The New Testament reveals that the most basic unit in Christianity is the individual Christian: a person who has believed in Jesus as Lord, has repented of sin, been baptized, and seeks to follow Jesus (Acts 2:38, Romans 10:9-10, 1 John 2:3-6). Individual Christians in the New Testament associate with fellow Christians in a given area so as to comprise a local church of God’s people (Acts 2:42-47, 9:26-28, 1 Corinthians 11:18). What is the relationship between individual Christians and the local church?
We do well to first recognize that God intends for the individual Christian to be part of a local church. We do not find any examples in the New Testament of Christians faithfully serving God while not a part of a local congregation of believers. Through the preaching of the Gospel people came to a knowledge of the truth, they believed it, were baptized, and then began associating with other Christians in their local area as the local church (Romans 10:17, Acts 2:38-47). The connections among Christians are described in terms of a body, and the church is identified as the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 1:22-23): to not be part of the body is to not be part of Christ! God is one in relational unity (John 17:20-23): as Christians we must reflect God’s unity both with Him and among ourselves. The concept of being “a Christian without the church” is foreign to the New Testament!
The local church consists of individual Christians. Throughout the New Testament the church is spoken of as the collective of the people of God, either in its singularity across time and place (the “universal” church, Ephesians 5:22-33), or in its expressions in specific areas and times (“local” churches, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:2). The church is described in terms of a body with different members (Romans 12:3-8), a household with God as Father and Christians as adopted brothers and sisters (Romans 8:11-15, 1 Timothy 3:15), or as a temple with individual Christians making up its edifice (1 Peter 2:3-9). In all of these illustrations the church is made up of its constituent members; if there are no Christians, there is no church!
Since individual Christians make up the local church, they must shoulder and support its work. In Greek the church is called an ekklesia, an assembly: what is an assembly that never assembles? And what kind of assembly exists that does not feature the assembling of its constituent members? Such is why the Hebrew author encourages Christians to not forsake the assembling of one another (Hebrews 10:24-25). The local church can only do the works of benevolence, evangelism, and edification if its individual members provide the necessary support to do so; this support ought to involve not only time and effort but money as well (1 Corinthians 9:1-15, 16:1-3, Ephesians 4:11-16).
The work and responsibilities of individual Christians goes well beyond the work of the local church as a collective. Individual Christians must manifest the fruit of the Spirit while avoiding the works of the flesh (Galatians 5:19-23). Individual Christians are to reflect the light of God in Christ, seeking to do good to all people, especially those of the household of faith (Matthew 5:13-16, Galatians 2:10, 6:10). These efforts reflect upon the local church: just as each part of the human body has its own independent function yet also works with other parts of the body (e.g. the hand grasps but at the direction of the head and in concert with other parts of the body), so individual Christians serve the Lord in their individual lives independently, in concert with other believers, and at times to strengthen and encourage other believers (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). When individual Christians encourage one another they are building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-16). Thus it can be said that individual Christians are working in the local church and on behalf of the local church through their service to fellow Christians and to those in the world; this is the only way it can be said that “the church” is faithful, or righteous, or reflecting the will of its Lord, when its individual constituent members are doing so!
The New Testament does make distinctions between the local church and its individual constituent members in terms of responsibilities, roles, and some instances of collective function. Local churches are to be shepherded by qualified men; the individual members should be in subjection to them (Hebrews 13:17, 1 Peter 5:1-4). Paul lays down the principle in 1 Timothy 5:16 that individual Christians should provide for widows in their extended families so that the church can support widows indeed; in so doing Paul places the primary responsibility for supporting people on individuals and expects the church to provide continual support only as a means of last resort. We can see that individual Christians are not relieved of the obligations to provide benevolence, to promote and support evangelism, or to be active in encouraging and edifying fellow Christians because the church has also been given those works to do; if anything, Christians are to be all the more diligent in such efforts!
A local church is made up of individual Christians. Individual Christians have responsibilities toward their fellow members of the body of Christ but are also expected to serve and work for the glory of God in Christ in their individual lives. Individuals may make up the church, but it cannot be said that whatever individuals can do the church can do; they are not synonymous. Let us serve the Lord Jesus as Christians, building up the local body of Christ while doing good to all!
Ethan R. Longhenry