What Are the Functions of the Local Church?

Paul Enns
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What constitutes a local church? When is it actually a church? Does a group of people meeting together to listen to tapes by Christian leaders constitute a church? Does a group gathering to hear different Bible conference speakers each week constitute a church?

Several important features identify a biblical, New Testament local church.


There are several New Testament Greek words designating worship. Proskuneo, which means “to bow down” or “prostrate,” is used many times in the Gospels, but in the epistles only in 1 Corinthians 14:24–25 in connection with an unbeliever. The physical act of bowing should reflect the inner attitude of the heart—submission to God. Latreuo has a basic meaning of “priestly service”; hence, Paul served God through preaching (Rom. 1:9). Rather than bringing a dead animal in worship, the New Testament believer offers God a living body, set apart to God in an act of worship (Rom. 12:1). Sebomai means “God-fearer” in Old Testament literature “and “worship” in the New Testament (cf. Acts 18:13).

True worship must be of a spiritual nature or realm, and it must be in accordance with truth as God has revealed it (John 4:24). It involves the decisive presentation of the believer’s entire being to God (Rom. 12:1–2).

Whereas Old Testament believers met on the Sabbath for worship, the book of Acts traces the transition wherein Christians began to worship on Sunday, the first day of the week, in commemoration of Christ’s resurrection(John20:1,19,26).They observed the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7) and took up offerings on the first day of the week (1 Cor. 16:2). Hymn singing was also a part of corporate worship in the early church (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16).


Instruction was a vital element in the life of the early church. God gave the Scriptures for the purpose of teaching people and bringing them to maturity (2 Tim. 3:16–17). Teaching is the antidote to false doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3); it produces love among believers (1 Tim. 1:5); it provides spiritual nourishment (1 Tim. 4:6), godliness (1 Tim. 4:6–16), submission (1 Tim. 5:17; 6:2), and a proper focus on life (1 Tim. 6:17). Paul instructed Timothy to teach others in order to reproduce himself (2 Tim. 2:2; cf. 1 Tim. 4:14, 16; 6:20).

At the very outset, the church devoted itself to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42) and then proceeded to fill the city with Christian doctrine (Acts 5:28). Paul commended the church at Rome for adhering to the teachings it had received. During his missionary journeys Paul taught the churches (Acts 18:11), which teaching was done both publicly and in the homes (Acts 20:20). In fact, the book of Acts concludes with Paul teaching those that came to him at Rome (Acts 28:31). The importance of teaching as a major function of the church can hardly be overstated.


The word fellowship (Gk. koinonia) means “sharing” and emphasizes the unity and oneness of the church. Fellowship takes place in a variety of ways. The early church met together for the fellowship of breaking bread and prayer (Acts 2:42). The breaking of bread consisted of eating a fellowship meal, called the love feast, which was followed by the Lord’s Supper. The early church placed great emphasis on the fellowship of prayer (cf. Acts 4:24–31; 12:5, 12; Phil. 1:3–4). Fellowship may also involve material means in helping spread the gospel (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 9:13; Phil. 1:5) or sharing rejection through identification with Christ (Phil. 3:10).

Fellowship also emphasizes the fact that believers belong together. Paul stresses this through his use of “one another.” Because of their fellowship in Christ, Paul instructs that believers are to accept one another (Rom. 15:7), love one another (Eph. 4:2, 15, 16; 5:2), refrain from judging one another (Rom. 14:3, 13), build up one another (Rom. 14:19), be unified (Rom. 15:5), and admonish one another (Rom. 15:14). This relationship with one another is important in keeping the unity of the faith for which Christ prayed (John 17) and Paul pleaded (Phil. 2:1–4).


The local church is also involved in ministry. This involves evangelism toward unbelievers in the world (Acts 8:4; 11:19, 20; 16:31; 17:12) and a variety of ministries toward believers in the church fellowship. It involves the exercise of spiritual gifts in order to minister to one another (Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4:8–13) and, by that token, serve others (Rom. 12:7), by giving to the needs of others (Rom. 12:8), showing mercy (Rom. 12:8), and helping others (1 Cor. 12:28). Ministry also involves the exercise of church discipline. It is necessary to exercise church discipline (exclusion from fellowship) because of immorality (1 Cor. 5:1–13) and false doctrine (2 Thess. 3:14; 2 John 10). Galatians 6:1–2 provides an important principle in the exercise of church discipline. Ministry must also involve the care for the needy in the church, particularly widows (James 1:27). First Timothy 5:1–8 provides details on the importance of the care for widows.


Once a church was formed, elders and deacons were appointed to oversee the ministry of the church (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5).


The church practiced the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Acts 2:41; 1 Cor. 11:23–24).

For Further Reading:

The Moody Handbook of Theology

by Paul Enns

The study of God, His nature, and His Word are all essential to the Christian faith. Now those interested in Christian theology have a newly...

book cover for The Moody Handbook of Theology