Please note that this article is the first article derived from a five-part teaching series on the Nature of the Local Church given in Bermondsey Gospel Hall, the audio of which can be found here.
I’ve been fortunate to be able to spend time in different churches in a range of contexts. Growing up in a relatively rural village church in Northern Ireland, I am about to return to one located in central London from a six-month placement in Bratislava, having belonged to an English-speaking international church here. These longer experiences have been complimented by shorter ones as well, whether observing church planters in unreached people groups in the Philippines or visiting churches in places like Montenegro, Greece and Romania.
From such experiences I can provide first hand testimony to the fact that a remarkable amount of diversity exists in the global expression of the local church. Many of these differences are obvious, ranging from languages and locations to style and services. However, despite all such obvious differences, there is also remarkable unity in what is practiced by gatherings of Christians across the world. It seems that there is an irreducible minimum when it comes to living out the truths of the local church.
Same Principles = Significant Parallels
This degree of universal unity shouldn’t surprise us – the church of Christ is a universal and timeless reality, applicable and achievable in every time and place. Christ promised to build his church not only in the first century (Matthew 16:18), but into the 21st century and beyond. Similarly, Christ did not limit the geographical scope of this new grouping to Palestine, or even the Roman Empire. He sent his disciples out to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). His people will finally include members from every tribe, tongue, people and nation (Revelation 7:9).
Therefore, just like other universal and timeless doctrines, such as sin and salvation, there are principles that God has included in his Word regarding the local church that have not changed. There has been no development, improvement or enhancement to God’s plan for the church since the closing of the canon. The plan is the same today as it has always been. As a result, we must aim to be what the church has always been. To borrow and alter the words of the old hymn – how firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, is laid for your church in His excellent Word!
With the existence of universal and timeless principles, it should be entirely unsurprising that we find large similarities between faithful local churches around the world today. Additionally, such similarities can be seen to extend historically. If Christians are truly operating by the same principles as the church of the New Testament, whether the church in Jerusalem after Pentecost or Corinth after Paul, we should expect significant parallels.
Different Practicalities = Diverse Practices
However, while we should seek to build our churches today on the same principles as the early church, we must acknowledge that we face vastly different practicalities. The picture painted for us on the pages of the Bible cannot be reproduced in every precise detail. We are not called to live and minister in the twenty-first century as if we were in the first. Nor are we are not called to live and minister in a tropical rainforest as if we were in a refugee camp, or in a global city as if we were in a country village. We are called to minister in the twenty-first century and in the environment that God has placed us. For example, in London we do not deal with the legal relationship of slaves and masters (1 Peter 2:18), but employees and employers. We do not face problems about the distribution of food to Greek widows (Acts 6:1), but the perplexities of a welfare state. We generally do not face outright persecution (Acts 11:19), but reserved apathy. The principles we must pursue are the same, but the practicalities are different.
If we face different practicalities, we should expect to find diverse practices. For just as the practices of the local church will differ in remote rainforest villages, small country villages and global cities today, there will be a diversity between how we practice life as a local church today and the practices displayed in the New Testament. After all, if the lives of individuals look somewhat different today, we can expect the life of the local church to do so as well.
For example, we know that the early church often met together late on Sunday evenings (Acts 20:7). Should we therefore conclude that there was something important in this practice and that all Christians everywhere must do so on a Sunday evening? Should we elevate such a practice to the level of a timeless principle of the local church? Is it not better to explain this practice as a response to the practicalities faced by the early church? For example, by the fact that Sunday was a working day in the Roman Empire and a large proportion of a local church would not have been able to gather together until after work. With nothing in the Bible to suggest that we should lend specific importance to meeting on a Sunday evening, it is surely much wiser to accept that this was a practice adopted in response to a specific practicality.
Bringing such an example into the twenty-first century, what does this mean for Christians in societies that are (usually) off and have traditionally worshiped on a Sunday morning? Or for Christians in the Islamic world who have not? It is surely to be expected that we find a diverse range of practices in this regard given the differing practicalities.
