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by Jacob Ninan
Due to long-term misuse, the word ‘church’ has come to mean the building in which Christians meet to worship. But many know that it was originally meant only to refer to the gathering or assembly of Christians, irrespective of the place where this happened. The church consists of the people who meet together and not the place where they meet. In fact, the early churches used to meet in houses, public places, river banks or wherever it was convenient! As a gathering of Christians, the church is referred to as the temple of God or the bride of Christ.
The first church was in Jerusalem and came to existence on the Day of Pentecost when Jews listened to the preaching of the Gospel by Peter, repented and put their trust in Jesus as their Saviour. Those who believed were about 3000 in number, and they also acknowledged their faith by getting baptised in water by the apostles. Immediately following this, they started to meet together regularly to listen to the teaching of the apostles and to pray. They also started ‘breaking bread’ together in memory of the Saviour and expressing their fellowship with one another. Next, we have a report of about 5000 people coming to faith after listening to the preaching of Peter after the healing of a lame man.
What we are told about the ‘churches’ (gatherings) of these Christians (even though the name ‘Christian’ came later at Antioch) is that they met together in the Temple and houses. Shortly afterwards, the Temple became out of bounds for Christians as the Jewish leaders began to oppose them, and then the ‘churches’ were in houses. One interesting thing for us to note is that the ‘church in Jerusalem’ was itself seen as many ‘local churches’ meeting in houses. There is no record of all of them meeting together in one place. We can assume that the apostles kept visiting the local churches and later appointed ‘elders’ in different local churches.
Here we see the body of Christ, which we can call ‘the universal church’, consisting of all those who belong to Christ, being seen publicly as many ‘local churches’ in different places. Later on, as churches came up in other places, starting with Antioch, they were all seen as local churches that together formed the universal church.
As time went on, and the number of local churches increased, two developments seem to have taken place. Many local churches became parts of denominations with uniformity of doctrines and practices, and a hierarchy of authority. Many other local churches remained independent with their own special emphasis on doctrine, but as numbers increased, they too had a tendency to become denominations. A third development has happened more recently in the form of megachurches, which are ‘local’ independent churches with very large numbers meeting in huge halls. These megachurches sometimes operate ‘care cells’ in which smaller groups of the church meet during the week in order to facilitate better fellowship and care for the members.
The character of different churches varies. Some are practically dead spiritually, but carrying on with their tradition and formality. There is no preaching of salvation because they assume they are all Christians by birth, or by what they profess. Some others focus on evangelism, but those who join the church do not receive any teaching on becoming disciples. As a result, people remain stagnant spiritually. There are others who major on discipleship and holiness who tend to focus on themselves and look down on others. Some churches pay much attention to social upliftment, while neglecting personal growth. Bible studies become the major attraction in some churches, while prayer seems to be more important for some others. Praise and worship singing has become the outstanding feature of some churches, while experiencing and exercising the supernatural gifts of the Holy Spirit seem to be the main attraction in some other churches. Even though some churches endeavour to be balanced and show all-round development, it seems that all of them end up lacking in something or the other!
Another factor that comes into play is the temperament of the founder/leader of the church. This seems to affect the emphasis that the church lays on different doctrines and the corresponding choice of ministries. The stronger the leader’s personality and charisma, the more closely the church follows his personal preferences. This could be one explanation for why churches focus on certain ministries at the cost of neglecting others.
Is this by God’s overall design that different churches emphasise different ministries, so that everyone should learn to be inter-dependent on the others and also to care for the others? Every church lacks some things that they ought to receive from other churches. Ministries that are missing in churches can be availed of from others. It is God’s desire that everyone would have something to contribute towards the growth of the others, and that we would all be able to grow up together (Eph.4:15,16). This would be theoretically possible because even in the same locality, there tend to be other local churches and there is great scope for cooperation. What hinders this are differences in doctrine, the desire of each church to be independent, pastors protecting their flocks with great jealousy, etc.
Some people have tried to force some kind of a ‘oneness’ among churches by agreeing to avoid talking about differences and to celebrate the points of agreement. But with differences lurking in the background – including between those who have been born again and those who only imagine so, and those who depend mostly on their natural abilities and skills, and those who seek to be led by the Spirit – we can see how this kind of oneness can be only superficial at best and very precarious at other times.
Jesus’ dream for His church is that we should become one, just as He is with the Father. God recognises that oneness in doctrine is not fully possible on earth, even though that is something we should work towards (Eph.4:13 implies this, talking about attaining to the unity of ‘the faith’). My personal theory is that there are no two people on earth who see perfectly eye to eye on all matters of doctrine. It is also unrealistic to look for uniformity among the churches with respect to the way they conduct their meetings, singing, etc.
It is only the life of Jesus working within us that holds any promise of oneness among us. It is only as we grow in the character of Christ and this is promoted in the churches as a primary goal that any progress can be made towards the spiritual growth of the (universal) body of Christ across the world. All attempts directed in any other direction will finally come to face roadblocks. It is as each church works on becoming more like Christ that there comes even an openness towards those who see and do things differently to see what they can learn from them.
One of the ministry goals that the apostle Paul had was to make everyone in the church complete or mature in Christ (Col.1:28,29). He did everything he could and made sure he did not omit anything that could profit them in this direction (Acts 20:27). This would obviously include providing for every kind of help that people would need in the church, and also for equipping everyone to be able to fulfil their individual calling in ministry.
Such a thing will not be possible in fragmented local churches that keep themselves isolated from the other churches and focus on their favourite set of ministries. Individuals who are in need of special help that is not available in their own church may not be aware that such help is available in some other church! Many times people seeking help from other churches are seen as being disloyal to their church and often their pastors forbid their flock from going to any other folds for help!
One can wish that things will get better, but that does not mean that till such systemic changes take place in the church, we should remain underfed or in bondage. Individuals who recognise their need and have a longing to have more of God in their life must learn to look beyond their churches for things that will meet their special needs. This can be done by occasional visits to other churches, attending special meetings, fellowship with people from other churches, reading from books and the internet, etc. It may even turn out that we may discover ministries that God has called us for, but which are not encouraged in our present church! Local churches are parts of the universal body of Christ. But isn’t our loyalty to Christ to be more than to our local church?
-- Editorial in the Light of Life magazine, January 2018
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