By community, this article refers to the local church. In some of Paul’s epistles, there is a constant reference to the saints in a specific location such Rome (Rom 1:7), Corinth (1Co 1:2; 2Co 1:1), Ephesus (Eph 1:1), Philippi (Phi 1:1) and Colossae (Col 1:2). The assumption is that the saints form the local churches in these cities (cf. Col 1:2). In 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Paul called the gathering of saints in the city and the province of Achaia, the church of God (cf. 1Th 1:1; 2Th 1:1).
What is the minimum size to form a local church of God? In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus was teaching about discipline within a Christian community. Without going into details, it is sufficient to note that whenever two or three are gathered in his name, there he is among them (18:20). This verse is not saying that whenever there are more believers coming to pray, the prayer is more power. Jesus is merely highlighting a spiritual truth that he lives among his disciples even if there is only two or three of them.
In 1st Corinthians 3:16-17, Paul taught that God’s Spirit dwells among the saints, who form God’s temple. Since there is no number to specify what size should constitute God’s temple, two or three who are gathered in Jesus’s Name at specific location should be sufficient for God’s Spirit to dwell (cf. Eph 2:22). This harmonizes with Jesus’s comment in Matthew 18:20. Thus, the minimum size of the local church of God is two or three saints.
There are two important rituals that every local church of God has to observe. The first ritual is water baptism. Although it is non-essential for salvation (cf. Luk 23:42-43), water baptism is essential to becoming a disciple of Christ. In Matthew 28:19-20, Christ commanded his original disciples to make disciples by baptizing those who were converted by God and by teaching them to obey Jesus’s teaching. While all who are converted by God are saved by grace through faith, not through water baptism, they are to be baptised as disciples of Christ. Thus, every local church is to encourage all who have been converted by God to be baptised.
The second ritual is Holy Communion. On the night that Jesus was betrayed, during the Passover meal, Jesus used the occasion to establish a new ritual to replace the Passover for the disciples. He used the bread to signify his body and the wine in the cup to signify his blood that was poured out for them to establish the New Covenant. He commanded them to observe this ritual in remembrance of him (cf. Luk 22:19-20; Mat 26:26-28; Mar 14:22-24). This ritual is to be observed until he comes.
These two rituals are to be observed whenever a local church of God exists in a specific location. They signify the Gospel. Holy Communion reminds the saints that Christ has died for their sins, was resurrected and is coming again. Whenever we observe this ritual we are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he returns. This is the Gospel.
Water baptism reminds the saints that they belong to Jesus. The saints are reminded that each of them has been united with him in a death like his and shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his (cf. Rom 6:1-10). This is the implication of the Gospel. Thus, these two rituals are pedagogical for the local church.
While these two rituals are more meaningful to the saints, pre-believers observing how the church of God observe these rituals will at least also learn the facts of the Gospel. These two rituals are also witnessing tools for the local church. However, these rituals will be effective tools only when the local church works at obeying the New Commandment.
In John 13:34-35, Jesus gave the new commandment, “that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another”. He said that when the disciples obey this new commandment, the people of the world will know that those who obey it as his disciples. This love relationship among the saints in local church is not only personal but it has a witnessing power for the Gospel. It is God’s intention that this love relationship points to Jesus vis-à-vis the Gospel, just like water baptism and Holy Communion.
The above brief discussion about the church shows that it is God’s priority for the saints to meet as local churches. They are meet to remind each other that Jesus died for them and is coming back again by celebrating the Holy Communion. They are to recall through water baptism that they belong to Jesus and have died with Jesus. They are to love one another just as Jesus loved them when they gather as a local church. Then, the world will recognize them as Jesus’s disciples.
These three practices of the local churches show how important the local church is to God’s purpose of bring salvation to the world. The communal life of the church should be built around these three practices. They should be the criteria for us to evaluate and synergize the communal life so that the church remains a witness for God in the local setting.
Studying the Scripture
A fourth practice of the local church is to study the Scripture together. Before the discovery of printing, disciples gathered regularly to listen to the reading of Scripture. In 1st Timothy 4:13, Paul exhorted Timothy to devote himself “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching”. Such practice is common during the early church (cf. Col 4:16; Rev 1:3).
This New Testament practice is not to say that modern disciples should not read the Scripture on their own. Instead, it is an affirmation that the reading including the studying of Scripture is a corporate activity. The local church is to gather around the studying of Scripture. Disciples are to encourage and correct one another with the teaching of Scripture (cf. Col 3:16; Eph 5:19; 1Th 4:18).
Therefore, the four practices of the local church, water baptism, Holy Communion, loving one another just as Jesus loved us and the studying of the Scripture, points to the importance of participating in a local church. While salvation is personal, it is never a private matter. While God converts disciples, one by one, he baptized each disciple by the same Holy Spirit into the Body of Christ (1Co 12:13). He makes each disciple a member “of the household of God” (Eph 2:19). He makes each disciple a living stone, which is part of a spiritual house (1Pe 2:5). All these point to the important of participating in a community of disciples.
What are the implications for the local church? First, the local church should constantly encourage all members to participate in the communal life. They are to meet weekly to study the Scripture, to celebrate the Holy Communion and to love one another. They do all these with the view that they may witness for Christ as a local church.
Second, every local church should encourage those who have been converted by God to identify themselves as disciples of Christ through water baptism. On the other hand, the local church should not be hasty to baptize new converts because time is needed for some outward signs of conversion to manifest. Dever explains, “Taking unconverted persons into membership in a Christian Church will inevitably obscure the gospel” . The local church is to do her best to ascertain true conversion before water baptism.
Third, every local church should maintain a lean list of church membership. While the local church is to edify one another, this does not absolve each disciple from taking personal responsibility for their relationship with God. One aspect of this responsibility is to participate in the local church out of love for Christ. Dever writes, “Joining a particular local church is an outward reflection of an inward love — for Christ and for his people”.
If some members felt led to join another local church, they should be encouraged to go as the Lord leads. They should be released with blessing because they are taking personal responsibility for their relationship with God. On the other hand, if some members become inactive even after repeated attempt to encourage them, the local church should remove the inactive members from church membership after due process. Dever explains, “Church membership means being incorporated in practical ways into the body of Christ. It means traveling together as aliens and strangers in this world as we head to our heavenly home”. Thus, if someone is inactive without reasonable reasons, it implies that he or she does not wish to travel together with this local church. Their names should be removed from the local church membership while the door is open to welcome them back.