The Local Church

in the Time of Apostasy
Neil Girrard

Scriptures Referenced in This Article:
          (Follow the Scripture links if you want to study the Scriptures for yourself.)
Mt. 24:4 π Jn. 3:3 π Jn. 3:5 π Rom. 8:9 π 1 Cor. 2:10 π 1 Cor. 3:1-4 π Gal. 5:20-21 π 2 Tim. 3:5 π 1 Jn. 2:27

I can, in no way, hope to address all the issues that the title raises. But neither could I think of a more appropriate expression for what the Lord is revealing to me at this time. As many people leave the denominational "churches" because of the "church's" errors and superficiality, it is necessary that God's people consider the implication of simply abandoning the "church." If we are careless in how we approach this issue, we may find ourselves in just as unScriptural a position as the denominational "churches."


But first, it must be recognized that there are now two very different meanings of the word "church." First is that of "ekklesia," which means "the called-out people of Christ." Ekklesia is the word originally used in the Greek New Testament by all the writers. Because there was no English equivalent to the word ekklesia as there is in Spanish and French (iglesia and eglise), English translators working for King James of England chose the word "church" which, at that time, meant "house of the Lord." It is a deeply unfortunate word choice because ekklesia refers to an assembly of people taking care of the business of the kingdom of Christ whereas church refers to a building in which God lives (an unScriptural notion to begin with). However, the word "church" is so deeply ingrained in our minds that it is difficult to completely abandon it.

The author which I will quote from in this essay, Watchman Nee, used the word "church" in the place of ekklesia. Thus I have used it herein as well. Where I use church to refer to the modern abominable practices that are the antithesis of ekklesia, I use quotes around church or, as often as possible, I have used either "ekklesia" or "assembly" to avoid some confusion. Nee differentiates between the two by simply referring to one as "the local church" and the other as "the denominational church." I would apologize for the confusion, but I didn't design the English language and I did not originate the misuse of the word "church." I can only attempt to work around the existing language problems.

Second, it must be observed that the ekklesia has always existed throughout church history - most often, existing side by side with "church" deceptions. What has become the case in our day is, because "church" has for so long absorbed the ekklesia into itself and many distinctly ekklesia characteristics have fallen by the wayside, "church" is assumed to be the way God meant for things to be. This is not true and those who wish to truly worship God must find out what His original intent was.

And third, knowing that we are entering into the time of apostasy, the great falling away from the faith, we must recall Jesus' stern warning: "Take care that no one deceives you." ( Mt. 24:4; top ) There is no substitute for you calling upon the Holy Spirit and relying on Him alone to help you understand the teachings of the Bible. John wrote, "But the anointing which you have received from Him abides in you, and you do not need that anyone teach you; but as the same anointing teaches you concerning all things, and is true, and is not a lie, and just as it has taught you, you will abide in Him." ( 1 Jn. 2:27; top ) You do not need a man to teach you the facts of the Bible so much as you need the Spirit to teach you to abide in Christ.

The Local Church

But let's move on to the excerpts from Watchman Nee which are disturbing in their implications. Watchman Nee taught:

"The sphere of the church is local, and the local church should on no account be divided. The question naturally arises, if the spiritual life of a local (not denominational) church is very low, can a few of the more spiritual members not gather together and form another assembly? The answer from the Word of God is emphatically, No! God's Word only warrants the establishment of churches on local ground. Even lack of spirituality is no adequate reason for dividing the church. Should local methods, government and organization be far from ideal, that still constitutes no reason for division." [1]

Nee wrote in the context of China in the 1920s and 30s. Though denominationalism had its start with the founding of the Roman Catholic Church and had major new spurts during the Reformation, at the time Nee was writing there were still only a relatively few denominations as it was in its beginning stages - unlike today where there are literally hundreds of denominations and splits in every city. In addition to these differences, it is now possible for the average believer, especially American believers, to travel much greater distances than in Nee's day. This does not change the Scriptures but it is a reality of our day and is what makes it very easy for an assembly to become extra-local in comparison with the Scriptures.

Nee is absolutely correct when he says that we should never abandon a local assembly. But we must take note that he is not talking about abandoning a denominational "church." Nee contrasts the local church sharply with a denominational "church," the latter being merely a divisive sect which ought to be abandoned as promptly as the Spirit reveals and so leads. The local assembly is a different entity - one which we, in modern America, have rarely, if ever, seen.

