The Church as the Body of Christ – Universal Church vs. Local Church Only
Dr. Mike Johnston, Editor
Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church... For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body . . . For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 5:23; 1 Corinthians 12:13)
There are two distinct teachings regarding the meaning of the word church as prophesied by Christ and used in the New Testament. Both are being advanced by good, King James Bible preaching, Fundamentalist men love the Lord, win souls, but just happen to disagree.
The first believes in the universal church consisting of all those from Pentecost forward who have trusted Christ as Lord and Saviour and as such have been born again by the Spirit (John 3:3) and baptized by the Spirit into one body (1 Cor. 12:13).
The second doesn’t believe in the universal church, but the local church only which they define as a duly constituted assembly of baptized believers organized by and with the proper authority of God.
- Church always refers to the Christian church in the NT.
Wrong. When the Bible uses the word “church” (Greek ekklesia) it simply means “a calling out, that is, (concretely) a popular meeting, especially a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both). For purposes of this article, it refers to Jews or Christians depending upon context.
“Some of God’s people will inherit an earthly Kingdom, while others are members of the Body of Christ, destined for Heaven. Knowing the difference is all important to be established in your faith. You cannot follow instructions given to people of another time whose inheritance is in another place and be successful in your service for the Lord. All scripture is given by inspiration of God. All of the Bible is for us, but it is not all about us. The summary of all the above examples is this: Peter and Paul are two different apostles of the Lord. They have two different messages called “the gospel.” Their message is addressed to two different groups of people. Those two groups of people are in two different churches.
The Jewish Kingdom Church was formed to call out the new Nation of Israel out of apostate Israel. The establishment of the Kingdom is yet future. It has not yet happened. The reason you do not see the Lord Jesus Christ ruling and reigning on the throne of David as the King in the Kingdom is because God had a secret. The secret is about another group of people called the Body of Christ. The Body and the Kingdom are two different things. God’s prophetic program for a “Kingdom of Heaven upon the earth” gave way during the time of the book of Acts for the revelation of the mystery. The church which is Christ’s Body has a heavenly calling and a heavenly inheritance. You only learn that from Paul’s epistles because he is the only one who received the revelations and the only one who writes about and unto the body of Christ.” (above in quotes copied from http://www.av-1611.com/Prophecy_vs_Mystery.htm)
- Every time “church” is used in Scripture, it always refers to a local assembly.
That isn’t true. While we believe the word “church” can refer to a local assembly- and often does- there are dozens of additional instances in Scripture where “church” refers to large numbers of church assemblies in a city, a region, a continent, or even around the world. Here are a few examples of where “church” refers to groups of churches and/or the aggregate body of Christ:
The church in the wilderness refutes this: Acts 7:38: This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina . . . Israel consisted of 12 separate tribes [assemblies or congregations] and yet is collectively referred to as the “church [not churches] in the wilderness.”
The church at Jerusalem refutes this: The church at Jerusalem met in separate house churches (Acts 2:46; 5:42; 8:3; etc) and yet collectively are referred to as “the church [not churches] which was at Jerusalem” . . . as for Saul, he made havock of the church [not churches. Again the Holy Spirit is referring to the aggregate body using the all-inclusive term], entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison (excerpted from Acts 8:1-3).
Paul’s teachings about the overarching work of God refutes this: Ephesians 1:22-23 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, (23) Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. [the language here denotes the international outreach of the church] Ephesians 3:9-10: And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: (10) To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God. [This is a clear reference to believers in Ephesus being included in a wider scope of believers]. Ephesians 3:14-15 For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, (15) Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.
Once again, Paul wasn’t a member of the Corinthian church yet equates himself as being baptized into one body WITH THEM along with all other born-again believers in Christ, not just in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 12:13: For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit.
Paul equates the marriage relationship between Christ and the church [His body and bride] as a marriage of one man to ONE woman: Ephesians 5:29-32: For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church [not churches]: For we are members of his body [not bodies], of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife [not wives which the local church only argument demands], and they two shall be one flesh [not many fleshes]. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church [the aggregate body aka the church].
Here again is the entire church in Ephesians 5:27 being presented as Christ’s collective finished work: That he might present it [not THEM] to himself a glorious church [this is the aggregate assembly of all born again members of His body comprising what He prophesied as “my church” Matt. 16:18], not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. LCO’s who argue that this is at the conclusion of our earthly pilgrimage and so the entire body is gathered together in Heaven actually prove our argument that there is in reality just one cumulative body; the church.
Paul spoke of the church as the general assembly which expands the scope of a single church: Hebrews 12:23: To the general assembly [Webster 1828: not directed to a single assembly] and church of the firstborn [the reference to the many is obvious when understood in context of the previous comment], which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all [not one, not a few, but all], and to the spirits of just men made perfect.
- There isn’t a universal church comprising the aggregate body of Christ.
Not true. The phrase “one body” is specifically mentioned ten times when referring to the church (Romans 12:4,5; 1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:12,13,20; Ephesians 2:16; 4:4; Colossians 3:15). We believe this complete body of believers is universal yet not necessarily visible. Webster’s 1828 Dictionary- historically trusted by King James Bible scholars to be authoritative- agrees with our assessment: the church is “the collective body of Christians, or of those who profess to believe in Christ, and acknowledge him to be the Savior of mankind. In this sense, the church is sometimes called the Catholic or Universal Church.” [Catholic means wide-ranging and is NOT to be confused with the Romanist cult that stole the word]
Paul taught the universal church doctrine by writing this: For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named (Ephesians 3:14-15).
