the weblog of Alan Knox

Local or Universal?

Posted by on Sep 4, 2007 in definition, unity | 10 comments

I rarely talk about the “local church” as opposed to the “universal church”. I do not think these are valid distinctions, because I do not believe that Scripture makes such a distinction (more about that later). So, how do I distinguish between the “local church” and the “universal church”? I don’t. There is simply the church. This topic came up recently during break in one of my seminars. I was excited to hear another student (you know who you are) voicing my concerns and beliefs about the local/universal distinction.

The “local church” is usually defined as that group of believers that are somehow connected to one another. Perhaps this connection is made through joint membership (i.e. their name on a role), or a covenant (i.e. everyone agrees with a certain statement), or regular attendance at a certain location at a certain time.

The “universal church” is usually defined as all believers of all time. This is sometimes viewed as an “eschatological” (that is, end times) reality, but not a current reality.

Sometimes, these distinctions (“local” and “universal”) are combined with the distinctions of “visible” and “invisible”. Sometimes these two groups of distinctions are separate.

When we read Scripture with this understanding of “local church” and “universal church” in our “hermeneutical lens” (that is, the presuppositions through which we read Scripture), we often have to do textual gymnastics to understand what the author is trying to say.

For example, many who hold to a “local church” also understand baptism as the ordinance of entrance into the local church – whether believer’s baptism or infant baptism. Thus, when they read a passage such as 1 Corinthians 12:13 (“For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit.”), they must see this as entrance into the “universal church” not the “local church”. Why? Because this verse is talking about Spirit baptism, not water baptism. So, it cannot be talking about the “local church”.

However, throughout 1 Corinthians, Paul is talking to and about a “local” group of believers. It is a group of believers in Corinth who are “not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1 Cor 1:7) and should have “no divisions” (1 Cor 1:10). It is this same local group that must deal with an immoral person among them (1 Cor 5:4-5). This same group of believers in Corinth needs to learn how to deal with brothers or sisters who disagree with others about meat sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8-10). This is the same “local” group who is having problems with the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor 11:20-22). Finally, it is to this same group in Corinth that Paul begins teaching about spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12).

Each member of this “local church” has been given a gift by the Holy Spirit for the benefit of others (1 Cor 12:4-11). This is the group of believers who are members of one another and members of Christ (1 Cor 12:12). This group obviously knows one another in order to recognize one another as members of the body and recognize each one’s function (i.e. “ear”, “eye”, “foot”, “hand” – 1 Cor 12:14-21). God has placed each of them together according to his will and his purposes (1 Cor 12:18).

Therefore, in order to make 1 Corinthians 12:13 fit into a “local church” and “universal church” distinction, we have to take it out of its context.

But, what happens if we recognize that Scripture does not make a distinction between the “local church” and the “universal church”? What happens if we recognize that at the moment that we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit we immediately become “members” with all believers with whom God brings us into contact? What happens if we accept responsibility for all of our brothers and sisters that God brings into our lives? Suddenly, we do not have to take this Scripture out of context. In fact, it makes perfect sense within its context. (This is not the only example, just one from a passage that I’ve read recently.)

Does this mean that we should not meet regularly with certain believers? Certainly not. It seems that believers did meet together in different venues and perhaps even in different groups. However, it does mean that we should recognize our relationship with one another not based upon man-made regulations, but upon God’s choosing – For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…

Does this mean that I am responsible for the believer on the other side of the world whom I have never met? Certainly not. But, it does mean that I am responsible for the way that I relate to the believer across the street, or across the hall, since God has brought me into contact with that person. If God desires for me or you to interact with this person, then God will bring us together – God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose…

It seems to me that the “local church” and “universal church” distinctions adds very little to our biblical understanding of God or of the church. Instead, it seems to divide the church into little groups that feel that they are maintaining unity in the body of Christ as long as they are united withing their “local church”. Meanwhile, it also allows believers to ignore the “one-anothers” of Scripture if the “one-another” does not “belong” to their “local church”.

This does not mean that I am “against” covenants or “against” a group of believers organizing together with a membership. I think that both of these things can be good. However, I also recognize that both covenants and organizations with membership can lead to exclusivism and isolationism, neither of which are characteristic of the church in Scripture.

Can I be wrong about this? Yep. Does it concern me that many believers do not agree with me? Yes, it does. Am I open to hearing different opinions? Yes. Do I welcome disagreements here on this blog? Yes, feel free to disagree, as long as you don’t mind your opinion being questioned as well.


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

  1. 9-4-2007

    Yes! I agree with what you are saying! My husband and I fellowship with a group of believers that do not ask for “membership” letters. There is a covenant the leadership must sign based strictly on scripture, but we had no problem signing that.

    There is no altar call at the end of the service. We do not practice saying the “sinner’s prayer” in order to bring someone into the Kingdom. We do not find these things in the Bible and there is so much more to salvation than admitting you are a sinner and asking Jesus into your heart!

    We are in the process now of preparing to “go outside the camp to Him bearing His reproach” (Heb. 13:13). We do not know yet what this will look like, but believe God has called us to serve the Body.

    We may start meeting at odd times in order to be able to attend other fellowships and serve them in the capacity of nursery workers or other workers – whatever they need – so their whole fellowship can worship together as one. It has kind of been a slow process to get everybody on the same page but we feel the time is drawing near when we will go out together as one to serve in whatever way the LORD has for us – to whomever he wishes us to serve.

    I am very impressed with your perspective. It is God-given and I pray many will read and allow the Spirit to open their eyes to see the Truth.

  2. 9-4-2007


    I was writing a short essay the other day about local and universal church ideas. I think I came to a very similar conclusion. I think we’ve taken the theological constructs too far. There are times when it seems that the Bible is speaking to a specific church, churches in a region, and the church as all Christians. But, we’ve only taken two of those ideas–why don’t we have a “regional” church.

