Witness Lee on the local church: The Testimony of Church History concerning the Ground of the Church
Witness Lee on the local church: Oneness





Watchman Nee 

Witness Lee 



Testimony of Church History from 1900-1920

Many other believers at the beginning of the previous century continued to record what the Lord revealed to them concerning the crucial truth of the local church and its practical oneness. As time has progressed, so also has the vision of the oneness of the believers in a locality. Although this matter has not yet been widely embraced by the Lord’s children, He has always had some faithful trumpeters of the truth. One locality, one local church is the common theme among the following writers of the early 20th century.

Dr. F. J. A. Hort, D.D. in The Christian Ecclesia, “The Early History and Early Conceptions of the Ecclesia” (1900):

St. Paul’s recognition of the individual responsibility and substantial independence of single city Ecclesiae was brought into harmony with his sense of the unity of the body of Christ, as a whole. (122)

J. C. V. Durell, B.D., in The Historic Church (1906):
Durell, commenting on Ignatius’s view of the local church, remarks:

In one place there is one local church. Such an arrangement as a plurality of churches in the same place would be quite foreign to the thought of Ignatius. This is shown by the consistent occurrence of such phrases as “the church which is in Ephesus,” “the church which is in Magnesia [referring to a city during the second century].” There is no such phrase as “the churches in Ephesus.

So, then, in one place there is one church. The churches of different places preserve harmonious, friendly relations one with another, through mutual intercourse and acts of sympathy, as befits communities that together make up h kaqolikh ekklhsia, the sum of them all. (30-31)

J. Agar Beet, D.D. in The Church, the Churches, and the Sacraments (1907):

The Christians in any one city, even in so large a city as Ephesus, would naturally become one organized community, and were therefore called as in Rev. 2:1, “the Church in Ephesus.” (28)

Frank Spence in Christian Reunion, “The City—the Unit and Area of Organisation” (1908):

Earlier in the century, Frank Spence, a man deeply burdened for the restoration of the oneness of the Body of Christ, was moved to issue a plea to concerned Christians everywhere for what he called “the restoration of the Ecclesia of God.” In his book, Christian Reunion, Spence presents us with a very sound and thorough scriptural treatise on the matter of locality. His arguments, documentation, and presentation are irrefutable. Concerning the local church (“Ecclesia”) in each city, he states:

Every Ecclesia or community of believers organised by the apostles was designed by them to include all the Christians resident in the city or island of population in which it was placed; it being always referred to as “the” (and therefore the only) Ecclesia in such city. (12)

Spence footnotes this statement with a plea for the oneness of the church:

Since this truth dawned upon the writer over thirty years ago, he has repeatedly read press reports of the utterances of others whose independent study of the subject had led them to the same conclusion. Without doubt many other minds in the long centuries during which “Ecclesiasticism” has submerged the Ecclesia, have arrived at, and given expression to, the like conviction. God grant that in a matter so important as the organization of “the Ecclesia of God,” and therefore of Christian reunion, these voices, hitherto “crying in the wilderness,” may now everywhere be heard and prevail! (12)

Spence continues:

Neither in the case of Jerusalem, where thousands were obedient to the faith, of Ephesus, where Paul’s three years’ work influenced even the provincial Asiarchs, nor of Corinth, where he had occasion to reprove the spirit of faction, is there the smallest indication that there was more than one Ecclesia. (12-13)

In the following passages, Spence addresses the five New Testament references to a local church meeting in a house:

There is nothing in any of the five passages referring to an Ecclesia in a given person’s “house,” which is in the least degree inconsistent with the postulate that the New Testament knows only one Christian Ecclesia in a city. In every instance the house mentioned was without doubt the central place or “headquarters” of the community where its general as well as its official meetings were held.

