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The Church Belonging to Christ

The church belonging to Christ is realized (i.e., understood) in at least two basic senses in the New Testament: the universal church and the local church. Consider carefully the following study on the term and meaning of "church."

The Universal Church: Individual Relationship

New Testament Concept: DEFINITION – “the church universal to which all believers belong.” Those passages which would involve this sense (25 [26-KJV]): Matthew 16:18; Acts 2:47; 5:11; 8:3; 12:1; I Corinthians 4:17; 6:4; 10:32; 11:22; 12:28; 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Ephesians 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23,24,25,27,29,32; Philippians 3:6; Colossians 1:18,24; I Timothy 3:15; Hebrews 12:23. This “universal” (i.e. general) sense involves at least two ideas: (1) God’s Wisdom in His Perfect Purpose and Plan – Ephesians 1:22; 3:10,21; 5:23-32; Colossians 1:18,24; (2) All of God’s People without reference to Time or Place – Hebrews 12:23 cf. Ephesians 3:14,15. The “church universal” is referred to as:

The Body of Christ – Ephesians 1:22,23; Colossians 1:18,24 . . . Ephesians 4:1-6 cf. Romans 12:4,5; Ephesians 5:22-32; Colossians 3:15 and Acts 20:28. This figure stresses the singularity of the church by referring to the “one body” with many members all subordinate to Christ, the only Head of the church, in a living spiritual relationship: I Corinthians 12:12-27.

The House of God – I Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:19; 3:15; Hebrews 3:6. This figure emphasizes the family relationship that saints have with God in Christ through the Spirit: Romans 8:14-17 cf. II Corinthians 6:18; Galatians 3:27; 4:7; I John 3:10.

The Temple of God – Acts 17:24; I Corinthians 3:9,16,17; II Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22. This figure has reference to a priestly relationship in God’s holy dwelling place: I Peter 2:5,6,9,10 cf. Isaiah 28:16,17.

The Kingdom of God – Matthew 16:18,19 and Hebrews 12:22-28. This figure is in some cases (for all practical purposes) synonymous with the church (Colossians 3:15 with I Thessalonians 2:12 ... Colossians 1:13,18,24) and relates to the governmental relationship that saints have with Christ as their Lord and King: Ephesians 1:18-23; I Peter 3:22 cf. Romans 5:17 ... Matthew 28:18-20; I Timothy 6:11-16.

(It should be noted that while the church can be considered a "kingdom," the kingdom is not simply the church nor is the church all there is to the kingdom! The kingdom of God is much bigger than just the church. The kingdom of the Lord is over everything and everyone! In truth, God rules over all through his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. But, the church is in some sense [according to Ephesians and Colossians] the crowning pinnacle of God's glorious kingdom. The church is "the people" who have fully submitted and committed themselves to Jesus, the Lord King. The church is "the people" who have been saved by grace – who have accepted the rule of Christ in their lives.)

New Testament Teaching: APPLICATION

Relationship: The universal church is only a spiritual relationship between God and His children. Thus, its only unit is the individual. There is no earthly organization or institution; no earthly overseer or leader; no earthly collective mission or ministry. The universal church is a "brotherhood" of individual Christians (I Peter 2:17), not a "church-hood" of local congregations. The universal church is not an organization of churches. We must think “people”, not “Institution” when we think of the term “church.” The term “church” is not a quantitative term but a qualitative one which describes the character (i.e. “quality”) of the people. The “understanding” that the church universal has an earthly organization/leader/collective function is the heresy of the Roman Catholic Church. Catholicism puts an institution of men between the individual and the Lord. The belief that the universal church is composed of local congregations is the heresy of Denominationalism. Institutionalism seeks to activate the universal church and gives it a collective function. This is one of the most serious and far reaching dangers which results from a failure to understand the nature of the “church.” This is one of the major differences between the church belonging to Christ and the churches of men seen throughout Church History.

