The Church: Universal and Local - The Gospel Coalition (2023)

Two Uses of the Word "Church"

What exactly is the church? A new Christian just starting to read the Bible may initially feel confused when 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 (Mt 16:18). The new Christian considers how Jesus uses the word "church" here and correctly concludes that he intended the church to be a vast thing, made up of vast numbers of members from all over the world and across the centuries. Then, a few pages later, the young believer finds Jesus telling the disciples that they must address unresolved sin by telling it “to the church” (Matthew 18:17). Now he wonders if a church isn't really a specific group of people located in a place.

Going back to Paul's Epistles, likewise, he reveals two different uses of the word. At one point, Paul speaks of "gathering together as a church," as if it were an assembly (1 Corinthians 11:18). In the next he writes that "God has placed 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.

Universal Church: A Heavenly Assembly

The universal church must 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 to himself, all that he accomplished through his life, death, and resurrection. However, in uniting a people with him, he also united them with each other. Hear how the apostle Peter puts it:

“You who were once not a people, but are now the people of God;

at one time you did not receive mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10; see also Ephesians 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 (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:5; Ephesians 1:5). To be adopted by a father and a 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 we have received from all times and all over the world who belong to this new covenant people.

Why then say that the universal church is in heaven? In saving us by grace, Paul says that God “raised us up together with Christ, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6; see also Col. 3:1, 3). By our union with Christ, we are seated in heaven, which means 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 have not only been reconciled vertically, being raised and seated in heavenly places. A horizontal reconciliation ensues: "Now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off are made nigh 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 heavenly places, 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 which are written in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant. (Hebrews 12:22-24).

Again, how is it possible that the saints on earth can be gathered together in heaven right now? Before the judgment seat of God, they were declared perfect through Christ's new covenant. There, in heaven, God counts all saints, living and dead, as holders of 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, out of all nations, tribes, peoples and languages. . standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev 7:9). For this reason, theologians refer to the universal church not just as a heavenly assembly, but as an eschatological (end-time) assembly.

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

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

Local church: an earthly assembly

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 (James 2:14-26). Universal church membership describes a “positional” reality. It is a heavenly position or status in the court of God. Therefore, it is as real as anything in or beyond the universe. However, Christians must thento placeoto startolive outsidethis universal membership specifically, just as Paul says we are to “clothe” our positional righteousness in existential acts of righteousness (Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10,14).

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

To summarize the relationship, the universal church creates local churches, while the local churches prove, evidence, show, and even protect the universal church, thus:

The Church: Universal and Local - The Gospel Coalition (1)

Consider what this means: if a person says he belongs tohechurch, but it has nothing to do withachurch, it may rightly be asked whether he really belongs tohechurch, just as we wonder about 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 outpost of the heavenly assembly. It is a time machine that came from the future and offers a preview of this montage of the end times.

Gathering, Mutual Affirmation, Preaching, Ordinances

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

Let's go back and explain. Every nation and kingdom has some way of telling 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 an earthly kingdom that owns land, but this heavenly kingdom needs some way to assert them as citizens on earth as well. How does he do it? How can these heavenly citizens know who "they" are, both for their own good and for the good of the nations?

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

Furthermore, he has given local churches the authority to publicly affirm their members as citizens of his kingdom, to put these covenant signs on people, much like a coach handing out team jerseys. To that end, he gave the churches the keys of the kingdom to bind and loose on earth what is bound and loosed in heaven (Matt. 16:19; 18:18). What does this means? This means that the churches have the authority to judge thewhatit's himOMSof the Gospel: Confessions and Confessors. With the keys, he empowered the churches to say, "Yes, this is the confession of the gospel which we believe and which you must believe in order to be a member." He says: “Yes, this is a real confessor. We will baptize you into membership” or “We will remove you from membership and 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 regularly meeting together in the name of Jesus through the preaching of the gospel and the performance of ordinances.