In Rom. XVI Paul commends to the Roman Christians the bearer of his letter, “Phoebe our sister, who is a servant” (or deaconess) “of the Ecclesia that is at Cenchrea.” He next salutes Prisca and Aquila, the hostess and host of the Ecclesia in Rome, next the Ecclesia itself as a whole—“the Ecclesia that is in their house” and next numerous individual members and groups of members. After greeting the last group he enjoins all the Ecclesia members to “salute one another with a holy kiss,” and adds, “all the Ecclesias of Christ” (i.e., the separate city Ecclesias thus far founded) “salute you.”

Farther on (v. 23) the apostle says: “Gaius my host, and of the whole Ecclesia, saluteth you,” i.e., obviously the whole Ecclesia in Corinth, from which city he writes. As both of Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians are addressed to “the Ecclesia of God which is at Corinth,” and as, in I Cor. XIV. 23, in referring to meetings of all its members, he a second time uses the above-cited expression, “the whole Ecclesia,” it is manifestly impossible that there could have been more than one Ecclesia in Corinth.

The third of the five mentions of an Ecclesia in a house will be found in I Cor. XVI. 19, where Paul, writing from Ephesus, says: “The Ecclesias of Asia salute you, Aquila and Prisca salute you much in the Lord, with the Ecclesia that is in their house.” As Eph. ii. 21, 22 and Christ’s own words make it clear that there was only one Ecclesia in Ephesus, it follows that the house of this large-hearted Christian pair was its meeting-place.

The fourth mention is in the words: “Salute the brethren that are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the Ecclesia that is in their house”.…Christ’s words demonstrate that there was only one Christian community in Laodicea and consequently that its meeting place was in the above mentioned house.

We now come to the fifth and last New Testament reference to an Ecclesia in a particular house….As the unity of the Christian community of Colosse is demonstrated by several passages…it cannot be doubted that they were as much an Ecclesia as the Christians of Laodicea who being near neighbors are referred to with them, in that sense….And if like them, they constituted the, i.e. the only Ecclesia of their city, it follows that their headquarters were Philemon’s house. (14)

Below, Spence further addresses the subject of local church meetings in believers’ homes:

In addition to the many New Testament references to the apostolic organization in each city as a single community or “body”, there are also, in the case of some of the larger cities, very clear indications of smaller sectional gatherings in different parts of the city area….As regards the meeting-places of such sectional gatherings, we must remember that the political situation nearly always necessitated these being “at home”….The meetings, for various purposes, of “the whole Ecclesia” as a single unit and organization would, as previously suggested, probably be held in the largest room of some richer convert’s house. (37)

Spence goes on to present more conclusive evidence:

It is admitted on all hands that the apostles founded an Ecclesia in every city successfully evangelized by them….Christ’s separate message to each of the seven Minor Asian communities, as a living spiritual organism in its particular city, puts this absolutely beyond question. (18)

He adds:

And the truth-thirsting New Testament student will also rightly conclude that an apostolic community is “the body of Christ,” “the temple of God,” “the Ecclesia of God,” in its appointed city sphere. (20)

In the following passage, Spence challenges the contemporary acceptance of denominated local churches:

In each city which contained a vigorous apostolic organization, whilst there would be numerous district gatherings for preaching, worship, exhortation, evangelization, etc., all the Christians associated with them formed one local visible spiritual community or “body of Christ”; and their oneness was manifested and perfected by their coming together for communion and for conducting (either personally or representatively) the spiritual and temporal business of the Ecclesia as a unit or whole….In subsequent pages, ample evidence will be forthcoming of the inconsistency with themselves and with each other of different theories which, whilst admitting that the apostles founded one Ecclesia in each city, and that Christ’s seven messages and the Acts and Epistles know only one community, nevertheless variously maintain (a) that there may be many Congregational or Baptist Ecclesias in one city; (b) that all the members of a denomination in the world, or in a nation, or in any local church of such denomination are an Ecclesia….The New Testament contains no such conception as that of a visible Congregational or Baptist Ecclesia. (23)

He adds emphatically:

