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Ecclesiology 101: The Local Church

Drive through any city in America, or down a rural highway, and you'll see any number of churches denominated as Methodist, Episcopal, Baptist, Church of God, Church of Christ, etc. What we don't usually consider is how many of these church buildings, serving as meeting places for their members, can justify their existence. Is there a biblical case to be made for the local church? If so, is there a body of doctrine to which a true church should subscribe? What are the biblical characteristics of a New Testament church? If one of these churches passes muster as a legitimate biblical enterprise, what then are the activities in which it should engage itself? Is there any biblical justification for paying a pastor or church staff? Can a child of God be in the will of God for his or her life without being part of a local assembly of believers? The purpose of this document is to provide biblical answers to these questions.

What Is a Church?

The “church” (Greek ekklesia) is literally "a called-out assembly." Its birth (by strict definition) took place when the first disciples responded in faith to "Follow me!" and "Come and see!" After three years of blood, sweat, and tears, the twelve became six score, and surpassed eight thousand shortly thereafter. Armed with Holy Ghost power, the church moved forward in fulfillment of Christ's promise that the gates of Hell would not prevail against it. The church melded both Jew and Gentile in one body in the bonds of love. Paul later wrote that this God-ordained institution is the one place where social, ethnic and racial distinctions are meaningless. Christ is all in all!

In the NT, ekklesia is used eighty (80) times in singular form and thirty-seven (37) in plural form for a total of 117 occurrences. A dozen or so of these usages have in view the world-wide, universal body of Christ. But its predominant usage refers to a local church congregation or group of churches that meet or assemble together in specific geographical locations. The primary applicability of NT church truth is local, not universal! 

General Assembly vs Local Body

The universal body of Christ is currently a “general assembly” (Hebrews 12:23) that, unlike its local counterpart, has never assembled itself together. The universal church (general assembly) will not have the credentials of a full-fledged NT church (actually assembled) until the Rapture (see Revelation 4), at which time both the dead in Christ and living saints shall be caught up (gathered) together to meet him in the air (I Thessalonians 4:16-17). When the apostle Paul, the subject matter expert on church truth, told the saints at Corinth they were “the body of Christ, and members in particular” he was referring to the local church at Corinth, a cohesive unit of believers, not some unidentifiable, abstract body whose assembly is yet to come (I Corinthians 12:27). 

Jesus & His Church

The Bible records Jesus using the word 'church' in two contexts. First, he predicted he would build his church, against which the gates of hell would not prevail (Matthew 16:18). This first usage of 'church' is one of the handful of passages that speaks of the church as a general assembly or world-wide entity. In the second context, he used 'church' in a very practical sense in describing the process of resolving conflicts. The first step is for the one sinned against to go to the offending party. If no resolution, the second step is to go again with one or two witnesses. If the second step fails to produce resolution, the third step is to “tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican” (Matthew 18:15-17). 

Our Lord's second usage of 'church' is critical because it provides a balance to church truth from its Founder. Jesus' design for a local assembly of believers was to be, among other things, a forum for conflict resolution. The LOCAL assembly would serve as the tangible manifestation of the GENERAL assembly. The practical outworking of church truth and kingdom expansion is at the local level. Acts 9:31 confirms this truth following Paul's conversion: “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” According to scripture, expansion of Christ's kingdom equates to bigger and better churches, and more of them! 

Church in the Wilderness

As Stephen preached his Spirit-filled message to unbelieving Jews at Jerusalem, he made reference to “the church in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38). Stephen, a member of the church at Jerusalem, an assembly of disciples, understood Israel in the wilderness to be a practical prototype of the NT church. Israel was not a church in the NT sense. But it was an assemblage of God's people in a practical sense. The church in the wilderness was organized by Yahweh himself. He ordered specific tribes to camp themselves to the north, south, east and west; situated the tabernacle, his mobile habitation, at the very center of the congregation; ordained a mediator in Moses and a priesthood from Levi; gave specific instructions for worship and an orderly system of sacrifice. The OT church in the wilderness was well-organized per God's direction. God has likewise prescribed an orderliness for his NT church. This order is applicable at the LOCAL level. John revealed the order for the GENERAL assembly in Revelation 4 after Jesus its Head assembles it for the first time at the Rapture. In the present age, it is God's design for every born-again believer, who becomes part of the GENERAL assembly when they believe, to join  themselves to a LOCAL assembly of believers until Jesus comes again. 

One General, Many Local

There is a preponderance of biblical evidence for local, geographical church truth, especially with its many plural usages in the NT. There is ONE general assembly, but MANY local assemblies. After the conversion of Saul of Tarsus,  Luke tells us “the churches had rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria” (Acts 9:31). Scripture paints a picture of a multiplicity of individual congregations spread across three geographic regions. According to scripture, they “were edified” (built up in the faith) and “were multiplied” (increased in both members and numbers of churches). 