This heavenly family is not attained unto by joining a local church; it is by grace through faith in Christ only. How wonderful now that both Jews and Gentiles can BECOME part of this FAMILY, which consists of people universally of all ages- both in HEAVEN and on EARTH. This cannot be said of any local church. Local churches remove the names of deceased members; moreover, it is NOT your local church membership that gets you into heaven; it is your membership in the universal church.
Paul writing to the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2) writes this: Galatians 3:27-28 For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. (28) There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul’s description of the aggregate church in Romans 12:5: So we [he included himself though not a member of their congregation], being many, are one body [not several bodies] in Christ, and every one members one of another [in the aggregate, universal church].
- The invisible church was a product of Rome that didn’t exist until the Protestant reformation a few hundred years ago.
That isn’t true! It was actually the Romanists that fought against the reformer’s emphasis on the invisible church in an effort to distinguish between the “visible” and corrupt Romanist Church, and all those within it- as well as in other denominations- that were truly saved.
- Leave the original language out of the argument. We don’t need any definitions from the Greek to define what the church really is.
How sad to know you hold the originally inspired text- esteemed by the King James translators- in such shameless contempt. While this certainly may be an inconvenient truth for you, the Greek word chosen by the Holy Spirit is “ecclesia” and was rendered “church” [singular] 80 times by the KJV translators. [i] However, this same word “ecclesia” was also translated “churches” [plural] 36 times. Did the King James scholars misunderstand or mistranslate ecclesia? No. They fully understood that a plurality of the ecclesia- represented by large numbers of churches- were actually part of the entire body ecclesia Christ promised to build in Matthew 16:18.
- The following verses are taken from over three dozen where ecclesia was translated churches. I’ve placed [church] in brackets following to provide for contrast and illumination:
(Acts 9:31) Then had the churches [church] rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.
(Acts 15:41) And he went through Syria and Cilicia, confirming the churches [church].
(Romans 16:4) Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches [church] of the Gentiles.
(Romans 16:16) Salute one another with an holy kiss. The churches [church] of Christ salute you.
(1 Corinthians 11:16) But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches [church] of God.
(1 Corinthians 16:1) Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the churches [church] of Galatia, even so do ye.
(1 Corinthians 16:19) The churches [church] of Asia salute you. Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
(2 Corinthians 8:1) Moreover, brethren, we do you to wit of the grace of God bestowed on the churches [church] of Macedonia.
(Galatians 1:22) And was unknown by face unto the churches [church] of Judaea which were in Christ:
As stated, in every instance where “churches” appears, it comes from the Greek ecclesia. The point being made is as clear as it is certain: many churches (ecclesia) form one church (ecclesia).
- Here are a few examples Paul used to illustrate that all Christians together make up one church:
Many breads partaking of the one bread: For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread. (1 Corinthians 10:17)
A husband loving one wife who is now his body and flesh: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:30-32)
A multi membered body making up Christ’s body: For as we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office: So we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5)
- Brief listing of scholars taking the universal church position (many more could be listed)
Dr. C.I. Scofield: The true church, composed of the whole number of regenerate persons from Pentecost to the first resurrection (1Co_15:52) united together and to Christ by the baptism with the Holy Spirit (1Co_12:12); (1Co_12:13) is the body of Christ of which He is the Head. (Eph_1:22); (Eph_1:23). As such, it is a holy temple for the habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph_2:21); (Eph_2:22) is “one flesh” with Christ (Eph_5:30); (Eph_5:31) and espoused to Him as a chaste virgin to one husband. (2Co_11:2-4).
(Scofield Notes- Heb. 12:23)
Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer: The deeper spiritual use of the word church refers to a company of saved people who are by their salvation called out from the world into living, organic union with Christ to form His mystical Body over which He is the Head. That outward form of church which is a mere assembly of people must be restricted to those of one generation, indeed of one locality, and may include the unsaved as well as the saved. Over against this, the Church which is Christ’s Body and Bride is composed of people of all generations since the Church began to be, is not confined to one locality, and includes only those who are actually saved. The spiritual meaning is thus seen to be far removed from mere recognition of a building which may be called a church, a congregation however organized, or any form of sectarian constituency. (Systematic Theology)
Noah Webster: The collective body of Christians, or of those who profess to believe in Christ, and acknowledge him to be the Savior of mankind. In this sense, the church is sometimes called the Catholic or Universal Church. (Webster’s Dictionary 1828)
Bishop J.C. Ryle: The one true Church is composed of all believers in the Lord Jesus. It is made up of all God’s elect–of all converted men and women–of all true Christians. In whomsoever we can discern the election of God the Father, the sprinkling of the blood of God the Son, the sanctifying work of God the Spirit, in that person we see a member of Christ’s true Church.
[i] Matthew 16:18; 18:17; Acts 2:47; 5:11; 7:38; 8:1,3; 11:22,26; 12:1,5; 13:1; 14:23,27; 15:3,4,22; 18:22; 20:17,28; Romans 16:1,5,23,27; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 4:17; 6:4; 10:32; 11:18,22; 12:28; 14:4,5,12,19,23,28,35; 15:9; 16:19; 2 Corinthians 1:1; Galatians 1:13; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23,24,25,27,29,32; Philippians 3:6; 4:15; Colossians 1:18,24; 4:15,16; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:5,15; 5:16; 2 Timothy 4:22; Titus 3:15; Philemon 1:2; Hebrews 2:12; 12:23; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:13; 3 John 1:6,9,10; Revelation 2:1,8,12,18; 3:1,7,14.