Moving on from Acts, we have noted in the previous article in this series that themes related to the regional church strongly emerge in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The letter to the Galatians serves as a compelling case study on the notion of the regional church, revealing insights about the nature and dynamics of a particular regional church from the early church era.
Paul’s Passion for Galatia
The narrative in Acts explains that Paul spent considerable time evangelizing, church planting, and maturing disciples in Galatia, over the course of multiple missionary journeys. (13:14, 49-50, 51; 14:6, 8, 20-21, 24-25; 16:6; 18:23) This helps explain why he felt freedom and passion to address the Galatians with apostolic authority. (Gal. 1:2) Paul had a clear expectation that the Galatians would collectively affirm his leadership and respond appropriately to his exhortations. Similarly, regional churches today submit to apostolic authority through practicing a shared commitment and submission to the apostolic authority of New Testament scriptures.
The Galatians’ Implied Sense of Shared Identity
In this author’s opinion, the Galatians’ sense of shared regional identity is implied in the fact that Paul addresses the churches of Galatia by their region instead of their individual cities or villages. (Gal. 1:2) The idea that it was normative to the Galatian Christians to think in terms of regional groupings of churches is further supported by the way Paul mentions his ministry in the, “regions of Syria and Cilicia…(and) Judea.” (Gal. 1:21b-22b) This is, again, confirmation of the regional framework Paul used for thinking about mission and the relationships between the churches in specific areas. It seems that the Galatians would have considered it normal for Paul to discuss their group of churches with regional terminology, since he did the same with other groups of churches within his letter to the Galatians.
The primary concern Paul had for the regional church in Galatia is that they maintain a healthy, gospel-centered understanding of salvation and the Christian life. (1:3-20; 2:1-21) Paul warned the Galatians to be on guard against many things in the church in their region. False teachers had been at work amongst the Galatians. (1:6-9) A legalistic perversion of the gospel seems to have started to take root in their region. (Gal. 2-3, 4) Paul specifically called upon them to uphold the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in Jesus alone, within their region. (3:1-25)
Relational Allegiance Between the Galatian Congregations
Paul’s instructions to the Galatians also imply that relational responsibility exists between congregations in a particular region. Specifically, Paul challenged the Galatians to model a gospel-shaped unity that crossed ethnic, social, and gender barriers in their region. (3:26-28) There sense of every social strata in their culture was to be transformed by the gospel. He called them to model the freedom, unity, and fruit of the Holy Spirit in their region. (5:1, 13-15, 16, 22-26) He called the Galatian believers to function as agents of restoration toward those in their congregations who were caught in sin. (6:1-4) Finally, Paul exhorted them to practically support faithful leaders in their region (6:7-9), and to contribute toward meeting practical needs of the entire “household of faith” in their midst. (6:10) All of this shows what a valuable case study Galatians is for conceptualizing and understanding the congregation-to-congregation interactions of the regional church.
Regional Church Dynamics Beyond Acts & Galatians
There are a few valuable contributions to the discussion on regional church that are found in several texts outside of Acts and Galatians. Some of these texts include Paul’s exhortations to both local and regional churches to fund apostolic gospel mission. These exhortations to monetary support demonstrate in a unique way that it was normal for churches to distinguish themselves in regional terms, and that they did in fact partner financially in mission. (1 Cor. 6:1)
Other passages show Paul encouraging specific regional churches to be examples to other regional churches of what faithful regional church partnerships can look like. (2 Cor. 8:1; 1 Thess. 2:14) Still other passages highlight the apostles’ ongoing pastoral care and oversight amongst the churches within particular regions. (2 Cor. 11:28)
Lastly, the book of Revelation describes Jesus addressing and evaluating a group of churches through a regional lens. (Rev. 1:4) All of these examples encourage us to take the concept of the regional church seriously.