Paul later traveled through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches (Acts 15:41). In his epistles, Paul made reference to “all the churches of the Gentiles” (Romans 16:4), “the churches of Christ” (16:4), the  “churches of Galatia” (1 Corinthians 16:1), “churches of Asia” (16:19) and “churches of Macedonia” (2 Corinthians 8:1). Jesus delivered messages to the “seven churches which are in Asia” through John the Revelator (Revelation 1:4, 11). 

Meeting Place

What then does the NT teach about the local assembly and its structure? In terms of meeting places, the early church at Jerusalem assembled itself at the temple precinct, and did so daily. As Paul evangelized Asia, the house of a disciple was often the meeting place, especially when the number of believers was small. I am convinced that's why Jesus said: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20). He anticipated that embryonic churches might very well consist of a handful of disciples meeting in a member's home. What a source of encouragement to know that Jesus would be in their midst, no matter how small! Even small churches can be a big deal if Jesus is present! The NT gives no definitive guideline for a meeting place nor ideal congregation size. Neither are there any restrictions regarding the procurement-development of property for worship and Great Commission compliance. While two or three disciples gathered together might well constitute a church, it is the will of God for those disciples to be edified and multiplied. 

Joining the Local Church

It is entirely biblical to use the phrase “join the church.” The apostle Paul did exactly that! In Acts 9:26, the scripture says: “And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple.” The verb “assayed” is peirao, “to try, to attempt, to test.” Paul knew the disciples at Jerusalem would be skeptical of his conversion. So he sought ways to make the case for acceptance. The verb is imperfect, which means he kept on trying to make his case. The word “join” is kallao, “to glue, to cement, to fasten firmly together.” The verb is present tense, passive voice, signifying a desire to “be joined” to the disciples BY the disciples. That's why churches vote a person into its membership. Paul wanted to join the church at Jerusalem. He did everything in his power to gain their acceptance. It would take some time observing him defending the faith and an endorsement from Barnabas to make acceptance with the Jerusalem church a reality (9:28). The church at Jerusalem finally cemented Paul into their membership. 

By the time Paul “joined” the church at Jerusalem, the membership had grown to at least 8,000. It had apostles committed to the ministry of prayer and the Word of God (Acts 6:1-6). It had a deacon body, consisting of seven Spirit-filled, faith-filled men, “chosen” by the church, “appointed” by the apostles by the laying on of hands for the purpose of taking care of daily church “business.” It no doubt had a plethora of spiritual gifts since each member of the body had at least one. The church at Jerusalem had orderliness, an order Paul sought to implement in every church he would plant (1 Corinthians  14:40; Titus 1:5). Paul gave instructions to both Timothy and Titus regarding the qualifications for the spiritual leadership of the local church (1 Timothy 3:1ff; Titus 1:7ff). 

The Case for Pastoral Pay

Now a word about paying the pastor. There are many churches unable financially to support a full-time pastor. For this reason, many are bivocational. They earn their living by working a secular job. I believe there is a special place in God's heart for the bivocational pastor who serves a smaller flock without any expectation of monetary compensation. These are my heroes! Some smaller congregations, while they cannot provide a full-time salary, do provide other benefits, like car allowance, book allowance, health insurance or modest financial supplement. The scripture nowhere demands full-time compensation for a pastor. But it certainly endorses the principle of compensating the man of God for the spiritual services he renders to a congregation. 

The church at Corinth was one from which Paul refused to take money. For personal reasons, he simply did NOT want to be chargeable or burdensome to them. But he did take gifts from other churches. In 2 Corinthians 11:8, he wrote: “I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service.” In the context, it appears he had Macedonian churches in mind (11:9). “Wages” is opsonion, “ration, stipend, pay for a soldier.” The NT uses the word four times (see Luke 3:14; Romans 6:23; 1 Corinthians 9:7). Three times it's translated “wages” with one related to sin. Once it's translated “charges” in relation to a soldier being paid for his services. It is clear Paul believed he 'earned' every dime he ever received from those who benefited spiritually from his apostolic ministry. The same is true of present-day pastors who labor full-time in the word, prayer and evangelism. In Galatians 6:6, Paul wrote: “Let him that is taught in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.” The verb “communicate” means “to fellowship, to share.” The sharing in view has to do with the sharing of material assets by one who is taught with the one who teaches him. The one who teaches is the pastor or teaching elder. 

