Does God have one pattern for a local church to gather? Are we better than others, or is some other principle involved?
Is the local assembly unique? Those who have long been convinced of local church truth may find it difficult to imagine someone reading the New Testament and not recognizing that this is so. Nevertheless there are numerous Christians who do not understand that there is such a thing as one place that God has revealed for believers to be. So it is not just a matter of the assembly’s being a good place among many others, or a better place than most others, or even yet the best place of all others. What we need to be assured of is that it is the only place that God purposes a saved soul to gather in response to His Word.
What is the Purpose of the local church?
Does the local assembly exist primarily for the good of people? Some say we should gather for mutual encouragement and Bible study. Others say the purpose of the church is to evangelize the lost. Another gathering emphasizes praise and worship to lift our spirits. And the list could go on.
I Timothy 3:15 says, “… that thou mayest know how … to behave … in the house of God … the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Here we see that the assembly is a “house of God” and also the “pillar and ground” of God’s truth, particularly, as verse 16 notes, truth regarding the work and worth of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is a place in this ungodly world for God to dwell, and for Christians to present and preserve the truth regarding Christ. Yes, we should preach the gospel to the lost, we should teach the Word to each other, and we should worship “in spirit and truth,” (John 4:24). But the objective of these things is not just to produce healthy Christians, but rather to display the uniqueness of the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s certainly not “… all about me!” or even “us.” The assembly has a “trust” or deposit from God, the truth concerning the person of Christ.
Is there a Pattern for a local assembly?
Imagine the shock and wonder of a sincere Jew beginning to read the New Testament and coming to Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them!” He knows that God promised to dwell among Israel and to put His name in a chosen place, both with the Tabernacle in the wilderness and the Temple in the land. He also knows that this was only if the dwelling was made “after the pattern” that God had given (Ex 25:8-9). How could Jesus of Nazareth promise to be “in the midst” of those “gathered together” in His name?
Though the point is simple it is essential. There are no other names that the Scriptures sanction for identifying a gathering of believers, including denominational identities based on doctrine or practice. Such associations didn’t exist when the apostles wrote the books of the New Testament. The phrase, “church(es)of …” expresses regional or local location and also origin or character” as in “of God” or “of the saints.” Identifying a building where an assembly meets is not the issue, but rather that of making distinction by names. The Lord Jesus said that the local church (Matt 18:17), is identified as those who are “gathered together in My name.” That name is “the Lord Jesus Christ” and thus the pattern and consequent practices of the assembly are to be what the Lord has revealed in His Word. The pattern is found in what Christ, and then His apostles, taught. It is also seen in what the saints practiced in the book of Acts as they owned His Lordship in humble obedience to the “apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42). When the revealed pattern has been used, then the promise is known: “there am I in the midst of them.”
Are there distinct Practices in an assembly?
First we need to recognize that an assembly does not do things just to be distinct from other gatherings. An assembly is obligated to follow the pattern in being a testimony to the Lord’s name. By so doing it is inevitably distinct. It is evident that portions of the pattern are practiced in various denominations and community churches, while other parts are ignored or compromised.
Here are some things from the pattern that an assembly is marked by: a) observing the Lord’s supper weekly, b) leadership fulfilled by multiple elders and teaching by various gifted men, c) the active recognition of the priesthood of all believers, d) the distinction of being in the fellowship or not in it, e) careful reception into the fellowship, f) baptism by immersion before reception, g) displaying Christ’s headship; the women having long hair and wearing head coverings in the meetings and the opposite for the men, h) the silence of women in the meetings, i) the consistent preaching of the gospel, j) discipline for sin when necessary, k) separation from unscriptural gatherings, and again, owning no other name as a basis for gathering in testimony. The list is not necessarily exhaustive but gives plenty to consider when determining where we should be.
What about the People in the assembly?
When I was first saved, my mother said to me, “If you ever find a perfect assembly don’t join it. You’ll ruin it!” The point was well made. An assembly is made up of saved, but imperfect people. The local church is a gathering of “called out” people (I Cor 1:2), who are expected to be holy people. We are “set apart” for God’s purposes in Christ. Thus there is no room for arrogant pride in the assembly’s distinction. Nor is there liberty for personal promotion in its function. Effective witness to the person of Christ, by a gathering of believers, comes only by following the pattern while in humble dependence on our God and Him alone.
The Lord in the Midst
Charles H. Spurgeon
Amidst us our Beloved stands
And bids us view His pierced hands,
Points to His wounded feet and side,
Blest emblems of the crucified
What food luxurious loads the board
When at His table sits the Lord!
The wine how rich, the bread how sweet,
When Jesus deigns the guests to meet.
If now, with eyes defiled and dim,
We see the signs, but see not Him,
O may His love the scales displace
And bid us see Him face to face.
Thou glorious Bridegroom of our hearts,
Thy present smile a heaven imparts;
O lift the veil, if veil there be,
Let every saint Thy beauties see.