The Supremacy of the Church Local?

Bolton Hill Steeples.Sized

“The leadership of nurture structures (congregations and linkage structures) on whom we largely depend for our Christian education have always tended to a mono-structural view of the Church. In fact, our theologians tend to define the Church in terms of this nurture structure.” —Charles Mellis in Committed Communities, pg. 6.

This mindset that Mellis refers to (and then goes on to effectively deconstruct in his book) is what I refer to as “the supremacy of the church local.” It’s that ill-informed concept that says the church in its local form is the only legitimate expression of the body of Christ. In this view, the congregational/diocesan form is the only true expression of what “church” is.

Unfortunately, this truncated view of the church has prevailed, as Mellis notes, in Western theological education except in the field of missiology. While missionaries and other apostolically gifted individuals are often required to endure a classic theological curriculum (including Greek, Hebrew, and other assorted irrelevant subjects) to get duly certified for ministry through an educational system biased toward the scholarly, those headed into pastoral ministry for the church local and its hierarchal “linkage structures” (ie, denominations) rarely have to immerse themselves in missiological studies.

It is a rare pastor who is exposed to the theology of mission or the history of missional ecclesiology. While they may have studied church history from the perspective of doctrine, heresies and apologetics, they seldom examine the fundamental structural dynamics that are essential for an understanding of the health and expansion of the Christian movement. For example, few ever wrestle with a volume such as Kenneth Scott Latourette’s A History of Christianity or any seminal texts on a theology of mission. How many pastors-to-be have been immersed in Newbigin, McGavran, Winter or Bosch?

What can suffer as a result is an understanding and appreciation of those apostolic structures upon which the vitality of the Christian movement has always depended. This lack of understanding is widespread in the West. One sees it across a broad spectrum from the traditional/historic churches of modernity, including the mega-churches—which are particularly susceptible because of their perception of self-sufficiency—to the emerging church movement.

Yet when leaders—pastoral, lay, and those leading apostolic movements—all “get it,” the resulting synergy that occurs from such a biblical, Spirit-directed interdependence is a tremendous thing to experience. And when it genuinely happens, the name of Jesus is renowned among the nations in an Ephesians 3:20 way, “...immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

12 Responses to “The Supremacy of the Church Local?”

  1. Patrick Says:

    The Missionary Movement in Christian History by Andrew Walls is a particularly fine study on what you’re talking about. It was very influential and helpful for me.

    I like your mention of Latourette. The study of Church history is one of hte most grounding and yet most neglected topics in Christian ministry. What is taught is, for that matter, all too often the political events rather than the ministry events.

    Reading from and about those “in the trenches” makes a person see the world of Church utterly different and drives a person to want major change while still having absolute hope there is something good coming.

  2. Laura Says:

    While I agree that too many Christians hold the local church—meaning their own local congregation—too dearly, it seems that Scripture supports at least notion that the local church is the primary expression of the universal church.

  3. Keith Says:

    Sam, I know this topic is near and dear to your heart. I’d love to see you gather up all your “ammo” (quotes, articles, books, etc.) and write more extensively on it. It’s a message that needs to be heard. But when it’s spoken in ‘nurture’ or “modalic” circles it tends to be mis-heard. There’s such a bias, even as “para-church” organizations are talked about.

    Your blogs on the topic are good for me, but not enough for me to give to someone in the “nurture” – CRM doesn’t nurture?! – world of the church. Please write more!

  4. Zane Anderson Says:

    At first, the church was where the saints were. A few hundred years passed and the church became where the bishop was.

    Although the popular phrase “local church” doesn’t occur in Scripture, the principle certainly does, imo. How else could one explain all those “one anothering passages?”


  5. Sam Says:

    Keith you are correct that I have a backlog of things that I would like to express on this issue. There is consderable material for a book which waits to be written.

    We have compiled a “reader” of articles that pertain to missional ecclesiology for anyone who is interested. I’ve considered pulling much of it into a larger edited volume.

