From the pages of the New Testament we can discern the existence of what we call “local” churches, spoken of as the ekklesia, church, in a given city (e.g. Corinth, 1 Corinthians 1:2; Thessalonica, 1 Thessalonians 1:1), or as the ekklesiai, churches, in a given area (e.g. churches of Galatia, Galatians 1:2; churches of Asia, 1 Corinthians 16:19). Paul speaks of these as the “churches of Christ” in Romans 16:16. Ideally they reflected the members of the “universal” church in their local areas at that time. Where present a plurality of qualified men shepherded an individual local church with deacons serving at their discretion (Acts 14:23, Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-12, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Functionally most of the work of encouragement and edification of the body of Christ would take place in the context of each “local” church (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Thus there is one “universal” church and many “local” churches. What kind of associations ought to exist among “local” churches, if any?
Local churches in the New Testament were autonomous, meaning “self-governing,” toward each other. Each individual congregation was shepherded by its own elders (Acts 20:17-31, Philippians 1:1). No organizing authority was established between the “universal” and “local” levels of the church, and there is no record of an individual local church overseeing the affairs of another local church or collection of churches, despite plenty of opportunities to do so.
Christians in the New Testament maintain association with each other; the Greek term is koinonia, referring to something held in common, and can also be translated as “fellowship, community, joint participation.” The word is used 17 times in the New Testament, referring to association with God in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:9, 1 John 1:3, 6-7), association in the Spirit (2 Corinthians 13:14, Philippians 2:1), association among fellow Christians (Acts 2:42), joint participation in the body and blood of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16-17), sharing in Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 1:5), sharing in faith (Philemon 1:6), sharing what one has (Hebrews 13:16), joint participation in the Gospel (Philippians 1:5), and a financial contribution involving joint participation (Romans 15:26, 2 Corinthians 8:4, 9:13).
Christians therefore are to have association with God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, and among one another. Association is spoken of in terms of the church in only two places: the joint participation of the Philippians with Paul in the Gospel (Philippians 1:5), and the joint contribution of Christians in the churches of Achaia and Macedonia for the needs of the saints in Jerusalem (Romans 15:26, 2 Corinthians 8:4, 9:13). Even then the association was between a local congregation and one minister requiring support; the “joint contribution” was not accounted in terms of all the churches put together but on the basis of the contribution of each local church (cf. 1 Corinthians 16:1-4).
According to all we can see in the New Testament, association is primarily among persons, not institutions or organizations. Early Christians had association with God and with each other (1 Corinthians 1:9, 2 Corinthians 13:14, 1 John 1:6-7). Local churches shared in partnership in the Gospel with individual preachers (e.g. Philippians 1:5, 4:14-19), associating with them inasmuch as they provided financial support so that the preacher could proclaim the Gospel. Within local churches Christians jointly contributed to provide financial relief for needy saints and the work of evangelism and edification (2 Corinthians 8:4, 9:13, Philippians 4:14-19); those contributions were entrusted to individual evangelists or the elders of churches where there was a need (e.g. Acts 11:29-30, Philippians 4:14-19).
The New Testament betrays no concept of local churches “fellowshipping” or “having association” with one another as local churches. Since they are to represent the people of God in their respective locations, connections and associations existed among individual Christians. Christians commended fellow Christians (Romans 16:1); Christians knew of each other’s existence and their stand in the faith (1 Thessalonians 1:6-10); Christians showed hospitality to each other (1 Peter 4:9, 3 John 1:8). At times a local congregation would unfortunately find it necessary to enact discipline against an unrepentant, rebellious member (1 Corinthians 5:1-13); we see no indication that such was done by congregations regarding other congregations.
The local church is to represent the people of God in Christ in a given area at a given moment in time. Those people maintain association with each other and with other Christians in other areas. We see no example or expectation in the New Testament of the local church, as a local church, maintaining association with any institution or organization. Association remains primarily on an individual level. After all, as can be seen in Jude 1:4-23 and Revelation 2:1-3:21 many local churches had members within it who were sinful and in need of correction while other members were commended for their faithful stand for the Lord. We do well to respect what God has revealed about the nature of association and maintain it among individuals working together to accomplish God’s purposes!
Ethan R. Longhenry