Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a 3-part series. Click to read Part 1.
If you pull the thread of the local church out of the fabric of the New Testament, you no longer have a New Testament. In no way does this minimize the centrality of the work of Christ. In fact, it magnifies it, because it shows that the fruit of Christ’s work in His life, death, and resurrection is manifest in local, visible bodies called churches. The local church is the place where the accomplishment of Christ’s work is being realized in a specific locality. His blood bought people aren’t merely forgiven of sins; they are also living transformed lives together. His work is not just theoretical in the abstract, but tangible and practical as it is applied and lived out in the local church.
At this point in this series, it will be helpful to offer a definition of the local church. Jeffrey Johnson defines the local church this way:
Buildings and facilities do not define the local church, but rather the content of its membership. A local church is the fellowship of a body of believers, who by the Holy Spirit, have been called out of this world of darkness and have been spiritually united together into one body in Christ Jesus. Giving themselves unto obedience of the faith, these believers commit by a voluntary agreement, to be accountable to one another in love by humbly and consistently assembling together along with their ordained leaders for spiritual fellowship and mutual edification. The church, then, purposes together to uphold the Word of God, practice its precepts, observe its ordinances of the church, and carry out its discipline; collectively submitting, instructing, admonishing and caring for one another as unto the Lord.
To say this another way: it does no injustice to Christ’s work to say that He “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14). Quite literally, the fruit of Christ’s work on this earth is visible, local churches where people are living out the realities of the definition quoted above because of the grace of God in Christ in the power of the gospel.
This also does not take away from the historic understanding of the “invisible” church. The 1689 London Baptist Confession rightly says: "The catholic – that is, universal – church may be called invisible with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace. It consists of the full number of the elect who have been, are, or will be gathered into one under Christ her head."
The church of all-time may be said to be “invisible” in the sense that we do not see or know all of its members. However, it’s important to stress that this church is soon to be both visible and local as we gather around the throne of the Lamb. But as we await that Day, all believers are "obligated to join themselves to local churches when and where they have the opportunity."
The Americanization of Christianity, which includes a heavy emphasis on individualism and autonomy, has caused many to believe that the faith once delivered can be expressed in isolation - that the essence of Christianity is to go out and “be the church,” while gathering with a visible, local church is left as optional. But there is no “being the church” apart from “going to church.” The two are intrinsically connected.
The local church still matters.