Matthew chapter 16 marks a watershed in the ministry of the Lord Jesus and the manner in which things would unfold thereafter. The Lord asked His disciples, ‘Whom say ye that I am?’ Matt. 16. 15. At that point, Peter made that great confession, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God’, v. 16. Upon hearing this confession, the Lord said, ‘Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’, v. 18. The Lord spoke of it as being future, ‘I will build my church’. The church age was a hitherto unknown hiatus in the prophetic programme relating to Israel. The apostle Paul said, ‘Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’, Eph. 3. 5.
This promise made by the Lord was realized when the church came into being on the day of Pentecost. Acts describes the historical aspect of that event, whereas the apostle Paul gave its spiritual and doctrinal significance when he wrote, ‘For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit’, 1 Cor. 12. 13. In this article, we wish to clarify what is meant by the term ‘The universal church, or the body of Christ’, and, in order to do this, it will also be necessary to discuss points of contrast with the local church, and the interrelationship between them.
The character of the universal church
The universal church is a spiritual, intangible, invisible entity, composed of all true believers, irrespective of national and cultural differences, or ecclesiastical affiliation. At the moment of salvation, every believer automatically comes into the good of the baptism of the Spirit, which took place as a once-for-all event in Acts chapter 2, bringing him into the church which is His body – the universal church of God.
Since belonging to the universal church is integral with salvation, one’s position in that body is as secure as one’s salvation. Belonging to the universal church is unconditional and eternal. Despite the tragic divisions and fractures that have taken place in the church at the local level, it remains true that ‘the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’. The apostle anticipated that moment when the universal church of God will be united with Him, when he wrote, ‘That he [Christ] might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish’, Eph. 5. 27.
Points of contrast between the universal church and local churches
Since the universal church, the body of Christ, is an invisible, intangible, spiritual entity, it must have a vehicle through which it can find expression, and, for that reason, the apostles established local churches wherever they went. So, for example, we read about the churches at Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, etc. All of these churches were visible, tangible, physical entities, with an historical presence in the world. They were local representations of the body, where members could meet to exercise the functions of the body, and also to practice the apostles’ doctrine. Ideally, all members of that body in a locality should be part of the local church in that place, and, indeed, this was the case in the early days of the church. For example, when writing to the Corinthians, the apostle identifies the three entities that were present in Corinth at that time – Jew, Gentile, and church of God, 1 Cor. 10. 32. All were clearly identifiable, and what they represented was known. Unfortunately, in modern days, the church has been rent asunder at the local level by schism and division, and no longer does every member of the body in any one locality meet on the same ground. For this reason, no one group of truly born again believers can claim to be ‘the church of God’ in an area. However, I firmly believe that assemblies with which I associate would be quite in order to claim to be ‘church of God’ (without the article), meaning that they bear the character and practice the truth of the scriptural New Testament church locally.
The inter-relationship between the body and the local church
The matter we now wish to consider is the manner in which the truth of the body of Christ finds its expression in the local church. Key areas are as follows:
Holding the head The coordination of every function of the human body is controlled by the head. We have all witnessed the tragic results where a person has suffered a spinal injury that has severed communication with the head, leaving the person fully or partially paralysed. The apostle spoke to the Colossians about this very thing, saying concerning some that they were, ‘not holding the Head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God’, Col. 2. 19. Again, writing to the Ephesians, he reminded them that God has ‘put all things under his [the Lord’s] feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all’, Eph. 1. 22-23. We must never forget that Christ is the Head of the body, and that no human agency or programme must be allowed to interfere with that vital communication between the Lord and His body, the church.
Togetherness In John chapter 17, the Lord expresses His desire to the Father for His own, ‘That they all may be one: as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us’, John 17. 21.
The apostle Paul, writing to the Corinthians, uses the figure of a human body and its members to illustrate the function of the body of Christ. Quite clearly, the correct function of the human body requires that all members be present and functioning in the capacity of the specialism that has been given to them. So also in the local church! One of the main characteristics of the early church was their togetherness. We read, ‘These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication’, Acts 1. 14. Strong’s Concordance informs us that the phrase ‘with one accord’, is ‘a unique Greek word, homothumadon, used ten of its twelve New Testament occurrences in the book of Acts’. This Greek word helps us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. Homothumadon is a compound of two Greek words, one meaning to ‘rush along’ and the other ‘in unison’. As the instruments of a great concert under the direction of a concert master, so the Holy Spirit blends together the lives of members of Christ’s church.
The writer to the Hebrews gives us this powerful exhortation, ‘Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching’, Heb. 10. 25. One of the important characteristics of the local church should be its ‘togetherness’.
Of course, there are threats to togetherness which, unfortunately, have been created by man. For example, fragmentation of local church exercises on the basis of gender or age, cliques, or para-church meetings that displace the regular local assembly ministry. All of these things are threatening to the expression of the body of Christ.
Mutual love and care
Continuing with his use of the human body as his illustration, the apostle makes the statement, ‘That the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it’, 1 Cor. 12. 25-26. All of us are aware how that if one member of our body is injured, the body compensates by protecting it from further injury, and relieving it from the normal duties that it may perform until recovery has taken place.
So it must be in the body of Christ also. The apostle wrote, ‘Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ’, Gal. 6. 2. There is a tender and caring link between the members of the body and, in times of distress, our love for one another should be accompanied by practical expressions of care and by prayer: to have a shoulder upon which to weep at times, to feel the warmth of an embrace, to hear a word of comfort, to be able to share a heavy load, and to know that others care.
Exercising our gifts 1 Corinthians chapter 12 gives us a listing of the many gifts which were bestowed upon the church by the Spirit, some of which were temporary, and others which are permanent. Every believer, without exception, has been given a gift that he or she is required to use for the health and blessing of the body of Christ. A gifted person is not one who exercises his gift only on the public platform. Undoubtedly, that is a gift, and an important one too, but there are many gifts that are just as important and which operate unknown and unseen. For example, there are organs in the human body which are never seen, such as the heart, lungs and liver, and yet if any of these organs begins to malfunction it can mean either severe disability or death. There are many gifts, such as the silent ministries of sisters, and their function is critical to the health and well-being of the body of Christ. If a member does not function, the other members are deprived and endangered. We must exercise our gift, whatever that might be, for the mutual blessing and benefit of the body of Christ.
Our study has re-examined some valuable truths relative to the universal church of God, the body of Christ, and how it finds its expression in the local church. We summarize as follows.
The universal church of God is a spiritual, intangible, invisible entity, embracing every true believer, independent of race, culture or ecclesiastical affiliation.
The universal church of God, the body of Christ, came into being through the once and for all baptism of the Holy Spirit in Acts chapter 2.
At the moment of salvation, without any further action on the part of the believers, they automatically become part of the body of Christ in an indissoluble link, without further precondition.
The body of Christ finds its expression through the personal exercises of the members of the body, and through the corporate exercises of the local church.
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