‘I believe in God, but I don’t go to church’ has sadly become a popular statement among young people today. Some more biblically aware few will back it up with scriptures like Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” But does this scripture represent the biblical definition of a local church? How different then is a church gathering from a bible study fellowship or any random gathering of Christians? Are they right, or are they missing something?
What the Local Church Is
The scriptures indicate that a local church is a gathering of covenanted Christian brothers and sisters in the faith. This gathering comes together regularly under the authority of the Scriptures, the leadership of pastors and/or elders to worship God, to be a visible representation of people living out the gospel truths hence ultimately giving God glory (John 3:1-8, 13:34-35, Acts 2:41, 14:23, Ephesians 3:10, Colossians 3:16, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Hebrews 10:24-25). We can then safely conclude that the local church sounds a lot more purposeful and with a formal structure than just where two or three are gathered. So let us delve further in on what the local church really is.
The word “church” (note: church with a lowercase ‘c’) in the scriptures most frequently refers to a local assembly of believers. For example, in Acts 8:1, we see evidence of a local church in Jerusalem. There were also local assemblies in Antioch (Acts 13:1), Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2), Galatia (Galatians 1:2), Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:2), and of course, the seven Asian churches John writes to in the book of Revelation (Revelation 1:4), among others. Still, all these churches were gatherings of covenanted believers in a particular community and would meet weekly or more regularly (Acts 2:46, Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Rev. 1:10). These were not random gatherings of people who happened to be Christians who met when it was convenient.
In the scriptures, the early church was unified around a common confession and belief that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9, Ephesians 4:4-6, 1 Corinthians 1:2). The church was united in doing the will of God (Mark 3:34–35). In this, they were not ashamed to be called brothers (Hebrews 2:11). This was with respect to Christ’s call in Matthew 23:8 for the disciples to see each other as brothers. To the early followers of Christ, the church was more of a family, and they frequently spoke and wrote to and of one another in familial terms (Acts 9:30; 15:13; Romans 12:1; 1 Corinthians 7:29; Galatians 4:12; Hebrews 3:12; James 2:1; 2 Peter 1:10; 1 John 3:13). Considering the unity and type of family connection involved, a church is to be more than just a random gathering of two or three people (Matthew 18:20).
What the Church Does
In a church, the people regularly gather (Hebrews 10:24-25) in gospel love (1 John 3:23, 4:21) to hear the Word preached (Acts 2:42), to sing (Colossians 3:16), to pray (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), to give towards the Lord’s work (Acts 2:44-45, 4:32-37), and to practice the sacraments of baptism (Acts 2:41, 8:12) and the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:17-34). In addition, covenanted members dwell together while lovingly caring for one another (1 Corinthians 12:12-26), even through hard practices such as church discipline (Matthew 18:15-17).
Considering what the church does all the more qualifies that in it, there is more structure and planning than just an occasional gathering. Therefore, whenever people gather irregularly and are not practising the sacraments or any other qualifications suitable for a church gathering, it would be misleading to term such as a church.
The Mission of the Church
The church is God’s strategic plan for evangelism with one overarching mission: to go to all peoples to make disciples, teaching them to obey everything Christ has commanded, including forming new churches (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 1:8). Since this is the mission of the church we must aim to take it seriously. Unfortunately, if one isn’t involved in a local church, they will not help to bring this mission to pass, basically not bringing glory to God.
In summary, we must always note that the local church is a blessed place, even though it’s usually not perfect. Therein, lives can be changed, and remarkable unity can happen (Psalm 133:1-3). Since the church is the bride of Christ, not being a part of it yet claiming to be a believer is, in essence, rejecting Christ himself (Ephesians 5:25-27, 2 Corinthians 11:2, Ephesians 5:24, Revelation 19:7-9). To separate yourself from the local church then is to say that you hate your brother, which we’re supposed to love and be united to (1 John 4:20-21, Hebrews 2:11).
Don’t hide behind Matthew 18:20, claiming to meet with some Christians every once in a while hence imagining you are in a church. This is clearly not true. Examine your heart and ask if you’re genuinely invested in that which Christ died for (Ephesians 5:25-27) and is the head of (Ephesians 5:23). If this is not the case, then you need to prayerfully reevaluate your understanding of Christianity (Hebrews 10:24-26, 1 John 4:20-21).