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Old 04-21-2009, 01:12 PM   #1
UntoHim
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Default Jerusalem & Rome - Churches on the Local Ground?

JERUSALEM & ROME—CHURCHES ON THE LOCAL GROUND?
“It’s us, it’s us, O Lord, standing on the local ground” (Song)

One city, one church—the “ground of locality” maxim*—is the cornerstone of Local Church teaching regarding church practice; it is presented as characteristic of the New Testament church in its pristine purity. The local ground is not a prescriptive teaching in the New Testament; nevertheless W. Nee claimed that Scripture’s descriptive examples provide an unambiguous precedent. He1 “maintained that there should be ‘one church in one locality.’…A church should not represent an area smaller or larger than a city and, therefore, its jurisdiction should correspond with administrative limits of a city.” “In the Word of God we see no church that extends beyond the area of a city, nor do we find any church which does not cover the entire area. A city is the scriptural unit of locality,” W. Nee asserted.2 He believed this biblical pattern applied in the twentieth century just as it did in the first, hence, he called on Christians to return to the beginningone city, one church. W. Nee also observed that,3 “in Scripture no other name but the name of a locality is ever connected with a church,” Following this precedent, local churches adopt the city’s name, e.g., the Church in Shanghai, the Church in Los Angeles, etc.

Witness Lee surpassed his mentor in zeal for the local ground, making “one city, one church” one of the essentials of the Christian faith. Among the4“main items of the proper Christian faith,” he inserted“The church…is locally one—one city, one church.” Anticipating objections, he says,5 “Some may disagree with the point, one city, one church, but as a proper Christian we have to believe that the church is both universally one and locally one.” For W. Lee, “locally one” means one city, one church. Clearly, for some, the local ground dictum is not merely a guide; if we take W. Lee seriously, it is ranked on par with the essential items of the faith.

Jerusalem is the first church mentioned in Acts (5:11) and is designated according to its city (8:1). Alluding to the6 “principle of first mention,” W. Lee asserts,7 “This was the first church established in a locality within the jurisdiction of a city, the city of Jerusalem. It was a local church in its locality….The record concerning this matter (the establishing of the church in its locality) is consistent throughout the New Testament.” He also describes the replication of this pattern in Antioch;8 “In the city of Jerusalem there was one church, the church in Jerusalem…. After this, the testimony and gospel of the Lord spread from Jerusalem to Samaria and from Samaria to Antioch. As a result, how many churches were there in Antioch? Acts 13:1…speaks of the one church in Antioch.” From Antioch, Paul travelled the Gentile world, planting churches in various cities and appointing elders in each congregation (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). Based on Paul’s practice, W. Lee deduces this9 “indicates not only that the jurisdiction of a local church is the city in which it is located but also that in one city there should be only one church. The eldership of a local church should cover the entire city in which that church is located.” This is the scriptural justification for “one city, one church.”

Here we re-examine “one city, one church”—the “local ground” maxim. This principle is typically established based on Paul’s pattern and then extended to other churches described in Scripture. We ask--are there notable exceptions? In particular we focus on Jerusalem, the first church described in Acts, and Rome, the last church in Luke’s record of Acts. Neither of these was established by Paul. We ask—does Scripture describe Jerusalem and Rome as local churches, bounded by the jurisdiction of their city? Was Jerusalem a local church or a supra-local church? Were the Roman believers a city-church or simply a house-church? Did Rome and Jerusalem view themselves as local churches standing on the local ground—“one city, one church”? Or were these churches’ self-understandings markedly different? The answers determine whether there is a unique scriptural pattern or several alternative biblical models of the New Testament church.

The Jerusalem Church—from Gathered Church to Scattered Church
The Church in Jerusalem is presented by W. Lee as the prototype local church standing on the ground of locality.10 No doubt this church was designated according to its city. Yet, that doesn’t necessarily imply Jerusalem functioned as a local church limited to its jurisdiction as defined by the city limits. Nor does it necessarily imply that the Jerusalem church leaders or members viewed themselves this way. Such deductions may result from eisegesis—reading the “one city, one church” dictum back into the scriptural record.

Jerusalem is the first church recorded in Acts (5:11; 8:1, 3). However, persecution following Stephen’s martyrdom scattered its members throughout Judea and Samaria. As a result this “gathered church” became a “scattered church.” Saul persecuted the dispersed believers in Jerusalem and the surrounding cities until he was confronted by Christ on the Damascus road. According to Acts, following his conversion “the church throughout the whole of Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace” (9:31). Here is a striking counter-example to the “one city, one church” dictum. It uses the singular,11 “church,” to designate the believers in an entire region. This contradicts the assertion that,12 “In the Word of God we see no church that extends beyond the area of a city….” It also violates the statement,13 “In the Word of God we never read of the church…in Judea, or the church in Galilee.” This Scripture (9:31) cannot be discounted or dismissed14 simply because it violates the “one city, one church” mold.

