3 Reasons We Need to Differentiate between Universal, Local, and Individual

June 30, 2009

Last week we recognized the difference between the universal church, a local congregation, and an individual Christian. This week I want to show three reasons why noting these differences is necessary. The reasons have to do with…

  1. Organization
  2. Hierarchy
  3. Work




Sadly, over the past 500 years differing faiths have become the norm. Instead of everyone just getting into the Bible, coming together to work out differences, and all just be Christians, folks have divided into different denominations. 

Granted, I understand that division may sometimes be necessary. Those divisions will likely produce different bodies of believers. However, the point I want to make is the denominational structure is just not scriptural.

“Denominations are associations of congregations—Though sometimes it might be said that congregations are localized subdivisions of denominations—that have a common heritage. Moreover, a true denomination does not claim to be the only legitimate expression of the church” (Donald G. Tinder, Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 1984, p. 310).

We learned last week that the universal church is made up of all Christians everywhere or all time. We also learned that the local church is made up of individual Christians who come together in a local area. In the New Testament, we don’t find any interim organization like a denomination. There were no congregations that formed associations based around differing faiths. The universal church was not made up of all the congregations. It was therefore not made up of all the “associations of congregations” either.

There are individual Christians who are members of the universal church and need to be members of a local congregation. That is all we have with nothing in between. Why then do men create such organizations today?




In lockstep with the formation of denominationalism, there are hierarchy issues. As congregations came together in associations, these denominations needed officers to lead and rule over these larger organizations.

Yet, in scripture, we have no such hierarchy. In Acts 14:23, Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. Then in I Peter 5:2, we learn the elders should shepherd the flock among them. Based on Acts 14:23, who is the flock among them? The local congregation. Thus, we have leaders or shepherds for the local church.

Is there an office for anything larger than that? Well, there is the headship of the church universal. Who sits in that seat? Ephesians 1:16-23 says that is Jesus.

When we recognize there is leadership for the local church in elders, shepherds, bishops, pastors and then leadership for the church universal in Jesus, we recognize there are no other offices over multiple congregations. There are no arch-bishops, cardinals, presidents, ambassadors, representatives for these larger groups.




The last two dealt with issues between the universal church and the local. This point is about the difference between the local church and the individual Christian. Sadly, many folks today make a mistaken leap in logic. They know the local church is the people and not the building, they then decide everything the individual Christian is authorized to do, the local church is then authorized to do. In fact, it is very common to hear, “Well the church is the people, so anything the people are doing, the church is doing.” This is just not true.

Notice I Timothy 5:16. “If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are truly widows.”

There is a distinction here. Just because this Christian is caring for a widow, doesn’t mean the church is. In fact, if the statement that anything the people do the church is doing were true, then Paul’s statement couldn’t possibly be true. He shows that an individual Christian was burdened, but the local church was not. 

This passage also demonstrates that there is work for the individual and work for the local congregation. If an individual has a dependent widow in the family, the individual should care for her. The congregation cares for widows who are truly widows who have no one to care for them. Granted, I recognize if no one will care for the widow, that makes her a widow indeed. The point being, there is a distinction.

That being said, we go all over the New Testament and we see an interesting distinction between individual Christians and the local church when it comes to benevolence. While Christians are encouraged to practice benevolence for everyone (Galatians 6:1), we consistently see that local churches practiced benevolence only for brethren (Acts 4:32-37; Acts 11:29-30; I Corinthians 16:1; Philippians 1:5; 4:15).

Additionally, we note the distinction between social time together. Clearly, individual Christians spent social time with one another eating with one another from house to house (Acts 2:46). However, we never see the local congregation planning, providing, or paying for that social interaction. Christians did these things together because they were members together of the local church, but the local church itself did not see that as part of its work. In fact, the one time the local church started turning the Lord’s Supper into a social meal, the Christians were told to eat at home. Keep that interaction in its proper place (cf. I Corinthians 11:22, 34).

We need to see the distinction between the individual Christian and the local church and not blur the lines.

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