the weblog of Alan Knox

Geographically Local Church…

Posted by on Jan 4, 2007 in definition | 16 comments

Many Christians make a strong distinction between the “universal” and “local” church. For example, John S. Hammett writes, “Local and universal is the most widely used terminology for the twofold meaning for ekklesia found in the New Testament.” (Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches) (See this post for further discussion of the “local” and “universal” distinctions.) For the purpose of this post, I will assume that Hammett is correct: the New Testament uses the term ekklesia to specify a “local church” and a “universal church”. However, even if this distinction is correct, it does not mean that we generally use “local church” in the same manner that Scripture recognizes a “local church”.

For example, “church” in the NT (when not used of the “universal” church), always designates a geographical group of people. (UPDATE: When I say “a geographical group of people,” I mean a group of people in the same geographical area. HT: Lew) For example, there is the church in Jerusalem, the church in Antioch, the church in Ephesus, etc. Yes, there are churches based in homes. But there is no indication that these churches were removed (separate) from the geographical church in the respective city.

However, today we use the term “local church” differently. We do not use “church” to specify a “geographical locale”, but instead we use the term to differentiate based on structure, organization, theology, etc. For example, the people in the houses around me attend four different “churches”. In fact, even though we are all brothers and sisters in Christ (in theory), we rarely interact. And, this is considered normal.

However, I do not think this is biblical, nor does it describe how the biblical authors use the term “church”. What do you think?


16 Comments

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  1. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I may not be following your line of reasoning in this post, but what do you mean when you say “‘church’ in the NT always designates a geographical group of people”?

    The “lawful assembly [ekklesia]” in Acts 19:39 does not see be designating a geographical group of people.

    In 1 Corinthians, Paul starts his letters saying, “To the church [ekklesia] of God which is at Corinth” but later writes in 1 Corinthians 11:18 – “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church [ekklesia]…” which seems to draw some sort of distinction between the Christians who assemble in Corinth and the act of the Christians assembling.

    What are your thoughts?

    Lew

  2. 1-4-2007

    Lew,

    You are correct: ekklesia simply means “assembly” or possibly “community”. When I said, “‘church’ in the NT always designates a geographical group of people,” I meant that it always designates a group of people in the same geographical area (i.e. in a city).

    I am not trying to argue for a “local church” distinction in this post. As I previously posted, I do not believe Scripture makes this distinction.

    What I am trying to show is that most people assume a “local church” distinction, then associates that “local church” with their organization – that is, the “church” in which they hold membership. Thus, four neighbors can be part of four different “local churches”. I believe this is foreign to Scripture, because even when Scripture speaks of a local group of believers, it is a geographical distincition, not an organizational distinction.

    I hope this makes my point a little more clear. If not, I should probably delete this post and try again.

    Thanks for the comment.

    -Alan

  3. 1-5-2007

    Alan,

    Thank you for the clarification and I do agree that the term “church” is a geographical, not an organizational, distinction.

    I think I better understand the point you are trying to make. Just to make sure, this is what I am seeing you say (using your neighbor example): You have four neighbors who all hold membership with four different “churches.” These neighbors are not all part of a different local church, they are all part of the same local church – they just meet in different areas. Correct?

    If we want wanted to reference them according to the Biblical use of “local church” (which I agree your interpretation is correct), how broad or specific would we consider their geographical area? The Church in Youngsville? The Church in Franklin County? The Church in the Raleigh Area? The Church in North Carolina?

    Also, if we do not go as broad as the state or the Raleigh area, how would we deal those who live in Wake Forest but meet in Youngsville (or vice-versa)?

    Lew

  4. 1-5-2007

    Stan,

    Your example also demonstrates that we do not use “local church” the same way that Scripture uses “church”. Thank you!

    Lew,

    Excellent questions! I was recently told that a “church in Raleigh” does not exist because believers in Raleigh do not recognize themselves as a church. That is problematic for me, because Scripture says that Christ will build his church. It seems that God is the one to determine who is part of the church and who is not – we don’t decide.

    Therefore, I would say that I am part of the church in my house, my neighborhood, my city, my workplace, etc. Do I live like it? No. But, that is my desire.

    -Alan

  5. 1-5-2007

    I have found that the kind of family-like fellowship that the local church should enjoy, and which cannot take place only on Sundays, is more difficult when the members of that body are not living in the same community.

