January 15, 2021

iMonk Classic: “Basics for the Local Church”

'DSCF0634' photo (c) 2010, Gizmo Bunny - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From January 13, 2006

Note from Chaplain Mike: For the next week or so, we will have “Ecclesia Week” here on Internet Monk. Our focus will be on discussing some basic perspectives about the Church.

Today’s iMonk Classic is excerpted from a post Michael Spencer wrote in January 2006. He gave these thoughts as a response to some who had begun to tag him with the term, “Emergent.” To answer that characterization of his stance on the church, he gave a direct reply to those who were trying to label him and then outlined the basics of his ecclesiology.

Today, we look at the teaching portion of that post. Consider it “Ecclesiology 101” from the iMonk.

• • •

There is much confusion today about just what the church is.

  • What characterizes the church?
  • Are churches necessary?
  • Is there such a thing as church membership?
  • Shouldn’t churches be free associations and not formal organizations?
  • How important is the church to the individual Christian?

These are some of the questions I want to examine.

Let’s start with Jesus. Did he plan to “found” a church? Or is the church a thoroughly human movement that can only be associated with Jesus post facto?

This question depends largely on how we read the New Testament itself. I have no problem saying the church produced the New Testament (though God inspired it), and I have no problem seeing the implications for what the New Testament may or may not imply about Jesus and the church in those passages where Jesus actually uses the term. For instance, Matthew 16:18 or Matthew 18:17 do not settle, for some scholars, the question of Jesus’ own attitude toward the church, because the church would have been able to place whatever words it wanted into the mouth of Jesus. I accept these sayings as genuine, but for arguments sake, let’s assume they could be questionable in authenticity. Does this mean that the church was not Jesus’ project?

A closer look will reveal that is not the case. It is undeniable that Jesus called 12 apostles and spent three years showing them his version of a true Israel. That vision is nothing less than a historical movement that imitated Jesus’ and remembered Jesus. The Gospels make it repeatedly clear that Jesus had an intensive teaching agenda for the apostles, one that went into far more detail than his teaching for the common people. Why did he explain everything to the twelve? Is there any doubt that it was for the purpose of leadership in the movement he was starting?

The Gospels tell us that Jesus took the apostles to Jerusalem, took them through the passion, crucifixion and resurrection, and then taught them the place of his mission in God’s entire plan of redemption. The church was born out of an experience of resurrection witnessed by the apostles and an intense period of involvement with Jesus following the resurrection, and all of this is tied to the continuance of the “Jesus movement” into history and all the world. It is in this experience, apparently, that everything comes together for the apostles for their own understanding of the church. They understand the significance of Jesus’ continuing “ekklesia” in the aftermath of the resurrection experiences.

What do they do following the resurrection? They remain together, even though on at least one occasion, some were prepared to return home to the old life. Instead, they begin doing the very same things Jesus did during his ministry, but now in a movement that is oriented toward the Gospel of a God revealed in and through Jesus, and organized in a way that it will continue to represent Jesus in history. They testify that the power of Jesus himself continues in this movement. And at the center of this movement is something distinct from the synagogue and distinct from the temple. Look carefully, and ask if these things are matters that could have come into existence among Jewish believers in Jesus as messiah IF Jesus didn’t intentionally begin these things with such a movement as the church specifically in mind?

Acts 2:41-47. So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.

Baptism, the Lord’s Supper and the apostolic teaching: these all originated with Jesus, and were put into the hands of the apostles in order to form an intentional movement; a visible church identified with Jesus in culture and history. They are the building blocks of the church, and they do not exist meaningfully in a freestyle, individualized “relationship with Jesus.”

Explanations of the origins of the church that assume Jesus himself had no intentions of founding a church are simply implausible.

I start out here to make a very basic point: Jesus followers who wish to eliminate, reinterpret or reduce the church face the problem that nothing in the New Testament is on their side. Seeing Jesus as the guru of individual Christians, or the church as some kind of accidental fan club that institutionalized a spontaneous spiritual experience, simply cannot be done without doing radical surgery on Jesus himself. A church-less Christianity requires such an edited, reworked Jesus, that the New Testament could no longer be read with any kind of integrity. This needs to be faced squarely and honestly.

I conclude that Jesus, from the outset, intended to found a continuing movement, and that movement is the church as we see and experience it, imperfectly and often far removed from Jesus, in history.

Now, we must move to two other necessary fronts: (1) The universal/local aspect of the church, and (2) the church’s possible disqualifying failure to represent Jesus.

