THE EXTENT OF A LOCAL CHURCHPrint This Page.
Tonight we will discuss the mutual relationship between the meeting in Gordon Lane and that in Wen-teh Lane. In other words, we will speak on the boundary of the local church or the extent of the border of the local church. Before we speak on this matter, there are a few things which we need to explain to the brothers from out of town. Our Bible study, at this moment, is designed especially for the local brothers. Therefore, many of the things that are covered are local in nature. However, we welcome the out-of-town brothers to come and listen.
I have mentioned three to five times already that the authority of the elders is for the local assembly. In other words, the elders are for the local assembly. Position is a matter related to the local church, and office is also a matter related to the local church. One can be an elder in Shanghai, but he cannot automatically be an elder when he goes to Nanking or Peking. A person who serves as an elder in the assembly in Shanghai cannot go to the assembly in Peking and assume the same eldership. God’s gifts are for the whole church, while His offices are for the local churches. Hence, there is no such thing as a super elder who can control an out-of-town church. An elder can oversee only the church in his own locality.
THE BOUNDARY OF THE ASSEMBLY
The Bible study tonight is on the boundary of the assembly, and it is limited to the local assembly only. We hope that God will show us this truth. Because we are afraid of careless misunderstandings or forgetfulness, we will repeat once again what we have mentioned: gifts are for the whole church, while offices are for the local churches.
What is the extent of a local church? How big of an area constitutes the sphere of a local church? We would draw the brothers’ and sisters’ attention to the fact that in the Bible, the church is never divided into regions. The Bible never groups a few churches together under a regional organization. Although there were seven churches in Asia, we do not see the Bible appointing Ephesus or Philadelphia to rule over the other six churches. We only see seven churches, with seven lampstands. These seven lampstands represent the seven churches (Rev. 1:12, 20). In the Old Testament, one lampstand was divided into seven branches. In the New Testament, there are seven lampstands, not one lampstand with seven branches. This means that the seven different churches are shining by themselves and each one is responsible to Christ by itself. Every church is governed by Christ alone and is not under the control of any other church. In administration, every lampstand is independent and not under the control of any other lampstand. Every one of them is responsible to the Son of Man alone, who walks in the midst of the seven lampstands. They are responsible only to their High Priest. No church is responsible to another church. Although they are seven churches, they have not joined themselves to become one united church, and they are not responsible to some higher synod or convention. Each one of them is a so-called congregation, an assembly whose boundary is the locality. The Bible takes the city or the smallest administrative unit as the boundary of a local church. A local church is the basic unit of the church in the Bible. No local church is joined to another church or regards another bigger church as the central church. In other words, in God’s eyes, Rome has never been appointed to be the central church. God has never acknowledged one place as the center of all churches, with that place ruling over and controlling all the other assemblies. According to God’s organization, there is no center on earth. Jerusalem was not the central church at that time.
This does not mean that there are no regions in the Bible. Some places have similar conditions and needs, and they are treated according to the same principle. In Acts 19 Paul “passed through the upper districts” (v. 1). In Romans 15 Paul said that he traveled “from Jerusalem and round about to Illyricum” (v. 19). These places belong to one region. Galatia was not an individual city but a province. This is why the Bible mentions “the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2). Revelation mentions “the seven churches which are in Asia” (1:4). Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea were all in the region of Asia. Asia was a region, and Galatia was a province. We have to be clear that even though the needs and testimony of these local assemblies are peculiarly similar, no church possessed a higher organization or authority over the other local churches. The Bible never shows us that any local assembly possesses a higher authority than another assembly. Some have thought that Jerusalem was a mother church. Actually, there is no such thing. Every local assembly is local in its administration and responsible to Christ alone; it is not responsible to any other institution or assembly. Putting it another way, a local church is the only organization in that locality. To put it still another way, a local church is the highest organization and institution on earth; nothing is lower than it on earth, and nothing is higher. There is no court above the local church to which one can appeal. The highest organization is the local assembly. The smallest unit is also the local assembly. The Bible does not tell us of a center like Rome, which controlled everything of the churches, because Christ wants to retain His headship in heaven. Every local church should maintain the testimony of the Body and express the Body of Christ in a miniature way. However, every local church should be directly responsible to Christ and not to other churches. This means every local church should only be regulated by Christ and not be controlled by any other institutions or churches.
