Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Local Church - An Introduction (Part 1)

A brother in Christ asked if I could express my views concerning the local church and the responsibilities of the church member. There is actually much literature from the Evangelical scene concerning the responsibilities of the church member, and what constitutes a true church of Christ. Mark Dever, the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington D. C., had written two good books - “Nine Marks of a Healthy Church” and “The Deliberate Church”, which are extremely concise and useful for the young pastor building a local church to honor Christ. However, this good brother of mine is correct to point out that such books from a Reformed perspective are by far very few.

So, instead of reiterating the points already made in these excellent books, I would rather attempt to discuss the responsibilities of a church member based upon the salient functions of the local church. The phrase “local church” is not an uncommon baptistic theological term. While the terms “Church Universal and Invisible (WCF XXV:1)” and “Church Universal and Visible (WCF XXV:2)” are often used to discuss the Reformed view of ecclesiology, little emphasis is made by Reformed theologians with regard to the specific roles of the “local” church. From a Reformed perspective, the local church can rightly be defined as the “church visible, local, and militant.” The New Testament often uses the word “church” to designate a group of professing believers that is identified as a local assembly or congregation. For example, local churches can be found in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; 11:22), in Asia Minor (Acts 16:5), in Rome (Rom. 16:5), in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1), in Galatia (Gal. 1:2), in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 1:1), and in the home of Philemon (Philem. 2). All of these local churches are part of the Universal, Visible Church.

A local church in a specific geographical locality can be correctly understood as a microcosm of the universal, visible Church. While a true child of God can never be separated from the Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23, cf. Col. 1:18, Eph. 4:2-6) or the universal, invisible church triumphant, he can choose to segregate himself from an existential and experiential participation with the visible, local church militant. As such, the Christian can erroneously choose to neglect the obligations of church membership, submission to a plurality of elders, or godly fellowship with other believers.

Before we proceed further, the reader should be aware of the most elemental differences between the baptistic and the non-baptistic views of the local church. Mark Dever, expressing the baptistic view in contrast to the Presbyterian and the Episcopalian views, wrote, “The idea of the [local] church being a covenanted community of believers - and not just for everyone who lives in a particular locality - is an important contribution that Baptists particularly have made to our nation’s religious liberty. The church is not finally something that’s for you and every member of your family by physical, natural descent, or that is yours as a citizen of this nation. No, the New Testament teaches that the church is for believers, for those to whom God’s Holy Spirit has given the new birth and who join together in a covenanted community.” (Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 150.) The Westminster Confession, on the other hand, seems to contain a broader nuance when compared with the aforementioned description, “The visible church … … consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children …” It must, however, be emphasized that no matter which view one adheres to, the functions of the local church as a local community of professing believers remain the same.

The Minimum Number

Throughout the history of the Evangelical community in Singapore, there have always been pockets of Christians who are disenchanted with the New Evangelical church establishments in this little nation. I know of Christian brethren who had left their New Evangelical churches for a myriad of reasons, and had refused to commit themselves to any local church thereafter. According to them, it seems adequate to listen to downloaded sermons from the Internet, worship and study the bible in some “parachurch” fellowship groups, and evangelize every once in a while with a booklet or tract. Some of these brethren had defended their actions by stating that, “God is with us wherever there are two or three believers gathered together in His name to worship Him (Matt. 18:20).” They do not feel the necessity of joining any “man-made” religious institutions.

The first question I would like to address is this, “Is there a minimum number of people that is required to form a church?” I am not asking this question in conjunction with the local socio-legal context. There is, indeed, a minimum number required by the Singapore Registry of Societies in order for the church to be recognized by the state. And that minimum number is ten. What I am asking is this, “For God to recognize a church, what is the required, minimum number of professing believers?”

For those who are confused, do allow me to rephrase the question. If the local church is a gathering of a local community of professing believers, what then is the minimum number of members so that the church can still be called a “local church?” In other words, can a church consist of only two or three persons?

Instead of giving the reader a didactic, straightforward answer, I would guide you through a series of hypothetical scenarios.

