A Congregation is not the Church
There is one church (Ephesians 4:4). Jesus promised to build his church (Matthew 16:18 ). He never promised to build many churches but only one. Both Isaiah and Daniel (Isaiah 2:2-4; Daniel 2:44-45) told of the coming of a single kingdom which would come in Jerusalem. That church came in Jerusalem in the days of the Roman Emperors (Acts 2:41-47) and is the kingdom (Colossians 2:13-14). That church has only one doctrine (Ephesians 4:1-6) which is the truth given by Jesus to his apostles and inspired men through the Holy Spirit (John 14:26).
The ownership of the church rests solely with Jesus. He bought and paid for the church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). All power belongs to Jesus (Matthew 28:18) and he has never relinquished that power to any man or human group. Therefore the church bears his name (Romans 16:16) and not that of men.
While there is but one body or global church there are many smaller units. We typically speak of them as congregations. But it would be a mistake to think of these smaller groups as completely separate churches. They are not. In Jude’s general epistle to Christians he speaks of a “common salvation” and of the “faith that was once for all delievered to the saints” (Jude 3). In Romans 16:4 Paul spoke of “all the churches of the Gentiles” who were thankful for his safety. These were individual congregations begun during his missionary journeys. It would be incredible to think that Paul taught each of these a different doctrine. he speaks of “all, that in every place, call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Certainly all these shared the same faith (Ephesians 4:5) .
These individual congregations are different and diverse in many ways but not doctrinally. They are to teach the same thing. In Colossians 2:16 the apostle gives instructions that his letter (the Colossian letter) be sent on to Laodicea and that the letter to Laodicea be brought and read in Colossae (1)The Laodicean letter is unknown to us. We may be confident however that God has caused us to have all we need today and so we need not be concerned about its absence from our Bibles. What Paul taught in one congregation in taught in all. because Jesus is the head of the church (Ephesians 5:23). All teaching and doctrine flows from him.
The presence of individual units or congregations makes perfect sense. Coca-Cola strives to maintain a consistent product throughout the world. Yet that company works through local units which carry out the day to day operations of the bottling business. A local bottler cannot alter the recipe. Likewise the local congregation is not empowered to change the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9).
Although single in doctrine and mission each congregation is autonomous. Its local affairs are overseen by its local membership acting with and through its own local eldership. Paul instructed Titus to appoint elders “in every town” (Titus 1:5). As Elders, or Shepherds, these men all function under the authority of the Chief Shepherd Jesus Christ (1 Peter 5:4). They are not “little-lords” (1 Peter 5:3) but guides, teachers and overseers of the work begun and directed by Jesus (Acts 20:28).
Local autonomy has many benefits. It allows local churches to use their resources more efficiently in their communities, it allows for groupings of people with similar geographic backgrounds, it allows services to be tailored to local needs and it limits the spread of error. One very large protestant denomination is presently undergoing divisive battles over homosexual issues. Hard feelings are evident as their national and international bodies try to force this sin upon their members. In a fully autonomous setting such false teaching would still be hurtful but the damage more limited.
The local congregation is an indivisible, indispensable part of the global church. It cannot and must not be isolated from from the larger church or from other, sister congregations.
As with most things there are exceptions to this statement. Sometimes an individual congregation errs so egregiously in its teaching and doctrine as to separate itself from others. As such, other congregations are not bound to support, encourage or give comfort to their error. Jesus warned such congregations in the first two chapters of Revelation. While it is up to Jesus to remove a congregation’s “lamp stand” (Revelation 2:5) it would be incredible to think that other congregations should support the error being taught or accepted.
Remembering that all congregations are parts of the whole, it should be obvious that cooperation among congregations is desired and even essential. The successes and failures of distant brethren affect us all.
Especially within a local area churches must work together to spread the gospel and share the glory of God. Efforts by one congregation should be heralded, support and encouraged by all others within the framework of truth. What a shame when petty jealousies prevent one congregation from supporting another. Decisions to support another congregations efforts must be made upon the truth of the effort and not over some fear that another congregation might look better or that a few members might actually begin attending there.
The body of Christ is one team. We all fight in the Lord’s army. What would happen in your community if all of God’s people got together with a single plan, a single message and in a single effort? I would love to hear your thoughts. Specifically, are we too isolated? Have we turned congregations into the church? What are the limits of fellowship with other congregations? Leave your thoughts below.
References ↑1 The Laodicean letter is unknown to us. We may be confident however that God has caused us to have all we need today and so we need not be concerned about its absence from our Bibles.