So our question is, what do we do? The divisive heretics and false shepherds who claim the title of "pastor" entertain and lead astray the vast majority of those who claim to be followers of Christ when in fact they are only followers of themselves and their man-made traditions. The denominational "churches" are the most visible, advertising in the Yellow Pages and standing on many a street corner, and they draw in the unwary and untaught.

But what are the real believers supposed to do? We dare not simply start another "church" and we dare not start exalting ourselves by saying, "Well, I'm of Christ and all of you in your denominational 'churches' are not." That would put us right back in the same category of those who say, "I'm of Paul," "I'm of Peter," "I'm of Apollos," "I'm of John Hagee" "I'm of Jack Hayford," "I'm of Chuck Smith." While we claim allegiance to any man or doctrine that is superior to our allegiance to the Person of Christ, we have no hope of being spiritual people ( 1 Cor. 3:1-4; top ) and we have no hope of experiencing the kingdom of God. ( Gal. 5:20-21; top ) To succumb to either of those errors will simply place us back in the ranks of those who have deserted the faith to embrace a gospel of a different nature.

The answer lies in the simple recognition of the fact that the ekklesia is local. That is, your neighbors, no matter what excess deceptive denominational baggage they carry, so long as they are truly born again and have the Spirit of Christ within (see Jn. 3:3 , 5 ; Rom. 8:9; top ), are your brothers and sisters in Christ. If, by the help of the Holy Spirit, we can at least establish that notion in our thinking, we have taken a major step in the right direction.

The Divine Purpose

But there is another matter. Watchman Nee also said:

"Our fellowship must be with all the believers in a locality, not merely with all the unsectarian believers in that locality. They may make denominational differences, but we must not make undenominational requirements. Their denominationalism or sectarianism will mean that severe limitations are imposed upon the Lord as to His purpose and mind for them, and this will mean that they will never go beyond a certain measure of spiritual growth and fullness. Blessing there may be, but fullness of divine purpose never."

Okay, so those still within denominational deceptions are our brothers and sisters in Christ and we freely receive them as such. But what about pursuing "the fullness of divine purpose" as a corporate body? How long should we belabor those who refuse to see the truth of God's Word and insist on remaining within the context of their denomination? It is to the detriment of our own spiritual growth that we are deprived of "the fullness of divine purpose" in our fellowships. Are we not able to separate from those who persist in their blind pursuit of what can only truthfully called other gods?

For in truth, most people who attend a denominational "church," even the non-denominational denominations, attend because they have found something which they like. They look upon it as an oasis but don't recognize that it is only an oasis from Scriptural reality and accountability. They like the way the speaker speaks, or the way the singers sing, or simply, the "atmosphere." Nowhere do the commandments and requirements of God enter into their equation of where they will "go to church." They have no desire to be the ekklesia, the called out ones of Christ. They simply want to "go to church," be slightly better people, associate with better people, but almost literally have nothing to do with Christ. The god most denominational "church" attendees worship is the I-god, the great and mighty "me."

This abominable pseudo-Christian atmosphere is not what either God or Watchman Nee envision as a local church. Rather, it is the apostasy - the great falling away from the faith - and it is accomplished all within the four walls of the average "church" building.

But I Feel Guilty...

It is certain that we are to withdraw from those who have an appearance of godliness but lack the real power of God. Paul, in his description of the end times, said that there would be those who "have a form of godliness but deny its power. And from such people turn away!" ( 2 Tim. 3:5; top )

There is absolutely no reason for a believer to feel guilty about abandoning a denominational "church." Yet many do. The source of these feelings of guilt is nothing other than the soul which loves to feel religious while it disobeys God. These feelings, like all things in the life of the believer, are to be submitted to the Holy Spirit. If we will submit ourselves totally to Him, we need not be led about by the whim of our emotions. And the feelings of guilt are simply an emotion.

Guilt, as a feeling, is one of Satan's most insidious attacks. It is nothing but deception. Guilt, in its most real and most basic form, is not a question of feeling - it is a question of fact. When you are arrested for a crime, the judge will not ask you if you feel guilty, he will ask you if you are guilty. Using this same analogy, you could be innocent of the crime with which you are charged - but, because you have to spend some time in jail before you see the judge, you feel like a criminal. You feel like you're guilty of something. In the same way, Satan stirs up these feelings within you so that you feel like your guilty of breaking one of God's commandments when in fact you are not.

