By Robert F. Turner
While working in a foreign land a preacher painted a sign in the native language and put it on their place of worship. Translated, the sign read, “The Church Meeting Here Was Established in Jerusalem, 33 A.D.” A few days later a native said, “Surely you do not expect me to believe that sign. I know who makes up this church, how it was started, and when.” So the preacher tried to explain this was but a congregation of the universal church established in Jerusalem. The task was hard enough, for he wished to avoid teaching a universal church made up of local churches. But he was told, “Then you have the wrong word on your sign. We have a separate word for ‘congregation. “‘ The story ends, with the preacher learning a lesson in language; but I wonder if we should not learn a lesson in “establishment” -and the nature of the local church.
We are trying to “Get To The Bottom Line” on the nature of the church. In a previous article we discussed the nature of the universal church (the saints), and we also showed what is obvious to unprejudiced readers; viz., saints are expected to form “teams” to carry out authorized collective obligations; and these “teams” are called “churches.” Most brethren believe the local churches are scriptural, but some may be confused about their establishment and their nature, as compared with the so-called ” universal” church. The concept of the Son of God as Priest, King, Advocate, etc., was established in the mind of God from eternity; but became functional after the cross – was preached as viable and operative the first Pentecost following the resurrection. When people submitted to this established “rule” they were the Lord’s flock, citizens, army, and church (“called-out” ones). That is how He “established His church” (in universal sense). How does He establish the local churches?
I believe the Lord established the Oaks-West church in Burnet, but He did so in much the same way He established marriage. He gave and sanctioned the concept, supplied instructions (via command, example, implication) as to its coming into being, and its function; all this in the New Testament. But brethren in Burnet established this particular “team,” just as Vivian and I established our particular marriage. The nature of the two “institutions” as respects their coming into being are very similar. They are the products of God’s plans, but await the exercise of our will and conduct. If we would have the blessings that accrue to each, we must form the unions each institution requires. This human instrumentality no more lessens the importance of the local church than of marriage. Nor is there an acceptable substitution for God’s plan in either.
The mechanics of a local church are simple. (1) It takes a plurality of saints to form a team. (2) Each saint must will to join the team, and be willing to accept the others; i.e., mutual agreement is necessary (study 1 Cor.5:1-7; 3 Jn.9-10). (3) They can not function as a team without agreeing to some common mind (direction and guidance); and overseers (elders, bishops, pastors) serve in this capacity (1 Thess.5:12; Heb. 13:17). In their absence, there still must be some way devised for reaching a common mind, or confusion will reign. (4) Team work necessitates a pooling of means and abilities; and in most cases this is done by a medium of exchange – money. This is the reason for the “treasury,” and it exists whether pooled money, canned goods, or efforts, (Treasury discussed in another article.)
The purpose of a local church is (1) mutual assistance in getting to heaven (“consider one another to provoke unto love and good works,” Heb.10:24); and, (2) assisting one another to meet physical needs, and to carry out the work of preaching to others (2 Cor.8; 11:8; Phil.4:15). This purpose is determined by noting things commanded of local churches, and taught by approved examples and necessary implications. When we look carefully and objectively at churches of the first century, the “team” work of saints is seen as a “tool” for carrying out the purpose of each individual saint. I must preach the gospel, regardless of what others do. I must help my brethren, regardless of others. But by pooling my means and abilities, as authorized to do by Scriptures, both I and others are benefitted. God has given us a “tool” for our work.
We should emphasize the local church as a “tool” for each of us in God’s service; rather than as some sacramental, ceremonial institution, after the order of the topology of the Old Testament institutions. Here is an essential difference in concepts concerning the local church. It is not counterpart to the tabernacle or temple; for that is in heaven (Heb.9:11-12, 24). We do not meet in a “sanctuary” (holy place) made with hands; but present our petitions in heaven itself – in the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man” (Heb.8:2). N.T. church “service” is not “outward regulations for the body, that only hold till the period of the New Order” (Heb.9:6-10, Moffatt); for we are now in the “New Order.” Our worship is not validated, nor presented to God by or through official administrators (priest or “church”); for each of us is a priest (holy and royal) in the N.T. priesthood (1 Pet.2:5,9; Rom. 12:1). We need to think seriously on these things, and revise our “local church service” concepts, if necessary.
If man, not God, established a particular local church, is it (that local church) a perfect institution? No, it is not! Can it be rightly used as a standard for others? No, it can not (2 Cor. 10:12f)! Is it rightly a source of divine authority (i.e., are its judgments matters of faith)? No, they are not! The pattern determined by information in the Scriptures is perfect, and is bound upon us as a matter of faith; but we are fallible, and our compliance must never be regarded as a standard for others. Will God measure our compliance, and pass judgment upon our collective work? He will indeed, just as He does on all things commanded saints, distributively or collectively. Notice the warning to the church at Ephesus, regarding removal of her candlestick (Rev.2:1-5). Each saint is judged individually, with respect to individual and collective responsibilities (Rev.3:1-6). A weak church (about to have her candlestick removed?) may have “a few . . . worthy.”
It is hoped that these observations may help us see “the bottom line” concerning the local church and her nature. We can neither deny the institutional aspect of a local church, nor can we place our hope in that aspect. We must use what God has given us as a “tool” for service; without pinning our hopes on the “tool” itself. It is the Lord we must serve – first and always; and our loyalty to “the church” must exist only as loyalty to Christ makes that loyalty possible and necessary. Why should this be such a hard thing to understand? Why should we have to “throw out the baby with the wash water” of correction? An iconoclastic spirit – tear up and destroy – should give way to a teaching, encouraging, and exemplary spirit which shows others the better and right way of the Lord. May God help us to love Him first, and show that love by our concern for brethren who make up the blood bought “church.”
Guardian of Truth XXX: 20, pp. 615, 631
October 16, 1986