Practices - Practicalities = Principles
In such an example, however, we must of course take care to not throw the baby out with the bath water, or rather in this case, the principle out with the practice. For while the practice of gathering together on a Sunday evening may have arisen in response to certain practicalities, there is perhaps a principle underlying the pattern of the early church gathering together on the first day of the week, the Lord’s day (1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10). Distinguishing between the principle and practice in this example is relatively easy. However, things can get much more difficult. The water baptism of believers by immersion (Acts 8:38-39), covering and uncovering of heads (1 Corinthians 11:2-16) and plurality of elders (Acts 14:23) are all early church practices which many dispute over today. The dispute in each of these issues is rarely over the actual practice of the early church itself, but rather the principle behind their practice and its resulting applicability to the church today.
Therefore, in order to determine how we are to order and organise the local church, we must make distinctions between the practices of the early church, the principles behind them and the practicalities that they were a response to. We are required to unpick the practicalities from the practices in order to arrive at the timeless principles that God has placed for us in his Word for his church. We can expect such important and foundational principles not only to be present in the practices of the early church, but have theological roots spreading throughout the whole of God’s revelation. We have far more substantial reasons for doctrines such as the purity of the church, the priesthood of all believers and believers Baptism than the record of what happened in the early church.
This is what I hope to do in this short series of articles in relation to the nature of the local church. Stepping through the lenses of the practices of the early church, the goal is to find the timeless principles upon which we have been instructed to order the local church, a list that we might call the constitution of the local church.
Constitution of the Local Church
The constitution of the United States of America came into force in 1789. It was a document drafted in order to enshrine fundamental principles for the order and organisation of the new nation. It is widely considered to be the oldest written and codified constitution in force today.
In unpicking practices and principles, I believe we arrive at the principles that constitute the local church. The irreducible minimum. The timeless, universal principles, binding in every age and in every place. Those aspects of the local church that cross both cultures and countries, lifespans and lifestyles. They are the constitution of the local church, a collection of principles that enshrine what the local church is and how it is to function across the world and throughout the ages.
As stated above, in order to formulate this constitution of the local church, it is necessary to determine those principles upon which the early church was built. Ultimately, we desire to build on no other foundation (1 Corinthians 3:11). The challenge will be to distinguish between timeless principles and transient practices in New Testament. We do not wish to teach "as doctrines the commandments of men" (Mark 7:7), or perhaps better in this case, the circumstances of men.
When selecting a passage within the New Testament from which we can start drafting such a constitution, there is one that stands out far above the rest. Indeed, there is one that provides the first and fullest vision of the local church.
Vision of the Local Church
On the day of Pentecost, we see Christ’s promise to build his church fulfilled through the coming of the Holy Spirit and the preaching of Peter, as about three thousand respond to his call to faith and repentance and enter the waters of baptism (Acts 2:41). With the adding of this number to the previous company of 120, Christ’s church stepped onto the stage of world history.
Having recorded the creation of the local church, the author of Acts wastes no time in providing the most comprehensive scriptural summary of it. In Acts 2:42-47, we are given a vision of the life of the local church in Jerusalem in the first century. Of course this picture is further explained and expanded on in the remaining chapters of Acts, and added to throughout the rest of the New Testament. However, the vision in Acts 2 is the fullest in the sense of capturing the most activities and aspects of local church life. While it is not a full picture, and we should be careful not to stretch the few details we have too far, it has provided the vision that many individuals and movements in history have sought to realise once again.
Not only is there significance in this vision being the fullest, but also in it being the first. It is surely significant that having just recorded the creation of the local church, the writer of Acts immediately presents the fullest picture of it. Indeed, it must be considered part of the Holy Spirit’s intention in placing and recording this picture here, at the start of the church age. It is the sight we have of what a local church should aspire to be. It is this vision that goes with us throughout the rest of the New Testament, being developed and deepened by the painting of other pictures. Therefore, in considering the constitution of the local church, we shall seek to use this first vision as a framework through which we can explore the full vision of the local church laid out on the pages of the rest of the New Testament.
In our consideration of the constitution of the local church in Acts 2 over the coming weeks, we shall identify and examine four different aspects of this framework:
1. The CREATION of the local church (Acts 2:41);
2. The COMMITMENT of the local church (Acts 2:42);
3. The COMMUNITY of the local church (Acts 2:44-47a); and
4. The CONSEQUENCES of the local church (Acts 2:43, 47b).
It is hoped that by exploring these four aspects, we will be able to see our local churches built on the timeless principles given to us by God in his Word for his church.