This teaching includes a free sermon outline to download for personal use, message preparation or Bible study discussion.
In our first study we examined, first of all the basic meaning of the word ekklesiaor church and we saw that it could be explained as an assembly formed by calling out those who fulfill certain requirements. We saw that the requirements related to Jesus Christ. Entry into the church is through Jesus Christ and Him crucified. There is no other door. This relationship to Jesus Christ is entered into in a series of successive phases—confrontation, revelation, acknowledgment, and public confession. This is under the discretion of all three persons of the Godhead: the Father, by the Spirit, gives the revelation of Jesus Christ.
In John 10 it’s expressed this way, Jesus is the door, the Holy Spirit is the Doorkeeper, the Father is the owner. Only those who are admitted by the Doorkeeper, with the approval of the Owner through the door, which is Jesus, have the right of access to the sheepfold which is the church.
Then we went on to consider the church in its first basic use, the Universal, or if you wish to use the word “Catholic” church. We saw that it’s compared to two things: a house or a building, and a body. That as a house or a building it provides God with His desired dwelling place. As a body it provides God with His executive instrument and agent to carry out His purposes on earth.
We saw that all Christians are members of this body and therefore members of one another. The body has one unique, supreme head which is Jesus Christ. It’s controlled and directed by one Spirit. It headquarters are in heaven. It’s a free church, and we saw that there are two public attestations of membership. Two baptisms. Baptism in water which is acknowledgment by human leadership. Baptism in the Holy Spirit which is a supernatural seal placed upon the believer by the Lord Jesus Christ as the Head of the body. In the provision of the New Testament, every believer was expected to receive both of these attestations. To be baptized in water and to be baptized in the Holy Spirit.
Now in this study I want to go on to consider the church in its second main aspect, the Local church. The church in a given locality. This phrase is frequently used in preaching and writing—the Local Church. I used it for many years myself, but I really didn’t know what I was talking about. I’m often embarrassed to think with what zeal I contended with what ignorance. I was really a fanatic about membership in the local church, but I didn’t know what the local church was. It really came as a kind of revelation to me when I saw how clear, how definite, how simple the local church is. It’s not a revelation that came by vision, but just a sudden understanding of simple statements made in scripture which I had known for years, quoted, preached, but never been able to apply properly.
I would like to turn to Matthew chapter 18 as an introductory text for the local church. I said in the last study that the word “church” is only used twice in the gospels. Each time it’s used by Jesus and each time it occurs in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew 16 Jesus says “Upon this rock I will build My church,” and He is speaking, I believe, without a doubt about the universal church. But in Matthew 18 He again uses the word “church” in this passage which I am going to read, and I think the context makes it clear that He is here speaking about a local church—a church in a given locality. He says that in certain circumstances a believer has an obligation to tell his complaint to “the church.” Now it stands to reason that you and I will never be able to bring our complaint or our problem before the church universal because it’s scattered in every continent. Some have already passed out of time into eternity. And the first complete gathering of the universal church, as I see it, will take place when the Lord Jesus Christ descends from heaven, dead are raised, the living are caught up and we all meet the Lord in the air. That will be the first actual meeting of the total universal church. It will be under the direction of none other than Jesus, Himself.
In the mean while, we find the church functioning in it’s local capacity. It’s in its local capacity that we most often have to deal with it. So let’s see now what Jesus says here in Matthew 18:15–20:
Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, 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. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Now you will see in verse 17, it says, “...tell it unto the church...” In other words let me put myself in the position of the person who has been wronged by a fellow believer. The first thing I’m to do is to go to him alone and try to settle it with him. If I settle it with him privately, then there’s no further steps needed. If I cannot get him to listen to me and give me satisfaction, than I’m to take with me one or two more witnesses of everything that’s said, and if he then gives me satisfaction the matter is closed. But if he will not listen to me and my witnesses, then the next step is that I must tell it to the church.
As I said already, it is impossible to tell it to the universal church, therefore, it is obvious that here we are referring to a local group that can be called together and caused to listen to my particular complaint.
Notice the tremendous authority vested in the local church. To me it is absolutely frightening. For when the church comes together, the local church, and arrives at a decision on this case, then it says, “Anybody that will not listen to the decision of the church and abide by it, is no longer to be treated as a Christian. He’s to be treated as a heathen man, a Gentile, and a publican—a tax collector.” In other words, he has forfeited his right to be considered and treated as a Christian. How does he forfeit that right? By refusing to accept the decision and come under the discipline of the local church.
