The Nature of the Church: The Local and the Universal
“And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18).
The New Testament identifies the people of God who follow the Lord Jesus as His ekklesia, or “church”; this ekklesia is variously described as God’s household, Jesus’ body, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 12:12-28, Ephesians 1:22-23, 3:10-11, Colossians 1:18, 1 Timothy 3:15). Thus the church proves extremely important for God’s purposes according to Ephesians 3:10-11, illustrated in the close and intimate association between the believers as the church with each Person of the Trinity: the Father’s family, the body of the Son, and the “structure” in which the Holy Spirit dwells (ibid.). As God is one, thus believers are to be one with God and with one another (John 17:20-23, 1 Corinthians 1:10); as there is one Father, one Lord, and one faith there ought to be one body, thus, one ekklesia (Ephesians 4:4-6). At the same time Paul speaks of the ekklesiai, or “churches” of Christ in Romans 16:16; he likewise speaks of the churches of Asia or the churches of Galatia in 1 Corinthians 16:1, 19. In all these circumstances he uses the same word, ekklesia, in its singular and plural forms. How can there be one church and yet many churches at the same time?
We do well to remember that the word ekklesia primarily means “assembly.” As Paul went around the Mediterranean world preaching the Gospel, he encouraged Christians in a given local area to come together and assemble as the ekklesia in that place (1 Corinthians 11:18, 14:26). In these assemblies Christians would partake of the Lord’s Supper and encourage and edify one another through singing, praying, giving, preaching, and teaching (Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, 14:15-17, 26, Hebrews 10:24-25). Yet such Christians remained part of that church, or assembly, even when not assembled; elders were appointed to shepherd them, a plurality over one such assembly (Acts 14:23, 20:17-35, Philippians 1:1, 1 Peter 5:1-4); deacons served at the discretion of those elders (Philippians 1:1, 1 Timothy 3:1-12); evangelists would encourage them in their faith and help equip them for the work of ministry (along with elders, teachers, etc.; Ephesians 4:11-16). The Christians comprising such assemblies were expected to obey the elders since they will have to give an account of their leadership (Hebrews 13:17). They all were to work together to glorify God in Christ and to love each other, giving honor to each other, considering each other’s needs above their own, rejoicing and weeping with them, and, when necessary, restoring those who went astray from the way of Christ (Romans 12:10, 1 Corinthians 12:25-28, Galatians 6:1-2, Philippians 2:1-4). Such groups are often called “local” churches since they represent the Christians who meet in a local area, working together to build up the body of Christ there (Ephesians 4:11-16).
At the same time all those Christians constituting the membership of all the local churches had been added to Christ’s ekklesia, or church, by God upon their baptism (Acts 2:47). Since the church represents His Kingdom, Jesus remains Lord over the church, and the church is to function at His discretion (Ephesians 5:22-32, Colossians 1:13). Jesus sent the Apostles to establish the truths of the Gospel in the Kingdom, binding and loosing what had been bound and loosed in heaven (Matthew 16:19, 18:18; Ephesians 2:20). Even as Christians assemble as the ekklesia in a given location they all remain united together by God in Christ as the singular ekklesia, the one body of believers, spanning not only distance but also time (Ephesians 4:4-6, Hebrews 12:1-2). This ekklesia presently exists in the abstract; on the final day it will assemble in glory and never be dismissed or fragmented, enjoying the continual presence of the Father and Son in the resurrection of life (Revelation 21:1-22:6). This one body is often called the “universal” church since it is comprised of all those saved in the name of Jesus throughout all time.
The New Testament does not reveal any level of identity or organization of the church between the universal and local level. We do read of “the church” in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee in Acts 9:31, yet such does not denote any inherent organization, but a way of speaking of all the Christians who are part of the “universal” church meeting with “local” churches throughout those regions. Likewise the New Testament does not reckon one “local” church or its elders as having authority or oversight over any other “local” church; thus it is said that “local” churches are autonomous in relation to one another. Christians knew about Christians in other areas and would often seek to encourage or assist them (e.g. Acts 11:27-30, 1 Thessalonians 1:8-10), yet such were informal associations and not between “superiors” and “inferiors.”
What is the relationship between the “local” churches and the “universal” church? Ideally, a given “local” church represents the sum of those saved in Christ in that geographical area, no more, no less: an ideal reflection of the “universal” church in that area. Yet we do not live in the ideal: it may be that members of a “local” church are presently separated from Christ (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:1-13). Nevertheless we do well to remember that the ekklesia at whatever level is always people, no more, no less: the “universal” church is not a collection of “local” churches, but the “local” churches ought to represent the people who are part of the “universal” church in a given area. Let us all serve God in Christ as part of His one body, the church “universal,” and as such come together as part of local churches to do His will!
Ethan R. Longhenry