The Church: Universal and Local (2023)


What exactly is the church? A new Christian beginning to read the Bible may initially feel confused trying to answer this question. On one page, Jesus says that he will build his church and that the gates of hell will not prevail against it (Foreign. 4:18 pm). The new Christian considers how Jesus uses the word "church" here and correctly concludes that he intended the church to be something vast, made up of vast numbers of members from all over the world and throughout the centuries. Then, a few pages later, the young believer finds Jesus telling the disciples that they must address unresolved sin by saying it "to the church" (Foreign. 6:17 pm). Now he wonders if a church is not in fact a specific group of people located in one place.

Going back to Paul's epistles also reveals two different uses of the word. At one point, Paul speaks of "coming together as a church," as if it were an assembly (1 Cor. 11:18). Then he writes that "God put in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers", as if it were something much greater (1 Cor. 12:28).

What the young believer is discovering, of course, is how the Bible uses the word "church" in both a universal and a local sense.

At the most basic lexical level, the Greek wordekklesia, which English Bibles translate as “church,” means assembly. However, Scripture uses the word to refer to two types of assembly: one heavenly and one earthly. Christians refer to them as the universal church and the local church, respectively.


The universal church should come first in our thinking because people "join" the universal church or heavenly assembly by becoming Christians.

Salvation, after all, is a covenant. By the new covenant, Jesus Christ secured not just individuals, but a people for himself, all that he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. However, by uniting a people to himself, he also united them to each other. Listen to how the Apostle Peter puts it:

“Before you were not a people, but now you are the people of God;
before you did not receive mercy, but now you have obtained mercy” (1 pet 2:10; see alsoEffective 2:1-21).

Peter places the second line about receiving God's saving mercy in parallel with the first line about becoming God's people. The two things happened together.

Appropriately, a crucial metaphor for our salvation is adoption (ROM. 8:15;Chica. 4:5;Cash 1:5). To be adopted by a father and mother is to receive, derivatively but simultaneously, a new set of brothers and sisters. And this is the universal church: all the new brothers and sisters that we have received through time and around the world who belong to this people of the new covenant.

Why then say that the universal church is in heaven? Saving us by grace, Paul says, God "has raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Effective 2:6; see alsoColossians 3:1, 3). By our union with Christ, we are seated in heaven, that is, we have a position and a place in God's heavenly throne room. All the prerogatives and protections of that place belong to us because we are sons and daughters of the king. We are there. However, Paul continues: We were not only reconciled vertically, being resurrected and seated in heavenly places. A horizontal reconciliation follows: "now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ", so that "he himself is our peace, who made the two groups one" (2 :13, 14). . Which means: If you are sitting with Christ in the heavenlies, you are also sitting with everyone else who is sitting in those places. This is the heavenly assembly, or universal church, of which Paul speaks in later chapters (3:10, 21; 5:23-32).

The author of Hebrews highlights the heavenly location of this assembly even more explicitly for his Christian audience:

You have come to - the heavenly Jerusalem - to the assembly [ekklesia, or church] of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of the just made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. (hebr. 12:22–24).

Once again, how can the saints on earth be gathered in heaven right now? Before the judgment seat of God, they were declared perfect through the new covenant of Christ. There, in heaven, God counts all the saints, living and dead, who have position.

Furthermore, this heavenly assembly anticipates the end-time assembly of all the saints who have ever lived, gathered around the throne of God, what the apostle John calls “a great multitude that no one could number, from all nations, tribes, peoples and languages”. standing before the throne and before the Lamb" (Revelation 7:9). For this reason, theologians refer to the universal church not only as a heavenly assembly, but as an eschatological (end-time) assembly.

Definition 1: The universal church is a heavenly eschatological assembly of all—past, present, and future—who belong to the new covenant and kingdom of Christ.

This is the church that Jesus promised to build inMateo 16. This is the entire body of Christ, the family of God and the temple of the Spirit. Membership comes with salvation.


However, a Christian's heavenly membership in the universal church must be manifested on earth, just as a Christian's imputed righteousness in Christ must be manifested in works of righteousness (Jas. 2:14-26). Universal church membership describes a “positional” reality. It is a heavenly position or status at the judgment seat of God. Therefore, it is as real as anything in or beyond the universe. However, Christians must thenputoto startolive outsidethis universal adherence concretely, just as Paul says we must “clothe” our positional justice in existential acts of justice (Cash 4:24;Colossians 3:10,14).

