Structure of the Local Ekklesia

Irvin Himmel
Temple Terrace, Florida

 

The Bible uses the word "church" (ekklesia in Greek) as a collective noun. Sometimes it applies to the aggregate of obedient believers everywhere (Eph. 5:23; Matt. 16:18). In this sense there is one church. Many times the word applies to the called out of the Lord in a specific locality, such as "the church of God which is at Corinth" (I Cor. 1: 2), or "the church of the Thessalonians" (I Thess. 1:1). If several localities are mentioned, the word may appear in the plural, such as "the seven churches which are in Asia" (Rev. 1:11), or "the churches of Judea" (Gal. 1:22).

Although there are many local "churches of Christ" (Rom. 16:16), in the universal sense there is only one church, or body, or kingdom that is "of Christ."

More Than An Individual

A single Christian can no more be considered a church than one cow could be a herd, or one sheep a flock, or one bee a swarm. A body cannot exist without members, yet one member alone would not make a body. If there is only one Christian in a particular city, there is no local church, although that saint is definitely a member of the body of Christ.

What are the requirements for a "church" in the sense of the local ekklesia? Is there automatically a church when a plurality of baptized believers moves into some city? For example, if six or eight Christians have moved into a large city and yet know nothing of each other's whereabouts, do they constitute the Lord's church at that place? Suppose they know about each other but never meet together nor perform any sort of collective action, do they constitute the church of Christ at that place, properly speaking?

More Than Miscellaneous Meeting

The church of Christ in a given locality consists of people who have obeyed the gospel and have united with each other to accomplish what the Bible teaches them to do collectively. There is more to the forming of a local church than merely baptizing believers at a given place; the baptized believers must associate, assemble, and act jointly. They must have the intent and purpose of serving together as the Lord's called out at that place. An indiscriminate or promiscuous gathering of Christians is not a local church. To illustrate, three disciples standing on a street comer in Jerusalem, meeting quite by accident, one being from Joppa, one from Lydda, and the other from Jerusalem, would not constitute a local church. Who would think of them as the church of God on the street corner? When Paul traveled with Sopater of Berea, Aristarchus, and Secundus of Thessalonica, Gains and Timotheus of Derbe, and Tychicus and Trophimus of Asia, were they a local church? (The mobile ekklesia? the church of the travelers? the church of Christ en route? the congregation of the journeyers?)

A Body of believers

The local church is a collectivity. The following are some of the responsibilities that necessitate collective action:

1. Assembling Together. God's people are warned, "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is . . ." (Heb. 10:25). Barnabas and Saul, at Antioch, for a whole year assembled with the church and taught much people (Acts 11:26). Individuals must act in, order to assemble, but what we do together when assembled is collective. One person cannot assemble together with himself. To 66 assemble" means to "meet together."

2. Breaking Bread Together. "And upon the first day of the week the disciples came together to break bread . . ." (Acts 20.7). Paul acknowledged in a letter to the Corinthians the propriety of coming together to eat the Lord's Supper but urged that eating to gratify hunger should be done at home. Modern man reverses the Biblical arrangement of I Cor. 11:33, 34. Many religionists come together for what they call "church fellowship," an eating to gratify physical hunger, while arguing that the Lord's Supper can be eaten just as properly at home.

3. Mutual Edification. In I Cor. 14 Paul wrote about things to be done "in the church" (v. 28), that is, when "the whole church be come together in one place" (v. 23). He exhorted that "all things be done unto edifying" (v. 26). We sing, for example, to teach and admonish "one another" (Col. 3:16). Some belittle certain church services as to the talks presented, telling us they are pep rallies. God knew that his people would need spiritual pep from time to time, and one reason for our assembling together is that we might be stimulated, exhorted, admonished, edified, and rallied to a better life.

4. Discipline. The advocates of disorganized Christianity make New Testament discipline impossible to execute. If all action is individual and independent, how shall effective disciplinary measures be enacted against the disorderly? Paul taught the church of God at Corinth to withdraw from an ungodly brother, specifying that the initial action be taken "when ye are gathered together" (I Cor. 5:4, 5).

5. Sharing and Distribution. When the disciples at Antioch sent relief to the brethren in Judea, they sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul (Acts 11:29, 30). The relief was gathered and placed in the hands of two men to deliver it. This reflects organized, planned effort. It was sent to the elders who, obviously, were the overseers of the distribution. There was both sharing and receiving through organized local collectivities. In Bible times local churches collected funds (I Cor. 16:1, 2; 2 Cor. 8:1-4) and local churches disbursed funds (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:15, 16). If collective action is never needed and Christianity is totally individual in every sense, why did the first-century disciples lay money at the apostles' feet (a collective act) for distribution to the needy (Acts 4:34-37)?

Two extremes need to be avoided: (1) stressing collective action to the point that individuality is lost; and, 12) emphasizing individualism to the point that the structure of the local church is broken.

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