Responsibility: The church, first and foremost, is people in a saved relationship with God. But, along with relationship comes responsibility. It is of the utmost importance to realize that the greatest emphasis of Scripture is upon individual relationships and responsibilities (i.e., the universal church) rather than upon the collective relationship and responsibility (i.e., the local church). In other words, by far, the greater portion of the New Testament deals with the individual more as a member of the universal church, than with the individual as a member of the local congregation. This individual responsibility is so greatly emphasized because in the final analysis we will ultimately be judged, not collectively, but individually: Matthew 16:27; Romans 2:6; 14:12; II Corinthians 5:10; I Peter 1:7; Matthew 25:31-46. All other relationships are thus judged by our personal relationship with the Lord. The sphere of our faith and religion thus involves the following relationships:

The Home – Family Relationships: Ephesians 5:22-6:4; Colossians 3:18-21; I Peter 3:1-7; I Timothy 5:8

The Government – Civil Relationships: Romans 13:1-8; I Peter 2:13-17

The Community – Social Relationships: Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31; Mark 12:29-31 cf. Luke 10:25-37 ... Romans 13:8,10; I Corinthians 10:24,31-33; Galatians 6:10; Colossians 4:5; I Peter 2:12; James 1:27

The Business Enterprise – Economic Relationships: I Thessalonians 4:11,12; II Thessalonians 3:10-12; I Timothy 5:8; James 4:13-15 ... Ephesians 6:5-9; Colossians 3:22-4:1; Titus 2:9,10; I Peter 2:18-25

The Local Church – Congregational Relationships: I Corinthians 1:2 ... I Corinthians 11:18; 14:4,5,12,19,23,28,33,34,35; 16:1; II Corinthians 8:1,18,19,23,24; 11:8; etc.

It is vitally important to realize that there is a world of difference between what the individual can do and what the local church has the authority to do – they are not the same. (For just one verse that clearly shows that there is a difference between the individual and the church and the responsibility and work of each, see Matthew 18:15-18.) Our responsibility to the local church grows out of our responsibility to God as members of the universal church. The individual is given the authority and thus the responsibility to be involved in family, civil, social, economic, and congregational relationships. But the local church has absolutely no business getting involved in family, political, social, etc. relationships. And we as individuals have no right to expect the local church to do our work for us or to fulfill our personal obligations and responsibilities for us. Such ideas are actually evidence that our concepts of the church have been more influenced (i.e., corrupted) by the world of social politics (i.e., the idea that the government is supposed to take care of us from cradle to grave) than we care to admit!

The Local Church: Collective Relationship

New Testament Concept: DEFINITION – “the church or congregation as the totality of Christians living in one place ... the church at ...” Those passages that would involve this sense (84): Matthew 18:17; Acts 8:1; 9:31; 11:22,26; 12:5; 13:1; 14:23,27; 15:3,4,22,41; 16:5; 18:22; 20:17,28; Romans 16:1,4,5,16,23; I Corinthians 1:2; 7:17; 11:16,18; 14:4,5,12,19,23,28,33,34,35; 16:1,19; II Corinthians 1:1; 8:1,18,19,23,24; 11:8,28; 12:13; Galatians 1:2,22; Philippians 4:15; Colossians 4:15,16; I Thessalonians 1:1; 2:14; II Thessalonians 1:1,4; I Timothy 3:5; 5:16; Philemon 2; James 5:14; III John 1:6,9,10; Revelation 1:4,11,20; 2:1,7,8,11,12,17,18,23,29; 3:1,6,7,13,14,22; 22:16.

The local sense can involve at least three related ideas: (1) God’s People in a given General Locality – Acts 5:11; 8:1,3; 9:31 (plural-KJV); Galatians 1:2,22. (In these passages the term “church” is used distributively of the saints in a given area without reference to organization either universal or local.) (2) God’s People in a given Specific Locality – I Corinthians 1:2; Philippians 4:15; I Thessalonians 1:1; etc. (3) God’s People Physically Assembled Together – Acts 11:26; I Corinthians 11:18; 14:23.