Now to me this is terrifying. I’ll tell you why it’s terrifying. I don’t know of any local church that’s qualified to exercise that measure of authority. And yet if I were ever put in such a position, I would do everything that I can think of to avoid resisting and refusing the decision of a local church. You see we are dealing with things that are very important. They are of practical consequence, and they are very, very serious. How important it is, therefore, that we understand what we are talking about.
I believe the next verses that follow are not unrelated. Therefore, I suggest to you that in order to form a picture of the nucleus or the initial cell of a local church, we can look in verse 20 of Matthew 18. The King James Version says:
For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
I like to change it slightly to make it a little more literal and I prefer to say, “Where two or three have been led together into My name, there am I in the midst of them.” This is perfectly legitimate translation. We’ll not go into the details. The word that’s used is the word that frequently is translated “to lead” and when we use the word “have been led together” it immediately poses a very important practical question, if you are led you must be led by someone. By whom are we led? The answer is clear. You can find it in Romans 8:14. It is not necessary to turn there but the scripture says, “For as many as are regularly led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons or the children of God.”
So in order to live as a child of God, I have to be led regularly in all that I do by the Spirit of God. This is the way to live as a child of God. This is what marks out the child of God in his daily living—being led by the Spirit of God. So when it speaks about children of God being led together, it is clear that the one who leads them together is the Holy Spirit. In everything that we consider in connection with the local church let’s remember that the Holy Spirit is the directive force within the church. Jesus is the Head over the church, but He exercises His authority within the church by means of the Holy Spirit. We have to confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, but in 2Corinthians 3:18 it says, “The Lord is that Spirit (the Holy Spirit) and where the Spirit of the Lord is (the Holy Spirit) there is liberty.”
The Lordship of Jesus Christ over the church is effective only in so far as we allow the Holy Spirit to be Lord in the church. Jesus is Lord over the church, but His Lordship is made effective through the Holy Spirit in the Church.
So when we come to the forming of the nucleus of the local church, it is the Holy Spirit that must bring those people together. If not, then they are not living as Christians. This is the basic requirement. So it is two or three who have been led together, then the Greek preposition is more correctly translated intomy name, than inmy name. The phrase “into my name” suggests a focal point around which those people gather. What is it? It’s the name of Jesus. Again I believe this is absolutely basic. In fact, I do not believe that the Holy Spirit in His perfect will ever brings believers together on any other basis but the name of Jesus Christ. The Holy Spirit will never get people together on the basis of a doctrine or church membership or any of these things. There’s only one authorized focal meeting place for the true local church, and that is the name of Jesus Christ. When we are led together, gathered together into the name of Jesus Christ, what it means is that we are in fact meeting around the invisible person of Jesus Christ. He is the center of every true local church. It gathers around Him. Not around a human leader, not around the preacher, not around the doctrine, not around an experience, but around a person. And the person is Jesus Christ. The only authorized meeting place, point of meeting, focus, center is the Lord Jesus Christ. When the Holy Spirit is allowed to bring people together, that is where He will bring them.
Now there’s a very vivid illustration and parallel to this from the Old Testament when God brought His people, Israel, into the land that He had promised them for their inheritance. Even before they ever set foot in the land, one thing He made clear to them was this, that He would not accept their worship and their sacrifices in any place where they chose to offer them, but that He would appoint one place. He would put His name in that place. And only in that one place where He put His name would He accept their worship and their sacrifices.
This is stated in the book of Deuteronomy which was a revelation given to Israel through Moses before they ever entered the promised land. But it is very clear and emphatic. Let’s look in Deuteronomy 12 and then in Deuteronomy 16. Beginning in Deut. 12:15–18, talking about offering sacrifices and burnt offerings and so on. God says in verse 15 of Deuteronomy 12,
Notwithstanding thou mayest kill and eat flesh in all they gates, whatsoever they should lusteth after, according to the blessing of the Lord they God which he hath given thee: the unclean and the clean may eat thereof, as of the roebuck, and as of the hart. Only ye shall not eat the blood; ye shall pour it upon the earth as water. [The reservations are as follows:]Thou mayest not eat within thy gates [in thine own dwelling place, in the place that you choose] the tithe of thy corn, or of thy wine, or of they oil, or the firstlings of they herds or of thy flock nor any of thy vows which thou vowest nor thy freewill offerings, or heave offering of thine hand: [anything that is offered in worship and sacrifice to God can only be eaten in one place. Where is that? Verse 18...]But thou must eat them before the Lord thy God in the place which the Lord thy God shall choose, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates...
