By Tom M. Roberts
In an age of almost unbridled institutionalism, it is difficult to speak particularly about the local church and our responsibility to it without being misunderstood. Advocates of church-supported institutions take for granted that any encouragement given to the local church automatically includes encouragement for the institutions they have attached to the local church. On the other hand, opponents to the local church (a.k.a. the “organic institutional body corporate – functional unit”) charge one with supporting “churchianity” instead of Christianity. Nevertheless, we must recognize and discharge our responsibilities in whatever way the Scriptures indicate, whether or not we are misunderstood. Let’s try to define our limitations and then proceed with an understanding of our subject.
When one speaks of duties to the local church, it should not be assumed that such duties extend to any and every business enterprise that some promoter attaches to the treasury of the Lord’s church. We love our idols! Whether the college-in-the-budget, a local day-care center, benevolent society, or some other human enterprise, such institutions can scarcely be distinguished from the Lord’s church in the minds of their supporters. Colleges mix and mingle their buildings and budgets in such a fashion that one cannot tell where the college work leaves off and the work of the church begins. Personnel from various institutions act as though they are working for the church when they promote the affairs of the institution that pays their salaries. To criticize the institution is to criticize the Lord! To work for the institution is to work for the church; to work for the church is to work for the institution. This is the typical institutional mind set, the reason why institutions end up controlling the church, the “tail wagging the dog” syndrome so familiar to students of church history. If one doubts this, do a personal study of the development of Texas Christian University and its connection to the Christian Church. Let it be clear that we do not have this kind of concept in mind when we speak of local church responsibilities.
Not Church Universal
When one is baptized, he is added to the Lord (Rom. 6:3), which is the same thing as being added to the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). This is the aggregate of all the saved, “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23). The Ethiopian nobleman belonged to this body (Acts 8:26-40) though he, in the beginning, belonged to no local church. This body of Christ, of which we speak specifically, has no obligation to meet, perform any congregational activity, appoint world-wide officers, collect a treasury or do anything as a collective body. It exists as a spiritual entity, so far as we are informed in the Scriptures, as a body denoting spiritual connection to Christ. Only the Lord knows their number and only He can add to or take away their name from that list which would be equated with the Lamb’s Book of Life (Rev. 3:5).
There are individual activities which we ought to do because of our relationship to Christ in this universal body. I am a Christian (and a part of the universal church) 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and every action of my life should reflect my spiritual connection to Christ. As a Christian, I vote, choose a job, perform as a citizen, act as a husband ought, and do all human activities under the realization that Christ is in me and I in Christ (1 Pet. 1:13-4:19).
Admitting this does not negate that there is a relationship in the local church that is in addition to those responsibilities that I have as a member of the universal church. As one who might move from place to place, I may leave one local body and join one in another city (Acts 9:26) while never ceasing to be a Christian nor ceasing to belong to the “general assembly” of saints.
The Local Church
But the Scriptures do teach that there is a relationship to the Lord we sustain in the local church. Those who would deny its existence collide headlong with many clear statements to the contrary. That the local church is an entity is seen from many factors, including: (1) local identity: the Corinthian church as distinct from the Jerusalem church, the Roman, the Philippian, etc.; (2) corporate action: as in discipline (Matt. 18:15-17), or the “lump” (1 Cor. 5:6), and “being gathered together” (v. 4) as distinct from individual members at Corinth; (3) principalagent relationship: the church chose a messenger to act for it in a distant place (2 Cor. 8:23); (4) ability to appoint servants and submit to overseers (Acts 6:3; 14:23; Tit. 1:5); (5) to pay wages (2 Cor. 11:8); (6) to have a treasury (1 Cor. 16:1, 2; 2 Cor. 11:8); (7) to have an individual candlestick assigned to a local church by the Lord (Rev. 1:20); and (8) the use of collective nouns, giving a group of people a single identity: “church,” “body,” “it” (1 Tim. 5:8), etc. Though not an exhaustive list, this should provide proof that God expects us to belong to a local body of believers and work within this group in an assigned way in service to Him. What, then, do I owe the local church?
