In this series I have distinguished between the “universal” Church, using a capital C to make my point, and the “local” church, which I understand to be a congregation gathered in a particular place. Now I’d like to explain the significance of this difference and apply it something of practical importance.
The idea of the Church is rooted in several biblical texts; Matthew 16:13-20; Ephesians 4:1-16, et al. The idea of the local church is rooted in numerous Pauline texts where the writer addresses a special congregation in a specific location. Few readers of the Scripture doubt that these distinctions are valid. (Note: I do not refer to the “invisible” Church though the idea has a certain merit if the theological debate is limited. The danger is that we begin to think a church is only an invisible reality, a dangerous conclusion.)
Most historians believe that an early form of episcopal government emerged by the late second century. At this time bishops were more widely recognized and liturgies became more formally accepted. The early stages of this practice demonstrate something important that is not clearly stated in the pages of the New Testament. Local churches were autonomous regarding their governance and missionary activities, but they acknowledged the need to be in communion with neighboring Christian churches. I believe the “seed” for this development can be found in the Pauline epistles. We see this, for example, in the exchange of letters Paul mentions and references to other congregations when he writes to a particular local church. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, for example, was not written to one single local church but rather to churches in the region of Ephesus. Minimally, a pattern for wider connectionism is present and over time this evolved. One does not need to embrace a full-blown episcopalianism to recognize this realty, something even Congregationalists and Baptists have done historically through what they call “associations.” Sadly, all such patterns have decreased in importance as schism has spread among our churches.
There are several good reasons for local churches to cultivate a wider relationship with other churches patterned after the reality of the ancient Church. As heresies and divisions spread in the early Church, something we can see in the pages of the New Testament itself, various local communities intensified their efforts to establish contact with one another. The model for this can be seen in Acts 15:22. Here various representatives of congregations/churches met in Jerusalem to resolve a growing schism. This council gives us a pattern for what we see develop over time. Again, regardless of your understanding of local church governance you can and should recognize this biblical fact.
So what does this mean for us today?
We live in a time when there are three dominant forms of church governance: episcopal, presbyterial and congregational. Each has merits and demerits in my view. But each argues that there should be vital connection with other churches. Why does this matter? I answer: the times in which we live, especially in the West, have fostered individualism and schism and then spread the seeds of this globally. It is a fact that churches compete, defame and marginalize other churches. Minimally, this needs to stop. But how?
The ancient church adopted practices such as councils, bishops, synods and letters. The least we can do is learn from these practices. We could start by seeking the good of the universal Church through connecting our churches locally in a healthy way. While it is true that a Catholic Church, for example, cannot join its entire mission and liturgy with a Baptist church, there is much more that could be done if we had the will and imagination to “seek first the kingdom of God.”
In Paul’s words we surely can “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). In all our dealings with all our brothers and sisters let us keep this before us as members and leaders. Is this too much to ask? Is it possible that in asking it we might actually desire to pursue it in our neighborhoods and beyond? What might happen if we stopped competing for members for our own local church and started seeking first for “lost sheep” who need to know the Savior? What if these new Christians enter a church down the street from our own? Should we not rejoice and give thanks together?
This Week for ACT3
- The Initiative will be meeting in Green Lake, Wisconsin, beginning on Sunday evening, June 24. Sixty-five adults, and five children, will be in attendance. This is an immensely encouraging sign. So many people are willing to invest money, time and energy to a vision that means getting to know other people with a similar passion for unity in mission. Pray for all the final details we wil address this week in preparation for June 24-28.
- I am preparing my three messages (John 13:34; 15:12-18; 17:21-24) for The Initiative over the next ten days. Please pray.
- We still need donations for scholarships for Green Lake. Any gift you give will help us help those in need and cover our final expenses. Go to https://act3network.webconnex.com/greenlake2018donations and give whatever you can, even a small amount.
John H. Armstrong