There’s only one place and that’s the place that God will choose. In Deuteronomy 16 the Lord is a little more specific about this place. In Deuteronomy 16 He’s talking about specific feasts: the Passover, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, and other feasts. He’s explaining to them that all these sacred feasts they must come and worship and offer their sacrifices in one place. Deuteronomy 16:2.
Thou shalt therefore sacrifice the passover unto the Lord thy God, of the flock and the herd, in the place which the Lord shall choose to place his name there.
And you will recollect if you think about the New Testament, it was assumed that every male Jew would go up to Jerusalem to the temple every year for the Passover. There were no exceptions. And then in the 5th and 6th verse,
Thou mayest not sacrifice the passover within any of thy gates, which the Lord thy God giveth thee: But at the place which the Lord thy God shall choose to place his name in, there thou shalt sacrifice the passover at even... [then again in the 11th verse] And thou shalt rejoice before the Lord thy God, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy manservant, and thy maidservant, and the Levite that is within thy gates, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are among you, in the place which the Lord thy God hath chosen to place his name there.
Now the historical unfolding of God’s purposes in the rest of the New Testament show clearly that the place that He chose was Jerusalem and the building was ultimately the temple built by Solomon, and in that place God said that He would place His name. That was the only authorized place which any Israelite, any person in covenant relationship with God under the old covenant was entitled to offer his worship and his sacrifices.
Now in the New Testament that temple has been destroyed. That place is covered at the present time by a Mohammedan mosque and no believer in Jesus Christ can offer worship or sacrifice. This is a very interesting fact. That’s why the Jews are so concerned about that particular area because they can never reinstitute their form of worship until they have that place. There’s no other place in which they’re entitled to offer their sacrifices.
But for us, as believers in Jesus Christ, the Old Testament temple has been replaced by the body of Jesus Christ and the name of Jesus. In John 2:18–21 Jesus, I think, makes this clear. He brings out appointed contrast between the temple that stood in His day on that same sacred sight and His own person and body and name. John 2:18–21.
Then answered the Jews and said unto him [Jesus], What sign shewest thou unto us, seeing that thou doest these things? [If you’re the Messiah, show us the sign. And the Jews will always talk that way. The Jews require a sign the Bible says.] Jesus answered and said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up. Then said the Jews, Forty and six years was this temple in building [that’s the temple of Herod], and wilt thou rear it up in three days. But he spake of the temple of his body.
So here is a clear indication of the transition from the temple built on the site revealed and first built on by Solomon to the temple which is the body of Jesus Christ. The authorized meeting place now is the name of Jesus Christ. I believe God is just as definite and specific about this requirement in the new covenant as He was about the corresponding requirement in the old covenant. I do not believe that we have authority to meet on any other basis accept as we are led together by the Holy Spirit into the name of Jesus. I believe that this is the cell group, the smallest fellowship group, the smallest group that is largest than a single individual, and out of this cell the local church is built up. I think is extremely important to understand because it is logic that if you want a healthy body you must have healthy cells. If the small individual groups and the personal relationships within those groups are not right, then we can never have a healthy local church or right relationships within that larger body.
You see, this is one of the great basic problems of modern American Christianity. We are not right in the small daily personal relationships. If husband and wife both being believers in Jesus Christ, both being baptized in the Holy Spirit cannot agree, what hope is there for unity in a larger gathering? But for many, many years we’ve been busy trying to build a large congregation, a large setup, a big institution without observing that it cannot be healthy until the individual, intimate personal relationships are healthy. A healthy body presupposes healthy cells.
I believe the basic requirement in this smallest group can be summed up in the word “harmony.” God has shown me more and more this is one of the most important words to describe what He wants in our lives—it’s “harmony.” Inward personal harmony. Am I at harmony with myself? Most of the people I know aren’t even at harmony with themselves let alone with anybody else. Am I at harmony with my wife, my family, my closest relatives, the people I see most often? Or is there discord, is there frustration? You see one thing about musical harmony you only have to be just a little bit off key and it spoils the whole thing. It doesn’t mean that we are heading for a divorce. But there’s just those little inner frustrations and the disagreements that inhibit harmony.
