"Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved." Acts 2:41-47
On the day of Pentecost about three thousand people were added to the Church in Jerusalem. These new believers devoted themselves to meeting together, either in the temple courts or in their homes. They did this to build relationships, to encourage one another, to grow in their knowledge of God, to honour the body of Christ and to share their lives with one another.
The writer to the Hebrews confirms the importance of this when he writes,
"Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Hebrews 10:23-25
As the Church grew and believers in different towns and cities were added to the Church, certain essential characteristics can be observed that differentiated each group of believers.
The Church met in their locality and so we find that the letters in the New Testament are addressed to different churches according to their location - Corinth, Thessalonika, Ephesus, Laodicea, etc.
Location differentiated the churches.
At the birth of the Church, the leaders of the Church were the apostles (see Acts 6) but as the Church extended to other cities, leaders were appointed over each church in her various locations.
"The reason I left you in Crete was that you might put in order what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you." Titus 1:5
Leadership differentiated the churches.
The church in Jerusalem modelled the nature and behaviour of the church in other locations. Just as all the believers in Jerusalem shared what they had with all the other believers so that no one was in need (Acts 4:32-35), so the church in other locations would have done the same. The believers in their respective locations would have shared their resources with the believers in their location. Out of their relationship with one another, the believers cared for the needs of those they were joined to. Sometimes the believers in one location would take up a collection to meet the needs of the church in another location (see 2 Cor. 8,9).
Sharing of resources differentiated the churches.
Just as the believers in Jerusalem had to organise themselves so that the believers met together regularly for prayer, communion, training, equipping, collection and distribution of resources, etc so we see that the churches in other locations also had to organise themselves to grow and be effective. In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Paul explains that God gives each believer in Christ gifts that are to be used for the building up of the body (see Eph. 4:7-16). God combines His people so that the local body is organised (see 1 Cor. 12).
Organisation differentiated the churches.
In the beginning the Church was devoted to the apostles' teaching. Everyone was being taught the same truth and there would have been complete unity in heart and mind concerning what was being taught, believed and lived. However, as the Church spread to other locations, so the Church became more and more prone to false teachers and corruption of the truth. Paul's main concern for the churches was that they would persevere through trials and persecution and stand firm in their faith and that the churches would not be misled by false doctrine. Elders were appointed in each city to make sure that the church was being taught "what is in accord with sound doctrine" (Titus 2:1). Paul even had to confront Peter with regard to his behaviour that was contradiciting what was supposed to be taught and practised (see Gal 2:11 - 3:5). Today there are many different churches due to differences in doctrine or differences in emphasis of doctrine. Consequently believers will choose to be part of a church where they agree and identify with what is being taught.
Doctrinal emphasis differentiated the churches.
It seems that the churches differed in their style of worship and meetings. Apparently the Colossians were "orderly" (Col. 2:5) but the Corinthians were rather disorderly (see 1 Cor. 11:17-34). How the churches met together would have differed form city to city. Just as people differ in their preferences concerning style and form so believers choose a group that they can identify with and feel part of in terms of how the church meets together.
Style differentiates the churches.
Clearly every church was committed to her locality. However just as each member of the body has a different gift and calling to fulfill God's purpose, so each church has a unique calling and purpose within the greater body. Those who are part of the local body will identify with, and be devoted to the purpose of the local church.
Purpose diffentiates the churches.
So we see that within the greater body or the Church, there are many churches that can be differentiated because of:
Relationships, location, leadership, resources, organisation, doctrine, style, and purpose.
Clearly then, for the believer to really be part of the local church he will:
- be devoted to the group of people, relationally
- meet regularly where the church meets
- honour and submit to the leadership of the church
- give time, energy and resources to the church
- support the organisation of the church
- agree with and apply what is taught
- be comfortable with the style of meetings
- be devoted to the church's purpose
These, I believe, are the essential elements that differentiate the various churches that make up the greater body of Christ.
Now, although the believer is to be part of a local church, he must not lose sight of the fact that he is still part of the greater whole - the Church. A Kingdom-minded believer sees other local churches as part of the Church of which he also is a part of. The priority for the Kingdom-minded believer is that every believer is part of a church even if it isn't his own local church. It is more important that a new believer find a local body he can be part of rather than which body he is part of (assuming of course it is Christian)! If the local churches would only have a Kingdom mind-set, then they would stop competing with each other and stop taking offense when believers "move" and devote themselves to another group of believers (church-hoppers don't devote themselves to any church).
I encourage you to think about whether you really are a member of a church. Enlarge your thinking concerning the Church and see how the Church is God's plan to further His Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Be part of it.
"His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord." Eph. 3:10,11