ONE CITY, ONE CHURCH
Regarding the local churches, three provinces of the ancient Roman Empire are mentioned in the New Testament: Asia, Galatia, and Macedonia. Because Asia, Galatia, and Macedonia were all provinces, the Bible mentions “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor. 16:19), “the churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2; 1 Cor. 16:1), and “the churches of Macedonia” (2 Cor. 8:1). There were many churches in one province because there were many cities in a province.
In one province you may have many churches, but in one city you should not have many churches. One city should only have one church, one local church. So Revelation 1:11 tells us that in the province of Asia there were at least seven local churches in seven cities. There was a church in the city of Ephesus, in the city of Smyrna, in the city of Pergamos, in the city of Thyatira, in the city of Sardis, in the city of Philadelphia, and in the city of Laodicea. In each one of these seven cities, there was one local church. In many cities there are many local churches, but in one city there must be only one local church. The local churches are the expressions of the one universal church. When we say the practical expression of the church, we mean the local churches.
TWO OR THREE MEETING TOGETHER
We are all aware of the confusion of the denominations and how wrong they are. There is no need to mention them. But I do have a burden to speak of the so-called free groups. I have read some books and heard many teachers say that wherever two or three are meeting together in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, that is the church. This kind of writing and speaking, in a sense, encourages people to meet just by two or three, especially in today’s confusion and differences of denominations. People see the evil influence of the denominations, so they decide to meet in their homes or other places based upon the principle of meeting by two or three.
The scriptural ground used by all those meeting by two or three is Matthew 18:20. But they actually misinterpret, misuse, and even usurp this verse. They say, “The Lord Jesus tells us that where two or three are meeting in His name, He will be in their midst. Is not this good enough? Is not this the church?” Some Christian teachers, based upon this verse, even insist that there is no need of the local church. They say that as long as two or three meet in the name of the Lord Jesus, it is the church. A number of people have been influenced by this kind of teaching. They simply do not care for the principle of one local church in one city. They think that as long as two or three meet in the name of the Lord, they also are the church. But if we read Matthew 18 carefully, we will see that two or three cannot be the church if there are more believers in one locality. It tells us clearly that if we have some problem which cannot be resolved with two or three believers, we must bring the problem to the church.
Let us read Matthew 18:15-20 again in order to have the Word accurately impressed upon us. Then we can never be led astray. “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go, reprove him between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not hear you, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church [The church is another body, including the two or three]; and if he refuses to hear the church also, let him be to you just like the Gentile and the tax collector. Truly I say to you, Whatever you bind on the earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth shall have been loosed in heaven. Again, truly I say to you that if two of you are in harmony on earth concerning any matter for which they ask, it will be done for them from My Father who is in the heavens. For where there are two or three gathered into My name, there am I in their midst.”
In these verses the Lord’s word is very clear and definite that two or three meeting in His name are one thing, and the church is another; the two or three cannot be the church, but only a part of the church, if there is in their locality a church existing of more than two or three. Therefore, even if we meet in the name of the Lord by two or three, having the Lord in our midst, we still cannot be the church if our number of two or three does not include all the saints in our locality. To have the Lord’s presence is one thing, but to be the church is another. This passage does not mean that to have the Lord’s presence means that we are the church. We must all be definitely clear that this kind of teaching about two or three meeting in the name of the Lord to be the church is absolutely wrong! This kind of inaccurate teaching has opened and still opens the back doors for division and confusion. It encourages and justifies divisions. If we take this kind of back door, there will be no limitation to us and no lessons for us to learn. The local church—that is, only one church in one city—is a real restriction and a real limitation. But praise the Lord, this restriction is a kind of protection. When we are restricted, we are protected.
Do not accept this kind of teaching of two or three meeting together to be the church. It is really dangerous. If you take this teaching, a time will come when you will feel unhappy with those with whom you are meeting. You will look at Brother So-and-so and say that you simply do not like him. Of course, he is probably one of the leading ones in the meeting. As you look at the others, you will think that some are not so bad, but most of them you simply do not like. Later, you will speak with someone: “Brother, what do you feel about these people here?” He will probably have the same feeling. Then you two will come together to pray, seeking the Lord’s mind. The more you pray, the more you are burdened that you must start another meeting in one of your homes, and you feel that this is of the Lord. You say, “We should not follow man; we have to follow the Spirit. Moreover, we have the scriptural ground in Matthew 18:20. The Lord is not so narrow. He is merciful. As long as we call upon Him, He will be good to us.”
This is the real situation today. But we must be made clear by the Lord’s Word that to meet in the Lord’s name and have the Lord’s presence and blessing in our midst is one thing, while the church is another. We should not confuse these two. Regardless of how good the Lord is to us, the one can never be the other.
You may love the Lord and help many people to be saved. Perhaps in the beginning you only had two or three, but in half a year you may have fifteen. Then in another six months you may have twenty-five or possibly more. But parents always produce children after their kind. So after about two years, two or three brothers among your new group will feel unhappy with you because you are now the leaders, and they will repeat your previous performance. They will consult and pray until they feel that they should form another meeting of two or three. They feel that they have the Lord’s leading and the scriptural ground in Matthew 18:20. They will do exactly as you did.
In this way, the divisions will be endless. Yet all the groups are in the same city, and in some places the different meetings are not distant from one another. They are not only in one city but also in close proximity. All of them claim to be meeting in the name of the Lord and testify that they have the presence of the Lord. The Lord has really answered their prayers, they say, and they have brought a good number of people to the Lord. They will ask, “If we are wrong, how could the Lord answer our prayers and bless us?”
But if we take this way, there will be no lessons for us to learn. There will be no limitations and no restrictions—only many back doors and “fire escapes.” Please listen to the clear word of the Lord. The church in the universe is one, and the expression of the church in any locality must also be uniquely one. There is no choice. If we mean business with the Lord for the Body life and the oneness of His Body, why must we be separated? Why do we not come together as one unique local expression of the church since we are all in the same city?
(The Practical Expression of the Church, Chapter 3, by Witness Lee)