the weblog of Alan Knox

Local Church in Scripture…

Posted by on Jul 11, 2007 in definition, members | 28 comments

What do you think of when you hear the phrase “local church”?

Do you think of a building on the corner with a steeple? Most believers will admit that this is not a church, but may be a building where a church meets. But, what about the people who meet there?

Is the local church a group of believers who meet regularly at a specific place and at a specific time? Does a regularly meeting define a “local church”? Again, most believers will accept that someone may be part of a “local church” even if that person cannot meet at each regularly scheduled meeting. So, what about membership?

Is the local church defined by a list of names on a membership role? Again, when push comes to shove, most believers agree that a membership list does not define a “local church”. There could be people on the list who are not believers, and perhaps there are people who are part of the local church whose names are not on the list.

So, what is the local church?

Let me ask a few questions about Scripture…

1) When did Paul “join” the church in Jerusalem, or Tarsus, or Antioch, or Corinth, or Ephesus? What about Barnabus, Luke, Timothy, Titus, etc? When did they “join” a particular “local church”? What about Priscilla and Aquila? When did this couple join the church in Corinth or Rome?

2) At what point were these individuals members of one local church or another? When did they consider themselves part of the church in Corinth, or Ephesus, or Thessalonica, or Rome? When did they not consider themselves part of those particular churches?

3) At what point did the particular local churches recognize these individuals as part of their church? When did they not recognize these people as part of their church?

4) Where does Scripture give us an example of a believer moving into an area and then being required to do something to “join” the church in that area? Where does Scripture give us an example of believers covenanting with one another in order to be a local church?

I am not suggesting that “joining” a local church is wrong or bad. It is not unscriptural to have your name on a membership list – it is ascriptural though – that is, not found in scripture. However, if we cannot find this commanded or even described in Scripture, should we make this a necessary step of recognizing someone as a part of the “local church”?


28 Comments

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  1. 7-12-2007

    Thanks for your clarification on the difference between “unscriptural” and “ascriptural”. That was a matter I had been trying to figure out a good way to ask you about.

    Perhaps if churches made membership a matter of “recognition” rather than “joining”, people would have a better understanding of church membership. Here’s the benefit of recognition of membership in the local church: It acknowledges the working relationship we have with other believers. As with other titles given in the NT, it is better understood as a descriptive rather than a prescriptive (although there are prescriptive elements to all titles).

    Thanks for your ongoing work in matters involving the body of Christ. You have certainly stretched my thinking.

  2. 7-12-2007

    Maybe the idea of joining a local church community is simply a logistical one. It allows the leadership of the church to keep track of who is regularly a part of the community, and things like that. I also like what David said in the previous comment about the benefit of recognition of membership.

    But I do agree that there can be some major identity problems when a church places far too much emphasis on the idea of membership.

  3. 7-12-2007

    David,

    I hope to continue this discussion in later blog posts, so I truly appreciate your comment. It helps me think through some things.

    I think I understand what you are saying about the relationships between “membership” and “recognition”. You said: “Here’s the benefit of recognition of membership in the local church: It acknowledges the working relationship we have with other believers.” How is this “working relationship” recognized through membership different from the “working relationship” we should have with all believers that God brings into our lives – neighbors, coworkers, fellow students, family members, etc. – who may not share “membership” with us?

    Jake,

    Again, thanks for the comment. I really do appreciate the opportunity to interact with other believers in these matters.

    I’ll you the same question that I asked David above: Are we (scripturally) supposed to “keep track of” those who are “members” but not other believers with whom we interact?

    -Alan

  4. 7-12-2007

    Alan, you really need to hang out with some non-Baptists for a while. I’ve been involved with Mennonites, Vineyard, post-Vineyard, Evangelical Presbyterian, Conservative Baptists, Evangelical Free, Church of Christ non-instrumental, and Independent Christian Churches. I’m probably missing some in that list. Baptists place a premium on a formal membership, as if the list is the Lamb’s book of life. Most of the other places I’ve been, it’s simply a matter of acknowledging that hey, since we’re in this local church together working in the kingdom of God, let’s say so. I’ve been nowhere that places any restriction on whether I can associate with members of any other local body.

