Restoring the Centrality of the Local Church?
Where exactly is that? We are told that part of the current problem in fundamentalism and evangelicalism is that we have moved away from the centrality of the local church. Come again? Have we been sold a bill of goods in 20th century evangelicalism that nothing past my local church is important? So long as I do the Lord’s work within the context of my church, then nothing else really matters beyond its doors? Perhaps you think I am overstating my case here, but let me make several observations.
It is The Church (Universal) that is the pillar and ground of the truth, not a particular local assembly. Local churches come and go but the pillar remains unmoved. Jesus promises in Mt. 16:18 that not even the gates of Hell can prevail against this, which I assume we would agree must be broader than an particular local assembly.Local assemblies must remember that they are a part of something larger than themselves. Baptists have historically understood this. As the fledgling Baptist movement began to take shape in North America, it was the Philadelphia Association of churches that produced the Philadelphia Confession which became the standard test of Baptist orthodoxy, much like its predecessors, the 1st and 2nd London Baptist Confession (1644, 1677 respectively). These, too, were the work of a group of churches—not a local church but churches working together. When theological consensus was available, they valued and sought one another’s opinion and input. The Philadelphia Association produced the College of Rhode Island, not a particular assembly. Baptists have a strong history of partnership, something that has been woefully lacking in 20th century conservative church life. Witness the proliferation of everything from Christian schools, colleges, and seminaries to mission boards and other agencies produced by individual local assemblies. These organizations more often than not are poorly funded, insufficiently structured, and weakly guided. The idea of a local church doing any of these solo is a novelty in Baptist life at least. Churches partner together because few local churches have the manpower, means or expertise to accomplish much alone. Organizations that are local church-based are more likely to decline sooner rather than later. That decline can begin with the passing of the visionary leader who birthed the ministry. His successors often do not share his passion or goals nor do his successors possess his personal charisma that carried the ministry in its early days.
Yes, my esteemed hero, C. H. Spurgeon, had many ministries connected with the Tabernacle. But where are they today? They died when the man died or soon thereafter. Even the great Metropolitan Tabernacle, arguably the greatest church in the English speaking world, went into a long period of decline under his successors. This is not to say that he did not do a good work for a time. It is interesting that as far as the Stockwell Orphanage is concerned, when approached by the widow of an Anglican minister to found the orphanage, he demurred, suggesting that the money be given to George Muller who already had an orphanage in place. The widow insisted that Spurgeon start one and gave him the funds to commence. But it is to be observed that works built of any particular local church (which really means off the dominant pastor who leads it) are destined to decline and that right quickly after the departure or death of the dominant man. Works built by churches tend to endure because a group of churches in which Christians assume the greater burden corporately and do not depend on the vision or resources of an individual.
Second, it is to be noted that when local churches abandon the greater work of corporate witness by focusing too much on their own ministry and work, then the larger groups with which they are identified drift toward error and decay. The legacy of the Northern Baptists is a testimony to this. The NBC went into a time of collapse when the conservative churches failed to work together to roust the heretics. In some cases, it was simply that the big pastors left the denominational affairs to others while they built big ministries. Alternately, it was local churches in the SBC that successfully turned back the flood tide of theological decay in the late 20th century within its ranks. The churches worked together to reverse a trend that was more than fifty years in the making.
Perhaps you think I am unnecessarily negative on the local church or its importance. I hope I am not. It clearly is a part of God’s plan. But the church is both local and universal. Somehow, I think that churches working together must be a part of the mix. Movements may fail. When they do, new movements must be birthed. It is the reality that few local assemblies can run their own structures, nor should they. Missionaries need service agencies staffed by seasoned and well-trained administrators. Ministerial students need training schools staffed by well-trained professors. Few local churches, if any, can adequately provide for either alone. They cannot provide all the funds, or all the workers, or all the students, or all the professors for all these needs. Churches need to partner together. By working together, we do much to facilitate the work of the Lord. It is, after all, His work.