" Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting
together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near "
Hebrews 10:24–25 NLT
Traditions are valuable, helping anchor and give a strong sense of identification while at the same time establishing patterns of familiarity and community. Take families, for example. Some are big into traditions, especially during the holidays. It could be the way the home is decorated, ceremonially opening presents at Christmas, or gathering around the tree as Grandpa reads the nativity story. It could be the annual activities after that big Thanksgiving dinner, like touch football or horseshoes. Whatever the case, these events have grown into meaningful traditions that bring back warm feelings for many people.
Nonetheless, sometimes individuals caught up in a tradition stop and wonder why. Everyone seems to enjoy the tradition, but still, being something “that has always been done” does not quite settle the issue for some people. The question remains, What is this tradition really all about? How did this get started, and why is it continued to this day?
For many Christians, this is the way they view the weekly gatherings of local churches. Why is this done? Why do people gather together in one location weekly, sing songs, and listen to a sermon? Where did this local church tradition come from, and is the way it is done even biblical or necessary?
The purpose of this lesson is to help the reader understand that the local church is far more than just a traditional institution of man. It is a vibrant, Christ-centered community, founded in Scripture, that has existed from the start of Christianity.
What Is a “Local Church”?
A local church is a group of believers who gather together regularly to sit under the teaching and leadership of a pastor, associate pastors, elders, and teachers. Here lasting relationships develop as believers serve one another, take part in church practices (communion, baptism, prayer, worship, giving, etc.), and mobilize to spread the gospel, along with doing other good works. Most of all, a local church is a family. When it comes to the church, two main questions are asked: (1) Are the local churches today biblical? (2) Are not all believers (the body of Christ) the church? The answer to both of those questions is yes! Local churches are biblical, and all believers are the church. Both are true and talked about in Scripture.
“And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent” (Colossians 1:18 ESV).
The reference here is to the one, singular, unified church. The passage does not say Christ is the head of “the bodies” or “the churches.” Paul is indicating there is one, singular, global, or universal church.
“… to the churches of Galatia” (Galatians 1:2). The reference here shows that Paul made the distinction that within the region of Galatia, there were separate churches (plural). In Revelation 2–3, Jesus addresses letters to seven different churches within the area of Asia Minor. This shows that believers during the era of the New Testament embraced the church as a singular, unified body that included all the different people groups and geographical locations. At the same time, they recognized the existence of multiple local churches distinct from one another.
Globally and collectively, there is one church body, but that global body is broken down into smaller, functional units called local churches. An interesting thing to note is that the Bible never refers to a single individual as “the church.” Anytime the term church is used, it is in relation to a group of people.
This pattern was established from the very beginning. Early on, in Acts 2, after the Holy Spirit had come on the day of Pentecost, the first church community was birthed. Shortly before He ascended, Jesus gave the disciples the mission of proclaiming the gospel to the ends of the earth and making disciples (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15). Before departing, however, the disciples waited for the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew that without the Holy Spirit, the disciples would have no power to accomplish His mission.
As the disciples and other remaining believers were gathered together in the upper room, it suddenly happened! There was a sound of mighty wind, tongues of fire rested on each person, and the disciples began proclaiming the wonders of God in other languages. At the time, leaders had traveled to Jerusalem from many other nations. Hearing the commotion, a crowd gathered and heard the believers speaking in the tongues of the different people groups assembled.
Newly empowered, Peter stepped out with the other eleven disciples and preached the gospel to the crowd, and thousands were saved. At that moment, Peter could have said, “All right, guys, there is a mission to accomplish. I need all of you to scatter everywhere, one by one and on your own, and begin to preach what I have just preached. Let’s take this message all over the world!” Though a percentage from this group that were saved returned to their homes far away, a large number began to gather and devote “themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42 NIV).
These believers would gather at the temple to soak up the teachings of Jesus from the disciples who had walked with Him. Then they would meet in homes for fellowship and encouragement. From this point on, though believers eventually scattered to different cities and communities, once settled, they built local communities of faith. These groups gathered regularly to worship, serve one another, and learn the teachings of Jesus. Moving forward, it will become evident that the idea of Christians living in isolation apart from other believers is foreign to the teaching of Scripture:
“And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25 NLT).
After understanding what a local church is and realizing that it is indeed biblical, the next step is to identify what makes up a church. Church is much more than gathering with some Christian friends at a coffee shop or over a Skype call to talk about life and the Bible. God’s Word shows that a Christ-follower’s responsibility goes much deeper and that the local church has much more to offer in return.
“I left you on the island of Crete so you could complete our work there and appoint elders in each town as I instructed you” (Titus 1:5 NLT).
Paul left Titus in Crete because the community of believers was growing, yet there was no leadership to care for the church. The new group of believers was unorganized, and in order to maintain health and provide protection, Paul told Titus to appoint elders in the towns where there were believers.
This was essential to Paul because two things every believer needs are direction and protection. That is what a spiritual leader provides. Without qualified, godly leadership, a community of believers is susceptible to false teaching and sin.
This is not saying that the Holy Spirit does not provide direction and protection. He does, but one of His patterns of provision is through godly leadership. This was true not only in the early church days, but also today. Just as any healthy family needs parents and a winning team needs coaches, a growing Christian needs spiritual leadership. This leadership begins with the pastor. The Holy Spirit wants to use people to care for His people.
