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Does the local church need an apologia, that is, a theological and biblical defense? Apparently so. The church is proclaimed to be “catholic” or “universal” not only in the ancient Christian creeds but also in later statements of faith from all eras of her history (for example, Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1–4). Yet, while most if not all professing believers would claim to be part of this universal church, many see no need to be involved in the life of any particular local congregation. A friend posted a picture on social media with the caption, “Church at Waffle House,” referring to her Sunday morning tradition of going to a local diner, listening to praise music, and studying Scripture. God is omnipresent, after all, so why would we need to go to one particular location in order to worship Him?
The case just mentioned should not be viewed as an example of a Christian’s rejecting the faith altogether. Rather, it represents a dangerous perspective that has always existed but is perhaps uniquely fostered by an American individualistic mind-set, namely, that participation in and commitment to a local church is purely optional and a matter of personal preference. In the early 2000s, the U.S. Army launched a new recruitment slogan, “Army of One,” and it seems that many professing Christians feel similarly: they can be a “church of one” without having to participate in the life of a local congregation.
Without denying the reality of the “catholic” or “universal” church, it must be insisted that the “local” church is also an essential component of the Bible’s ecclesiology (its doctrine of the church) and as a result is essential for the Christian’s life of faith.
“Church” vs. “Churches”
The Bible speaks of the church both as singular and plural. On the one hand, we find an emphasis on the church as “one body” in Christ (Rom. 12:4–5; 1 Cor. 10:17; Eph. 4:4). In an analogous way, the Old Testament emphasized the importance of a central sanctuary for God’s people (Deut. 12:4–14). At the same time, we find references to multiple “churches” (Acts 15:41; 16:5; 1 Cor. 7:17; 11:16; 14:33). This indicates that it is insufficient to speak only of the “one universal” church without giving due attention to its many local, particular manifestations.
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.