This article is the first in a series dealing with practical issues relative to local assembly testimony. This article is foundational to all that follows.
THE CHURCH AND THE LOCAL ASSEMBLY – THEIR DISTINCTIONS ACCORDING TO SCRIPTURE
The contrast between the Church the Body of Christ, and a local church of God is a classic illustration of a subject that demands care in rightly dividing things that differ. If God’s priests in a future day will be required to teach differences to His people (Ezek 44:21), how much more it behooves us today. Confusion exists in Christendom and often among believers in assemblies as to what is called “church truth,” especially regarding the Church which is His Body and the local assembly. Apart from two exceptions (Acts 7:39; 19:32, 39, 41), the word “church” is only used of either the Body of Christ or a local assembly. In order to make very clear the differences between these, let us consider the seven clear contrasts.
1. We begin with an obvious difference, and yet one worthwhile pointing out. As regards the Church His Body, there is only “one body” (Eph 4:4), but concerning a local assembly of saints there are many – hence “the churches of God” (1 Thess 2:14), or the “churches of the Gentiles” (Rom 16:4). Therefore there is only one true Church of which Christ is the Head. Its unity is maintained by God and in singular dignity it will yet be presented faultless to Christ in a glorious, future day (Eph 5:27). Local assemblies are plural in number, but the Church is one. There never will be two or more bodies of Christ.
2. The Lord Jesus is the builder of His Church (Matt 16:18), but brethren who are teachers build into the local assembly (1 Cor 3:10). There is no possibility of false material being built into that which Christ Himself builds, but sometimes in local assembly life, false material can be built in such as “wood, hay, and stubble.” Unlike the building of which the Lord speaks in Matthew 16, the local assembly will not exist forever. Its testimony is time-bound on earth. Even if an assembly were to continue until the coming of the Lord at the rapture, it will then cease to function. Wise builders will build into the local assembly only spiritual material for its blessing.
3. In the Church, the Body of Christ, there is no difference as to gender. In Christ there is neither male nor female (Gal 3:28). This is the believer’s positional blessing in Christ. The eternal standing of the believer before God takes no account of differences as to gift, experience, or even gender, for the simple but vital reason that it is based on the atoning death of Christ. This standing gives to every believer a spiritual equality. It is quite different, however, in the local assembly, for one need only look at 1 Corinthians 14 or 1 Timothy 5:1, 2, to see that distinctions between men and women exist and are recognized in the assembly. In 1 Corinthians 11:1-16, the distinction of the sexes is clearly set forth by the apostle Paul. Man has his part to play and the woman has her part to play in the assembly. Thus the man’s head in the assembly should be uncovered, but the woman’s head should be covered. No such matters enter into the sphere of the believer’s position in Christ. The one has to do with our eternal relationship with Christ and the other with our earthly responsibilities in assembly testimony. Let us not confuse these different aspects of truth.
4. Membership of the Church the body of Christ embraces every saint of the dispensation of grace. It is the “fullness (or completeness) of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph 1:23). A local assembly, however, at the utmost, can only embrace the saints gathered together in a given place. The Lord Jesus in speaking of the local assembly indicates it may consist in some cases of the smallest plural number, for He says, “Where two or three are gathered together in My Name” (Matt 18:20). In the ideal sense it is true that an assembly in its function needs a reasonable number, with overseers and servants (Phil 1:1), especially when it commences. However, there are many testimonies throughout the world where numbers are few and much encouragement is taken from these precious words of the Lord. While there are many hundreds, if not thousands, of gatherings of local believers, the Church the body of Christ cannot gather together on earth. It is never seen on earth at any one time, but in a coming great day its first meeting together will be in the air at the rapture. At that moment there will take place what Paul describes as “our gathering together unto Him” (2 Thess 2:1).
5. With regard to the truth of the Body of Christ it would be quite correct to say, “Once in the Body, always in the Body.” No true believer will ever be taken out of the Body of Christ (Rom 8: 38, 39). The position of every believer in the Body is eternally secure. It is sadly different concerning believers and the local assembly. For various reasons, a person may or may not be in a local assembly. On the day of Pentecost, and soon after in apostolic times, there were no denominations and sects. All believers then were both in the Body and in the local assembly. Today, because of the existing conditions of departure from God’s Word, not every born again believer is in the local assembly. Again, a believer, because of sin, may have to be disciplined and put out of the local church of God (1 Cor 5:12, 13). On the other hand it is possible for a believer to be put out of the assembly wrongfully. Diotrephes for example was guilty of doing this (3 John 10). So no true believer can possibly be put out of the Body, but even a true believer can be put out of the local assembly.
6. The Lord Jesus speaking of THE Church as a Building said, “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). This Church cannot be destroyed. It is eternal in character and has a lasting relationship with Christ. In contrast to this, Paul, speaking of the church of God at Jerusalem, says, “I persecuted the church of God and made havoc of it” (Gal 1:13 RV, compare Acts 8:3). In the case of the assembly at Jerusalem, in spite of this severe persecution it survived and flourished for a while. Many assemblies since that time have had to endure terrible opposition and have collapsed in their witness. God in His wisdom has allowed this of course, but it does show, “once an assembly not always an assembly.” Indeed a church of God can be removed by divine judgment (Rev 2:5). An assembly locally can be destroyed through wrong doctrine, Satanic attack, or even carnal men. Satan cannot make havoc of the Church that is Christ’s Body. He cannot even touch it, let alone destroy it. He may by imitation set up a false Church – Babylon, but God will deal with this and destroy it (Rev 17).
7. In John 10:16 the Lord Jesus uses the figure of a FLOCK in referring to the Church. It is reassuring to know that in this flock not one sheep is lost due to the care of the Good Shepherd. In Acts 20:28 Paul uses the same figure of the local assembly at Ephesus and from this we see the possibility of the entrance of wolves “not sparing the flock.” Yet again there is a clear – and in this case a solemn – contrast between the Church and the local assembly. The elders were to be on their guard lest men come in who will devour the sheep. Shepherds in the local assembly may fail in discerning such a danger and may fail to protect the sheep, but the Church of which Christ speaks in John 10:16 need fear no such danger for He will never fail to protect it.
What we have set out in this article should appear obvious to a careful reader, but a young believer especially needs to get to know these important differences. It is always a good exercise when finding the word “church” in any NT passage to ask, “Is the word in the context here referring to it in the local sense or its dispensational sense?” In doing so it will save from confusion and wrong application of truth and will greatly help us to enjoy these precious and distinctive truths.