“An elder must live a blameless life. He must be faithful to his wife, and his children must be believers who don’t have a reputation for being wild or rebellious. A church leader is a manager of God’s household, so he must live a blameless life. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered; he must not be a heavy drinker, violent, or dishonest with money. Rather, he must enjoy having guests in his home, and he must love what is good. He must live wisely and be just. He must live a devout and disciplined life” (Titus 1:6–8 NLT).
Leaders need to be not only selected and appointed, but also qualified. This is to ensure that God’s people are being led well. This is why it is equally important for pastors to also have spiritual leadership. No one is exempt.
A lead pastor is instructed to stay connected with the lives of his flock. This can be accomplished directly or through the empowerment of other pastors and leaders (2 Timothy 2:2). The idea of someone being a believer’s pastor simply because of the influence of a podcast, a television broadcast, or a book is not biblical. There is a place for those ministries, but it is not to replace the pastor and local church.
1 Peter 5:2 commands pastors to shepherd the flock well that is among them. Hebrews 13:17 teaches that church leaders are accountable to God for the souls of the people entrusted to them. There are scores of great churches and God-anointed leaders in every city of America. New believers should seek guidance from the Holy Spirit to find a local church that feels like family. A degree can be obtained through online education, but a child cannot be raised through long-distance parenting, and so it is in the church.
“He must have a strong belief in the trustworthy message he was taught; then he will be able to encourage others with wholesome teaching and show those who oppose it where they are wrong” (Titus 1:9 NLT).
In the early church, it was the spiritual leader’s responsibility to teach and instruct the community God had entrusted to him. This was done regularly when the church gathered. One of the main functions of the local church is to provide a place where God’s people can receive sound biblical teaching. In a world where there are a lot of opinions and truth is seen as something that people can adjust to their liking, it is important to have spiritual leaders who are given to the study and teaching of Scripture (Acts 6:4).
This does not diminish the responsibility of the individual to study and learn, but it is healthy to hear a voice from someone whose primary calling in life is to teach God’s Word faithfully. Both are needed. How awesome is it that God has given people to the church who devote time, effort, and energy to pray for each other and teach God’s truth!
“Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24–25 NLT).
Here, when Hebrews speaks about “meeting together,” it is specifically in reference to a body of believers gathering together for corporate worship. It was the practice of the early church to gather together at least once a week when and where able.
The Bible never gives a detailed methodology of what to do when the church gathers, but the importance of the pattern of meeting together is plain. It is apparent in Scripture, however, that Christian practices such as preaching, communion, singing to God, and prayers were regular occurrences in the early church.
These corporate gatherings are important today because when believers get around others who love Jesus, there is a contagious encouragement to walk in faith. God created human beings as social creatures that are significantly influenced by community.
“And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47 NLT).
God wants the local church to grow as people turn to Jesus. The size of a church does not matter, but a healthy church has a growing number of believers being added to it on a regular basis. Also, God wants to use all who are saved to be part of reaching people for Jesus and seeing people added to His church. This is a team sport!
“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ. This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. He makes the whole body fit together perfectly. As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love” (Ephesians 4:11–16 NLT).God has gifted the body of Christ with people within the local church who lead believers to full maturity in Jesus. God’s desire for all His children is that they become more and more like Jesus.
This is not a solo job—it is a group project. The body of Christ needs one another to grow into the people He has called them to be!
Is It Necessary to Be Part of a Local Church?
To be clear, it is not mandatory for a person to be part of a local church to be saved. However, to be obedient to the Scriptures and in order to mature into the people God desires does require that believers connect to a local church. This life is not only about dying and going to heaven one day. If that were the case, God would take believers from this life at the moment of salvation. Believers, following salvation, are called to continue growing and to help others in the growth process. This is one part of the ultimate purpose of Christians, and the local church is the conduit by which that purpose is fulfilled.
In the teachings of the New Testament, to be disconnected from a local church was equated with being handed over to Satan (1 Timothy 2:10; 1 Corinthians 5:5). Removal from Christian fellowship was the most serious form of punishment a local church could enact. It is sad to think so many Christians today are inflicting upon themselves the most serious form of church discipline and assume they are better off because of it! All Christians need to be part of a local church. Yet if all of what has been discussed is true, why do so many Christians avoid it? There are several reasons.
Many people do not investigate. Instead, they resort to biased sources, casual conversations, or assumptions. When it comes to the topic of the local church, some people are convinced that it is only a man-made tradition that has no biblical command. But clearly, that is not the case.
Some people know the local church is biblical and healthy, but they prioritize other things ahead of it. Work, education, and leisure take precedence over it. Of course, things come up sometimes, and God is not keeping an attendance card to write people up. Still, believers need to guard against the lack of priority becoming a habit.
This is a big one. The truth is some people have had really bad experiences at a local church. No church is perfect and some can even be unhealthy. With that being said, believers should seek to forgive, reconcile, or even in some instances move to find another local church. But never should they give up on it.
The local church is not just a religious tradition or some man-made invention. From the moment Jesus told His disciples to go into all the world and make disciples, and gave them the empowerment of the Holy Spirit to do so, the local church has been God’s design as a vital part of the believer’s growth and stability.