Unscriptural Concepts of the “Church”
In Amarillo, Texas there is a large Baptist church that runs a commercial in which different members of the church, then finally the preacher, all repeat the words, “I am First Baptist!” It is a moving commercial intended to express the sense that every individual is an important part of that denominational congregation. While I appreciate the sentiment this seeks to convey, I must reject its premise. Yes, every member of a sound local congregation is important, necessary, and of equal value with any other member (see 1 Cor. 12:12-27). And, yes, we are to serve God at all times in every place we find ourselves as Christians (Rom. 12:1-2). But, it ignores the biblical teaching of the nature, role, makeup, and significance of the church to use the term in ways that the Bible does not.
We constantly battle the unscriptural concept that developed centuries ago that considers the building where a local church assembles a “church”—the church is people (cf. Heb. 12:23). In modern times, a new struggle has arisen among those who abandon one (or more) assemblies of the whole church in lieu of small Bible studies that meet in different homes, calling these “house churches.” Are home Bible studies wrong? No. Are these churches? No. Where do we ever see local churches in the New Testament split into separate local churches, then reunited on Sunday? Do these churches have independent organization? If not, is it scriptural for the elders of the whole church to oversee the work of another church? We oppose this in the denominations, how can we justify it in this scenario? All of this stems from a failure to apply the biblical concept of the church in the manner that it is taught in Scripture. It diminishes the importance of the church Jesus purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28). It minimizes the importance of faithful work and worship with members of a local church with whom we are identified (see Heb. 10:25). It ignores the example of the apostles (Acts 11:26). Is this being picky? Is it being legalistic? No. It is showing a love for God and for His word (John 8:31).
When There Is No “Church”
With that said, let’s acknowledge a possible exception to this. Christians should seek out a faithful congregation of Christians and identify with them on a regular basis, or assemble with them when traveling (Acts 11:26). In general, Christians should not simply worship by themselves or with their families when there are sound congregations that need our encouragement and support. However, the example of Paul establishing congregations in virgin territory raises the question, “What if there is no local church somewhere?” The example of Paul, demonstrates his efforts to establish churches wherever he went. Some of these were small (Acts 19:7)—what constituted the church in cases where there were no other Christians? Usually, Paul traveled with companions, but the Bible tells us about the conversion of an Ethiopian nobleman (Acts 8:26-40). From all we know he was the first (and only) Christian in Ethiopia at the time. Did he bring others to Christ? We assume so, but prior to that he alone constituted the Lord’s church in that place. Does that contradict the principles we observed above? No. The term “church” always carries with it an inherent collective sense. When there are others with whom we are (or should be) identified, it is unscriptural to apply the term to one Christian alone. Let us maintain our commitment to use Bible names in Bible ways. This is the only way to unity and soundness of doctrine.
See Part One