W. Lee argues that “the church” here (in 9:31) refers to the universal church. He says,15
Since at that time the church had spread only to the provinces of Judea, Galilee, and Samaria, and since the word whole covers all the places where the church existed, church in singular is used here in the universal sense, although there must have been churches in the local sense in a number of the cities of these three provinces.
However, this explanation ignores the fact that there were already disciples in other regions, for example, Damascus in Syria (Acts 9:10, 19). Hence, contrary to Witness Lee’s claim, the aggregate of local churches in Judea, Galilee, and Samaria did not equal the universal (global) church at that time. A more plausible explanation for this anomaly is that the scattered Jerusalem believers were still viewed as one church, the Church in Jerusalem, even when they were dispersed. Hence, they were “the[Jerusalem] church [scattered]throughout the whole of Judea and Galilee and Samaria.” According to the Acts record, they did not become the churches in Judea, Samaria and Galilee; Luke never designates them as such. Professor Dunn concurs with this interpretation, saying,16 “When the Hellenist believers who had been dispersed from Jerusalem met together [in multiple locations] they were still the church of God.” The Church in Jerusalem doesn’t fit the stereotype of a local church standing on the local ground. That model describes churches established by Paul; it does not match the Jerusalem Church. This conclusion is reinforced by examining striking omissions in the book of Acts.

Local Churches in Acts—Occurrences & Omissions
The ground of locality teaching is based on occurrences of the term17 “church(es)” in the New Testament. Little attention is paid to omissions of this term—places where the term “church” could have been employed, yet it is noticeably absent. It is significant that the first local church explicitly designated in Acts is Jerusalem; the second is Antioch (11:26; 13:1).18 During the intervening period, according to Acts’ record, the gospel reached many places, yet none is explicitly designated by scripture as “the church in [that city]”. Consider the following:
Philip preached in the city of Samaria; Peter & John confirmed the disciples. Yet there is no explicit mention of “the church in the city of Samaria” (Acts 8);
Saul (Paul) was converted and stayed with the disciples at Damascus (9:19, 25); yet the term “church in Damascus” is never used (Acts 9);
Peter visited disciples at Lydda, Sharon, & Joppa; yet none of these is designated as “the church in [that city]” (Acts 9);
Peter visited Cornelius’ house in Caesarea, initiating the “Gentile Pentecost,” yet the believers aren’t called “the church in Caesarea.” (Acts 10);
Paul visited Tyre, Ptolemais, & Caesarea, en route to Jerusalem, but none of these are explicitly referred to as “the church in [that city]” (Acts 21).
Only when the gospel reached Antioch (Acts 11:26; 13:1) is the term “church” applied to a city besides Jerusalem. These omissions form a striking pattern calling for explanation. Except for Jerusalem, none of the groups of disciples gathering in various towns and villages of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee is specifically designated as “the church” in that place. According to the “local ground” dictum they ought to be. These companies are called “the disciples” (Acts 8:19; 9:38; 21:4, 16), “the saints” (Acts 9:32, 41), and “the brothers” (Acts 10:23; 21:7) in those locations; but they are never called “the church in (that place).” It seems Luke consciously avoided this designation, even when it would be natural to use it. We find this omission striking and significant; it needs an explanation.

The Church in Jerusalem—Local Church OR Supra-local Church?
The terms “the disciples,” “the saints,” and “the brothers” also describe the Jerusalem believers. In addition, the title “Church in Jerusalem” is explicitly applied to the Christians centered there. Moreover, even after groups of displaced disciples existed in towns throughout the region, the term “the church” (Acts 12:1, 5; 18:22) was still understood to mean “the Church in Jerusalem.” Why? Apparently it was the only recognized church. The last reference is particularly telling. Returning to Israel from his second journey, Paul “went up and greeted the church and went down to Antioch.” (Acts 18:22 RcV. Lit.19) In this context, “‘the church’ can only mean the church in Jerusalem,” says Professor F. F. Bruce. We conclude that, although congregations existed in towns and villages of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, the Acts record does not match the “ground of locality” dictum; it doesn’t recognize many local churches, one per town. Evidently, in regions served by the “pillar apostles,” Peter, James, and John (Gal. 2:9), only one church was recognized—“thechurchthroughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (Acts 9:31), the [dispersed] Church in Jerusalem, or simply “the church” (Acts 12:1; 18:22).

Apparently Jerusalem had a status as “the church,” which other congregations in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee did not. Jerusalem also had elders (Acts 11:30; 15:2, 6, 22; 16:4; 21:18); evidently other places did not. Moreover, there is evidence the Jerusalem elders’ administration extended beyond the city limits. The Antioch disciples sent famine relief funds to the Jerusalem elders for “dispensing to the brothers dwelling in Judea” (Acts 11:29,) a region extending beyond Jerusalem’s city limits. Evidently the Jerusalem elders didn’t regard themselves as overseeing a church whose jurisdiction was bounded by the administrative confines of their city. The spiritual and administrative center of this church was Jerusalem where the apostles and elders resided; the periphery of the Jerusalem Church extended into the surrounding regions. In Acts the Church in Jerusalem was a supra-local church.

