I am sharing some of my recent thoughts. By no means are they exhaustive, but I hope what I have written will help and encourage others.
The church discussed in this post will include only the context of the local church. There is no sufficient or biblical reason to deny the reality of the larger body of Christ, but since Christ works through the local church it is the local church that will be discussed. The nature and function of the local church in this age includes: patiently waiting, local assembly, unity, provoking one another to love and good works, development and use of spiritual gifts, exhortation, edification and perfecting of the saints, sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ, and continual preparation to answer every man.
The church has existed for nearly two thousand years. In John fourteen Jesus promised the disciples a comforter. He fulfilled this promise on the day of Pentecost, the day that marked the beginning of the church. In this same conversation Jesus comforted the disciples when He told them that he was preparing a place for them. One day Jesus will come again and receive His church. This promise has yet to be fulfilled. Since it has not been fulfilled the church must patiently wait (John 14.1-4). Paul also comforted the saints when he affirmed Christ’s return (I Thessalonians 4:13-18). Christ’s imminent meeting with the church demands that the church be ready, collectively and as individuals. Patiently waiting involves living with the expectation that Christ could rapture His church at any moment. Such an expectation demands living a life of obedience and submission to the will of the Father and yielding to the leading and teaching of the Holy Spirit.
Peter describes the church as a peculiar people (I Peter 2:9). The church is peculiar because it is made up of people who have trusted in Christ, who have received forgiveness, who were baptized by the Holy Spirit (into the body of Christ) and by immersion into the local body (Acts 2.41). The church is also peculiar because the people of the church are looking forward to Christ’s return and live as pilgrims in this world. Since this is true, the church must make opportunity for local assembly, and often. The distraction and frustration of earthly things bears great burden upon the church. The local church meets together to flee worldly things, and for a brief time, enjoys the heavenly (I John 2:15-17). Local assembly brings likeminded people together for worship around the Word (Acts 2.42,46). The writer of Hebrews warns readers not to forsake assembly. In a technological age it is very tempting to stay at home and listen to a sermon on the radio, watch one on television, or watch a live stream via internet. In Ephesians 6:18 Paul admonishes the church to be alert by watching and praying for all the saints. This can only happen when people are connected to a local assembly. Avoiding assembly will only result in apathy. Apart from a local assembly it is possible to learn, but it is impossible to grow and mature as a Christian (Hebrews 10.24-25). Reconciliation with God can occur outside of assembly, but the consequence and blessings of reconciliation is learned within the local church, experientially, relationally, and through the preaching of the Word (Galatians 6.1-2). It is the responsibility of each believer to connect to a local church. Neglecting the local church is offensive to Christ. He is the one who started the church, He is the head (Matthew 16.18).
Jesus told His disciples, “This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you… By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 15.17; John 13.35). The purpose of unity is twofold: first, peace within the local body, secondly, the testimony of the local body. In John seventeen Jesus prayed for the unity of believers. He requested that the unity of believers would be the same as the oneness of Himself and the Father, a divine unity. His request for unity remains important. According to Jesus unity within the local church will lead others to belief in the Son. Unity is not optional; it is the responsibility of the church (Philippians 2.1-4). Unity is not natural and it does not happen accidentally. Only when the church lives and walks in the Spirit will unity exist (Ephesians 4.1-6; Galatians 5.16-25).
Provoke One Another unto Love and Good Works
It is the responsibility of each believer within the church to provoke others unto love and good works (Hebrews 10.24). This commandment and function of the church is frequently disobeyed, but remains an important function of the church. The peculiarity of the local church exists in the new man, the regenerated man (Ephesians 4.17-32). Without and within the local body, it is necessary for the church to exercise good works and to provoke one another unto love and good works (Galatians 6.10; Ephesians 5.1-9; I John 3.16-18). In the book of Hebrews, the writer’s command to provoke others unto love and good works precedes the command to assemble. It is not uncommon to hear the urgency of assembly, but the other is rarely mentioned. The nature of the church must include an attitude of otherness, a genuine concern for others (Philippians 2.1-5; James 2.14-18).
