Yesterday, I argued that the universal church is comprised of a myriad of local churches and that for those who look carefully, this pattern can be seen in Paul’s language about the universal church and his letters to local churches. Today, we turn the looking glass slightly to see the places in Paul’s letters where he speaks of the church as a singular, (more abstract) universal church.
While at first this might seem to be a counter-example to the preceding argument, I believe when we look at these examples, we will see that when Paul speaks of the universal church, he does as speaking about (1) a certain kind of people, (2) an eschatological community, or (3) one universal church manifested through a myriad of local churches—yesterday’s argument.
From Paul’s letters, I see four things we can say about the universal church that further support the thesis that local churches make up the current universal church on earth. (This does not discount the chronological aspect, that the universal church also includes the people of God in the past and future). Here are the four ways Paul speaks of the universal church. Let me know what you think. My explanations are below.
- The Universal Church as a Certain Kind of People
- The Universal Church as Christ’s Body and Bride
- The Universal Church as a Persecuted People
- The Universal Church as an Extended Family (Multiple Local Households)
1. The Universal Church as a Certain Kind of People
First, in 1 Corinthians 10:32 Paul says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” This passage follows Paul’s call to glorify God in all you do (v. 31). In context, the command to glorify God has to do with food, a subject that divided Jews and Gentiles. Nevertheless, what the church of God in Corinth could agree on, or should have agreed on, was the gospel and the call to glorify God. Therefore, Paul’s words speak to neither Jew nor Gentile, defined by their circumcision or uncircumcision. Instead, he addresses the church, a people called out from their various backgrounds (see 1 Corinthians 1:26–31). In this way, “the church of God” is best understood as a certain kind of people, people no longer identified by the flesh but by the Spirit.
And of course, this certain kind of person is demarcated by their local assembling with other Spirit-filled saints. Earlier in his letter, Paul described the “church of God which is in Corinth” and ‘who in every place (topos) call upon the name of the Lord” (1:2). In both of these descriptions, there is a locality associated with the universal people of God. Or to repeat this essays refrain, the universal church is manifested in its local assemblies. Even the church everywhere, must be in a local ‘place.’
2. The Universal Church as Christ’s Body and Bride
Second, there is Paul’s description of the “church” in relationship to Christ himself. In Ephesians and Colossians, Paul speaks of Christ as the head of the church. For instance, in Ephesians 1:22–23, church is qualified as the “body” of Christ, “the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Likewise, Ephesians 5:23–24 speaks of the church as the bride of Christ. Verses 25–32 repeat the emphasis on the church in relation to Christ: Jesus loved the church and gave himself for her (v. 25), he will one day present the church to himself in splendor (v. 27), Christ nourishes and cherishes the church (v. 29), and marriage as an institution between one man and one woman reflects the institution of Christ and the church (v. 32). In each of these uses, the church is not a local entity, but the eschatological people of God who are in union with Christ.
This usage in Ephesians 1 and 5, along with the description of Christ’s temple which is building and growing universally (Ephesians 2), likely informs the way “church” is used in Ephesians 3:10 and 21. The former speaks of God’s wisdom being displayed through the people who are in relationship with Jesus Christ, which is more explicit in verse 20–21: “. . . to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”
These two uses in Ephesians 3 could speak generically of the universal church on earth, but they do not overturn Paul’s understanding of the universal church as a myriad of local churches. Even more, to follow the logic of Paul’s analogy about marriage: just as marriage as an institution is particularized in specific man-wife marriages, so the church as an eschatological institution is witnessed in time through local assemblies.
Colossians 1:18 and 1:25 portray Christ and the church similarly. Again the church is the body of Christ. This language is metaphorical and not meant to portray a physical body, but instead is using the relationship of head and body to display the unity of Christ with his people, not to mention the Lord’s authority and life-giving animation that the head provides for his body. This is a vital concept for understanding the church universal, but notably these descriptions are not describing churches with mailing addresses. To confirm this, see how Paul uses “church” in Colossians 4:15, 16. There “church” describes a gathering in Nympha’s house (v. 15) and the congregation of believers in Laodicea (v. 16)—a church near but distinct from Colosse.
Whereas most references to ekklēsia refer to some earthly gathering, the mention of Christ puts these verses in a different sphere (literally). Here, the focus is not the local church, but the church as God’s elect people, in spiritual relationship with Jesus. Moreover, the metaphorical language (body, bride, etc.) indicate a change in the way Paul is describing the church. Truly, these mentions of the church (singular) are references to the universal church, not any local church or churches. Therefore, Christ’s loving lordship over the church should inform every local church, but the singular use of “church” in these letters should not confuse our understanding of the local church. In conjunction with what has been said already, the pattern holds: the universal church as it stands on earth should be seen as a coalition of local churches.
3. The Universal Church as a Persecuted People
Third, Paul speaks of the church when he refers to the people whom he persecuted. Galatians 1:13 records, “For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.” And again in Philippians 3:6: “As to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” How should we understand Paul’s language?