As there is abounding evidence that from the beginning of the Gospel He inspired His agents to organize His followers in each city into one body, is it not plain that by separating and divorcing ourselves in every city into various communities acting apart from each other we are putting asunder what He “hath joined together”? (25)

Spence further states:

In presence of the many distinct references to the members of an Ecclesia as together constituting Christ’s body, and clearly, defining it as consisting of the Christians of a city; and, above all, of the fact that Christ Himself in His messages to the seven Ecclesias expressly recognizes and thus gives divine sanction to the city community principle planned by His agents; this point [of denomination] need not be further pursued here. (33)

The following footnote by Spence sums up the errors of today’s divided Christendom. He says:

As claimants to be New Testament Ecclesias, do not the advocates of the national Churches, Established and non-Established, in departing from the apostolic principle of one Ecclesia in one city, err by inflation as obviously as do Congregationalist bodies by fission?

The definition of a Christian Ecclesia, which some perplexed but mentally ease-loving minds fall back upon as a satisfactory closure of the whole controversy on the subject, “a congregation of faithful men,” has no support in the New Testament. It would make any unorganized gathering of Christians—even the “two or three” who “are gathered together in” Christ’s “name”—an Ecclesia, thereby completely subverting the apostolic principle of one Ecclesia in one city. (35)

G. H. Pember in The Great Prophecies of the Centuries Concerning the Church (1909):

But there is no sign that the Church in one place was united by any earthly or visible bonds to that in another: for the Lampstands are distinct and independent….It was sufficient that they should be connected by their obedience to One Lord, who moved among them to see and to judge….Hence the view that is here set before us of the Churches of our Dispensation precludes the idea of anything like a hierarchy, or combined body….And in perfect harmony with this fact, the Seven Churches which were in the one province of Asia were called the Churches, and not the Church, of that province. (489)

Another very important point must, also, be noticed….Each of the Lampstands represents the whole Church in a single place….There is no recognition of human divisions or sects: but all the Lord’s people who dwell in the same city, or district, are regarded by Him as one assembly, whatever their outward differences may be. (490)

Charles A. Briggs, D.D., D.Litt. in Church Unity (1910):

The one Church embraces a number of local churches, in different cities and provinces. The Church is one. Nowhere is there more than one church in one place. The local church is the representative of the whole Church in the particular city. (33)

In the New Testament we find nowhere more than one church in a city. The New Testament does not contemplate a Church divided into a number of independent organizations in the same territory. (176-177)

Robert Ellis Thompson, M.A., S.T.D., LL.D. in The Historic Episcopate (1910):

In each city of his field we see a church formed as the church of that city, with the municipal limits accepted as those of the church responsibility. Barnabas invites him to “return and visit the brethren in every city wherein we proclaimed the word;” and he enjoins upon Titus to “appoint elders in every city” of Crete. Peter, in writing to the “sojourners of the Dispersion,” implies that they were residents of cities. To the churches of the seven cities of Asia are addressed the epistles of the Apocalypse.

Nor is there any difference in this respect between apostolic and sub-apostolic literature. Clement writes in the name of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth; Polycarp addresses the church in Philippi; Hermas addresses the church of Rome, and asks that his book be sent “to the cities abroad.” Every city that has been reached by the gospel has its church; and every church has its city. Nowhere, except in the case of the Apostles, and the evangelists specially commissioned to act for them, have we knowledge of any church official who claims to exercise authority over any larger area than a city.

Whether large or small, the city was the unit of Church organization throughout the lands around the Mediterranean, over which Rome had established her rule as a city mistress of the cities. Many or few, the Christians of each city made up one congregation, met at one communion table, broke the one loaf, and brought to the one place that weekly offertory, from which were relieved the poor, the stranger, the imprisoned for the gospel’s sake and the widows and orphans. (170-171)

George P. Fisher, D.D., LL.D. in The Beginnings of Christianity (1911):

In towns, where the number of Christians was considerable, the eldership, as we have said, was plural. The church “in the house” of one or another, was not a separate organization, but simply a meeting-place of a fraction of the community of believers, who might, for want of a sufficiently spacious edifice, be compelled to hold their worship in more than one apartment. But the churches in the Apostolic age were municipal in their boundaries.

