In the two preceding articles we have looked at the seven fundamental features of Christian life as set out for us in Acts 2.41-42. We have noted that those who responded to the word of God were baptised, and we saw that every believer should follow their example. In this article we will consider the next stage in the spiritual development of these early believers. They were “added”, that is they joined a local church. Before we come to consider this in detail we need to remember that the word “church”1 is used in the New Testament in two ways. It can refer to a local company of believers (2 Cor 8.1; Gal 1.2), and it can also refer to the whole body of Christ, the universal company of believers from Pentecost to the Rapture (Eph 1.22-23; 5.23-32). In this article we are using the word to refer to a local company, sometimes called a local assembly. Also, it is important to recognise that there is nothing special about the building where Christians meet; it is the people who matter, not the place. The Holy Spirit never uses the word “church” to refer to a physical building.
Privileges and protection of a local church
It is clear from the New Testament that God intends His people to gather in companies. He does not intend us to struggle through life on our own. By providing us with the wonderful privilege of being members of a local assembly God has protected believers against some of the pitfalls of the Christian life. For example, the habit of gathering together with other Christians is a barrier against worldliness - as I grow to know more of the character and lifestyle of other believers, I can follow (and learn from) their example. If I am rarely in the company of other Christians, there is always the danger that I will begin to copy the example and imitate the lifestyles of the world.
Second, a local church is a barrier against loneliness. The world can be a very cold place, especially for Christians, but in a local church we can find the warmth of true fellowship. Many believers will be able to recall times when they found themselves in a city where they knew no-one, and yet within a very short time of attending the local assembly they had found friendship and fellowship the like of which the world cannot give.
Third, a local assembly is a barrier against ignorance. It provides a setting in which spiritual teaching can take place, where the principles of the Word of God can be taught in a systematic way. It is a requirement of the New Testament (1 Pet 3.15) that believers be “ready always to give an answer” to anyone who asks them about their faith, and the local church provides the divinely appointed setting for believers to learn how to do so.
Next, a local church is a barrier against idleness. While it is undoubtedly possible to serve God as an individual, there is a wonderful joy about being involved in collective activity. Indeed, there are some aspects of Christian life that must be collective. The Breaking of Bread, for example, is never portrayed in Scripture as a solo activity. It is always seen as being a function of Christians who have gathered as a local church.
Finally, the assembly provides a barrier against stagnation. Gods desire is that His children grow spiritually (1 Pet 2.2), and the ideal place for the believer to develop in his or her knowledge of God and His ways is in the sacred confines of a local assembly of Christians.
What features mark a local church?
Having established these basic ideas, we must now face a more practical issue: what are the features that ought to mark a local church? Christendom offers a bewildering array of gatherings who would call themselves Christian, but we must turn to the Word of God in order to find the divinely given pattern for the local churches of believers. The following list is a brief (and by no means complete) list of some of the features that ought to be seen in any company claiming to be an assembly in the New Testament sense of the word.2
It is composed of born again, baptised Christians only (Acts 2.41; 2 Cor 6.14), who live holy lives (1 Pet 1.15); they take no earthly name, but gather to the Name of the Lord Jesus alone (1 Cor 1.10-18; 3.3-7). In our day we must beware of making the name “Gospel Hall” (or any other title of a building) synonymous with the word “assembly”. There is no guarantee that one is always associated with the other!
It is independent, and has no earthly governing body. In Acts 14.23 and Titus 1.5 elders are ordained “in every church/city” - there is no central government. Note also that the New Testament never envisages a “national church” such as the Church of Scotland or Church of England. Scripture speaks of “the church of God which is at Corinth”, but “the churches of Galatia” (1 Cor 1.2; Gal 1.2). Corinth was a city, Galatia was a region. While there may be a number of assemblies in a particular area, each is independent. It is possible (and often highly beneficial) for various assemblies to support each other, but each remains an independent unit, responsible to God alone for its behaviour and actions.
It meets to break bread (Acts 20.7), to pray (Acts 12.5), and for the teaching of the Word of God (Acts 18.11; 20.20; 2 Tim 2.2).
It is active in the preaching of the gospel (1 Thess 1.8). The practicalities of how this is done may vary from place to place and from generation to generation, but the responsibility remains the same: “Preach the Word”!
It is led by mature Christian men of good reputation (1 Tim 3.1-7) who feed and care for the assembly (1 Pet 5.1-4), and who are honoured for their work (1 Tim 5.17; Heb 13.7).
The women are valued members (1 Tim 5.2) who learn in silence (1 Cor 14.34-35; 1 Tim 2.8-15) and cover their heads (1 Cor 11.1-16).
There is a spirit of love and unity in the gatherings (Rom 12.10; 1 Cor 1.10; Eph 4.32).
There is the free exercise of spiritual gift (Rom 12.3-8). This means that each member of the assembly has the opportunity to fulfil their responsibility to “stir up” their gift, as Paul exhorts Timothy to do (2 Tim 1.6), and that they are diligent in fulfilling that responsibility.
Material help is given to those who are needy (Rom 15.25-27; 1 Cor 16.1-3; 2 Cor 8; Gal 6.10; 1 Tim 5.9-16). Again, the practical details will vary depending on circumstance, but where there is genuine need the assembly will do what they can to help meet that need.
It must of course be added that it will not be possible to find a perfect local assembly - since no believer is perfect, no assembly can be!
A future article will deal with the various responsibilities that come as a result of being in fellowship with a local assembly of believers, but for now let us just recognise this point - it is our duty as believers to be part of a local company. God has ordained it so for the spiritual good of every believer, and it is our privilege to respond in loving obedience. To be continued.
1 The Greek word is ekklesia (Strong 1577), which could be used to refer to any group that had been called together for a particular purpose (e.g the word “assembly” in Acts 19.41 where it is used of a group of protesting Ephesians). The purpose of the Church which is His body is, among other things, to reveal the manifold wisdom of God (Eph 3.10); the purpose of the local assembly is to be a representative miniature of the whole Church.
2 The New Testament never defines a local assembly - it merely gives us examples of the features that should be found in such a company. It is left to the discernment of the individual believer (guided by the Spirit of God) to decide whether a particular company is sufficiently close to the Scriptural pattern to make it possible to have fellowship with them.