Local Church vs. Universal Church

Who’s right? Are Biblical churches only “local”? Is there a “universal” church? There is an important Biblical principle missed by both fundamentalist (“fundie”) and evangelical (“gelly”) churches. Among the fundies, especially IFB (Independent Fundamental Baptist) churches, there is a strong emphasis on the Biblical doctrine of the “local” vs. a so-called “universal” church. Ironically, they proudly stand by the “local church”, but they get the concept completely wrong. Much more on this below, but first let’s deal with the fallacious concept of the “universal church.”

Roman Catholics, of course, invented the concept of a universal or “catholic” church that could be ruled by a pope. Protestants and evangelicals, although not papists, tend to fall into some form of the same error, especially when they band together into denominations, a system that is anathema to the Biblical pattern. Even apart from the denominations, independent evangelicals also fall into universal church thinking and practice, which has serious consequences for the propagation of the Gospel in America. Now, I confess that this is a fairly large subject. This article attempts to summarize the issues briefly and, hopefully, point you in a Biblical direction so that you can figure it out for yourself.

New Testament churches are clearly separate and independent, answerable only to the Lord Jesus Christ. Note the independence of the churches described in the New Testament. Paul writes letters to the churches at Rome, Corinth, and Ephesus, etc. The “churches of Galatia” are explicitly plural, because Galatia was a province, not just a city. We see the independence of the church at Antioch from the church at Jerusalem, except for the communication of apostolic doctrine (Acts 15). The seven churches of Revelation 2 and 3 are commended or rebuked separately. No superstructure or hierarchy is in evidence. During the first century the apostles and the in-process formation of the New Testament canon served to unify all of the independent churches in matters of doctrine. The apostles have since passed off the scene, of course, and Scripture remains as our common foundation for doctrine and practice. With the apostles gone, there is no extra-Biblical authority, no external hierarchy, and no “church leaders” outside of any given independent local church.

Evangelicals and Protestants erroneously think of “the church” as the collection of believers all over the world. Often they refer to “the church in America” so they can justify parachurch ministries that allegedly “serve the church.” The Bible knows nothing of this. The very word “church” means “assembly.” Any “universal” church consisting of believers all over the nation or all over the world – and all throughout history – will not be assembled until the rapture. It’s fairly simple . . . there is no “American church” or “global church” or “worldwide church” at all because such things never assemble. When you “go to church” on Sunday, you actually “assemble” together with other believers. That at least gives your gathering a chance to qualify for the term “church.”

The very existence of parachurch ministries, focusing on areas such as prophecy, creation, evangelism, and missions, is tied to a universal church concept. In almost every case, parachurch leaders justify their existence as a mission to “serve the church” – and they don’t mean the little church down on the corner. God instituted the family, civil government, and the local church as institutions. The New Testament is clear that the churches are God’s instruments for propagating the Gospel and making strong disciples. Why not establish an evangelistic ministry entirely under the auspices of a local church? In fact, isn’t it WEIRD to establish an evangelistic ministry separate from any church?

In another area, why not develop creationist literature as part of a church’s ministry rather than setting up independent businesses? As much as I love some of the materials generated by creationist ministries, I observe that they tend to water down their Gospel presentation in order to avoid offending customers from certain denominations. The heresies of baptismal regeneration or eternal INsecurity are avoided at all costs to keep the reach of their “ministry” as broad as possible.

Parachurch ministries may do some good, but they also rob from God’s plan to do the Great Commission via His churches, established by the Lord Jesus Christ. Universal church thinking also promotes the rise of megachurch “pastors” who promote conferences, sell books, build TV networks, and otherwise strive to have a major influence on all the “little churches” and “little people” out there. All such “ministries” pull money from local congregations and individuals who would or should otherwise be working through their own church.

Fundies preach against universal church thinking, although they are certainly guilty of promoting their own mega-stars. They properly proclaim that only local churches are authorized Biblically and that such churches are autonomous. The problem is that they don’t know what “local” means. The churches at Philippi and Thessalonica were “local” churches in the same sense that the city government of Chicago is called “local government.” The word “local” does not signify one building on one street corner, but more typically a town or city. The Biblical churches were essentially house church networks administered by a group of elders. Read your Bible carefully and study a bit of history and you’ll see that. If you wanted to leave the church at Smyrna to join another church you would have to move to another city.

In the Rockford, Illinois, “local” area there are about 300 “churches” of all kinds. There are several fundie churches who all claim to be local churches, but have essentially no fellowship with each other and their authoritarian pastors do not share their authority with their competition – pastors who hold to the same doctrines but own their own flocks. Gelly churches have the same problems, but the fundies are particularly enthusiastic about this strict separation between “local churches” in the same town. Years ago, when we were members of an IFB church nearby, my wife and I visited a different fundie church out of curiosity. We found out that this pastor called our pastor to report on us. So I suppose there occasionally is a little bit of “fellowship” among the clergy, but among the laity, well, don’t get caught playing hooky.