    As I gather with the same group of people each week in our local body, an intentional love for one another is developed. I have relationship with them that goes beyond my choosing. If I simply allow myself to get together with whatever other believers come my way, I will gravitate more frequently to the ones I think are easier to be around. Pudding doesn’t sharpen iron.

    Yes, we are indeed ALL members of one another. But regular intentional proximity grows us up in grace in a way that “letting it flow” doesn’t. That’s what I’m trying to describe.

  5. 7-12-2007

    I was raised in the Dutch Christian Reformed church in Montana. When I was 17 I was asked by the elders if I wanted to “profess my faith”. This is the beginning of becoming a member in this denomination. They require you to take a catechism course which is followed by a verbal and written test that you must pass to move on. If you pass you then must stand up during church on Sunday morning and profess to the congregation your faith in God according to the “Reformed Doctrine” and its constitution using the “repeat after me” dialog. You then sign what is essentialy a contract and they file a copy of it away. You now have your “membership papers”. They then send your papers to the Head church in Michigan. For every member in your church the Head church sends a certain amount of money to the local church. This denomination is very conservative and you don’t see this type of membership requirements with most other denominations anymore. I have long since told them to burn my papers and cancel my membership. I then attended a Calvary Chapel for a while. This church, like many modern/liberal churches, was more wise in the fact that they played down the membership idea. They would never label you a member of their local church but if you attended regularly and associated with the right people you were labeled as part of the “core” of their church. Pretty much the same thing as membership without the official paperwork. They would still call you if they hadn’t seen you for a couple Sundays, ask you to serve on commitees, etc.. So if I was to fellowship with other believers of other churches on a Sunday they would in a way make you feel guilty or they would be concerned that you are back sliding or that you are leaving them for another church even though your not a “member” of their church.

  6. 7-12-2007

    Alan,

    Apart from the meaning of the verb translated “obey” in the NIV, I think that Heb. 13.17 may be a key reference in regard to the questions you ask here.

    “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account.”

    I think it is significant that it says “your leaders” (see also, v. 7 and v. 24). Apparently, certain believers have a special relationship with certain leaders that other believers don’t share.

    I also think it is significant that these leaders “watch over” these same believers “as men who must give an account.” I understand, by this, that they must give account of those particular believers who are specifically under their watchcare, and not, at least in the same way, of other believers.

    To me, a logical consequence of this is that there is a defined list of believers who relate in a special way to a defined group of leaders. I see no reason to not call this defined group the membership of a local church.

    Can you show me where my reasoning is wrong on this?

  7. 7-12-2007

    David,

    I think you misunderstood the question that I asked in the previous comment. I’ll try to ask it in a more clear manner.

    I definitely agree that it would be wrong to interact only with those who are like me (Baptist), and I don’t do that. I know that there are some Baptists (and other groups) that are very exclusive in their associations, but I’m not one of those.

    I also agree that we will have closer relationships with those we meet with regularly. Your statement about this, though, actually gets to the question that I was planning to ask. You said: “As I gather with the same group of people each week in our local body, an intentional love for one another is developed.” Though you previous said that you interact with many different types of believers, you do not call these believers your “local body”. Only a specific group is called your “local body”. Why? You suggested that it was for “recognition”, but you have also “recognized” the “Mennonites, Vineyard, post-Vineyard, Evangelical Presbyterian, Conservative Baptists, Evangelical Free, Church of Christ non-instrumental, and Independent Christian Churches” with whom you are involved. Why are these believer not part of your “local body”, and what has “membership” added to your relationship with others?

    Jeff,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences. I would say that would be an example of what I am talking about here. There are probably less extreme examples also. I hope other people will share their experiences as well.

    David Rogers,

    Yes, it is possible that “your leaders” (or, since this is a participle, “those who lead you”) could specify a “membership” type relationship. Of course, it could also simply point out that we should trust those who are leading us. We will know who those will be whether we have a “membership role” or not. For example, I am officially a “pastor” for Messiah Baptist Church. However, there are other people that I am leading who are not part of Messiah Baptist Church. Those people are still part of my “local church” though we do not share “membership”. I would say that Heb 13:17 covers both relationships.

