The Doctrine of Proximity and the Local Church

by Austin Thompson

Editor’s Note: You can read the first article in this series here.

If you stop and think about it, proximity is one of the most powerful factors in determining our responsibilities in life. Consider: what are the various responsibilities you have throughout the day? It is likely that the vast majority of them are determined by where you live, where you work, or where you go to school.

Often, the most crucial and consistent responsibilities are carried out within their home. Most days begin and end in the same bed. Parents provide food, pay the bills, do the yard work, and clean the house for the benefit of their family. Children do their chores, obey their parents, and labor to keep their room clean. The same can be said for a person’s vocation.

In American society, work often occurs week to week in the same cubical, office, or complex. While responsibilities may cause employees to venture outside the office, they are typically limited to a discernible radius. What about school? Students who are homeschooled or attend boarding school have their residence in the same place their daily studies are completed. Learners who attend public schools or universities travel to a specific campus where classrooms, cafeterias, bathrooms, and playgrounds are the realm in which they dedicate eight hours of their day multiple times a week. When it comes to responsibilities, location is often the unnoticed manager operating in the background.

As already mentioned, advances in travel and the ability to work remotely have had a major impact on the world. Laborers throughout history made their living within a much smaller physical radius than today. The ability to commute an hour to work and back has opened up countless opportunities that were previously unavailable. The ease of getting around has also impacted the places where we get our food, attend school, visit the zoo, and become members of a church or gym. Despite the increased scope of activities available to us, proximity still plays an important role in our daily considerations and responsibilities.

Proximity in the Old Testament
When it comes to Scripture, it is clear from both the Old and the New Testament that a person’s proximity plays a significant role in determining their responsibility. In the Old Covenant, God worked primarily through his chosen nation, Israel. Operating as a theocracy, where the Law was given and enforced by the Creator himself, Israel was expected to be aware of the significance of their location. For example, of the most precious blessings of being a Jew was the possession of a specific land in the Middle East—Canaan. The land of promise was not a metaphorical land, but a definite land with specific, discernable boundaries (Num 34:1-12). While the broad proximity-based responsibility of the land flowed from the Abrahamic Covenant (Gen 17:8), the Mosaic Covenant provided a variety of responsibilities that were to be carried out within the land. Perhaps the most significant responsibility to the land was to allow it to enjoy a Sabbath rest every seven years (Lev 25:1-7). Israel’s ultimate failure to obey God and observe this specific command resulted in their exile from the land for seventy years (Lev 26:34-35).

In addition to broad responsibilities concerning the land and Israel as a whole, the Mosaic Covenant also had commands that applied to specific areas and peoples within the land. For example, when an unknown death occurred in Israel, the elders of the town closest to the body were to determine who was responsible to make atonement for the loss of life (Deut 21:1-9). At an individual level, the Law outlined how proximity played a role in the responsibilities they had in relation to other members of God’s covenant people. If a man came across a stray ox, and he knew that specific ox belonged to a person who lived close by, the Law required him to return the animal himself. However, if a man came across a stray ox of someone who did not live nearby, the Law instructed him to keep it at his home until the owner came looking for it (Deut 22:1-3). While Jesus clarified that the command of God to love one’s neighbor was far broader than they had narrowed it to be in order to justify their hatred of men made in God’s image (Luke 10:25-37), these portions of the Law reveal that in some areas of life there is a greater practical responsibility to those who are closer in proximity than others.

Proximity in the New Testament
In the present age, God is no longer working primarily through Israel, but through the Church, which is the body of Christ (Eph 1:20-23; Rom 9-11). While Christ is the head of the whole church, his body largely exists throughout the world in local congregations. It was for this reason that the apostle Paul planted separate churches in the towns and cities he passed through on his missionary journeys. In fact, the reality that people lived in the remotest parts of the earth without the gospel was the motivation for gospel preachers to be sent to every area where Christ had not been named to bring about their obedience of faith and begin to teach them all that Christ had commanded (Rom 15:20; Matt 28:18-20). In the wisdom of God, this discipleship is most effectively carried out within churches located in the areas where believers exist. Scripture also teaches that each church was to be locally autonomous and subject to a qualified plurality of elders who led the flock of God under the direction of the Chief Shepherd (1 Pet 5:2-4).

A good shepherd is a present shepherd, one who does not stray far from the sheep but makes his dwelling among them so that he is aware of their condition (Prov 27:23).

When it comes to the doctrine of proximity, elders are a great model to the rest of the congregation of what it means to follow Christ in this biblical discipline. Scripture makes it clear that God gives spiritual gifts to believers for the building up of the body of Christ, of which pastor/teacher is one (Eph 4:11). Qualified elders are spiritually gifted to serve the body of Christ locally (Titus 1:5). It would not be a benefit to the church to have a pastor who lived thousands of miles away and showed up once a week to preach to the flock. A good shepherd is a present shepherd, one who does not stray far from the sheep but makes his dwelling among them so that he is aware of their condition (Prov 27:23). Another indication that proximity is an important part of daily life is seen in the list of qualifications given by God for the office. Paul explained that elders must be good managers of their own home (1 Tim 3:4-5). His reason for this is clear: if they cannot faithfully manage their responsibilities in the place where they spend the most time and have the most responsibilities, how will they care for the church? Therefore, it is through God’s wisdom that proximity is a key factor in God’s plan for the building up of his body.

Proximity and the Local Church
In the past ten years, the explosion of social media and the growing ease of travel has lured more men and women to pursue a life of wandering for personal pleasure. Consumerism has grown as well, as people enjoy the convenience of a myriad choices in their daily life. These realities have had a massive impact on the local church. A failure to understand the importance of using one’s spiritual giftedness to serve a definite group of people in a fixed community can be devastating to the progress of the gospel. Those who succumb to the temptation of frequent travel for leisure’s sake are increasingly absent from their physical home. One adverse result of this practice is that their ministry is less effective because they are constantly away from their spiritual home, the local body of Christ.

A failure to understand the importance of using one’s spiritual giftedness to serve a definite group of people in a fixed community can be devastating to the progress of the gospel.

This is even more evident in the multitude of professing believers who don’t think they need to be regularly involved in a local congregation. The metaphor of Christ’s church as a body makes it clear that the various parts must be connected to each other in order to derive spiritual benefit from the body as a whole and to edify the other members (1 Cor 12:12-26). In fact, one of the chief purposes behind God’s giving his church a variety of spiritual abilities is so that we would use them for the common good of others (1 Cor 12:7). Therefore, to claim to be a Christian and to not be connected to a local expression of Christ’s body is to be in constant violation of God’s command to use what you’ve been given for the purpose of building up other believers in the faith.

Paul highlighted faithfulness as the premier mark of a honorable steward (1 Cor 4:2). Fulfilling this task becomes more difficult if an individual’s feet are constantly far from home. Fulfilling our stewardship is even more difficult if an individual neglects the local fellowship.

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