Understanding the Difference: Local and Universal Church

by Bill Robinson

I have a lot of friends that I dearly love and count them as brothers who are going to disagree with this article. Nonetheless, there are others that I dearly love and also count as brothers, for whom I feel compelled to write this. We are fast approaching the idea that these things don’t matter and nothing could be further from the truth. They do matter and they are not merely religious traditions and judgments, as some would like to say they are. They are what sincere and good people believe the New Testament teaches. Every controversial issue in the church comes down to a question of authority. For a thing to be done in the name of Jesus, no matter how good we think the work is, it must first be authorized by Jesus (Colossians 3:17; Matthew 7:21-23).

The word “church,” as used in the New Testament, merely describes a spiritual relationship. Namely, “the called out.” That relationship is either referencing those individuals in a saved relationship with God in the universal church (see Matthew 16:18). Or, it may be referencing the Christian’s relationship with other Christians in a local church (see Revelation 2 & 3).

The universal church that Jesus came to establish (Matthew 16:18) is composed of individuals, both living and dead, who are in a saved relationship with God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 3:14ff). It is important to remember the church does not save but it is made up of the saved. Thus, the universal church is the aggregate of all saved individuals of all time. And, as such, “…to Him be the glory in the church and in Jesus Christ throughout all generations” (Ephesians 3:21).

The local church is the relationship of saints to one another for the purpose of worshipping and working together in a specific locale/city to accomplish the work that God authorized it to do (cf. I Corinthians 1:1-2; I Thessalonians 1:1; II Thessalonians 1:1; etc.). As such each local church is all-sufficient to do the work God has authorized it to do. Namely, to preach the gospel to the lost and for the building up of the saints Ephesians 4:11-16; for benevolence in relieving needy saints Acts 11:27-30). Each local church in the New Testament was autonomous (self-governing) and functioned independently from all other local churches (compare the 7 letters to the churches of Asia Revelation 2 & 3). Meaning that each local church had its own elders, deacons, and members (Philippians 1:1; Acts 14:23). This is further emphasized by Peter in 1 Peter 5:1-4, where he exhorts elders “to shepherd the flock that is among you.” Nowhere in the scriptures do we read of an organization larger than the local church. If the local church in Upper West Manhattan were the only church in the whole world it is all-sufficient. Meaning it could be and it could do everything God wanted it to be and do. It is not dependent on any other church or elders elsewhere to do it’s work.

The universal church has no earthly organization. In other words, the universal church has no earthly headquarters. Christ is the head of His body, the church, and is the chief shepherd over the universal church ((Ephesians 1:22-23; I Peter 5:4). The universal church is a spiritual gathering and coming together of the saved who are enrolled in heaven (see Hebrews 12:22-24).

The New Testament never speaks of local churches cooperating except concurrently. That is because they are independent and autonomous. To cooperate concurrently means each local church is aiming toward the same goal but independent of each other. There is no organization in the New Testament larger or smaller than the local church. Thus, the New Testament knows nothing of any man-made institution or arrangement for doing the work which God gave to the local church to do. That is why I noted earlier, that if the Upper West Manhattan church was the only church in all of the world it could be and it could do everything God wanted it to be and do. Now that is either a true or false statement. If false, then where is the scripture that proves otherwise? If true, then no human institution or centralized arrangement is necessary for doing the work God intended the local church to do.

Why does it matter about the universal and local church? As one writer has wisely observed, “…to accurately determine the work of the church we must keep a consistent and unambiguous definition of the church (universal or local) before us. If people are confused as to what constitutes a local church (or universal church - br), we can expect nothing but confusion when they try to determine the work of a local church.” [Robert Turner, p. 8, The Cogdell-Turner Discussion].

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