Universal/Local Church. The New Testament tells us that Jesus is…”the head of the body, the church.” (Colossians 1:18) Many similar references make it clear that the church is a single body, embracing all those who are “in Christ.” This universal church extends across all times and places, and is not identical with any congregation.

In this sense, all Christians are part of “the church” of which Jesus Christ is the head. This provides justification for many to say that further narrowing of the church to local, visible congregations is unwarranted and unneeded, as Christ has his church, knows his church and will not fail to bring his church to completion in the Kingdom.

The problem here is that the same New Testament speaks about local, visible gatherings as “the church” as well. Here I Corinthians is the key book: “The churches of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord.” (1Corinthians 16:19)

This passage most certainly is not talking about a universal church, but about churches small enough to meet in homes.

1Corinthians 11:18—“For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part.”

Paul here describes the church as something that “comes together” in a particular time and place. (This may be a large gathering of the smaller house units, perhaps for communion or for teaching.)

In Revelation 2 and 3, Jesus addresses the “church” in seven cities in Asia Minor.

Rev 1:11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

Just a few chapters later, there is little disagreement that John sees the universal church.

Rev 7:9. After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands…

Rev 7:14-17. I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

These examples just touch on the undeniable conclusion that the universal church is normally expressed in local, visible gatherings of Christians. There is no Biblical case for a universal church that ignores or optionally by-passes the local church. While they are not identical, they “overlap” in ways that cannot be separated in normal Christian experience.

This is not to say that Christians do not exist outside local churches. They do. It is not to say that only those in local churches are saved. That would never be the case. It is not to say that the visible church is always properly related to Christ. Clearly, it is not.

The Penance of St. John Chrysostom, Lucas Cranach the Elder

The Failure of the Church. Which brings me to the second point: In Revelation 2 and 3 we see that the church in history is a mixed bag. Sometime following Christ, sometimes tolerating Jezebel, the church lives with it’s savior and judge standing in its midst. Sometimes it is faithful and reflects Christ truly and beautifully. At other times, the church has removed itself from Christ and is a collaborator with evil, sin and heresy.

The church in the New Testament already shows us that there will be no perfect earthly congregation. Only when the “great tribulation” is past will the church be cleansed of its own sins. It is around the throne that we see the church triumphant. In the meantime, those who belong to Christ are never told that the faithlessness and disobedience of the church ends the movement that Jesus started and creates freelance Christianity. We are to stand apart from the sins of the church, and semper reformanda is always the calling of the church in history.

• • •

So where are we? I believe the church- the local, visible congregation- was the intentional creation of Jesus. He shaped his apostles and followers into a movement that would continue within the boundaries of baptism, the Lord’s supper and his teaching, teaching which I believe included specific instructions about the Christian movement in congregational form. Rooted in both synagogue and temple, Jesus himself transformed the meaning of the worship and symbols of Israel, now making it possible for the church itself to replace and supercede those Jewish expressions of faith with something universal, centered around himself.

The implications for me are simple: One cannot practice normal, healthy New Testament Christianity, in any kind of whole sense, apart from a visible, local congregation of Christian believers.

Now I want to characterize these gathered congregations. Is any and every assembly of Christians a “church?” What are the necessary components of a local congregation in order for it to be reasonable identified as a church?

I work for a Christian school that exists as an intentional group of believers on a mission that is directly derived from our faith in Jesus. I do not believe we are a church. We participate in the church universal in many ways. We experience local fellowship and “congregational” life at times, but we are not a church.

Martin Luther said that a church existed where (1) the gospel was rightly preached and (2) the sacraments were rightly administered. Luther was saying that the church exists where there is an intentional, congregational, gathered effort to confess beliefs and define boundaries in relation to Jesus and the Gospel.

I believe this is a good way to characterize the church, and it has led me to look for four “C’s” that should characterize all gatherings of believers that seek to be “ecclesia” in the name of Jesus.

CREED: Churches should say with the church of all times and places, “This is what we all believe in common.” Certainly, at minimum, this should include the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed.

The common creedal heritage of the church is an incredible gift. “We believe” is a powerful historical expression of the continual presence and power of Jesus. Tied to the sacraments, the Creeds represent a direct contact with the very things Jesus did, taught and passed on.

It is tragic and baffling to say that thousands and thousands of Christians exist in local churches where there is no affirmation of the great common apostolic teaching on which the church is built. Growing up in Southern Baptist fundamentalism and revivalism, these creeds were neglected, ignored or demeaned as Roman Catholic errors.

