The Local Church

What is the “local church”? Of course by the term I don’t mean a building, a denomination or the clergy. The church is often equated with something like these, but this is a mistake.

The church is, quite simply, the company of Jesus’ followers, a band of believers in Jesus.

Also, I’m not here referring either to the universal church, the company of disciples of every age, place and culture. This is a proper way to think about the church and Jesus and the NT do speak of the church in the universal sense often.

But the church universal is too abstract. And it gets us off the hook. It allows us to talk about the church as an ideal, but not in particular. Dietrich Bonhoeffer referred to this idealized view of community as a “wishful image” that needed to be frustrated by the reality of a Christian community in particular.

He wrote,

Only that community which enters into the experience of this great disillusionment with all its unpleasant and evil appearances begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is give to it . . . Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial (Life Together, 35-36)

Jesus, while speaking of the church in universal terms, always thinks of the church in the concrete world, a church inhabiting a space and a time. A church localized; a company of believers constrained by their specific context; a band of Jesus followers situated in a particular terra firma.

Here’s my definition of the local church based on Jesus’ teaching:

A company of Jesus’ followers

  1. who inhabit a common space in the world,
  2. whose common life is shaped by the teachings of Jesus, and
  3. who, being indwelt by the Holy Spirit, act in that worldly space as Jesus would, announcing the good news of the kingdom of God and enacting the kingdom of God through their good deeds.
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  • Larry Angell

    I have some Jewish relatives who believe in God but not the Messiah. Can they be included in your definition of church? I am a CHristian but my beliefs would not fit into any creed that I know of, but I have been very active in several churches. Do I count even though my own beliefs may not ben to everyone’s liking and some would not call me a Christian in their definition. Larry Angell in Vermont

  • Hi Joel, thanks for your clear and useful definition. It’s a point that needs to be constantly reaffirmed. I’m just wondering whether there would be a place for the sacraments in your definition?

  • “Shaped by the teaching of Jesus” may mean different things to different people – for example – ‘only the four gospels and not the rest of the Bible.’ Isn’t better to use a more inclusive language – ‘NT’ or ‘Bible’ ‘Scripture’?

  • S Wu

    Great post, Joel. Please keep blogging!

    I would add this this company of Jesus-followers always see themselves as connected with other companies of believers across the world. They seek to support and encourage one another. They share their resources with other another, because they see them as siblings in Christ.

  • Greg

    It’s pretty clear in the New Testament that the local church was the church in a city. The seven epistles in Revelation 2 and 3 were to the church in seven cities. In the early days of the church all the believers were one so they all met as the church in their locality. Ephesians 4 reminds us of our responsibility to maintain that oneness