Have you ever wondered about that? I think most people take the answer for granted. It’s seems kind of obvious: the church on the corner, large or small, where people go each Sunday. It’s the place where the word is preached and the sacraments are administered. Or maybe our house church brethren would say that it is the group of people who meet regularly to worship and be the church together. In fact it’s so obvious, that it seems pointless to look at the New Testament for any sort of guidance. When reading the New Testament, it’s easy to imagine the church at Ephesus or Corinth looking just like First United Methodist Church, or Community Bible Baptist Church.
However, the modifiers that have come to be attached to “church” like visible, invisible, local, and universal can’t be found attached to ecclesia in the New Testament. I’m pretty sure that those modifiers are also not used with other biblical images for church like “body of Christ” or “people of God” in the NT either. I should probably do some more research to figure out exactly where those modifiers came from, but the best that I can figure out is that they have arisen over time as men and women have tried to figure out what exactly “church” means. So we delineate whether it is the visible or invisible church, or local or universal. But we don’t need to be bound by those modifiers. Maybe it’s time for some new ones?
In Acts 8:1-3, we see Saul persecuting the church in Jerusalem. He goes from “house to house” dragging off men and women and putting them in prison. Church here is used in a citywide sense, and likely includes many house churches that were connected relationally and that could also be considered “church” in a citywide sense. Acts 9:31 talks about “the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria” having peace and being built up. This could be understood as church in a regional sense that also consists of many separate small fellowships, but exists in a regional sense as church as well.
When you look at multi-site churches today, or house church networks, the “local” church idea tends to break down. When a church considers itself to be one church meeting in many locations, what does local mean? Or when a network of house churches considers itself to be church on a citywide network level, how is that “local?” Or what about the internet campus of a church? It’s like a whole new local. Ultimately, I think the term should be thrown out. It’s not really helpful anymore. I’m not sure what should replace it though. Any ideas?