In point of fact, the churches in the Apostolic age, as we have said, were bounded by municipal limits. Apart from their common relation to Apostolic guidance, each of these communities was complete in itself. They were in communion with one another, and a rupture of this communion through the act of one or more of the churches, except for a very grave cause, would have been considered an unchristian proceeding. (554-556)

William Moran in The Government of the Church in the First Century (1913):

Notable among the works written concerning church ground is one entitled, The Government of the Church in the First Century, by William Moran. Moran comments below on the local church in each city as well as the churches throughout each province:

The ecclesiastical unit in the Pauline epistles is the church of a city….Hence we read: “Paul…to the church of the Thessalonians”; “Paul…to the church that is at Corinth, and to all the saints that are in all Achaia.”…The apostle never speaks of the churches of a city, even though it contains several such Christian households as we have just referred to….We never hear of the “churches” of Corinth or of Thessalonica, or of Philippi, or of Rome….We have, on the other hand, frequent mention of the churches of a province because each town in the province has its own church….St. Paul speaks of the…churches of Galatia,” the “churches of Asia,” the “churches of Macedonia,” the “churches of the Gentiles,” and “all the churches of Christ….For Paul, therefore, the local church is a “church of God,” and a “church of Christ….The local completeness of these city-communities is shown not only by the way in which St. Paul speaks of the church of a city and the churches of a province, but also by the demand for local unity….Each local church is a unity, a body of Christ, a spiritual Israel, like the Israel of the flesh. (58)

Moran also discusses several practical applications of the truth of one church in one city:

St. Paul writes “to all the saints who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons”; he calls to Miletus the elders of the church of Ephesus; he sends Titus to establish elders in all the cities of Crete. The local flock is the city community. (59)

H. B. Swete, D.D., D.Litt., F.B.A. in The Holy Catholic Church (1916):

Antioch, the mother city of Gentile Christianity, had its own local church; and the Pauline mission planted a church in every city which it visited. Thessalonica. and Corinth had each its own “church”; and Galatia, being a province, more than one….Each congregation was to be a church in miniature, the representative of the One Body in its own locality; the Church itself in all localities was to remain one and the same, since it had one Head and one Spirit. (8-9)

Each of the primitive churches thus organized was the sole representative of the Ecclesia in its own locality; such a spectacle as is now presented in every English town and almost in every English village, of dissident denominations and rival places of worship dividing among them a population baptized into the One Christ, was nowhere to be seen in the first days of Christianity. (17)

For all these signs of the working of His Spirit in nonepiscopal bodies we thank God, and we recognize those who manifest them as brethren in Christ, whose faith and love we desire to follow. But the fact remains that the position occupied by these separatist bodies is not that of the churches described in the New Testament, and would not have been recognized as legitimate by the Christian commonwealth of primitive days. They are voluntary associations of baptized Christians, religious societies which have shewn themselves capable of doing much admirable work; but they lack the note of unity which characterizes the historical Church. “Churches,” in the strict and Scriptural sense, they are not. (18-19)

Swete is quite clear in his treatise that although brethren in Christ may do much admirable work and may form themselves into Christian associations, when measured against the standard of God’s Word, what they have formed is not the church. The local church must be one. God’s word gives no ground for division. According to the Scriptures, the local churches are simply the local expression of the one universal Body of Christ and, as such, must be one. The record is clear, but who would respond? In a country there may exist many local churches, but in any given locality, only one local church is allowed. Oh, that the earth may be filled with many local churches standing as one in each locality! May the Lord gain, in this age, such a beautiful harmony in His Body, both locally and universally.