“The Churches of Judea”—a Pauline Paradigm?
The apostle Paul employs the term, “the churches of Judea,” (Gal. 1:22) and, “the churches of God which are in Judea” (1 Thess. 2:14). This use of the plural “churches” matches the “local ground” teaching, suggesting there were multiple churches in Judea. However, we note that this phrase is only used by Paul writing to churches he planted in Galatia and Thessalonica. Yes, Paul described them as “the churches of Judea,” which matches his pattern of one church, one city. Yet other New Testament writers, including Luke, do not use this phrase. Probably Paul viewed Judea as containing multiple local churches; but this was Paul’s own paradigm. The important question is—did the Judean believers view themselves as distinct local churches, each standing on its local ground? Or did the Judean believers regard themselves as one church—the dispersed Church in Jerusalem, “thechurchthroughout the whole of Judea”? The evidence available in Scripture suggests the latter.

The Jerusalem Church—a Church in Dispersion
The discrepancy between the “local ground” maxim and the historical record is heightened in the later history of the Jerusalem Church. According to the historical record the Jerusalem believers heeded the Lord’s warning of impending tragedy when Jerusalem was besieged by Roman armies (Luke 21:20) in A.D. 70. Professor F. F. Bruce tells us,20 “When the Jewish revolt against Rome broke out…the Jerusalem church left the city and went into dispersion.” They migrated to the vicinity of Pella, across the Jordan, in the region of Decapolis. Significantly, Bruce adds, “In dispersion these believers continued to call themselves the church of Jerusalem,” for decades afterwards. In that era they didn’t adhere to the “ground of locality;” rather they were the “exiled church in Jerusalem.”

One City, One Church”—Unique Biblical Blueprint OR Paul’s Pattern?
The Local Church movement presents the “ground of locality” dictum as the unique biblical blueprint for the local church. Other models—house churches, community churches, regional churches—are denounced as unscriptural. Yet the teaching of “one city, one church” derives from the a priori assumption that all the biblical data, like pieces of one jigsaw puzzle, fit together as “one picture.” This assumption underlies W. Nee’s21 “search for the only possible biblical pattern to establish the church.” His conclusion that22 “in the New Testament there is one method and one alone of dividing the [universal] Church into churches, and that God-ordained method is division on the basis of locality,” relies upon this axiom. However, Robert Govett23 reminds us that scriptural principles can’t always be reduced to one all-encompassing pattern. Sometimes opposing divine principles are held together in tension. The biblical pattern(s) for the local church may fit this latter category. Perhaps all the puzzle pieces (the biblical data) form multiple pictures rather than composing one unique blueprint.

We don’t dispute the record of the apostle Paul establishing local churches in cities where he preached. These churches were designated by the city (e.g., the church in Corinth) or the citizens (e.g., the church of the Thessalonians). Typically elders were appointed to oversee each local church. This was a definite Pauline pattern. Evidently this city-church model persisted in the era when the apostle John ministered among the seven churches in Asia (Rev. 1:4). Even though John was a “pillar apostle” in Jerusalem, apparently he didn’t impose the Jerusalem model on the Asian churches; they remained local churches—city churches. But, was this also the pattern for other areas? Let’s consider the case of Rome.

The Church in Rome—City Church OR House Church?
The house-church phenomenon appears among churches not directly produced by Paul’s apostolic labors. References to “the church in the house” occur in connection with Rome (Rom. 16:3, 5), Colossae (Philemon 2) and Laodicea (Col. 4:15)—cities where (apparently) Paul had not labored. Since Paul’s writings only mention one “church in the house” in each of these localities, Watchman Nee asserts24 that this house-church was the church in its city. But, is this identification justified? A crucial question is—did the believers described as “the ekklesia (assembly) in the house” view themselves as the church in their city, standing on the local ground? Or did they simply regard themselves as a house-church? If they viewed themselves merely as a house-church in a neighborhood or one house-church among several (actual or potential) house-churches, this doesn’t match the “ground of locality” model.
Take Rome for example. It is significant that Paul never speaks of “the Church in Rome.” Paul addressedhis Romans epistle to “all the called saints who are in Rome” (Rom. 1:7). When Paul arrived in Rome, he was greeted by “the brothers” (Acts 28:14-15). He called the “leading men of the Jews” (Acts 28:17,) but (in striking contrast) no mention is made of the elders of the Church in Rome (cf. Acts 20:17). Later, writing from Rome, Paul refers to “the brothers who are with me” (Phil. 4:21), “all the saints” and “those of Caesar’s household” (Phil. 4:22); but he never refers to “the Church in Rome.” Professor James Dunn states,25 “The fact that Paul never speaks of the Christians in Rome as a church (“the Church in Rome”) may well be significant, especially since it is so out of keeping with Paul’s usual practice….It strongly suggests that the Christian[s] …shared…[a] fragmented existence….The Christians [in Rome]…were not seen as a single entity —and if not by Paul, still less by others.” Even Paul didn’t view the Roman believers as a single entity that he could designate “the Church in Rome.”

