(Section from the book titled Which direction is the Church going to?
by Sandor Abonyi)
This section can download in PDF form here: What is a local church
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There is a lot said about the Church both in our every-day Christian walk and also in the Bible. The Church is the most important creation of God here on Earth and the Word says that it is the Body of Christ. Do we really know what the Church is when we use the word and speak about it? The Bible also very often uses the word church. We are inclined to think that it is easy to define the concept of church: a group of believers having faith in God. There are such a lot of different organizations in the world and within the church. What is the difference then between an organization and The Church? In order to gain clear vision on this issue let us have a look at some examples in the Word and the writings of some servants of God who are enlightened concerning this question.
The divided Body of Christ
“Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you. Now this I say, that every one of you said, I am of Paul; and I of Apollo’s; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Co.1.10-13.)
“I have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto you were not able to bear it, neither yet now are you able. For you are yet carnal: for whereas there is among you envying, and strife, and divisions, are you not carnal, and walk as men? For while one said, I am of Paul; and another, I am of Apollo’s; are you not carnal? Who then is Paul, and who is Apollo’s, but ministers by whom you believed, even as the Lord gave to every man? I have planted, Apollo’s watered; but God gave the increase. So then neither is he that planted any thing, neither he that watered; but God that gives the increase.” (1 Co.3.2-7.)
We can see that the gathering of groups around one person ment problems even in the first churches which became a source for divisions and against which Paul most resolutely warned the believers.
How many “Pauls” and “Apolloses” are there in the present day Church? How many of them collect the believers around themselves heading and controlling the “flock” in one person? Making use of their personal influence they establish national, even international organizations and in an unscriptural way they often cause divisions among born-again Christians living in the same town gathering them into organizations of different names. It is a condition that reminds us of the one in Corinth. If you study the Bible you will only come across church names like “the church in Corinth, in Ephesus, …; apostle Paul, evangelist Philip, and elders of the church in Ephesus.
Local church, as the Body of Christ
Jesus speaks in parables many times and mentions common and lifelike material things to explain spiritual reality. He says that the Church is similar to the human body, and sets up similarity between the members of the church and the parts of the body (eyes, feet, hands, ears). The Word calls the Church the Body of Christ. Remembering this makes us able to understand a lot of other things.
Human communities are always directed by somebody and are organized into one form or another. These organizations are characterized by the fact that all have a (human) person organizing it who brings about a structure which is naturally headed by him or her. These organizations are always directed vertically with the founder at the top. The head of such organizations is always a man or a woman who founded the organization. The bigger an organization is, the more difficult it is to control and one person is not enough to keep it together. So it becomes necessary to have subordinate leaders under the top leader as it is usual with organizations. This is the pattern followed by the Church as well due to its easy controlling system. Satan is extremely happy about it, because this way man became the head instead of Christ. So those church organizations that bear the above signs of having 2-5 layers of subordinate leaders are not scriptural and cannot play the role and carry out the mission the Lord planned for His Church. The Church is the Body of Christ which is not an organization established by man but is the creation of God. The Church is an organism, alike the human body, where the head is invisible because the true Head is Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is the person who is organizing the Church.
Look at the following quotations written about the Church as the Body of Christ by different servants of God.
Manfred Haller writes:
„You are the Body of Christ – wrote Paul to the Corinthians referring to all believers living in Corinth. Paul’s letter was addressed to the Church of God that was in Corinth. From this we can understand that the Church of God in Corinth and the Body of Christ are one and the same. Body is the visible, material part of our beings. If we want to define the Church as the Body of Christ we can say that it is the visible, material part of the invisible Lord Jesus Christ. There is no invisible Church as such! The New Testament shows the Church everywhere only one way: in the form of a local Church, which means all the believers in a particular place who have been born from Christ and are living in Christ. The Bible knows only one definition for the Church: Christ is everything in each member. This was true for Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Corinth, Rome, etc. wherever churches existed. The same is valid for today for every place of the earth. The Church is a spiritual reality which is not submitted to “historical development”. The same way as “Christ is exactly the same person yesterday, today and tomorrow” the Church is the same at all times, because it is His body. It is Christ in all born again men and women. The so-called “Historical development of Christianity” is nothing else but the history of the “flesh”, the natural man and that of “old Adam.”
Watchman Nee writes as follows:
„The unity of Christians has to be realized in Christ. Therefore we studied the Bible thoroughly. Step by step it became clear for us that whatever exceeds the borders of a place (town or village) is not church and whatever does not expand as far as the borders of a place is not church either.”
Strong and disillusioning statement is said by Watchman Nee. That means that according to the Bible God has one, only one church (consisting of born-again people) in a given place. From this follows that those communities which exceed the borders of one settlement calling themselves “church” are not churches in the biblical sense but are organizations only. The will of God is to have biblical churches and not organizations.
It is interesting to have a close look at Paul’s letters. Can you see who the letters are addressed to? The following verses show that Paul in all cases wrote to all the saints sanctified in Christ Jesus living in a specific town and not only to a part of them.
“Into the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, …” (1 Co. 1.2.)
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, to the saints, which are at Ephesus and to the faithful in Christ Jesus: “ (Eph. 1.1.)
“Paul and Timothy, the servants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus, which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: “ (Phi. 1.1.)
“To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ which are at Colosse:…” (1 Col. 1.2.)
“Paul, and Silvanus, and Timotheus, into the church of the Thessalonians which is in God the Father and in the Lord Jesus Christ:…” (1Th. 1.1.)
