The Word “church” occurs in the New Testament over 100 times. Apart from two exceptions (Acts 7:38; 19:32, 39, 41), the word is only used of either the Church, the Body of Christ, or of local assemblies of believers gathered in many places on earth. The purpose of this series of articles is to show from Scripture the important differences between these two aspects of church truth.
Much confusion is found in so-called Christendom and even among believers in assemblies. It is sad when Scripture, regarding the Church and churches, is interpreted wrongly, for this leads to the wrong application of truth, affording reasons for certain practices to be justified, based on what really applies to the Church and not the local church. Every reference to the word “church” should be considered in its context and the question asked, “Is this referring to the church in the local sense of the word or the dispensational sense?” Doing this will greatly help in rightly dividing the Word of truth and will also open up the Scriptures to us, so that we can enjoy distinctive truths touching the Church the Body of Christ and the local church.
We begin our consideration of this subject by looking at the Lord’s use of the word in the Gospel of Matthew. The first reference to THE Church in the New Testament and the local church is found in the teaching of Christ in this Gospel (Matt 16:18, 18:17). This fact shows to us the preciousness of that which belongs to Him. It is hoped that such a truth will likewise be precious to us. If these references teach us anything, they teach that there are two and only two aspects of the church – the dispensational and the local.
The Indestructible and the Vulnerable
In view in Matthew 16 is the Church, the body of Christ. When the Lord made the wonderful announcement in verse 18 the Church was yet in the future, for the Lord says, “I will build My Church.” There is no doubt that this is not the church locally, for this Church of which Christ is the builder is invisible – it cannot be seen by man. It is indivisible – it cannot be rent asunder by man. It is invincible – it cannot be overthrown by man. We cannot say these things of the local church. In Matthew 16 we have the Church that cannot receive, that cannot commend, that cannot be appealed to, and that cannot be written to. In Matthew 18 we have a place, a church, where believers are seen and heard and have the privilege of fellowship with each other. This cannot take place in the Church of Matthew 16.
The Universal and the Local
Notice in Matthew 18:20 the Lord says, “where two or three.” This contemplates a company gathering in a particular locality on earth. These believers gathering in the Name of the Lord Jesus are bound by time conditions. Local conditions of course may vary, but the presence of Christ is the center of the gathering in every place (1 Cor 1:2, 14:23). This is true whether it be in the large upper room of a city or in the simpler Emmaus-like gathering places of a country area. The Church, however, of which the Savior speaks in Matthew 16, is never seen on earth at any one time. It has no locality where it can gather. The first meeting together of the Body of Christ will be in the air at the Rapture, at “our gathering together unto Him” (2 Thess 2:1).
The Numberless and the Few
It is likely that most of those in this Church are now in heaven and many have not yet been born into it, for this Church is still in the process of being built by the Lord Jesus. It is a building composed of every born again believer. The Church, the Body of Christ, then, embraces numberless saints of the dispensation of grace. It is the “fulness (completeness) of Him that filleth all in all” (Eph 1:23). Here we may see a difference between the Church of Matthew 16 and the church of chapter 18. A local assembly, at the utmost, can only embrace the saints gathered together in a given place. In this connection, the Lord Jesus, when speaking of the local assembly, indicates it may consist in some cases of the smallest plural number – even the “two or three.” The blessing of the Lord’s presence is not dependent on numbers, but being gathered in His Name. His Name represents the whole character and spirit of Christ. Since millions experience His presence all over the world when gathered together, it is impossible that our Lord should be in all these places and not be God. Thus we have in the Lord’s words more than a hint of His deity. It is true, in the ideal sense, that a local assembly in its testimony needs a reasonable number, but there are many testimonies throughout the world where numbers are few and such small companies take much encouragement from the Lord’s words. It is wonderful to think that the few will, in a day to come, form part of the greater.
The Singular and the Many
The words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew 18:20 imply the existence of many assemblies gathering in different places of the world. This leads to the obvious conclusion that there are many local assemblies. They are plural in number – hence we read of “churches of the Gentiles” (Rom 1:4) or “churches of God” (1 Thess 2:14). As to the Church, the Body of Christ, the apostle Paul states there is only “one body” (Eph 4:4). The true Church is one. Its unity is maintained by God. There never will be two or more bodies of Christ. Its oneness and singular dignity will yet be displayed to a wondering world.