Two churches?Last week, we examined ekklesia, the Greek word unfortunately rendered "church." This is sad because its basic meaning is assembly, thus stressing the need to be there -- to be involved -- if you are indeed a church member. "Church" conjures up all sorts of unbiblical notions, from hypocrisy to a building to an anemic collective one may be as committed to as he or she wishes. Please be sure to read Church: Part I. It's short, and this week's lesson is based on it.
LocalSometimes the Bible shows us the local church -- say, the zealous Thessalonians or the splintered Corinthians or the egomaniac Diotrephes (3 John) in Asia. The minimum size of a biblical church is two persons. "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst” (Matt 18:20). That passage appears in the context of church discipline; the church is no mutual admiration society or country club. There are expectations of discipleship and they are high.
UniversalThe second sense of church is not local at all. It is cosmic! There are many passages about the universal body of Christ -- all the Christians in the world, not just the 1000 or 100 or 10 you meet with every week. See Colossians 1:18, Ephesians 1:22-23, and Hebrews 12:23. Jesus' "body" was local until his ascension (Acts 2:33). Now, through the outpoured Holy Spirit, he is with us simultaneously everywhere on the planet where two or three have gathered in his name.
Same word (ekklesia), two meanings. Anyone in Christ is part of the universal church, just as anyone meeting with other Christians is in the local one. Yet some mistakenly think that you can be in one without being in the other. ("I'm in Christ, part of his body--but I just "do church" at home.) This is far from the spirit of the New Testament!
Finally, let's take a look at the only passages in the gospels where the word ekklesia appears. Both are from Matthew:
- And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:17-18).
- "If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matt 18:17).
ImplicationsOnce we grasp the distinction between the two senses of church, there are implications:
- When we come across church in the Bible, we should take care to distinguish which sense is intended, lest we mistakenly equate our local church with the entire body of Christ, or fail to appreciate that we are not alone -- brothers and sisters comprising the church globally are also part of the same (universal) body.
- Who decides who's a member of the church? We're added to the local church and to the universal church the moment we become Christians (Acts 2:41,47). The one who accepts us is Christ. Local leadership may or may not welcome you into the congregation, but that doesn't mean you aren't part of the universal church (if you're following Christ, of course).
- Who is saved? All who are right with the Lord. But what if you have moved from one city and arrived in another, yet haven't yet plugged into the local congregation? Does that mean your salvation is on hold, or you are in temporary darkness? Of course not. The church universal is the locus of salvation, not the church local.
- We marvel at God's wisdom. He placed us in the glorious body of Christ -- a cosmic body of believers of which the local congregation is an expression. And yet he knows we will not thrive without being active local members. Regardless of how your local church is doing, you are part of something unbelievably awesome -- the universal body of Christ.
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