My Three Churches: An Excursion in Biblical Ecclesiology

Posted by in Baptist Life, Church & Missions

I made a statement on my post here that I would like to “revise and extend.” It is not my use of the term ecumenical – I already admitted that I only used that term out of pure orneryness. I said that I believe that there is only one church in any town – advocating the “city-church” idea.  I want to change my tune,  just slightly, after further study.

We have been debating the question of the nature of the church quite actively at this site and others. Many bloggers focus almost entirely on the local church. Others give far more emphasis to the universal church. One “local church” adherent described the universal church as “imaginary.” Those with a higher view of the universal church tend to accuse the local church only folks of being separatist, divisive, exclusivist and elitist. The discussion has been intense.

The question is this: when the Bible uses the term “church” does it refer to the local church only, or to both the local and universal churches?

It amazes me how we deal with questions like this on blogs. We appeal to confessions, to great scholars and theologians of the past and often spend little time discussing the scriptures themselves. In the recent explosion of controversy after the John 3:16 Conference, I read more discussions of what Spurgeon said than what Scripture says. Maybe I am exaggerating a little, but I think we need to argue scripture. I hear discussions of baptism and the Lord’s supper that discuss historic Baptist practices and confessional statements, but seldom even reference a verse of scripture.

So, I did something simple. I just went to my Logos Software and found every reference in the Bible that mentions the church. I am not a scholar. I just used a simple observational technique. I would invite you to do the same.

I looked at every scripture I could find that mentioned the church and asked myself, what church is the author talking about – a local church, a universal church? In this article, I will share the results of my study. I present them as a discussion starter, not as a final word. I did a simple scriptural survey and here is what I found. Take it for what it is worth.

Thesis: I found that there are three common and distinct “churches” in view in scriptures. I will take them in order numerically – the first church is the most commonly mentioned, the second has fewer references, and the third church is the least frequently mentioned.

My Gathered Church

Far and away, most references to church seem to refer to the gathered saints – called from the world into fellowship, worship and service to the King. The “local church” is far and away the most common church mentioned in scripture.

I will take instruction from someone more knowledgeable in church history than I, but my understanding is that the saints gathered in homes around their city. The Jerusalem church was at 5000 people early on in Acts, and there is no way they all met together. All over Jerusalem, churches gathered in homes or wherever they could find to meet to worship the Crucified and Risen Lord. At least 4 times I can find, a specific reference is made to a church that meets in a particular home – the basic unit of “the church.” Romans 15:5 references the church that meets in Prisca and Aquila’s home. In Colossians, a church met in Nympha’s home (Col 4:16). Philemon 2 also mentions a house church as does 1 Corinthians 16:19.

A church seems to be a gathering of believers. In 1 Corinthians 11:18, Paul gives instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper. He says, “When you come together as a church.” He also gives instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14 on the role of women in worship and the use of tongues and prophecy. All of these seem focused on the church gathered for worship and edification.

As I said, it seems clear to me that the vast majority of references to the church referred to a gathering of God’s people. I found very little instruction on issues that we spend much time arguing. There is little on could find on the qualifications for membership or the administration of baptism or communion. Scripture discusses their meaning, but has precious little I could find about the means of observing them.

My Geographical Church

This is what I focused on in my last post. There are many references in scriptures to “the church” (singular) in a city. The church at Ephesus. The church of Corinth. The church of the Thessalonians. There seems to be a sense in which all of the individual churches that meet in a particular town are also seen in scripture as a single entity.

It is interesting that this is not true of regions. 1 Corinthians 16:1 (and Galatians 1:2) mentions the churches of Galatia. 2 Corinthians 8:1 speaks of the churches of Macedonia. 1 Thessalonians 2:14 speaks of “the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.” In a region, there are churches. In a city, there is one church. And yet, each home gathering of believers is also a church.

When I advocated this “city-church” concept in my last post, I got a lot of feedback (intense, good spirited and lively debate – the kind I love) about the practicability of such a concept. How does the city-church work? How can Baptists and Assemblies and Wesleyans and Presbyterians all see themselves as one church.

It is possible that we will never attain the biblical ideal on this, now that the church has diverged so much doctrinally and no longer has apostolic authority to guide it. But I do not think that the difficulty in achieving this kind of mindset should stop us from striving toward the ideal.

I have seen what I think is a model of this concept. In Cedar Rapids, I was pastor of one church, Northbrook Baptist Church. But we had very active and wonderful fellowship amongst the churches. We met for fellowship, we prayed for one another. In the most difficult time of my ministry there, the prayer of my fellow pastors carried me through. When we needed a home for a few months, an Assembly of God member opened their (mansion-like) home to us. Revival came to our church because Claude King was coming for a conference at a local Charismatic church and the pastor asked me if I’d like to have Claude speak. God came down that day.

I was part of a group of pastors. We fellowshipped at the “lowest common denominator” – our commitment to Christ and his gospel. We prayed together. We supported one another. What changed primarily was our hearts. We all pastured our individual churches but saw ourselves as part of something bigger.

It is kind of nebulous and hard to describe. I can only tell you that I was once involved in a city-church, and it was such a great blessing. I guess I should be active in forming such a thing here in Sioux City. I miss it so much.

My Greater Church

I only call it that because the bylaws of the SBC require alliteration. This is the universal church. There are several passages that seem to clearly refer to that “imaginary” universal church – all the redeem of all the world and even perhaps all the ages.

Paul told the Corinthians “We were all baptized in one Spirit into one body and given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13). In that same chapter, verse 28, Paul says that God appointed in “the church” (singular) apostles, prophets, teachers and so on. But, there were not apostles in each local gathering, were there? This seems to refer to the whole church, not any individual part of it.

I found two markers for the universal church. Every time I saw the phrase “the church of God” it seemed to be a reference to the universal church. (1 Corinthians 10:32, Galatians 1:13, 1 Corinthians 15:9) It also seemed that when “the body of Christ” was described, it always (or almost always) seemed to be a universal reference. Ephesians 1:22-23 talks about how God made Christ “head over all things to the church, which is his body.” Colossians 1:18 says that Christ is “the head of the body, which is the church.” In Colossians 1:24, Paul talks about his sufferings and how they relate to “Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Perhaps the clearest references to the universal church come in the controversial discussion of husband/wife relationships in Ephesians 5:23-33. It seems clear to me that the church there is universal more than it is local.

So, that’s what I found. I give these as “preliminary findings” not as established facts. If you have a different perspective or interpretation, I would love to hear it.

I have another submission soon, and I can always revise and extend my remarks again!