Obligations To The Local Church I owe to the local church the same kind of allegiance which I give to the Lord, for it, too, is the body of Christ. True, there are many problems in the local fellowship due to the imperfections of us all. However, I must be able to differentiate between the human side of the church and the divine side. Whenever I think of a church having troubles, I think of the Corinthian church. But Paul did not give up on it because of its internal struggles, choosing rather to work to solve their sins. Note his tender address to this troubled group of saints in 1:2: “unto the church of God which is at Corinth, even them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints . . .” Contrast this attitude with that of the “church hopper” who jumps from church to church every time there is a problem, never staying at one congregation long enough to solve anything. They have no true allegiance to fellowship or unity, choosing to run away rather than mediate, to flee rather than stay and solve a problem. Such allegiance is cosmetic and superficial, itself a problem rather than a solution. Additionally, there are some whose allegiance is mixed: as much loyalty to the world as to the Lord. They love the church, but not in hunting season; they want to be used, but not when the fish are biting; they want to be active for the Lord, but not on Sunday night. Like Demas, their true colors finally show (2 Tim. 4:10). 1 owe better allegiance to the local church than such divided loyalties.
I owe to the local church the exhortation that we mutually need to remain steadfast. “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and good works” (Heb. 10:24). There are many pitfalls in our walk with the Lord. Each of us can become discouraged. The Lord proved His wisdom when He made provision in the local church for us to help one another. Even wild animals know there is strength in numbers. I am told that wild asses will form a tightly knit circle with heels outward to ward off attacks of wolves. There are times when I need the help that comes from being with others “of like precious faith.” We neglect to receive a blessing when we fail to be with other Christians, exhorting and being exhorted. You see, the world is constant in its exhortation: TV, worldliness in fellow-employees, the sinful environment to which we are exposed daily, etc. The world has a grinding effect on faith and we need to have it renewed constantly. My brethren in the local church need it and so do I.
I owe the local church faithful attendance to its work. This will include participation in all its efforts, but especially so in opportunities of worship. Show me a one-hour-a-week Christian and I will show you a weak Christian. From the ranks of those who attend but one hour a week (or a month, or less) come no elders, no teachers, no preachers. They cannot be depended on for any kind of work on a regular basis. They are not steadfast (1 Cor. 15:58) except in their unfaithfulness. When the local church has a crisis, they are never present to help share in the work to overcome the adversity. They expect the building to be kept open, cooled, heated, cleaned, paid for and all the services staffed by those who see that the job is completed, but the church cannot count on them. I say it with sadness, but it needs saying: some brethren are so distant from the church and its work that a local church could close its doors and some members would not know it for six months! Contrast that with the attitude of the early disciples: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and prayers” (Acts 2:42).
I owe the local church my financial support. While it is true that TV preachers have made a mockery of giving, it is also true that faithful Christians will support the work of the Lord with their money. Over and above opportunities for individual giving and good works (Gal. 6: 10), we are commanded to support the local treasury (1 Cor. 16:1, 2; 2 Cor. 8, 9). Some may label such giving cynically as “obeying and paying” but noble motives are immune to such carping. When one gives to the local treasury, one is giving to the Lord (Acts 5:1-11). It is proper to support the work of Christ through the “functional unit” (the local church) since it is not possible to support the church universal nor contribute to a fund for the “general assembly.” The local church will always have a need since the Lord assigned it evangelism, edification and benevolence. There will never be a surplus of money above that need. Money is the medium of exchange whereby the local church may pool its resources and carry out the work God gave to it. As a member of the congregation, I have a responsibility, yes, and a rare privilege, to share in the support of this blessed work.
I owe the local church a proper attitude toward each and every member. The Corinthians were “carnal” (1 Cor. 3:1), “puffed up” (5:2), contentious and litigious (ch. 6), factious (11:18), jealous and envious (12:15). These problems hindered that church until Paul stated that, in those conditions, “it is not possible to eat the Lord’s supper” (11:20). We hear of churches today that are split with hatreds and animosities, yet physically occupying the same building. The Lord addressed this attitude when He, said, “leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift” (Matt. 5:23ff). I owe it to the Lord and my brethren to “give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). Perhaps we have not learned the difference between “contending for the faith” (Jude 3) and being contentious. However, there is a joy of brotherhood and blessing of unity that ought to prevail in the local church that I can contribute to or hinder. Such unanimity is possible only when we have the “mind of Christ” (Phil. 2:5), “doing nothing through faction or through vain glory, but in lowliness of mind, each counting other better than self” (v. 3).
God, in infinite wisdom, provided a congregational setting for His people so that we might grow together, encourage and be encouraged, worship in peace and harmony and get a foretaste of heaven itself. In order to realize this blessing, we should sense an obligation to the local church to promote these things. If we do, we are made better in the process and are “fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, making the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love” (Eph. 4:16).
Are you paying what you owe to the local church?
Guardian of Truth XXX: 23, pp. 718-719, 728
December 4, 1986