If you go back to Matthew 18 for a moment, the verse immediately prior to the one about “...two or three being gathered into the name of Jesus...” deals with this particular requirement. That’s Matthew 18:19.
Again I say unto you, That if two or you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.
You say, “Oh is it that easy?” Well, it is but it isn’t. I’ve seen lots of people try to make that verse work. “Well Brother Smith is in hospital. Come on, Brother, agree with me.” And we pray a prayer which may be perfectly sincere and have a lot of scripture in, but it doesn’t get Brother Smith out of hospital. I’ve seen this happen scores and scores of times. In fact, it almost undermines your faith if you see it go on happening. “Well, we’ve agreed, Brother. It doesn’t happen.”
But, one day God led me to examine the root Greek word used for agree and I discovered it’s the same Greek word that gives us “symphony.” It means to be in harmony, to be in one accord. It’s not intellectual. It’s spiritual. I sincerely believe that wherever two persons come together in spiritual harmony, anything they ask will happen. But, it isn’t that easy to be and live in spiritual harmony. I wonder if anyone would care to disagree with me on that point. It’s an art and I don’t believe it’s going to happen often unless we see how important it is. That’s why I always seek to emphasize.
I try to make it personal to people. What’s the good of telling everybody that the gospel brings love and peace and joy, if it doesn’t bring it between husband and wife. Of course if one is an unbeliever, that’s another matter. But where both profess to believe the gospel, be baptized in Holy Spirit and be sold out to God, if then it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. I suggest we’d better stop preaching. If it only produces disharmony and frustration at home what’s the good of exporting that. I mean the world has got more than enough of that already. They don’t want more.
I will tell you one thing the world appreciates—it’s harmony. I’m reminded of this and I can admit that there have been times in my home when the harmony hasn’t been perfect. I’ll guarantee that people react to harmony. People come to me frequently with their problem children. Of course my answer is well-known and it never changes. If there’s a problem child—problem parents! What’s the problem? Basically, disharmony. I am absolutely convinced that children, even before they’re old enough to speak, recognize harmony and appreciate it. Recognize disharmony and react against it. I’m sure it’s true even of our poodles. Well if a poodle can feel it, how much more a human being. I am convinced that’s the way it is. The real basic exportable product of the gospel is harmony, and it starts with two or three who’ve been led together into the name of Jesus. That’s the cell. And as harmonious cells come together in fellowship in a home, wherever it may be, they build up a harmonious body. I am absolutely convinced there is no permanent solution for the problems of the church unless it solves the problems in our homes. I believe this is absolutely scriptural.
As a matter of fact, I think we fail to appreciate that Jesus actually planted the gospel in the homes, even in His earthly ministry. It’s not my purpose to develop this, but you will notice that He would normally go to the Synagogue, which was the recognized institutional meeting place. What corresponds to us as the “church.” He would give them in the synagogue as much as they would accept. Sometimes they threw him out. Sometimes they listened to the end. Where did He go from there? He went into a house. For instance, in Capernaum it was the house of Peter’s wives mother. That’s where He went on with the people that were willing to go through. When He sent His first 12 disciples out in Matthew 10, He said, “To whatsoever city ye enter enquire who in it is worthy and there abide and thence depart.” Where was the gospel to be planted? Not in the Synagogue, but in some worthy home in each city. I feel there’s nothing more practically important for us to grasp at this time then the fact that the small group, the home, the husband, wife, and child relationship is really the basic nucleus out of which the local church is to be built up.
Now going beyond this cell to the body, and I’m speaking now about the local, not the universal church, I will offer you my definition of the complete local church. Now I want to warn you in advance this is extremely revolutionary. If you accept this definition it involves a revolution. It is not compatible with present day Christian practice as a whole. So don’t say I haven’t warned you. I’ve given you warning in advance. But I still believe it’s true, and I have written it down. You will find it in your note outline.
