Our purpose is to distinguish between the Church as the Body of Christ and the church in its local aspect. May we first make four introductory statements? It is imperative that we recognize that the Church never existed in the Old Testament. (The reference in Acts 7:38 to the church in the wilderness [KJV] should read “congregation” as in NASB, ESV, and Newberry margin.) Secondly, the Church was still a future entity when the Lord Jesus told Peter, “Upon this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18). Thirdly, the aspect of the Church introduced by the Lord in Matthew 16:18 is very different from the aspect He introduced in Matthew 18:15-20. Fourthly, the Church as the body of Christ is the great theme of the Ephesian epistle whereas the church in its local aspect is the theme of 1 Corinthians. Does Scripture justify these introductory statements?
The Church, as the Body of Christ, (sometimes called the Universal Church), clearly did not exist when the Lord was on earth but was born on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2. Further, the Universal Church is composed of all those who have been born again from Pentecost until the rapture of the Church. Does it make sense that most of the Universal Church is already in heaven? It is not a local church. By contrast, when the Lord spoke in Matthew 18 regarding the church He said, in relation to the problem between two brothers, “tell it unto the church!” (18:17). Could that possibly be said of the Church that was born on Pentecost? How would you tell it to the Church today?
Contrasts and Comparisons
There are similarities in the two aspects. For example, when Paul wrote to the believers in Corinth, he addressed them as “the church of God which is at Corinth” (1Cor 1:2), and told them that collectively they were “temple of God” (3:16-17). When he wrote to the Ephesian believers, bringing them the truth concerning the Church in its Body of Christ aspect, he told them, “So then you (Gentiles) are no longer strangers and aliens, but you (Gentiles) are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Himself being the cornerstone, in Whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In Him you (Gentiles) also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (Eph 2:19-22 ESV). (It is imperative that we remember that when Paul refers to “we” in Ephesians, he is referring to “we Jews,” and when he says “you” he means “you Gentiles.”) The Church in its Body of Christ aspect is made up of Jew and Gentile bound together in one body, peace having been made by Him “Who has made both one” (2:13-14). The Church in its Ephesian aspect is referred to as “the Body of Christ” (1:23, 2:16, 3:6, 4:4, 4:12, 4:16, 5:23, 30). The local church in Corinth is referred to this way: “Now you (plural) are body of Christ, and members in particular” (1Cor 12:27). Notice that the local church is not called “the body of Christ” but “body of Christ.” It has body character and belongs to Him. Further, we have already noted that the word “temple” is used of both aspects (Eph 2:21; 1Cor 3:16-17).
There is a distinction in composition. In the Church which is the Body of Christ, only the redeemed, and all of the redeemed from Pentecost, are there. In a local church, care must be exercised in reception so that no one who does not possess divine life through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit will become a part of the company (Acts 2:41-42). However, mistakes will be made and sometimes a professor who is not a possessor is received. This creates the peril to which the “mixed multitude” in the Old Testament subjected the people of God (Exo 12:38; Num 11:4; Neh 13:3). Additionally, one is received into the Church Universal at conversion. The book of the Acts teaches us that a person who has been saved and baptized is to be added to the partnership (fellowship) of the local church (2:41-42). When one seeks fellowship in a New Testament church, he/she is not received to the breaking of bread but into the partnership, one of the privileges of which is the weekly remembrance of the Lord (Acts 20:7).
Solemnly and seriously, we need to point out that since the one who has trusted Christ has been sealed with the Spirit and is thus eternally secure, having been forever linked with Christ, he will never face the prospect of being alienated from the Church which is His Body. However, believers can and must, because of immorality, be put away from the local church (1Cor 5:1-13). This local church discipline is carried out with a view to recovery and restoration.
The local church is cared for by a plurality of elders, who are also called bishops (overseers) and pastors (shepherds). These are people who have been raised up by the Holy Spirit and gifted by Him for the work which they have been called to do (Acts 20:17, 28-31). In the Church which is His Body, the gifts are really the gifted men whom the risen Christ has graciously granted to the body for its equipping and edification (Eph 4:11-16).
Do you see the difference in these things that differ?