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The word church is translated from the Greek word ekklesia (ek, out of, and klesis, a calling). The English words used are: church, assembly and congregation. It is used in two senses when applied to followers of Christ.
First, it refers to the Universal Church—all the saved of all the world. Jesus said, “I will build My church” (Mt. 16:18), and those who are baptized into Christ (Rom. 6:3) are baptized into His body, which is the church (1 Cor. 12:13). When a person is baptized, the Lord adds him to the church (Acts 2:47).
Second, it refers to local churches –disciples who agree to work together. When people do not understand the difference between these two uses, confusion results. Some talk about “joining the church” as becoming a member of the universal church—which they cannot join. Others think that when they are baptized, the Lord adds them to a local church—which is not true. The Ethiopian was baptized by Philip, but there was no local church there (Acts 8:36-39).
There are two things essential for local church membership: the desire to belong and willingness to receive. After Saul of Tarsus was baptized into Christ at Damascus, and persecution arose against him, he left and went to Jerusalem where he “tried to join the disciples” (Acts 9:26). They had heard about his persecution of believers but not about his conversion, and were unwilling to accept him. Barnabas brought him to the apostles and explained his change of life; then “he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out” (Acts 9:28). Just because a person wants to be part of a local church does not mean it must receive him. If they want him to be a part of the congregation and he is unwilling, they cannot force him to be a member. When Apollos wanted to go to Achaia, “the brethren (at Ephesus) wrote, exhorting the disciples to receive him” (Acts 18:27). This is where some denominations get the idea of a “church letter.” The letter was simply a recommendation of Apollos, just as the mouth of Barnabas was a recommendation for Saul of Tarsus. A person is his membership, but there must be desire to belong, and a congregation must agree to receive in order to have local church membership.
Local church membership is also taught in the appointment of elders. When Paul and Barnabas was returning from the first missionary journey, “they appointed elders in every church” (Acts 14:23). Elders are to “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you...those entrusted to you” (1 Pet. 5:2,3). Those entrusted to the oversight of elders are those who have agreed to be part of “the flock” that has agreed to work together.
Local church membership is also taught in church discipline. Paul rebuked the church in Corinth for not withdrawing from that brother among you who was living with his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:1-4). The church in Thessalonica was told to “withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly, and not according to the tradition which he received from us” (2 Thess. 3:6). They certainly did not have the responsibility to withdraw from every believer in the world who was walking disorderly, but to “some who walk among you” (v. 11), those who were part of the local church.
Several years ago, a brother who had soured on elders, decided that there was no such group as a local church and no such work as elders in local churches. He did much damage in a number of areas, partly because of the tendency among people to “fight the system.” Some do not like to be overseen by elders, so they are willing to follow any teacher who will lead them against God’s appointed leaders. The movement grew by their mutual dislike of God’s pattern, because of their charismatic leader. They would have “assemblies” (churches) in hotels or other public buildings on occasions because they needed to be motivated to continue some kind of religious practice. After their leader became ill, the movement fell apart.
God ordained that believers join together and provided common oversight, a common treasury and common work to be accomplished. I believe He did that because He knew that we need one another. The disciples in Jerusalem were together—not only in worship, but in their lives (Acts 2:42-46). People who belong to Christ, should also belong to one another. That’s a local church!
Copyright Midway Church of Christ 2014 This page last modified July 03, 2014