Part 1: The Importance of the Local Church
by Pastor Paul M. Sadler
It seems as though everyone these days is looking for the perfect church. Some years ago Our Daily Bread published the following account: A man reportedly came to the British pastor, Charles H. Spurgeon, looking for the perfect church. The famous preacher told him he had many saintly people in his congregation, but a “Judas” could also be among them. After all, even Jesus had a traitor in the company of His apostles. He went on to say that some might be walking disobediently, as had been the case among the believers at Rome, Corinth, and Galatia.
“My church is not the one you’re looking for,” said Spurgeon. “But if you should happen to find such a church, I beg you not to join it, for you would spoil the whole thing.”
The local church will never be perfect on this side of glory, simply because disobedience and carnality are always in attendance with grace and love. If you have ever attended a congregational meeting where opposing sides were having a heated discussion over a thorny issue, you probably tried to leave early to avoid being tarred and feathered. Attending these types of congregational meetings is not for the faint of heart. It reminds us of the old saying, “To dwell above with saints we love, oh that will sure be glory. But to dwell below with saints we know, well, that’s another story!” Interestingly, this statement touches the very heart of the matter. In fact, it’s why the local church is so essential to the plans and purposes of God, as we will see.
“And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22,23).
“Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (I Cor. 1:2).
The word “church” or “assembly” (Gr. ecclesia) is a very general term that is defined as a group of “called out ones.” It can refer to an unruly mob of unbelievers such as we have at Ephesus in Acts 19:38-41, or a group of believers in Christ (I Thes. 1:1). The context will always govern which “church” is being spoken of, whether it is the called out Israelites in the wilderness (Acts 7:38) or the kingdom church (Matt. 16:18). For this particular study we will be limiting ourselves to the called out ones of this present dispensation: the Church, the Body of Christ (Col. 1:18).
The Church, the Body of Christ is a new creation that is made up of Jews and Gentiles who have placed their faith in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. It matters not what race you are, or your denominational affiliation, or what your social status may be, if you have trusted Christ as your personal Savior then you are a member of the mystical Body of Christ. This is the true Church! For the sake of clarity, while every member of the true Church which is His Body is saved, this is not necessarily the case with every member of a local church. Salvation is the result of having a relationship with Christ, it is not the product of having your name on the membership role of a local assembly.
“Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers….As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3).
Very early in the present dispensation, Antioch in Syria became the headquarters for the Gentile church. What Jerusalem was to the kingdom saints, Antioch was to the Body of Christ. It was from this local assembly at Antioch that the Holy Spirit sent forth the Apostle Paul on his three missionary journeys. Of course, it was the Lord of glory who called and commissioned the apostle years earlier (Acts 26:16 cf. Gal. 1:1), but it was the Holy Spirit who instructed the saints at Antioch to send Paul forth on his three missionary journeys, which were actually apostolic in nature. Paul was the first to introduce the gospel of the grace of God to the known world of His day.
The apostolic ministry of Paul was threefold: 1 He evangelized the lost to Christ, 2 he committed the revelation of the Mystery to those he evangelized, and 3 he conducted an ongoing church planting ministry. At the end of his first apostolic journey, Paul and Barnabas returned to the cities of Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch in Pisidia where they had preached the gospel. It is important to note why they retraced their footsteps. According to the record, it was to ordain elders in the churches they had previously established in those cities. Once this was accomplished they prayed with these dear saints and “commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed” (Acts 14:21-23). The church planting ministry to which Paul was called by the Spirit is a clear indication to us that the local church is ordained of God. It is the vehicle through which God is making known the riches of His grace. Everything that is done in the Lord’s work should be either directly or indirectly tied to the local church. For example:
The Berean Bible Society is a para-church organization, but our ministry has always been geared toward the local assembly. We have often said when we hold our meetings around the country that it is not our purpose to compete with the local church; rather it is our desire to compliment it by reinforcing what our Grace Pastors are already teaching. This is achieved through our literature and tapes which help believers become more spiritually minded so that they might be more productive members of their local assembly. Another example is our new Sunday School curriculum for our young people. This project has had the local church in mind since its inception. So then, the outreach of BBS is twofold—we minister to the Body of Christ in general, and the local church in particular.
