When we closed last week’s lesson we ended a series of study concerning nine different “local congregations” of the Lord’s people found on the pages of the New Testament. In every case we found the Lord providing those things which each congregation had need of through admonishment or exhortation. Now let’s take a step back and examine what the Scriptures say about building up the church and the Christian’s responsibility to the local congregation.
God, in His great wisdom, saw the necessity to bring His children together in a collectivity for worship and service. This collectivity is the local congregation, and it is a demonstration of God’s wisdom. We learn from Ephesians 3:10-11, “to the intent that now the manifold wisdom of God might be made known by the church to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places, 11 according to the eternal purpose which He accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord…”
The local congregation provides an influence for mutual good and a base of strength greater than the individual. Christians have an obligation before God to associate and work with some local congregation. In New Testament times when Christians came to a new locality they would seek out the local group of God’s children and join with them in the work of the Lord. The Apostle Paul is an example of such action as we read in Acts 9:26, “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple.”
In our lesson this morning we will examine the Bible teachings concerning the local congregation. We will seek to find the Christian’s responsibility to God in congregational action in which God desires that all men function.
The first thing we need to recognize is the use of the term church in the New Testament. The Greek word for church found in the New Testament is ekklesia. Ekklesia is used to identify those individuals who have been called out of the world and into the kingdom of Jesus Christ. The New Testament uses the term “church” in two senses, in a limited and unlimited sense or simply the local and universal church. The universal church is unlimited in scope and includes all the saved of the earth as Jesus uses the term “church” in Matthew 16:18, “And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The Apostle Paul also uses the term “church” in a universal way when he says in Ephesians 1:22-23, “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Let’s be sure to note that there is no organization, work, or worship in the universal sense of the word “church.” This is a spiritual relationship that includes all of the saved throughout the world for all time. Whoever does the will of God and obeys the gospel belongs to the universal church.
Now, the local congregation or church is limited in scope and includes all of the Lord’s people in a local community. A local congregation is limited to a place and is dependent upon fellowship among other Christians. The local congregation is an established order like we studied the church at Jerusalem, the church at Philadelphia, or the church at Laodicea for example. The local church is an independent, self-governing unit. There is an enormous difference between the local congregation and the church universal. God the Father adds the saved to the universal church. The sinner obeys the Gospel, his sins are removed, and he has fellowship with God as we read in Acts 2:37-47, “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, "Men and brethren, what shall we do?" 38 Then Peter said to them, "Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 "For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call." 40 And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, "Be saved from this perverse generation." 41 Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. 42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” Now, to enter the local congregation a Christian must join or identify with a local congregation as we read of the Apostle Paul doing in Acts 9:26-28, “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. 28 So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out.” When the Apostle Paul writes to the Christians in Rome he encourages them to receive Pheobe into their congregation as Paul says in Romans 16:1-2, “I commend to you Phoebe our sister, who is a servant of the church in Cenchrea, 2 that you may receive her in the Lord in a manner worthy of the saints, and assist her in whatever business she has need of you; for indeed she has been a helper of many and of myself also.” The local congregation is made up of those individuals who are baptized into Christ, those restored to faithfulness, and those who move into the community and identify themselves with the local Christians. The local congregation has no right to make anything a condition of fellowship that God does not require for fellowship with Him. Fellowship with the Father is dependent upon a child of God waling in the light of God’s word as the apostle John says in 1 John 1:7, “But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.” The local congregation is a relationship with other Christians in a local community. The Christians in Acts 2 show us this relationship in Acts 2:41-47, “Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. 42 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. 43 Then fear came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were done through the apostles. 44 Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, 47 praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” The collective number may be ten, one hundred, or five hundred, but wherever they live they constitute the church in that area. The local congregation provides an opportunity for mutual edification, mutual service to God, and a base of strength greater than the individual Christian. God intends that every Christian join himself to a local congregation to work and worship with that group.
So now, let’s ask a question. How is a local congregation established? First, in order to establish a local congregation, there must be a mutual agreement among the Christians in that local community to work together for the service of God. The congregation at Jerusalem is a wonderful example of individuals who, because of their love for God and their love of the truth, were willing to sacrifice themselves along with their possessions for the cause of Jesus Christ as we read in Acts 2:44-46, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. 46 So continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, they ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart,” We also see their example in Acts 4:32, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common.” The congregation at Jerusalem had a mutual love and affection toward each other. When the saints at Jerusalem withdrew from the world, they became very intimate with one another, and took all occasions to meet together for worship and fellowship. They were concerned for one another, sympathized with one another, and heartily promoted one another’s interests. This attitude must be present today for any group of Christians to be able to successfully establish a local congregation. Christians of a local congregation must love God and each other.