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

History of the Early Church: Leaning toward the Universal Church

Throughout church history, different individuals and traditions have emphasized either the universal church or the local church.

In the first generations that followed the apostles, the emphasis is on both, at least judging by the early letters to the churches and their pastoral leaders like Clement of Rome and Ignatius. The second century documentDidachesuggests the same, with its dual emphasis on the practical functioning of a local church and on Christian faithfulness in general.

However, just as people sometimes shift their weight from both feet to one foot, the writings of the church fathers extending into the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries present an increasing emphasis on the universal church, albeit in a slightly different form. . institutional. There were historical reasons for this. A series of theological heresies was emerging. Furthermore, churches were divided over how to treat Christians (and bishops in particular) who denied Christ in the face of persecution but later asked for readmission. Such pastoral challenges led everyone from Cyprian to Augustine to emphasize the importance of being united to the One, Holy, Apostolic andCatholic—meaning 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 and 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 church life, but they also began to distinguish between the visible church 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 turned the catholicity or universality of the church back into a spiritual, not an institutional, attribute. The universal church, in other words, would prove at the Last Day to be the invisible church across space and time, not simply all who call themselves members of visible churches.

Later church history: Leaning toward the local church

That said, early reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer still held space in their thinking for an institutional form of unity and catholicity (universality). Their denominations were "connectional", meaning that the churches were formally and authoritativelyconnectedto another. In his view, such a formal connection was the requirement of unity and, therefore, of catholicity. Therefore, they treated the visible church as made up of more than thelocalchurch - the assembly of people gathered in oneplace. It also included larger church hierarchies, presbyteries or episcopates. Therefore, they would call their churches “churchof England” or “Lutheran Germanychurch.” Not surprisingly, his theologies also emphasized the distinction between the visible and the invisible as much or more than the distinction between the local and the universal. The practice of infant baptism and the fact that unregenerate infants would be treated as church members increased the need for the distinction between the invisible and the visible. After all, unregenerate children belong in the visible church, but not in the invisible one.

However, within a couple of decades of the Reformation, Anabaptists and eventually 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. Hevisiblethe church on earth, they argued, is just thelocalchurch and only the local churchthe congregation gathered and geographically located. The Church of England, they would say, is not a church. It is an administrative or parachurch structure that unites several churches.

However, among Baptist groups, the risk now would be to shift the body weight 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 indeed argue that only the local church exists. They also refused to share the Lord's Supper with anyone other than a member of their own church. Fortunately, these strains were rare.

Much more common has been the functional dismissal of the universal church among marketing and business minded church leaders in late 20th and early 21st century churches. Such churches will verbally assert 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 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 had not given each church the exact same mission statement (Matthew 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, a church's first instinct is not to plant another church. Instead, it starts a second service or website. Churches can invite pastors from other countries to visit and share prayer requests onstage, but they won't do that with a street pastor.

In general, the marketing and branding mentality does not involve 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 numbers from neighboring churches. Association between churches in the same neighborhood or city, then, is rare.

Emphasizing both the local and the universal

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

The universal church “appears” in local congregations, as I argued at the outset. However, it must also “show up” in each church's willingness to associate with other churches, just as we see among New Testament churches. The 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 Corinthians 8:18; 3 John 5-6a). They supported each other financially with joy and thanksgiving (Romans 15:25–26; 2 Corinthians 8:1–2). They imitated one another in the Christian life (1 Thessalonians 1:7; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:4). They took care of each other financially (1 Corinthians 16:1–3; 2 Corinthians 8:24). They prayed for one another (Ephesians 6:18). And more.

Christians today may disagree about whether the Bible intends to establish institutional unity or connectivity between churches (I don't think so). But every local church must love the universal church.bylove, join 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.

Furthermore, every denominational tradition must affirm that Christians must unite with 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 tohechurch, do you want to joinachurch. It is where we embody our proclamation, our faith, our fellowship, and our membership in the body of Christ.

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