Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Local Confusion

On Barry Creamer’s show the other day there was a caller who made an unexpected comment. The topic of the day had to do with why young people aren’t staying active in church once they move away from home and part of the discussion centered around church authority and the local church. What made the caller’s statement interesting was the concept she had of the “local church.” As she described it, she had made the decision not to attend a local church. When Dr. Creamer questioned her, it became clear that what she was actually saying is that she didn’t attend a church near her, but instead traveled some distance to go to church. It was clear that she was not pleased with Dr. Creamer saying that she should be part of a “local church.”

So often we use terms and assume that other people are using them the same way, but if other people don’t know what we mean when we use these words we may be communicating something different than what we’re saying. The fact is that the caller was correct in her understanding of what the term “local church” might mean, but her understanding was far from what the term means in church jargon. It occurs to me that the caller might not be unique in her understanding. If so, those of us who have spent such much time talking and writing about the local church may have done so in vain.

To be clear in our meaning, let’s look at what we mean by the “local church.” I mentioned one possible meaning in that some people may think we mean that it is in the same town as us. It is local instead of distant. Another possible understanding and perhaps a more common misunderstanding is that a local church is a subset of the larger organization. You might think of it like a local McDonalds. We know that there is a large corporation that is called McDonalds, but when we talk about eating at McDonalds we actually mean that we went to a local McDonalds. If we go to another McDonalds, we might refer to it the same way. And then we might talk about what McDonalds is doing to their menu. We use the same term to refer to the local as we do to the corporate. And it hardly matters because the money all flows toward McDonalds Corporation anyway.

But let’s look at the concept of a “local church” in the way that I believe the Bible refers to local churches. The word “church” occurs 80 times in the King James Version. The vast majority of those references are very clear references to a local church. By that I mean that the term refers directly to an assembly of believers who gather regularly for worship and service to God. There are some references that are either not referring to such a body of believers or it is unclear if they are or not, but the vast majority of the usage in the Bible is to “a local, visible body of baptized believers.” I see no reason to go into the unclear references today, but I want to point out the 70 plus local church references because I want to make it clear that the concept of a “local church” is important to God.

I think Acts 15 is particularly interesting for our discussion here because it very clearly refers to more than one church and the actions of both churches. There was a question of doctrine in the church at Antioch, so that church sent Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem concerning the matter. In verse 3 we see that “the church” brought them on their way, referring to the church at Antioch. Then in verse 4 we see them received of “the church”, referring to the church in Jerusalem. That may not seem significant, but look at verse 22 where it please “the whole church” to send people to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. “The whole church” in this verse isn’t referring to all believers everywhere, but it refers only to the church at Jerusalem.

It’s important to understand that when the Bible is talking about a church it is talking about a local church. The promises in the Bible concerning the church are made to those individual local bodies of believers who gather each Sunday and sit together in a room to hear a sermon. They’re made to that local body of people who shake hands, slap each other on the back and offer a shoulder to cry on. Some people have the idea that just because they are saved they are a member of “the church” and so it doesn’t matter if they actually attend services or not. They assume that salvation has given them the right to the promises God made to “the church.” They may know that there is benefit in local church participation, but they don’t see it as important. They find it easy to skip church or they may go to one church this Sunday and another the next. It works with McDonalds, doesn’t it? But when God talks about the church, our responsibility to the church and the church’s responsibility to us, he is talking about a local church made up of fellow believers that we know personally.