The New Testament Church
A Local Body
Churches of the Bible Were Local Congregations
Nothing could be more plain in the Bible than that every time a church is spoken of a local congregation is meant. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, "I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Now what kind of a church was that? Was it a universal something that would spread all over the world? No. For if you will just read on till you come to Matthew 18:17 you will find where He told them that if a brother offended another brother and refused to make peace with him, "tell it to the church." How could he tell it to a universal, invisible church spread all over the world? It would be impossible to do that, but if it was a local congregation, it would be easy to do.
Where Was This Church Located?
This church that Jesus was talking about building was first a company or congregation that traveled with Him, but it was always a local company. It was located where He was located: "Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection" (Acts 1:21, 22).
Now let us notice several things which we learn from this passage:
Here was a company of baptized believers that had been together from the days of John the Baptist.
It had been in company with Jesus and He had gone in and out among them.
They were with Him and saw Him ascend to heaven.
They were in a business meeting and elected an apostle to take the place of Judas. (Read all of Acts 1:15-26).
In order to be an apostle one had to be an eye witness to the ministry of Jesus, being with Him all the time from the time of John the Baptist till Jesus ascended.
There were at least one hundred twenty (120) in that company and they held a business meeting and elected an apostle (Acts 1:15-26).
That company was located in Jerusalem, after Jesus went to heaven, and met in an upper room (Acts 1:12-14).
It was to that same company that the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4). They were all in one place, local, in one room.
That company was called the church (Acts 2:47), and the Lord added to it daily such as should be (or were) saved.
That same company (church) was called the church which was at Jerusalem (Acts 11:22).
Could anything be more plain than that the church Jesus built, the one He was with, and went in and out among them, was a local congregation, meeting in one place, and that that place was a house, an upper chamber (room) in Jerusalem? Remember nothing can be universal and local at the same time. Universal means everywhere, local means in one place.
The Jerusalem Church
There is another thing we should understand about the Jerusalem church. She was the mother church and all the other churches came out of her, or out of churches which were her children, and since the Jerusalem church belonged to Christ, then, all of her children belong to Christ. In this way Christ has ever kept His church alive, and the gates of hell shall not, and cannot prevail against her. Let us find the churches that came out of the church at Jerusalem.
Philip went to Samaria, preached Christ and many were saved and baptized (Acts 8:4-12). This was how the church began in Samaria.
When Paul started to Damascus there was already a church there. He was converted on the way and was baptized by Ananias of Damascus (Acts 9:1-19).
Peter went to Caesarea where Cornelius and a number of others were baptized, and this is how the church began in Caesarea (Acts 10:23-48).
When the gospel was preached to the Greeks at Antioch, and the Jerusalem Church heard about it, they sent Barnabas as a missionary to Antioch. Barnabas got Paul (Saul) to help him and they established a church there (Acts 11:19-26). This congregation is called the church at Antioch in Acts 11:26 and 13:1.
So, if the congregation of disciples at Antioch was called a church, then, the congregation at Caesarea was a church, the congregation at Damascus was a church, and the congregation at Samaria was a church.
So we see that while there may have been many more, here are at least four churches, all local bodies or companies of baptized believers that came directly out of the church at Jerusalem.
The Church at Antioch
Now, let us follow the work of the missionaries of the Antioch church and learn about some of the churches that came out of her through her mission work, and we will see if they were local congregations like the one at Jerusalem, and the one at Antioch. The church at Antioch is chosen because the Bible chooses it. We must remember that the church which was at Jerusalem was persecuted, and the members were scattered abroad, except the apostles, so that it became weak and few in number (Acts 8:1). But the church at Antioch was strong and became one of the greatest mission-minded churches that has ever existed. It was this church that sent out Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13:1-3).
We find that the church at Antioch was a local congregation and not a universal, invisible something that spread all over the world. Notice the following language: "Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers" (Acts 13:1).
The church that was at Antioch. The church was AT a place, and that place was Antioch. Antioch was a city. So the church at Antioch was located in the city of Antioch. It could not have been a universal church.
Now, if you read the next three verses (Acts 13:1-3) you will find that this church AT Antioch, led by the Holy Spirit, sent out Paul and Barnabas as missionaries. These missionaries went out on their missionary journey, and that journey took them to the Island of Cyprus and the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. They visited and preached in the following named cities where it is said that people believed (Acts 13 and 14): Salamis, (on the Island of Cyprus), Paphos, Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. There were probably other cities, for we are told that they preached in all those regions, but only the places where we are told that people believed are named. The next important fact that you should learn is, these bands of believers were called churches: "And when they had ordained them elders in every church, and had prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord, on whom they believed (Acts 14:23).
