Who is building the church? As obvious as the answer to this question seems, we need to state it. If it is true that God is building the church by the Spirit, it is foolish to believe that we can build the church, much less build it our way. Many think that by new methods and new ways they are helping God build His church. They are building a church, but what church? There are two buildings going up, but on what foundation? With something as important as the church, the body of Christ on earth, we cannot be indifferent to what the church is and how it functions.
The term "church" has been lowered to a place where it has many different meanings in the minds of men. Men may call a group a church, or the church, but the question is, does God say it is the church? There may be hindrances to any testimony of a local church, but these hindrances do not necessarily make it any less the expression of God's church in a locality. Believers may have fallen from their first love and need to repent. They may have false doctrine which God hates, with God still working in their midst. But there may come a time when the Lord removes the candlestick (Revelation 2:5), which means the gathering is no longer a witness unto Him and what He is doing. What begins as a local expression of the church can slip to a place where it is no longer a true expression.
Sometimes it is good to see what the church is not, so that the revelation of the true church will be more clear in our own understanding.
A gathering is not the church just because:
a) members gather on a regular basis;
b) it calls itself a church;
c) it has the right pattern of gathering or keeps certain sacraments, such as baptism and the Lord's supper; or
d) it has elders or a pastor. When we want to know the true structure and working of the church, we must go back to the Word of God. We cannot look to the masses or to the minority. Although we have the words of Jesus that tell us, "Very few will find the way," we cannot find reality by looking only to numbers. "The gate is narrow and the way is straight that leads to life," tells us that God's way is not the way of the masses (Matthew 7:13-14). But this does not mean that what God is doing in different localities is always small.
There may be only one gathering in certain localities, and it may still not be the church. There are certain spiritual principles that must be in manifestation for a gathering to be the local expression of the one church. The three basic ones are:
a) the basis of gathering is the life of God, with a personal relationship as its foundation, with the limit of the church's testimony being the locality where believers live;
b) the purpose of gathering is to be made one and to contain the fullness of Christ, that Christ may fill all in all; and
c) the order of gathering is in faith, directed by the Spirit. We must see the church for what it is in Christ, and also we must see a proper, practical outworking in the local expression. It must always be what the church is in Christ that guides us, not the outworking which is imperfect in its different stages of growth. We must see the goal of our walk in Christ.