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What Is the Church: Universal and Local?

A Study of the Nature and Meaning of Jesus' Church

What is the church?What does the gospel mean when it speaks about the church Jesus built? What is the difference between the church universal and local? Is the church a denomination or just a group of individuals? What are the characteristics of a Scriptural local congregation? What organization and work should it have? May it do whatever individual Christians may do? Should we join one of the many modern denominations?


In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promised He would build His church. All serious Bible students agree that He did build His church in the first century. At that time, there was only one church belonging to Jesus and all saved people were in that one church. You can read about that church on nearly every page of your New Testament.

The purpose of this study is to consider what the church is.

Ephesians 3:10,11 says that the church is part of God's eternal plan. The church was so important to God that He planned it from eternity. Surely we need to understand what the church is and make sure we are following God's plan regarding it.

The word "church" in the New Testament (Greek ekklesia) refers to a group of people who are brought together for some special reason. In the religious sense, the word refers to those people who have been brought together by God by being forgiven of their sins; they have become children of God and have the hope of eternal life.

Unfortunately many people misunderstand the nature of the church.

* Some people use the word "church" to refer to a building where people worship God.

* Some think church membership is not essential to salvation.

* Some think of the church as a specific denomination: Baptist, Methodist, Lutheran, etc.

* Others think the church consists of all the different denominations together.

* Still others think the church is just individual Christians. They see no difference between the church and the individuals, so whatever Christians can do the church can do.

* Some have denied that the local church is a functioning unit or that it has any right to arrange programs of work that members are expected to participate in.

The word "church" has different meanings.

In the Bible, the word always refers to a group of people, never to a physical building.

We will study two primary uses of the word "church" in the Bible: the church universally and the church locally. Then we will conclude by briefly observing a use of the word that is not in the Bible: the church in the denominational sense.

I. The Church in the Universal Sense

A. The Church (Universal) Is the Body of All Saved People Everywhere.

It includes all those who have been redeemed by Jesus' blood, have received forgiveness of their sins, and have been born spiritually into His family.

This is the sense in which the word church is used in Matthew 16:18. Jesus promised to build His church. Other Bible examples of this usage of the word are:

Acts 20:28 - Jesus purchased the church with His own blood. But Jesus shed His blood to save us from sin and make us His (Ephesians 1:7; Revelation 1:5; Romans 5:6-9). So the people who have been saved and purchased by that blood are the people who are in the church!

Ephesians 5:23,25 - Jesus is Head of the church, and He is Savior of His body. He gave Himself up for the church. So the church is the body of all people who have been saved by Christ.

Acts 2:47 - The Lord added to the church daily those who were saved. The "universal" church consists of all saved people everywhere because, when God saves people, He puts them in the church. In this sense, the church is always singular.

This also shows us why it is important to be in the church. Many people believe that one does not need to be a part of the church to be saved. It is true that Jesus is the Savior, so the church does not save us. Nevertheless, all those whom Jesus has forgiven are in the church. If a person is not in the church, he is not among those whom Jesus has saved from sin.

[See also Ephesians 1:22,23; Colossians 1:18,24; 1 Timothy 3:15; cf. 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 to Acts 2:38; 22:16; Mark 16:16.]

B. Other Terms Used for the Church Help Us Understand Its Nature.

The church is also called the house or family of God.

1 Timothy 3:15 - The house of God is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. [Cf. Ephesians 2:16,19; Galatians 6:10]

In the Bible a person's family is often called his "house" or "household." The church is the family or household of God because God is our Father and we are His spiritual children.

This shows God's authority over the church. As children we should obey our spiritual Father. [Matthew 7:7-11; 12:46-50]

The church is also called the kingdom of Christ.

Matthew 16:18,19 - After saying He would build His church, Jesus promised to give Peter the keys of the kingdom. The terms "church" and "kingdom" here refer to the same thing.

Colossians 1:13 - God delivered us from the power of darkness and translated us into the kingdom of the Son of His love. The kingdom is the church (v18) - remember, we already learned that, when the Lord saves people, He adds them to the church. Some people believe that Jesus' kingdom has not yet been established, but Jesus will establish it when He returns. Instead the Bible shows that Christians in the first century were in the kingdom, the church.

This term shows that Jesus is the absolute ruler over the church. He makes the laws we must obey. He has all authority in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18).

[Revelation 1:9; Hebrews 12:28]

The church is also called the body of Christ.

