The word “church” is a collective noun, like “herd” or “flock.” It calls together the saints, it groups them. It may refer to the group as a whole (Matt. 16:18), or it may refer to the saints distributively (Acts 5:11). It may be used of the universal body of saints (Eph. 1:22), a relationship of individuals to God in Christ, having nor organizational entity, or, it may refer to a group of saints who function as one, having overseers and servants, and acting collectively (Phil. 1:1; 4:15). A statement or argument which rests upon the word church must indicate the use intended, and present proof accordingly; or remain an ambiguous and useless statement.
We do not consider church, either universally or locally, as referring to a society which validates worship or service. We are acutely aware of the need to avoid any position which places an “institution” between a saint and his Savior, a servant and his Master. The “priesthood of believers”—the direct relationship of individuals and Christ via the word—must be preserved. But there is still a need to clarify the role of a local church and the distinction which exists between it and the church in a universal sense. It is completely illogical to treat the local church as the organizational medium by which the universal church functions.
There is a sense in which “church” is considered an organism in the word of God. Webster’s Collegiate defines organism in two senses: (1) Biologically: “An individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent; any living being.” Obviously “church” is not literally an organism; but figuratively, Paul presents saints as being (like) the members of a body. “For as the body is one, and hath many members...so also is Christ” (1 Cor. 12:12-f). By saying, “so also is Christ” (and by putting apostles, prophets, etc. in this body — vs. 28-f) he is referring to the universal body of Christ, or the universal church. And since this is a figurative matter, consider the second definition: (2) Philosophically: “Any highly complex thing or structure with parts so integrated that their relation to one another is governed by their relation to the whole.” This certainly can be said of the universal body of Christ, for we are thus branches on the Vine (Jn. 15:6), children in the family (Eph. 3:15), members of His body. It is an organism figuratively, and has organized functions only in a figurative sense.
The saints who agree to work as a local “team” or church are, of course, related to all saints in the universal organism, and their desire and obligation to work together grows out of this basic sphere of fellowship in Christ. But their relationship to one-another that is distinctively “local” is an additional relationship, depending upon the congregational covenant (their agreement to work as one.) The N.T. has no evidence of a universal treasury, nor universal decision-making “business meeting” (Acts 15: notwithstanding)—no universal organized function. But such things are clearly present on a local scale. The (local) church may hear and speak (Matt. 18:17), may send (Phil. 4:15), and may receive (Acts 11:30). Such a group may collect funds (1 Cor. 16:2), pay wages (2 Cor. 11:8), care for “widows indeed” (1 Tim. 5:16). It is absurd o deny that such a church is an “entity” or that it is “organized” literally. It functions as an organic whole, requiring some form of management (overseers), and servants (deacons) who act on behalf of the whole (Rom. 16:1; Phil. 2:25; Col. 1:17).
We are a part of the body of Jesus Christ by virtue of our obedience to Him, and the will of men can not keep us out of that universal church. But our relationship in the local church is subject to the will and judgment of men. Jerusalem disciples refused to accept Paul into their fellowship because they were afraid of him (Acts 9:26-28). In Corinth, one was kept in the local fellowship who should not have been allowed there (1 Cor. 5:1-f), and elsewhere some were “cast out of the church” wrongfully (3 Jn. 9-10).
The local church, as an organization, is a functional implement. It is divinely authorized (see passages above) and appointed (see Titus 1:5), as the means by which saints pool their efforts and resources to accomplish divine purposes. It is brought into existence by the will of saints, as its need is dictated by circumstances of place and opportunity; and the importance of such “together” activity is impressed upon us as a part of faithfulness (Heb. 10:23-f). It may be viewed as the result of faithfulness to the Lord, under given circumstances, without being considered as the means of redemption nor as the object or focal point for our faith.
As circumstances change, the local church may be discontinued without affecting the life of the universal organism from which it sprang. (We are assuming, of course, a situation where there no longer exists a plurality of saints who could work as one.) There is no spiritual life for an individual saint apart from the organism (body) of Christ; but one’s spiritual life does not depend upon the existence of a local organization. Barnabas exhorted brethren to “cleave unto the Lord” NOT “unto the church” (Acts 11:20, 21, 23).
With the previously given definition of “organism” in mind; is my relationship with another saint in Burnet, Texas “governed by our relation to the whole” local church in Burnet, or “by our relation to the whole” universal body of Christ? Of what “body” do we find our basic sphere of fellowship? To what head must we mutually look for guidance? To what Vine must we mutually cling in order to bear acceptable fruit? With no desire nor intent to deprecate the importance of saints working together in a local church, I must conclude that our work there grows out of and is dependent upon our relationship in the Lord. Our primary loyalty must be to Him. In fact, my lack of faithfulness to the Head (Christ) may be valid reason for my being expelled from the fellowship of the local church. We therefore conclude that while the universal church is permanent—a figurative organism; the local church is an organizational implement, dictated by circumstances, to be used by saints in local collective functions.