Written by: Liam Doyle
The word translated “church” in English Bibles comes from the Greek word ekklesia (or ecclesia), which meant ‘an assembly of citizens regularly summoned” (cf. Oxford’s An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon, 2001). It was the word used to translate the assembled congregation of Israel in the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures, the Septuagint.
In all likelihood, Jesus taught in Aramaic while on earth, though there is good reason to believe He could speak Greek (as the lingua franca, the common language, of the day) and was fluent in Hebrew. When He spoke about building His church, it would have been in terms that His audience could and would understand. The very idea of the assembled congregation in the Old Testament carried with it the connotations of belonging, and having kinship with those around you. More than familial national ties bonded them; they were connected by covenant in their devotion to the one true God, the God of Israel, Creator of the heavens and the earth, and all that is within them. They were in covenant with God and each other because God had chosen them.
Many of the descriptions of church in the New Testament echo the ideas that were intrinsic to the people of God before Jesus came to earth. The church is to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9, cf. Exodus 19:5-6). It is the Bride of Christ (Ephesians 5:22-33; Revelation 21:2,9-10, cf. Hosea 1-3). It is a family of God’s children (1 John 3:1-5, cf. Hosea 11:1). The church fights like an army, and we should consider ourselves soldiers for Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, 2 Timothy 2:3-4; cf. Numbers 1:45); the church is made up of living stones that are the building of God, with Jesus as the chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:9-10, cf. Psalms 118:2, and echoes in God’s promise to David in 2 Samuel 7).
These are not all the images that the Word of God uses to describe God’s people in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament, but they all speak of being part of a community. Isolation forms no part of these pictures that we have of what God’s people look like when they are functioning as they should. Think about the New Testament image of the church as Christ’s body (1 Corinthians 12:27). When a limb or even a finger is missing, the body is diminished.
These images are certainly true of the universal church, of all true believers wherever they might be on this earth at this time and throughout history.
But how are these universal truths, which apply to all Christians everywhere, regardless of denomination or labels, expressed? How are they practically worked out? Through the local church congregations seen throughout the world. We do not cease to be the church when we are at home or work, but one thing that followers of Jesus do is to gather in teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42).
It should be considered almost inane to declare that I was expressing the love of Jesus and modelling what it is to be a family in and for God, if I had no desire to be part of a local body of believers. If I never gathered with other believers to praise Him in corporate worship, if I never felt any desire to study with other Christians and spend time in communal prayer, it is very likely that I have missed one of God’s very clear desires for me in my walk with Him. Jesus wants to see us loving other believers as He loves us (John 13:34).
A brief overview of how the New Testament shows us that Jesus wants us in a local church body
This article is not a comprehensive study of all the themes of community expressed in local church attendance that we find in the New Testament, but what follows seeks to quickly show that the idea of Christians being plugged into local churches runs throughout the New Testament. Being a part of a local congregation is the assumption that undergirds the life that Jesus expects to see His followers walking out. It is not a side issue that is buried under more explicit topics.
When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He assumed they would be praying together. The Lord’s Prayer starts off with “Our Father”, not “my Father” (Matthew 6:9) and assumes a plurality of those praying (Matthew 6:9, Luke 11:2-4). In the same teaching, Jesus also wanted His disciples to pray individually in their closets, but He explicitly expected to see them praying together, as a lifestyle expressed in community.
In Matthew 18:15-19, Jesus says that if another Christian brother or sister sins against you, you should try and resolve it between yourselves. If that doesn’t happen, you should take another Christian or two along to see what is happening first hand. If this still doesn’t lead to a resolution, the church must be told. If even telling the church does not convince the brother or sister to repent, the elders of the church must be called upon to pass judgment on the unrepentant Christian, even putting them out of fellowship if they remain obstinate, despite being in the wrong. This probably seems harsh in our culture, where no one is ever called out on their sin, but Jesus was very clear that this was the procedure to follow when Christians sin against each other.
Notice that Jesus presumes a few things in these brief instructions. He assumes that you will be in a local church, where you have other Christians in your life; Christians who are close enough to hurt you. Now He in no way desires to see this kind of conflict arising, but knowing families and people, He addressed what can naturally develop whenever people walk closely together. He assumes that you will have other Christian brothers and sisters to take along with you while trying to resolve the issue. And He assumes that you will have leaders that will make final pronouncements on the situation when all else has failed.
