I was blessed to attend a Promisekeepers rally for pastors in Atlanta several years ago. There were many thousands of pastors and church leaders from all over the country who came to be encouraged and instructed at that rally. I cannot remember a single sermon that was preached that week (though they were powerful and moving) but I can remember one moment – a song that was sung by Steve Green. He sang a song about tearing down the walls that separate us from one another, about letting the walls of denominational pride, personal ambition, competition and such things fall by the power of God. I made the commitment, with the men that were there, that we would be seekers of unity and not division when we returned to our cities.
But that commitment is never easy. As I prayed with other pastors in my city, I sometimes found myself praying in my spirit against what they were praying out loud. Once, as a group of us prayed together in my church, one pastor began praying for an outpouring of tongues and other such manifestations to sweep our church. I was telling God that I did not want to hinder his Spirit,, but that it was okay if he did not answer that prayer. One pastor wanted to impart the Pensacola blessing to the rest of us by laying his hands on us, hoping we would be slain in the Spirit and join the movement. Again, I was not enthusiastic about this prayer.
In spite of those times when I found myself on a completely different page from the men I prayed and partnered with, I still valued their encouragement and their support. We saw some amazing things happen in that city after we prayed together for them. It was a productive if sometimes difficult effort to tear down those walls.
One of the problems with the concept of Picket Fence fellowship that I am sharing is that many do not understand all that the Bible means when it uses the word, “church.” Some tend to think of the universal church, the unified company of the redeemed. Others focus on the local church as the primary tool of God’s work in this world, even to the point of denigrating the present reality and importance of the universal church. If we are talking about the unity of the church it might help to define what the church is and understand it.
There seem to be at least three clear usages of the word “ekklesia,” which we translate church, in the New Testament. The word refers to an assembly of people, often for a political purpose. A group of people was called out to meet together and to accomplish official business. We are God’s ekklesia, called out from this sinful world to meet together and accomplish the business of the kingdom; to worship together, to fellowship, to disciple believers and to serve Christ together in this world. Like most words, though, it is not used uniformly in a single meaning. We need to understand the three distinct ways in which the word is used.
The Church Gathered: A Local Fellowship
The most common use of the term is also the simplest. A group of people who gather for fellowship, worship, and service to the King of kings is a church; what we commonly call the local church.
Within a short time after Pentecost, we know that at least 5000 people were part of the church. There were no buildings in which this group could assemble as one on a regular basis, so they met in homes around the city. This practice continued as the gospel spread. The scripture references these small home gatherings and designates them as churches – where worship, communion and fellowship took place. Romans 15:5 references the church that meets in Prisca and Aquila’s home. In Colossians, a church met in Nympha’s home (Col 4:16). Philemon 2 also mentions a house church as does 1 Corinthians 16:19.
In 1 Corinthians 11:18, Paul gives instructions for observing the Lord’s Supper. He says, “When you come together as a church.” He also gives instructions in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Corinthians 14 on the role of women in worship and the use of tongues and prophecy. All of these seem focused on the church gathered for worship and edification.
The Church Universal: One Body
While it is the least common usage, the New Testament also has clear references to the worldwide church, all the redeemed of all the world (and perhaps of all time). While the term ekklesia refers to the universal church in certain instances, more often the term “body of Christ” or some variation of that is used. Paul told the Corinthians “We were all baptized in one Spirit into one body and given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:13). Paul seems clearly to be speaking of something greater than the local fellowship here when he spoke of the one body into which all believers had been baptized. There is only one Holy Spirit and there is only one Body of Christ – the universal church.
This usage continues throughout the writings of Paul. Ephesians 1:22-23 asserts that God “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body.” The Body of Christ is something bigger than the local assembly. Colossians 1:18 says that Christ is “the head of the body, which is the church.” In Colossians 1:24, Paul talks relates his sufferings to “Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” Can the body (church) here be anything other than the church universal? Perhaps the clearest references to the universal church come in the controversial discussion of husband/wife relationships in Ephesians 5:23-33. Christ is designated as the “head of the church, his body.” The phrase “Body of Christ” while often used to describe the local church in today’s parlance, seems generally to be a reference to the One Body of Christ – the church universal and eternal.
In addition to references to the body of Christ, the phrase “the church of God” seems to be a reference to the universal church, though this is not quite so clear. In 1 Corinthians 10:32Paul warns against using our freedom to give “offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” That could be a local or a more general reference. But 1 Corinthians 15:9 is clearly a universal reference. “For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Paul persecuted many local assemblies. But here, the word ekklesia is singular – one church. Galatians 1:13 says something similar. “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.”