The local church is a group of believers in Christ, whether small or large in number that meets at a specific location under the ministry of the elders who provide spiritual guidance in the things of the Lord. The denominational superstructure we see all around us today, with its hierarchy and tradition, is merely a monument to man’s ambitious ways. While these things may appeal to the flesh, they were not a part of God’s original plan for the Body of Christ. According to the Scriptures, when the Apostle Paul planted churches at Thessalonica, Corinth, Ephesus, and Philippi all of these assemblies were independent and self-governing (Phil. 1:1). And this was for good reason: if one of these assemblies were to depart from the faith it was less likely to affect the other assemblies, since they were not subject to a hierarchy.
Although the churches at Corinth and Ephesus were larger works, most of the assemblies Paul ministered to were small. In his epistles we frequently read about the church in someone’s house. A good example is Nymphas: “Salute the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house” (Col. 4:15). Whether the work was small or large, it is interesting to note that every assembly Paul had established or ministered to was a Grace Church at that time. They all had received the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the Mystery and initially each one stood for the truth of Paul’s gospel (Rom. 16:25).
THE PURPOSE OF THE LOCAL CHURCH
I have had the privilege, by the grace of God, to pastor three Grace Churches. The experience was invaluable and as I look back, while I didn’t realize it at the time, the Lord was preparing me for the position I presently hold at the Berean Bible Society. During those years of my pulpit ministry I learned the importance of patterning my ministry after the Apostle Paul. Essentially I sought to emulate what the apostle did when he planted a local church. In fact, did he not instruct us along these lines to do this very thing?
“Those things, which ye have both learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, do: and the God of peace shall be with you” (Phil. 4:9).
What have we “learned” from Paul? If we carefully study his three apostolic journeys we find that Paul’s proclamation of the Word of God was the basis for both the establishment and growth of the local church. Everywhere the apostle went he opened the Scriptures to the people and they responded with grateful hearts. We’ll allow the biblical record to speak for itself:
1st Apostolic Journey, Antioch in Pisidia: “And the next sabbath day came almost the whole city together to hear the Word of God” (Acts 13:44). Iconium: “Long time therefore abode they speaking boldly in the Lord, which gave testimony unto the Word of His grace” (Acts 14:3). Lystra and Derbe: “And there they preached the gospel” (Acts 14:7).
2nd Apostolic Journey, Thessalonica: “And Paul, as his manner was, went in unto them, and three sabbath days reasoned with them out of the Scriptures, Opening and alleging, that Christ must needs have suffered, and risen again from the dead; and that this Jesus, whom I preach unto you, is Christ” (Acts 17:2,3). Corinth: “And he [Paul] continued there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them” (Acts 18:11).
3rd Apostolic Journey, Ephesus: “And this continued by the space of two years; so that all they which dwelt in Asia heard the Word of the Lord Jesus, both Jews and Greeks” (Acts 19:10). Troas: “And upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them, ready to depart on the morrow; and continued his speech until midnight” (Acts 20:7).
Today, the sound preaching of the Word has been replaced in most local assemblies with alternative worship services and marketing schemes to build a popular church that everyone wants to attend. There is rarely a month that goes by that I don’t receive a colorful brochure come across my desk on Church Growth Programs. Sadly, the church growth movement has relegated the Word of God to a secondary role in favor of song services, skits, films and testimonials. This concept is merely an attempt to draw larger audiences with the idea that “bigger is better.” If they provide more social functions and innovative programs they’ll be better equipped to meet the needs of the community. It’s a lofty goal, but a flawed concept.