Completely: the local church is that part of the universal church resident in any given locality.That’s all. There’s no further qualification required. So you never have to join the local church. It isn’t your decision to make. If you are in the universal church, then automatically without further qualification, you are also in the local church wherever you reside. You do not have an option. As I said before in regard to the universal church, the only option that you have is your personal relationship to Jesus Christ. If you are in that relationship to Jesus Christ, then you are a member of the universal church. And if you are a member of the universal church you are automatically a member of the local church in the locality where you live. Nothing more is required. That settles it.
Now let’s go on to some interesting statistics about the use of the word ekklesia, a church, in the New Testament and I’m taking it from the King James Version translation. I put the figures down there in front of your eyes so that you can follow them, otherwise you won’t be able to absorb them or digest them. It’s a different way the word church is used singular and plural in the New Testament.
Church (singular) in a city35 times
Church (singular) in a house4 times
Churches (plural) in a province36 times
Church universal20 times
Church local, but not exactly defined16 times
Churches (plural) in a city0 times
Church (singular) in a province0 times
O.T. church in the wilderness1 time
Assembly (of the city of Ephesus)3 times
Now the thing that’s significant is the singular and the plural. The New Testament never speaks at any time in nearly 40 occurrences of churches in a city. In one measurable small locality there is never more than one church. On the other hand, the New Testament also in a considerable number of occurrences never speaks of churches in a province. That is to say, a church can never grow to a kind of vast organization which embraces people living in many different areas.
In other words, and I sum it up this way, there are only two defining areas of a local church. One a city and two a house. This means, and this is the important conclusion, it’s not so much whether we think of it as Fort Lauderdale or Pompano Beach or Plantation or whatever particular city we have in mind. This isn’t the exact size of the city or whether we consider Plantation one city and Fort Lauderdale another city or whether we consider them both one city—that’s not the important thing immediately. The important thing is that whatever we take as a unit of the local church within that area, there is only one church. There never can be two churches overlapping, much less competing, in the same area. This is the vital conclusion. It is totally unscriptural to speak of two churches, overlapping or occupying the same area. It is completely ruled out by the usage of the New Testament without one single exception. Now this is the vital, practical and revolutionary conclusion.
In other words, let’s take the city of Fort Lauderdale. Looked at from a human point of view we probably have what, three Presbyterian Churches, five Baptist churches, ten Catholic churches, four Episcopal churches and so on. As far as God is concerned looking down upon this from heaven, He sees one church. The church in Fort Lauderdale. It’s not the Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterians, or Catholics. There’s only one qualification. The certain relationship to Jesus Christ. And every person within that residential area in that relationship to Jesus Christ is automatically, inevitably without any option, a member of the church in Fort Lauderdale. You don’t choose. You’re not offered the choice. It isn’t your decision. The only decision you have to make is your relationship to Jesus Christ.
Now, let’s take this a little further and try to fill in some details of the picture. There’s an important Scripture in Colossians 2:19. Let’s turn to that one. We’d better read verse 18 as well, just to get the context.
Let no man beguile you of your reward [cheat you of your reward] in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels...
Getting you off center on some silly revelation like special forms of humility, neglecting the body, failing to wash, or wearing shabby clothes. This is humility that’s an expression of the will not the spirit. Nor in the worshipping of angels [or some new kind of being or revelation that somebody claims to have.
...intruding into those things which he hath not seen,
But the more reliable text have “intruding into those things which he hath seen,” passing off some special vision that he’s come along with that says you should do this or you should do that. Don’t be cheated by people like that with their special super revelations that have introduced something new which is unimportant and gets you detached from the center of the Christian faith which is Jesus Christ. Then it says such people are,
... vainly puffed up by their fleshly mind,
They’re carnal although they probably claim to be super spiritual, they are in fact really very carnal. But they only succeed in doing this if you are not holding onto the Head. If you lose your vital personal relationship with the Head, Jesus Christ, then you’ll be cheated and deceived. This is very, very important. The real insurance against being led astray and going into error, is being careful to maintain your direct, vital personal relationship with Jesus Christ. As long as you do that, people will not be able to cheat you. The people that go into error and get cheated and sidetracked are the people that have failed to maintain this primary personal relationship with Jesus which of course is the condition of being in the church. Now speaking about Jesus as the Head it goes on to speak about the relationship of the body to the Head.
...And not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God.
