What Is A Church?
The term “church” is used in the New Testament to refer to 1) a worship assembly; 2) a local congregation; and 3) the universal church.
A Worship Assembly
The term “church” is used to referred to three different religious organizations in the New Testament: 1) a worship assembly of Christians; 2) the Universal church; 3) and local churches.
Twice in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians he uses the term “church” to identify the local congregation of believers at Corinth who gathered together in worship to God. “…when you come together as a church” (1 Cor. 11:18). “Therefore if the whole church comes together in one place,…” (1 Cor. 14:23).
A Local Church
A local congregation is any number of saved individuals choosing to meet, worship, and work together under Christ’s authority in a specific geographical locality. They may participate only in those works and only operate in ways assigned to them by the Word of God. Some local churches are referred to according to the city in which they meet: “the church which is at Cenchrea” (Rom. 16:1); “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2); and “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess. 1:1). Other local congregations are reference according to the homes where they met. “Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house” (Rom. 16:19). “To the church in thy house” (Philemon 1:2). The word “churches” refers to the local churches in different places. It never references different kinds of churches, institutions or denominations. Romans 16:16 speaks of “the churches of Christ.” “The churches of Galatia” (Gal. 1:2) relates to the various local churches throughout the Roman province of Galatia. The New Testament recognized only one ekklesia which was the church universal representing on those who are saved on earth. It was never used in reference to a federation of the many (Local) congregations (1 Cor. 12:12-24). The New Bible Dictionary explains: “The local ekklesia was not thought of as part of some world-wide ekklesia, which would have been a contradiction of terms”
The Universal Church
As the term “church” is used in connection to God or Christ in the New Testament it is in reference to a group of people who belong to and are in spiritual fellowship with Christ no matter where the live on earth. This is describing the church universal. The universal church has no earthly organization, only Christ as its head (Eph. 1:22,23; Col. 1:18). It has not earthly organization or arrangement by which it can function. Roman Catholicism has sought to make the universal church functional by using Vatican City as its earthly headquarters under the headship of the Pope. Protestant denominations have also sought to do so by use of councils, synods or denominational headquarters. The universal church is not made up of local congregations but Christians. They are the only units of the universal body of Christ.
The New Testament uses several terms denoting different aspects of the church universal. It is called a “Kingdom” (Mat. 16:18,19; Col. 1:13,14) To demonstrate how it functions as a government with Christ as King and saints as its citizens. The church is the “house of God” (1 Tim. 3:15) to convey its family feature. God is the Father and Christians are His children and brothers and sisters to one another. The worship aspect can be seen in the phrase “temple of God.” Christ is the High Priest. The saints represent a royal priesthood who offer up prayers, songs and spiritual sacrifices to God. Christ’s blood in the atoning sacrifice for sin offered once for all time. Christians also make up the stones of this holy temple (Eph. 2:20,21). The church is called the “body of Christ” (Eph. 1:22,23; 4:4). This metaphor describes the unity of the church. Christ is the head (Col. 1:18) and Christians are the individual body parts. The productiveness of the church is featured in a metaphor of a vineyard. God is the husbandman. Christ is the vine. and the disciples are the individual branches that bear fruit (John 15:1-8).
Differences Between the Universal Church and a Local Church
There are differences between the church universal and a local church. Basically, the universal church is concerned with one’s relationship to God, while the local church deals with our relationship with other Christians. Understanding these things will go a long way in overcome the denominational concepts and misunderstanding about the term “church”. Many false doctrines which have surfaced over the past 2,000 years could easily be resolved if men would make this Biblical distinction between the universal church and local church.
First, they universal and local church is distinct from one another with regard to when the began. The church universal began in able 30 AD at Pentecost in Jerusalem (Acts 2). A local church can begin at any place and time (Acts 14:21-23).
Furthermore, the local church can be founded by any group of Christians (Acts 14:21-23). Yet the universal church could only be founded by Christ (Matt. 16:18).
The universal church requires baptism for entry (1 Cor. 12:13). Baptism is necessary to be a member of a local church. However, God adds baptized believers to the universal church (Acts 2:47). In contrast one joins a local church as they are accepted by the local saints into the congregation (Acts 9:26; Rom. 16:1,2).
The membership of the church universal includes only those who are truly Christians because God is the one who does the adding and He knows those who are His (2 Tim. 2:19). Yet sometimes false brethren will join local congregations (Rev. 2:14-16). When one dies their membership in the local church will end (Acts 5:1-11; 8:1,2). Only the living make up the membership. Death has no effect on being a part of the church universal (Phil. 1:21-25; Rev. 3:21).
At least once a week a local church will gather in an assembly to worship (Heb. 10:25; 1 Cor. 16:1,2). The universal church does not assemble together on earth but one day they will in heaven (1 Cor. 15:24; Heb. 12:23).
There can only be one universal church (Ep[h. 4:5). There can be many local congregations (Rev. 2 & 3; Rom. 16:16).
A local congregation has a plurality of shepherds or elders (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1). The universal church can only have one Shepherd, Jesus Christ (John 10:11; 1 Peter 2:25).
The universal church and local churches are very distinct in regard to their work. Local Christians must cooperate as they work together (Eph. 4:12-16). They must edify one another (Eph.4:12-16); contribute to a common treasury (2 Cor. 10:8; 1 Cor. 16:1,2); send out and pay preachers (Acts 11:22; 2 Cor. 10:8); give benevolence to the needy saints; and discipline unrepentant Christians (1 Cor. 5:1f). The universal church has not collective action to edify one another and has not common treasury.
The local church must discipline unfaithful members (1 Cor. 5:1-13; 2 Thess. 3:6-15). However, one local church is to discipline another congregation. When it comes to the universal church it is God who disciplines the members (Heb. 12:6ff). He disciplines the local congregations (Rev. 2 & 3).
A distinction in gender roles exist between the local and universal church. In the local church women cannot teach and/or have authority over men (1 Cor. 2;9; 11:2f; 14:24). There is no distinction between male and female in the universal church (Gal. 3:29).
While it is possible for one to be a faithful Christian without being a member of a local church (Acts 9:26; 8:36-39; 3 Jn. 9,10), one must be a member of the local church to be one of the saved (2 Tim. 2:10; Eph. 4:25).
– Daniel R. Vess