FULFILLING OUR INDIVIDUAL DUTIES TO THE LOCAL CHURCH
September 1, 1997 Issue
by T. E. Denton
Subsequent to applying the term "body" to the local church in my first debate with Lewis Hale (concerning the scriptural number of loaves in the Lords supper), brother Hale denied that there was biblical authority to do such. He then challenged me to produce at least one passage to prove that the local church may be referred to as "a body." Due to that incident, I began to think that since a 67-year-old preacher was unaware of this biblical fact, and since there are practices becoming more prevalent among us portraying this same unawareness, I became convinced that it isnt only essential to be cognizant of this teaching, but Christians must also be especially cognizant of its implications.
New Testament Terms of the Local Church The Term "Body"
Grimms lexicon (perhaps better known as Thayers) says that the word "body" in passages dealing with the church refers to the "number of men closely united into one society, or family ... of the church" (#4983). The way I responded to brother Hales challenge was to produce 1 Corinthians 12:27. Here, after illustrating unity by the use of a physical body, Paul told his readersthe church at Corinththat they constituted "a body." (Note the lack of a definite article in the original.) Even Lewis Hales own brother Lipscomb in his commentary on this passage wrote...
The "ye" referred to the membership at Corinth as a whole. They constituted the body of Christ. Not a part of it, but the body complete and entire, within itself a complete body of Christ. To another church Paul says: "In whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit." (Eph 2:22.) The Bible clearly recognizes each separate congregation as the body of Christ, as builded together for a dwelling place in the Spirit. So that God in his Spirit dwells in each distinct and separate church. The church is the body of Christ in the community in which it is situated.
(Also see Vines on the word "body" in this verse.) Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 10:17, Paul wrote, "Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf" (NIV quoted due to its accuracy of translation in this verse.) How do we partake of one loaf? Each Christian in the local assembly breaks off a piece of bread and eats it. And, since the universal church neither does nor can partake of a loaf of bread, then Paul was obviously referring to the local church when he said, "we. . . are one body"; in other words, as Alford put it, "we, the (assembled).. ." (Alfords Greek New Testament).
The Term "Building"
Grimm wrote that the word "building" in passages dealing with the church refers to "a body of Christians, a Christian church" (#36 19). (Of interest might be the fact that its the same word translated "edifying" (where we get our word "edifice") such as in Ephesians 4:12 and 16.) To the church at Corinth Paul said that her members constituted "Gods building" (1 Corinthians 3:9); likewise, to the Christians in the church at Ephesus he said, "you also are being built up together for a habitation of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22).
The Term "Church"
Grimm said the word "church" properly refers to "an assembly of Christians gathered for worship" (#1577), and Bauer used such terms as "meeting" and "congregation" in order to define its various shades of meaning. When Jesus was speaking of church discipline, He placed it, not in the context of the universal church, but in the context of the local church: "If he (the impenitent one) refuses to hear them (the two or three who urged repentance), tell it to the church" (Matthew 18:17a). Furthermore, its clear Paul took it for granted that Christians in any given area would meet together steadfastly: for example, to the Christians at Corinth he wrote, "When you come together as a church"
(1 Corinthians 11:18) and "The whole church comes together in one place"
(1 Corinthians 14:23); in other words, it was a mutually understood and agreed upon rule that in Corinth there would regularly be an assembly of Christians gathered for worship, just as Grimm said.
The Term "Flock"
Grimm said the word "flock" in passages dealing with the church refers to "a group of disciples.., of bodies of Christians (churches)" (#4168). When Peter was giving some instructions to elders, he wrote, "Shepherd the flock of God which is among you . . . being examples to the flock" (1 Peter 5:2-3). Paul once called together the elders of the local church in Ephesus and told them to "Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.... For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock" (Acts 20:28-29).
The Term "House"
Grimm said the word "house" in passages dealing with the church either refers to "the family of God, of the Christian church" in general or to "a body of Christians (a church)" (#3624). (Its related to "habitation" in Ephesians 2:22.) In what may be referred to as the hub (or central passage) of
1Timothy, Paul said to Timothy, "1 write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God"
(1 Timothy 3:14-15). Pauls concern wasnt teaching Timothy how to (morally) conduct himself as a member of the universal church or as a Christian, but instructing him regarding how he should deal with local church problems as an evangelist in Ephesus. In this letter he dealt with various teachings in connection with the work of the local church such as women teaching publicly (2:11-12), the qualifications of elders and deacons (3:1-13), and supporting widows and elders (5:3-17). Concerning these and many other issues, he exhorted Timothy to teach them to the local church (4:6-13).