One important thing to see is that the growth of the body comes from the body. The same is stated in Ephesians in the fourth chapter. It isn’t some super preacher that makes the body grow. The body makes itself grow. When all the members are functioning right, the body grows naturally. Exactly the same statement is made in the fourth chapter of Ephesians. Most people are looking to a preacher, or somebody with a gimmick, or a method, or a new revelation to make the body grow. But the body increases with its own natural growth when it’s functioning right.
Secondly notice that the body receives two things. It receives nourishment from the right relationship with the Head, and it is knit, or held together, in unity and strength and compactness.
Now there are two things mentioned that’s holding this body together, and they are joints and bands. It says, “...from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and being knit or compacted together, increaseth with the increase of God.” Now what is meant by joints and bands? This is primitive anatomy and the terms of the state of knowledge of the time of the early church. We have two things that are considered as holding the body together—the joints and the bands. Now without going into primitive anatomy which I don’t understand, I want to suggest to you the corresponding realities in the spiritual body which is the church. I have written it out there and I suggest to you this. Joints are personal relationships, first to Christ, but second to fellow believers. Bands are universal attitudes which we have toward every other believer, even if we’re not in a direct personal relationship to that particular believer.
Now if you consider your own body you’ll see how absolutely vital the joints are. I’m speaking to you as one who was a Medical Orderly Class 2 in the British Army and I didn’t learn much, but I learned a few things which the sergeant drilled into my head. And I learned that in your arm you have three main bones. From the shoulder to the elbow is one strong bone. From the elbow to the wrist, two more bones. I forget the name of them now, but anyhow they’re there. Now I personally have all three bones in perfect health and yet have a useless arm. Why? Because the joint is out of action, the elbow. And if my joint isn’t operating, those bones cease to be any real use to me. And this is true again and again in the church. Each individual member may feel himself to be perfectly whole and healthy, but the body cannot function because the relationship between those bones, those members, is wrong. And this is exactly what has happened to the church. Many, many members that could function, are not functioning because the joint that relates them to the next member is out of order. They’re in a wrong relationship to the next member in the body. That paralyzes the whole body. Now the order of relationships is first of all holding onto the Head. First of all, directly related to the Head, secondly correctly related to my fellow believers and always, first and foremost, those that are closest to me. It’s so easy to love people at a distance. But when you really get to know them, it’s not nearly so easy to love them.
We had an example of this in our congregation in London. We had a lady that used to pray like an angel for the poor Africans. But one day, a colored man, in fact Brother Menzie Oban I know some of you have met from Jamaica, came, joined our prayer meeting and knelt next to this lady. Believe me, she did not enjoy it. She loved black people at a distance, but not next door. And of course there are a lot of Christians in America that have similar problems. But you see it’s the person next to me that I’ve got to be rightly related to first and foremost.
Now, that’s the joint. Let’s look at the band. One band or bond—it’s the same word in Greek—is stated in Colossians 3:14. We’re just there so we might as well look across at that reference.
And above all these things put on charity [or love], which is the bond of perfectness.
The bond that holds the complete mature body together in unity is what? Love. And the other body is mentioned in Ephesians 4 and you’ll find that much in Ephesians 4 is very closely paralleled to Colossians 2 and 3. Ephesians 4:3,
Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
So the two great bonds, the overall attitudes, which keep the body united and functioning are the attitude of love and the attitude of peace. So if I have rightly understood it, the unity and the functioning of the body depend basically on two things. First of all our personal relationship first to Christ and then to one another. Secondly on our overall attitude, peace and love.
How many Protestants really feel peace and love towards Roman Catholics? Well there are a lot more today than there used to be. But I can remember a time when I’ve stood in London and listened to the open air preachers—the Catholics tearing the Protestants down, the Protestants tearing the Catholics down. They didn’t have time to condemn anybody else or anything else. You see, that’s a total lack of the overall attitude of peace and love.
Now, if you’re with me so far let’s go on a little further. The next thing I state here and I’m following this outline, is that all these joints and bands are invisible. You cannot see them with the eye. And this is the problem, I think, that many Christians have. Now I like to illustrate this with something from the Old Testament. In the Old Testament one constantly repeated error of Israel was to represent or replace the invisible God by some kind of visible image. And you’ll find that God strictly forbade this and every time Israel did it they were headed for trouble and disaster. And yet there’s something in the carnal man that wants to make it visible. He wants to have something that he can put his finger on and say, “This is my god. This is it. That’s where it stands and that’s the label on it.”
