The Lord's church...

The "universal" church

By Mark J. Ward

The word "church" is used in the New Testament in several ways. It is not the purpose of this article to examine them all, but rather to make scriptural comment on the differentiation between the church of our Lord in a universal sense of the word's use and the local sense of the word as used sometimes in Scripture. Please refer to the article by Dick Ward elsewhere in this month's material for more information on the "local church", as well.

We want to speak accurately when we discuss God's Word. I Peter 4:11 says, "If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God..." This instruction would certainly include the requirement to give the proper "sense" or "understanding" of the divine utterances from God. Also, Galatians 1:6-9 teaches us that there is "another gospel" which is "not another" but is a perversion of the gospel (singular) of Christ. We always want to interpret God's Word accurately...handling aright the Word of Truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Please read the following and study God's passages that are cited. If you disagree, please write. Thanks!


In Matthew 16:18, Christ said He would build His "church". Notice that this is a singular usage of the word church. Compare this with a plural use of the word in Romans 16:16 which states, "Salute one another with an holy kiss...the churches of Christ salute you" and in I Corinthians 11:16, "But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God." I contend that Matthew 16:18 is an example of the use of the word church in a universal sense, and that Romans 16:16 and I Corinthians 11:16 are uses of the word in a local sense. Is this accurate? Let's continue our study.

Just because the word church is singular in a passage of Scripture would not necessarily make it a universal usage of the word. The context would determine whether or not such would be so. (The singular vs. plural of the word can have a bearing on coming to a proper understanding of the word's usage though, so please don't discount this altogether!) Notice two examples of this singular usage of the word church in the New Testament that are clearly local churches. First, please consider I Corinthians 1:2, "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth," is referring to the local church, or group of saints that met for the work and worship of God in the city of Corinth. Secondly, look at Revelation 2:1, "Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write;" is yet another example of the word church being singular, but refers to a local, autonomous collectivity of saints.

So, what do we mean by "church universal"? Please consider the church of Christ for a moment as the body of the saved (Acts 2:47). Imagine that each time a person becomes a Christian, a new creature by being baptized into Christ (Acts 11:26; Acts 26:28; I Peter 4:16; Col. 2:12; Rom. 6:1-4), that such an individual is added by the Lord to the church (universal). When Jesus said He would build His church in Matthew 16:18, for example, He was not meaning that He would build or set up one LOCAL church, but rather He would die and purchase the church (in a universal sense of the word) for all of us to be invited into (Matthew 26:28; Acts 2:47; Acts 20:28; Eph. 5:23-32; Rev. 22:17). Christ is the Head of His body, the church (universal usage of the term). Christ purchased the body of the saved, the church (universal) with His own blood. Spiritual blessings in heavenly places are found "in Christ" that is, in His body, or church (Eph. 1:3).

To further illusttrate, consider the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. He was baptized for the remission of his sins and became a Christian in obedience to the gospel of Christ in Acts 8:27-40. As soon as he became a child of God, he was added to the church universal that Acts 2:47 speaks of. But he was not yet a member of a local congregation, was he? If so, which one? No, he would need to seek out and join himself to other saints in a given locale who were functioning as a local church of our Lord in order to be truly a member of a local church. This is what we mean when we refer to a universal usage of the word "church".

Does the sum of all "local churches" equal the "church universal"?

Some have the mistaken idea that you simply add up all the local churches of Christ and that sum equals the church universal! Not so! (Don't forget the Ethiopian eunuch immediately after his baptism! We never want to take a position that sounds right, but is flawed.) The Bible teaches that the "parts" making up the "whole" of the church (universal) are the individual Christians, or saints (See I Cor. 12:12-28). Please give this text considerable reading and study. Notice the following point along this line. Christ did NOT set apostles in EVERY local church, did He? No. But He did set them in the church (universal) according to verse 28 of the text. Christians are the members of the church, whether speaking of the church universal, or whether we are discussing a local church. This is Biblical; let's stay with what the texts teach.

Does the sum of all "denominations" equal the "church universal"?

No. The Bible does not approve of denominationalism. Why would I bring the above point up? Well, some religious folks run to John 15 and misinterpret the matter of the Vine and the branches. The false idea is propogated today by some that the branches are "churches of denominationalism" and that they are all "part" of the "body of Christ" (church universal). Please see the article on this text in the May 1998 issue of The Religious Instructor (click here to go there). A careful reading of the text indicates that pronouns like "he" and nouns like "man" suggest that churches of denominationalism cannot be under consideration here! In fact, we commend the article on The Lord's church, NOT a denomination by Nick Law in this same month's material for your consideration. "Saints, Christians, or brethen in Christ," are the branches...and we are to abide in Christ (the true Vine) according to the correct understanding of John 15:1-10.

"Local churches", the "church universal" and Bible Authority

Also, sometimes brethren in churches of Christ make the mistake of confusing the work of the local church with trying to activate the church universal. They begin to develop "brotherhood-wide" efforts for which there is no Bible authority. We will look at some of these in future issues, Lord willing.

Suffice it to say, whatever the local church or the universal church wants to do, it can only do such scripturally by the authority of Christ (Matthew 28:18-20; Eph. 5). We must have Bible authority for everything we do in religion and secular activity (Col. 3:17). So, if we do not have Bible Authority for activating the brotherhood in a particular matter, we would consider such outside the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9). We would do well to stay away from such activity!

When one is saved, they are automatically added by GOD into the church universal (Acts 2:47). They should then seek out a local church that is sound (scriptural) in teaching and practice. In fact, local church attendance and activity is mandated by God (See Hebrews 10:23-25). Don't be deceived by the false notion that "local church membership is not required by God". God did not send His Son to purchase the church with His blood and then deliver instruction for the functioning of the church at the local level (throughout the New Testament) only to have folks say, "I don't have to attend church to be right with God!" and not attend and worship Him! We sin when we are able and do not attend worship services of the local church. The wages of sin is spiritual death (Rom. 6:23). Take advantage of the gifts God has offered us and obey Him (with love, gratefully) for all that He has done for us.

What if you attend a church that is trying to be right, but there are problems? I am confident that all local churches will have problems from time to time. After all, we are in a spiritual warfare. Efforts should be made, with love, to correct that which is wrong in a local congregation (Read the problems at the church of God at Corinth in I Corinthians). God desires the local church to be pure in doctrine and practice. Each member should do what they have the ability to do in the local church. Spiritual growth is required of each member and passive membership is not acceptable in God's sight! Read Revelation chapter 2 and 3 along this line. Let us rightly divide God's Word and seek to be right in every matter. Discuss Bible subjects with your friends and let's keep growing as we should in spiritual things. Thanks again for reading! - mjw

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