Definition of the Ground of the Local Church
In the New Testament, the particular usage and scope of the term church when referring to a local church is remarkably consistent (Acts 8:1; 13:1; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; Rev. 1:11). A local church is always the church in a city; for example, the church in Jerusalem. There is no record of more than one local church in a citythus, never the churches in Jerusalem or churches in Antioch or churches in Corinth. Furthermore, the boundary of any particular local church in the New Testament was never larger than a citythus, never the church in Judea or the church in Macedonia or the church in Galatia, all of which are provinces. In cases where the plural form churches is used, it refers to either all the local churches universally and collectively (Acts 16:5; 1 Cor. 11:16) or to the local churches in several cities within a province, e.g., the churches of Asia (Rev. 1:4), the churches in Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1), etc. This fixed, unwavering New Testament principle of one local church, one city, of the city as the boundary of the local church, is what Watchman Nee and Witness Lee refer to as the ground of the local church. The city is the unique biblical ground, the biblical locality of a local church.
In the following passage, Witness Lee testifies to the ground of the local church, the New Testament principle of one local church, one city:
There were not many churches at Jerusalem, but one church, the church, at Jerusalem. The testimony of the church eventually spread north to Antioch through some saints who moved there from Jerusalem. Later Barnabas went there to edify them and brought Paul with him. As in Jerusalem, there was just one church in Antioch. Acts 13:1 says, Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers. From Antioch the church spread to Asia Minor, where there were several churches in various cities. In Ephesus, for example, there was just one church. We know that in Ephesus there was not more than one church because Revelation 2:1 speaks of the church, not churches, in Ephesus. Through the ministry of Paul, the church spread from Asia Minor to Europe, and a church was established at Corinth. First Corinthians 1:2 says, Unto the church of God which is at Corinth. Again we see the matter of one church in one city. According to the Bible, there was one church in Jerusalem, one in Antioch, one in Ephesus, and one in Corinth.
(Witness Lee, Spirit and the Body, 206)
Expounding Revelation 1:11 in the excerpts below, Witness Lee reiterates the principle of one local church in one city:
In 1:11 the voice said to John, What you see write in a book and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea. This verse is composed in a very important way. Here we see that the sending of this book to the seven churches equals sending it to the seven cities. This shows clearly that the practice of the church life was that of one church for one city, one city with one church. In no city was there more than one church. The jurisdiction of a local church should cover the whole city in which the church is; it should not be greater or lesser than the boundary of the city. All the believers within that boundary should constitute the unique local church within that city. Hence, one church equals one city, and one city equals one church. This is what we call the local churches.
(Witness Lee, Genuine Ground, 128)
In an accompanying note found in the Recovery Version study Bible, Witness Lee addresses the vision concerning the local churches found in Revelation 1:11:
This books being sent to the seven churches equals its being sent to the seven cities. This shows clearly that the practice of the church life in the early days was the practice of having one church for one city, one city with only one church. In no city was there more than one church. This is the local church, with the city, not the street or the area, as the unit. The jurisdiction of a local church should cover the whole city in which the church is located; it should not be greater or lesser than the boundary of the city. All the believers within that boundary should constitute the one unique local church within that city.
(Witness Lee, Footnotes, 1236-1237)
Witness Lee also interprets verses such as Romans 16:5 and 1 Corinthians 16:19, which refer to a local church meeting in a believer's house. Contrary to the interpretation held by some, these verses do not imply that a local church meeting in the home was separate from the local church meeting found in that city. Witness Lee explains below:
In the Bible, we find the principle of one church for each cityno more, no less. In the entire New Testament this principle is never violated. Whenever a church in a certain city is mentioned, it is always in the singular number. Whenever reference is made to the churches, in the plural number, it is always in relation to an area or district which is larger than a city, such as a province. There is nothing in the Bible about street churches, school churches, churches in a home, or, on the other hand, national churches or world churches. There are only churches in cities. You may say that there are some instances of a church in a home recorded in the Bible. But if you read carefully, you will see that in every case these simply refer to the home in which the entire church in that city met. The boundary of the church is not limited to a home; neither is it expanded to a district or nation. In the Bible, it is always according to the size of the city. A church that encompasses the whole city meets the qualification of the unique unity.
(Witness Lee, Vision of the Church, 9-10)
The governing principle of one local church in one city stands firm and inviolate throughout the New Testament. Let each believer therefore take notice lest he contradict the New Testament pattern. May we be touched with the sentiments of Watchman Nee, a senior co-worker of Witness Lee, as he solemnly considers the present-day situation:
My heart grieves because many people are not afraid of setting up another church. They presume that this is a very simple matter and that they can immediately set up a church after discussing it with three or four others. Brothers who are somewhat gifted, who have some scriptural knowledge, and who are capable in preaching, think that they can set up a church. I may have some trouble with my brothers, and it would not be difficult for me to go out to preach, to set up the Lords table, and to build a meeting hall. But I could never do this, because the church is one in each locality.
(Watchman Nee, Further Talks, 126)
Like Witness Lee and Watchman Nee, may we all never do this, realizing that the local church is one in each city.
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