Now, I don’t believe that ended with the Old Testament. My personal belief is that in the New Testament the problem is similar. God has brought into being through Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, a body which is held together by invisible bonds and joints. But all through the centuries, Christians have not been able to stop short at the invisible and say, “That’s it.” They’ve always sought to replace the invisible relationship and the invisible spiritual structure by some kind of human visible labeled organization and structure. This is so obvious in church history. It doesn’t need to be belabored. But not in any sense to pinpoint one group, but just for a very clear example let’s take the Salvation Army. Because to be a Salvationist you have to enroll in a certain organization, you have to sign your name, you have to make certain pledges, and then you take a certain position which is designated by a military rank, and you wear a certain visible external uniform. Now you would think, “Well, wonderful. That makes Salvationists one.” But you couldn’t be more wrong. Because within that organization—and this is no more true of Salvationists than anybody else—there are all sorts of strife and jealousies and resentment and refusals to acknowledge the ministry and the authority of somebody. Now don’t tell me it isn’t so because I have counseled with Salvationists that came to me for deliverance. And on more than one occasion I discovered their root problem was an absolute detestation of Col. So-and-So, or Brigadier So-and-So, or Captain So-and-So.
So all this outward structure of signing the pledge, putting on the uniform, and beating the drum and going to the appointed place at the appointed time, did not produce the real thing, which was the inward unity and love and right relationship.
And further than this, people get so wrapped up in the external that they completely fail to see that the internal isn’t there. And it’s the commonest thing to have people in the same church—and let’s say it could be a Baptists church this time, that are good Baptists, all believe the right doctrine, all pay their tithes, all attend the same building, and hate one another cordially. You say, “How could that be? How could they as Christians actually hate one another?” And I mean hate. I’m using the word hate and I mean it. And not be aware that there’s not anything wrong. The answer is they’ve got deceived by their idol. This visible structure that they’ve replaced the invisible with, deludes them. How could people under the old covenant, out of the glorious demonstration of God’s power, carve something out of a tree trunk, set it up in the corner of the house and say this is my god? But they did.
I read about a man in, I suppose it was North Vietnam or South Vietnam. His village was invaded and some American G.I. saw him carry a piece of wood out of the hut. He left behind his furniture, his clothing, even some members of his family, but the one thing he had to protect was this piece of wood. So the G.I. said, “What’s that?” He said, “It’s my god. I’m saving it.”
Isn’t that tragic? Fancy having a god you have to save. But, millions and millions of people all over the world are like that. As Bob Mumford says, “Some people are God’s little defenders even inside the Christian church.” One thing about God is He doesn’t need defending. One thing about the true church is it doesn’t need defending. It just needs acting out.
How have people become deceived? Because they haven’t realized that all that makes Christians one and members of that body is primarily invisible. Am I rightly related to Jesus Christ? Am I rightly related to my fellow believers? Am I rightly related to my wife and children and parents? That’s where it begins.
I emphasize this with considerable force because I’m continually dealing with people. I should say at least once a week I have people coming for deliverance with real major demonic problems. And the commonest single reason is resentment, or in many cases hatred, either for a wife or a husband or for parents. I mean this is not something that is rare. It’s the first thing I’ve learned to look for.
We had a woman come to our house yesterday. Tremendous problems. The root of it—hatred for her mother. At first this used to sound shocking to me. But I’ve become so used to it that I just state it as an objective fact. But the strange thing is, not just that these situations exist, but that they exist in people who think they’re rather good Christians.
How have they become so deceived? Because they’ve replaced the invisible by the visible. They’re clinging onto something they can see and they don’t realize they haven’t got the invisible. They’re like that poor man in Southeast Asia carrying out his god in his arms, not realizing that the things that were of real value he was leaving behind.
Now in closing the study of the local church, I want to turn to one further thought. What is the central purpose of the local church? What is the supreme objective? What is the reason that we have a local church? And my answer would be—fellowship. I would guarantee that most people wouldn’t even think of that as a reason. And yet I’ve come to see that the New Testament makes it primary. It is the most important thing. In fact, it’s the sole universal purpose of the local church—it’s fellowship. It isn’t to preach the gospel. It isn’t to build churches or hospitals or send out missionaries. All those are secondary. They are results of fellowship. If we don’t have the fellowship, we will never have the results in the form God intended.
