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Replay: Blurring the distinctions between “local” and “universal”

Posted by on Jan 7, 2012 in definition | 11 comments

Replay: Blurring the distinctions between “local” and “universal”

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.


Blurring the distinctions…

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.


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  1. 1-11-2012

    Are you familiar with Nee’s teachings on this subject?

  2. 1-12-2012


    I’ve read a couple of Nee’s books, but I don’t remember exactly what he said concerning the local/universal distinction.


  3. 1-13-2012

    It is tricky to cite Nee as he only wrote one book, but there are many compilations that bear his name. There is a near complete library at Living Stream Ministry. The most read book title, I believe, is The Normal Christian Life. What I see as a sort of follow up to that is titled, What Shall This Man do? Both were published by CLC, Tyndale in that late 70s and I have no idea where you can find them or under what title the content may be now. I highly recommend them. In chapter 10 of What…, entitled John and the Truth, he discusses the Church from the viewpoint of the reality which is in Christ and how God views it. He argues that Paul does not distinguish among types of churches, true versus false, local or universal, but there is one church. It is for us to grasp that reality and all that it entails. In fact, he asserts, that all spiritual progress is made by finding out what we really are, not by trying to become what we hope to be. Eph 2:10 proclaims that we are His workmanship, or masterpiece.

    Hope this sheds some light for someone. Nee expresses much more than I have presented.

  4. 1-14-2012


    Thanks for the info. People keep telling me that I need to read more Nee.


  5. 1-15-2012

    Also check out T. Austin-Sparks a friend and contemporary of Nee. You can find a lot of his writings at His son in law brought us much of the teachings of Nee as well as a bio of Nee, Against the Tide.

    Yes, I have been diagnosed with Nee-o-philia!

  6. 1-15-2012


    I read a few things from T. Austin Sparks. So far, it’s all been good stuff.


  7. 1-15-2012


    The denomination that sprung from Nee’s tecahings are call “the local churches” or “the Lord’s recovery”.

  8. 1-15-2012

    They have published “The Recovery Version” of the Bible with Witness Lee’s commentary. They will send it to you for free.

  9. 1-16-2012


    Yes, I’ve heard the term “local churches” used to describe the denomination that came from the teachings of Nee (and his follower Lee). I wonder how Nee would feel about his teachings being used to create a new denomination…


    I haven’t read anything by Lee yet. What do you think about the direction that he took Nee’s teachings?


  10. 1-16-2012

    I think Nee would have bristled at the moniker, “denomination” in reference to anything he may have fostered. I suppose that may be said of many.

    As for Lee, I can only say that when I read my daily “emannas” from Living Stream, I can almost always tell whether Lee or Nee wrote them just by their depth. As for the degree to which they agreed or any change of direction, I don’t know enough to make a judgment.

  11. 1-17-2012


    Thanks again. From what I’ve read by and about Nee, I would agree with you about his response to a new denomination.