What do we learn here? They ordained them elders in every church. Not just one big church, but in every church. Every one of these bands of believers had their own elders (pastors and deacons), and each one was called a church. Hence, there was a church at Salamis, there was a church at Paphos, there was a church at Antioch of Pisidia, there was a church at Iconium, there was a church at Lystra and there was a church at Derbe. And Paul and Barnabas ordained elders in every church.
They were not invisible or universal things, but local bands of baptized believers. All these churches were, so-to-speak, daughter churches of the church which was at Antioch and granddaughters of the church which was at Jerusalem: for the Antioch church was the daughter of the Jerusalem church.
The Second Missionary Journey from Antioch
After Paul and Barnabas returned from their first journey, they made their report to the church at Antioch which had sent them out (Acts 14:26-28). Then in Acts 15:36, we find that Paul desired to make a second journey. He and Barnabas separated, however, and this time Paul took Silas as his partner. In Acts 16:1-5, we find Paul visiting some of the same cities that he visited before, namely, Derbe, Lystra and Iconium, and now we are told plainly that there were churches in these cities. "And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily" (Acts 16:5).
This confirms the truth that the church is a local body in another way. Note that the churches were established. Why did not he say the CHURCH was established? Because there was more than one and he had to make them plural in number. If there had been just one big universal church, with all the saved people in it, then Paul would have said the church was established, but since there was one local congregation in each city, and since there were several of them, he had to say churches were established.
Paulís second missionary journey carried him into Europe, that is into Macedonia in Greece. He preached at Philippi where Lydia, the Philippian jailor, and many others were saved (Acts 16:12-34). He and Silas preached at Thessalonica, at Athens (Acts 17), and then at Corinth, and at Ephesus. In all these places they left believers. All of these were in Greece except Ephesus which was on the coast of Asia. It was at Ephesus that Paul found the disciples of Apollos and got them on the right track. Aquila and Priscilla, two other missionaries, had already been to Ephesus (Acts 19 and 20), and had already taught Apollos the way of the Lord "more perfectly."
Now let us see about these bands of believers Paul left at these places. Were they churches? Was there a church at each place, or did they all make one big church? Let the Bible answer the question.
Let us take Philippi, Thessalonica, and Athens and see about them. These are all in the region of Macedonia and they are called by Paul, "The churches of Macedonia," 2 Corinthians 8:1: "Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches of Macedonia."
Here again we find reference made to more than one church. If there was one big church, why did not Paul say, "the church of Macedonia"? There was not just one big church, but Macedonia was a country, a state, and not a city. There were several cities in the state of Macedonia and there were several churches. So Paul had to say "churches," because there is no such thing as one big church.
But if you will read Philippians 1:1 and 4:15 you will find that Paul actually said that these saints were a church, and he also said they had bishops (pastors) and deacons. "No church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but YE ONLY" (Phil. 4:15).
What do these words, "no church, but ye only," mean? Simply this, you are the only church that sent me an offering. Hence we see the church at Philippi was one of the churches of Macedonia. It is silly to talk about a big universal, invisible church in the light of all this truth. There is no such thing in the Bible.
Now let us see about Corinth, another place where Paul preached. Was there a church located there? If so, could it be universal and be at Corinth?
1 Corinthians 1:2: "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth." Could anything be more simple and plain than this? The church at Corinth; not a universal, invisible something, but the church located at Corinth. Just like we have the church at Jerusalem (Acts 11:22); the church at Antioch; so we have the church at Corinth. Nowhere in all the Bible can one find that all these churches make up one big, universal church.
But what about Ephesus where Paul preached so long? He stayed there three years and was in the school of Tyrannus. Was that called a church? "And from Miletus he (Paul) sent to Ephesus, and called the elders of the church together" (Acts 20:17). And, "Unto the angel of the church of (Greek, in) Ephesus, write . . ." (Rev. 2:1).
Here it is again as plain as day. Paul sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church together, and John says, "The church in Ephesus." What more proof would one want that every time the Lord speaks of a church, He speaks of a congregation in a given place.
What about the city of Caesarea, where Cornelius was baptized? Was there a church located there? "And when he (Paul) had landed at Caesarea, and gone up, and saluted the church, he went down to Antioch" (Acts 18:22).
Paul saluted the church at Caesarea. So, there must have been one there. It could not be universal and be at Caesarea. Just like there was a church at Jerusalem, a church at Antioch, a church at Corinth, and a church at Ephesus, so there was a church at Caesarea and Paul saluted it.