Second, for a local congregation to be established, submission to a common authority is required. The Word of God is given by God to mankind in order to be an absolute standard of right and wrong. The Bible is given by God to govern all walks of man’s life upon this earth. The Christian’s source of authority in all religious matters must be the Bible as we read in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” The local congregation must be able to produce positive written authority from God’s word for everything they teach and everything they practice in worship and service to God, fi they desire to have the fellowship of God and Jesus Christ. Each member of the local congregation must be willing to submit himself to God’s word for everything he preaches and practices in order to glorify God as Paul says to timothy in 2 Timothy 1:13, “Hold fast the pattern of sound words which you have heard from me, in faith and love which are in Christ Jesus.”
Third, in establishing a local congregation there must be an arrangement for a common treasury. There is no organization that can survive without funding, whether they be profit or non-profit organizations. Each individual local congregation must obligate himself to contribute funds into a common treasury for the congregational requirements we find in Acts 2:44-45, “Now all who believed were together, and had all things in common, 45 and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need.” We also learn this from Acts 4:32-37, “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. 33 And with great power the apostles gave witness to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And great grace was upon them all. 34 Nor was there anyone among them who lacked; for all who were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, 35 and laid them at the apostles' feet; and they distributed to each as anyone had need. 36 And Joses, who was also named Barnabas by the apostles (which is translated Son of Encouragement), a Levite of the country of Cyprus, 37 having land, sold it, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet.” The apostle Paul commanded all the local congregations that he established to contribute into a common treasury upon the first day of each week. We read this in 1 Corinthians 16:2, “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper, that there be no collections when I come.” Each member of the local congregation should regard it as his duty and his privilege to give to the work and service of God’s kingdom.
At this point we must ask another question, how is a local congregation organized? First off, Jesus Christ is the head of the church. When God the Father raised Jesus Christ from the dead, He gave Christ all authority in Heaven and on earth as Paul says in Ephesians 1:20-21, “which He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” Jesus Christ was made the King over God’s Kingdom or the head of the church. Paul goes on to say in Ephesians 1:22-23, “And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” All the spiritual blessings in Christ are made fully available in the body of Christ or the church. The value of an institution is determined by its head or leadership. Jesus Christ knows man’s needs since He created mankind. Jesus Christ can supply all of man’s needs as Paul says in Philippians 4:19, “And my God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus.” The local congregation must submit to the authority of Jesus Christ in all areas in order to have the fellowship of God and Jesus Christ as Paul says in Colossians 3:17, “And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.” The local congregation cannot be “in Christ” unless they abide in the doctrine and teachings of Jesus Christ. The apostle John says in 2 John 9, “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son.”
Secondly, the organization of the local congregation consists of elders, bishops, pastors, and shepherds who oversee the local congregation. God ordained that the work and activities of the local congregation should be overseen by men known as elders as we read in Acts 14:23, “So when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.” The apostle Paul left instructions for Titus in Titus 1:5, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you” Elders have a solemn responsibility and will be called to account as to how they have handled their great trust. The duties of the eldership are the weightiest in the world because they involve the most precious things in the world: (1) the church which Jesus Christ purchased with His own blood; and (2) the eternal souls of men.
The local congregation can function without elders, but they are not scripturally organized until qualified men are appointed by the congregation. God ordained that each local congregation should have elders to oversee the work of the congregation. The progress of the congregation depends upon its leadership. No congregation will ever surpass its leadership. Every successful organization needs quality leadership. The members of the local congregation select men from among themselves to serve the congregation as the apostle Peter says in 1 Peter 5:1-2, “The elders who are among you I exhort, I who am a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed: 2 Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;” These men must meet the divine qualifications given by God in order to serve as an overseer of a local congregation. The Holy Spirit revealed these qualifications in 1 Timothy 3:1-7, “This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. 2 A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; 3 not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; 4 one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence 5 (for if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the church of God?); 6 not a novice, lest being puffed up with pride he fall into the same condemnation as the devil. 7 Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” The Holy Spirit also revealed these qualifications in Titus 1:5-9, “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you should set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you-- 6 if a man is blameless, the husband of one wife, having faithful children not accused of dissipation or insubordination. 7 For a bishop must be blameless, as a steward of God, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, 8 but hospitable, a lover of what is good, sober-minded, just, holy, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word as he has been taught, that he may be able, by sound doctrine, both to exhort and convict those who contradict.” The eldership is to serve as an example of godly living to the remainder of the local congregation.