Now let me take just a few moments to try to show you this out of the New Testament. Let’s look in 1Corinthians 1:9.
God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
You remember we said the church is a group of people called out. That’s the negative aspect, called out of the world, but called into what? Well first and foremost we’ve said their meeting place, the thing that brings them together, is the name of Jesus. Having met in the name of Jesus, what do they do? And in vary simple modern English the answer is they share Jesus Christ together. Paul puts it this way, “By whom ye were called unto [this is the end purpose] is the fellowship of God’s Son Jesus Christ our Lord.”
The word “fellowship” in Greek which is one of the distinctive New Testament words, again it’s a word taken from secular language but given a special application, it comes from a root word which means “to have things in common or to share things together.” I do believe it’s perfectly correct to translate it, “The sharing together of Christ.” This is the supreme purpose and objective of the local church. Everything else is secondary.
Let’s look at a similar statement made by the Apostle John in the first Epistle of John 1:1–3.
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and our hands have handled, of the Word of life; (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;) That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship wit us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
This really tells us why we were given the New Testament record of Jesus. John, who was one of the gospel writers and one of the most close witnesses of everything, says, “We’re telling you what we say, what we heard. We didn’t just have it at a distance, we just didn’t have it in theory. We handled Him. We watched Him in action, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of life. It was made manifest, it was made flesh, dwelt amongst us, we saw it, we heard it, we handled it, we observed it, and we’ve told you about it. We declare it unto you.”
Why? Verse three gives the reason. Why was the New Testament record given? Why was the New Testament written?
That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us...
It’s to bring us into the fellowship of the apostles. And what is that fellowship? The second have of verse three says,
...and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.
What is the purpose of the gospel? What is the purpose of writing the New Testament? To bring those who hear and believe into the fellowship of the Godhead; the Father, the Son, and all who have fellowship together. This is the end purpose of God in the gospel.
Now, let me give you two more Scriptures. 2John 12 for a moment,
Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to fact, that our joy may be full.
And in 1John 1:4, he says,
And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.
What brings fullness of joy? Face to face fellowship. It’s meeting one another. Meeting God. Meeting Jesus Christ. And meeting the people of God. This is the purpose for which God has called us out of the world, into the church. It’s fellowship.
Now look at one other Scripture and I close. I want to leave this as a kind of seed thought with you. John 3:6. A principle,
That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.
In the Christian life there are two kinds of birth. There’s a birth out of the flesh which produces flesh. There’s a birth out of the Spirit which produces that which is spiritual. Now I believe the secret is this. Only in the place of fellowship does spiritual birth take place. That’s why fellowship is primary. Until we come together into that place of fellowship around Jesus Christ in the Spirit, anything we do is flesh. And flesh begets flesh. The place of spiritual birth is the place of fellowship. And out of that fellowship are born the spiritual purposes of God. Then comes the witnessing. Then comes the preaching. Then comes the missionaries. Then comes the schools and the hospitals and all these things. They’re all secondary. They’re products of fellowship. They’re born by the Spirit out of fellowship.
But where we do not have fellowship, all we have is programs and activities which are flesh begotten by flesh. That which is born of the flesh can never be anything but flesh. And spiritual birth takes place only in the place of fellowship. You look at the two references in Acts and you’ll see. Acts 2:1,
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come they were all with one accord in one place.
What happened? The church came into being as we understand it. I mean, people can argue about when the church came into being, but effectively the church got into motion on the Day of Pentecost. Acts 13:1–4, there were five prophets and teachers in the church of Antioch, having fellowship together, ministering to the Lord and fasting. The Holy Spirit said separate Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them, and they sent them forth on what is the first official missionary journey described in Scripture. Where was that missionary journey begotten? In the fellowship of those people waiting and ministering to the Lord in Antioch. This is true. I am convinced of it.
Spiritual birth is out of fellowship. No fellowship—no spiritual birth. You can be as active, you can be busy with your witnessing, your preaching, your missionary endeavors, anything you like, but there is no spirit without first fellowship. Fellowship is the place of spiritual birth. As we come together in fellowship into the name of Jesus Christ, around the person of Jesus Christ, out of the fellowship the true purposes of God are begotten by the Holy Spirit.