How to Preserve the Local Character of the Churches

Rethinking the Work, CFP white cover, 102-107, Watchman Nee

Since the churches of God are local, we must be careful to preserve their local character, their local sphere and their local boundary. Once a church loses these, it ceases to be a scriptural church. Two things call for special attention if the local nature of a church is to be safe-guarded.

In the first place, no apostle must exercise control in any official capacity over a church. That is contrary to God’s order, and destroys its local nature by putting the impress of an extra-local minister upon it. No apostle has the authority to establish a private church in any place. The church belongs to the locality, not to the worker. When people are saved by the instrumentality of any man, they belong to the church in the place where they live, not to the man through whom they were saved, nor to the organization he represents. If one or more churches are founded by a certain apostle, and that apostle exercises authority over them as belonging in a special sense to him or his society, then those churches become sects, for they do not separate themselves from other Christians (saved through the instrumentality of other apostles) on the ground of difference of locality, but on the ground of the difference of instrumentality of salvation. Thus apostles become the heads of different denominations, and their sphere the sphere of their respective denominations, whilst the churches over which they exercise control become sects, each bearing the particular characteristic of its leader instead of the characteristic of a church local.

The epistle to the Corinthians throws light on this subject. There was division amongst the believers in Corinth simply because they failed to realize the local character of the church and sought to make different apostles—Paul, Apollos, and Cephas—the ground of their fellowship. Had they understood the Divinely ordained basis for the division of the Church, they could never have said, “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos,” or “I belong to Cephas,” for, despite their especial love for certain leaders, they would have realized that they belonged not to any one of them, but to the church in the locality in which they lived.

No worker may exercise control over a church or attach his name to it, or the name of the society he represents. The Divine disapproval will always rest on the “church of Paul,” or “the church of Apollos,” or “the church of Cephas.” In the history of the Church it has frequently happened that when God has given special light or experience to any individual that individual has stressed the particular truth revealed or experienced, and gathered people round him who appreciated his teaching, with the result that the leader, or the truth he emphasized, has become the ground of fellowship. Thus sects have multiplied. If God’s people could only see that the object of all ministry is the founding of local churches and not the grouping of Christians around any particular individual, or truth, or experience, or under any particular organization, then the forming of sects would be avoided. We who serve the Lord must be willing to let go our hold upon all those to whom we have ministered, and let all the fruits of our ministry pass into local churches governed entirely by local men. We must be scrupulously careful not to let the colouring of our personality destroy the local character of the church, and we must always serve the church, never control it. An apostle is servant of all and master of none. No church belongs to the worker, it belongs to the locality. Had it been clearly seen by the men who have been used of God throughout the history of the Church, that all the churches of God belong to their respective localities, and not to any worker or organization used in their founding, then we should not have so many different denominations to-day.

Another thing is essential for the preservation of the local character of the church—its sphere must not become wider than the sphere of a locality. The current method of linking up companies of believers in different places who hold the same doctrinal views, and forming them into a church, has no scriptural foundation. The same applies to the custom of regarding any mission as a centre, linking together all those saved or helped by them to constitute a “church” of that mission. Such so-called churches are really sects, because they are confined by the bounds of a particular creed, or a particular mission, not by and within the bounds of locality.

The reason why God does not sanction the establishing of churches which combine companies of believers in different places is because the Divinely-ordained basis for the forming of churches is thereby destroyed. Any “church” formed with a mission as its centre is bound to be other than local. Because wherever there is a centre there is also a sphere, and if the centre of the church is a mission then obviously its sphere is not the scriptural sphere of locality but the sphere of the mission. It clearly lacks the characteristic of a church, and can only be regarded as a sect. In the Purpose of God, Jesus Christ is the centre of all the churches, and the locality is their sphere.

Whenever a special leader, or a specific doctrine, or some experience, or creed, or organization, becomes a centre for drawing together the believers of different places, then because the centre of such a church federation is other than Christ, it follows that its sphere will be other than local; and whenever the Divinely-appointed sphere of locality is displaced by a sphere of human invention, there the Divine approval cannot rest. The believers within such a sphere may truly love the Lord, but they have another centre apart from Him, and it is only natural that the second centre becomes the controlling one. It is contrary to human nature to stress what we have in common with others; we always emphasize what is ours in particular. Christ is the common centre of all the churches, but any company of believers that have a leader, a doctrine, an experience, a creed, or an organization as their centre of fellowship, will find that that centre becomes the centre, and it is that centre by which they determine who belong to them and who do not. The centre always determines the sphere, and the second centre creates a sphere which divides those who attach themselves to it from those who do not.

Any thing that becomes a centre to unite believers of different places, will create a sphere which includes all believers who attach themselves to that centre and excludes all who do not. This dividing line will destroy the God-appointed boundary of locality, and consequently destroy the very nature of the churches of God. Therefore the children of God must see to it that they have no centre of union apart from Christ, because any extra-local union of believers around a centre other than the Lord enlarges the sphere of fellowship beyond the sphere of locality, and thus the specific characteristic of the churches of God is lost. There are no other churches in Scripture but local churches!

The Benefits of Independence

The Divine method of making locality the boundary line between the different churches has various obvious advantages:

(1) If each church is locally governed, and all authority is in the hands of the local elders, there is no scope for an able and ambitious false prophet to display his organizing genius by forming the different companies of believers into one vast federation, and then satisfy his ambition by constituting himself its head. Rome could never sway the power it does today had the churches of God maintained their local ground. Where churches are not affiliated, and where local authority is in the hands of local elders, a pope is an impossibility. Where there are only local churches there can be no Roman Church. It is the federation of different companies of believers that has brought such evils as dabbling in politics into the Church of God. There is power in a federated “church,” but it is carnal power, not spiritual. God’s thought for His Church is that she should be like a mustard-seed on earth, full of vitality, yet scarcely noticed. It is federation that has brought the Church of today to the state of Thyatira. The failure of Protestantism is that it has substituted organized churches—State and Dissenting—for the Church of Rome, instead of returning to the Divinely-ordained local churches.

(2) Further, if the churches retain their local character, the spread of heresy and error will be avoided, for if a church is local, heresy and error will be local too. Rome is a splendid illustration of the reverse side of this truth. The prevalence of Romish error is because of Romish federation. The sphere of the federated churches is vast, consequently the error is widespread. It is a comparatively simple matter to “quarantine” a local church, but to isolate error in a vast federation of churches is quite another proposition.

(3) The greatest advantage of having locality as the boundary of the churches is that it precludes all possibility of sects. You may have your special doctrines and I mine, but as long as we are out to maintain the scriptural character of the churches by making locality the only dividing line between them, then it is impossible for us to establish any church for the propagation of our particular beliefs. As long as a church preserves its local character, it is protected against denominationalism, but as soon as it loses that, it is veering in the direction of sectarianism. A believer is sectarian when he belongs to anyone, or anything, apart from the Lord and the locality. Sects and denominations can only be established when the local character of the church is destroyed.

In the wisdom of God He has decreed that all His churches be local. This is the Divine method of safeguarding them against sects. Obviously it can only protect the Church against sectarianism in expression. It is still possible for a sectarian spirit to exist in a non-sectarian church, and only the Spirit of God can deal with that. May we all learn to walk after the Spirit and not after the flesh, so that both in outward expression and inward condition the churches of God may be well-pleasing to Him.