So this is something that I’ve been fascinated with during my time here at Biola (and I hear it other places as well, but mostly here because, well, I spend most of my time here) and that is the apparent obsession with the “local church” that Protestant Evangelicals have. Ecclesiology is always talked about in this context, prayers of gratitude are offered for the “gift of the local church,” and students are encouraged to attend and get involved with, guess who, a local church.
But first, what do Protestant Evangelicals mean by “the local church?” I feel that a fair exemplar would be John Piper. He says, “a local church is a group of baptized believers who meet regularly (physically) to worship God through Jesus Christ, to be exhorted from the Word of God, and to celebrate the Lord’s Supper under the guidance of duly appointed leaders.”
Now I do want to be clear about one thing before I get into the meat of this post. I am in no way critiquing the existence of local churches nor the devaluing the grace and fellowship that they able to communicate to believers. A small Baptist church of 40, a non-denominational church of 500, and a Catholic parish of 200 all fall into this category of a local church, and all communicate love and koinonia to a specific group of believers in a community.
My critique here is the fetish with the local church that is constantly displayed by Protestant Evangelicals. Being grateful for the local church is no sin, but just like if we exclusively eat meat (which is a staple food group), we will suffer from the absence of the other staples that exist to keep us healthy (both spiritually and physically).
The Local Church is a Great Thing
I first want to point out the amazing and unique blessing the local church is. The local church offers fellowship to a local group of believers, a fellowship that transcends (hopefully) age, class, gender, and ethnicity. Of course, this an ideal and not done perfectly in every local church, but witnessing this diversity in my current parish has been very refreshing. The local church offers actual people to rejoice when we are rejoicing, to mourn we are mourning, to admonish us when we stray from the Way, and to build each other up. These are our teammates on this marathon of life, and what a blessing it is to run with brothers and sisters who share our most core identity: adopted children of God. This kind of community is something rarely found outside of a religious lifestyle.
This local church community is so healthy for our spiritual life, but it is not sufficient, just like meat is not the only staple food group. Our life with our local church must also be balanced with a life in communion with the universal church. If we lose sight of the “catholicity” of the Church (catholic as an improper word means “universal”) then we face a variety of dangers that I will spell out later.
A common defense of exclusively focusing on the local church is that the Church has always been manifest in this way alone; that the churches that met in homes in the first century were completely independent of each other and were able to exercise authority over all things in their local church. If this view sounds like it would never be held by anyone, you can pick up a book I had to read for a New Testament Community and Leadership class this semester: Paul’s Idea of Community by Robert J. Banks.
Issues with the Obsession
There are multiple issues that arise if we identify the house churches of the New Testament as the biblical norm or if we claim that they are analogous to modern, independent, “house churches.”
Before we dive into what the Scriptures have to say, let’s take a look at the larger historical context here. I am not debating that the early church met in congregants’ homes, but I think there is a relevant question here that doesn’t get addressed by proponents of this home-church-since-antiquity theory. Why did the church meet in homes? Was it because this was part of Christian orthopraxy? Or were they forced to do so because of a government that persecuted them? Think the Japanese house churches in the movie Silence.
I think that taking the mere fact of churches meeting in homes and concluding “this is how it should be” without taking into account the context of the persecution of Christians is like concluding that a goalkeeper can’t use his hands on the soccer field because of one occasion at the beginning of the game where he came out of the box to kick the ball.
But this conclusion also runs into biblical issues. First of all, if all the churches that met in homes were entirely independent of each other and were completely void of a notion of a universal church, then how could the church leaders, including Peter and Paul, exercise authority of all these churches in Acts 15? If you’re unfamiliar with Acts 15, this is when the leaders of the church convene to discuss the ethnic diversity of the New Covenant. If these churches are their own separate pods, then a gathering of leaders would hold no authority over them.
Furthermore, we can look to the manner in which Paul exercises his authority through his epistles. First of all, I am not claiming that the cluster of churches that Paul founded are their own group under Paul. This claim would fly in the face of multiple passages, not the least of which is the whole book of Romans. The church in Rome was there before Paul had arrived, but he had heard of them and their faith. So two things here, A) how dare Paul write an authoritative letter to a church he had never locally been a part of?! B) how on earth did he hear about this church if it was its own little, isolated community?!
Beyond Romans though, Paul makes sure to emphasize in 1 Cor. 1-4 that he did not come to boast in his own merits so that they would follow him, but that they should follow Christ. This reminder comes from Paul because the Corinthians had started dividing into those who followed Paul and those who followed Apollo. We can start to see how Paul would be against this isolated communities; first by his condemnation of factions, second by his authority over both groups even when he is not locally present.
Moving on to Ephesians, Paul launches into a giant passage from 1:15-4:16 on the unity of the Body of Christ based on the unifying agent of Christ himself. 2:14 “For he [Christ] is our peace, who has made us [Jews and Gentiles] both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility.” I will only use this verse, although this passage is rich with others that are just as applicable (especially 4:1-6), to point out that Paul is dealing very large groups of people here; Jews and Gentiles, entire ethnic groups that were not geographically limited. If the unity of the body that Paul is waxing on about here is only to be limited to a local body of believers, then why is he dealing with such large concepts (ethnicity, culture, baptism, the Spirit)? Surely these concepts transcend the Ephesian church.