In other words, our belonging to the universal heavenly body of Christ cannot remain an abstract idea. If it's real, it will show up on Earth, in real time and space with real people, people with names like Betty and Saeed and Jamar, people we can't choose but who are hot on our heels, disappointing and encouraging. and help us to follow Jesus. Membership in the universal church must be made visible at a local gathering of Christians.

To summarize the relationship, the universal church creates local churches, while the local churches test, test, display, and even protect the universal church, thus:

The Church: Universal and Local (1)

Consider what this means: if a person says they belong toochurch, but it has nothing to do withachurch, one might rightly wonder if he really belongs toochurch, just as we marvel at a person who claims to have faith but does not have works.

The local church is where we see, hear, and literally live with the universal church; no, not all of it, but an expression of it.

It is a visible earthly post of the heavenly assembly. It is a time machine from the future, providing a preview of this end time assembly.


More specifically, the universal church becomes a local church—becomes visible—through (i) a regular gathering or assembly of people (ii) affirming one another as Christians (iii) through the preaching of the gospel (iv) and participation in baptism and the Lord's Supper.

Let's go back and explain. Every nation and kingdom has some way of knowing who its citizens are. Today, countries use passports and borders. Ancient Israel used both circumcision and Sabbath observance, signs of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, respectively. The church today is not a land-owning earthly kingdom, but that heavenly kingdom also needs some way to affirm its citizens on earth. As it does? How can these heavenly citizens know who "they" are, both for their own sake and for the sake of the nations?

To answer this question, Jesus provided covenant signs for new covenant members: the entrance sign of baptism, by which people are baptized in his name (Foreign. 28:19); and the continual sign of the Lord's Supper, whereby they affirm one another as members of his body (1 Cor. 10:17).

Furthermore, he has given local churches the authority to publicly affirm their members as citizens of his kingdom, to place these signs of covenant on people, like a coach handing out team jerseys. To this end, he gave the churches the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven (Foreign. 4.19pm; 6:18 pm). What does that mean? It means that the churches have the authority to judge theThatIt's inOMSof the gospel - confessions and confessors. With the keys, he authorized the churches to say: "Yes, this is the confession of the gospel that we believe and that you must believe to be a member." Say: “Yes, this is a real confessor. We are going to baptize you into membership” or “We are going to remove you from membership and from the Lord's Table for unrepentant sin.” In everyday terms, Jesus gave this assembled assembly the keys of the kingdom to write statements of faith and fill out membership rolls.

Thus, definition 2: A local church is a mutually affirming group of new covenant members and kingdom citizens, identified by meeting regularly in the name of Jesus through the preaching of the gospel and the observance of ordinances.

Jesus describes this local church gathered inMateo 18. It is an expression of the body of Christ, family of God and temple of the Spirit.


Throughout the history of the church, different individuals and traditions have emphasized both the universal and the local church.

In the first generations after the apostles, the emphasis was on both, at least as judged by early letters to the churches and their leaders by pastors like Clement of Rome and Ignatius. The document of the II century.Didacheit suggests so too, with its double emphasis on the practical functioning of a local church and on Christian faithfulness more generally.

However, just as people sometimes shift their weight from both feet to one, the writings of the church fathers that carried over into the third, fourth, and fifth centuries present an increasing emphasis on the universal church, albeit in an institutional way. . There were historical reasons for this. Various theological heresies arose. Furthermore, the churches were divided on how to treat Christians (and bishops in particular) who denied Christ in the face of persecution but later petitioned for readmission. Such pastoral challenges led everyone from Cyprian to Augustine to emphasize the importance of being united with the one, holy, apostolic, andCatholic—which means universal—church. And unity with the one true universal church, they began to say, required unity with the right bishop; and unity with the right bishop, they came to say, meant unity with the bishop of Rome, or the pope. In other words, catholicity or universality became an earthly as well as a heavenly reality. He belonged to the institutional structures that formally united the world church: an episcopate that supposedly went back to Peter and centered on the Pope.

The Protestant Reformation would break this pattern by offering a more spiritual conception of catholicity. They also affirmed the need for external structures in the life of the church, but also began to distinguish between the visible and the invisible church. They argued that a person can belong to the visible church but not to the invisible church, or vice versa, since salvation is not achieved mechanically through baptism or the Supper, but only through regeneration and faith. This emphasis on the invisible church, then, effectively made the catholicity or universality of the church a spiritual, not an institutional, attribute. The universal church, in other words, would prove in the Last Day to be the invisible church through space and time, not simply all who claim to be members of visible churches.


