Although the local church exists as the visible representation of the universal church, there are necessarily some differences when we speak of the nature of a thing. This is a good place to begin our inquiry. Scripture does not use a different word to distinguish local companies of believers from the church universal. There is one word, the “church” or “ekklesia.” No doubt this is by design so that the one pictures the other. Attempts to distinguish the two such as by the words “local” and “universal” or “the assembly” as compared to “the church” may be helpful but do have their limitations.
Organism or Organization?
Two extreme views about this have been represented. On one hand, some make the local church out to be simply a small percentage of the whole, but with essentially no differences. These groups are usually small, focused on purity, and have a disdain for anything organizational, beyond the bare minimum such as a place to hold meetings. On the other hand are those who have neat compartments; the universal church is a living organism with a Head, body, members, a Spirit, a living Word etc., and the local church is simply an organization having a president with his cabinet who make decisions, handle funds, create programs and sub-organizations to serve the people much like any business in the world.
The problem with both these views is that neither one harmonizes with the picture presented in the New Testament. A more balanced view is required. It is true that the universal church is best described as a living organism, since all of its parts are non-material and eternal. But the local church is much more than an organization. It claims Christ as its Head, is a dwelling place for the Lord, and is to be led in its worship and ministry by the living Spirit of God. Even if only two or three gather in the Lord’s Name, His presence is there “in the midst” as promised. The people of the church carry on the work of ministry through the exercise of “spiritual gifts.”
One thorny problem faces even the most balanced of views. While there are no unsaved people in the church universal, the same cannot be said of the church local. How should their presence be understood? Are they part of the visible church (since in many churches they can even become “members”)? This matter of how to view such a “church group” comes to the heart of the problem, and observing how any given church relates to these people, will reveal much about their views of our subject, i.e., the nature of the church. Of course, people’s views on a subject is not the basis for doctrine, but does help us understand why a Biblically based foundation is important.
Thoughts on “The Kingdom of Heaven”
In order to better understand this, we must digress briefly and think about that interesting subject described by our Lord as “the kingdom of heaven.” This is not the place for an extended study of this subject, which centers around the parables given in Matthew 13, but a few summary observations are necessary.
– According to the Lord’s teaching, there is a “mystery” surrounding the whole idea, and the parables are intended to shed light on the mystery.
– The Old Testament prophets had much to say of a king reigning in righteous on the throne of David, having restored the nation of Israel to prominence on earth. But they had little if anything to say of a king who was absent and yet nevertheless was reigning. How could the Lord’s followers possibly hope to function as subjects of their king if they had only the Old Testament to work from? To prepare them for the age about to dawn, i.e., that time in which the king had gone to a far country “to receive for himself a kingdom, and to return.” (Luke 19:12), the Lord undoubtedly spoke these parables.
– Clearly, the kingdom of heaven could not be another term for the church. The Lord showed no reluctance to refer to that future entity called the church when needed. Rather, the focus for most of the parables is “the world” as pictured by the field (parable 1, 2, 5) or the sea (parable 6,7). Whether or not we prefer the term “Christendom” i.e., popular or professing Christianity, it is clear that the primary emphasis is on the coexistence of good and evil; righteous and unrighteousness persons in the world under a king in rejection by the world and yet reigning over His people.
– Had the church understood these parables, history might have been spared attempts to establish the church as a ruling kingdom by inquisitions, state churches etc.
– It becomes easy to see how these teaching on the kingdom of heaven had a significant impact on the church’s effort to understand its nature and its function, historically and today.
The Church and the Kingdom
Now, the foregoing brief observations about the kingdom of heaven can yield some helpful insights as we try to understand our subject. While the church is not the kingdom of heaven, it must necessarily be located within that kingdom, and so must be affected by it, and exert an enormous influence upon it, especially the question of believers and unbelievers existing together.
One conclusion is that although exisiting in the world, the church is profoundly different from the world, not only in its conduct but by its very nature. Individuals may go out from the gathered church to serve, (to sow, or to fish as in the parables), but they will return again to what is very unlike the world for the functions peculiar to the church. Small representations of the world will be present of course, in the people who are not believers but who attend, but they do not define either its nature or functions.
Options Regarding the Presence of Unbelievers in the Local Church
Actually, there are only three possible options to describe any local church. The first option is that the local church contains only Christians; never anyone else. This is not possible because Scripture does not support it, as the mention of unbelievers coming into what is obviously a church meeting (I Cor. 14:24) makes clear, and it is not so in practice anyway.
The second option sees the local church as a spiritual family (the “household of God”) where non-family members may come and go, just as in an earthly family, but never become part of the family by association but only by birth, and are never the focus of its activities or reason for its existence but only visitors with various motives, looking in on the functions of the family of faith.
To describe the third option, we might borrow as an analogy from the parables in Matthew 13, specifically the 7th parable, which pictures a dragnet cast into the sea which “gathered some of every kind.” (Matt. 13: 47). The church according to this view is all about winning the lost, but rather than going “into all the world,” they devise ingenious means of bringing the world into the church. Descriptions like “seeker-sensitive churches” are common. In Biblical terms, the local church is a mixed multitude.
More will be said about this subject when considering the 5th characteristic of a church which is designed and functioning after the New Testament pattern, but for now it should be evident that the second option is the best. This is not only because it agrees with the Biblical teaching about the church, but because when dealing with the nature of a thing, one is thinking about its core values or essence, not (as many suppose), just “doing what works.”
The result of wrong thinking on this subject is noteworthy. Many churches would hold to one view in theory, but a different view in actual practice. Practical sanctification i.e., growing in holiness is difficult when the church becomes a “mixed multitude” because if unbelievers are going to be “comfortable,” the things they like (music, entertainment etc.) must be imported into the church. In addition, the feeding of the flock is often neglected, or watered down because outsiders will not endure solid Bible teaching. More than one church has dwindled away by preaching at the lost while neglecting the equipping of the saints.
Conclusion – the Nature of the Local Church
In conclusion, it should be obvious as to what part the enemy has in all of this. The Lord Jesus said to go into the world; the enemy says: Bring the world into the church. In the days of the early church, when those two things that go together, power and purity were strong, we read: “And they were all with one accord in Solomon’s Porch. Yet none of the rest dared join them, but the people esteemed them highly.” (Acts 5:13,14). These are strong worlds. The world “did not dare” to mingle with the church!
So the first characteristic of a New Testament church is seen to be a place that is different from the world in nature and in function; where the focus of the ministry is on sanctifying and cleansing” the Bride of Christ (Eph. 5:26), not the winning of the lost; a place where the “equipping of the saints” (Eph. 4:12) to send them out into the world with good news is central; a place where people might come in from the world and witness the love of God and the power of God in a family setting as spectators, not the objects of its gatherings.
Once again we are faced with the challenge from I Cor. 14:37 Are these truths about the church being the bride of Christ which must be modeled in the marriage of believers, or are we dealing only with the private sentiments of the writer, Paul? If indeed we are thinking about “the commandments of the Lord” then we must give serious thought to whether the church is better described as a spotless bride or a sea of good and bad fish all mixed together.