    -Alan

  8. 7-12-2007

    You misunderstood my comment about Baptists. I just mean that Baptists place a higher premium on membership than many other denominations and brotherhoods. That seems (to me) to be why you’re so worked up about it.

    I use the term “local body” to describe those folks I meet with on Sunday morning. You know, in “church”. Why don’t I call all those other churches in town my church? Because I don’t go to those churches. I go to the church I go to. I’m happy to fellowship with those from other churches, but for our regular meeting, I find that meeting with the same people every week creates a love and accountability that, over the course of the last nine years has resulted in a faithfulness of relationship.

    I understand your desire to deconstruct this according to scripture. Have at it. Call it the Alanite reformation :-)

    Jesus was present and taught as a rabbi in the synagogue. This was an unscriptural practice. It was a method of gathering for God’s people that developed to meet the needs of their gathering in the midst of their culture, and to share in the word together.

    Change the name if you have to, but that’s what the rest of the world calls “going to church”.

  9. 7-12-2007

    Alan/David/Jeff/David Rogers and all others reading.

    I would like to first jump in and state that I do not have a favorable view of membership. My experience is that membership is often (I’m sure not always) associated with doctrinal statements that must be agreed upon before membership can be extended. This seems to fly in the face of the NT church in which all that was required was that they abided in the doctrine of Christ (2 John vs 9-10). If one was a member of the Body of Christ then that was all that was required for the local church. Today we have Christians attending for years the same gathering but one is considered a member and another a non-member. Let that sink in. A believer could be actively serving, committed to the saints at a particular location/meeting, functioning with his gift(s) and be considered a non-member. The term non-member has the indication that this believer is not apart of this local church. Why? often because they won’t say they believe something in the 2 or 50 page doctrinal statement. Before you make your case that your church doesn’t require statements of faith, then please answer what work does it require.

    If we look at scripture we may find that the churches didn’t need membership due to the way they met. Consider that Paul greets the church that is in their house (speaking of Priscilla and Aquila). If you are meeting in a home you know who you are meeting with. You know their names, their kids names, and sometimes even their pets names. By this greeting it seams possible that Paul was thinking of a specific group of people, indicating that a regular meeting could be a definition of a local church.

    Alan,
    is a local church so individualistic that we each have our very own based on who we are interacting with. Does my local church change as my interaction changes. What I mean in there is a group of believers I meet with both at meetings and throughout the week. It is known that I will see many of them this week. However, there are other believers that I interact with, one another on a sporadic and even sometimes minimal bases. These believers are generally apart of the City church or region and of course all are part of the Body of Christ but does that make them my local church.

    I want all to know that as with each of us I have held many different views of the church. I make these statements not as if I am unteachable etc. I look forward to the insights the Lord will give.

  10. 7-12-2007

    David,

    Thanks for clarifying. You may be correct that I am interested in “membership” because of my assication with Baptists. I believe from comments here and other places, that other groups of believers struggle with “membership” as well.

    You said: “I understand your desire to deconstruct this according to scripture. Have at it. Call it the Alanite reformation :-)” I laughed at this – thank you! I bet we would enjoy sitting around a table talking about some of these things. It would sure make it easier to understand each other.

    I am interested in looking beyond what we currently call things in order to determine what Scripture says about them. For example, can we accept the promises made to the church in Scripture if we are using the term “church” in a different way? Perhaps… perhaps not. Anyway, this is one of the reasons that I am so interested in returning to a scriptural view of the church.

    Jason,

    Thank you for your comments. I especially appreciate the question about individuality. You said: “is a local church so individualistic that we each have our very own based on who we are interacting with.” I do not think it would be scriptural to say that everyone has their own “local church”. But, then, I don’t the term “local church” is scriptural in the way that we use it. I recognize that what I have been saying can lead someone to conclude that I am promoting an “inidividualistic” church. That is not my desire. Thanks to your comment, I’m going to give this more thought and more study.

    -Alan

  11. 7-13-2007

    Just for information’s sake:

    The church I attend recognizes membership based on an affirmation of faith (“I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and that He rose from the dead.” Or words to that effect. No formula, just an affirmation). And we affirm that they want to be members together with us. That’s the level of formalization that we have.