Implications Concerning the Preceding Terms
Prior to noting the implications of teaching that the local church is indeed a body, lets notice the very crucial and related instruction of
1 Corinthians 12:15-17: "The body is not one member but many. If the foot shall say, Because lam not a hand, I am not of the body, is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear should say, Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body, is it therefore not of the body? If the whole were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling?" The vital truth of this passage is, each member of the local body is essential
(v. 14-16) because each member serves a critical function in it (v. 17). The following implications demonstrate this truth.
"Body" Implies the Need for "Nourishment"
In Ephesians 5:29, Paul reminded us of an axiom: "No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it." The word "nourish" here means "to nourish up to maturity. . . to nurture, bring up." The only other place its used in the New Testament is in Ephesians 6:4 where Paul said, "Fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord." So, applying this spiritually to the local church, its members will nourish and cherish it, and the concept behind the word "nourish" would then concern teaching, a responsibility that each member of the local body possesses. God has placed men such as teachers in the local body for its edification (Ephesians 4:11-16) because its only in the local sense that such teaching can and is expected to be accomplished (First Corinthians 14:23 and 26). Furthermore, all members of the local body admonish one another through singing (Colossians 3:16).
On the other hand, for the nourishment of the local body to be effective through teaching, there is the necessity for its members to be present for that teaching that they may grow together as a unit (body) in the same direction: Paul once said to the local church in Corinth, "you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged" (1 Corinthians 14:31). In fact, as a young teacher, Ive often been reminded that the general attitude should be to desire to listen more than to talk. James wrote "Be swift to hear, slow to speak" (James 1:19). Related to that idea, think about how often many teachers today receive instruction: if weve become "itinerant teachers," weve thereby cut deeply into our opportunities to listen to our home church teachers (or any other teachers for that matter) and grow along with the other members of that home church.
So, the local body of which were members needs each and everyone to be present at all its scheduled meetings that they may fulfill their respective duties in its nourishment which leads to growth; they have no such responsibility to anyone elses home church.
"Flock" Implies the Need for "Supervision"
When we think of a flock of sheep, we immediately think of the need of a shepherdsomeone to watch over it. The same demand applies to the local church. Consider this: elders are commanded to oversee their flocks, the local churches (Acts 20:28), and we often contend against the notion that elders may preside over a plurality
of churches. Likewise, we often contend against the practice of elders frequently absenting themselves from their flocks The rhetorical question has then been asked, "How
can elders oversee that which they cannot see?" Well, now consider the concept of that question in its inverse: suppose that all the members, except the leaders or elders, of every church within a 100 mile radius went to a different church each Lords day every month. In such a case, the
leaders of those churches wouldnt be able to lead very effectively, if at all. Further, the question arises concerning whose flocks the elders or leaders would be overseeing. Such violates the very principle that elders cannot oversee that which they cannot see, and it would make it impossible for any leader to discharge his duty. This may be illustrated with the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3). Its clear that each church consisted of certain individuals because each group was specifically described with its respective problems: one lukewarm, one immoral, one dead, etc.
If this werent true, then when the people in attendance at any one of those churches received its letter, the rebuke
of the letter would have been totally irrelevant to them. Why? Because on one Lords day the church meeting together at one place may have been lukewarm while the next Lords day a number of the lukewarm may be somewhere else leaving the majority then gathered zealous. What a predicament! But, is it much different today?
"Building" Implies the Need for "Maintenance"
One of the major things anyone does with a house or some other building he owns is to spend time and effort maintaining its integrity. Since the local church is considered "a building," then it must also be maintained, and the primary way this is accomplished is through teaching. Who would be more capable of knowing what needs to be taught on in the local church than its own members, especially its own teachers? If there are any "repairs" that need to be made in the local church respecting such things as general edification, exhortation, or comfort, who is expected to administer it? The answer is... those who know best what it needsits local members and teachers: Paul wrote to the local church in Corinth that "he who prophesies speaks edification and exhortation and comfort to men" (1 Corinthians 14:3).
On the other hand, what if a teacher has spent a considerable amount of time preparing a talk that he really believes will benefit his home church in a specific area, then, when he arrives at the church building, he discovers that those he thought his lesson would benefit the most are absent? Well, in most cases, that speaker wont be able to speak on something else in hopes that he can use the planned lesson when his desired audience is present. Remember, Peter exhorted us to "be courteous" to one another
(1 Peter 3:8), and one of the most courteous things a Christian can do for a teacher is to be present for and attentive to what he has to say.
"Church" Implies the Need for "Support"
A church is an autonomous institution, and all institutions must not only have a committed group of people in order to exist, but money as well. Related to that idea, think for a moment about the contribution: what usually happens when someone who belongs to one local church worships with someone elses local church? He places his contribution into the treasury of the church hes visiting. There are at least two dilemmas which transpire in such a case. Firstly, in most cases, such a person has very little knowledge, if any, of how his money will be spent. Secondly, if such a person visits other churches regularly on Lords day mornings, hell likely feel somewhat odd (just as he should) about taking part in the decisions of his "home church." Why? Because he has put little or no money into its treasury and therefore little or nothing into its work.
