42). The Scriptures go on to say “Now all who believed were together” (Acts 2:44).
“Were together” does not mean they became a commune, all living together, but speaks to the marvelous unity of these brethren who were “coming in” and “going out” together — a genuine community of believers. It speaks of a unity of mind, of purpose, of faith, of heart, of action. They were united because they were obedient believers in Jesus Christ. Although men try, they cannot create such unity. This isn’t socialism, and it surely isn’t communism. It is, instead, pure N.T. Christianity. It is the unity that only comes “in Christ.” The meaning of “together” (Grk. epi to auto) is explained by the following verses:
Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:44-47).
I emphasized “as anyone had need“ in the above quotation because this is the key to understanding what took place. Christians, without being forced to do so, willingly took care of those in their number who had needs. These “needs” were not simply “wants” or “desires,” but were instead the genuine needs that people have in order to sustain their existence; namely, food, water, shelter, clothing, et cetera.
The local church is to engage in works of benevolence as circumstances dictate. The word benevolence means, “An inclination to perform kind, charitable acts.” Clearly, the church has been given the responsibility to provide for its own needy (Acts 2:44-45; 4:35; 1 John 3:17). In Acts 6:1-6, we learn that the Jerusalem church provided for needy saints. Then, in Acts 11:27-30, we learn that the disciples at Antioch sent a contribution “for the relief of the brethren living in Judea.” In Romans 15:25-26 and 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, we are informed that the churches of Macedonia and Achaia sent their contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem. In other words, the churches of Christ take care of their own! On the other hand, churches of Christ have never been burdened with the responsibility of taking care of the world’s poor. Indeed, such would be impossible! Nevertheless, there are those who believe the local church has just such a responsibility. Although there is absolutely no authority in the New Testament for such, these advocate using the treasury of the local church to take care of all who are needy, particularly non-Christians.
Today, we find some churches of Christ pooling their money together for the relief of non-Christians. To many, this seems perfectly all right; but nowhere in the Bible is Christ’s church saddled with such a responsibility. Actually, it is sometimes all the church can do to effectively take care of its own needy. The Scriptures are totally clear on this subject. Taking care of the benevolent needs of the saints is all that local churches of Christ are responsible for. Yes, it is true that Christians, as individuals, have a responsibility to the needy, and this is true even when the needy are not Christians (Galatians 6:2-10; 1 Timothy 6:17-19; James 4:17).
Consequently, a Christian may deem it fit to meet this responsibility by building, in cooperation with others, various benevolent institutions (hospitals, aid societies, etc.); but even when he does so, these institutions must not be seen as doing the work of the local church. The local church, which has the God-given responsibility to care for its own, is sufficient to do its own work. Furthermore, and as we’ve previously learned, even Christians are not to unduly burden the church in matters of benevolence. For example, in 1 Timothy 5:16, the apostle Paul said, “If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows.” Therefore, those who think the church is responsible for taking care of all the needy have “wrested” the Scriptures by wrongly applying passages meant specifically for individual Christians to the local church. Called upon to “rightly divide” the Scriptures, it is extremely important for Christians to make distinctions between individual and collective responsibilities and activities, always guided by book, chapter and verse.
The church at Corinth was instructed to deliver the fornicator to Satan “when you are gathered together” (1 Cor. 5:4-5). There are two reasons for this. First, the immediate objective is to remove the wicked man from the fellowship (1 Cor 5:13), and second, to ultimately save the sinner (1 Cor. 5:5). The united action of an entire group of saints will have far more power to bring the sinner to repentance than when just a few people take it upon themselves to do so. If a brother or sister “walks disorderly” and will not repent, the local church is to “withdraw” from that person (2 Thess. 3:6). When a church fails to do this, it can only do so by disregarding the Lord’s instructions, which is serious business as it is nothing short of rebellion.
Individually and collectively, the church is a “spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). It is not, then, a social club/country club for religious people. The Corinthians were instructed to “eat at home” (1 Cor. 11:34), and this was the pattern for the church (individually and collectively) from the very beginning: “So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46-47a).
- The local church is a voluntary association of Christians who come together to do those things that God would have them do as a group.
- Each individual member should participate fully in the worship and work of the local church as he or she has the opportunity and ability.
- However, as Christians, our responsibility to the local church is only one of many obligations we have as we live in this world. Without denigrating the importance of the local church, those who think it to be the be all and end all of the Christian’s obligation, fail to be the well-rounded influence the Lord expects His unique people to be to a lost and dying world (cf. Matt. 5:13-16).
This is summed up in the chart below:
Our plan is to continue this study in the next article.