I feel like I’ve said enough about Paul, but I’ll just add this one thing about epistles in general. If these New Testament communities were meant to be isolated from each other, then why were the epistles of Paul and others that were written to these specific communities circulated between the churches? Without these circulated letters, we would have no Bible, and the Bible is a crucial thing to Christianity, and more uniquely so to Protestants arguing this house-church theory since they claim it to be the only infallible rule of faith.
Moving on from the epistles, we can also see the universal church in the book of Revelation. John writes to multiple churches at the same time here. These seven are Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea. Structurally we can see that John is not just pastoring a single local community but seven different churches spread of modern western Turkey. Not only that, but he also writes to Ephesus, who already have their own letter from Paul. This is why I said above that I’m not claiming the churches Paul founded are specifically under him. Because if they were, why does John just think he can butt in?
Finally which of these churches was Jesus referring to in Matthew 16:18? Table all questions about what the rock is, what is this church he is going to build? Is it one local church in Jerusalem, or maybe Salem, Massachusetts, or maybe Salem, Oregon? We run into problems quickly if we limit our sense of “church” to the local church, not least of which is Jesus’ proclamation that he will build a church and not churches.
Moving on from the potholes of this line of thought, I want to lay out some strengths of embracing a stronger consciousness of the universal church, and also describe their shadow sides.
If we understand the church as “one,” we don’t run into the problem that comes along with traveling or finding a church on vacation. Finding a church that fits our culture or the traditions and community we already experience in our hometowns is virtually impossible if we don’t take seriously the fact that Christian ecclesial communities share in a universal unity. One thing that I have heard about from fellow believers who hold this view, Protestant and Catholic, is the enjoyment of attending church in a different country. I had the awesome opportunity of attending mass in Italy last summer, and it was great to know that I could still worship while traveling.
The consistent gathering together of believers to worship is an essential practice in the Christian’s, and if we think we are kept from that because we are away from our own local church, then we need to reevaluate our commitment to this practice and our view of Christians in other churches. If we take this arrogant view that we can only practice corporate in our hometown, we imply something about the power of our adoption as children of God that I don’t think we mean to.
If we realize this stronger unity between local church, church discipline (argued by some to be another mark of the church) becomes a more realistic expectation. The church discipline practiced in the New Testament (think Corinth) is virtually impossible to imitate today because if a member is asked to leave a local church and ponder his sins, it is easy for this member to just hop down the street to the next church that affirms whatever errant lifestyle he has chosen.
Of course, when we state that the Church is “holy” in the Creed, it is both an affirmation and an aspiration. The Church is holy in its mission and its people are set apart to be the salt of the earth, but we are at the same time sinful, imperfect, and worldly. The Church is responsible to guide the continual renewal of the faithful and to admonish those who stray from this aspiration of holiness. However, how can we accomplish this as a church if our membership in the community of God means that we’ve found a local church that affirms our lifestyle?
In relation to the first point, we uphold the diversity of the church if we recognize our unity with churches from different cultures, ethnicities, languages, and practices. The shadow side here is that we close ourselves off from these and take a “my-way-or-the-highway” mentality about our own local church with its own non-essential cultures, ethnicities, language, and practices. My local church in La Mirada experiences a great internal catholicity. It is diverse ethnically, culturally, and we mainly do things in English, although sometimes we will sing a song in Filipino or Spanish.
It is not uncommon for churches to be accused of being exclusive in some sense because they don’t have a diverse congregation. I want to make two comments on this. A) I believe that believing in the legitimate diversity found in the universal church is a great remedy for this predicament in local churches. On the flip, I believe there is no small correlation between a church’s stance on this universality and the extent of its diversity. B) I do not believe that it is a necessary thing for every local church to have a noticeable internal diversity. Local churches should not have a quota. However, they should be self-aware of anything that might impede this diversity. If you’re a church in a multi-ethnic community, you should probably be reflecting that community. If you’re a church in a homogenous community, you probably shouldn’t be stressing about reflecting the same diversity of the church in the multi-ethnic community. All this to say, the gospel transcends all divisions and we should put behind us anything that might suggest otherwise.
If we recognize the universal church, which transcends time as well as space, then we can be more faithful in our stewardship of the truth about the gospel and the appropriate response to it. And on the flip side, if we totally isolate our local churches from other churches, both physically and temporally, we can lose sight of our roots. If our local church now is all that exists, why should we accept the words of some Palestinian authors written a couple millennia ago? Why should we accept the list of books that some Mediterraneans put together for us? Why should we accept the changes to that list that Luther made? Why can’t we make changes to that list now? A healthy dialogue between local churches helps us stay true to what has been passed down from the Apostles so many years ago.
In an age marked with narcissism, let us not become narcissists about our own local church, and look to the siblings we worship with across the world. I guarantee you that your own little church cannot be salt to the entire world on its own. It is our unity, and not our factions, as Church that can attest to the unity the Godhead desires with us.