The only church mentioned in Rome was in Priscilla and Aquila’s house (Rom. 16:3, 5). W. Nee asserts that this house-church was the Church in Rome; he says,26 “The church in Rome, like hundreds and thousands of other local churches, first started in the house of a brother…. Therefore, the church in a certain place became the church in a certain person’s house. The church in Rome was the church in Priscilla and Aquila’s home.” Based on a typical scenario, W. Nee supposes the Church in Rome was just beginning. However, history27 suggests that, when Paul wrote Romans, the Christian faith was well established, and a considerable number of believers existed in Rome. Rome was by far the largest city in the Empire28—650,000 compared to Ephesus (200,000) or Corinth (100,000)—so the gospel, sown on fertile ground, could have produced significant numbers. A sizeable number would be29 “too numerous to meet in a single house.” Moreover, we ask—did the believers in Priscilla’s home view themselves as the Church in Rome? Did they regard themselves as “standing on the local ground in the city of Rome”? Or did they simply view themselves as an “assembly” (ekklesia) of Christians, gathering in that home? The fact that Paul never addresses them as “the Church in Rome,” but merely as “the church in the house” (16:5,) suggests the latter. Moreover, if the “local ground” dictum is as crucial as some claim, Paul missed a golden opportunity to present this vital matter to the saints in Rome.30 This omission may imply the early apostles didn’t place a premium on the ecclesiastical exactness expressed in the “ground of locality” doctrine.

Moreover, the possibility of multiple “house churches” in Rome shouldn’t be written off. Several “house churches” may have existed in Rome. Paul greets “the church in Priscilla and Aquila’s house” (Rom. 16:5). He then greets 25+ believers in Rome, including several clusters, e.g., “Hermas et. al. and the brothers with them” (v. 14), “Olympas et. al. and all the saints with them” (v. 15); that is commendable. However, “the fact that he was unable to greet more may be significant,” says Dunn. It suggests that31 “Paul knew very few of the purely local Christians in Rome, and also that the Christians he actually does know were only a relatively small proportion of the overall Christian community.” If this was the case,32 “there must have been at least several other house churches unknown personally to Paul.” Dunn deduces that, in Rome, the Christian faith33 “thrived through a sequence of house groups. Five such may be identified in…Romans 16—vv. 5, 10, 11, 14, 15.” None of these is designated as “the Church in Rome.” One is termed “the church in the house” (16:5). Perhaps other house churches existed in embryonic state (16:14–15) or beyond the scope of Paul’s knowledge when he wrote. The “house church” model cannot be summarily dismissed as being without scriptural precedent.

Conclusion
This article has focused on two churches, the first of which was the Church in Jerusalem, the prototypical church in Acts. The Church in Jerusalem was designated according to its city. However, there is little evidence the Jerusalem Church matched the “local ground” dictum. Saul’s persecution caused the Jerusalem Church to disperse (Acts 8:1). As Professor Dunn states,34 “When the Hellenist believers who had been dispersed from Jerusalem met together [in multiple locations] they were still the church of God.” Persecution caused the “gathered” Church in Jerusalemtobecome the scattered Church in Jerusalem, dispersed throughout Judea, Samaria and Galilee. Hence it was also called “thechurchthroughout…Judea and Galilee and Samaria” (9:31). This view is buttressed by the fact that, in these regions, no other city-churches are specifically named in Acts. This suggests that Jerusalem was not simply a local church standing on the “local ground” within the jurisdiction of Jerusalem. Jerusalem does not fit the ground of locality model; it was a supra-local church.

The second church we focused on was Rome, the last church in Luke’s record of Acts. The Roman believers evidently gathered as a loose network of assemblies in homes, some more established (e.g., Priscilla & Aquila’s house, Rom. 16:5), others less (Rom. 16:14–15). But they were never addressed as “the Church in Rome,” because they “were not seen as a single entity” even by Paul (Dunn). The dogmatic assertion that the house-church in Priscilla and Aquila’s home was the Church in Rome is “going beyond what has been written” in Scripture (1 Cor. 4:6). There’s no indication the Roman believers viewed themselves as “standing on the local ground” within the jurisdiction of Rome. Some Roman assemblies gathered as the “church in the house,” a house-church; others experienced a more fragmented and tenuous existence.

We conclude that there is no single model, no unique blueprint, encompassing all the churches described in the New Testament. Rather there are several alternative patterns. Paul established city-churches, some of which were later served by the apostle John (Rev. 1:11). This pattern forms the basis of the “ground of locality” teaching—“one city, one church.” However, there are notable exceptions. Jerusalem is one; Rome is another. Jerusalem is a poor precedent for a church standing on the “local ground;” it was supra-local. Moreover, the New Testament documents the existence of sub-local, house churches in places where Paul didn’t labor directly, for example, Rome. Thus the New Testament furnishes examples of churches with spheres both larger and smaller than the ground of locality maxim allows.