    On the other hand, that fellowship is also difficult to maintain in huge congregations. That would require smaller gatherings within a city. Also, although not ideal, I do not see how we can get around meeting with those who are like minded in theology and practice. This may result in several neighbors gathering with several groups.

    A step in the right direction may be a broader identity of beleivers in a city in faith, love and cooperation, even though they may not meet together regularly.

  6. 1-5-2007

    Alan,

    I could not agree more, God is the one who decides who is in the Church. Do you think there was a time when the entire Church in Corinth ever assembled together as one body?

    Lew

  7. 1-5-2007

    Alan,

    interesting post! The term ekklesia is used in conjunction with a phrase designating its locale. Does that mean that there is only one church in that location? Lew already pointed out one instance in 1 Cor where church is related to assembling, not just geographical area (though the letter was address to the church in Corinth). What about 1 Cor 16:19 where the church is said to meet in Aquila and Prisca’s home? Obviously the recipients of 1 Cor had enough connecting with A & P to pass on the message. Furthermore, the church at A & P’s house had to be different than the recipients of 1 Cor otherwise the letter would have been addressed to them. What distinction could there be from the recipients of 1 Cor and the church at Aquila and Prisca’s?

    (1) Perhaps it was just geographical, they could have been meeting in a house outside of the city. (2) They could have been one of many such churches that gathered together as church to receive 1 Cor.

    Either way, you are right in asserting there was one church in Corinth. Though there may have been many gatherings in the city.

    Perhaps church is a general term, used in a religious sense to denote an organized gathering of believers. Sometimes referring to the smallest unit, sometimes to the biggest, with no change in meaning. Implicit would be the idea of gathering (1 Cor 11; Heb 10, etc.). Can there be a church of one? I don’t think the connotations of ekklesia would allow this. So the church has a geographical element, but it has a gathering element as well. So you cannot at the same time be in the church that meets at A & P’s and the church in Corinth, right?

    But then a host of other questions have to be asked and answered. Eldership, sacraments, mission, etc.

    The problem with this question is that we are plagued with our current situation. We have to radically reorganize to get the church in line with what we are saying is true. Which is not a bad thing.

    Enough for now

    Wes

  8. 1-5-2007

    Wes,

    The way I’m beginning to understand the biblical use of the term, “ekklesia” does not connote a geographical location. Instead, “ekklesia” is a qualitative term describing the people. The church is not defined by its gathering or assembling, but the church does gather. Thus, Paul could say “When you come together…” (1 Cor. 14:26).

    The church in Aquila and Priscilla’s house was the church in Corinth, but not the ENTIRE church in Corinth.
    Thus someone would be in the church in A&P’s house, and the church in Corinth.

    “Radical reorganization” is an interesting concept that is not very appealing to most of us baptists. I prefer the term “radical living” to describe it.

    -Alan

  9. 1-5-2007

    Alan,

    When you say that he term church is a used to qualitatively describe the people, what do you mean?

    I am not sure we would disagree on that point.

    But is geography a limit to that term, or is the term geographical in essence?

    Is there something about the term that means gathered? The uses in Acts that refer to lawful/unlawful assemblies has by nature that implication. Just as group or conclave or even gathering are terms that imply people coming together in some sense. Only in contemporary usage can we say online community.

    Then again, I consider myself in unity with my brothers and sisters in my church even though right now I am at work. But, honestly, though I love you as a dear brother in the Lord, and I have a responsibility to encourage you, due to my upbringing or theological immaturity, I do not consider us from the same church. Not that we couldn’t work together. Also, though you are a pastor, you are not my pastor, though I will show you respect. I could be wrong, and if so, I think I need radical reorganization.

    I need radical living (or better, biblical living, nothing radical about obedience–disobedience is radical and should be avoided at all costs!). But I need radical reorganization of how I view church, if what you are saying is correct. Again, if that is was is needed, then bring it on, with extreme care for people of course. Never at the expense of others.
    Please consider these comments as still thoughts in progress. In other words, I need this conversation.

    Wes

  10. 1-5-2007

    Alan,

    Interesting post! It calls us to rethink the way we talk about the local church. I am not one of those guys who jumps on board to anything too quickly, but how do the ‘election’ (if I may use that term) of elders work alongside this idea?

