This post is a follow-up to my last one. Here I will share a few brief thoughts on how it appears to me that the local character of the churches changed from century one until now. I will say ahead of time that this post, now that I have finished it, comes nowhere close to saying all that I wished to say in a satisfactory way. Again, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome.
First, consider the following scenario…
It’s the first century. Joe Christian is living in the city of Thessalonica. A few months ago a guy named Paul came through town telling people the good news of Jesus. A number of people believed the message, Joe Christian included. So there is a group of people in Thessalonica who believe in the Lord Jesus.
It’s the first day of the week, commonly referred to as the Lord’s Day. While you might think the believers in Christ in Thessalonica would be eager to gather together and celebrate their Lord, they are not. In fact, most of the believers don’t even know each other! And when Sunday rolls around they all get up out of bed and embark to separate destinations. Some go to the local synagogue, where they hear some scripture readings, sing a few hymns, and listen to a rabbi expound the text (sound familiar?). A few others make the trek to a neighboring village where there is a group of “like-minded” believers who all believe they should be baptized a certain way. Still others meet in a mission hall at the edge of town where most of their effort is spent on evangelizing the leper colony located outside the city. And then there are those who don’t gather at all, but choose to remain home and proudly celebrate the fact that “all they need is Jesus.”
Well, what do you think? Quite a mess, is it not? It’s amazing how foreign our present-day practices seem when you cast them in the light of first century Christianity. Why is it that believers no longer gather as one body in the town in which they live?
Here’s the story, as best as I can tell…
In the first century the local expression of the church was uniquely one. All the saints in a given city/town gathered as one body, whether that meant meeting in the same place or meeting from house to house, like they did in the Jerusalem church. Even in this “house to house” expression, though, the church was practically united. Their oneness was not only spiritual but practical. No one entertained the notion that there were many different local churches in one locality, each defined according to its particular beliefs, form of government, style of meeting, ect. Christ was one their one, all-absorbing center. Amazing thought, isn’t it?
Throughout the second and third centuries a system of government began to develop among the churches that had as much in common with the administrative structure of the Roman Empire as it did the simple order of the first century ekklesia (this structure became set in stone by the emperor Constantine in the fourth century). How this relates to the issue of oneness and locality is that the churches began to be united into a federation of sorts that extended beyond the boundary of individual cities and towns. Among the larger cities/churches, one head elder was elevated above the rest and given the rank of bishop, or overseer. Eventually the bishop came to exercise his authority not only over the church and elders in his own town but the churches and elders in the many surrounding smaller towns and villages as well. In this way the church began to be organized along the lines of districts and regions rather than by simple locale. This development continued through the ensuing centuries until all of organized Christendom was united under the headship of the pope. Dioceses, parishes, and “the church of this-or-that saint” became the order of the day.
For 1100 years this united, universal church prevailed. Then came the Reformation under the leadership of such men as Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin. None of these men originally set out to break with the Roman Catholic church, mind you, but political and religious tensions eventually forced the separation. With that separation came the Lutheran, the Dutch Reformed, and the Anglican “state” churches. The sign on the door may have read “Protestant”, but in all actuality the structure of these conflicting systems was little more than a kind of “reformed” roman catholicism. The organization of the churches remained much the same as it was in the RCC, while the congregations themselves were still comprised of a “mixed multitude” of both believers and unbelievers. The one, pure “communion of the saints” was nowhere to be found (Luther himself lamented this deplorable fact).
Then somewhere along the way someone came up with the idea of the “visible and invisible” church. This doctrine essentially teaches that the church spoken of in scripture is ideal and impractical, existing only in a spiritual, “invisible” sense, and thus we cannot expect it to be worked out here on earth. The visible church has a form while the invisible church does not. One is actual and one is theoretical, and never the twain shall meet. A few examples: In the invisible church we may all be one, but in the visible church there are rampant divisions. In the invisible church all believers are priests unto God, but in the visible church we maintain a sharp distinction between clergy and laity. The invisible church is made up only of regenerated believers, but the visible church is a mixed multitude of both wheat and tares, saved and unsaved. Do you get my point? The practical inconsistencies between what is considered to be the “invisible” church and the “visible” church may be legion, but that’s OK thanks to this teaching. Like it or not, the doctrine of the visible and invisible church was brought into play, and remains in play to this day, in order to provide a convenient excuse for us not to have to worry about having a true expression of the church.
Anyway, as time went on there arose dissenters, men and women who left the state churches in order to found or become members of independent, “free” churches with no connection to civil authority. John Wesley, who left the Anglican church to found what eventually became known as the Methodist church, is a prime example of this. Most often this occurred as a group of people who had received fresh light from God broke with the existing structures of their day and sought a new wineskin in which to contain their experience. Methodists, Quakers, Salvation Army, Pentecostals… the list is pretty long. Most of these groups eventually formed themselves into denominations and are still with us today.
The problem with the denominational churches is that, while most of them only plant a single congregation within a locality (though you will see instances of “first church of God”, or “second presbyterian”), their very existence as an organization is still based on something other than Christ alone. It is based upon partial light, partial truth and partial experience. It is based upon this or that doctrine, this or that personality, or this or that form of government. In other words, the failure of denominationalism is that it is not based squarely upon that faithful acceptance of the whole which is found only in the Person of Christ.
(Does this mean to say that all or any of our brothers and sisters who participate in the life of denominational churches are divisive? Of course not! It simply means that the setup, the structure, or whatever you like to call it, is not true to God’s mind concerning His church.)
Nowadays, though, it seems like the denominational way of doing church is in huge decline. What you see more of these days are the independent congregations that have no organizational attachment to any larger body of churches (though some of them do form themselves into loose “networks”). Then you also have your fair share of “house” churches, “simple” churches, “organic” churches, and so forth. There are plenty of options, really, enough to confuse the heck out of you. And as far as I can tell, most of these churches still have as their unifying center something other than Christ. It is a particular line of teaching, a particular model of church life, or something else. It is not, quite simply, the fellowship of all believers in Christ in a given place.
My question is, where are those believers who are returning to the original ground of the church (their locale) in order to rebuild the house of God on our one unique foundation, Jesus Christ? Where are those brothers and sisters for whom life in Babylon is no longer enough to meet their spiritual need and satisfy their hunger, who are looking to find Christ in practical, undivided fellowship with all other believers in their town, regardless of their differing opinions and doctrines? Where are those who are willing to give up whatever needs to be given up in order to have, once more, a true and practical expression of the local church?
God is willing, I’m pretty sure. The question is, are we?