Ephesians 1:22,23 - Jesus Christ is the head of the body, the church. Like the head guides the body, so Jesus has made the rules that govern the church. The members of the body must cooperate and work together to accomplish the will of the head.

Note that each illustration of the church shows how intimately it is connected to God. That, in turn, shows how essential the church is to salvation.

Also note that Jesus is the only head of the church and He rules through the Bible. This means there is no centralized earthly headquarters, governing body or centralized organizations of any kind to supervise the work of the church.

[Ephesians 4:4-6; 4:23-25; Colossians 1:18]

II. The Church in the Local Sense

Some people see no difference between the church and the individual. They believe the local church can do whatever the individual can do. Others do not believe that the local church has the right to function as a unit, establishing and supervising programs of work. These misconceptions result from a failure to understand what the local church is.

According to the Bible a local church must possess all the following characteristics:

A. A Local Church Includes Christians in a Local Area.

Many passages show that individual Christians were included in local churches.

Acts 8:1 - The church which was at Jerusalem.

Acts 13:1 - The church that was at Antioch.

1 Corinthians 1:2 - The church of God which is at Corinth.

Revelation 1:4 - Jesus through John wrote to the seven churches of Asia. Each church was then addressed directly, describing the works of each group, distinct from the works of the other churches. Each one had its own lamp stand, which would be removed if it became unfaithful (1:20; 2:1,5). (Note 2:7,11,17,23,29; 3:6,13,22; 22:16.)

Philippians 4:15 - No church shared with Paul but only the Philippians. Note how this distinguishes the local churches as distinct one from another. One church did this work, but others did not [compare 2 Corinthians 11:8 below].

Local churches did exist, and individual Christians were part of local churches. These churches were viewed as distinct from one another, such that each church acted independently from the others.

[Note Acts 9:31; 11:22; 14:23; 15:41; 16:5; Romans 16:1,4,16; 1 Corinthians 4:17; 7:17; 11:16; 14:33,34; 16:1,2,19; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 8:1,18,19,23,24; 11:8,9,28; 12:13; Galatians 1:2,22; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 1:1,4; Colossians 4:16]

B. A Local Church Has Rules to Follow.

Because Christ is the head of the church, He gave rules to guide the local churches.

1 Corinthians 16:1,2 - Corinth was to do as the churches in Galatia had been ordered to do.

Revelation 1:4; chapters 2 & 3 - Jesus addressed specific comments and instructions to various local churches.

In the Bible the Lord has given commands and teachings for the local churches to follow.

[1 Corinthians 11:17ff; chap. 14]

C. A Local Church Has a System for Supervising Its Work.

Titus 1:5 - There is an "order" or pattern for how local churches should be overseen.

Each local church should develop and appoint a plurality of qualified men to serve as elders, bishops, or pastors.

Acts 14:23 - Elders should be appointed in every church. In each case there was a plurality of elders.

1 Timothy 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9 - In order to serve as bishops, elders first must be the kind of men who have the qualities listed. They are appointed to the work if they have the qualities.

If a church has a plurality of such men, they should be "appointed" or "ordained" to do the work. Before a church has qualified men, it may function in an immature state of development (like the churches in Acts 14:23 and Titus 1:5 before men were appointed.) But there is something lacking (Titus 1:5).

[Compare Philippians 1:1; Acts 20:17,28; 15:2-6; Titus 1:5-9; 1 Timothy 3:1-7].

Elders in a local church should oversee (supervise) the work of that local church.

Note the words used to describe their work and their relationship to the members.

Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2,3 - "Overseers" who "take the oversight." [Translated "bishop" in 1 Timothy 3:1,2; Philippians 1:1.]

Ephesians 4:11 - "Pastors." The verb form in Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2,3 shows they should "feed" or "tend" (ASV) or "shepherd" (NASB, NKJV) the flock.

1 Timothy 5:17; 1 Thessalonians 5:12 - "Rule" "over you." [Hebrews 13:7,17,24 use a different word translated "rule."]

Hebrews 13:17 - Members should "obey" and "submit."

Elders exercise the leadership in a local church, but they must not lead people to do things for which no Scriptural authority exists. They teach the members what God's word says, refute error, and guard the members from straying. Within the realm of authorized church work, there are decisions that need to be made to carry out that work. The elders are responsible to see that these decisions are made wisely.

Each eldership is authorized to oversee only the work of the one local church where they are members.

Acts 14:23 - Elders should be appointed in every church [Titus 1:5].