The problem here is this: when the church across town announces they’re building a new gym or they plan to have a contemporary worship service with gifted musicians, probably before long many of your people will be going to this new venue. It wouldn’t be the first time a local assembly was left with a small handful of people and a large mortgage. Unfortunately, all of this is at the expense of the Word of God, which is the very thing that will minister to the needs of the people.
The temptation is very real for local churches to go along with the trends of the day, but is it our desire to please men or God? Many church boards are fearful that if Paul’s apostleship and message are proclaimed in their fullness it may upset someone and drive them away! I remember several years ago I was on the platform with a young Grace Pastor who spent the first ten minutes of his message apologizing for Paul’s apostleship. He felt we made too much of Paul and we needed to tone it down in the Grace Movement or we were going to offend people. I’m sure most of his comments were for my benefit, but he was speaking to the wrong person. I came out of the confusion of denominationalism years ago and I have no intention of returning, as this young man was suggesting. I thank God without ceasing that I’ve been set free from the bondage of tradition and I’m going to tell anyone who’s willing to listen that they, too, can be delivered if they acknowledge Paul’s gospel.
Beloved ones, Paul is God’s spokesman for the Church today, thus, to speak disparagingly of God’s apostle is to reject the counsel of God itself. Paul’s epistles reveal the mind and will of God for the Body of Christ during this dispensation. Shall we apologize for the Word of God that has been delivered to us by our apostle? I think not!! While we should speak the truth in love, the truth is offensive (Gal. 5:11 cf. Eph. 4:15). I recall the first time someone told me I was a hell-deserving sinner—I was offended by that statement! But I thank God that I was offended, because through the process I got saved. We must be very careful not to remove the “offense of the Cross” by sugar coating our words with flowery platitudes, which can condemn men to perdition.
One of the purposes of the local church is to provide an atmosphere where the Word of God can be received with thanksgiving. The preaching of the Word must be the centerpiece of our worship of Almighty God. True worship begins with God being glorified in the teaching of His Word. It is then enhanced by the singing of hymns, spiritual songs, prayer and testimonials. For the most part, this order has been reversed in our churches today, which has left the Lord’s people floundering spiritually in their Christian lives.
When we speak here of preaching the Word, we are not referring to a 12-minute devotional message on Sunday morning, which has little profit. Rather, whenever we gather around the Word to worship the preferable way to open the Scriptures is to do a verse-by-verse exposition of a particular book, such as the Book of Romans. We believe this is the most profitable and effective way to teach the Scriptures. Remember, Paul reasoned with his hearers, he alleged, he taught them the Word of life. Whatever format you use, “preach the Word” and the Lord’s people will respond as those at Thessalonica did to Paul’s preaching.
“For this cause also thank we God without ceasing, because, when ye received the Word of God which ye heard of us, ye received it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the Word of God, which effectually worketh also in you that believe” (I Thes. 2:13).
Because the saints at Thessalonica eagerly received the Word of His grace, the Word began to work within them and it changed their lives. The ways of the world that once were so important to them were gradually being replaced with a desire to walk worthy of their calling. They were growing in grace and becoming more and more spiritually minded.
Little wonder the apostle says: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:25). If you aren’t attending a local assembly regularly we would like to encourage you to do so for the following reasons. First, it gives you an opportunity to worship God with others of like-precious faith. Second, the Word of God will build you up in the faith, thus enabling you to become more effective in the Lord’s work. This will also help to strengthen your relationship with Christ. Third, the gifts and talents the Lord has given you can be used to His honor and glory. Fourth, the world can be a discouraging place at times; therefore, the fellowship and interaction with other believers will be a great encouragement to you.
The local church that is built upon the Word of God is a stable church, where the Lord’s people know they will hear sound biblical teaching that will challenge them in the faith. This type of church home produces a family atmosphere and families stick together. Seeing that the majority of the assembly has been grounded in the Word when the storms of adversity come, and they will come, the members of the assembly are equipped to weather the storm to the glory of God.