If local churches do nothing else, let them say these creeds together!

CONFESSION: Within the historical evolution and development of the church, confessions have framed what Christians believed was the Christian drama of redemption. These confessions are of different kinds, differing forms and varying degrees of comprehensiveness. Some are revered as unalterable. Others are simple, flexible and general. Some confessions are imposed by denominations, while others are written by local churches.

What matters is that a local church take seriously the New Testament call to have a specific faith to confess. The pastoral letters constantly refer to the doctrine that is to be taught, passed on, and preached. True and false teachers are held to a standard. Pastors are to pass on a body of teaching. Many of today’s individualists want to ignore the New Testament’s strong emphasis on confessionalism, but there is no ignoring it. Congregations have a faith to confess.

Of course, churches differ on many things in that body of confessional truth. The tragic loss of Christian unity is a sign that the church is never complete or perfect. But we should also recognize that in the diverse confessions of hundreds of traditions, much of the truth is retained, honored and defended. I believe there is always hope for the church when any group of believers can read the scriptures and affirm a confession of their faith in Jesus.

At the same time, we ought to deplore a “hyper-confessionalism” that separates from all who differ in minute matters of doctrine. To stand aside from Christian communion is a serious matter. Confessionalism will compel us to do so at times, but I believe that if creeds and confessions are properly related, visible churches of differing confessions can share much of their life and worship together. The tragedy of a divided table and rejected Christian experience is a wound to the body of Christ that lives in unity from Jesus, but there is no reason to celebrate a fracture. We ought to seek to heal it, and where it cannot be healed, we can help one another to walk, even with a limp.

COVENANT: A Church covenant is a specific subset of a confession, dealing specifically with the responsibilities and duties of church members to one another. It is much neglected today, and may be the most controversial ingredient in the make-up of a local congregation. (One need only bring up the subject the duties of church membership to start a sizable rucus among most contemporary evangelicals.)

One of the great challenges the church faces today is the surrender of membership to the concept of the “audience.” Many churches have eliminated membership. I believe this is not only Biblically mistaken, but a critical surrender to some of the worst aspects (and idolatries) of the culture.

1Corinthians 5:1-13. It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people– not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.”

This passage ought to make it abundantly clear that there were members of the church in Corinth. They were “within” the fellowship. Church discipline would set the person-—who was no longer a “brother”- outside of the boundaries of the church.

I believe the boundary “in” was baptism and admission to the Lord’s Supper (dependent on a confession of faith), and the boundary out was removal of a person from the fellowship of those baptized in Jesus’ name and the barring of that person from the congregational eucharistic meal. If this isn’t some form of church membership, then Paul is talking nonsense. This is not “free association.” It is congregational Christianity, with a clear knowledge of who is “in” and not “in” the church.

The church covenant expresses how the congregation reads the New Testament in its specific instructions to Christians regarding all relationships that reflect upon the church and its Lord. These relationships are not only within the Christian family, but with those outside the church as well. Such a covenant might speak to matters such as attendance, participation and financial support. It could affirm the church’s ministry to the poor and to missionaries.

There is potential for abuse and mischief in church covenants. The covenant I grew up reading at every Lord’s Supper said that it was our duty to abstain from the sale and use of alcohol as a beverage, a position that is nowhere taught in scripture. I have seen covenants that took away Christian freedom and meddled in areas where church leaders have no authority.

Still, covenants are much needed in today’s churches. Congregations should make clear what it means to be part of a specific congregation. In American culture, individualism has left many of us illiterate in regard to be basic life in a community. A covenant, written with wisdom and used as a means of positive encouragement, is a blessing to any church.

CONSTITUTION: Now, as further evidence I am caught somewhere in what is considered the dark ages of church life, I will state that the relationships that exist within a congregation will best glorify God when they are expressed in a covenant document like a constitution. (Names matter little for any of the Four C’s.)

A church constitution describes the workings of congregational leadership and authority. It is an interpretation of what the New Testament says about what churches do together. For instance, a constitution would state and pass down the process for calling a pastor or electing deacons. It would specify the relationship of the congregation to its minister, other congregations and the state. It would describe the responsibilities of financial officers, and make clear how authority in the congregation is expressed.

Because many ministers have the tendency to abuse power and dominate congregations, a constitution serves as a covenant document protecting a church from abuse by a minister who has lost his perspective on being a shepherd and a servant.