    I also am interested in returning to a scriptural form of church. And sometimes we have a lot of layers of the onion to peel away. But as you try to define it, you may just end up, as Chesterton did, with orthodoxy.

  12. 7-13-2007

    Which orthodoxy?

    -Alan

  13. 7-13-2007

    Oh, I don’t know. I like the Apostle’s Creed, myself.

    I mean, as I have said before, after a few generations, you will end up with internecine quarrels and people associating with this group and that group because of what they believe scripture says about church. It happens with every, every, every Reform movement that has ever happened in the church. Because every, every, every Reform movement has posited itself as a return to a scriptural form of church.

    You said:
    For example, can we accept the promises made to the church in Scripture if we are using the term “church” in a different way?

    Are you saying: If we get “church” right, we get the promises?

    Also something to think about:
    Once you get out of the Bible Belt, church membership looks quite different. In California, there is no cultural premium on church membership. Ask my friends from Louisiana and Mississippi who planted a church here. And when you do away with it, you stir up a new set of problems, including an individualistic mindset toward Christianity. People flit from church to church with an absence of accountability and faithfulness. And it’s not just a matter of “Spirit-led” fellowship, it’s a matter of catering selfishly to one’s own felt needs. And that’s not just a judgment on my part. I’ve heard it explicitly.

    Maybe we can meet halfway for coffee sometime. Say, Denver?

  14. 7-13-2007

    Alan,

    I have been very interested in your article and the variety of comments.

    Those who truly belong to the flock of Jesus Christ don’t need formal membership requirements. If they know that they are cared for, and the Lord’s workers are giving food which sustains and builds healthy bodies, they will never leave.

    A well fed, well cared for flock never look the other side of the fence.

    They don’t need the humanistic shackles of formal membership for proper function nor accountability.

    I am ashamed of the time I spent trotting out the old, well worn arguments still being used today.

  15. 7-13-2007

    David,

    If God promises something to the “church”, who receives those promises? Is it who we call the church, or who God means by the church? What if the two are not the same?

    Aussie John,

    I hope you write more about this. I would love to learn more from your experiences.

    -Alan

  16. 7-14-2007

    Thanks for answering my question with a question :)

    Were the promises for the ones who Israel called the nation of Israel, or the ones who God called the nation of Israel?

    God’s blessing is for the faithful. But even the unfaithful benefit from the promises.

    I’m sounding Presbyterian now. I’ve been reading Doug Wilson. I’d better get back on my meds.

    By the way, he’s got a very interesting post up on the first century church. I don’t totally agree with him, but he’s got some good points.

  17. 7-14-2007

    David,

    I couldn’t help but snicker when you thanked me for answering your qeustion with a question. I’m well known for that among my friends.

    Actually, I think you answered your own question when you looked back at Israel. As Paul said, “For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring.” (Romans 9:6-7) I would suggest, similarly, that just as the children of Israel misunderstood what it meant to be “Israel”, and thus missed the promise of the Messiah, many who call themselves “church” miss what God has in store for his people today. This could be caused by assuming only those on a membership role are the “church”, and thus they are only responsibly for “one another”-ing those on a membership role. Certainly, this is not the only way that we might misunderstand “church”, but it is one way.

    I’ve been thinking through some different ways to explain this so that it does not seem “individualistic” as Jason pointed out above. Perhaps I’ll be able to post on this topic again in the next week or two.

    -Alan

  18. 7-14-2007

    Alan and all,

    This has been a fascinating discussion. I don’t even know what I really mean when I say “local church.” It kind of depends on the situation.

    When I say “going to a local church,” I usually mean going to a building and taking part in the services and activities there with the other believers who are also there.

    When I say “being a part of a local church,” I usually mean having relationships and regular interactions with believers in my geographic area aside from where each of us would attend on a Sunday morning (though we could be at the same place on Sunday).

    I still don’t use the phrase much because I don’t really think I have a good grasp on the meaning or even what I’m trying to communicate.

    I look forward to further posts on this topic. Thanks for wrestling with it.

  19. 7-15-2007

    Mary,

    Thanks for the comment. It is interesting to note that the phrase “local church” is not found in Scripture, though we put quite a high importance on describing what it means. Perhaps this is our first mistake in understanding what Scripture means by church?

