We believe in the Local Church.
In Article Four, concerning the nature of God, we encountered the Latin word, persona. Ancient Romans used that word to describe the mask that actors used in their dramas. A persona established the actor’s role, especially if he were playing more than one part in the drama. It allowed an audience to identify that role the actor was playing.
By saying the identity of the Body of Christ is primarily perceived through the local church, we mean a believer experiences God’s Church through his or her local congregation. The local church, in other words, is a persona through which the Universal Church makes its presence known within specific communities.
Understandably, some people become disillusioned after they become aware of the imperfections of church leaders or of other congregants. At one time or another, this disillusionment has happened to most of us. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to focus on these imperfect elements of local church life. We must learn how to become aware of a spiritual reality that is also a part of our local congregation. Those “two or three gathered in His name” may be imperfect, but the Lord promised He would meet with them (Matthew 18:20). If we focus on the things we do not like about the “two or three,” we may miss the One who is there in their midst.
A church is like Jesus in the days of His incarnation. He was tired sometimes. He got hungry and thirsty. He was even tempted. In the same way, the mystical Body of Christ, whom the Apostle Paul said is “seated in heavenly places,” has been incarnated within the assembly of local congregations (Ephesians 2:6).
Because a local church consists of fallen human beings—including the people who lead it—we must take steps to ensure that the church will be governed with transparency. A local church needs checks and balances to keep fallen human nature accountable. After all, Jesus said that the Church consists of tares and wheat (Matthew 13:24–30). That is the reality of church life in a fallen world. We recognize the fallen nature of our humanity, take steps to make it accountable to God’s Word, and continually move toward transformation in Christ.
When a local church takes her mission seriously, it becomes a conduit of great blessing to those who are a part it. Unfortunately, a local church can sometimes feel like the private property of a few powerful people. Its mission can get lost under the weight of those who seem to be protecting their personal interests instead of advancing the work of the Kingdom of God. We must remember that God gives a local church the same charge He gave to Abraham: “I will bless you so you will be a blessing and so that in you all families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:2).
Local churches are rather like the cells of a human body. They are born, flourish for a season, have a life cycle, and then sooner or later, disappear. The eternal Church they represent lives its life through them but is not limited to their time and place. However, it is the local church where God forms human beings and carries out the work of reaching all nations with the gospel.
A local church is like a research and development lab. As the world changes, local churches experiment with new ways to communicate and organize. If any of its innovations are successful, other congregations learn from its example.
Martin Luther, for example, wrote new styles of church music. As his hymns swept Northern Europe, they brought fresh life to worship in his era. We still sing some of those songs but usually stop to explain them before we do. Most of Luther’s hymns are no longer easy to understand. To insist on using them every Sunday, or using them exclusively, would create a needless obstacle as we try to minister in a very different era of time and culture. We love the man who wrote the hymns and are still blessed by their message and grandeur. We even wish to pass them on to our children because they are a valuable part of our Christian heritage. We just don’t want to choke our children on “yesterday’s manna,” to use a biblical metaphor.
In other words, local churches offer heritage and innovation, things old and things new. They are creative and dynamic gatherings of Christians within a specific time and place. They are meant to become spiritual families for believers walking through life together and learning how to cooperate for the purpose of ministering to the needs of a lost world in the name of Christ.
Local churches cannot accomplish these things by themselves, of course. The resources and vision of a local church are simply inadequate to do all God charged His Church to do. That is why local churches usually join with other churches in formal or informal associations. That is how denominations arise. The blessing of a denomination to a local church is that a pool of resources becomes available, which might not have otherwise occurred. Also, there is potential accountability that many independent churches lack. On the other hand, a denomination can become sectarian and controlling in ways that disrupt Christian unity and the mission to the world.
Whether or not a local church is part of a denomination, it is always responsible to the entire Church of Jesus Christ. The Lord’s Church is a worldwide, transdenominational, and eternal entity. Local church authorities are not free to act as though they were accountable to no one. Saying that the local church is a sovereign entity in all matters relating to the management of material resources and local polity is not the same as saying that it can exist as an isolated body. In other words, when other congregations become concerned with the doctrine or behavior of a particular local church, the leaders of that congregation are obligated to explain themselves.
When situations arise that affect many congregations, someone may call a meeting of church leaders to work on a solution. There is only One Church, and local congregations must acknowledge the ways in which their teaching and behavior may affect other congregations. When congregations disagree with one another—as they sometimes will—then they must do so humbly, ready to change course if necessary to safeguard the faith we have been given as a shared treasure. However, congregations are not identical to one another. They differ, often very considerably. It is both the differences of the congregations and the underlying unity holding them together that make for the dynamic living life of the Church on earth.
Local churches do what they need to do to meet the needs of their people in specific times and places. As they do, they remain aware of the ways other congregations throughout the world—and throughout time—have represented Christ.