the weblog of Alan Knox

Blurring the distinctions…

Posted by on Jan 2, 2007 in definition | 24 comments

John S. Hammett is a wonderful professor. He not only allows for discussion, he also encourages it. He has written a book describing Baptist ecclesiology: Biblical Foundations for Baptist Churches.

He begins his book by describing the biblical foundations of the nature of the church. He states, “Local and universal is the most widely used terminology for the twofold meaning for ekklesia found in the New Testament.” In fact, his discussion of the church hinges on the local and universal distinctions that he finds throughout Scripture.

For example, when discussing the “Body of Christ” as an image of the church, he says, “Interestingly, the use made of the body image in Romans and 1 Corinthians differs markedly from the use in Ephesians and Colossians, so much so that they need to be examined separately. In Romans and 1 Corinthians, the body of Christ is a metaphor for the local church, and the emphasis is on the relationships the members of the body have with one another… [I]n Ehesians and Colossians, the body is related to the universal church.”

I do not think it is that simple. Instead, Scripture often blurs the distinctions between what we now call the “local church” and the “universal church.” I do not believe that these distinctions are scriptural. For example, Paul uses the body metaphor in three passages in Ephesians:

And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph. 1:22-23 ESV)

There is one body and one Spirit- just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call- one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Eph. 4:4-6 ESV)

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Eph. 4:15-16 ESV)

The first two passages seem to align with our use of the term “universal church.” But, in the last passage, Paul is using very intimate language that seems to correspond with our use of the term “local church.” In other words, Paul has no problem blurring the distinctions between “local church” and “universal church.” Why? I don’t think Paul sees the same distinctions that we normally see.


24 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 1-2-2007

    Alan,
    I tend to agree with you here. I’m not so sure that our cultural expression of the local church, with our “membership rolls” and “databases,” and, sometimes, our “fortress mentality,” is quite the same view of the local church in the NT. Our view of the local church as compared to the church universal is a view that is colored by the culture in which we live.

    I’ve ministered in places where the local church Christians were fiercely adamant about the primacy of the local church above all other spiritual relationships(some time in a village in the Ukraine several years ago comes to my memory). But I’ve also ministered in places where they considered the “local church” to be whenever and wherever the local believers were gathered for worship. I saw this vividly illustrated during a short-term mission among the Maasai people in Kenya.

    How do you look at this in light of the big baptism argument going on in SBC life right now (after the new IMB guidelines)? Just curious.
    Geoff

  2. 1-2-2007

    Geoff,

    Thanks for visiting my blog and for the comment. I am transitioning (I guess that’s a good description) in my understanding of the church. So, you will probably see many questions concerning the “local” and “universal” distinction. Feel free to chime in at any time.

    I try not to get involved in SBC politics. I try my best to stick with studying the text of Scripture. So far, I have not found anything in the text to indicate that anyone in the NT was baptized into a church or even a group of churches, or into the theology of a church or group of churches.

    -Alan

  3. 1-3-2007

    Alan,
    Thanks for taking a look at scripture in discussing local and universal aspects of the church.

    Could it also be argued in the first Ephesians passage you mentioned that Christ is head of the so-called “local” church as well? I happened to hear an audacious claim by a pastor while in another undisclosed country that there was only one head in the church–referring to himself. I almost jumped up screaming, but language barriers prevented me (and the fact that he was a guest speaker and we would have an opportunity to discuss scripture about the subject later).

    Yet the reference to “fulness” and “all things” etc would lead to a broader application.

    Okay, I think I see more of what your saying (stream of consciousness comment from wlh) that there is a blurred distinction going on here. (Question: are you saying both elements are present in each passage or that taken overall, in the theology of Ephesians, that either element is blurry?)

    Sorry for the abrupt end to my comment

    Wes

  4. 1-3-2007

    Wes,

    I’m saying that Scripture doesn’t make a distinction. We have created distinctions that we call “local church” and “universal church” and have overlaid our distinctions onto Scripture. Therefore, when we read Scripture, we tend to read through a lens that includes “local church” and “universal church”.

    -Alan

  5. 1-3-2007

    Alan,

    What are the implications of this lack of distinction?

    Are there other scriptural reasons for seeing a distinction–like singular vs plural usage?

    I have other questions, but I am trying to answer these two in my mind as well.

    I have toyed (in my mind) with the idea that we have added too much theological baggage to the term ekklesia, but…I have no conclusions yet.

    Thanks for the help.
    Wes

  6. 1-3-2007

    Wes,

    Those are good questions. The Ephesian passages are one example where Paul does not make a distinction between “local church” and “universal church”. I do not believe there are any scriptural distinctions. The term ekklesia is used without distinction.

    The implications are certainly far reaching – perhaps too far reaching for blog comments. I will think about the implications more and perhaps post about this soon.

    -Alan

  7. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  8. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  9. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  10. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  11. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  12. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  13. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  14. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  15. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  16. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  17. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  18. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  19. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  20. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  21. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  22. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  23. 1-4-2007

    Alan,

    I have always been leary of the casual way modifiers are customarily attached to the word church (i.e. ethnic church, house church, traditional church, contemporary church, etc.) I’ve seen few modifiers placed before the word church that promote or communicate the unity that should be found amongst the church.

    Here’s a couple of questions that I have. When a Christian states that he/she is part of a “local” church, to what should I understand that church as being local? (Understand that when I speak of church, I am refering to the people only.) Are these people local to each other? Are they local to a place? In either instance, does this fundamentally change their relationship and responsibility to other Christians?

    -Stan

  24. 1-4-2007

    Stan,

    Those are good questions. I am working on another blog post that demonstrates how our use of the phrase “local church” is not acutally “local” at all.

    -Alan