The Local and the Universal Church
What is the Difference?
By Bryan Gibson
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The following three passages all refer to the ONE universal church: “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). “And He…gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body…” (Ephesians 1:22-23). “To Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations…” (Ephesians 3:21).
On the other hand, the following three passages all refer to a local, organized church, of which there are MANY: “If he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). “When they had appointed elders in every church…” (Acts 14:23). “If any believing man or woman has widows, let them relieve them, and do not let the church be burdened, that it may relieve those who are really widows” (1 Timothy 5:16). Do you see the difference in usage?
We must understand the distinction between the two, or else we will make errors in our thinking, terminology, and eventually our practice. Please consider these differences.
The universal church is a fitting description, because it includes not only all the saved on earth (see Ephesians 3:15), but also “the spirits of just men made perfect” (Hebrews 12:28)—those who reside in the heavenly realm of Paradise (Luke 23:43). A local church is limited to saints (i.e., Christians) on earth who live in a particular area (e.g., “to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi”—Philippians 1:1).
The universal church, then, “assembles” only in a figurative sense (Hebrews 12:23); whereas a local church literally “comes together in one place” (1 Corinthians 14:23).
The Lord alone adds members to the universal church. When anyone obeys the gospel “from the heart” (Romans 6:17), and is baptized into Christ for the remission of his sins (Acts 2:38), the Lord adds him to this one body (Acts 2:47; 1 Corinthians 12:13). This does not make him a member of any particular local church; you have to join yourself to one (Acts 9:26), and local churches have some control over whom they receive (Acts 9:26-27; 18:27; 3 John 1:10).
Further evidence of the Lord’s control is that if you become unfaithful to Him, He can blot you out of the Book of Life (Revelation 3:5; 22:19), and you will no longer be considered one of His people (2 Timothy 2:19). In other words, the universal church includes only those faithful to Him, those in fellowship with Him. A local church, by contrast, may very well include some who are “not of us” (1 John 2:19). Their unfaithfulness may not be as apparent to their brethren as it is to the Lord.
While overseen by the one “Shepherd and Overseer of your souls” (1 Peter 2:25), the universal church has no visible form of organization—no headquarters, no officers of any kind, no associations, no councils, no inter-church organization of any kind. Any given local church involves a relationship of certain Christians working together. Thus, it is impossible for it to function without a degree of organization, a common treasury (Acts 4:32-35; 1 Corinthians 16:1-2), a meeting place, and ultimately the appointment of qualified men as elders and deacons (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9) at the point where there are men qualified and willing to serve.
Finally, Satan cannot prevail against the universal church (Matthew 16:18), which will continue into eternity. Satan can and often does prevail against local churches, because some reach a point when the Lord removes their “lampstand” (Revelation 2:5), meaning that the Lord is no longer in their midst. (Note that he WAS in their midst at one time.)
Given the above scriptural truths, let us draw some conclusions and make some applications.
The universal church is a relationship of individuals with God, that comes FIRST—before you ever join yourself to a local church; and that relationship exists even if a local church refuses to receive you (Acts 9:26; 3 John 1:9-10), provided you continue to walk in the truth.
The local church is an additional relationship, Christians with Christians, working together as a team (collectively) to carry out God’s purposes. And yes, it is God’s will that you join yourself to one of these groups called local churches, or to organize one with other Christians if none currently exists.
The bulk of our work as Christians is NOT this teamwork, not this collective action, but what we do individually. “To Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus…” (Ephesians 3:21)—that passage refers to the universal church and therefore what each of us does individually to bring glory to God. The local church, with its resources, do not have to be involved for God to be glorified. In fact, the church should not be involved in things that God has charged individuals (1 Timothy 5:16) or other organizations (e.g., the family, the government, businesses) to do.
You may be considered a faithful member of a local church, but NOT be in the universal church, i.e., your name may be in a church directory, but not in the Book of Life.
The church is not the conduit to salvation. You don’t get into the church to be saved; the church is the result of being saved (individuals already saved by the blood of Christ, who continue faithful to the Lord). So the local church provides evidence of the desire of several Christians (who are, by definition, already saved) to organize themselves consistently with the will of Jesus in doing His work. Please do not think of the church as a vehicle you jump in and ride all the way to heaven. That sort of thinking will make you forget all about your personal and individual loyalty to Christ. Of course, it is the work of the church to preach the gospel and thereby lead as many as possible to salvation, and then to teach them all things whatsoever Jesus commanded (Matthew 28:18-19).
Local churches, regardless of their acceptability to God, should not be regarded as parts of the universal church as defined above. It is true that if they are doing God’s will, then a good proportion of their members will also be members of the universal church, having been added to the body of Christ through obedience to Christ (Rom. 6:3). But no local church speaks for the church universal. So, we should not say things like: “The New Testament church met on the first day of the week.” The correct terminology would be: “The local churches we read about in the New Testament met on the first day of the week.” This might seem like trivial semantics, but the differences in the meanings being expressed are quite significant. Please think about it and understand the difference.
If we collected together all the local churches that are faithful to the New Testament pattern, that collection would still not constitute the one true universal church. The universal church is composed of individuals, not churches. The word church is never used to refer to a denomination; it is never used to describe a group of churches joined together under some governing body (association, convention, conference, etc.). If you are part of a denomination, you are part of something NOT found in the bible. Thus, it is not necessary because the scriptures are totally sufficient (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
What this entire study emphasizes is the need to show allegiance to Christ, first and foremost. Local churches can and often do go astray, but YOU don’t have to.
What are the conditions of salvation given by Jesus?
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