    On one hand this is somewhat of an esoteric issue that has narrow interest. On the other hand, I think it is crucial at a macro/strategic level for the health and vitality of the Christian movement.

    From my own understanding of the eight great periods of expansion and decline of the Christian movemnt, whenever this structural dynamic – the interdependence of sodality and modality – was lost, it contributed inevitably to the decline of the movement. In other words, when the “supremacy of the local church” carried the day, the movement suffered.

    You observation is also good that such a discusssion is often “mis-read” when we try to communicate these dynamics in local church or modalic settings. I’ve had my share of criticism of being “anti-local church” or “anti-pastoral.” And I am sure, to be honest, that is due in no small part to my inability to communicate in ways that are more palitable and less provocative.

    For the record, I am anti about neither. I am pro for both local churches and the leaders who labor so faithfully and tirelessly in them. But I also believe that the best thing that could happen for the health of local expressions of the body of Christ is for the proliferation of specialized, sodalic (apostolic) entities. The facts are that vitality has always flowed from these entities into the church local. That is one of the purposes and results of apostolic movements. Sodalities are inevitable agents of renewal and new life.

    So when I articulate these issues, I do it with two motivations. First, it is because I love the church in its local form and long for it to be what it could be. Secondly, I want to encourage those who labor in sodalic, apostolic movements that they are not second class or some eccleiastical abberation. The structure and calling they enjoy is designed by God and essential for his plans and purposes throughout the world. They are equally “church.” They can pursue such calling unapologetically and with confidence that the structure in which they labor is a vital element of God’s providential intentions.

  6. Sam Says:

    Laura, thanks for your comment.

    I would agree if by “primary” we mean the expression of the body of Christ to which the overwhelming majority of those who are his followers belong. For example, over 99% of the Roman Catholic Church historically has been part of the diocesan structure. Very few were part of the orders. Yet that 1% exercised enormous influence on the totality of the movement. The same dynamic has been present throughout the Protestant movement as well.

    But I couldn’t agree if by “primary” we mean that which exercises authority or control. I don’t think we see that in scripture. Rather, we see interdependence between structures that are theologically, historically and missiolocially all equally “church.”

  7. Laura Says:


    I am neither speaking of authority, nor from historical observation. Rather I am speaking biblically. From my reading of the NT, nearly every reference to the church (as church) refers to a specific group of Christ-followers gathered in a specific geographic location. On the other hand, the teams of apostles that traveled from place to place, doing the work of God by proclaiming the good news and strengthening church is never referred to as church. I am all for increasing the intentional interdependence between local gatherings. In fact, since the church is both local and universal, such interdependence is mandatory.

    What I am saying is that while we together are church the “specialized, sodalic (apostolic) entities” of which you speak may be functions of the church, but they may not be church in themselves. Are they necessary? Yes, for they enable the interdependence required by the universal nature of the church.

    The church—the ecclesia—is by definition a gathering. Going—being apostolic is something we are commanded to do and these entities assist our obedience to this command. Gathering is something we are.

  8. Eric Says:

    “The gospel says, “Go,” but our church buildings say, “Stay.” The gospel says, “Seek the lost,” but our churches say, “Let the lost seek the church.”1

    “...we are not called to go to church. We are called to be the Church.”2

    The problem with the local church is its contemporary form. It is too self-centered and has become irrelevant in a post-Christendom age. The medieval idea that the church is the center of town no longer works either philosophically or literally. Yet, the heritage of Christendom is what most local churches cling to and find their moorings in.

    Though I agree with Sam that pastors might learn from wise missiologists, I also think they might just as well find wisdom in stepping back and taking a hard look at the role even their own local church is fulfilling – or likely not fulfilling – in their own city. In my opinion, the local church needs a serious make over.————1 Howard Snyder from The Problem of Wineskins, quoted in: Neil Cole, Organic Church (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2005), 31.