The strongest case for pastoral pay is 1 Corinthians 9:6-14. Paul writes: “Or I only and Barnabas, have not we power to forbear working? Who goeth a warfare any time at his own charges? who planteth a vineyard, and eateth not of the fruit thereof? or who feedeth a flock, and eateth not of the milk of the flock? Say I these things as a man? or saith not the law the same also? For it is written in the law of Moses, Thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen? Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope. If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ. Do ye not know that they which minister about holy things live of the things of the temple? and they which wait at the altar are partakers with the altar? Even so hath the Lord ordained that they which PREACH the gospel should LIVE of the gospel.” The passage is self-explanatory. Spiritual things sown, carnal things reaped! The Lord has ordained that preachers of the gospel make their living by doing so. Pay the preacher!

Paul reiterated this principle to Timothy: “Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine. For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward” (1 Timothy 5:17-18). The metaphors of the ox and his corn coupled with the laborer and his wages further make the case for a paid pastor. How much should he be paid? It varies according to a church's ability and the man's track record. Common business sense should prevail. But it should provide for the basic needs of a man and his family if a full-time position.

The ministry of the Word of God, including the hours of study, meditation and prayer in preparation to deliver an expository Bible message to God's people in the power of God's Spirit is the most important work that takes place in the nation on any given week. The work of an IT Director, for example, with a six-digit salary pales by comparison. The people of God KNOW when their pastor invests himself in THEIR spiritual welfare by diligent study of scripture. Contrariwise, God's people KNOW when their salaried pastor spends a few hours a week reading commentaries and building lifeless 'sermons' as part of his job. It's the difference between pulpit power and pulpit pablum. In modern-day America, pablum is plentiful, power in short supply! 


Denominations are voluntary associations of multiple local churches based primarily on doctrine. I'll be the first one to admit that the concept has been perverted and corrupted. When a local church surrenders its autonomy under Christ to a convention, diocese or other religious entity, it has violated its NT charter. When local, autonomous churches pool resources for the purpose of training preachers (seminaries) and supporting world-wide evangelism (missions), they are well within biblical parameters. But these well-intended enterprises are subject to abuse even as local churches are subject to worldly contamination. There are churches one should never join and religious enterprises one should never support. 

Basic Distinctives

So what are the doctrinal and practical distinctives one should look for in a local assembly of believers. At a minimum, a legitimate, NT church should believe, preach and teach the gospel of 'Grace' as declared by the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1ff. In addition, they should embrace the inerrancy and infallibility of scripture, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ and the gospel, including his universal provision for sin and the appropriation of forgiveness and eternal life by grace through faith. If a church is correct on Jesus and the gospel of Grace, it is likely to be biblically correct on most other doctrines. In structure and practice, a church should have a biblically-qualified pastor and, as required, a deacon body. It should practice believer's baptism by immersion and observe periodically the Lord's Supper. The frequency of observance is at the discretion of each church body, whether once a week, once a month, semi-annually or once a year.

It should avoid OT observances, such as Sabbaths, holy days, etc., which were all nailed to the cross of Christ and done away in Christ (Colossians 2:14-17; 2 Corinthians 3:11-14). Any church or individual that seeks to mandate OT observances in the Christian experience dishonors Christ and his gospel. The believer is complete in Christ (Colossians 2:10). Christ is made unto us righteousness; the end of the Law for righteousness (1 Corinthians 1:30;  Romans 10:4). If adopting OT ordinances does absolutely nothing to improve or enhance one's walk with God, why do them? If all those OT ordinances, fulfilled by Christ, also died with Christ, why would any true believer, who is justified (declared righteous) by faith, have any desire to resurrect them? 

Local Churches in Revelation

When John wrote the book of Revelation, seven distinctive local churches received a personal message from Jesus. Within seventy years of Acts 2 power and purity, some were infected with doctrinal errors and evil influences. Yet Jesus loved each one, commending them and rebuking them as needed. Local  churches experience problems because people have problems. Jesus and his truth are the solutions to problems. Many problems, whether doctrinal or practical, can be rectified by the rightly-divided Word delivered through a faithful, Spirit-filled pastor. Among the problems local churches face today are (1) pastors who have not been called of God, and (2) too many unregenerate church members. Many local churches are not joinable for a host of reasons, both doctrinal and practical. But scripture admonishes believers not to forsake the assembling of themselves together (Hebrews 10:25). Any spirit that drives a professing Christian to abandon the local church is nothing less than the spirit of antichrist. 


No believer in the Lord Jesus Christ can be in the center of God's will for his or her life without being 'joined' to a local assembly of disciples. He or she is to use their spiritual gifts to edify the brethren and make more disciples. At the center of local church life is the worship of Jesus the Lord. Both the Father and the Spirit are committed to honor the Son. The assembly you join can meet in a house, a storefront or a building owned by the church. The SIZE of the assembly is irrelevant. It is the SORT of local church, per biblical guidelines, that matters most. Don't worry about finding a perfect church void of problems. It will have problems after you join it. 


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