1 Peter 5:2,3 - Elders tend and oversee "the flock" (singular) which is "among you." Their jurisdiction is expressly limited to the local congregation. [Acts 20:28,17]

Each local church should have its own elders. Their work pertains to the church where they were appointed, and their oversight is limited to that congregation.

This necessarily implies that each congregation is separate and distinct from every other one in organization and supervision. No church and no members of a church have authority over the affairs of another local church.

[Compare Acts 20:17; Philippians 1:1; Acts 16:4].

D. A Local Church Has Funds under Its Control to Do Its Work.

1 Corinthians 16:1-4 - Churches took up funds to care for needy members. [2 Corinthians 8 & 9; Acts 6:1-6]

Philippians 4:14-16; 2 Corinthians 11:8,9 - Churches also used funds to support preachers. This requires the church to have a regular income and to maintain funds to pay these men.

Acts 5:4 - Individual members have their "own" funds under their "control." From their personal funds the individuals make contributions to the church collection (see 4:32-5:11).

The Christian serves as God's steward, having funds under his "control" [Matthew 20:15]. But when he gives them to the church, they pass out of his control into the control of the local church under their leadership (Philippians 4:15-18; 2 Corinthians 11:8,9; Acts 6:1-6). [2 Corinthians 9:6,7; 1 Corinthians 16:1,2; 1 Timothy 5:4,8,16]

So local churches are authorized to have a pool or treasury of funds belonging to the group to use to carry out its work. The church receives income by taking collections from the members. These funds are separate and distinct from the funds of the individuals.

E. A Local Church Has Work to Accomplish as a Body or Unit.

The work of a local church is authorized in the Bible.

This work can be summarized in different ways, but it includes the following:

* Teach God's word to those who are not Christians - 1 Timothy 3:15; Acts 11:22-26; Philippians 4:14-18; Acts 13:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 1:8.

* Provide opportunities for worship and praise to God - 1 Corinthians 11:18-26,33; 14:15-26; 16:1,2; Hebrews 2:12; Acts 20:7.

* Edify, instruct, and if necessary discipline those who are members - Ephesians 4:16; 1 Corinthians 14:19,23-26; chapter 5; Hebrews 10:24,25; Matthew 18:15-17.

* Provide for the physical needs of certain destitute members - 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8 & 9; Acts 4:32-35; 6:1-6.

Individual members have work that is distinct from that of local churches.

Individuals are authorized to do some activities that are not authorized for local churches to participate in.

* Individuals may marry, have a physical relationship as husband and wife, bear children physically, and raise them - Hebrews 13:4; Genesis 1:28; 2:18-24; Ephesians 6:1-4.

* Individuals may operate businesses to make money - Ephesians 4:28; Matthew 20:1-15; 2 Thessalonians 3:7-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:11; Acts 18:2,3; 1 Corinthians 9:7; Acts 20:34; Matthew 25:14-30.

* Individuals could own, operate, or make donations to a college, hospital, benevolent institution, etc. - Luke 10:34,35; Acts 19:9; 7:22.

* Individuals may purchase, provide, and participate in entertainment, recreation, and social activities such as athletics, orchestras, plays, parties, social clubs, etc. - 1 Timothy 4:8 Mark 6:31; 1 Corinthians 9:24,25.

* There are also differences regarding who controls individual vs. church funds, and regarding what needy people they care for - 1 Timothy 5:4,8,16; Acts 5:4; 2 Corinthians 9:6,7; etc.

We do not say that individuals may never do things that churches may do. But we do say there are works we may do as individuals that are never granted to the local church to do.

F. A Local Church Has an Identifiable Membership.

The Bible gives principles by which a local church should be able to determine who is or is not a member of that local church. Members should commit themselves to be part of a particular local church and to labor to help accomplish the work of that church.

Acts 9:26-29 - When Paul came to Jerusalem, he sought to join himself to the disciples there. He was working among them preaching and teaching God's word.

Acts 18:27,28 - When Apollos went to Achaia (Corinth), the church in Ephesus sent a letter to the brethren there to receive him. He then worked diligently among them.

Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Corinthians chapter 5; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 - The church has the God-given duty to withdraw from members who continue in sin and will not repent. So the church excludes from itself those members who do not remain faithful. [Compare Romans 16:17]

Members should identify themselves as part of a local church so they have men who watch for their souls and lead them in the work - Hebrews 13:17; Acts 20:28-30. But the supervision of elders extends only to the local church where they have been appointed. So elders must be able to know which sheep they are responsible for and which they are not responsible for.

