Last time we looked at the scriptural definition of the church. We saw that the church, ekklesia, simply means a group of people called out of one relationship or location and into another. Thus, the church of Christ is simply people who have been called out of the world and into a relationship with Christ. We further noted the way that church has been falsely defined as an institution that saves people, a group of denominations, or that it is the building. Now we are going to notice the two distinct ways the word “church” is used with reference to the people of Christ in the New Testament.
Universal & Local Usage
The New Testament writers used the word “church” in a general or what we sometimes call a “universal” sense. This is typically called the universal church. While we do not find this language in the Bible, we certain see a universal reference in the following passages. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus said that he would build his church. Was Jesus speaking of only one local church? Of course not. He was stating that there would only one group of saved people called into a relationship with him. That is what he was going to build. Notice also Hebrews 12:18-23. Here we see the church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. This does not speak of any particular local congregation but rather the collection of all people who belong to and enjoy fellowship with Christ.
As we know, the Bible speaks of the church in certain geographical locations, not referring to all the people who belong to Christ. This is typically called the local church, but again we do not see such language in the Bible. However, it is obvious by the following passages that local churches existed. In 1 Corinthians 1:2 we read of “the church of God which is at Corinth.” Paul was not addressing this letter to every person in Christ. Rather he addressed it to the Christians in a specific location. As we have mentioned, since the Bible does not come out and say that we are referring to the universal church or the local church, it is up to us by the context to determine which is being referred to. This is important because we are going to see that there are many differences between the universal and local church. It has been the mixing of these two concepts that has led to false teaching and confusion.
Differences in the Universal and Local Church
Difference in fellowship
The universal church is concerned mainly (though not exclusively) with fellowship with God, while the local church is concerned primarily (though not exclusively) with other Christians. On the surface, we may bristle at this, but we will see from scriptures and logic that this is the case. Let us make sure we define fellowship as joint participation. Turn to 1 John 1:1-7. Here John speaks of the fellowship that each Christian has with Christ. 1 John 1:9 and 2:1 tell us that fellowship can be restored with God when we confess our sins to him because Jesus Christ is our Advocate before the throne. This should be logical in our minds. It is not possible to be concerned with fellowship with other Christians in the universal church. Why? Because the universal church consists of Christians who have already passed on, Christians in foreign lands, and Christians across this country. It is not possible to have joint participation with them. We will see this more clearly as we look at the differences further.
However, the local church is more concerned with fellowship with other Christians. We can see this in Philippians 4:15. Here Paul is referring to how many local churches had no fellowship with him except the church in Philippi. Here Paul speaks of the joint participation that he was excluded from with some Christians, but was involved in with other Christians.
Difference in manner of entry
This is a very important distinction, one which regularly get confused. How does a person enter the universal church? Acts 2:38-47 tells us that forgiveness of sins is the way we enter. Sin is what separates us from God and is the only thing breaks our fellowship with him. Thus, when we receive forgiveness of sins, God adds us to the universal church (Acts 2:47). The Bible does not tell us that God adds us to a local church.
How does one enter a local church? We see a very good example of it in Acts 9:26. Paul tries to join himself to the local church in Jerusalem. He was not seeking to join the universal church, for he was already part of that. Earlier in the chapter he had his sins forgiven in baptism. This is an important distinction that we must be ready to explain. Many people will ask us, “How do you join your church?” We have to carefully answer this so as to not leave the wrong idea. We must explain that you are added to the universal group of saved people when we are baptized for the forgiveness of sins. Once that has been done which is the most important, then you can join our local group of Christians by asking to join it, as Paul did.
Difference in enrollment
Since God enrolls us in the universal church, he does not make a mistake. There are not people considered part of the universal group of saved people that are not really saved. Nor are there people saved who have been excluded and are left out of the group of saved people. 2 Timothy 2:19 says, “Nevertheless the solid foundation of God stands, having this seal: The Lord knows those who are his.”
However, enrollment into a local church can be flawed. In the example we read of Paul in Acts 9:26, the saints in Jerusalem were mistaken in rejecting Paul from joining with them. It took Barnabas to speak on his behalf to have the Christians in Jerusalem realize that Paul truly was one to be numbered with them. The local church can refuse fellowship with those who are in fellowship with Christ, and can accept those who are not in fellowship with Christ. In Revelation 2:14-16 we see the local church in Pergamum had some who held the teaching of Balaam. Though part of the local church, they were by no means part of the universal church.
Difference in the effect of death
Death has no effect upon our standing in the universal church. Paul said in Philippians 1:21-25 that to die is to be with Christ. Death does not affect our fellowship with God. This message was the very thrust of the letters to the seven churches in Asia in Revelation. Those Christians were going to suffer death, but to those who overcame, they would be rewarded to sit down on the throne.
Death, however, does affect our membership in the local church. When we die, we are no longer numbered with the saints meeting at this local group. We see this in the beginning of Acts 8 where the men are carrying Stephen to be buried after he had been killed. There was great lamentation made for death separates us from other Christians on the earth. Thus we understand that the universal church consists of the both living and dead saints. Local churches only consist of living Christians.
