Friday, 7 January 2011

Church: physically gathered and/or spiritual fellowship?

This continues our discussion on the Knox-Robinson model of church.

In my previous post I talked about fellowship and discipline. My second, more general question is: can we use the term “church” to denote the relationships we have with other Christians, even if we’re not meeting with them? I would say yes.

Luke describes Paul, before his conversion, as ravaging the church (singular) by entering houses (plural) to throw people into prison (Acts 8:3). This could refer to Paul breaking into house churches - but if so, why didn't Luke use the plural, churches? Paul himself similarly laments that he used to persecute the church (singular) of God (1 Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Php. 3:6). This at least indicates that Paul can use "church" to refer collectively to God’s people who lived in Jerusalem. Acts 9:31 refers to the church (singular) throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria - which must be synonymous with a spiritual fellowship.

So, I conclude that it's Biblically valid to speak of "belonging" to an earthly church, in the sense of an invisible fellowship with believers, even if we're not in the act of meeting with them - of "doing church". This is not Platonic - in the sense of having some invisible ideal of which the earthly is only an appoximation - but a reality enacted by the Holy Spirit.

That said, the New Testament certainly puts a priority on the local congregation. This focus on local church is indicated in at least four ways.

  1. The city where it meets being named at least indicates it is not a national or regional church (Acts 8:1, 3; 11:22, 26; 13:1; 15:4; 18:22; 20:17, 28; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 2:1; 8:1; Gal. 1:2; Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:1; Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14).
  2. The use of the plural "churches" assumes a multiplicity of localised congregations, not a single universal church (Acts 16:5; Rom. 16:4, 16; 1 Cor. 7:17; 11:16; 14:33, 34; 16:1, 19; 2 Cor. 8:1, 18, 19, 23, 24; 11:28; Gal. 1:2, 22; 1 Thess. 2:14; 2 Thess. 1:4; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:16).
  3. Personal identification of the patron or matron, whose home the church meets in, focuses on the localised character of the church (Rom. 16:1, 5, 23; Col. 4:15; Phm. 1:2)
  4. The ethical exhortations in the New Testament letters demonstrate that their authors were concerned for relationships within the local gatherings. This comes out strongly in 1 Corinthians, eg: 1 Cor. 6:4; 7:17; 11:18, 22; 14:4, 5, 12, 33-35. An ordered gathering of the church expresses God’s peace (1 Cor. 14:33 – perhaps drawing on Old Testament shalom, wholeness, well-being). This is also the thrust of Eph. 4-6, Col. 3-4, 1 Thess. 4:1-12, and 1 Pet. 2:13ff. The reason elders must manage their own household well is because the church over which they have oversight is the household of God (1 Tim 3:5, 15).

So, I think the Bible affirms the priority of the local fellowship; but that local fellowship is spiritual, not just when we are actually gathered; and, reference my previous post, that fellowship implies accountability and discipline. I guess that makes me a fairly boring, predictable, free-church Presbyterian (*sigh*).

Well, that's my two cents worth. Thoughts, anyone…?

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