The elders of the local congregation are not lawmakers. Elders are to superintend, oversee and inspect all the work of the local congregation. The responsibility of the eldership is to see that God’s will is being accomplished. The elder’s duties may be divided in to four categories: (1) Instructional; (2) Protectoral; (3) Governmental; (4) Disciplinary. We will take the time in another lesson to expound on these four areas.
All local authority is in the eldership of the congregation. No other group or person should try to assume any phase of direction or oversight of the local work. The eldership is responsible to God for everything that pertains to the work and worship of the local congregation. God established the local congregation to be autonomous, that is self-governing, an independent body. The autonomy of the local body is based upon the fact that God ordained that all local congregations should be independent, equal, and sufficient to do the work that God intended.
Each New Testament church was completely independent of all other congregations. No congregation may exercise any authority over another congregation under any circumstances or in any manner. This means that each congregation is to manage its own affairs and attend to its own work without supervision or control from another congregation. The eldership is limited in authority to the congregation where they serve and must respect the autonomy of all other congregations as Peter says in 1 Peter 5:2, “Shepherd the flock of God which is among you, serving as overseers, not by compulsion but willingly, not for dishonest gain but eagerly;” The authority of the Eldership extends to the membership, resources, discipline, worship, and work of the local congregation.
Thirdly, there are deacons who assist in the work of the local congregation. No congregation is fully organized after the New Testament order until it has qualified men appointed to serve in the office of a deacon. God saw a necessity in the church for men to fulfill this office. When the apostle Paul address his letter to the church it Philippi he begins in Philippians 1:1 with, “Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons:” The Holy Spirit reveals in 1 Timothy 3:13, “For those who have served well as deacons obtain for themselves a good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.” Now, the office of deacon is distinguished from the eldership and members of the local congregation by the inspiration of the Scriptures in 1 Timothy 3:8-11, “Likewise deacons must be reverent, not double-tongued, not given to much wine, not greedy for money, 9 holding the mystery of the faith with a pure conscience. 10 But let these also first be tested; then let them serve as deacons, being found blameless. 11 Likewise their wives must be reverent, not slanderers, temperate, faithful in all things.” The precise duties of the deacons are not clearly outlined in the New Testament as in the case of the elders. This is due principally to the fact that the work of deacons is outlined by the eldership and may vary with the conditions existing within the congregation. Generally, the work of the deacons is to assist the eldership in their work for the congregation.
Now, we have discussed the establishment of the local congregation and the organization of the local congregation. We also have to learn what the work of the local congregation actually is. The local congregation has a great mission: to save the souls of men and to glorify God. God, in His wisdom, gave mankind the church as an institution to supply all the spiritual needs of man.
As a divine institution, the church has a divine mission. The divine mission of the church is: (1) Evangelism – to spread the gospel to a lost and dying world; (2) Edification – the complete instruction, purification, and correction of any deficiency in the members of the Lord’s body; (3) Benevolence – to meet the benevolent needs of the members of the Lord’s body. The Apostle Paul explains all of this when he speaks of the gifts of Christ and what they are for in Ephesians 4:11-16, “And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, 13 till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; 14 that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, 15 but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head--Christ-- 16 from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.” The local congregation is complete, competent, and adequate to meet all man’s spiritual needs and to accomplish the purpose for which God ordained the church.
Christian’s have a responsibility to the local congregation. God intended that every Christian be a part of a local congregation. God purposed that all the work of the church be done through the local congregation. Christians are commanded to assemble with the saints for the purpose of worship. Christians are to provoke love and good works among each other. Christians need to be associated with other Christians because the Lord has provided this as a means of strengthening the church through mutual edification, mutual reproof and correction, and mutual stimulation to good works. In New Testament times when Christians came to a new locality they joined themselves to the disciples of the Lord. Christians have the same responsibility today. A child of God should be an active member of some “sound” local congregation.