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The exclusivity of the modern local church

Posted by on Sep 15, 2011 in definition | 13 comments

The exclusivity of the modern local church

When I read about the ekklesia (“church” – or literally translated “assembly”) in Scripture, I get the sense that there is more fluidity and inclusiveness among the followers of Jesus than what we see today. Today, the idea of the “local church” tends to include only certain believers while excluding all others.

For example, imagine that there are four different “local churches” who own buildings that sit on the four corners of the intersections of two roads. Believers meet in those four buildings, and they each consider themselves a “local church.”

However, if several people from each of those four “local churches” met together, they would probably not consider themselves ekklesia (“church”) even if they met together regularly. (To be fair, even a subset from one of those “local churches” would not consider themselves “church” nor would they be considered “church” by the others, even if they met together regularly.)

(By the way, Eric at “A Pilgrim’s Progress” has started a good discussion concerning “small groups” which parallels this post in some ways. See his posts “Just like small groups? Not exactly” and “Why Small Groups?“)

In Scripture, I don’t perceive the same kind of exclusivity and limited use of the term ekklesia (“church”). Instead, while term ekklesia is applied to gatherings of believers who meet together regularly, it would seem strange for one of the authors to limit the use of ekklesia only to certain groups of believers meeting in certain locations at certain times under a specified organization/leadership – which is the way that the phrase “local church” is used today.

For example, in Romans 16, Paul addresses several groups of believers. He identifies them by several terms including ekklesia. (Romans 16:5) However, if some of the people from each of those groups got together, I would think that Paul would still use the term ekklesia to describe that assembly. In fact, if Paul was part of that group, he would then include himself as part of that ekklesia.

That sounds strange to many today because of the connotation that is often placed on the term “church” and especially the phrase “local church.” But, it doesn’t seem that the Greek term ekklesia carries that same baggage.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on a couple of questions:

1. Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve written here? Why?
2. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, what would happen to the church (ekklesia) if we treated the assembly (“church”) as less exclusive, as I’ve talked about here?


13 Comments

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  1. 9-15-2011

    Break down those walls….

  2. 9-15-2011

    Alan, you asked:

    1. Do you agree or disagree with what I’ve written here?

    Yes, I absolutely agree. The evidence in scripture for this kind of exclusivity is scant to non-existent. And if we think of the Christian faith in terms of a movement (which I think it is and was then) rather than an institution then this makes sense. Also, Jesus (in contrast to the religious leaders of his day) seems more inclusive than exclusive to me.

    2. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree, what would happen to the church (ekklesia) if we treated the assembly (“church”) as less exclusive, as I’ve talked about here?

    I think a beautiful thing would happen. The church would have a greater witness to the world! But as long as we have expensive buildings and salaried pastors (I am one so this is not stone throwing) it is likely to be impossible.

    There is a reason for the exclusivity you describe. It is inherent to our practice of “church.” Our practice of church today creates a competitive and protective mindset that just can’t be ignored. We have too many obligations (debt, salaries, programs, membership rolls, etc) to provide for. There is a motive behind keeping it exclusive. It’s not right and I hate this (I struggle with it all the time), but it’s the way things are.

    absolutely agree

  3. 9-15-2011

    Swanny,

    The “wall” is man-made and only reaches as high as our physical (worldly) understanding. In the Spirit, the “wall” is imaginary and easily crossed.

    Scott,

    Thanks for answering my questions. That is an awesome comment, especially the second part!

    -Alan

  4. 9-15-2011

    I agree with the way you’ve described the local church. This is becoming more and more my experience as we seek to have fellowship with believers who are gathered in many different places on Sunday morning. Several of these folks have stepped up in extraordinary ways to serve our family as we face this crisis of sorts with our daughter. While they may not consider our time together as “church”, I certainly do and Christ’s body has been more real to us in a physical way than it ever was before. Seems strange that we would have such sweet fellowship and support as we have no regular place to go or people we gather with on Sunday. Go figure.

  5. 9-15-2011

    Alan,

    I hate to approach your questions from a strictly pragmatic, rather than scriptural, perspective, but bear with me, if you don’t mind. I agree the ultimate reply must be scriptural.

    But, in response to your 2nd question, What would happen…? What if in a large city there were 1,000 different “house churches” or meetings of the “church” in that city, and many people had no specific commitment or loyalty to any particular “house church”? What if they were what in “traditional church lingo” we call “church-hoppers,” superficially knowing anyone and everyone, but with very little depth in their relationships, because they didn’t spend extended time with any particular sub-section of the “church” in their city?