A local church is not just any group of Christians. It has limits that define who is and is not included in the group. Those who are members should be identified and recognized apart from those who are not members.

[Acts 11:22-26; Romans 16:1,2; 2 Corinthians 3:1; Hebrews 10:24,25; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 16:1,2; 1 Thessalonians 1:1; Galatians 1:2; Revelation 1:4]

G. The Members Should Intend and Agree to Be a Local Church.

This point follows from all the previous points. When members commit themselves to be part of a local church, they understand and recognize that they become part of the group that follows the rules God has given for local churches and that follows the oversight of the elders. They should give so the group has funds of the group to do the work of a local church.

All this means that a local church is not just a group of Christians, but a group of Christians that are ordered, arranged, or organized to work and worship together as a local church. They intend for this group to continue indefinitely in this work (it is not intended to be a temporary arrangement).

Illustration: A pile of bricks is a group of individual units. The same group of bricks may be organized to form an office building, hospital, or school. What the bricks make up depends on how they are organized, arranged, or patterned together.

So a group of Christians does not constitute a local church until it is arranged, patterned, or ordered so as to constitute a local church. The same group of Christians could be arranged to form a business corporation, a school, a college, or a local church. Which they form, or in what capacity they are acting at any given time, depends on what pattern or arrangement they are following, and what they intend to be acting as at the time.

The local church is an organized or arranged group of Christians with work, funds, and supervision to be a local church.


Denominations are a departure from the pattern of the church.

We have described the church as it was in the New Testament - the universal sense and the local sense. Denominations are a perversion of that pattern.

A denomination is not just a local church, but is an affiliation of many local churches. But neither is it the church universal, since no denomination claims to include all saved people. Each denomination claims to be composed of Christians, but it does not claim to contain all faithful Christians. Denominations are organizations that are more than just local churches, but less than the universal church.

So denominations constitute a change in God's plan that was unknown in the Bible. Those who advocate membership in them are preaching a gospel different from what is revealed in the New Testament (Galatians 1:6-9). Those who join them do not abide in Jesus' doctrine and so do not have God (2 John 9).

[Proverbs 3:5,6; 14:12; Matthew 15:9,13,14; Isaiah 55:8,9; Jeremiah 10:23; Col.3:17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; 2:1-5; Revelation 22:18,19]

Denominationalism violates the Bible teaching about unity.

Each denomination has its own peculiar name, doctrine, organization, plan of worship, etc., contradicting the practices of other denominations. Yet they say God will accept all this. "It doesn't matter what you believe as long as you worship God sincerely," etc.

But Jesus prayed for all who believe on Him to be one as He and His Father are one (John 17:20-23).

Paul instructed the Corinthians to have no divisions among them - 1 Corinthians 1:10-13.

We must strive to keep the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3-6). This requires one true body, the church, and one true faith, just as surely as it requires one true God and Father.

[See also 1 Corinthians 14:33; 3:3; 12:12,13,20; Philippians 1:27; Ephesians 2:16; Galatians 5:19-21; Romans 12:4,5.]

To be saved we must be members of Jesus' one true church.

We must be part of the universal body of all saved people, then we must affiliate ourselves with a faithful local church. We must refuse to be part of any group that claims to be a denomination, or that excuses, justifies, or condones denominationalism. [2 Corinthians 6:17,18; Ephesians 5:11; Romans 16:17; 2 John 9-11; Matthew 15:1-14; Titus 3:10,11.]

Acts 2:38,47 - If you repent and are baptized for remission of sins, God will then add you to His true church.

Obeying Jesus' true gospel made people members of Jesus' one true church in the first century. It did not make them members of any denomination. That gospel can have the same effect in your life as it did in theirs. You can be a member of Jesus' one true church and part of a faithful local congregation of God's people today simply by obeying the teachings of Jesus and avoiding all man-made religious doctrines.

Note: If you would like to study further about related Bible topics, we have a number of other study materials on our web site that should interest you. Please see the links listed below.

(C) Copyright 7/1992, 9/2006,David E. Pratte;
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Topics for further Bible study

Why So Much Religious Confusion and Disagreement?
The Importance of Bible Knowledge
Origin of Jesus' Church & Denominations
The Bible vs. Denominational Creeds
How Many True Churches Are There?
Name of Jesus' Church
What Does God Think about Denominationalism?
How Can You Find & Identify Jesus' Church? - Return to the Gospel Way home page.

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