The Promise of the Local Church
There is literally nothing better than listening to presidential campaign promises. Wait. That’s literally not true at all is it? Every four years Americans are afforded the opportunity to watch debates, commercials, and rallies in which presidential candidates make one promise after another to their constituents. Unfortunately, many campaign promises evaporate as if they had never been spoken at all. Sometimes they fall through because of a variety of circumstances outside the candidate’s control or because a president changes his mind. Other times they fall through because they were only made in order to get elected. So, we’ve learned to take these promises with a grain of salt. They aren’t something we stake our lives on.
Thankfully, this is not true of God’s promises. God cannot lie. When He makes a promise, it is more dependable than tomorrow’s sunrise. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus makes a wonderful promise. He says that He will build His church. Christ is the architect, builder, and cornerstone of the church. He will build it and no outside circumstance, change of mind, or change of character will cause this promise to fail. The omnipotent, immutable, holy One has given us a promise that is sure and reliable: His church will be built.
In fact, it’s being built as we speak. And I’m not talking about the brick and mortar project down the street. As I said in From Death to Life, “God is saving people all over the world. From Arkansas to Argentina. From Pittsburgh to Pudong.”
But what does this building project actually look like? When Jesus says He will build His church is He just talking about an “invisible, universal” church, or does He have something more concrete in mind? While the concept of the “universal” church is biblical and important, we do not understand New Testament Christianity apart from the visible, local church. The church Jesus is building is made manifest by places with addresses.
If you’ve never had the opportunity to hear fellow Arkansan David Miller preach, you’ve missed a blessing. In August of 2017, I was able to hear him preach on the importance of the local church. In that message, he said:
Metaphors are used to describe the church [in Scripture]. It’s called the Body, or the Building, and sometimes the Bride of Christ. In my opinion, the ideas of locality and visibility are inherent in these metaphors. For example, did any of you ever know of a universal, invisible body? Did any of you ever know of a universal, invisible building? And may the dear Lord have mercy upon the poor fellow who marries a universal, invisible bride…
You can’t do anything better than to bend your knee and bow your heart with godly sorrow, turn from your sin in repentance, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ with all your heart and join up with a good bible believing bible teaching church and spend your life in that church serving Jesus in a local visible congregation.
We live in a day where it has become rather trendy to say things like: “Stop going to church, be the church.” There is also the ever present phrase: “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,” a phrase I will address in Part 2 of this blog series. The point here is the local church has fallen on hard times. If we lose the local church, we lose the Christianity presented to us in the New Testament.
Admittedly, the term “local church” is not in Scripture. However, the word for "church" is used over 100 times. This Greek word for church, ekklesia, means “assembly” or “called out.” There have been arguments put forth that the idea of a “local church” was completely foreign to Jesus and His Apostles. Yet, of the 115 times the word ekklesia is used, the overwhelming majority refer to locality.
Of the 106 Bible verses in the English Standard Version that include the word “church,” at least 75 of them can be given an address. That is, at least 75% of the time eklessia is used in Scripture, it refers to a specific locality. It refers to a place you can punch into Google Maps. It refers to a local church.
Furthermore, of the 27 books in the New Testament, 9 are specifically addressed to local churches by name. Three more books, commonly referred to as the Pastoral Epistles, are instructions for life and leadership in the local church. The book of Acts is the story of the spread of the gospel which is intrinsically connected to local churches (where the gospel takes root, local churches are established). It’s easily deducible that Peter wrote his first epistle to local churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia. This is similar to the intention of James as he specifically mentions the local church in James 5:14. It’s possible that John’s second epistle is to a local church when he references the “elect lady” as his recipient (2 John 1:1). Jude writes his letter to “those who are called,” kletois, which is derived from the same root word for ekklesia. Moreover, the letter warns believers of false teachers who creep into local churches. The book of Revelation contains 7 letters to local churches. In all, there are over 30 local churches mentioned in the New Testament.
The New Testament is saturated with the local church. Trying to understand these 27 books apart from the local church is like playing baseball without the bases. You may be able to recognize the sport, but the path to winning has been eliminated. The mentality that the local church is important, but not necessary, to individual Christians makes as much sense as saying a boat (or plane) is important to get to from New York to London, but not necessary. Jesus did not promise to build lone ranger Christians. He promised to build His church and the local church still matters.