The Local Church
How should we define a local church? What is the purpose of a local church? And how should local churches be governed? We have looked at the Universal Church in much detail and today we discuss the local church.
Although the New Testament does not define the local church explicitly, we do find enough descriptions and detail about the normal characteristics of functional local churches in the Bible in order to deduce a definition from all the existing evidence and testimony.Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum defines a local church as “… a group of professing believers in the Messiah who have been baptised and have organised themselves under the leadership of elders and deacons for the purpose of carrying out the Great Commission; for conducting the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper; for building up of the body through the worship of God, the fellowship of believers, the teaching of the Word, and the exercise of spiritual gifts.” A local church is much more than merely “where two or three are gathered” (cf. Matthew 18:20).
Purposes of the Local Church
We often hear people ask why we have or why should we have local churches. This type of question speaks to the reason for or purpose of local churches. Once we understand the Biblical purpose and reason for local churches, we will understand the necessity for the local church. In essence, local churches are to be active in each of the following:
- Teach Bible doctrine, the content of Scripture and the whole counsel of God (Acts 2:42; 11:26; 1 Timothy 3:15-16).
- Exercise the function of priesthood (1 Corinthians 16:1-2; 2 Corinthians 8:1-15; Philippians 4:18).
- Pray corporately as a local body (Act 2:42; Hebrews 13:15).
- Observe the ordinances of the Lord’s Supper and baptism (Acts 2:41-42; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29).
- Exercise spiritual gifts (1 Corinthians 12-14).
- Exercise church discipline and spiritual discipline (1 Corinthians 5:1-13; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).
- Send missionaries into the world (Acts 11:22-24; 13:1-4).
- Provide for the needy, especially for believers who are in need (Acts 6:1-6; 2 Corinthians 8:4-7; James 1:27).
- Make disciples by preaching the gospel, baptising them and teaching the Word of God (Matthew 28:18-20).
- Build up the body of Christ by firmly planting and rooting individual members of the Body in the Word of God so that they are no longer tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine (Ephesians 4:11-16).
- Do good in the world, especially to those of the household of faith (Galatians 6:10).
- Show the love of Christ so that the world can see this (Revelation 2:4-5).
- Glorify God in the ministry at the local church (Romans 15:6; Ephesians 3:21; 1 Peter 4:11).
What does the Bible say about the government of local churches? Should it have a national form, like a king or queen of a country ruling over all local churches? Of course not. Firstly, such a ruler may not even be a believer. Secondly, there is no such thing as a national church. The church and state are to be separate. We still see this sort of church government in England (the king or queen is the head of the Church of England) and in some Scandinavian countries (the king or queen is the head of the Lutheran church).
How about a hierarchical form of government based on apostolic succession, where there supposedly is a continuous line of ordination from the apostles down to the present time, like some kind of royalty handed down from dynasty to dynasty? This kind of government is nowhere taught in the New Testament. The Bible simply does not teach apostolic succession. Moreover, the Bible also does not distinguish between an ‘order of clergy’ and a ‘laity’. Instead, the Bible teaches the priesthood of all believers. Only after Christianity was incorporated as the ‘state religion’ into the Roman Empire in the fourth century A.D. did this hierarchical form of government enter local churches. We still find this form of government today in the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church and the Methodist Church.
Is a federal or Presbyterian form of local church government perhaps Biblical? Typically, and starting at the ‘lower’ level of representatives, the local church is governed by a session, composed of ruling elders elected by the members of a congregation and a teaching elder or minister as the presiding officer. Teaching elders are ordained by other ministers whereas ruling elders are ordained by the congregation. But there is a higher order in the chain of command known as the presbytery, since all ordained ministers or teaching elders and one ruling elder from each local church in a given district comprise the presbytery. These groups of presbyteries comprise the next order, which is the synod. Then groups of synods comprise the highest ruling body, namely the general assembly. There are at least two problems with the federal form of local church government. First, in the Biblical form of local church government, ruling elders are not elected by the congregation, but by other elders who must consider if a person meets the qualifications for elders (cf. 1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Second, in the federal system, there is generally only one teaching elder in a local church, whereas the Biblical model requires a plurality of teaching elders. The Presbyterian and Reformed churches, the Dutch Reformed Church and the Christian Reformed Church (among others) follow this federal form of government.
The congregational form of local church government can be summed up as follows: the source of authority resides with the people of that local congregation. This, however, is also not the Biblical form of government of local churches. Some Baptist churches, the Evangelical Free Church, the Disciples of Christ and Congregationalists adhere to this form of government.
The Biblical form of government is that each local church is independent from other local churches. There is no hierarchy of authorities or denominational structures over local churches. Each local church is to be governed by a plurality of elders, not just one singular elder. The elders must rule the congregation, not the congregation the elders. Importantly, as under-shepherds the elders are directly responsible to Shepherd of the flock, namely the Lord Jesus Christ. Elders will be judged more strictly by Christ. Groups that follows this form of local church government include some Brethren churches and some independent Bible churches.
If you would like to read more about the Local Church, we suggest you read the original article and source of this post, The Local Church, written by Dr. Arnold Fruchtenbaum and published by Ariel Ministries in San Antonio.
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