The Local Church dogma of “one city, one church” is not based on Scripture’s prescriptive teaching but on its descriptive examples. It rests on the a priori assumption that a unique biblical blueprint underlies the biblical data; all the “puzzle-pieces” are forced into “one picture.” When this axiom is dropped, different “pictures” emerge. Paul’s churches fit the city-church paradigm; other churches (e.g., Jerusalem and Rome) don’t conform to this mold. Insisting that “one city, one church” is the only biblical pattern amounts to using Paul to “trump”35 the other apostles (e.g., Peter & James). Yet the biblical canon documents the supra-local church in Jerusalem raised up by Peter and James, along with city-churches raised up by Paul. The supra-local church in Jerusalem/Judea is described in Scripture. House churches are also illustrated (e.g., Rome). Scripture testifies to each of these patterns.

On re-examining the “church ground,” we find diversity. The city-church is a major pattern; but, it is not the only pattern. There are also scriptural precedents for sub-local, house churches and supra-local, regional churches. This diversity implies believers who “stand on the local ground” in their city ought not to adopt an elitist attitude toward Christians who gather on different bases. As we endeavor to practice a biblical form of meeting—“one city, one church”—let us also recognize that other believers may gather on different, but equally biblical, bases. Moreover, the existence of multiple patterns in Scripture suggests we ought to be tentative,36 rather than dogmatic, when teaching concerning the “ground of the church.”

Nigel Tomes,
Toronto, Canada,
April 2009.


