Five years ago, I wrote a post called “Blurring the distinctions.” The purpose of that post is to show that the distinctions that we often make between “local church” and “universal church” are not as easy to find in Scripture. In fact, when Paul is writing about the church, he often uses terms and descriptions that alternate back and forth between what we would often call “local church” and “universal church.”
So, why is this important? Well, if the authors of Scripture do not make a distinction between “local church” and “universal church,” then perhaps we should not make that distinction either.
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.