Scenario One:

Let us take for example a church with a hundred members. It is called the Peace and Tranquility Historic Evangelical Trinitarian Independent Church (P.A.T.H.E.T.I.C.). Due to certain unforeseen circumstances e.g. emigration, natural disasters, deaths, and particularly, worldliness, the number of church members dwindle to ten. There are now 2 elders (including the pastor) and 8 church members. There are now no deacons, no musicians, no choir, and no laughing kids. Is this congregation of ten still considered to be a local church?

Scenario Two:

Within the same church (also known as P.A.T.H.E.T.I.C.), one of the two remaining elders apostatizes, and draws some of the members with him. There is now the faithful pastor, and three remaining members. Can this congregation of four be called a church? Should they dissolve their church, and join a bigger church?

Scenario Three:

There is a solitary, lonely Christian with very strong and peculiar doctrinal convictions. In fact, he will only join a church which agrees with him 100 percent of the time. He subsequently declares himself to be some kind of “elder.” This is because he considers himself to be a mature Christian due to his extensive theological knowledge. He worships God from his home; he listens to sermons downloaded from the internet (perhaps from or Grace To You); he celebrates the “Lord’s Supper” with his Christian friends from other churches. But he refuses to join any local church. Is this practice viable or defensible?

Scenario Four:

In another case, there is a Christian missionary who finds himself laboring in a remote island in a foreign land. His family was sent there by his church in Singapore. There is no Christian church in that area within 1000 km diameter. In fact, there is not even a cult in sight. The only breathing creatures beyond 100km are the squids, dolphins and an assortment of crustaceans. He decides to start a mission church in this island so as to evangelize the local tribesmen. He and his family of three listen to downloaded sermons and worship the Lord together. Can he start a local church as a lone pastor with his wife and two children?

Note: This post is the first in a series of posts on the local church.


ddd said...

I think I will anticipate reading your posts on this matter. However, I will be away for 10 days... sigh... =P

JEnson said...

Scenario One:

Yes, if the elders still discharge their duties, it is still a church.

Scenario Two:

2 years ago, I visited a church where there were only 4 of us. The elderly Pastor preached the Word, and it was a little mini-Heaven on earth. Yes, it is still a church.

Scenario Three:

Please tell that brother that he needs to learn humility. "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another..." Heb 10:25

Scenario Four:

Amazing, which church "arrowed" that poor family? Joke aside, that is part of a NT model - evangelise the locals and start a church.

What about Scenario Five:

Dwindling congregation in a certain locality. Rich Singaporeans come over and buy up building and congregation. Now it must function as a **-Church. Is that normal church practice?

mark said...

Hmmm… Looks like an interesting series. The ‘minimum number’ required to comprise a church does seem a strange place to start though.

My two cents (which is naturally open to correction):

I don’t think there would be any problems with scenarios one and two being called churches. Assuming the church was a true church before, (ie the sudden lost of numbers was not a revelation that there was never a body of God here) then I am not sure there is any reason it would be wrong for them to continue communing together as a church. There might be practical wisdom reasons for them to decide to call it a day and join with another faithful church, but I do not see why they would not cease to be considered a church.

Scenario Four: Although the number of people is similar to scenarios one and two, my instinctive reaction would be that they would not be considered a church. A family ‘stranded’ away from other Christians should continue to worship God together, but I am not sure they could or would be considered a separate ‘church’. I am sure they may be logical inconsistencies in my treatment of scenarios one and two versus four, but a father leading his family seems more akin to the patriarchs of Genesis than a New Testament church. I guess it seems to me to make more sense to postpone the ‘forming’ of a church until some of the locals are converted and join with them.

Scenario Three is, to me, really interesting. Firstly, I think it is necessary (since this is a hypothetical) to ask about the nature of his ‘very strong and peculiar doctrinal convictions’. If they are wrong, of if they are merely very strong preferences in things that are properly classified as Christian liberty, than it seems the proper answer is to tell this person to join himself to a proper church and worship there. However, does the answer change if we assume this person’s peculiar convictions are correct? So lets assume this is not some arrogant and misled amateur theologian, but he really is the last Elijah in a compromising nation. Should he ‘compromise’ by joining with a church in error? I am not saying I think the answer is he definitely should not. But I think it is an interesting question.

vincit omnia veritas said...

