The Language of Location
Some New Testament letters such as James and 1–2 Peter are called the “Catholic Epistles” since they address a broad audience of all Christians. Many scholars have suggested that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was intended as a “circular” letter to be sent to multiple congregations (compare Col. 4:16). Yet, the majority of the New Testament letters are written to specific congregations in specific locations such as Rome, Corinth, and Philippi. In these letters, the Apostles were dealing with the specific personalities, issues, and challenges presented by each unique congregation. Paul had to deal with new believers in his Thessalonian letters, a massively dysfunctional congregation in 1–2 Corinthians, and the personal quarrels of Euodia and Syntyche in Philippi (Phil. 4:2). Unlike the “universal church,” the local church has a mailing address.
The Act of Gathering
Both in the Old and New Testaments, “doing church” involves acts of “gathering,” “congregating,” and “assembling” (Ex. 12:6, 16; Deut. 5:22; 31:12; Joel 2:16; Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4; Heb. 10:25). It is, in fact, impossible to “do church” in isolation from others. While on one occasion the Apostle Paul promised to be “present in Spirit” with the Corinthian congregation in order to exercise church discipline on an offending member (1 Cor. 5:3–4), this was clearly an exceptional and unique case involving supernatural realities beyond our normal experiences. What is more, Paul was present “in spirit” with the Corinthians when they were assembled together (v. 4). The biblical expectation is that unless providentially hindered, believers will regularly gather together as a congregation. “Oh, magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together!” (Ps. 34:3).
Entering and Exiting
The New Testament (with analogies in the Old Testament) makes it a point to note the clear moments of entry into the church and of exit from the church. We see consistently in Acts that as people come to faith, their profession is immediately followed by baptism as the rite of entry into the Christian church (Acts 2:41; 8:12, 36; 9:18; 10:47). The Apostle Paul explains the spiritual reality of the sacrament in 1 Corinthians 12:13 by stating that believers were “in one Spirit . . . baptized into one body” (the church). Conversely, it is noted when people abandon the church. John says, “They went out from us” (1 John 2:19). Unlike the moment of regeneration, the reality of which is known only to God, the objective moments of entering and exiting the church can be truly observed from the perspective of the local church.
Despite these arguments, it must be remembered that resistance to local church participation is more often a matter of the heart than of the mind. Even Christians who are committed church members have those Sundays when they just don’t “feel” like going, despite “knowing” (cognitively) all the reasons why they should. Interestingly, a principle that has been increasingly emphasized in a variety of venues is the importance of “just showing up.” The same principle is true on a profound level as it relates to the Christian life: to experience the blessing God intends the local church to be, we must find one that is faithful, and just show up.