We could take him to mean that he persecuted the one universal church in Jerusalem at the time when the church was only in that city. But that seems too nuanced. More likely, he is speaking of church in relationship to Jesus Christ. In Acts 9, the chapter which recounts his travel to Damascus, and Christ’s intervention, Jesus says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? . . . I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (v. 4, 5). As many have observed, any attack on one part of Christ’s body (the church universal) is an attack on Christ. But again, the only way Paul could attack the body of Christ or the universal church was to persecute a local church in Jerusalem (Acts 8) or Damascus (Acts 9). There is no persecution on the universal church which is not carried out against a local church or local churches.
4. The Universal Church as an Extended Family (Multiple Local Households)
Finally, Paul speaks of the church as a household. Most explicitly, 1 Timothy 3:14–15 reads, “I am writing these things to you so that . . . you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.” Again, those who lean towards the universal church might read “household of God” or “the church of the living God” as speaking of the abstract, universal entity that is Christ’s church. However, there is better evidence to show that household language is representative of a specific local church.
Just a few verses earlier, Paul lists qualifications for elders (vv. 1–7), where he says, “If someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church.” Again, the language might be ambiguous about the scope or size of God’s church until one considers that elders are appointed by churches (hence the instructions for recognizing a qualified elder) and given to churches. Elders do not exist outside of the church; they are not offices that can be separated from the church. Another church might recognize and even honor me as a pastor, but they should recognize me as a pastor of a specific congregation—the family of faith known as Occoquan Bible Church.
Rightly understood, elders are gifts given to local churches. And thus, they shepherd a local flock. This principle is repeated in Acts 20:28, when Paul said to the Ephesian elders—men commissioned to oversee one congregation—that Christ died for God’s flock. Because Christ died for all his people, those people whom the Ephesian elders served were to be cared for as Christ’s own. In this way, the local church is again the place where the universal church is experienced. It is where the body and bride comes to be seen and experienced until the day when all God’s elect are gathered to Zion.
Conclusion: The Local Church Is Where You Experience Life in the Universal Body of Christ
From this survey of how Paul talks about “church” and “churches” I have argued that we should pay more attention to how the local and universal church relate. More specifically, I’ve made the case that the normative place where Christians experience the universal church is in the local church. Likewise, in Scripture Paul makes a conscious effort to speak about local churches (plural) whenever he conceives of Christians spread abroad. This stands in contrast to the way he speaks of one, unified body of Christ—a pregnant metaphor that underscores the unity and life we receive from our covenant head, Jesus Christ.
All in all, modern evangelicals do well to consider what the universal church is and how they can participate in it. For no one can attach themselves to the universal church by sheer will power; it is the gift of God. But for all who have been called out of the dominion of darkness and into the kingdom of the beloved son, local church membership—and its prerequisite, water baptism—is the means by which we participate in the life of God’s eschatological, universal church. That being said, one question of application remains: Does the regional emphasis on the local church still work when churches are distinguished by doctrine more than distance? In other words, is this biblical pattern still workable in the modern world?
Without getting into a lengthy discussion, we can affirm the pattern we’ve seen in Scripture that local churches offer visible, tangible expression of the universal church. To be sure, not all do this with equal commitment to Scripture, but praise be to God, he uses fallible churches to display the gospel’s power and manifest his saving reign to a lost and dying world. Therefore, as we finish we must keep in mind that while our minds must always be renewed by the ideals of Scripture, we should not be disappointed or overly-demanding that our church be perfectly in line with the Bible right here, right now. Rather, taking the normative pattern of Scripture we reevaluate how we think about our church and every other church in our community.
One last point, in a country where not every “church” is a true church (i.e., founded on and committed to the true gospel) and true churches are still beset with unbiblical practices, the matrix between local and universal churches should be seen as a normative guide, not a heavy-handed law. We must triangulate the biblical pattern with the contemporary challenges of multiple churches in the same city who believe and proclaim the same gospel, even if they prefer different styles of worship (traditional vs. contemporary – whatever that means), pursue different methods of ministry (seeker-sensitive, fundamentalist, 9Marks, etc.), or organize their polity differently (congregational vs. Presbyterian).
As a rule, we should interpret our experiences by Scripture, and not the reverse, and thus our biblical ecclesiology should inform the way we understand the local and universal church. Still, local dynamics will continue to press us back into the Scripture with new questions. In that dynamic, we must hold fast to the biblical tension of the local and the universal and not exchange one for the other. For a full-orbed ecclesiology, we need to consider both. And thus, I close with a great hope that the more time we attend to the normative pattern of churches in the New Testament, the more light we will have to pattern our own assemblies after the biblical model.
May we all grow in our understanding of the church—local and universal. And may local churches take seriously the call to teach these truths and form their assemblies according to Scripture so that we as a local church might contribute to the universal church which is building and growing throughout the world as the gospel saves sinners and unites them to Christ and to one another.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds
 One could counter by saying, a Jihadist attack is not limited to local churches; an evangelistic conference that gathers believers from many churches is just as likely. This is absolutely true, but it does not overturn the point. An evangelistic conference comprised of brothers and sisters from various locales is not a “church,” it is a gathering of churches (or representatives from many churches). In this way the violence attacks many local churches at once and thereby persecutes the body of Christ.