As you sit in your pew on a Sunday morning have you ever wondered, “What makes my church, a church?” Is it the steeple on the roof of the church? Is it the free, often burnt coffee that is offered before the service? Is it simply the gathering of like-minded Christian people? I want to argue that the answer to all those questions is no. A local church is much more than those things.
I want to argue that there are 3 key features to a local church that makes it a local church.
But first, it is important to define and distinguish between the universal and local church. One cannot be a true member of a local church if he is not a member of the universal church. Scripture speaks of the universal church as the blood bought people of God (Eph 5:25). It consists of the company of all people who are regenerated and baptized with the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 12:13; 1 Peter 1:3, 22-24).
Millard Erickson defines the universal church as “the whole body of those who through Christ’s death have been savingly reconciled to God and have received new life.” It is vital to understand that the church is not a man-made institution but rather a “supernatural entity” established by God. The church’s existence is founded upon and sustained by the work of Christ.
He is the one to build the church (Mt 16:18) and the one to sustain it (Col 2:19). It must be understood clearly: There is not such a thing called “the church” without the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
But what distinguishes a local church from the universal church is its personal expression within a particular and localized community of believers. Calvin defined the local church when he said,
Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20).
I agree with Calvin but would like to add one more feature: church polity. I intend to argue in this blog that for a local church to be a local church, it must 1). Preach the Word of God, 2). Observe the Ordinances, and 3). Have a Polity.
A Church Must Preach the Word
A local church can only exist if it is a place where the word and Gospel of God are preached. Throughout Scripture, it was God’s word that brought forth life (Gen 1; Ezekiel 37:7-10; Mark 7:32-35; John 1; Rom 10:17). A church is community of people who have been brought to life by the word of God (the Gospel). Thus, a church cannot exist without the proclamation of God’s word.
Also, the New Testament is full of passages, both prescriptive and descriptive, regarding the necessity of the preaching of Scripture in a local gathering of believers.
Firstly, one of the four practices of the Acts 2 church was the devotion “to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Secondly, it is by the word of God that not only are the lost saved, but also the saved are sanctified (John 17:17; 2 Tim 3:16-17). Thirdly, God sets apart men to preach the Word to local churches. This is seen clearly in Acts 7 where the Apostles appoint deacons so that they can have more time to preach:
Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. (Acts 6:3-4)
Also, Paul commands Timothy to be a faithful pastor in his local church in 1 Timothy 4:13-16. According to Paul, a faithful pastor is one who reads, exhorts, and teaches the Word of God to the body. Thus, a local church must be a community who preaches and hears the Word of God. Without the Word preached, the elders would be unfaithful, and the people would not be sanctified.
A Church Must Administer the Ordinances
A local church can only exist if also administers the ordinances established by Christ (Matt 3:13-17, 26:26-29). Firstly, in the ordinance of baptism, a Christian publicly demonstrates the inward work of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. It is a display of one’s union with Christ in his death, burial, and resurrection (Rom 6:3-4). Christ commanded his disciples to baptize those who believed in his gospel (Matt 28:18-20).
Thus, it is both a command to individual Christians and to the local church to practice and prioritize baptism. Baptism is an important practice for it is “the initiation rite for entrance into the people of God, signifying that one has become a member of the new community and that one now belongs to the triune God.” Thus, through baptism, a local church: 1) Obeys the command of Christ, 2) Displays the Gospel, and 3) Protects the church from hypocrites.
Secondly, the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper or communion was initiated by Christ prior to his crucifixion. The Lord’s Supper is to be consistently observed in the local church for it is sign of continuing fellowship with Christ (1 Corinthians 11:25) and with a local body of believers (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). Through the symbols of the bread and the wine, a church corporately renews its commitment to live in light of the cross work of Christ and to rejoice in anticipation of the future meal that all believers will share together (Lk 22:18).
A Church Must Have Polity
The word polity means a particular form or system of government. Polity requires organization, structure, and rules for governance. This is seen clearly in the United States that consists of organized governing bodies with clear roles and functions. The citizens of the nation have power to elect, appoint, and influence the nation. The country’s rule and authority is not left up to debate, but must be aligned and practiced from the U.S. Constitution. Polity in government is a blessing. But polity is not just for civil government but is also for the church.
The universal church’s polity consists of Christ as the head and all Christians as his members. But in the local church, the New Testament points to a localized community of believers as having a ruling structure. Jonathan Leeman in Baptist Foundations: Church Government in an Anti-Institutional Age notes that “the movement from the universal church to the local church is a movement into polity.” Thus, a local church cannot be defined merely as “a people,” but rather must be regarded as an organized and covenanted community of believers.
In brief, I believe that a local church must be a community who not only administers the ordinances and sits under the preaching of the Gospel, but also has a governing structure. This is seen in the fact that Scripture commands churches to have church officers, elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13). Also, a local church is given authority by Christ to execute church discipline (Matthew 18:15-20).
Further, a church is called to exercise authority over false teaching (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Peter 3:17; ). Without a polity or governing structure, these biblical descriptions and commands would have no foundation. How can a local church practice church discipline without organization? How can a church cast out false teachers without structure and standards? How can a church have elders and deacons without polity? It is impossible to do these things without organization and structure.
By preaching the Gospel, administering the ordinances, and governing, a local church can protect its purity from false teachers and false converts.
A local body of believers has the biblical authority to “bind and loose” or to welcome new members and hold one another accountable to live as the people of God (Matt 16:19). Leeman puts it poignantly, “Because God is utterly concerned with his own name and reputation, Christ has authorized churches to wield the keys of the kingdom. He has deputized them to mark off the what and the who of the gospel through baptism and the Lord’s supper.”
Conclusion and Summary
According to Scripture, a local church is a body of organized believers who preach and hear from the word of God and participate in the administration of the ordinances. It is obvious to see how if a local church were to rid itself of preaching the word and the ordinances, a church would lose its identity.
However, it is as vital to understand that without the organizing structures set in place by Scripture, a local church would no longer be considered a church. Thus, a small group or Bible study who meets in a home is not a church. Though they may pray, evangelize, serve, and study Scripture, they are not a church. They may perform many duties of the church but are not a church.
As you attend your church this week, I pray that you will have a greater understanding of what you are a part of. You are part of not only the universal body of Christ but also part of a covenanted and biblically organized gathering. God is glorified in these local churches who preach the word, who practice the ordinances, and have polity, for they are merely obeying Him. Your local church, Lord willing, is a visible expression of the New Testament.
I recommend the following books for further study:
Baptist Foundations: Church Government in an Anti-Institutional Age by Mark Dever;
Church Basics Series edited by Jonathan Leeman