NOTES:
The views expressed here are those of the author alone. They do not represent the views of other believers with whom he is associated—whether elders, coworkers, churches or others. Thanks are extended to those who offered comments and feedback on earlier drafts.
1.Joseph Tse-Hei Lee, “Watchman Nee and the Little Flock Movement in Maoist China,” Church History: Studies in Christianity and Culture, Chicago: March 2005, Vol. 74, Issue 1, p. 68. The quote in context (which is Joseph Lee’s summary of W. Nee’s teaching) reads: W. Nee “maintained that there should be ‘one church in one locality.’ He emphasized the necessity to maintain independent local churches because on a doctrinal level, a local church could serve as a guardian of Christian teaching and contain heresy within one specific place. At an administrative level, the idea of ‘one church in one locality’ would discourage denominational competition in the same area. A church should not represent an area smaller or larger than a city and, therefore, its jurisdiction should correspond with administrative limits of a city. Only natural barriers and distance justified meeting in two separate churches in the same area. He saw no religious and practical reason for a group of Christians in the same locality to divide themselves into different denominations.”
2.Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Church Life (NCCL), p. 55. Similar statements by W. Nee include the following: “The Church of God has been divided into the churches of God on the one ground of difference in locality. Locality is the only scriptural basis for the division of the [universal] Church into churches.” [W. Nee, NCCL, p. 53] “Not only were the seven churches in Asia [Rev. 2-3] founded on the basis of locality, but all the churches mentioned in Scripture were founded on the same basis. Throughout the Word of God we can find no name attached to a church save the name of a place, for example the church in Jerusalem…” [W. Nee, NCCL, p. 53] “In the New Testament there is one method and one alone of dividing the [universal] Church into churches, and that God-ordained method is division on the basis of locality.” [W. Nee, NCCL, p. 55]
3.W. Nee, NCCL, p. 53. The quote in context reads: “In Scripture no other name but the name of a locality is ever connected with a church, and the division of the [universal] church into churches is solely on the ground of different localities.” [W. Nee, NCCL, p. 53]
4.W. Lee, The Speciality, Generality & Practicality of the Church Life, chap.1 The specific item—one of six “main items of the proper Christian faith”--is stated as: “The church, composed of all the genuine believers in Christ, as the Body of Christ (Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 1:24), is universally one (Eph. 4:4), and a local church as the expression of the Body of Christ is locally one—one city, one church (Rev. 1:11).” [W. Lee, The Speciality, Generality & Practicality of the Church Life, chap.1 emphasis added] W. Lee describes “the faith,” “the proper Christian faith” saying, “Concerning these points of our Christian faith there should be no argument. If we are going to fight for something, we have to fight for this. There is no need for us to fight for other things. We have to fight the good fight of such a faith (1 Tim. 6:12). We have to contend for such a faith (Jude 3). We have to teach and preach such a faith.” [W. Lee, The Speciality, Generality & Practicality of the Church-Life, chap.1, emphasis added] Hence, “one city, one church,” the ground of locality maxim is included by W. Lee in “the faith” for which believers should contend (Jude 3).
5.W. Lee, The Speciality, Generality & Practicality of the Church-Life, chap.1 The quote, in context, reads: “These are the six main items of the proper Christian faith. All real Christians do not have any disputations about these items. Some may disagree with the point, one city, one church, but as a proper Christianwe have to believethat the church is both universally one and locally one. As the Body of Christ, the church is universally one; as the expression of the Body of Christ, a local church is locally one. This doesn’t mean, however, that a real believer in Christ who does not agree with one city, one church is not saved. Still he or she is saved, but there is something lacking, not for salvation, but for the proper church life. The faith is the speciality of the church life. This is something very specific, very special.” [W. Lee, The Speciality, Generality & Practicality of the Church-Life, chap.1, emphasis added.] Note that W. Lee has merged two items—[1] the belief that the church is locally one—“we have to believethat the church is…locally one,” and [2] the ground of locality—one city, one church—“Some may disagree with the point, one city, one church, but as a proper Christianwe have to believethat the church is both universally one and locally one.” This assumes that oneness (at the local level) can only be legitimately practiced within the sphere (scope) of a city. W. Lee does not demonstrate this from Scripture. This article focuses on the “ground of locality” dictum; we do not address the more abstract teaching concerning the “ground of oneness,” presented (for example) in W. Lee’s book, The Genuine Ground of Oneness.
6.The “Principle of First Mention” is defined as follows: "God indicates in the first mention of a subject the truth with which that subject stands connected in the mind of God." [Biblical hermeneutics, Wikipedia]. Baptist seminary students are advised to “apply the hermeneutical principles of first mention, full mention, proportionate mention, the gaps, etc.” [Contemporary Preaching, by Dr. Gary R. Gromacki, emphasis added]. Watchman Nee also alludes to this principle, saying, “Therefore, in reading the Bible we must do two things. First, we must find …where a truth is first spoken of. Second, we have to find where new meanings and new revelations are added.” [W. Nee, How to Study the Bible, chap. 5, emphasis added.]
7.W. Lee,Acts 8:1, Recovery Version (RcV,) note 1.
8.W. Lee, The Ground of the Church & the Meetings of the Church, chap. 1, LA 1965
9.W. Lee, Titus 1:5, RcV., note 1.
10.W. Lee asserts “This was the first church established in a locality within the jurisdiction of a city, the city of Jerusalem. It was a local church in its locality…The record concerning this matter (the establishing of the church in its locality) is consistent throughout the New Testament.” [W. Lee,Acts 8:1, RcV, note 1]