    I think the “church” is something more “mystical” (forgive the word, I just can’t think of something better). There may be a small dose of truth between a local gathering and the totality of all Christians, but the bifurcation of the two seems to force Scripture. It just seems more fluid, and I think our theology should be more fluid.

    More than anything, I think you are scratching on a serious problem. If it’s theological constructs or not, we certainly don’t have enough concern for brothers and sisters who do not fellowship where we do–and markedly less for those Christians worldwide. Although, it may be our American individualism more than our actual theology, but it’s still a problem–I think.

    Anyway, props to you, brother.


  3. 9-4-2007

    alan, what do you make of the use of the word church in ephesians?

  4. 9-4-2007


    Stop making me think!!! Just kidding.


    I don’t know how to respond now, just know that you’re starting to make sense to me.



  5. 9-4-2007


    Thank you for the comment. It is interesting the ways that God can use someone when they start to open themselves to all the brothers and sisters around them and to the world around them. I appreciate your encouragement. I pray that if I write anything that is consistent with God and his word, then people will hear. If anything is contrary, then I pray they will not hear.


    I agree that this is a serious problem. I think it is a serious theological problema and a serious hermeneutical problem. What do you think the solution to this problem is?


    Thank you for the comment. I’m not sure if you have commented here before, so if not, welcome! Do you have a particular use of the word church (ekklesia) in Ephesians in mind? I would think that the way that Paul used the word ekklesia would need to explain how this “church” has Christ as their head, makes known the manifold wisdom of God, subjects themselves to God, is joined to Christ as a wife to her husband, lives in a worthy manner, demonstrates humility and gentleness and patienct and forebearance in love, maintains the unity of the Spirit, speaks the truth in love, grows from Christ and into Christ, is joined and knitted together, works together with every part doing its share, as well as a myriad of other descriptions. Which one did you have in mind?


    Thinking is a good thing. I hope you will continue to help me when I am not making sense.


  6. 9-5-2007

    Alan, I agree completely. I think there is something more mystical. I too have not liked the local/universal distinction for a long time. I prefer just to use the term “church.” Interestingly, I heard someone yesterday tell someone else that they had a pastor for 14 years who never joined the church. Ha, for 14 years they had a pastor who wasn’t a member of the “church.” That is where baptist ecclesiology has brought us, it is time for our terms to be redefined. You are doing a great job Alan, maybe you are the Lord’s way of turning the tide.

  7. 9-5-2007


    Here are some arguments I’ve heard “pastors” use for the “local church” structure.:

    -We act as a Holy Spirit gas station. Come here and get filled up.
    -Where else are you going to practice the gifts God gave you?
    -The world (unbelievers) views the church as a building, so, if we build it they will come.
    -Jesus told His disciples to separate the crowd into groups and feed them.(feed the 5000)
    -We need to hold people accountable.
    -If you don’t attend a church you are forsaking the assembling of the brethren. ..
    -The Bible says so.

    I’m sure there are plenty more, but these are a few I’ve heard from local “pastors” in my area.

    I am extremely passionate about this subject. You used some strong words/phrases that describe/imply the consequences/results of making a distinction: “textual gymnastics, out of context, man-made regulations, extra biblical, divisive, ignorance, exclusivism, isolationism, cliques” I think to those whose eyes have been opened and they’ve been enlightened to this, seeing it for what it is, it is not so much a concern/danger. It is the ones who are sucked up into the vacuum of extra-biblical, more than Christ, necessary religious practices, that concern me. Jesus does not take lightly the intentional/non-intentional misleading of people. In fact, He implies that with each transference of false teaching or misleading the consequences are twice as costly.

    Mat 23:15 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites, because you travel around on sea and land to make one proselyte; and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

    In my opinion the idea of “local church” structure is, at best, – a non-essential, extra-biblical, extra-curricular, luxury to those who realize they are members of only ONE body with Christ as the Head…period. Try telling a persecuted Christian in Communist China that it is necessary to “go to church” regularly to be a “good spiritual Christian.” I would bet to them a simple whisper in passing of “Jesus loves you brother” is more meaningful fellowship than multiple teachings or gatherings that we take for granted every day.

    I’m sorry for rambling Alan, but your post has turned the spotlight on what I feel is the front lines of the spiritual battle that has been raging since the beginning of time. The battle of deception.

    Lord Bless,


  8. 9-5-2007

    Glad you’re posting on this subject again.

    I meet every other week with a group of pastors from around our area. It’s a strange assortment: ex-Vineyard, Conservative Baptist, Reformed Church in America, Independent Christian, Church of Christ non-instrumental, Southern Baptist. We meet for the purpose of building each other up and encouraging each other in equipping the saints. We also go on an annual prayer/worship/poker retreat.

    There obviously is a lot that we could be divisive about, if we really wanted to. But instead, we’ve learned to laugh at our sacred cows (mode and effect of baptism, speaking/barking in tongues, use of instruments, style of music, etc.) and really love each other.

    The upshot of this is that we see our churches as “the church in the valley.” We talk about what God is doing in our community through His church. We partner with each other on some things, and on others we talk about larger strategies based on the different “giftings” of our churches.

    As a result, there is a broader work going on as God uses us, united as His church, yet meeting in different locations.

  9. 9-5-2007


    I prefer to just use the term “church” as well.


    I’ve heard these arguments as well. They seem to be more organizational than biblical.


    Thanks for sharing about how you are reaching out to other brothers and sisters in Christ in your area. I hope to hear about how this is happening more and more.


  10. 9-6-2007

    What a great birthday present!–even though I’m a couple days late in getting it. After I finish prepping for German, I’m going to give this a more thorough read. Looking forward to more discussions!


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