The universal church is a real entity. Each of us should be part of a local church, but we are also part of a worldwide company of the redeemed, the Body of Christ, his physical presence here on earth.
The City Church: One City, One Church
Most of us understand the first two usages of the term ekklesia. We are (or should be) active members of a local fellowship of believers. And we realize that we are also part of the worldwide company of the redeemed. But there is a usage of the term ekklesia that has been often neglected, to the detriment of ministry in our cities.
There seems to be a sense in the New Testament that each city has one church. While it would have been impossible (and perhaps undesirable) for all the Christians in a city to meet in one place for worship, the Scripture still refers to those Christians as “the church at Ephesus or the church at Corinth. Many of Paul’s letters begin with just such a declaration. There were individual churches that met in homes or other available places all over town, but in another sense, all those individual gatherings were part of the city’s church – a singular entity.
I find it interesting that this is not true of regions.1 Corinthians 16:1 (and Galatians 1:2) mentions the churches of Galatia. 2 Corinthians 8:1 speaks of the churches of Macedonia. 1 Thessalonians 2:14 speaks of “the churches of God in Christ Jesus that are in Judea.” In a region, there are churches. In a city, there is one church. And yet, each home gathering of believers is also a church.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Sioux City
So, the New Testament, when speaking of the ekklesia, has in view both the individual churches that met in homes to worship and fellowship and the larger city-church to which they all belonged. That is a healthy way of looking at my church today. Southern Hills Baptist Church is one small part of the Church of Jesus Christ in Sioux City. We have our own identity, style, polity, and strategies. There are many other churches in Sioux City. Some do not hold to the truth of the gospel of Christ and are outside the Brick Wall. But many others, while they differ from us in many ways, are part of that same Church of Sioux City. That church is made up of Baptists, and Assemblies and Bible Churches and Lutherans and even a Methodist or two for good measure.
It is important that we keep a balance of these two ideas. Some people (and pastors and churches) embrace the city-church to the point of ignoring the gathered church. Others disregard in theory or in practice the idea that there is a “Church of Sioux City” and focus only on their local church and its needs and ministries. A balance is better. Each church has a different focus, a different style, and different strategies which attract different people. But God has tasked us together to bring the gospel to every soul in this city.
I have been a part of such a city-church. It was not always easy but it was a great blessing. The concept of the picket fence grew out of this fellowship in Cedar Rapids. Each church kept its unique focus and identity, but we found that we were better when we viewed ourselves as partners in ministry and in Christ. It is a sad thing that there are so many walls of separation between churches that name the name of Christ and hold fast to the gospel.
Overview of (and links to) Previous Posts
- In the first post, I introduced the topic. I have had deep experiences in two very different Christian camps – the theological and the experiential – which often seem to be in direct conflict. One desires theological correctness and the other prizes unity over doctrine which divides. I have seen much good in both and desire to find a way to bring them together.
- In the second post, I identified the four levels of biblical truth and the appropriate unity response at each level. Level 1 is the “Brick Wall” – doctrine which is essential to the Christian faith and over which we cannot compromise. We must build a brick wall of separation around these fundamental doctrinal truths. Level 2 is “Picket Fence” doctrine. Some disagreements do not require division but separation. By separating into churches and denominations we can practice our beliefs without arguing. We recognize, at this point, that those who disagree with us are genuine Christians even though we disagree with them. Level 3 is “Dinner Table Doctrine” – truths which we can disagree on even within the same church or denomination. Level 4 is “Personal Space” truth – in which each of us can have our own convictions and not disdain or condemn those who disagree. The key is to learn to properly categorize doctrine.
- In the third post, I introduced “Brick Wall Doctrine” – truths that are essential to the gospel and cannot be compromised in the church.
- In the fourth post, I started listing what I believe are Brick Wall truths, beginning with the perfection of the Word of God.
- In the fifth post, I identified two more Brick Wall doctrines – the nature of God and the sinful nature of mankind.
- In the sixth post, I finished up my discussion of Brick Wall doctrines – examining the nature of Jesus, the gospel and the Second Coming of Christ.
- In a supplemental post, I addressed a few sticky questions about specific groups (open theism, Catholics, etc) and asked whether they are inside or outside of the Brick Wall.
- In the seventh post, I introduced the concept of the Picket Fence, a friendly boundary that provides private space for local churches by allows them to be good neighbors with other churches.
- In the eighth post, I ask the question “Is it a sin to disagree?” and then define four categories of Picket Fence doctrine.
- In the ninth post, I discussed three key steps to maintaining a friendly picket fence.