11.W. Nee based his statements on the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible. The KJV renders Acts 9:31 as “Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.” (KJV). Based upon the KJV, W. Nee asserted, “In the Word of God we see no church that extends beyond the area of a city…” [W. Nee, NCCL, p. 55] Moreover, W. Nee says, “In the Word of God we never read of the church in Macedonia, or the church in Galatia, or the church in Judea, or the church in Galilee. Why? Because Macedonia and Galilee are provinces, and Judea and Galatia are districts. …‘Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria’ (Acts 9:31, KJV). The Holy Spirit did not speak here of the church, but of the churches. Because there were a number of localities, there were also a number of churches.” [NCCL, p. 59, emphasis added] Note that this is the only instance in which LSM’s edition of W. Nee’s Normal Christian Church Life retains the KJV, rather than substituting the RcV. The RcV. renders this verse (Acts 9:31) as “the church” (singular). In doing so, they follow the Nestle-Aland 26th edition Greek NT text, which rates this part of the text as {B} –indicating “that there is some degree of doubt,” concerning whether the original text read “church” (singular,) the preferred reading, or “churches” (plural). The {B} rating is on a scale from {A} to {D}—{A} signifying “that the text is virtually certain,” {B} indicating “some degree of doubt,” {C} “a considerable degree of doubt,” and {D} “a very high degree of doubt.”
12.W. Nee, NCCL, p. 55.
13.W. Nee, NCCL, p. 59.
14.Consider W. Lee’s statement regarding taking seriously every verse of Scripture, before accepting a certain interpretation. He says, As long as one or two verses do not allow a certain interpretation, we have to give up that interpretation. We have to respect every portion of the Bible. Only when an interpretation harmonizes with the whole Bible can this interpretation be considered reliable. Any verse that forbids a certain interpretation of the truth must not be sacrificed. Instead, that certain interpretation must be abandoned, and we must wait for God’s further revelation. If we study the Bible this way, we will not fall easily into error.” [Witness Lee, On Knowing the Bible, chap.4, emphasis added. Messages given in Taipei, Taiwan in the 1950s (translated).]
15.W. Lee, Acts 9:31, RcV., note
16. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 540
17.There are 75 occurrences of the (singular) word “church” [ekklesia] and 34 occurrences of the (plural) word “churches” in the New Testament.
18.Take, for example, W. Lee’s presentation below; he starts with the Church in Jerusalem and ends with the Church in Antioch, skipping briefly over the intervening places and time period. W. Lee says, “In the city of Jerusalem there was one church, the church in Jerusalem. Acts 8:1 says, ‘And there occurred in that day a great persecution against the church which was in Jerusalem.’ There was only one church, the unique church in Jerusalem. Originally there were one hundred twenty believers in Jerusalem. Then one day three thousand were added, and on another day five thousand were added. We have to believe that many more thousands were eventually added in. There may have been twenty or thirty thousand believers in that one city (5:14; 21:20). According to 2:46 and 5:42, those thousands did not meet in only one place; they met from house to house. There were many meetings, but not one meeting by itself became a church. Rather, all the meetings were one church. After this, the testimony and gospel of the Lord spread from Jerusalem to Samaria and from Samaria to Antioch. As a result, how many churches were there in Antioch? Acts 13:1 begins, ‘Now there were in Antioch, in the local church, prophets and teachers.’ This verse speaks of the one church in Antioch.” [W. Lee, The Ground of the Church & the Meetings of the Church, chap. 1, LA 1965, emphasis added]
19. The Recovery Version renders this verse, Acts 18:22, as: “And coming down to Caesarea, he went up to Jerusalem and greeted the church and went down to Antioch.” Note that the phrase, “to Jerusalem” is in italics, indicating it is not in the original Greek text. No doubt the Church in Jerusalem is the correct meaning. As F. F. Bruce says, “the church (here) can only mean the Church in Jerusalem.” The point is that in the context of Paul’s arrival back in the land of Israel, in the phrase “he went up and greeted the church,” “the church” was understood by both the writer, Luke, and his readers to mean the “church in Jerusalem.” The leadership of the Jerusalem Church was centered in Jerusalem.
20. F. F. Bruce, “The Church of Jerusalem,” Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Journal Vol.4 (April 1964) p. 12. The quote, in context, reads: “When the Jewish revolt against Rome broke out…the Jerusalem church left the city and went into dispersion. According to the fourth century historian Eusebius, they received an oracle some time before the fighting began charging then to leave the doomed city of Jerusalem and migrate to Pella. Pella beyond the Jordan was one of the cities of the Decapolis it was probably not to the city of Pella itself that the Jerusalem church migrated, but to the surrounding countryside which belonged to that city, as well as to other parts of Transjordan especially less frequented parts. The flight of the mother church to the wilderness and her preservation there may be reflected in the language of Rev. 12:14. In dispersion these believers continued to call themselves the church of Jerusalem, and their successive leaders were drawn for several decades from relatives of James, members of the holy family.” F. F. Bruce, “The Church of Jerusalem,” Christian Brethren Research Fellowship Journal Vol.4 (April 1964) p. 12, emphasis added].
21.H. Mountfort states that W. Nee’s teaching of one church, one city was the product of his “search for the only possible biblical pattern to establish the church.”[Huelon Mountfort, “Watchman Nee (1903 -1972) A Biographical Study,” IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 4, Number 19, May 13 to May 20, 2002]
22. W. Nee, NCCL, p. 54.
23. Robert Govett, The Twofoldness of Divine Truth, (Harrisburg: Christian Publications)
24. Take for example W. Nee’s presentation: “The fact is that the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila was the church in Rome. The church in Rome at that time was in the house of Priscillaa and Aquila…In [Rom. 16] verses 10 and 11 two more houses are mentioned in which there were also the Lord’s people. Nevertheless…only in verse 5 did Paul say, ‘Greet the church, which is in their [Priscilla and Aquila’s] house.’ Even though the whole household of Aristobulus believed in the Lord, there was only one church in Rome, which was the church that was in the house of Priscilla and Aquila. Therefore, although there were believers of the household of Aristobulus, they could not become the church. Although many of Narcissus’s household were believers, the believers in his house could not become an independent church.There was only one church in Rome, which was the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila.”[W. Nee, Further Talks on the Church Life, The Stream publishers, 1968, chap. 2, pp. 33] Again W. Nee says, “In the Bible, when the house is equivalent to a locality or city, that house is called the church, like the church in Rome.” [W. Nee, Further Talks on the Church Life, The Stream publishers, 1968, chap. 2, pp. 41] However, (not withstanding these repeated assertions) the question remains—did those believers, meeting in a house have the consciousness that they were the church in the city, standing on the ‘local ground’? Did they view themselves as such? In the case of Rome, there’s no indication they did; moreover the fact remains the Paul never addressed them as “the Church in Rome.”
25. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 38A, p. lii
