To 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 –
When someone says, “I’m a part of the universal church,” what do they mean? Do they mean they are a Christian and by implication they must be a member of the world-wide communion of saints? In our day of individual expression and come-as-you-are spirituality, I think this is what many mean. But it’s not just those who try to do Christianity on their own that may feel a pull towards the universal church sans the local church. There are plenty of well-read, Bible students who have also found fellowship and community outside a local assembly.
But if that is so, where do universal church-ers, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Leeman, celebrate communion? Under whose authority are they? And does such spiritual oversight need to come from a church? Is there any connection between the church they attend on Sunday and the elect of God from all nations? If not, why go to a local church at all? But if there is a relationship between the local church and universal church, what is it?
How Do I Get to the Universal Church?
I ask these questions because I suspect many Christians have not given lengthy thought to the relationship between the church or churches they attend on any given Sunday (i.e., a local church) and the elect of God who will one day gather around the throne of Christ (i.e., the universal church). After all, when was the last time you heard a sermon on the differences and distinctives of the local and universal church?Personally, in the first five I went to church as a Christian, I didn’t understand the significance of the local church and how it related to the universal church. At seventeen I trusted Christ and submitted to baptism, but it was years before I was a member of a local church and years more before I understood the importance of the local church in the life of a Christian.
For reasons documented by those who study religion in America, modern evangelicalism has not been marked by strong ecclesiology. Rather, conversion, the cross, the Bible, and personal activism—what is known as the Bebbington quadrilateral—are the four hallmarks of modern evangelicalism. Commitment to the church has been noticeably absent. And hence, many born-again Christians live out their faith without understanding the purpose and place of the local church. Previous generations of church members would be equally puzzled by our laissez-fair approach to membership as well as our absolute self-confidence that we individuals are part of the universal church because we say we are. Which brings us back to the question: How does one know they are a member of Christ’s universal church, if not by membership in the local church?
In what follows, I will argue that Scripture’s normative pattern for experiencing life in the universal church is discerned by submitting to a local church which rightly preaches the gospel and rightly administers the ordinances. The key word here is discerned. For no one is made a Christian by joining a church. Only God makes Christians and tragically some (or many) who are on church rolls are not in the Lamb’s Book of Life. So it must be stressed, the question is not a matter of origination, “Where do Christians come from?” The question is “How do I know I am a Christian?”
To put it technically, our quest is one of epistemology, not ontology. Yes, membership in the universal church is known perfectly by God, but can we not on earth discern—faithfully, if not fully—what is true in heaven? This certainly is what Jesus says in Matthew 16:19 (“whatever you bind on earth shall [have been] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall [have been] loosed in heaven”). And this is the point I will attempt to prove below.
Paul’s Doctrine of the Universal Church Is a Plurality of Local Church-es
When Paul begins his letter to the Corinthians, he identifies this beloved but misguided church as “God’s church in Corinth” (τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ, . . . τῇ οὔσῃ ἐν Κορίνθῳ). In this one verse (1:2), he places the universal church (“God’s church”) within its local expression (“which is in Corinth”). Perhaps, if Paul’s bridge between the universal and the local was an anomaly we might chalk up his words to the abbreviated nature of his introduction. But in fact, 1 Corinthians and others letters demonstrate a noticeable pattern: the local church is the place where Christians experience the universal church.
More exactly, every time Paul speaks about the church abroad he describes the universal church as a collection of local churches. The plural form of ekklēsiai is important, for it indicates the way Paul thinks of the church universal. His consistent speech reveals the richness his ecclesiology, which considers both aspects of the church (local and universal). Indeed, to balance our own views of ecclesiology, one that rightly relates the local and universal church, we need his inspired words to retrain our thinking.
The Universal Church is a Myriad of Discrete Churches, Not a Generic Descriptor for Christians Spread Abroad
The first thing to note about Paul’s speech is that he never speaks about the universal church in the singular. In his letters, Paul often relays information about various churches, and when he does he always speaks about individual churches. For instance, he speaks about “all the churches of the Gentiles” (Rom 16:4), “the churches of Galatia” (1 Corinthians 16:1; Galatians 1:2), “the churches of Asia” (16:19), “the churches of Macedonia” (2 Corinthians 8:1), “the churches of Judea that are in Christ” (Galatians 1:22; cf. 1 Thessalonians 2:14), and “churches of God” (2 Thessalonians 1:4).
