A lot of our problem when we think about the church is that we try to work out what the church should do before we understand what the church is. Besides, no one who claims to be a Bible-believing Christian is going to argue that the church is not important. The devil is in the details, however. We need definitions. We have to look to the Bible to see what a church is according to God’s Word.
So what is a local church?
The local church is an embassy of the kingdom of God on earth. Jesus has the supreme authority in heaven and on earth. He has delegated final earthly authority, not to individual Christians or one representative, but to the local church. As this heavenly embassy, local churches have been given the authority by the Word of God to bind and loose on earth (see Matthew 18: 15-20). This means that it is the local church that affirms the who and what of the gospel. When the world wants to know what the gospel is, they should look no further than the local church’s confession of faith. When the world wants to know who speaks for Jesus on earth, they should look at the local assembly. The gathered, covenanted people of God who affirm one another’s profession of faith, submit to the leadership of the elder’s teaching and observe the gospel ordinances together.
The church affirms who is a true gospel confessor by affirming their citizenship in the kingdom by extending them a visa, church membership and admittance to the Lord’s Supper. The local church is an assembly of blood-bought sinners covenanted together to oversee one another’s Christian lives under the authority of a body of elders and their teaching, as they bear witness to the character of God in the world. Only baptized Christians may be members of the local church because that ordinance is how we are affirmed and brought into the embassy!
The local church is not a country club to join but a body to submit to. Membership in this community points to membership in the larger body of Christ.
The church is the display of the manifold wisdom of God to a watching world (Eph 3:10). It is, as Mark Dever has put it, the gospel made visible. So the church’s purity is important. A congregation is to be characterized by sinners to be sure but only a certain kind of sinners – repentant ones. And these Christians submit to one another in covenant. Only those who have been converted can be given authorization to represent Christ on earth because God is holy. The church that is holy as God is holy tells the truth about God’s character and testifies to the power of the true gospel. The church’s unity also displays the supernatural power of God and the community formed around Christ as Supreme Treasure. The new covenant community is created by the accomplishment of Christ on the cross and brings those from all tribe, tongue and nation together under the same gospel confession and into the body politic. The universal church is the Israel of God, the local church being the visible manifestation of it.
The church is uniquely tasked with the mission to make disciples, baptize them into the name of the Triune God and teach them to obey all that Jesus commanded (Matt 28:18-20) Part of the congregations responsibility to “tend the garden” if you will is to bear witness to the world about the gospel of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. It is the church’s duty to make disciples and bring them into membership in the local church, spreading the glory of God as the waters cover the seas.