In practice, most churches are so scripted in their weekly meetings that fellowship within a congregation is scarce. Between congregations it is virtually nonexistent. That wasn’t the pattern in the 1st century.

So if these churches are not “local,” what are they? Let’s call them “neighborhood churches.” They plant a building in a neighborhood and then try to draw members – not from just their immediate neighborhood – but from all over the city. Other neighborhood churches, even with virtually identical doctrine and practice, establish facilities in their own neighborhoods and compete for members from the same city-wide area. I have seen churches with bus ministries use special promotions to “steal” kids from other churches’ bus ministries. Apart from the kids, it is common for an adult who gets unhappy with his pastor or church to simply move down the road (literally) to another neighborhood church. The new church is happy to acquire another paying member. Church discipline – another vital Bible doctrine – is therefore rarely practiced. Why bother with such difficult confrontations when someone can just join another church?

Why don’t such neighborhood churches team up and form a truly Biblical local church? It would save enormous investments in facilities and operational expenses, even if they don’t want to go the rest of the Biblical way and establish a house church network. The American fundie / gelly pattern is much like the Roman Catholic and Protestant pattern: build impressive temples to draw crowds. Then hire a staff of “assistant” and “associate” pastors to handle the grunt work . . . where in the Bible do we find titled Assistants and Associates? Also, believers in different neighborhood churches often have different gifts which are currently constrained to benefit only their own small flock. Don’t you think that some believers in other neighborhood churches might be an encouragement to you or others around you? I know a lot of church members who are desperate to have a real friend or two. Within the scripted program there is no time to make friends.

It certainly makes sense for a KJV-only Baptist to separate from Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and Calvinists, but why separate from the believers down the road, whose pastor and yours may have graduated from the same Bible college? Well, you’ll have to ask the question. Phrase it in the Biblical context, namely, the pattern of the churches at Derbe and Lystra and Philadelphia. Could it be that any given pastor wants to have the sole rule over his own flock, even at the expense of God’s Biblical pattern . . . and blessing? Authoritarian one-man pastors often hammer their own people to be submissive and loyal, but are guilty of refusing to submit themselves to collective leadership, which is the Biblical pattern.

What advantages would a truly “local church” – a local area church – have over the present situation in American Christendom? In Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, we see representative lists of gifts granted by the Holy Spirit to the believers in a church. In a city-wide local church it is clearly possible for all kinds of gifts to be available. Clearly, a large number of administering elders would collaborate and necessarily develop their gifts and the gifts of others in order for this church to grow spiritually and numerically.

I won’t be exhaustive here, but will make a few applications to illustrate the brilliance of God’s Biblical pattern for the local church. If the “church at Rockford” was unified in doctrine and organized as a network of house churches in fellowship, you would find quite a variety of talented people, including home school moms, teachers, lawyers, engineers, scientists, business owners, doctors, and even politicians. Several of the engineers and scientists might well take a serious interest in the creation / evolution controversy. They would likely develop lessons, study guides, tracts, books, and presentations to equip the saints throughout their church. Useful materials would certainly be shared with churches in other cities. The most talented and motivated teachers on this subject would get the opportunity to strengthen fellow believers in this vital area.

In contrast, your typical neighborhood pastor has certain gifts and lacks certain others. He may have little or no interest in the creation / evolution battle and may even count it unimportant – simply because he has little interest. Furthermore, he may lack confidence and expertise in these matters. And so his people don’t grow in knowledge in this area. You’ll note that the representative (not exhaustive) list of gifts in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 are NOT ascribed to a one-man pastorate, but rather to the collection of saints in the local church. So where does your neighborhood pastor seek help if he wants to bring in special expertise to teach his people? He may well invite an expert speaker from one of the creationist para-church ministries. The speaker comes in, dazzles the crowd with a scintillating presentation, sells materials from his book table, and takes off. Everyone has a good time and the creation vs. evolution block is checked off for another year or two. But the saints have not been “equipped.” Training takes time and practice. “Students” have to do homework and find ways to demonstrate they have really learned something. But typical “church students” are content to listen passively. I have more to say on this subject in my book How Should a Man Live? Christian Manhood in America Today, in the free e-book store on this site.

