Local Church or Church in a Locality?
While reading a booklet on the role and mission of the church the writer noted a conversation with John Stott the noted evangelical leader and one of the principal authors of the Lausanne Covenant of 1974. He asked the recently deceased English church leader what he considered to be the most neglected doctrine in the current odyssey of the Christian faith. To his amazement the reply was ecclesiology. The word means the study and function of the church as in the Greek root ecclesia - which means a called out legislative body1 or congregation.
While being greatly encouraged by the contents of this booklet about midway the writer launches into a functional juxtaposition between the church universal and the church local. In so doing he begins to describe the latter entity as a “local church.”
Although the term local church is very much a part of our common evangelical vernacular its use always causes me to pause and consider: what is meant when we use the phrase “local church?” In my following observations I will attempt to avoid dogmatism and instead encourage healthy inquiry in the format of “come let us reason together.”
Is there such a thing as a local church? In thinking of the root word as locus - we can say that the church local should be defined by geopolitical boundaries. It is not to be identified by common affinities or ethnocentric traits - for only in its heterogeneity can it give full expression to the many splendored wisdom of God (Ephesians 3:10), not by its homogeneity.
The church is the community of God's people rather than an institution, and must not be identified with any particular culture, social or political system, or human ideology. The Lausanne Covenant
Yet, when the expression local church is used its unmistakable reference is to a specific congregational gathering usually defined by its commonalities. These units are vital indeed for ongoing relational encouragement - with all that that encompasses. But if we jump from there to the universal or catholic church - we will leap over the entity that is the commissioned organic instrument of societal transformation. That is the church as a whole that has its residence within certain geopolitical boundaries.
We need to break out of our ecclesiastical ghettos and permeate non-Christian society. The Lausanne Covenant
The term geopolitical represents a duality, not a dualism for its parts are intrinsically joined. By looking at these parts we can keep in mind the analogy of a coin which has an obverse and a reverse (heads and tails), yet its integrity is that it is one inseparable coin. The obverse cannot be spent without the reverse also being spent at the same time.
Does the scripture recognize such an entity? Looking back at the word geopolitical lets take the second part first. Do we see the Word upholding political realities? By strong inference yes: "Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's;” Matthew 12:21; “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” Romans 13:1; “and the government shall be upon his shoulder,” Isaiah 9:6; (pray) “for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” 1 Timothy 2:2.
Now considering the prefix “geo” as being short for geographical boundaries - even more definitely yes!
Matthew 11:20 Then He began to denounce the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent. 21“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
Luke 19:41 When He approached Jerusalem, He saw the city and wept over it, 42 saying, “If you had known in this day, even you, the things which make for peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes.”
We have an unescapable conclusion here from the words of Christ concerning the realities of geographical boundaries - unfortunately it is the issue of condemnation that is our illustration. Where is the ecclesiology for this? Our libraries are bare!
Also we have from Paul:
1 Corinthians 1:2 “To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, their Lord and ours:”
Ephesians 1:1 “Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints who are at Ephesus and who are faithful in Christ Jesus:”
Here is a little variation in that church is plural for this letter was not written to a city, but to a region: Galatians 1:2b “To the churches of Galatia:”
There is no more striking example than that found in the Book of the Revelation. It is the exalted Christ who says:
Revelation 1:20 "As for the mystery of the seven stars which you saw in My right hand, and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.”
And following - Revelation 2:1 "To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: The One who holds the seven stars in His right hand, the One who walks among the seven golden lampstands, says this:” And also to Smyrna; Pergamum; Thyatira; Sardis; Philadelphia; Laodicea.
Is there anything more that could be said?
It has been forty years since this concept was birthed in our hearts. There is only one church in a city/community - with many local expressions. Paul’s words to the Church at Philippi jumped from the printed page to indelibly sear themselves on our conscience: “Only conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or remain absent, I will hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel;...” 1:27
“Where’s it at?” That is the query we often get when we tell folks that we are with the church in the city. Our reply, “It is in the hearts of the men and women of God who long for the reconciliation of the Body of Christ in their city and who are willing to sacrifice to see this reality come forth.” We never try to convince people. We just look to see who is looking to see. And our Faithful Father has them. We call it the Simeon Principle - because he was looking to see, Simeon saw the hope and consolation of Israel. “And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him.” Luke 2:25
Occasionally we will get a request from someone who wants to buy our domain name: churchinthecity.com. Without fail they do not represent their city, but a local congregation that wants to be known as the church in their city. How audacious! As a matter of principle there is no amount of money that could cause us to give up our hope. In times past in our community - maybe in yours also - a local congregation would rise up and proclaim that they were going to take the city. Every instance of this resulted in utter failure, often with dire consequences - for God opposes the proud.
World evangelization requires the whole Church to take the whole gospel to the whole world. The Lausanne Covenant
There are glimpses in history: Calvin’s Geneva; Knox’s Edinburgh and even Patrick’s Ireland. Our longtime friend and mentor Francis Frangipane has written: “It takes a citywide church to win a citywide war.”
There is only one entity that has been so constrained by mandate for this epic struggle - for there is only one entity that has been so called and equipped. As it is written to the church in the city of Ephesus.
Ephesians 4:11 And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints2 for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.
This is the plan of God for the building of the Place of His abode within a city/community. It is foundational to the full accomplishment of His purpose - the revelation of His Son who is the Mature Man. And she is the only entity that the Father holds accountable for the gifts and callings that he has placed in her midst. No local congregation or denomination is so adjured.
The Son Himself is at once the foundational cornerstone and the supreme capstone of this holy organic edifice.
“And he will bring out the capstone accompanied by shouts of: Grace, grace to it!'" Zechariah 4:7
“And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:20-22 KJV
If you will allow me a play on words the convenient chronos of our current crisis of ecclesiology must be displaced by the appointed kairos of our Kyrios3. And our logos and egos supplanted by the Logos4 and the Imago Dei5 or Ego Eimi6. “And he has put everything into subjection under his feet, and he has given him who is higher than all as The Head of the church,...” Ephesians 1:22 Aramaic
The Church is at the very centre of God's cosmic purpose and is his appointed means of spreading the gospel. But a church which preaches the cross must itself be marked by the cross. It becomes a stumbling block to evangelism when it betrays the gospel or lacks a living faith in God, a genuine love for people, or scrupulous honesty in all things including promotion and finance. The Lausanne Covenant
The Church’s one foundation
Is Jesus Christ her Lord,
She is His new creation
By water and the Word.
From heaven He came and sought her
To be His holy bride;
With His own blood He bought her
And for her life He died.
Samuel J Stone - 1866
We affirm that Christ sends his redeemed people into the world as the Father sent him, and that this calls for a similar deep and costly penetration of the world. The Lausanne Covenant
Yes, Lord, so be it! We are looking to see...
1 It should be noted that this body functions only as the delegated representative of a higher power. Although a secular definition predating Pentecost the parallel relationship between the church and Christ her Head is obvious.
2 Some translations insert a comma here leaving the erroneous impression that the called gifts of verse 11 are also to do the work of ministry instead of equipping the whole body to do the work of ministry. This unfortunate inference has gone far to saddle the church with the associated encumbrance of perpetual adolescence.
3 Lord - “and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,” Philippians 2:11
4 Word - “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1
5 Image of God - “For he is The Brilliance of his glory, The Image of his Being,” Hebrews 1:3 Aramaic
6 I Am - “for unless you believe that I AM, you'll die in your sins." John 8:24 ISV