There are many local churches (Romans 16:16), but it is most important to realize that they were all basically the same in their organization, doctrine, worship, work, and name. The reason that all the local churches were the same is that they followed exactly the same pattern set forth in the New Testament: Hebrews 8:1-6 ... I Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:34,36; 16:1 cf. I Thessalonians 2:14 (Philippians 4:9). Thus, to use the concept of many local churches in the New Testament to justify or attempt to parallel the modern concept of denominationalism is not only absurd, but it is also a gross perversion of Scripture. It is essential to realize that the local church is the only functional unit or organization through which the saints are authorized to work as a collectivity. As we shall see, the local congregation actually has earthly organization or institution; earthly oversight or leadership; and earthly collective mission and ministry. There is no organization larger than or smaller than the local church. The organizational structure of the church begins and ends with the local congregation. Any religious organization that is not the local church, that does the work or worship of the church, is without authority.

New Testament Teaching: APPLICATION

The ORGANIZATION of the Local Church: Philippians 1:1

The Eldership – There are three terms used to designate the office of the eldership in the New Testament:

Elder – Acts 11:30; 14:23; 15:2,4,6,22,23; 16:4; 20:17; 21:18; I Timothy 5:1,17,19; Titus 1:5; James 5:14; I Peter 5:1,5. This term has to do with a decision making function.

Bishop/Overseer – Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; I Timothy 3:2; Titus 1:7 cf. I Timothy 3:1 Consider I Peter 2:25. This term has to do with an administrative function.

Pastor/Shepherd – Ephesians 4:11 Consider John 10:11,14,16; Hebrews 13:20; I Peter 2:25. This term has to do with the function of being a spiritual counselor and teacher.

These three terms all refer to the same office as is seen from: Acts 20:17,28; Titus 1:5,7 (I Timothy 3:1); and I Peter 5:1,2. The qualifications for elders are found in I Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9. The rule and work of elders in the local church is learned from Acts 14:23; 20:17,28; I Timothy 5:17; I Thessalonians 5:12,13; Hebrews 13:17; I Peter 5:1-3. From these verses we see that in the New Testament local congregations always had a plurality of elders in each local work whose authority was only over that local church. There was no "one man pastor" system in the New Testament church. There were also no "women elders or pastors" in the New Testament church. Elders have no right to oversee any work other than the local work they are a part of – they have no authority to mind anyone else's business.

Thus, each local congregation in the New Testament was independent and autonomous (i.e. self-governing). Consider Revelation 1:11-20. Many churches, including man-made denominations claim “congregational independence,” but their practices show a glaring contradiction to that claim. It is wholly inconsistent to preach “congregational independence” while at the same time joining together with other churches in “brotherhood” (more correctly “church-hood”) projects or inter-church activities. Congregations are not independent when they are tied together in national or worldwide organizations, conferences, synods, councils, associations, conventions, etc. – all of which are without any Scriptural authority. God has authorized saints to act together collectively (in the local church), but God has never authorized churches to act together collectively by pooling resources under a common oversight such as a “board of elders.”

The Deacons – The office of the deacon is described in I Timothy 3:8-13 cf. Acts 6:1-6. Whereas the elders minister to the spiritual needs of the congregation, the deacons are the servants of the church and minister to its physical needs.

The Saints – Individual believers are to identify with a local church and fulfill their personal responsibilities and obligations within that collective organization in its worship and work. See Acts 9:26-28 ... Romans 1:7; I Corinthians 1:2; Ephesians 1:1; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:1; etc. Consider I Corinthians 12:12-27 cf. Romans 12:4,5 and Ephesians 4:11-16. Remember, the local church is a relationship of “saints with saints” and the universal church is a relationship of the individual with the Lord and with all believers everywhere. Our relationship with the Lord brings us into a relationship with others, especially with other saints.

The WORSHIP of the Local Church: John 4:23,24 cf. I Corinthians 14:40 (33).