A constitution sometimes seems to be unnecessary if “Christians just love one another.” Such reasoning ought to make it clear why a constitution is important. It allows churches to survive their own sins and failures, and continue as a body of believers. If a church has serious commitments to mission, service and witness, a constitution will be a great blessing.

A church that refuses to have some form of by-laws or a constitution is still a church, but it is not a wise church, and it is not a church that is seeking to be Biblical in all that it does. God is glorified in ways that sometime seem very unspiritual, but simply doing the right thing is sometimes very “ordinary,” and very needed.


So, here’s my view of the church:

  • Jesus intentionally began it and shaped its basic form.
  • One cannot practice New Testament Christianity in a healthy and full way without participation in a church.
  • A church is not just a universal description of all Christians, but a local, visible gathering of Christians with allegiance to the creeds of the larger church, confessions built on its own reading of the Bible, covenants that describe the responsibilities and privileges of explicit church membership, and a constitution that covenants the leadership functions of the church in an orderly way.

I care little for church facilities or names. I do not have particularly strong feelings about how the church expresses its worship in a particular culture (as long as God in Christ and the Gospel are at the center.)

But I am convinced, more than ever, that we ought to be serious and intentional about the life of the church, even if it is ten friends meeting at a coffee shop. At some point, a church faces choices of how it will express its life, carry out its mission and do all things to the glory of God.


  1. “One cannot practice normal, healthy New Testament Christianity, in any kind of whole sense, apart from a visible, local congregation of Christian believers.”

    I always liked how Michael never minced words.

  2. I still wrestle with the idea of a pastor/pulpit centered organization where the congregation sits passively and gives money to perpetuate the organization. Is this model really what God wants, or is it just something that has developed because of man’s predilection to organize and most people’s passivity?

    Where ever I have found myself I most often discover avenues of participation and commitment. I cannot just sit once a week and call myself a “church member”.

    This leads me to question: Are all who fill a building really a part of the “church”, even IF they are believers, or was Jesus looking for a more intimate involvement?

    If one’s involvement is no more than Sunday attendance with brunch following then are they really a part of a church local? To MY way of thinking they are repeat visitors and NOT part of the fellowship.

    • Oscar, I hear you, but is that what you read in this post?

      In terms of your concerns, this is what I read:

      I care little for church facilities or names. I do not have particularly strong feelings about how the church expresses its worship in a particular culture (as long as God in Christ and the Gospel are at the center.)

      But I am convinced, more than ever, that we ought to be serious and intentional about the life of the church, even if it is ten friends meeting at a coffee shop. At some point, a church faces choices of how it will express its life, carry out its mission and do all things to the glory of God.

      • CM, I understand what Michael was saying and I have no problem with that. My visceral doubts just deal with the manner in which we conduct “church”, not just style but the whole “pastor up there and congregation down here” paradigm. Generally there is no accountability to belief, creed OR communion in most evangelical churches. There is NO fellowship, in the strictest sense of the word, unless a person makes definite steps into the inner workings of a local church.

        What about those who are mere spectators, whose Sunday only attendance are all that they give? Are those people considered to be part of the local church on the strength of their once weekly attraction? They are more like fans of a particular American football team that plays on Sundays.

        But maybe I am just giving voice to my doubts and anxiety about it all, maybe there is no reason for my thoughts about the matter.

        • Oscar, I think your questions are very good. I was just wondering in my reply if you thought that’s what Michael was saying. So…disregard.

          What you are feeling about lack of fellowship and accountability is exacerbated by the fact that our society no longer provides a context that undergirds the church. When I lived in a small town as a boy, people knew their neighbors and interacted with them every day. Church was one piece of a whole cloth of life and relationships. In the urban/suburban world where most people live today, that cloth is shredded. We are in a setting much more like that of the early church; more and more we find ourselves “resident aliens” in our culture and communities, and not necessarily because our neighbors don’t share our faith (many still do), but more so because in our lifestyle we don’t know and interact with our neighbors.

          In my view, most churches have never caught up with contemporary, technological, mobile, alienated life. Many have become good at attracting people, but that’s only because technology has allowed us to put on a passable “show” to impress the spectators. We know how to get people busy and involved in activities. Beyond that…what you said.

    • That’s the great thing about the Church. We can’t really know who the real members are, and who the tares are.

      And even amongst the those called and chosen by Christ, there are a lot of people at different places in their faith.

      And through it all, where the gospel is proclaimed and where the sacraments are administered in accordance with that gospel, He is there, working His will.

    • Oscar – Get your head into some critical reading – start with Fit Bodies, Fat Minds by Os Guiness

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