The Church vs the Local church


How Many Bodies Does Jesus Have, Anyway?

Some common biblical metaphors for the Church are “The Body of Christ”, “The Bride of Christ”, and, of course, Church. But sometimes I think we get a little confused about the difference between the Church and the local congregations that we like to call “churches”.

Some people prefer to use terms like “assembly” or “fellowship” rather than “church” in the name of their local congregation. This may or may not alleviate the confusion—it depends on whether Christians are taught the difference or not.

The New Testament is filled with exhortations to Unity. Though we are incredibly diverse, coming from different backgrounds and perspectives, we are called to be one in Jesus.

“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ.” (I Cor 12:12)

The question is, is this concept talking about unity within the local congregation? In context, the author is speaking to “the church of God in Corinth” (I Cor 1:2), so that must mean that the primary application of the principle is to the local congregation, right?

Sort of. The “local congregation” referred to in I Cor 1:2 is actually the sum total of all regenerate believers in the community. Think about your local community. How many different congregations exist there? How many of those likely have regenerate believers attending? Even in a small community, there are probably many—certainly much more in the community than in just your local congregation.

Flip open your Bible (or look at the attached scripture in this post) and have a look at that I Cor 12 passage.

There are a couple of hints that maybe this has much greater application than just your local church. Look at verses 4-6 (the first bolded section in the sidebar).

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

The reason, the rationality for our unity is based on the fact that we serve the same God, and are filled with the same Spirit. Unity is not just for within your local congregation, but also extends to all the Christians in your town. In fact, it extends to all the Christians in the entire world. Anyone who serves the same God (YHWH, the Christian God) is exhorted by Paul to view themselves as one organic entity—the Body of Christ.*footnote1

Here’s a glitch. I’ve been a part of several different churches, and although one can’t be entirely sure (only God can be sure of this point), I’d bet my last shekel that there was at least one person in every congregation that had not yet become a regenerated Christian. There’s always somebody there for some other reason, holding back that final surrender to the Lordship of Jesus. Those that haven’t cannot participate in genuine Christian unity.

Here’s the point. Unity is based on our committment to Jesus. That makes the barriers between our different congregations (physical, doctrinal, emotional, whatever) largely irrelevant. When my committment is to Jesus, and the truth of Scripture, I am in reality united with everyone else who shares that committment. The exhortations of I Cor 12 (and other passages on Christian Unity) are in a very real sense directed towards the Church Universal, made up of those who have become genuine followers of Jesus Christ and have personally accepted the gospel. It is this Church that is the paramount reality of our Christian experience. One Church, with One God.

Our committments to our local congregation must not come at the expense of our relationships with other Christians in our community, our country, and our world. When the church down the street is suffering, we suffer also, whether we know it or not. When Christians are persecuted in the world at large, we are intimately affected, whether we admit it or not. “If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it” (verse 26).

I don’t think we have to drop all our denominations and differences and institutionally merge into one large super-conglomerate-denomination. I think our differences are okay. In fact, I think they’re a good thing. “But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body” (verses 18-20). Maybe instead of thinking of individuals as hands and feet, it might be appropriate to think of congregations or denominations as different parts of the body. The Salvation Army might be a hand, a missions-oriented church might be a foot, and I’m sure you can think of a denomination or movement that would like to be a tongue.

We need that diversity, working together harmoniously to get the job done: “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation” (Mark 16:15). Yes, we need to agree on some core basics: the divinity of Christ, the reliability of Scripture, the Apostles’ Creed, etc. But as much as we can, we ought to emphasise the Church instead of just our church.

*footnote1: This also suggests that we have at least a partial unity with the Jewish people, as they do follow the same God, though they (generally) reject Jesus as Messiah. But we have the same God, and share much of the same Scripture. On a related note, there is significant historical and theological evidence to reject a similar partial-unity with Muslims, as their “Allah” is in all likelihood an actual different entity than YHWH. They also have a separate scripture. [back]

© 2002 Jason Friesen

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines.

The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body– whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free– and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.

Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it, so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues.

Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But eagerly desire the greater gifts.

And now I will show you the most excellent way.

1 Cor 12:12-31 NIV, emphasis added