The Lord's Supper – Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-20 ... I Corinthians 11:17-34 cf. I Corinthians 10:14-22. See Acts 2:42 and Acts 20:7

Prayer – Acts 2:42; 12:5 ... I Timothy 2:1-8; I Corinthians 14:14-16 (Philippians 4:16; Colossians 3:17; Ephesians 5:20; etc.)

Singing – Ephesians 3:19; Colossians 3:16 ... I Corinthians 14:15,23,26. See Hebrews 13:15

Giving – I Corinthians 16:1,2 and II Corinthians 8:1-9:15

Preaching/Teaching – Acts 2:42; 20:7 and I Corinthians 14:1-40

The Assembling – All of these items of collective worship are the responsibility of the local congregation when the church comes together for worship: Hebrews 10:24,25.

The Work of the Local Church

Evangelism – How does the local congregation really do the work of evangelism? Basically by sending and supporting the preacher: I Timothy 3:14,15. Consider the example of Philippi – Philippians 1:3-5; 2:25-30; 4:14-20; and the example of Macedonia – II Corinthians 11:8,9; and the example of Thessalonica – I Thessalonians 1:2-8; the example of Antioch – Acts 13:1-3; 14:27,28; the example of Jerusalem – Acts 8:1-5; 11:22. Consider the preacher’s support: I Corinthians 9:4-14 cf. Galatians 6:6. It is important to realize that the local church is the only organization through which the work of evangelization can be done as authorized by the New Testament. The local church is its own “evangelistic (i.e. missionary) society.” But, it must never be forgotten that the individual member of the body of Christ always has the responsibility to preach the gospel of Christ: Matthew 28:18-20; Mark 16:15,16. The individual cannot expect the local church to do his/her personal work of evangelism for him/her.

Edification – How does the local church as a collectivity really do the work of edification? Basically by coming together to worship the Lord and work together in that which God has given us to do together: Ephesians 4:11-16 cf. Colossians 2:19; Acts 20:28 cf. I Peter 5:2 ... Hebrews 10:24,25 (I Corinthians 11:18; Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) ... I Corinthians 14:5,26; Romans 14:19 See I Corinthians 12:12-27 and Romans 12:1-21 and I Peter 4:7-11. The local church is the only organization authorized in the New Testament for the edification of the saints. The local church is its own “edification society.” But, it must also be realized that the individual saint always has the right to edify both himself and other saints. In fact, most of the spiritual growth that will be attained through edification will come through individual effort: I Thessalonians 5:11; Romans 15:2 ... I Corinthians 12:12-27. We have no right to expect the local church to take over that area of edification which is the responsibility of the individual: See Galatians 6:10.

Benevolence – How does the local church as a collective body really do the work of benevolence? Basically by laying in store for the care of needy saints: Acts 2:44,45; 4:32-34; 6:1-6; 11:27-30; Romans 15:25-27,31; I Corinthians 16:1,2; II Corinthians 8:1-9:15 (I Corinthians 8:4,14; 9:1,12); I Timothy 5:16. The local church is the only organization authorized to do the work of benevolence in the Lord’s church. And it is authorized to care only for those who are saints. The local church is its own “benevolence society.” But it must also be realized that the work of benevolence is to be mostly a work of the individual; and the individual has the duty and the right to care for saints and for all men: Matthew 5:43-48; 7:12 (Luke 10:25-37) ... Matthew 25:31-46. See Galatians 6:10 and James 1:27. Consider Romans 12:13; Ephesians 4:28; I Timothy 6:17,18; Hebrews 13:16; I John 3:17,18 (James 2:14-18) ... I Timothy 5:3-16.

