Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.
In our last post, we considered what the above scripture teachers regarding the work of elders. In this article, we shall consider the group with whom and among which the elders perform their duties: the local congregation. In the New Testament, the most common description of the People of God is “the Church.” The word church does not refer to a building, or to a man-made organization. Today we hear about “the Baptist Church” or “the United Methodist Church” – these expressions refer to human organizations and nothing like this appears anywhere in the New Testament.
In the Bible, the word church means “congregation.” In Alexander Campbell’s Living Oracles, the Greek word ecclesia is always translated congregation. So, Jesus says, “Upon this rock I will build my congregation” (Matthew 16.18) and Paul writes, “the congregations of Christ salute you” (Romans 16.16). This is a good and accurate translation and the word church should always be defined and understood in this way.
The Scripture teaches that all of God’s People (i.e. all Christians in all the world) are part of “the Great Congregation” (Psalm 22.25). Sometimes this is called “the Universal Church.” But even a casual reading of the New Testament reveals that every Christian was also a part of a local congregation (i.e. “the congregation, or church at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1.2); “the congregation, or church that meets in Philemon’s house” (Philemon 1.2)).
When a person is saved, Jesus adds him or her to the Great Congregation (Acts 2.47). After baptism, it is the responsibility of the new Christian to join himself or herself to a local congregation as a member (Acts 9.26). If a Christian relocates from one place to another, it is necessary that he or she join with a congregation in that area and become a member of that local body (Acts 11.25-26). It is God’s expressed will for every Christian to be a part of a local congregation. If a Christian chooses to remain separate from a congregation, that is a sin. It is impossible to be a faithful member of the Church without being a part of a local congregation
The Temple of God
One reason that every Christian must be a member of a local congregation is to worship. Worship is not universal, but local. The apostle Paul says that Christians are to sing “to” and “with” “one another” (Colossians 3.16; Ephesians 5.19). God has appointed that prayer, singing, and teaching be done “when the whole church comes together into one place” (1 Corinthians 14.23). While it is possible to sing, pray, and teach outside of the assembly, God has commanded that all Christians do some singing, praying, and teaching in the assembly. In order to have the most intimate and special fellowship with God through the Holy Spirit, Christians must be joined together with the local congregation (Ephesians 2.21-22). If a Christian, who is physically able, does not assemble with a congregation or not a part of a congregation that Christian cannot offer acceptable worship to God (1 Peter 2.4-5). Concerning the Lord’s Supper and the collection for the saints, it is impossible to do these things in any sense unless one assembles with a congregation (Acts 20.7; 1 Corinthians 11.20; 1 Corinthians 16.1-2).
The Flock of God
A second reason that every Christian must be a member of a local congregation is for spiritual safety and nourishment. The role of elders, as established in our last article, is to feed and protect the flock, which is the local congregation (Acts 20.28). One cannot enjoy the benefits of that sustenance or protection unless he or she is a part of the flock! The metaphor of a sheep is well chosen to describe the Christian. “Sheep without a shepherd,” (Matthew 9.36) or “sheep wandering away from the fold” (Luke 15.4-6) is always a recipe for disaster because of the “ravenous wolves” (Acts 20.29) and “raging lions” (1 Peter 5.8) that roam about seeking whom they may devour. Any Christian who thinks that he or she can have a healthy and successful spiritual life alone, separated from any guidance or correction, has rejected the wisdom of God.
The Body of Christ
A third reason that every Christian must be a member of a local congregation is because our spiritual life and strength comes from being a part of a local body, and only when we are an active part of a local body can be productive for God.
The universal and local church are so vitally connected and co-dependent that Paul refers to both with the same terminology (i.e. the body of Christ). Paul said to the congregation at Corinth: “Now you are the body of Christ, and members individually” (1 Corinthians 12.27). Notice that Paul says “you” and does not include himself – therefore he cannot be referring here to the universal church, but rather the local congregation! The congregation at Corinth was the body of Christ in that community.
Paul describes God’s plan for the co-operation and close relationship of church members by the metaphor of a physical body (the congregation) and its parts, such as the foot, eye, hear, or nose (the individual Christians who are members of the congregation). Paul says that one member is not a body (1 Corinthians 12.19) therefore a Christian who isolates himself or herself is not a part of the body of Christ. Every part of the body is important for the function of the body, and Paul reasons that the Christian whose relationship with the congregation is nominal or broken has crippled the body! Furthermore, if a member (for example an ear) is separated from the body, it will die! Just so, only when every member is receiving and supplying spiritual nourishment (Ephesians 4.15-16), can the body grow and be strong and the members be spiritually healthy.
Paul says, “there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Corinthians 12.25-26). What Paul describes can only be real if the members are connected to the body. If one hits his finger with a hammer, the whole body suffers with the finger, just as Paul said. However, if the finger is severed from the body, and then hit with a hammer, the body no longer feels anything with the finger! Just so, in order for the body to supply the needs of the member, the member must be firmly and fully connected with the body.
A fourth reason that every Christian must be a member of a local congregation is that fellowship is not possible apart from association with fellows. In Acts 2.42, the Bible says that when after the original Christians were baptized, “they continued steadfastly in… fellowship…” (Acts 2.42). Reading on, we find how that fellowship was manifest: 1) through worshiping together, 2) through evangelizing together, 3) through sacrificing for one another and offering benevolent assistance to those who had need, 3) through eating together from house to house. These acts of fellowship made all the people “have one heart and one soul” (Acts 4.32) and filled them with “gladness and simplicity of heart” (Acts 2.46). The first building block in a scripturally organized congregation is a congregation of committed, consistent members, joined together in heart, mind, and function. - CED