He also particularizes the universal church when he describes his teaching “everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17), or “this is my rule in all the churches” (7:17), or “we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (11:16). In each of these examples (cf. 11:33–34), he could have spoken of the church generically (in the singular), but he doesn’t. His pattern is to speak of the universal church as a coalition of discrete churches, not a generic description of Christians spread abroad.
Paul continues this pattern in 2 Corinthians where the activities of the churches multiply. First, he says “we are sending the brother who is famous among all the churches for his preaching of the gospel” (8:18). Then, in the next verse, “And not only that, but he has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace . . .” (v. 19). Paul doesn’t say that one (local) church appointed this brother; neither does he say that the (universal) church appointed this brother. Instead, multiple local churches recognized his gifts and confirms his calling. Apparently, it was not enough for one church to “commission” this brother, rather a consensus about this brother was formed as multiple local churches laid hands upon him. Paul’s concern for local churches continues in the rest of 2 Corinthians (8:23, 24; 11:8, 28; 12:13). In all of these statements, Paul’s use of the plural discloses his view of the church universal—it was always a coalition of local churches and never a generic descriptor of Christians spread abroad.
The Universal Church Receives Instructions Through Letters Written to Local Churches
Next, Paul’s instructions are always given to specific churches. Never does Paul write a generic theological or ethical treatise. Rather, his missives are always church-directed.
In all thirteen of his letters, Paul either wrote to a specific local church (e.g., the church in Rome, Corinth, Ephesus, Colosse, or Thessalonica) or a specific individual (e.g., Timothy, Titus, or Philemon). With regard to the latter, his corporate greetings in 2 Timothy 4:19–21 and Titus 3:15 intimate his desire for his person-specific letters to be shared with others (and hence we read them today). With regards to the one remaining letter (Galatians), we discover Paul addressing this letter to the “churches of Galatia” (1:2)—this parallels his experience in Galatia as he visited multiple cities and planted multiple churches (Acts 14:23). Once again, Christians abroad are identified by their local churches.
Going further, each of Paul’s letters are occasional in nature. This further indicates his concern for the local-ness of every church, but not once does he offer some kind of situation-specific theology or ethic. Rather, he preaches the same gospel to each church, with consistent ethical principles running across his letters. While he can speak of every Christian serving their “own master” (Romans 14:4), there is only one Lord and master over all. Accordingly, when he calls the Corinthians to “lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him,” he continues, “This is my rule in all the churches” (1 Corinthians 7:17). This outlook confirms that Paul sees his instructions as going to a myriad of local churches, where Christ’s command to love one another is to be lived out locally.
From these textual considerations we cannot arrive at a full-fledged ecclesiology, nor a complete picture of the church local and universal. For instance, there are some counter-examples that might press us to think of the universal church in a more holistic or unified way. (I’ll consider those tomorrow). But for now, there does emerge from Paul’s writings a consistency in the way he speaks of the universal church as a myriad of discrete, local churches.
If so, this emphasizes the importance of the local church and the individual’s calling to “do life together” in particular local church. The normative pattern for discipleship is not consumeristic, where individuals follow Christ by finding themselves in some church. Rather, they grow in relationship to God as they identify themselves with a particular church, so that their membership in Christ grows as they live, move, and have their being in that (less-than-perfect) local church.
Those are are few concluding reflections that I see. What about you? How do you understand the relationship between the local and universal church?
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
Timothy Larsen, “Introduction,” In Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (ed. Timothy Larsen, et al.; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 1. For origin on the quadrilateral, see David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to 1980s (Routledge, 1993).
 For a study in contrasts, compare the way typical twenty-first century Christians think about church, church membership, and church discipline with the views of nineteenth century Baptists. Polity: Biblical Arguments on How to Conduct Church Life (ed. Mark Dever; Washington, DC: Center for Church Reform, 2001).
 See the alternative reading in the ESV, which better reflects the grammatical sense of Jesus’ statement.
 On the imbalance of our modern ecclesiologies, see Jonathan Leeman’s review of Gerald Bray’s book, The Church: A Theological and Historical Account (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016). Leeman represents someone who pulls towards the local church; Bray towards the universal. Leeman nicely registers these tendencies and the need to hold both together. His article is called “Are You a Universal Church-er or a Local Church-er?” See https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/book-reviews-the-church.
 It is striking that Paul only adds “in Christ” as a descriptor to the churches in Judea. Might this indicate that there are “gatherings” (ekklēsiai) in Judea that are not “in Christ,” churches filled with Judaizers who are not led by true teachers?