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.