    -Alan

  20. 5-2-2009

    Local church membership is merely a ‘point in time’ expression of mutual accountability. Some organizations have made it a bit of a monster – and MANY congregations have failed to define it in a healthy manner.

    But, we do have to be careful trying to make points out of the silence of scripture. When did people in the New Testament do a lot of things that are typically done behind closed doors?

  21. 5-2-2009

    Concerning local church – having studied in Israel there is archaeological evidence of local church buildings. There are a few of them surrounding the Sea of Galilee. In fact, from the Old Testament times there is archaeological evidence of local ‘mini-temples.’

  22. 5-2-2009

    Marc,

    It seems in the NT that whenever believers gathered together, they were all members of one another.

    I thinks those “church buildings” started springing up in the third century. There may be a few houses that were adjusted for special use in the second century.

    -Alan

  23. 5-2-2009

    You may be right. I’m thinking of one in particular in Capernaum that is quite old and if my memory is not mistaken – may have been there in the 1st century.

  24. 5-2-2009

    Marc,

    I have heard of a “church building” in Capernaum that was built on top of a 1st century house. (This is often referred to as Peter’s house.) But, I have never heard of anyone claim a “church building” being built in the 1st century.

    -Alan

  25. 5-4-2009

    Ah yes, and this is where my confusion was. I kept going back and forth in my mind as to whether it was a church that was contemporary to Peter or a home. Now that you mention it I have seen the modern day church built over top of what is thought to be Peter’s house. It has a window in the floor looking directly down into what is thought to be Peter’s house if I remember correctly.

    Anyhow… on the subject of the “local church” – I also agree with Mary – we often focus a lot on church and not the community Church. As a ‘local church’ pastor I try very hard to bring my congregation to a recognition and appreciation of the Church. I will sometimes pray for all of the evangelical local churches during service by name.

    Unique local churches are quite important though – we learned some lessons in the 1950-60’s about trying to unite a lot of our churches – it didn’t benefit the Church in the end.

  26. 8-30-2011

    Thanks Alan for your probing questions.
    We need to acknowledge first that scripture never talks about churches, it is always church, the one and only bride of Christ to whom we all belong.
    Having said that there are smaller groupings, from the church in a certain town “believers in Ephesus” right down to “the church that meets in your house” (Rom 16:5, 1 Cor 16:19)
    These are people who – as have already been noted – meet together intentionally.
    This meeting together comes from an acknowledgement that they come under the leadership of people who `God has given as` pastors, teachers, apostles, etc. I see this is an internal recognition that these are the people who are my “fathers in the Lord” I connect with them to receive instruction, correction, vision etc
    and from a shared vision. Churches do not meet in order to meet – they meet in order to proclaim the gospel/kingdom by word and deed!

    To my mind this makes more sense than membership (organisational) or pastoral care lists. It is voluntary, it recognises the reality of day to day spiritual progress, and it is inclusive. The bible uses the analogy of a family, I am part of my nuclear family, I connect with my wife and children and intentionally spend time with them, I also connect to the wider family, my parents, their parents, my in-laws etc. A which point is this just family – (and if I go back far enough I’m sure you and I would be related) – and at which point is this local family?

  27. 8-30-2011

    David,

    There are a couple of places in Scripture where you will find the term “churches” (plural). (See Acts 16:5, Romans 16:4, Romans 16:16, 1 Corinthians 11:16, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Galatians 1:2, Revelation 1:20, Revelation 2:20, and perhaps Acts 9:31 – plus many other places.)

    By the way, you say, “This meeting together comes from an acknowledgement that they come under the leadership of people who `God has given as` pastors, teachers, apostles, etc.” I don’t see this kind of leadership delineation in Scripture. Do you know of a place where people meet together because of an acknowledgement that they are under a human leader? In fact, it seems from Acts 13-14 that believers met together as the church even when there was no recognize leaders, since that didn’t come until Acts 14:23.

    -Alan

  28. 10-26-2011

    Great points

    I believe a local church family is good indeed but defining something as the “local church” or even A “local church” might be going a little beyond what scripture provides

    We are to recognize the saints as part of the universal church first I believe and be welcomed as a part of that in what ever “local”e we are at =D

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