God dislikes the fact that man can be misled to think that there must be centers on earth. Therefore, He put Jerusalem aside and made Antioch the place from which the apostles set off for their work (Acts 13). It was not Jerusalem. This avoided the misunderstanding that the church in Jerusalem was the mother church, the headquarters church, and that all the other churches were subordinate churches and branch churches. Two hundred years ago the Brethren almost took London as their headquarters. This is a mistake. Therefore, brothers, please do not consider the assembly in Shanghai as the mother church or the headquarters. Our assemblies in the different localities are directly bound by Christ and are not controlled by any other assemblies.
The truth that I am speaking of tonight balances the truth that was mentioned last Saturday evening. Last Saturday night we mentioned the Body life and the relationship between an assembly and other assemblies. God will never tell one assembly to do something and another assembly not to do the same thing. The way God leads one assembly is the way He leads other assemblies. We saw that the Gentile churches should imitate the churches in Judea. We also saw that, according to God’s ordination, no church of God should act independently; rather it should pay attention to the move of the Body and seek for mutual harmony. Any person that one assembly excommunicates should be excommunicated by other assemblies. Today we are speaking on the responsibility of a local church; its responsibility is to God alone and not to any other local assembly. What we covered on Saturday shows us the strictness of the bondage and restrictions between one assembly and other assemblies; no assembly can act independently or make its own proposals. If an assembly acts independently or makes free proposals, these acts and moves are not of God. At the same time, we must see that every church is directly responsible to the Head for what it does. We can easily become biased. This is why we must maintain the balance in the truth.
Sometimes, we may act like the Roman Catholic Church. When Rome makes a decision to do one thing, all the Roman Catholics in every place have to obey. This is not being balanced in the truth. On the one hand, we should be bound by other assemblies so that we have the same footsteps and are the same as far as the truth goes. On the other hand, every assembly should be directly responsible to the Head for what it does. Every local church is responsible to God. Every church mentioned in Revelation 2 and 3, like the church in Ephesus, the church in Smyrna, and the church in Pergamos, etc., had its own golden lampstand. Each stood on its own stand, not on another stand. Every one of them kept their own position and was responsible to God. The Lord both rebuked and praised Ephesus. He did not lay the blame of Ephesus on Pergamos, nor did He credit the virtue of Ephesus to Smyrna. No church can take the responsibility of another church, and no church can stand on the merit of another church. All the churches are responsible to the Lord directly and are bound by the Lord. At the same time, the Bible says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22). This is the balance in the truth. On the one hand, the Bible says that the words are spoken to the messenger of the church in Ephesus. But at the end of the speaking, it says that the words are for all the churches. At the beginning it says that the words are for the messengers of the church in Ephesus, the church in Smyrna, the church in Pergamos, etc., but at the end it says that every church should hear what God says to the other churches. The Holy Spirit is speaking to all the churches. This is why he who has an ear should hear. This proves that what is kept by one church should be kept by all the churches. The responsibility each church bears in a locality is before God alone, yet all the churches should have the same common move. Consequently, the epistle was written to Ephesus, but the words were for all the churches. This is the balance in the truth.
In the Bible God has ordained that the smallest unit of the church on the earth is the local assembly. The highest institution is also the local assembly. The local church is the ultimate and minimal organization. Every local church is a miniature to express the universal church. Nothing is bigger than the local church, and nothing is smaller than the local church. We should firmly grasp this truth. We should pursue and take care that what we do in the assembly in Shanghai, our move and footsteps, is the same as the move and footsteps of all the assemblies in China. Not only should we pursue having the same move and footsteps as all the assemblies in China, but we should also pursue having the same move and footsteps as all the assemblies in the world. At the same time, what we do in the assembly in Shanghai and whether we are right or wrong is something for which we are directly responsible to God. We are not directed by any higher institution above Shanghai. In the assembly in Shanghai, no authority is higher than the authority of the elders. This is the boundary that God has set. Within each city, there can be a few elders. But these elders can oversee only the assembly in that city; they cannot oversee the assembly in another city. God’s boundary is based on the fact that elders are appointed in every city. This is why the authority of an elder cannot extend beyond the boundary of the city. The local churches as depicted in the Bible are local in their administration. I hope that the brothers and sisters maintain these two aspects in a balanced way. On the one hand, we maintain a sameness with the other assemblies. On the other hand, each local assembly bears a direct responsibility to God.