Friday, February 13, 2009

False Ideas 7: Local Church versus Universal Church

Another false dichotomy we have created is the local church versus a universal church. You can find these terms in most theological textbooks, documenting their statements with verses from the New Testament, thus assuming biblical authority. But in reality these words are not used in the Bible in this way.

Church is both universal and local, hence the labels, but I have to wonder if Jesus sees his church through this same broken lens. Or does he just see the church? Are we all members of one another at both the local level and the universal level, even throughout history? Yes, I think we are, and while this false viewpoint may not be as harmful as the previous two (secular vs sacred and clergy vs laity), it does excuse a whole lot of foolish polarization in the church.

When we allow for a “local” church, we give credence to separation and noncooperation among the members of Jesus’s body. We have defined church as a local group of people who are committed to an organization and usually to some property in a neighborhood. We do not see “church” as all of Christ’s church in that locale, just the one group with whom we happen to associate. And we think this is biblical, because we are convinced that the idea of a “local” church is in the New Testament.

But when the authors of the many New Testament letters wrote to local churches, they were writing to all the Christians in a given geographical region.

Today we are separated by minor differences over doctrines that were not even a passing thought in New Testament times. The Thessalonians had two competing views of eschatology. They didn’t have some dispensational churches in Thessalonica and some who were not. Rather than forming separate local churches they were still one family. The Corinthian church was divided over spiritual gifts and especially speaking in tongues but were still one church. They didn’t become two local churches, one that was charismatic and one that was not. The church in Thyatira had some who followed one leader’s attempt to contextualize, which led to some serious compromise. Others, who did not follow them into worldliness, were still part of the same church according to Jesus. They didn’t have some who were the liberal church and others who were not.

We use the theological justification of a “local church” doctrine to maintain space between family members. This division keeps us weaker and is a poor witness to the community around us. We cannot really change the situation we find ourselves in now, but justifying it with false distinctions doesn’t help our cause and will lead us down an even more dysfunctional path.

To maintain this false distinction, we have instituted something called “church membership” and then established hoops for people to jump through to be called “members.” In a church you can have some Christians who are “members” and others who are not. This is a secondary dichotomy that is built on the first, but both are unbiblical viewpoints. There is no distinction in the New Testament between the disciples who were “members” of a specific "local" church and those who were not “members.”

The idea of a new members class is foreign to the New Testament. The idea of dividing God’s people according to those who are “members” and those who are not, and having such membership based upon who took a class or was baptized in a certain manner is absolutely foreign to the Bible. Having part of Christ’s body able to voice an opinion and cast a vote, and others remain silent because they are not “members” is foolishness. This sort of distinction is not the kingdom of God; it sounds a lot more like a country club, with certain rites and card-carrying members. All this is built on a false view of the church.


Anonymous said...

Wow. Some really good food for thought. Tough things to wrestle with. Thanks for posting this.

Anonymous said...

I had never really thought much about the member vs. non-member issue before. I do remember that when I had started attending my current church, I was not going to "become a member" for a long time, until there was a vote on a project that I did not support. I became a member then, so I could vote, and I was the lone dissenter. Since that point, every meeting I have gone to, it seems that anything that comes to a vote passes unanimously which leads me back to the question of: what is the point of voting?

Speaking in terms of practicality, I guess I am wondering if church membership was born out of an organizational phenomenon in that there needed to be some means of organizing and tracking and administrating "the church" and its functions. That sounds so lame, but as the world's population continues to grow, I understand its purpose. As the Western world flounders in economic pressure and individuals strive to write off any and every possible tax deduction, churches are considered non-profit organizations and legally have to track these financial records. Should it have to be this way? No. In this broken world we live in does it have to be this way? Absolutely. Not just because of tax write-offs but also because if people are giving to the ministry, there has to be accountability for those finances. Anyone in any type of ministry operation that receives funds understands this function.

I digress. I do believe that in some churches, the divide between members and non-members is significant. Perhaps I attend a unique church in that the divide is not so apparent. I do attend a pretty unique church in that while the body is large (or larger) they do work hard to maintain their largely youthful roots and largely organic roots. As a result, the pastoral team is real - they are not on pedestals - they embrace their congregation - and they do not demand worship. They are real, they are human, and they are broken, just like you and me. And they teach me and the person sitting next to me that it is not about attending on a Sunday morning - it is about BEING the church - living the life IN the UNIVERSAL body. Perhaps my church is not like the traditional, institutionalized church. Perhaps my church has retained the organic-ness of its roots.

Like a Mustard Seed said...

I have wrestled with this false dichotomy as well, it is intensely frustrating. It has occurred to me that while there may have been realities in the early church days, which effectively seperated different gatherings by city, today the world we live in is much different, so much more connected...

One example of this schizmed mentality exists as I've seen people ignore the realities of large metropolitan neighborhoods. Where someone might live in one suburb, work in another, and then worship in yet another section of the city-at-large. All the while they usually see themselves as part of the "local church" wherever the building they meet in is at. They do not see themself as part of the local church of the geater metropolitan area, where people live, and work, and move back and forth in it all the time. It's so bizarre...


Real Church Historian said...

Thanks for your post. However, I could not disagree with you more. As a student of Church History I know that the biggest division of all took place in 250 A.D. over allowing those who had rejected Jesus Christ publicly in order to avoid persecution back into the church.

The local church (in the locality of Rome) had a church split over this issue. The Novatists as a group were born, and such divisions took place all over the Roman Empire after 250 A.D.

In 312 A.D. Constantine instituted his version of Christianity and sealed it with Hierarchical power under his personal control in 325 A.D. He as you hated the divisions between the churches. He as you hated the fact that the Novatists and Donatists re-baptized the believers coming from 'his' churches.

To correct what he considered to be a heretical error, he usurped Jesus Christ as the head of the church and tried to homogenize it according to his understanding. Out of this good hearted effort the heinous Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant Mutants were eventually formed. They would butcher the non-conformists throughout all the ages.

What does light have to do with darkness? Many preach from a Bible and talk about God. But in studying the scriptures we see that not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord' will enter into God's Kingdom. Therefore in history those who held to the concept of a pure body of Christ, a pure bride, and the doctrine of the pure local New Testament Church have separated themselves from teachers of false doctrine. It is the local New Testament church that has been the method of preservation of pure doctrine since the time of Christ.

By their fruits ye shall know them. Wisdom is know of her children (or what she produces). So much evil has been done against the saved and unsaved by Constantine's Monster Europe is irreversibly Secular. Why? They know the history of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, through the little local New Testament Churches the pure gospel of Jesus Christ was preached over and over again to each new generation. I am glad that I am part of that work which Jesus began in Matthew 10:1 when he called his disciples and they became the first local New Testament Church.

I have no doubt that when Jesus finally gathers his Church into one great assembly (Hebrews 12), we who have stood for and lived in the local New Testament Church will make up the majority of that assembly.