From these verses we can clearly see what the local church is: all the saints in Christ Jesus who live in the same place.
There are some letters where Paul extends the addressing of the letter to more local churches at the same time writing to more than one church. In some other cases asks them to read out the letter in some other churches as well. Paul’s letters are not pastoral letters (written by a pastor) but letters of an apostle to churches the Lord has trusted him to take care of.
These groups of churches were not organizations neither did they bear names. Paul had never established organizations with himself being the boss, on the contrary, as seen in the Corinthian letter, he most definitely protested to such ones.
Letter to a church and to other saints around:
„Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, unto the church of God which is at Corinth, with all the saints which are in all Achaia:” (2 Co. 1.1)
Letter to some churches:
„And all the brethren which are with me, unto the churches of Galicia:” (Gal. 1.2.)
The following verses are addressed not only to the Corinthians but to all saints in all places who call onto the name of the Lord.
„Into the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours: “ (1 Co. 1.2)
We can see that according to the Word of God distinction has to be made between :
– local church (the body of Christ in a town; all the saints in a specific town)
– apostolic field (e.g. the group of those local churches which Paul was responsible for)
– the Church of God, as the whole of local churches on earth
The huge number of “churches” and “denominations” we have on earth now does not exist in the Word. According to the Bible God has only one church in one place and all born again believers belong to that. Consequently, it is not a church but a kind of organization unless all believers belong to it living in the same settlement and if it does not expand to other places either. God has only one church on the earth. The great variety of different “churches” and “denominations” are nothing else but human organizations which split the Body of Christ. It is the will of God to have churches which are exactly the way the Word of God says they are to be.
We pray that all those church leaders who divide the Body of Christ today could receive biblical vision from God. Let us pray that all jealousy, self-respect and self-justification leave the Body of Christ, that at last all believers ( though living in the same neighborhood or family but representing different denominations and their teachings) could be parts of a biblical local church.
We pray that the organizations calling themselves “churches” or “local churches” but are really not could give up their own structures and organizations for the sake of unity they want so much in order to have the BODY OF CHRIST formed.
The local church in practice
How can we understand what a local church is in the light of what has been said above? What does the terminology “one place – one local church” mean? What does the Word write about its function?
In the present situation – when in a settlement (a capital, a big town, a village) there are several groups of more denominations having their own boards of leaders (one pastor or elders) – how can it be realized? A lot of misunderstanding could be avoided if we read the Word carefully because one is bound to think of the present practice immediately and not the biblical way.
Here are the answers to the questions above in the light of the Word. The Word says:
“I will give you thanks in the great congregation: I will praise you among much people.” (Psa. 35.18)
“And how I kept back nothing that was profitable unto you, but proclaimed it to you, and have taught you publicly and from house to house,” (Act. 20.20)
“Salute the brethren, which are in Laodicea and Nymphas and the church, which is in his house.” (Col. 4.15.)
“And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church.”(Act. 20.17)
From these verses we can see the following as regards to the local church:
– a local church in a place has only one leadership (elders or presbyters)
– but a local church can gather both in publicly and in houses
– a local church can be under the supervision of only one apostle
The Word is very practical and doesn’t speak about believers of a capital with more million inhabitants gathering at the same place.
The present situation is the following:
– more denominations have “churches” or „home groups” in the same settlement
– they have their own leadership each
– they belong to a central board of leaders
Recently efforts have been made to break through the walls of denominations. Believers from different denominations (organizations) gather together, have meetings where they have communion. Furthermore leaders from different “churches” in a settlement come together to pray, to get vision together or to preach the gospel together. These are very good signs showing that God’s people desire biblical direction, but this is not biblical unity. From the present signs we can see that God is working on the renewal of the Church and the creation of local churches and a lot of other things point to the right direction. However, it is necessary to see the goal and the good beginning needs continuation in order to accomplish the renewal of the Church.
In fact, different denominational “churches”, groups, home groups that exist in the same settlement (in the same town) biblically could qualify as a small church and these home churches should make the local church – big church – in a settlement under one leadership (presbyters) and one apostolic team. Nevertheless, at present we can see a strong effect which separates these small churches from each other though they are situated in the same settlement: their denominations’ head-offices, which are in different towns though, control the small “churches” in other settlements as well. As a result, we have several denominational “churches” in a settlement each belonging to its mother church which is situated in some other town.
Paul warns against these dangers of division.
“Now this I say, that every one of you says, I am of Paul; and I of Apollo’s; and I of Cephas; and I of Christ. Is Christ divided? was Paul crucified for you? or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Co. 1.12-13.)
We can see in the Word that it is the local church which is in the center and therefore it is necessary to have strong local churches. However, it can only be realized if the leaderships of denominations weaken and in the end fully stop functioning so that home churches in the same settlement could belong only to one apostolic team. In the Word we can find a general principle for churches: All believers have to belong to the local church where they live. There they are known and there they can live their communion day by day and in a natural way they can be supervised as well.
What hope can we have to have this present chaotic situation put right? In human ways it is not possible. Neither a kind of ecumenism with human power nor melting every church into one denomination’s “church” could give the solution. God is the one that will accomplish these things and if He plans something He will also finish it. When and how are these things going to be realized? I don’t have a vision for that. If a big Christian persecution or the mighty work of the Holy Spirit or something else is which will break down the present walls, I don’t know. In any case it is good if we know from the Word what is right and we keep to it because God will surely do according to his Word. If we are able to see the goal we can work with God as his partners and not against Him.
The whole book can download in PDF form here: