Examining the Local Church
C.G. "Colly" Caldwell
Temple Terrace, Florida
Charles Holt's editorial in the May 1988 issue of The Examiner was entitled "What Do We Do If There Is No Local Church Institution?" The opening sentence says, "Over and over in this paper I have pointed out that there is actually no 'church' (of any kind) in God's word." Brother Holt goes on to say, that it is assumption to affirm that "the Lord has provided a 'pattern' and the church institution - 'the local church' - is to be built according to this pattern. " He holds that the "Lord did not prescribe any organizational entity or structure, no institution, which his disciples must 'join' or in which they must 'place membership."' He further teaches that, "There is nothing the Lord wants us to do that is not done by us as individuals. There is no corporate or institution responsibility. The Lord has never assigned any work to a Church organization. There is no such thing as 'collective responsibilities."' In summary, he says, "There is no 'local church' institution, such as we have today . . . set forth in God's word."
That editorial is typical. In it, as in his other writings (before and since), brother Holt expresses concern about the word "church" and its implications. Words must be scripturally defined. "Baptism," for example, must be defined but brother Holt does not refuse to use the term. Nonetheless, ekklesia is used over one hundred times in the New Testament and it must mean something!
I am certain that most of us who are dedicated to the will of Christ as taught in the New Testament are as concerned as brother Holt about preserving undenominational Christianity and avoiding institutionary development within the church of Christ. We do not desire to make an "institution" (in any unscriptural sense) of the local church. Likewise, while wo do not share some of brother Holt's views concerning elders, we agree that if elders see their function as institutional executives or "business managers" they have missed the point of their service in the Lord's body. I do not believe, as brother Holt seems to do, that brethren almost universally abuse God's will regarding the assembling of saints by allowing the local church to control and order their lives; but if they do, such does not argue that we are never taught in Scripture to act collectively. We need to cut through brother Holt's rhetoric and indentification of abuses (which we oppose as much as he) and ask some simple questions.
1. Did God conceive of his people together in Christ and recognize them in any collective sense? The answer is "Yes." God used the collective term ekklesia ("assembly" if "church" is objectionable) to describe all his people in the Gospel age who are collected in spiritual relationship. We all "think people" when we think of the church because it is composed of Christians, but one person (Christian) is not the ekklesia or assembly in any sense (universal or local).
The Lord also used the term "body" and said that "the body is not one member, but many" (1 Cor. 12:14). "All the members do not have the same function" but we are "members of one another" (Rom. 12:4-5). Christ is the Head of this body (Eph. 1:22-23) and, incidentally, the body (soma) is the church (ekklesia).
2. Did God provide for any actual local collective arrangement and identification of his people? Again, the answer is "Yes." In the very beginning years, brethren were locally identifiable in both Jerusalem and Antioch (Acts 11:22,26). The disciples "came together" locally for specific purposes (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2). Paul spoke of the need for brethren to understand their responsibilities to one another in the local group of Christians associated together. He said, "And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labor among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you," etc. (1 Thess. 5:12-15). Peter spoke of the "flock of God which is among you" and of all being "submissive to one another" (1 Pet. 5:1-5). The writer of Hebrews called for brethren to "consider one another in order to stir up to love and good works" and admonish them not to forsake the "assembling" of brethren together (Heb. 10:24-25).
3. Is the term ekklesia used in the New Testament to describe the actual local collective? "Yes" is the answer. Paul addressed the ekklesia at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), the ekkiesia at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1), and the ekklesiais (plural) of Galatia (Gal. 1:2). He spoke of the ekklesia in the house of Priscilla and Acquilla (Rom. 16:5). That these were individually identifiable is indisputable in the fact that the term ekklesia is used in the plural: "the churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16); "the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2); "the churches of Judea" (Gal. 1:22); etc. John said that he was instructed to write to the seven ekklesiais (plural) in seven specific locations in Asia (Rev. 1:11). In chapters two and three the term ekklesia is used to refer to a collectivity of brethren in each location.
4. Is the local ekklesia an independent functional entity or is it a spontaneous, occasional, amorphous gathering of saints? An "entity" is a single person or thing, or a collected group of persons or things, considered as having distinctness in itself. "Functional" suggests the capability of action, operation, or work. The ekklesia of Christ when viewed in the New Testament as comprising all saved persons is an "entity." It is not, however, a functional entity because the people are not commissioned to come together to act or work collectively. They, therefore, have no capacity for collective action. The ekklesia in a particular locality is seen in the New Testament as both an entity and functional. Each local church has both the commission and capacity to function collectively. Each local church is independent of the others; hence it is not dependent on any other for the authorization, support, oversight, or performance of its function(s). Paul and Barnabas assembled with the ekklesia at Antioch for "a whole year" (Acts 11:26). Paul and Barnabas "gathered the church (ekklesia) together" and "reported" to it what God had done with them (Acts 14:27). The ekklesia sent Paul and Barnabas on their way to Jerusalem; and when they arrived, they were received by the ekklesia at Jerusalem (Acts 15:3-4). The church at Antioch was known by Paul. He came to and went from the regular, on-going assembling and functioning of those brethren.
5. Did God plan any actual collective activity for his people and does Christ direct God's people in any collective activity? "Yes," the Lord provided the arrangement for accomplishing collective activity for worship, teaching, edifying, and caring for one another through the local church? The ekklesia at Corinth gathered together and in that assembled body was, among other activities, to exercise discipline (1 Cor. 5:4-5), take the Lord's supper (1 Cor. 11:17-23), and edify one another in worship (1 Cor. 14:23-40). The ekklesia at Philippi "had fellowship" with Paul and "sent once and again to my need," he said (Phil. 4:15-16). Other ekklesiais (plural) sent wages to Paul (2 Cor. 11:8).
It is inconceivable in light of the many passages which call for brethren to love one another and to do spiritual things together that some deny that God planned any identification of those persons locally for the purpose of collective function. Again, such is not to claim for that body of saints working together the kind of institutionalized, ecclesiastical or denominational framework apparent among those who go outside the New Testament for their concepts and ideas. Neither does it suggest that we are prepared to band congregations into a larger functional unit. The truth is that the Lord has provided the ekklesia for the very purpose of bringing Christians together to be edified so that they can accomplish God's work (Eph. 4:12).
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 19, pp. 579-580