Perhaps the most accurate analogy, using this same situation, would be if you were arrested and put in jail, but you were charged with an offense that is not even a crime! That is, you are subjected to all the harassment and humiliation of being arrested and jailed, but the offense with which you are charged is not even a crime in the law books! In the same way, abandoning the denominational "church" is not against God's commands. In fact, He most likely will very quickly lead you away from these abominations if you will but hear Him. Thus, while you may feel guilty because you now have nothing to do on Sunday morning, you are in fact guilty of no offense against God. Continue to surrender those feelings of guilt to the Holy Spirit and soon they will go away.

It is in the very fact that leaving the "church" produces guilt - which many a "church" leader will use as manipulation to get the "straying sheep" back into their pen - that we can see yet another indication of the true authorship of "church." God never puts guilt onto people - that is, the guilt that drives you toward immobility and inability to rise above sin and error. When God moves, He convicts of sin, an action which simultaneously points out the sin or error and leads toward the grace that enables one to overcome the sin and error. When one who has left the "church" starts to experience pangs of guilt but experiences no grace (mostly because there is no sin to forsake), it should be looked upon as confirmation that leaving the "church" was the godly thing to do.

Taking the High Ground

The question of whether or not to abandon the denominational "church" is not really a question at all for the maturing believer - the only question is "When do I leave?" But while it is not a question for the sincere seeker of Christ, neither is it to become the focus. Watchman Nee said it very well when he said:

"I do not condone sectarianism and I do not believe we should belong to any sect, but it is not our business to get people to leave them. If we make it our chief concern to lead people to a real knowledge of the Lord and the power of His Cross, then they will gladly abandon themselves to Him and will learn to walk in the Spirit, repudiating the things of the flesh. We shall find there will be no need to stress the question of denominations, for the Spirit Himself will enlighten them."

Let us who are truly of Christ then not concern ourselves with denominational issues but rather with leading those in our lives "to a real knowledge of the Lord and the power of His Cross." Those who refuse to be in our lives, we must leave in the Lord's hands and trust that He will somehow bring them into the truth - or we must be satisfied when, in the end, it will be revealed that He did everything possible but ultimately had to honor their willful rebellion by consigning them to an eternal hell. But for those believers who do remain in our lives, we must do our duty before God and lead them as best we can to the Lord and to His Cross.

To lead them to the Lord, we must first be submitted to the Lord ourselves. That is, we must have a moment-by-moment leading from Christ through His Holy Spirit. Without that we will only be starting yet another religious sect, another denomination based on our own ideas about what the Bible says.

To lead them to the Cross means that we must also have first gone there ourselves. The Cross is where everything of the old nature dies - the "I want's" and "I will's" - and the plans and will of God are embraced. "Not as I will, but as He wills" must be the attitude of our heart if we are to lead anyone else to the Cross of Christ and impart to them a proper attitude toward it.

We can only lead someone to Christ in direct proportion to the depth to which we ourselves have gone in Christ. There is no substitute for this. It is a waste of time to attempt to do otherwise and it will probably prove to be a dissuasive influence in the life of the ones we attempt to lead as well. Let us learn from the mistakes of the denominational, religious "churches." Let us not perpetuate their most basic and fundamental error - turning from a spiritual life led only by the Holy Spirit to a life governed by the soul, that is, the intellect, the passions and the will of man.

We have before us an opportunity to reject all the errors of church history in one action. We have the opportunity to learn to hear the Spirit of God and obey Him. We don't need creeds and doctrines and teachers so much as we need the Holy Spirit. Once we have a genuine, deep relationship with Christ through the Holy Spirit, we will know which of the creeds, doctrines and teachers truly bring the life of God and which were just some man-made notion which became a time-honored "church" tradition. It is the Spirit of God which reveals the hidden and deep things of God - and it is the Spirit of God who reveals them to our spirits. ( 1 Cor. 2:10; top )

To neglect the importance of the work of the Spirit of God in the believer's life is to accept a watered-down version of the Gospel of Christ. Embrace the Spirit and you embrace Christ and to embrace Christ, you must embrace the Spirit. These two are inseparable for they are One just as Jesus and the Father are One. We don't need to understand this truth so much as we need to receive it into our lives.

As the "church" reaches the full status of apostasy, they will hate and betray those who are truly following Christ. They will be envious of our freedom and they will cause us to be arrested and even executed. But the ekklesia, the real church, will continue to become more and more like Christ, replacing "church" hypocrisy and self-righteousness with the true humility and righteousness of Christ Himself.

Don't be fooled by the clever "church" schemes.

[1] All quotes from Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Church Life, International Students Press, 1969, chapter 5. back

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