That said, early Reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer still had room in their thinking for an institutional form of unity and catholicity (universality). Their denominations were "connectional," that is, the churches were formally and authoritativelyconnectedfor each other. In his opinion, such a formal connection was the requisite of unity, and therefore of catholicity. Therefore, they treated the visible church as composed of more than thelocalchurch - the assembly of people gathered together in alocation. It also included larger church hierarchies, either presbyteries or episcopates. That's what they would call their churches"Iglesiaof England" or the "German LutheranIglesia.” Not surprisingly, his theologies also emphasized the distinction between the visible and the invisible as much, if not more, than the distinction between the local and the universal. The practice of infant baptism and the fact that unregenerate children would be treated as members of the church increased the need for the distinction between the invisible and the visible. After all, unregenerate children belong to the visible church, but not to the invisible church.

However, within a few decades of the Reformation, the Anabaptists and eventually the Baptists would more fully locate the unity of the catholic or universal church in heaven. They argued that each church should remain institutionally independent and consist only of believers. EITHERvisiblethe church on earth, they argued, is only thelocalchurch and only the local churchthe congregation assembled and geographically located. The Church of England, they would say, is not a church. It is a para-church or administrative structure that unites various churches.

However, among Baptist groups, the risk now would be to shift the weight of the body entirely to the other foot, where Christians would give all their attention to the local church and little to the universal. Certain streams of Baptist churches, such as the Landmarkists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, would in fact argue that only the local church exists. They also refused to share the Lord's Supper with anyone who was not a member of their own church. Fortunately, such strains were rare.

Far more common has been the functional rejection of the universal church among commercial and marketing minded religious leaders in the churches of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Such churches will verbally affirm the existence of the universal church. They will praise God for Christians around the world in their sermons. But their self-sufficient church practices often ignore the universal church. A market mindset employs ministry language and methods that effectively promote a church's own brand identity, like a fast-food restaurant promoting its own way of making hamburgers. This has the presumably unintended effect of pitting the churches against each other. For example, church mission statements, which have become popular in recent decades, highlight the unique emphasis of a church's mission, as if Jesus did not give every church the exact same mission statement (Foreign. 28:18-20). And this emphasis on what is unique, rather than an emphasis on shared partnership, corresponds to working separately from other churches, not together. So when a building is full, the first instinct of a church is not to plant another church. Instead, it starts a second service or site. Churches can invite pastors from other countries to visit and share prayer requests on stage, but they will not do that with a pastor on the street.

In general, the strong marketing and branding mentality does not imply opposition to other churches, as it does among fast food restaurants. However, this means that nearby churches ignore each other. Worse yet, they have effectively placed themselves in a vast field of unrecognized competition, where the most charismatic speakers with the best branding and programming attract many of the neighboring churches. Partnerships between churches in the same neighborhood or city are therefore rare.


However, the biblical image rests the weight of the body on both feet, the local and the universal.

The universal church “appears” in the local congregations, as I argued at the beginning. However, it must also “appear” in the willingness of each church to associate with other churches, just as we see among the churches in the New Testament. New Testament churches shared love and greetings (ROM. 16:16;1 Cor. 16:19;2 Cor. 13:13; etc). They shared preachers and missionaries (2 Cor. 8:18;3 Juan 5-6a). They supported each other financially with joy and thanksgiving (ROM. 15:25–26;2 Cor. 8:1–2). They imitated each other in the Christian life (1 Tes. 1:7; 2:14;2 Tes. 1:4). They took care of each other financially (1 Cor. 16:1–3;2 Cor. 8h24). They prayed for each other (Cash 6:18). And more.

Christians today may disagree on whether the Bible means establishing institutional unity or connectivity between churches (I don't think it does). But every local church must love the universal church.bylove, associate with, and support other local churches, including those closest to you. We must be willing to share the Lord's Supper with baptized members of other churches when they visit us.

Furthermore, any denominational tradition must affirm that Christians must join local churches, since these local churches are expressions of the universal church. Our homeland in heaven sent ambassadors and built embassies here and now. These gathered churches are an outpost, an anticipation, a colony, a representation of the final gathering. if you belong toochurch, will you want to joinachurch. It is where we develop our proclamation, our faith, our communion and our participation in the body of Christ.

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