A Perfect Balance: The Church Universal and Local

churchTo the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
— 1 Corinthians 1:2 —

In the ancient world Corinth collected many cultures and housed large numbers of gatherings. It is not surprising Paul sought to establish a church there (Acts 18) and when he wrote his first letter to them to address concerns he described them as ‘the church of God that is in Corinth.’

In these words, Paul intersected the two aspects of the church—the church universal (church of God) with the church local (that is in Corinth). Such a balanced presentation of the church foreshadows much of what Paul would say throughout his letter and it reminds us that whenever we think of the church, we must avoid two errors:

  1. Parochialism. Focusing so much on the local church one can forget the larger work of God in the world. In this, the local church blocks out a vision of the growing kingdom.
  2. Expansionism. Focusing so much on the universal church one can neglect the importance of the local gathering. In this, the kingdom of God engulfs the church.

Corrective to both of these extremes, we can see in 1 Corinthians 1:2 how the local and universal church intersect. Moreover, in the matrix between local and universal, there is great potential for fruitful reflection, much like the marketplace in Corinth itself.

The universal church is full of unique local churches.

First, for us “church” connotes something religious or Christian, but not in Corinth. There ekklesia would have been used for political assemblies (cf. Acts 19:39, 41). Therefore, Paul addresses the believers in Corinth as “God’s church that is in Corinth.”  He aims to influence who they are by reminding them of whose they are. In historical context, the troubles in Corinth stem from a church who put their local cultural above their Lord. He aims to reset the scales.

Paul, therefore, describes the church in Corinth as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus” and called to be “saints.” This double description stresses the primacy of the believer’s new holy standing in the body of Christ. Paul addresses the Corinthians for who they were in Christ, not who they were acting like on the street. In Christ they were set apart to live in light of their future residence, not their present dwelling (see e.g., 1 Cor 7:29–31).

In this way, Paul elevates their future home above their present locale, but not by obliterating the church’s location. As he says in Acts 17:26, God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place.” This “theology of place” reminds us God is sovereign over our location. Where we live is not incidental to who we are, who we will become, or even how God intends to sanctify us.

Because every culture has a certain set of sins, sanctification like fine wine and regional coffee will have a local flavor. When every nation bows before king Jesus, the Lord’s harvest will include a cornucopia of righteousness. Indeed, we know there will be different skin colors, languages, and ethnicities present in glory (see Revelation 7). But there will also be different shades of glory for the people who came out of different places, who fought different fights, and applied the gospel in different ways. In truth, there is one universal church, but it is a church comprised of many parts that display a glory that is locally-grown. Such a reality should make churches appreciate the uniqueness of their location, embrace the unique challenges they have, and pray and perspire to see Christ formed in their particular local body.

The local church is the place where Christians participate in the universal church.

Next, when Paul addresses the church of God in Corinth, he enlarges their vision to see beyond themselves. He calls attention to the universal church when he speaks of “all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Drawing on the language of Joel 2:32, Paul has in view the work of the Spirit who is creating a holy people from every nation. To be sanctified in Christ, therefore, is to be joined to a multitude of the saints from all over the world. Still in Paul’s mind, the way an individual has access to the universal church is through the local church.

Paul does not address the Corinthians as individual believers who happen to meet in Corinth. Rather, called by the same Father, sanctified by the same Christ, and enlivened by the same Spirit (cf. 12:4–6), they display locally the universal church. The point of instruction is that true believers in Christ experience the universal church in and through the local church. Public identification with Christ is necessarily fulfilled in the local church, and again because the Lord is sovereign in our place, God uses local churches—with all their idiosyncratic oddities—to shape living stones to fit into his cosmic temple.

In his greeting Paul reminds the Corinthians of their calling in Christ and their place in God’s global church. With perfect balance Paul greets the Corinthians as part of the universal church because they gather as God’s church in Corinth. In this way, we find a key truth: individuals participate in the universal church through participation a local gathering of saints.

To illustrate: just as a attorney can only be accepted into the guild of lawyers by passing his local bar exam; just as a quarterback can only be a part of the NFL if he is on one of 32 teams; just as a woman can only be a wife if she is married to a particular man; so the saints in Christ can only be recognized if they publicly identify with and are received by a local church.­[1] The local church is the place where God works and like cells in a body, he strengthens local churches so that he might grow his global church.

Only the Beginning

All in all, the opening lines of Paul’s letter provide a rich entry point into Paul’s letter. Like the rest of his letter, the doctrine of the church is a major focus in his introduction. And for those who are willing to listen, there are many applications for the local and universal church. We have only begun to consider how the local and universal church relate to one another, and help us keep in mind God’s global and local purposes.

For more on the rich introduction of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, listen to this week’s sermon on 1 Corinthians 1:1–3, “Words of Life.”

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1] Of course, the key word is “recognized.” Like a child born and abandoned by his parents who lives alone in the world, it is possible for a Christian to be born outside the confines of the church. But this is not the design, nor does this counter-example overturn the point being made: God makes converts; churches recognize disciples and authorize them through baptism and continued fellowship at the Lord’s Table.