Difference in beginning and founder
We have already mentioned that the universal group of saved people are those who have their sins forgiven and are in fellowship with God. We can go to Matthew 16:18 and see that Jesus was going to build his church, that it would come with power (Mark 9:1), and this is exactly what we see in Acts 2 established in the first century.
However, local churches have different beginnings. The local church in Jerusalem began in Acts 2. Later we see churches in Antioch and in Asia minor being established as Paul went on his preaching journeys. A local church can begin at any time. Many of you know when this local church was established and begun. Some of you were part of that beginning and know others who have passed on who helped created this local group of saved people.
When local churches put on their signs saying, “Established in 33 A.D.” they confused the universal and local church. There is not a local church anywhere in America that can claim to have its beginning in 33 A.D. These cities did not exist back then. Jerusalem was the only church in 33 A.D. to exist. All local churches except Jerusalem began after 33 A.D. I know that we are trying to communicate to people that we are following the pattern that Christ set in the church he built in 33 A.D. This is exactly right and our goal. But we want to be careful not to confuse the concepts of the universal and local church.
Along these same lines, there is a difference in the founder. The universal church is most certainly founded by Jesus Christ as we see in Matthew 16:18. But people found local churches. We read of Paul on his journeys establishing churches throughout the regions. As we said, you probably know the people who founded this local church, who signed their names to the deed and to the loan to begin its operation. We also need to be careful that we are not blurring concepts when we speak about this. When we say that Jesus is our founder we need to make sure that the listener understands what we are communicating. They will be confused if Christ is our founder yet they saw the building erected last year. Christ is our founder and our head whom we pattern ourselves after, but he did not begin any local church. We must teach the distinction between the two and be sure not to confuse unbelievers by blurring these concepts.
Difference in number
There is only one universal church. This is exactly the point in Ephesians 4:4 where Paul preaches that there is only one body. We see in Ephesians 1:22-23 that Christ is head over all things to the church. Church is singular referring to the one universal group of saved people.
On the other hand, many local churches exist, so many that we cannot number. Seven are named in Revelation 2-3. Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia and we read of the churches in Judea. Again, we cause confusion when we say there is only one church and we do not clarify to people that there is only one group of saved people. They look at us and see hundreds of thousands of churches. We must be clear in our terminology.
Difference in earthly organization
We know that the universal church has no earthly location. It is composed of those alive and dead. It has no address or zip code. You cannot talk to the universal church or write it a letter. But we know the local church does have earthly organization. We read in Philippians 1:1 that Paul wrote to the saints in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons. Paul wrote a letter to a local church. It has an address and it can be found.
Difference in divisibility
This is another important difference between the universal church and local church. The universal church cannot be divided. God is in control of it and is the one who determines who is in it and is not. Man cannot do something to divide it. A local church can be divided. We read that the Corinthians were divided in 1 Corinthians 1. All sorts of problems can exist in a local church which would bring about its division.
Here again we see many people blur the two concepts. We often speak that the church was divided in the 1950’s over the sponsoring church arrangement. How is it that men in Texas can divide the universal group of saved people of which only God controls who belongs? They cannot, unless we believe the universal church is made up of local churches, which is not scriptural. The universal church cannot be divided. Can the universal church be divided over marriage, divorce and remarriage, instrumental music, institutionalism, or any other issue? No. But local churches across this country can be divided on these issues.
This false understanding comes out another way. Have you heard people say that we need to keep the church pure? Does man have to keep the universal church pure? No, it is pure because by definition the church only consists of the group of saved people called out of the world and in a relationship with Christ. It is pure and we cannot make it pure or not. God keeps the church pure. Our job is to keep ourselves and our local church pure. We see this in 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul tells the Corinthians to get the fornicator out of their midst for a little leaven will leaven the whole lump. We must keep ourselves pure and keep our local church pure at all possible. But we cannot keep the universal church for it is not our job, nor is it needed for Christ is doing a fine job.
Difference in shepherds
The universal church has only one shepherd, who is Jesus Christ. In John 10:11 he called himself the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep. Hebrews 13:20 speaks of Christ as the great shepherd. Jesus is the one and only shepherd of the universal church. However, the local church has a plurality of shepherds. We see Paul going around appointing elders in every church (Acts 14:23). Local churches are to have elders and they are to have more than one elder if they have an eldership.
Difference in work
The universal church cannot assemble together since it consists of those who are dead and alive, and those who are spread across the world, which Christ knows who truly belongs. The universal church cannot have collective action because of this. The local church, however, is commanded to assemble regularly in Hebrews 10:24-25. The local church has been given a work by God to teach the lost, provide for needy saints, and other collective actions.
This, again, is a very important distinction. We must always remember the universal church has no collective action. It is this misunderstanding that has caused the invention of the missionary society and herald of truth, believing that we can organize and activate the universal church. Our collective action is no greater than our respective local church. This helps us understand and explain to others why churches do not fellowship with other churches or have joint church work.
I hope you will sit and think about how often these two concepts get mixed. Many talk about unbelievers about joining the local church when we need them to have their sins forgiven so that will be added to the universal group of saved people. We want to get people in fellowship with God primarily. If they choose to be joined to us with this local group of saved people, then great. But this is not our primary purpose. We want people to be in fellowship with God by obedience to his commands. Once they are in fellowship with God, we want to impress upon people their responsibilities in working together with a local church.