The spiritual battles which slay men’s souls and destroy our children as they grow up in this apostate society are not limited to creation vs. evolution. Various cults, New Age religions, and humanist philosophies are all easily refuted by a serious student of the Bible. In a vibrant area-wide church there will be a wealth of talent to develop teachings to defend the faith of the saints and to find effective ways to reach out to the lost in the community who have been blinded by Satan in these areas. The Bible also has much to say regarding God’s will in the areas of business, money management, interaction with the government both legally and politically, marriage, child raising, health . . . I could go on.

Isn’t it foolishness for a one-man pastorate to claim sole expertise in such a diversity of disciplines? I’m not just talking about explaining the Bible verse-by-verse in such areas, which any serious Christian should be able to do. Only a mature Christian who has lived these issues, sought God for help, and has some measure of victory can teach the subject with authority. In short, the marriage expert is not necessarily the money management expert, who is not necessarily the pro on creation vs. evolution. In a true local church there are likely “experts” who can help their brothers and sisters on any topic. Also, in such a system, all the saints will learn to love learning and more experts will be “home grown” over time. That’s true discipleship! Discipleship is obviously not demonstrated by showing up and sitting passively in a pew three times per week.

I recently heard an IFB evangelist lament that almost every week for the last several years he has received news of a pastor who broke his marriage and fell out of the ministry due to immorality. Such an event often destroys or severely weakens the church that idolized its “man of God.” Some churches attempt coverups, which is even worse . . . you may as well write “ICHABOD” over the doors of those churches. In a truly local church with perhaps 20 elders, the fall of one would be tragic and hurtful, but by no means a disaster for the church. The other 19 would exercise church discipline and the lessons would be cautionary for the entire membership. Furthermore, the fall of any elder would be LESS LIKELY, because of his continual accountability to the others and to the very attentive church membership. It is the exaltation of one man that tempts toward pride, selfishness, and immorality.

Most churches claim that the Lord Jesus Christ is their “Head.” How does that actually work? When a question of doctrine, practice, or polity comes up, a collaborative elder leadership will search for answers from Scripture. Debates are less likely to be dominated by personality than by reasoned Scriptural arguments. Alternatively, in the one-man ruled neighborhood church, I have often seen the “man of God” pronounce that God has led him to make a particular decision. What is there to debate after that? With collective leadership, the Lord Jesus Christ actually has some opportunity to be the Head, through accountable consideration of Biblical principles, and not just trusting what amounts to the gut feel of one man who is used to having his own way.

Recognizing that I’m just scratching the surface, I’ll mention one other consequence of getting “church” right. The present system of launching church planting missionaries out into the world is clearly broken, in addition to being unbiblical. In a simple reading of the New Testament you would never imagine the following to be the proper path to get to the mission field:

1. Go to Bible college for 4 years.
2. Travel on “deputation” for 3-5 years to enlist tiny amounts of financial support from 30-50 churches who don’t know you and don’t really care about you.
3. Launder your support through a para-church missions board which takes a substantial cut of the money for their own administrative efforts and, typically, to fund other missionaries who may have more expenses than you do.
4. Spend 4-10 years on the mission field, doing the Great Commission, but also working hard to acquire money to build a neighborhood church building on the American model.
5. Send monthly or quarterly “prayer letters” to your supporting churches, hoping that each pastor will at least mention your ministry every once in a while, recognizing that such churches typically support a score of other missionaries at a comparably low level.
6. Come home and change careers.

The Biblical pattern is for local churches to send out their own missionaries. They already know their own people, they love them, they pray for them, and they have trained them – within the church, without sending them off to somebody’s so-called Bible College. The missionary – home church connections are deep. Everyone is invested in success. No deputation required. No American model to replicate, but rather the Biblical model.

I admit to not being exhaustive in this discussion and have only briefly described the Biblical pattern for church practice in this and other articles on this site. Antagonists will doubtless raise various objections. Yes, I’ve heard them and they are easily refuted by someone who will study his Bible and think clearly. Rather than go further in this article, I would rather that you search out your Bible in these matters, working hard to separate what you have heard thundered from pulpits from what you actually see in Scripture. Here is one little tidbit I’ll offer to get you thinking about what is emphasized and what is not in Scripture: For all the attention paid to the ministry of the one-man authoritarian pastor in American churches, often referred to as the “man of God” (Shame on such exaltation!), consider how rare are the references to such leadership in the New Testament. You would think that Paul would single out the pastor for special commendation or counsel, etc., in his letters to Rome and Corinth. But no one-man pastor is mentioned. Clearly, such churches had a group of elders who led by teaching Scripture and by example, but even they are notably absent in the text. What is the emphasis? The emphasis is on the responsibility of the believers in those (truly) local churches to walk according to God’s word, exercising their gifts for the glory of God.

So start your study on this topic. I also recommend Section #9 of my “The 10 Most Deadly Heresies” article, which covers the error of authoritarian leadership.

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