Development and Use of Spiritual Gifts
The importance of local assembly has already been discussed. However, the development and exercise of spiritual gifts is another essential practice for believers within the local church. The gifts are to be used within the church context and in cooperation with the leading of the Holy Spirit. The gifts are not developed outside the local body, only within, another important reason for assembly (I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4.11-16). Clearly there are some leadership gifts that are given to those who will practice authority in the church. The gifting of Holy Spirit enables those in authority to preach, teach, lead, and administer the ordinances of the church (baptism and the Lord’s table). Much scripture is written for those with leadership gifts (I, II Timothy, Titus, I Peter 5.1-11) Many gifts are distributed in the church and each believer is blessed with a spiritual gift. The function of the church includes believers who exercise their gifts.
Exhortation. Edification. Perfecting.
Exhortation means to come along side or encourage. One can see that many of the church’s responsibilities overlap, they are similar. Exhortation includes discipleship, therefore, discipleship is a function of the church (Matthew 28.20; Hebrews 3.13; Hebrews 10.25). The writer of Hebrews tells readers to exhort one another daily. Despite busy schedules, the church must make time for each other. Edification means building up. Exhortation, perfecting, and edification are all necessary for the development of a mature believer. The only way for a believer to become balanced is to receive the encouragement, teaching, and equipping that occurs in the church. Teaching and helping other believers is a function of the church, that can only happen within a local body. One can clearly recognize the importance of joining a local church.
Sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ
Jesus told His disciples to go into the world and preach the gospel (Matthew 28.19,20; Mark 16.15-16; Acts 1.8). These commands are given to a group of men at a specific period in time. However, as followers of Jesus, the modern church should recognize the application and need for the church to continue sharing the gospel with others. Evangelizing the lost remains a function of the church. Much has changed in the last two thousand years. Since that is true it would be wise for the church to practice creativity that remains faithful to the true gospel. Evangelism should always occur within the boundaries of the spiritual gifts. In Romans 1.16 Paul writes about the gospel of Christ that was given to the Jews first. It behooves the church to remember that the gospel was first given to the Jews. The church receives the blessing of salvation, a blessing that is received through the Abrahamic covenant. Jesus was Jewish, most of the scriptures were written by Jewish writers. Since the church has not replaced Israel, and since Israel continues to be God’s chosen people, the church must not neglect the command to share Christ with Jewish people. The nation of Israel should always be on the hearts and the minds of the church.
Preparation for Answers
The church should continually study God’s Word. Knowing God and His word helps to prepare the church for difficult questions. Peter writes, “But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear” (I Peter 3.15). Apart from the gospel writers none of the New Testament writers elaborate on personal evangelism. Most of them focused on the internal integrity of the church, relationships, and the purity of the gospel. This is important, because if the church cannot maintain love, unity, and integrity, why would anyone want to follow Christ and join His church? One’s life must line up with the message. In Romans 10.17 Paul writes, “Faith cometh by hearing and hearing by the word of God.” Constant exposure to the Word of God and constant cooperation with the Holy Spirit will enable the church to increase in faith, practice internal unity, and will provide wisdom to external answers, even the difficult ones. Studying, knowing, and sharing God’s Word are important functions of the church.
The personal development and growth of each believer occurs within the parameters of the church through patience, assembly, consistent unity, love, good works, exhortation, edification, perfecting, development of gifts, evangelism, Bible study, and knowledge of Christ. Functionally the church exists as God’s ambassadors (II Corinthians 5.20-21). The church is alive; it grows, reproduces, and constantly changes. However, the continuous efforts of the church remain the same today as they were yesterday. The church requires submission to the Bible and cooperation with the Holy Spirit to appropriately function as the ambassadors of God to the rest of the world. Internally the church must stay pure, which requires devout attention to one another and submission to the authority of Christ.