In my earlier post I defended the notion of calling the body of Christ “the universal Church.” My point was based on the idea that the meaning of ekklesia, the Greek word for church, was advanced beyond its original simple meaning of ‘assembly’ (from secular Greek usage) to refer to any body of believers in the Lord Jesus Christ whether they were in assembly at any given point in time or not.
From Eph 1.22-23, 1 Cor 12.13, and Heb 12.23, the data points to something more than a local body. I recognize that some will try to work these passages into a local-only view. I don’t agree with their conclusions but appreciate the valiant effort.
Today I want to contrast the two ideas and address a few other passages that require an additional term in the concept of the church as the body of Christ.
The passages above point to the body that is the saints of all ages, all part of the body of Christ. Many other passages point to specific local churches. Almost all the introductory passages to the epistles do: 1 Cor 1.2, 1 Thess 1.1, for example.
There is a third use of the word church in the New Testament that is quite curious. Some of the references are Acts 9.31, 1 Cor 15.9 and 1 Cor 10.32. Let me point out what I mean:
NAU Acts 9:31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
KJV Acts 9:31 Then had the churches rest throughout all Judaea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified; and walking in the fear of the Lord, and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost, were multiplied.
Notice that there is a difference here between the New American and the King James versions. The NAU has church, singular, and the KJV has churches. This reflects a textual difference. I don’t want to get into the manuscript debate here, but the singular seems to have much better evidence in this case.
Taking the word as singular then, what are we to make of that? The “church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria” cannot be just one local church, can it? Nor can it be, as the Bible Knowledge Commentary puts it “the universal church as it was dispersed in the Holy Land.”1 The reason this can’t be the universal church is that it doesn’t include any churces outside these three regions,2 nor does it include any saints already in heaven at that point in time. Now on to the next passage:
NAU 1 Corinthians 15:9 For I am the least of the apostles, 1and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.
Again we have the singular here, and no textual variant this time. Paul’s persecution was not of every single local church that existed at that time.3 As far as we know, Paul’s activities were confined first to Jerusalem and then he moved from there to attack Christians in Syria. So Paul persecuted Christians in more than one local church, but not in every local church. Yet he refers to the “church” singular (not “churches”) that he persecuted. This is not exactly the universal church either, so what is it? One more reference…
NAU 1 Corinthians 10:32 Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God;
Here Paul calls on the saints in Corinth to give no offense to the church (singular) of God in their use of idol meat. Does he mean only the local church in Corinth? Ryrie says, “Giving no offense to the church of God must relate to visible groups, yet not all of them even in a region. It must concern any aspect of the visible church one comes in contact with.”4
From these three references it appears that the term church refers to something more than one local body and something less than the totality of the universal body. Ryrie’s term for this is the visible church. The ideal condition of the visible church is that it be entirely made up of believers, but experience and the Scriptures tell us that this is not always so.
In any case, the point we are making is that the term church as used in the New Testament, has three basic references. It can refer to the entire body of Christ, whether on earth or in heaven. It can refer to a local body, a local church. And it can refer to the visible collection of local churches in a city or a region.
While one must appreciate that the vast majority of references in the New Testament refer to local churches, the Scripture itself uses the term in other ways. It is legitimate for us to do so as well.
- Stanley D. Toussaint, “Acts,” ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 378. [↩]
- there must have been a church in Damascus, for example, because Paul had been going after it in the beginning of the chapter [↩]
- Remember, there are churches in Jerusalem, Judea, Galilee, Samaria and Syria at this point. [↩]
- Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1999), 457–458. [↩]