Dear brethren,

How one answers those scenarios depends heavily upon our denominational heritage. Frankly speaking, the Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Brethrens and now, the House Churches Movement all claim to be closest to the scriptural prescription of church polity. Although I personally adhere to a polity similar (not same) to Presbyterianism (i.e. a plurality of elders and an overseeing body - perhaps the classis or synod), I do not exactly agree with how a “typical” Presbyterian Church government works. Each local church should remain independent as far as the ruling and disciplining of the members are concerned. A Classis or Synod is a good idea, provided that the pastors or elders forming the Synod do not have direct jurisdiction or power over the local churches (by the way, was there a Synod in the NT? I see Paul the Apostle, Timothy and Titus, but Synod? Someone explain this to me.). Pragmatically speaking, the Synod may be a good court of appeal for certain doctrinal disputes or heresy trials. My opinions of eldership were stated in my previous posts.

Another note to take: I do see a lot of learning points from the Brethren and Baptist church polity.

Scenario One: We all agree. It is a local church.

Scenario Two: I agree with Jenson that it is still a local church. I was once a member of such a small church … perhaps slightly bigger. I spoke to a Reformed pastor about this before I posted it. He feels that a Reformed church should have at least two elders. I will address this further in my next post … VERY soon.

Scenario Three: In general, unless all churches in Singapore are apostate and liberal, every Singaporean Christian should be a member of a local church. The matter becomes more complicated – as Mark had pointed out – if there are only say two or three churches in the state, and all of them are either in the Third Wave Movement, Liberal, or Seventh Day Adventist Churches. When I was in Cambodia some times ago, I worshipped in an independent, fundamental Baptist church. There were no Non-Liberal Reformed churches. The other churches were borderline “evangelical” at best.

There are, of course, other exceptions which I hope the Lord will deliver us from.

Scenario Four: This is a mission scenario, and it is quite usual for a missionary to settle in a particular country with his family to start a church. How else would you start a local church in a foreign land? Split the local church and send half to Africa? I got to agree with Jenson here. It is a local church. Most sending churches also send helpers or elders to assist with the building up of the infant church.

The reason I start the ball rolling with this question of “minimum number” is this: it makes us think of what truly constitutes a church. One person? Two persons? Or more (one thousand members with dyed hair?)? It also makes us look at the Scripture to see what the NT churches were like.

Will post the second one soon.

mark said...

Hi Vincent (or anyone else interested),

I would be interested in hearing more of your views regarding scenario three. I assume you are a Presbyterian, and hence a believer in infant baptism. Yet you were willing to worship together with Baptists who I assume would repudiate infant baptism. I guess the thing that troubles me is where do we draw the line? How do we decide this error is ok and this error is not as far as deciding who to worship/fellowship with? Is there a godly way of deciding if there is an ‘acceptable’ level of error in a church?

I do not deny at all the great importance the bible puts on being a member of a local church. However, this is an issue that has perplexed me for sometime. Any thoughts?

vincit omnia veritas said...

Dear Mark,

I suppose it might be of help if you ponder upon this post:

A short answer:

The very bare minimum criterion for a true church requires the preaching of the pure, unadulterated Gospel (which includes a proper understanding of Christ’s deity, his death, burial and resurrection, the historicity of His Passion, substitutionary atonement, Sola Fidei etc) and administration of the sacraments.

When we choose a church, it really depends on what is available in the country. In Singapore, there are numerous Reformed churches to serve in. It then boils down to the question, “Which one?” Personally, I will look for a reformed church with good godly leadership and a pastor whom I can look up to. If the head is crooked, the body follows.

But in certain countries or state, there may be little choices for us. Then it is a matter of “which church is the closest to the Truth.”

Yours truly,

Jenson said...

The old Protestant definition of a church used to be:

1) Preaching of the Word for hearers to understand (opposing the Latin service by the Church of Rome)
2) Administration of the Sacraments (opposing the blasphemous Mass)
3) Church discipline (opposing the lack thereof by the RCC)

However, I believe in this day and age, the local church ought to be defined in "fuller" terms than just these. What do you think?