    Is regular attendance at a particular regularly gathered meeting of believers a biblical directive or injunction?

    It seems to me that, in our individualistic American/Western culture, we don’t like to be tied down. The “local church” system seems to be a way of helping people to be tied down.

    Still thinking all this over, but wanted to throw those thoughts out for now.

  6. 9-15-2011

    Bobby,

    I wish we lived closer to your family so that we could walk through this with you.

    David,

    In your comment, it seems the concern is not actually with regular attendance but with superficial relationships. I’m sure you’d agree that superficial relationships can be an issue with or without regular attendance. Thus, the “local church” doesn’t add or subtract anything from that problem. Actually, being part of a larger “local church” could give the appearance of true, deep relationships through regular attendance even though, in reality, the relationships are superficial or nonexistent.

    So, my answer would be that in a more fluid understanding of ekklesia (as with the more exclusive understanding of “local church”) we should be concerned with our relationships with one another instead of the regularity of attendance at any particular meeting.

    -Alan

  7. 9-15-2011

    Alan,

    Yes, of course, in many “local churches,” both big and small, the relationships are superficial, even among regular attenders. But I think the culprit is not regular attendance, in and of itself. If not foolproof (and obviously, it is not), I think it is self-evident that, at least, regular attendance has a positive correlation to deeper relationships.

    Now, if all you ever do is meet together with the same 15 or 20 people, there is an inherent tendency for your group to become unhealthily ingrown and dysfunctional. There should be freedom and encouragement to rub shoulders with other believers in other groups. But, in order to really get to know people, and “win the right” to exhort and rebuke them (when necessary), it will be usually be necessary to spend the type of time with them that is generally associated with “regular attendance.”

    The question I sense behind this discussion is to what degree should “regular attendance” and commitment be strictly voluntary. Of course, in our society, we are not going to arrest someone, or even fine someone, for missing church, nor should we, as I understand it, from a NT perspective. But shouldn’t there be some type of incentive beyond just “I’d love to see you next week” not to miss? Call it commitment, call it covenant, call it church membership… Doesn’t koinonia imply something beyond just showing up whenever you feel like it?

  8. 9-15-2011

    David,

    Actually, this post is more about identity. In fact, I would expect that believers would normally (and even regularly) gather together with some of the same people. However, when believers gather together with others (with whom they do not normally gather), many today assumes that group is not “church” and thus the passages of Scripture related to “church” do not apply or are not relevant. I would suggest otherwise.

    The best incentive to move beyond “I’ll see you next week” is not regular attendance, but a Spirit-direct impetus for fellowship.

    -Alan

  9. 9-15-2011

    amen brother, love it! The ekkelsia, the assembling of the brothers and sisters in Christ to express Him together by His life!

  10. 9-15-2011

    1) I agree. I believe that many if not most brothers and sisters already function this way. I have fellowship with brothers and sisters in my “local church” on a regular basis, fellowship with other brothers from a different “local church” on a regular basis, and fellowship with other brothers and sisters from other “local churches” just whenever. It seems to me that whenever believers get together in Jesus name, it is ekklesia as far as Scripture is concerned.

    2) I truly believe that functioning this way puts Jesus in His Rightful place as the Head of the Church. The divisions seem to me to have a lot to do with control–not yielding to Christ as the Head.

  11. 9-16-2011

    John,

    Thanks for the comment!

    Chad,

    You said, “It seems to me that whenever believers get together in Jesus name, it is ekklesia as far as Scripture is concerned.” I agree. From my experience, many brothers and sisters do not see themselves this way, unless they were with their particular “local church” as a while, not even as a subset as that “local church.”

    And, you’re right… control is a huge issue in the church today… and has been for a long time.

    -Alan

  12. 9-18-2011

    I do Agree with you 100%. It seems today the American church is in competition with each other. Who has the bigest, fastest growing church. Who has more cool “stuff.” I believe that American church is a house devided!! I think if we were not devided and on one accord, we would e so much more effective for Christ.

  13. 9-18-2011

    Joey,

    Even for those of us who have moved away from buildings, budgets, programs, and staffs, I’ve found it’s still easy to slip into the competitive and protective mindset.

    -Alan