"Church"--Universal and Local
New Testament Church Series #3
It is not uncommon to hear statements in sermons such as "You can't join the church, you must be added to it", or read a tract in which the work of "the one true church" is discussed. And occasionally one will see a sign outside of a church building saying, "Church of Christ Meets Here---Established A.D. 33." Is there anything about such phraseology that sounds a bit strange? At the risk of sounding nit-picky let me suggest that there is a lot wrong with such sentiments as these and the main thing is that they don't convey scriptural concepts.
Someone has said, "The Local Church Possesses Every Attribute and Characteristic Which Is Ascribed to the Church Universal" and I'm afraid this erroneous concept is all too prevalent. Just as we saw in our previous study that when the word "church" is used in a spiritual sense it is used in two general ways (universal and local), we shall see in our present study that the attributes and characteristics of the one are not ascribed to the other. The New Testament is clear: there is a huge difference between "my church" (Matt. 16:18) that Jesus promised to build and "the churches" (Rev. 22:16) He addressed through John on Patmos (Rev. 2-3) and that distinction is nowhere to be found in these, and similar, expressions. While the phrases "universal church" and "local church" are not found in the New Testament, the concepts certainly are. But when we make statements such as those in the first paragraph we indicate that we either don't understand this distinction or we are being very sloppy in the way we express ourselves. Note the following significant distinctions between the UC ("universal church") and the LC ("local churches").
The universal church is composed of all the saved in heaven and on earth (Eph. 3:14-15; Heb. 12:23; Gal. 3:27) who enjoy "fellowship...with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jo. 1:3). This fellowship continues after life on earth is over (Rev. 14:13).
"Membership" involves only those on earth (Phil. 1:1; 1 Cor. 1:2; Acts 2:42) who are in fellowship with one another ("that ye may have fellowship with us", 1 Jo. 1:3) . Local churches obviously do not contain all the saved (1 Cor. 5:1) and "membership" ends at death (Acts 8:2). The "church directory" shouldn't be confused with God's book (Rev. 20:15).
The Lord adds to (Acts 2:47) as people respond obediently and are baptized (1 Cor. 12:13).
We become part of a local fellowship by agreement with others as we join ourselves to them (Acts 9:26). But baptism is "into Christ Jesus" (Rom. 6:3), not into some local church.
God removes apostates (Jo. 15:6) and never errs in doing so.
Even though we are ordered to remove apostates (1 Cor. 5) we can make mistakes as we do (3 Jo. 9-11) and one's removal from a local church does not necessarily mean removal from God's fellowship.
Assembled figuratively (Heb. 12:23)
Assembled literally (1 Cor. 14:23)
Satan can't prevail against it (Rom. 8:39) and thus it can't fall away (Jo. 10:16), so we need to quit talking about Alexander Campbell "restoring the church" if this is the church we think he restored.
Satan can prevail (Rev. 2:5) and thus can apostatize (Rev. 2:5) but we've not been told to "restore" any particular local congregation.
There's only one relationship in which salvation is possible (Eph. 4:4; Acts 4:12).
There are many local churches (Rom. 16:16) and no one particular local church I must join in order to be saved.
The one true church has no collective work and thus no human oversight has been provided; the only "head" or "leader" is Christ (1 Pet. 5:4; Eph. 1:22-23). It has no organization nor any "treasury" through which to accomplish work. The scriptures are silent about any attempt to organize the universal church (Christians generally). It "works" only as each Christian conducts him/herself "as becometh saints" (Eph. 5:3).
Has been assigned works (Phil. 4:15) and displeases God when they are not fulfilled (Rev. 3:2). It has organization (Phil. 1:1) and collects funds in order to implement work (1 Cor. 16:1-2) under the direction of spiritual shepherds, bishops, elders (Eph. 4:11; 1 Tim. 3:1; Tit. 1:5; Phil. 1:1).
This is the church that began in A.D. 33 in heaven (Acts 2:33).
Can begin any time, any place, but none established in A.D. 33 are with us today.
This local church/church universal distinction is not just a minor, academic
matter. Concepts have consequences, not the least of which is confusion and
prejudice if a clear distinction is not made. It is little wonder that people
react prejudicially to our teaching when we tell them, "Christ died for the
church and you must be a member of it in order to be saved" and then immediately
start talking about the work of this church with its elders and deacons. What
they've understood us to say (and in fact what we have said) is that the church
for which Christ died and of which we must be a part is some local church. No
wonder some object, "You think unless I'm a member of your group I can't be
saved." There are enough "occasions of stumbling" when the truth is taught; we
don't need to add to these by inaccurate teaching.
"My church" is that relationship which saints enjoy with God as a consequence of their obedience to the Lord. "The churches" are those "local" fellowships in which these saints work together to provide for various God-ordained activities. I must be a part of the former if I am to be saved; I should be, if at all possible, a part of the latter in order to participate in various activities designed for my spiritual growth. Let us make these and other distinctions clear, "that ye may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ..." (1 Jo. 1:3)
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.3; March 1998