It would even suffice at this point to ask that if you claim to take the words of Jesus seriously, you should have all of these factors in place in your life. Do you?
Jesus also went into more depth about the love that Christians should have for one another as recorded in John 14-16. He said that the way we should love each other is the way He loved us – deepening and expanding the second greatest commandment. I don’t just love other Christians as I love myself, but I love them as Jesus has loved me. Surely this is impossible unless He supernaturally enables me to do so.
And it would be ridiculous to say that Jesus only wants us to love each other this way on Sundays. We should be loving other Christians seven days a week; it is assumed to be a lifestyle. But surely it includes Sundays, and builds on the assumptions that He expressed in Matthew 18.
In Acts chapters 1 and 2, we find the Christian community gathered together when Jesus ascends, and again they are all together on the day of Pentecost. 3000 new believers are added to their number after Peter preaches the church’s first sermon. They do not come to faith and then exclude themselves from the lives of other believers.
This Christian community then is committed to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer (Acts 2:42). A Christian’s life should be characterised by this verse. There should be regular fellowship with other Christians – again, not only on a Sunday, but also certainly on a Sunday. You should be learning God’s word, praying, fellowshipping and eating with your Christian brothers and sisters.
In the New Testament, elders, overseers and bishops are arguably synonymous. Bodies of believers were not considered Churches until elders were appointed within them (cf. Acts 14:2). This clearly shows us that there should be leaders in a believer’s life. If there are no leaders in our lives as Christians, we are at least missing out on what Jesus desires to see in our lives, if not outright sinning against Him by not obeying His instructions to have them in our life.
The entire book of Acts is about planting various local churches. Wherever believers went, local churches were started, many very small, but all committed to the biblical pattern of local church. The way that the Great Commission (cf. Matthew 28, Acts 1:8) is realised is through local churches.
The Letters and Revelation
All the letters of the New Testament are written to churches of believers, leaders of churches (Timothy and Titus), or someone hosting a local church in their house (Philemon). The second and third chapter of Revelation specifically name seven literal, historic, local churches, and address the specific issues that face each of them.
Hebrews explicitly says that we must not give up gathering together (Hebrews 10:25). It says that we should obey our church leaders (Hebrews 13:7). As we have seen these are not ideas that are unique or particular to this letter. They are themes that run throughout the New Testament.
Loving Jesus is worked out in the context of local churches
There is simply nowhere to turn to in the New Testament to mount a case that it is ok for a Christian to refuse to be part of a local church body. These local churches should be teaching about Jesus, nurturing the Christians that belong to the congregation, and reaching out the lost.
Very few of us have avoided being hurt by fellow Christians. Many of us have been hurt by leaders. However, none of that means that we should now remove ourselves from fellowship with other believers, or should refuse to have Godly leaders in our lives.
While not the focus of this short article, it must be said that attending a church does not save you. Belief in Jesus as the one Who God sent is the only way to be saved (John 6:29; Romans 10:9). But if you have been saved, there will be a desire to be part of a local congregation. We are commanded to have leaders in our lives. As we have seen, refusing to be involved in a local body with Godly leadership is tantamount to disobeying Jesus.
As I write this, the New Year is rapidly approaching us. We shouldn’t wait for any particular date to begin obeying Jesus – today is the best day to begin to follow Him and his commands. Find a church that loves Jesus and preaches the Gospel. Find a church that holds the Bible up as God’s authoritative Word. Find a church that loves the congregation and wants to see you growing in Christ. Find a church that isn’t all about money, but will teach about money in a biblical, Godly way. Find a church that reaches out to the community. Find a church that will be your spiritual family.
Pray for God to plug you into such a community.
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Liam Doyle is a high school teacher with a BA majoring in Ancient History and Classical Culture from UNISA. He has been involved in teaching ministry at his church for almost 20 years (kids, adult classes, small groups, young adults). Contact him on +27 82 569 8204 or email@example.com. See his blog at biblicaltimeline01.wordpress.com
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