Consider Galatians 6:10 and James 1:27. Many wrongly attempt to make these verses apply to the work of the local church. Consequently it is believed that local churches are supposed to build and support corporate benevolent societies. Is this really what Paul and James are talking about? It should be obvious from context that these passages are clearly dealing with the individual’s responsibility of “doing good to all men” and “taking care of orphans and widows.” Thus, to use these passages to justify “church benevolent institutions and societies” is a misuse of Scripture. One of the biggest problems that we have in the church today is the mistaken idea that the local church can do the work of the individual saint and thus relieve him/her of individual responsibility. When it comes to the work of benevolence many individuals believe that they are practicing “pure and undefiled religion” when the local congregation they are members of sends money to some benevolent institution. If we think that by sending a check to some corporate institution we have discharged our obligation of “visiting” (See Matthew 25:34-45) the widows and orphans we have missed the spirit of Christ which demands personal contact and involvement with those who are needy.

We need to learn the difference between the “individual saint” and the “local church,” and distinguish between their God given works and responsibilities. The individual Christian has responsibilities that go far beyond those of the local congregation (i.e., home and family, business, society, state, politics, recreation, entertainment, etc.) and to make all of these areas a “work of the local church” is to pervert the purpose and plan for the local congregation as God would have it. Perhaps one passage that shows that there is a difference between what the individual can do and what the church can do is I Timothy 5:9-16. Consider the principle of "let not the church be burdened" in I Timothy 5:16! There are some things (i.e., even some "good works") that the church just simply does not need to do. It is not that the "good work" does not need to be done; it's just that we need to learn to quit expecting the local church to do what the individual believer needs to be doing, and should have been doing all along.

Congregational Cooperation – Did churches ever work together? If so, how? Let us consider the concept of “cooperation.” Webster’s defines “cooperation” as either involving "joint cooperation" or involving "concurrent cooperation". In the New Testament, “joint cooperation” (the pooling of funds and the centralizing of control) is not the kind of congregational cooperation authorized. But, “concurrent cooperation” (independent simultaneous action) is the Scriptural form of church cooperation:

(1) Churches helped each other in time of emergency by contributing directly to the church which needed help – Romans 15:26; I Corinthians 16:1-4 cf. Acts 11:27-30.

(2) Many churches contributed to one church in time of need – II Corinthians 8:1-9:15.

(3) Each church made up its own “bounty”, selected its own “messengers”, and sent relief directly to the church in need – II Corinthians 8:1-9:15; I Corinthians 16:1-4; Romans 15:26.

(4) A church with ability gave to a church in need – II Corinthians 8:13-15.

(5) Individuals, not churches or man-made organizations served as messengers – I Corinthians 16:1-4.

(6) Messengers served only in the capacity of delivering the aid from the contributing church to the intended recipient – Acts 11:27-30; I Corinthians 16:1-4; Philippians 4:10-18.

(7) Several churches assisted in supporting an evangelist, each communicating directly with him – Philippians 4:10-18; II Corinthians 11:8.

We need to realize that the local church is authorized to work only according to its ability: II Corinthians 8:12-15 (Compare I Corinthians 16:1-4 and II Corinthians 8:12; 9:6,7 where the individual can give only according to his ability. See the principle of Matthew 25:14-30.) Thus, where is the authority for any local church to purpose or propose a work larger than its ability (i.e. “go into debt”) and then to solicit (i.e. “beg”) other churches to join or support it in its work? There is therefore no authority for “sponsoring church” arrangements or for any kind of “joint-cooperative” church works.

Summary and Conclusion

The universal church is only a spiritual relationship that individuals have with the Lord. There is no earthly organization, no earthly overseer, no earthly collectivity in the universal church. The universal church functions only through the individual and through no other unit. The individual must seek to do God’s will, God’s way. How is your relationship with God (the universal church)?

The local church is the only functional and organized unit or collectivity that God has created. It has an earthly organization, with earthly officers, in an earthly collectivity. The local church is an organized and completely autonomous body that has a collective function of worship and work. There is no organization larger than or smaller than the local church. The local church is the only organization authorized to do the collective worship and work God has given the church to do. The local congregation must do God’s will, God’s way. How is your relationship with the saints of God (the local church)?

To return to the study, "What About 'Church'?", go here.