"House" Implies the Need for "Togetherness"
The most wonderful thought behind the word "house," as Grimm noted, is the concept of "family"; this concept alone ought to have a great impact on us since weve all had some experience in what a family is or at least have an idea of what one ought to be like. Its a sad situation when someone feels ashamed of his own family, but far worse is it when Christians feel ashamed to invite people to visit their home church due to what appears to be a lack of interest among its members. Suppose someone Ive been working on for a long time finally decides to visit the church, and Im not there the day he comes. What effect would that have on that visitor? Since I would probably be the only link between him and the church there, his lack of seeing me will likely have a very negative effect on him; consequently, its in the interest of the church and its work for its members to work diligently toward decreasing the chances of that occurring.
Speaking of the family atmosphere that should prevail, something that many folks really appreciate is when someone comes to them when theyve been gone and genuinely says, "We missed you. Are you all right?" And, for those who think that its no one elses business where theyve been, they need to be reminded of this family oriented relationship since were a family, and since this family has leaders, thats incentive enough for someone to express concern about where another has been for at least two reasons: (1) his or her absence tends to hinder the work of the local church, and (2) non-attendance could indicate a spiritual problem that we may be able to help resolve. If Christians (including preachers) would put themselves in the mind-set which says of their local, home church, "This church is my family, my home," we would experience more growth and see more dedication to the home church. Otherwise, we simply spread ourselves too thin for much good.
Its evident from the entire tenor of the New Testament Scriptures that each Christian must identify himself with and be identified with some local church, his own church. (Some may not approve of that wording, "his own church" or "my church," but if Paul could refer to the Gospel as "my Gospel," perhaps due to how personal it was to him [Romans 2:16, 16:25, and Second Timothy 2:8], why can we not do the same with reference to the church?) So, the question becomes, "What is it that makes someone a member of a local church? Just to get us started on making our own lists of criteria concerning what makes us members of a local church or creating for ourselves our own home churches, here are some suggestions.
(1) A home church is the one where its members place the majority of their contribution. If one is a regularly attending member, this enables him to feel as much a part of the work of that local church, at least monetarily speaking, as anyone else who gives the bulk of his money there. If one is a man active in business meetings, this enables him to feel as much a part in the decisions of that local church as anyone else who gives the bulk of his contribution there.
(2) A home church is the one where members are familiar with one another as if theyre family. If one is a regularly attending member, this enables him to know, to a considerable extent, the needs and desires of his "family" members in order to comfort and exhort them (see Hebrews 10:24.25). If one is a teacher, this enables him to know, also to a considerable extent, the needs and desires of his "family" members in order to make proficient judgments concerning what to teach.
(3) A home church is the one where members attend most of the time. If one is a regularly attending member, this, as a member of the listening audience, enables him to grow right along with the other members of his family as a unit (a single, entire body) and in the same direction. If one is a teacher, this enables him to know what to teach about without unnecessary repetition of what was just taught on recently by someone he failed to hear due to his absence. If one is a "service arranger," this enables him to know who to ask to take which leading role so as not to be unnecessarily repetitious in that area either. (By the term "most" I mean to refer to around 90% which represents 140 out of 156 meetings a year [if a congregation meets 3 times a week], leaving 16 times to be away!)
(4) A home church is the one where members can feel comfortable with inviting non-Christians to visit their church knowing that those non-members have reason to expect to see them there if they were to visit.
With all that has been said in mind, what good is someone to the church he calls "home" if he or she lives in the area of one church but attends another many miles away? In many such cases, he or she is hurting the growth of the universal church as well as the local one since such usually indicates to the community that "that church has problems." Furthermore, if such a person doesnt avoid attending because of problems but for some other reason, he still needs to consider the import of the preceding point numbered "4."
A preacher for a liberal branch of the church of Christ named Stanley Sayers once wrote, "Consistency is absolutely necessary if the local congregation is to go forward. Inconsistency will deplete its strength, sap its vitality, discourage the total membership, and kill all drive and initiative. And what some take for a lack of numerical growth may easily fund its answer simply in a plague of absenteeism! People are.., staying home or perpetually leaving town. Surely, we need to give this matter more and more grave attention" ("Congregational Loyalty," A Drink from the Deeper
Wells). Well, lets conclude by noting Pauls words to the local church in Rome: "As we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another" (12:4. 5). (Incidentally, the word "we" here is obviously employed by Paul in the same way it was in
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