    2 George Barna, Revolution (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005), 39.

  9. Laura Says:

    Eric, good point. Maybe I should add something to my definition: a local church a gathering of Christ-followers in a particular geographic location sent by God to be and announce the inbreaking of the reign of God.

    Most local churches (I speak as an American) do not live up to this definition. A “serious make over” is much needed and missiologists have much to teach us if we will humble ourselves and listen.

    I also think that good, biblical ecclesiology also has much to teach us. In fact, from what I have seen and read, what is needed most is a missional ecclesiology (a la Guder, et al).

  10. Sam Says:


    Thanks for your interaction

    Since you referred to Guder, perhaps a quote from his book would be useful in this conversation:

    “Paralocal structures find precedents for their existence in the local and mobile expression of ministry in the New Testament.

    In the Scriptures one discovers congregations along with specialized ministries for extending the church and strengthening all congregations. The itinerant apostolic missionary teams would be one example of such a ministry that was not bound to a congregation.

    As the church embodies the gospel within the context of its many cultural locales, it will often shape its ministries using these two types of structures. The complex history and development of the religious orders through the Middle Ages are the most obvious example of this duality of local and paralocal structures. The Reformation movements rejected the orders, and the emerging Protestant denominations did not generally build such structures into their organizational designs. From the seventeenth century forward, however, they emerged in a variety of ways, including the Pietistic movements within the churches, the mission socieites alongside the churches, and the faith missions and specialized missions outside the churches.

    A missional ecclesiology takes seriously the organizational life of the church both in its expressions of local missional congregations and in paralocal missional structures.”

    – From “The Missional Church” – pg 75, edited by Darrell Guder

    Laura, I’ll write some more on this regarding your comments about the biblical nature of missional eccleiology particularly as it relates to apostolic structures. What I maintain, as I believe this quote also alludes to, is that both structures – local and paralocal using this author’s terms – are legtitimately “church” from a biblical, NT definition of such. Because one is local and one trans-local does not dimish the essential nature of either being “church” from a biblical perspective.

    When both structures have not been considered equal – when one or the other structrures has in practice held the upper hand and been “supreme” rather than working in a spirit of genuine interdependence – the Christian movement has inevitably suffered. Unfortunately, such one-upmanship has usually been justified by the church local claiming exclusivity as the only true expression of ‘church.” I don’t think that can be justified historically, missiologially …and biblically.

  11. Laura Says:

    Sam, seems like we agree—at least mostly. In fact your thoughts here have caused me to reconsider the notion of “local”—the ponderings are on my 8/4 post.

    Personally, I am working through the ideas in both Guder and Radmacher, trying to figure out how—or if—they may reach harmony. I am wondering whether there may be a difference between the standard “parachurch organization” and what may be considered “migratory church”.

    Anyhow, that’s the trial balloon for today.

  12. Manoj Says:

    This a presient and perceptive piece on the ‘nesscary structural dynamics’ of today’s emerging church. Combing the local node with the global movement of the faith is well captured by the concept of “Glocal”, meaning global connectedness and awareness combined with localised expression. This i am certain will be a fundamental emerging dynamic of the pulsating entity called the 21st Century Church.
    Prehaps the analogy of ‘quantum physics’ captures this well, in terms of fundamental phenomina either concieved as a ‘particle’ ( local church)which can also be concieved as an extension of a ‘wave’ ( Global expression/entity). I am no physicist, so correct me if i am deficient in my thinking.
    I feel that as the apostolic and prophetic functions are restored to the church, it will radically re-structure and re-cultuarise the corporate and individual expression of the faith because these are in fact designated foundational gifts/graces ( Eph 2:20). We are in the process of a re-engineering of the fundamental expression and nature of what we percieve as The Church.
    I know my comments are brief, and that i come from a different angle, but i hope these comments contribute a little to this essential dialogue concerning the nessacry future shapes of the church.

Leave a Reply