The Universal Church, the Local Church, and the Individual Christian

June 23, 2009

I’ve noticed a really good thing in my spiritual discussions with people today. More and more are learning and recognizing that the church is not a building. It is the people. When Christ presents His church holy and blameless to the Father, He will not present a building or buildings. He will present people (cf. Ephesians 5:25-27).

However, as some have made this discovery, they have started making an error. They have said, “If the church is the collection of people and not the building, then when the people do something, the church is doing it.” This is not necessarily true. The Bible demonstrates three different institutions or “levels” (for lack of a better term) within Christianity.

The Universal Church

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church.” He was going to build simply one church, not two, not ten, not hundreds, not thousands. Just one. Ephesians 1:22-23 says the church is the body of Christ and Ephesians 4:4 says there is just one body.

However, we see churches all over the place. How can this be? Is there only one congregation in all the world that is the right one and we must find it and be part of it, even if it is on the other side of the globe? No. This isn’t talking about a congregation. This is talking about the church universal. This is talking about the collection of all those who are in Christ. This is the collection of all who have been baptized into the one body (cf. I Corinthians 12:13). 

The universal church is the collection of all Christians, of all times, of all places. Some of this group is already in paradise. Some are still on earth. Assuming the world continues long enough, some haven’t even been born yet. 

What we need to understand very clearly is this is not a collection of local churches. It is not the sum total of all the members of local congregations. It is the collection of Christians. Further, this collectivity does not literally assemble until the end of time when God assembles us in heaven. Finally, this collectivity doesn’t do any work as the collectivity. The universal church is not organized in some way that accomplishes some work. There is no universal treasury. There is not universal government apart from Christ as our head teaching each individual how to behave.

This is the universal church. It should not be confused with a local congregation or an individual Christian.

The Local Church

Having learned about the church universal, we might get confused. Probably every one of us have been members of more than one congregation. Then we hear there is only one church and we wonder what is going on. The scripture uses church in another way. There is the universal collection of all the saints. But there is also a local collection of saints who have bonded together to work and serve the Lord together.

This is a local church and there are many.

Consider Romans 16:16 says, “All the churches of Christ greet you.” What? I thought there was just one church of Christ? Yes, in the universal sense. But in the local sense, there are numerous congregations that belong to Christ.

John wrote letters to the seven churches of Asia (Revelation 2-3). He wrote to the church of God in Corinth (I Corinthians 1:2). He wrote to the churches of Galatia (Galatians 1:2).

All of this demonstrates a church in a local sense. Christians in a general location gathered together and joined themselves to one another (cf. Acts 9:26). 

Unlike the universal church, the local church does assemble together regularly (see I Corinthians 11:18; 14:23). They collect funds to accomplish work (see I Corinthians 16:1-4; II Corinthians 8-9; Philippians 1:5; 4:15). Not everyone who is a member is necessarily a faithful Christian (cf. III John 9). Just because a local congregation refuses membership, doesn’t mean the person is not a faithful Christian (Acts 9:26).

This is the local congregation. It is not to be confused with the universal church or with the individual Christians who make up the congregation.

The Individual Christian

This is self-explanatory. A Christian is an individual Christian. A Christian is a member of the church universal and is to be a member of a local church, not forsaking the assembling together with the local church (Hebrews 10:25). 

Most of the New Testament was written to direct how the individual Christian acts. Even though letters were sent to congregations, most of the instruction is about the individual Christian. For instance, look at Ephesians 5. “Be imitators of God, as beloved children,” is about the individuals. When we get to the part about wives, husbands, children, slaves, masters-that is clearly about the individual and not the local church. With this in mind, the individual Christian clearly has work to do. This work is above and beyond what they do in the local church.

I Corinthians 16:1-2 demonstrated the individual’s responsibility to contribute to a church’s collection to accomplish the church’s work. At the same time, Hebrews 13:16 demonstrates the individual simply sharing with others in need apart from the work of the local church.

This is the individual Christian and should not be confused with the local church or the universal church.

We need to recognize these three different institutions or levels of Christianity. Come back next Tuesday as we’ll take a look at some practical reasons for noting these differences.

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