A Simple Biblical and Theological Definition of a Local Church
The local church is a group of those in Christ exercising responsibility for one another's discipleship, collectively and individually, in order to disciple the neighbors and nations.
In this definition there are 4 necessary elements to the defining and identifying of a New Testament local church:
A local church is not just one person. A Christian is a a single individual. A single church is a plurality of people.
Of Those in Christ
The group is made up of those who are "in Christ." We are united to Jesus Christ by saving faith in him as revealed in the gospel. So this is a group of Christians, born again by the Holy Spirit and the Word, exercising the gift of faith in Jesus Christ and repentance from sin and self-righteousness.
Exercising Responsibility for One Another's Discipleship, Collectively and Individually
This is where most definitions of the local church fall short. This is the essence of the New Testament local church. Every Christian is to love neighbors and fellow Christians everywhere. We even have some level responsibility to love and disciple others everyone around us to some degree since all of life is discipleship. But a fully functional New Testament responsibility for other Christians and a particular body of Christians only happens in the local church. The local church alone publicly affirms one's union to Christ Jesus by faith. The church is the New Testament sanctioned group of people. The local church alone is responsible to love others to the point of public and corporate exclusion (excommunication), as the strongest action and attempt, to restore an unrepentant professing Christian to Christ and the church. Only in the local church is the gospel truly identified. The local church alone authoritatively condemns false gospels and false teachers.
The local church must regularly observe Communion (Lord's Supper / Eucharist) as the regular visible renewal and expression of the church's union to Christ. Communion also displays the fully functional New Testament responsibility for one another.
Implicit in the fully functional New Testament responsibility are many other things that are good and healthy for a local church but not part of its bare essence; things like qualified leadership, teaching, prayer, evangelism, loving neighbors, etc.
In order to disciple the neighbors and nations
We could have stopped the definition in the third element and it would suffice. Implicit in the "full New Testament responsibility for one another's discipleship" is the discipling of each other individually and corporately to fulfill the church's mission. This group's focused commission and goal is to disciple ("make disciples of") all nations. To do this the church must gospelize those apart from Christ calling them to faith and repentance. When the hearer professes faith in Jesus Christ the church is to baptize the professing believer and join him to their local church taking responsibility for his discipleship until he transfers to another church. As a group the church bears the responsibility of equipping members to gospelize. In their shared life they display the gospel love of Christ in tangible relationships.
Many of you who read this blog are church movers. You desire to move your church to change your world. The more you grasp the profundity of a simple biblically sound definition of a local church the better you will be at aiming your efforts to move the church toward living worthy of its calling.
Here are 5 questions to reflect on as you follow the Lord Jesus:
1. Are you "in Christ," united to him by faith in the gospel and repentance from sin? 2. Do you have Christians who have full New Testament responsibility for your soul? 3. If so, are you opening up your life to many of your fellow church members so that they may do their job better? 4. How can you be more faithful to your privilege of taking full New Testament responsibility for other Christians? 5. Does your care for one another in your church constantly push you to loving your neighbors who are not yet united to Jesus?
What's missing in my definition? How would you define the local church? Let's talk in the comments below.
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