    I guess what I’m asking is, if I am an elder of a church, who am I leading/shepherding/serving? Now of course, we should be serving all! But, how should the other people from other chruches view other elders from “out of town?”

    That was just the first question that popped in my head. I think you are on to something here and I look forward to what you flesh out here on your blog.

    Through Christ,
    Dougald

  11. 1-5-2007

    Wes,

    You asked some good questions and made some excellent observations.

    When I said that “ekklesia” is ‘a qualitative term describing the people’, I mean that “ekklesia” states more about who the the people are than where they are. Thus, when Jesus said, “I will build my church…,” he was making a statement about his people, not about their gathering togther. This will be a new “ekklesia”… not a group of Roman citizens, but citizens of the kingdom of God.

    Perhaps this deserves another post later…

    Dougald,

    I would not dismiss the concept of elders, but I would question the way we normall view elders/pastors, especially what we currently hold them responsible for. I think Lew has started a great discussion on his blog concerning the responsibilities of elders: The Responsibilities of an Elder. If we understand the biblical responsibilities, we may can better understand how they could function outside of our institutions.

    -Alan

  12. 1-6-2007

    Alan, I look forward to future posts on this topic.

    I agree with you that Jesus was talking about the people as being His people. I am glad you brought this up. I appreciate your use of scripture, because my temptation is to become too narrow and forget other passages related to the subject.

    So, the church is the people of God. (We must be theological geniuses!!!) Silliness aside, the church cannot cease to be the people of God. Because they are being built up, called, elected, etc, by Christ–this not being dependent on the obedience or disobedience of the people. But an obedient church will assemble. And they tended to assemble in houses or colonnades or schools or the marketplace. And they tended to have certain structures. But at any level or at any gathering place they are the people of God and thus the church.

    Are these valid implications from what is being discussed?

    The essence of the church lies in its relationship to Jesus, as His people. The well being of the church lies in its adherence or lack thereof to scriptural prescriptions and examples. (I was very resistant to the being vs well-being distinction up until I wrote that sentence–Eureka moment).

    Is this what you are trying to say? I mean, the New Testament People of God is the church which is not divided, but united in Christ, well because he says so.

    Am I tracking with you?

    Thanks
    Wes

  13. 1-6-2007

    Lew and Alan,

    Thanks I’ll look into it! Great discussion guys, keep it up.

    Through Christ,
    Dougald

  14. 1-6-2007

    Alan,

    Who is your neighbor? I believe that as you follow Christ, your neighbor is anyone whom you come in contact with or live among that Christ has instructed you to love.

    My previously deleted comments:

    I have been thinking along similar lines. The term “local” is not truly being used as a reference to a geographical area. Rather, its being used to point to either a specific meeting place or a specific membership roster.

    You used the example of immediate neighbors who all attend different “churches”. But consider also the example of the family who travels 20 or 30 miles outside of their own neighborhood to attend a “church” based on their personal preferences when there are already one or two (if not several “churches”) in their own neighborhood. Regardless of their reasoning, I find it difficult to believe that this is acceptable from a Scriptural point of view.

    Dougald,

    I believe this passage from Scripture may illumine an answer to your question.

    “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: Shepherd the flock of God which is among you…

    1 Peter 5:1-2a

    -Stan

  15. 1-6-2007

    Stan,

    Thanks for the passage, I beleive you were the one who gave me the scripture before. I attributed that to Lew I think.

    One question though…What happened to the great picture of you in a purple wig? :)I didn’t realize who you were until afterwards.

    Dougald

  16. 1-6-2007

    Wes,

    I think you said it all when you said, “The essence of the church lies in its relationship to Jesus, as His people. The well being of the church lies in its adherence or lack thereof to scriptural prescriptions and examples.” I would probably say “the well being of the church” lies in its obedience to Jesus. This obedience includes adherence to Scripture, but I’m not sure that obedience is exhausted by adherence to Scripture, if that makes sense.

    Since these people (the church) have been adopted into a family, that gather together with their family members. They do not have to be told to do this, they do this because of their relationship to the Father and to one another. However, we cannot define them by their gathering together. They are defined by their relationship to the Father.

    Stan,

    I agree that my neighbor is whoever God places in my path. So, God holds me responsible for how I interact with each person that is my neighbor.

    Dougald,

    I agree with you completely: bring back the purple wig!

    -Alan

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