Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 2, 1967
NUMBER 38, PAGE 1-2a

What Is The Local Church?

Hoyt H. Houchin

Having written a series of articles on the function of elders sometime ago, we now wish to consider the local church, what it is and how it functions.

According to what is being written by a few brethren, they obviously do not know what the local church is. Before we can properly understand what the local church is to do, that is, what it is to provide for with its resources, we must determine by the scriptures just what the local church is. This is a fundamental point, yet it is very apparently misunderstood.

The word "church" is from the Greek word "ekklesia" and it literally means: "a gathering of citizens called out from their homes into some public place; an assembly." This definition is from Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, pgs. 195-196. As an example of this general definition, he cites Acts 19:39 where Alexander, the town clerk, proposed that grievances could be settled in a regular assembly (ekklesia). He also states that the word applied to "any gathering or throng of men assembled by chance or tumultuously; Acts 19:32,41."

In a religious sense, the word "ekklesia" is used in two ways: (1) "an assembly of Christians gathered for worship" (I Cor. 14:19,35), (2) "a company of Christians." (Both of these definitions are from Thayer, pg. 196). Explaining this latter definition he says of a company of Christians "or of those who, hoping for eternal salvation through Jesus Christ, observe their own religious rites, hold their own religious meetings, and manage their own affairs according to regulations prescribed for the body for order's sake. "From this we conclude that the word "church" in a religious sense may be applied to a "company of Christians" (universal, without geographical limitations), and to a banding of those Christians in meetings, managing their own affairs. The word "church" (ekklesia) is applied in the universal sense and the local sense. In the universal sense it is the body of Christians in the entire world. The universal church is composed of all who have been "called out" of the world of sin by their obedience of the gospel of Christ. In the local sense, the word "church" (ekklesia) is applied to a group of Christians, banded for work and worship in a given place, As examples of such there was the church at Rome (Rom. 1:7), the church at Corinth (I Cor. 1:2), the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1: 2), etc.

In consideration of the distinction that is to be made between the universal church and the local church, people are not baptized into the local church. They are baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27), and into the one body, the church (I Cor. 12:13). That body is composed of the saved, the redeemed, every child of God upon the face of the earth. The eunuch in Acts 8 was not baptized into any local church; if so, which one? Saul of Tarsus was not baptized into a local church. After he obeyed the gospel he came to Jerusalem and "he assayed to join himself to the disciples" (Acts 9:26). In becoming a Christian, we do not "join" the church (the universal church) but afterward we may "join" ourselves to a group of Christians in a given place, who by mutual consent have banded themselves for work and worship and therefore compose the church at that place. Although a group of individuals may form a congregation in some particular locality, that congregation or other congregations do not make up the universal church. It is a misnomer to speak of "the congregations of the church of Christ". This would mean a universal organization of the church, one church composed of many congregations. This is purely a denominational concept of the church and is certainly not so described in the New Testament. It is possible for a person to be a member of the universal church without being associated with a local congregation. This situation may exist and as cases in point the eunuch in Acts 8, Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:26), a person who may move to a locality where there is no congregation, or a young man in the armed forces overseas. Since a person can be a member of the universal church without being attached to a local church, local churches do not comprise the universal church. The universal church is composed of individual Christians, not congregations.

What is the local church? It is a band of Christians in a given place who assemble for worship and who provide out of their pooled resources for the work that God has authorized the local church to do. The universal church has no organization. Individual members of the universal church, under Christ their head, perform every work that God has authorized the individual to do. As we shall see in future articles, the local church has an organization and the work that it is to provide for must be within the limits of divine authority as pertains to the local church.

The distinction between the universal church and the local church, when properly understood, will make clear the difference between what the individual Christian may provide for with his money, and what the local church may provide for with its money.