Illustrations of the Ground of the Local Church
Both Watchman Nee and Witness Leeteach extensively regarding the universal church, the local churches, and the ground of the local church. Realizing that the subject is unfamiliar to many believers, Watchman Nee and Witness Lee employ several illustrations and examples to help demonstrate the relationship between the universal church and the local churches as well as the practical application of the ground of the local church.
To help clarify the relationship between the universal church and the local churches, Witness Lee often uses the illustration of an embassy as its countrys unique representative in a foreign city:
Today if you go to Tokyo, which is a big city with millions of people, you cannot find two American embassies there. You can find only one American embassy in Tokyo. Regardless of how big the city is, there can be only one American embassy. If there were two, that would mean that America is divided. When I go to Tokyo, there is no need for me to ask which American embassy I should go to. There is only one embassy in Tokyo representing America. The United States embassy in Tokyo is the very expression of the United States in that city. The United States is one, not two. So in any place, any embassy representing the United States must be one.
In the same principle, the church in the whole universe is one. So in any place, in any locality, if there is some expression of the church, that expression must be one. If we want to be in the proper way to practice the church, we must first remember that the church in the whole universe is one. So if we are going to express the church in any place, we must be one. In any locality there must be only one local church as a living expression of the Body of Christ. If there is more than one, that means division has taken place. This is exactly what has happened today. If you go to Tokyo, there is no need for you to inquire about what American embassy you should attend. But today when people go to a city, they ask about what church they should attend. There are many different kinds of churches today. This means divisions have occurred. Any denomination is a division. There should not be many different churches in one locality, that is, many different expressions of the Body of Christ in one city. In one city, there should be only one expression of the one Body of Christ.
(Witness Lee, Life and Way, 101-102)
Witness Lee's illustration above is quite clear. A country can only have one embassy to represent it in a foreign city. Similarly, the local church expresses the oneness of the universal church in a particular city by virtue of its singularity.
On another note, Witness Lee also emphasizes that the term local church is not the name of a particular church; rather, the designation local church, as a reference to the local expression of the one biblical church, simply denotes the nature of the church. A local church, due to its uniqueness in a locality, is simply the local church in that city. Witness Lee articulates this point in the following passage:
At this point I need to say strongly that the term local church is not a name. We do not have a name. When people ask you what kind of church we are, you should simply say, We are just the church. To ask me what kind of church we are is like asking what kind of moon we are. The moon is uniquely one. When the moon is in London, it is called the moon in London. When the moon appears over Cleveland, it is called the moon in Cleveland. In the same way, we say that we are the church in Cleveland or the church in Los Angeles. But such terms are not a name. Rather, they are a description of a fact. Thus, we should never use the term the local church in a way that others might regard it as a name. The local church denotes the nature of the church. We do not have a sectarian church or a so-called universal church. The churches in the Lords recovery are churches in localities. For this reason they are referred to as local churches. But the words the local church are not a name, and we are not a denomination. Do not use these terms as if they were a name. At most we should say, We are the church in Cleveland. The church in Cleveland, of course, includes all the believers in Cleveland. However, because most Christians in Cleveland will not be recovered back to the proper ground of the church, we are the only ones still remaining as the church in Cleveland. But we do not have a special name.
(Witness Lee, Spirit and the Body, 211)
Perhaps the most effective illustration used by Witness Lee to convey the concept of the proper ground of the local church is the following Old Testament reference to the Israelites returning to their God-given land:
If someone tries to argue with you concerning the ground of oneness, point as an illustration to the situation of the children of Israel in the land of Canaan. Jerusalem was the unique place, the unique center, chosen by God to maintain the oneness of His people. Eventually, Godís people were carried away into captivity, some to Egypt, others to Assyria, and still others to Babylon. Originally Godís people were one, with a unique center of worship on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. But they became scattered into at least three major divisions. After the seventy years of captivity in Babylon had expired, God commanded the people to return to Jerusalem. A remnant of the people did return. By returning to Jerusalem, they spontaneously formed a fourth group among Godís people. Before the return from captivity, there were just three groupsóthose in Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Although these three groups were divisions, the fourth group, constituted of those who had returned to Jerusalem, was not a division. Yes, the fourth group was a distinct group, but it was a recovery, not a division.
Perhaps some of Godís people who chose to remain in Babylon said, Brothers, you shouldnít be so narrow. God is everywhere. We donít need to go back to Jerusalem to worship Him. Consider Daniel. He loved the Lord and served Him without going back to Jerusalem. If he could stay in Babylon, then we are free to do the same thing. Under the Lordís sovereignty, Daniel remained in Babylon even after the year Cyrus issued the decree ordering the captives to return to Jerusalem (2 Chron. 36:22; Dan. 1:21; 10:1). Prior to that time, he prayed daily with his windows opened toward Jerusalem. This indicates that Daniel desired to go back to Jerusalem; however, he was not given the opportunity to do so. Therefore, his case should not be used as an excuse to remain in Babylon, that is, to stay in division.
For Godís people to remain in Egypt, Assyria, or Babylon was to remain in division. Those who returned to Jerusalem did not cause further division. On the contrary, they shared in the recovery of the genuine oneness. Among the four groups, only they could be regarded as the nation of Israel. Although the ones who remained in Babylon may have vastly outnumbered those who returned to Jerusalem, those who returned could be regarded as the nation of Israel, whereas those who remained could not.
In principle, the same is true with respect to the nation of Israel today. It is those who have returned to the good land who are recognized as the nation of Israel, not those who are still scattered throughout the world. For example, the number of Jews in New York City may exceed the number of those in Israel. Nevertheless, as even the United Nations recognizes, the Jews in Israel make up the nation of Israel, whereas the Jews in New York do not. Those in New York may love the nation of Israel and may give generously to support it. Nevertheless, simply because they have not returned to the land of their fathers, they cannot be regarded as the nation of Israel. To be part of the nation of Israel one must be not only a Jewóhe must be a Jew on the proper ground, that is, in the good land.
(Witness Lee, Genuine Ground, 143-145)
The preceding quote from Witness Lee brings two keys points to the forefront. First, Witness Lee emphasizes the absolute importance of the believers standing on the proper ground of the local church, and the relative importance of their number. Second, Witness Lee points out the fundamental distinction between believers that come back to practice the ground of the local church and those who do not. Believers who stand on the biblical ground of the local church, who gather as the local church in a city, cannot be regarded as another sect among many, just as the convergence of Jews in Palestine cannot be considered as merely another settlement in the Jewish dispersion.
In summary, the term ďlocal church,Ē as Witness Lee mentions, is not, and should not be employed as a proper name to designate a certain group; it is simply a description of the unique and visible church in a city expressing the one universal Body of Christ. In this sense, Witness Lee compares the local church to a local embassy. As there is only one embassy in a city to uniquely represent its country, so the one local church in a city expresses the oneness of the universal Body of Christ. According to Witness Lee, the believers who sense the Lordís leading to stand on the ground of the local church must faithfully do so, regardless of their number. Witness Lee indicates that as Christians abandon sectarianism and heed the scriptural injunction to keep the ground of the local church, they are being recovered, not further divided. May we all be captive to the word of God to practice what we see concerning the ground of the local church.
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