26. W. Nee, Further Talks on the Church Life, The Stream publishers, 1968, chap. 2, p. 31 W. Nee makes a similar assertion, saying “in greeting the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila, it is implied that such a greeting is to the church in Rome, which was meeting in Priscilla and Aquila’s house. Hence, the church in Rome was the church in Priscilla and Aquila’s house.” [W. Nee, Further Talks on the Church Life, The Stream publishers, 1968, chap. 2, p. 32, emphasis added] Also “the fact is that the church in the house of Priscilla and Aquila was the church in Rome.” [W. Nee, Further Talks on the Church Life, The Stream publishers, 1968, chap. 2, p. 35, emphasis added] Again, he asserts, “The church in the house of Aquila was the church in Rome.” [W. Nee, Further Talks on the Church Life, The Stream publishers, 1968, chap. 2, p. 38, emphasis original]
27. W. Nee’s analysis appears to be based upon a “typical scenario” for the development of a local church, rather than actual historical facts concerning the development of Christianity in Rome. In contrast to W. Nee’s scenario—that the Church in Rome was just beginning-- scholars suggest that “The Christians must have been well established and fairly numerous [in Rome] by the middle of the 50s. Paul had wanted to visit them ‘for many years’ (1:10; 15:23). They had been sufficiently strong (or provocative) by A.D. 49 to provide the occasion for the ‘constant disturbances’ within the Jewish community which resulted in the expulsion of…the Jews.” [James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 38A, pp. li-lii] There are links to the personal history of Priscilla & Aquila—they were among the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius (approx. 49 A.D.) , which occasioned their meeting Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2). Paul’s Epistle to the Romans is dated by the RcV. at approx. 60 A.D., by which time Prisca & Aquila were back in Rome (16:3-5). “The famous report of Suetonius that Claudius ‘expelled the Jews from Rome because of their constant disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus’…It is generally agreed that ‘Chrestus’ [a common slave name] must mean ‘Christ’ and the reference is therefore probably to disturbances among Jews concerning Jesus…[i.e.] disagreements between Jews who had accepted Jesus as Messiah (Jewish Christians) and Jews who rejected the Christian claims.” [James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 38A, pp. xlviii-xlix] This is the basis for Dunn’s claim (above) that Christians “had been sufficiently strong (or provocative) by A.D. 49 to provide the occasion for the ‘constant disturbances’…which resulted in the expulsion of…the Jews” from Rome. No doubt during the intervening decade (4960 A.D.) before Romans was written the Christian testimony in Rome had experienced further growth.
28.Population estimates for cities in the Roman Empire are reported by Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, pp. 131-2.
29.James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 38A, p. lii.
30. W. Lee claims that Romans 16 emphasizes the local church. He says, Romans 16 “presents a display of the local churches.” [W. Lee, Rom. 16:1, RcV., Note 1] Similarly, he alleges “As we come to Romans 16, we discover that God is in the local churches.” [Life-study of Romans Message #31] W. Lee says, “The local churches as the fourth station revealed in this book [Romans].” [W. Lee, Rom. 16:1, RcV., Note 1]. The “four stations” are identified as “Four stations are revealed in this book: ….the first station, the station of justification; …the second station, the station of sanctification; …the third station, the station of the Body of Christ; and…the fourth station, the station of the churches expressed in different localities…. The churches are the ultimate consummation of the complete salvation of the gospel of God revealed in this book.” [W. Lee, Rom. 16:1, RcV., Note 2, para. 2, emphasis added.] He concludes “In this chapter [Rom. 16] the church and the churches are mentioned five times…This is a strong indication that many matters covered in [Rom.] chs. 1--15 concerning God's complete salvation are for the producing and building up of the church….” [Rom. 16:1, RcV., Note 2, para. 1, emphasis added.] However, despite W. Lee’s emphasis on the local church—“the churches expressed in different localities,” the fact remains that Paul’s references to the church(es) in Rom. 16 are incidental, rather than being the main focus of his statements. The first “three stations”—justification, sanctification, & the Body of Christ—are definite topics which Paul explicitly addresses. In contrast, the last “(fourth) station”—the local churches—is not directly addressed by Paul. Hence we say, “if the “local ground” dictum is as crucial as some claim, Paul missed a golden opportunity to present this vital matter to the saints in Rome.”
31.James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, vol. 38A, p. lii. This observation is based upon the observation that “The relatively small proportion of specifically Roman names in [Romans 16]…is also striking, in view of the fact that more than half of all the names recovered from the Jewish catacombs in Rome are Latin.” [James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, p. lii]
32. James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1–8, vol. 38A, p. lii.
33. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul, the Apostle, p. 542, note 53.
34. James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle, p. 540.
35. Professor Clines notes the tendency among Plymouth Brethren to create “a de facto ‘canon within the canon’…[which] tends to give priority to Pauline theology, second rank to the Johannine [i.e. John’s] writings, and third place to the Synoptic Gospels…Interpreting Scripture by Scripture ought not to mean making everything fit the categories of a Paul or a John.” [David J.A. Clines, “Biblical Hermeneutics in Theory and Practice,” Christian Brethren Reviewvols. 31, 32 (1982): pp. 69-70, emphasis added]. In many aspects of biblical interpretation, Watchman Nee and Witness Lee were greatly influenced by Brethren teachings.
36.There are also implications concerning how we teach the “ground of the church.” As John Stott recently wrote: “Alongside authoritative preaching, it is often right to be tentative. For God has not revealed everything; he has deliberately kept some things secret. ‘The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever’ (Deut. 29:29). This is why Christians combine elements of dogmatism with agnosticism. We should be dogmatic about those things which have been plainly revealed, and agnostic about those things which have been kept secret. Our troubles arise when our dogmatism trespasses into the secret things, and our agnosticism into the revealed things.” [ John Stott, The Living Church, p. 102, emphasis added.] Since the “ground of locality—one city, one church”—is not a prescriptive teaching in the Bible, and (if we are correct in the main thesis of this article) it is not the sole model exemplified in the New Testament canon, we ought to be tentative and not dogmatic in teaching about the “ground of the church.”


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