I was talking to a man once that mentioned a "tooth dentist." To my knowledge there is no other kind of dentist but a "tooth" dentist. That is like saying "local church." There can be no other kind of church but a local church.

It is redundant to say "local church." Here’s why. In the New Testament the word church is translated from the Greek word ekklesia, which means "an assembly." It is often poined out that ekklesia comes from two Greek words, ek meaning "out" and kaleo, meaning "to call." Hence, they say the word ekklesia means "called out." That is incorrect. Ekklesia does not mean "called out." That is the etymology of the word, not the meaning. (Etymology is a word’s history that tells how the word evolved to the definition in current use.) There is a difference. If you do not believe that is true, go through the New Testament and read the words "called out" in place of the word church and see how much sense it makes. Ekklesia means "an assembly" and you cannot have any other kind of assembly but a "local" assembly.

This short article is not intended to be an in-depth stuuy of all the places the word church is used in the New Testament. The word ekklesia  is used 118 times in the Greek New Testament and in the KJV it is translated "assembly" three times and "church" 115 times. In the vast majority of times it is easy to understand that a specific assembly is meant. (As in Matthew 18:17, "tell it unto the church" and 2 Corinthians 1:1, "unto the church of God which is at Corinth.")

However, in some places "church" is used when it is not referring to any specific assembly. There is a figure of speech called a synecdoche in which a part is used for the whole or an individual for an entire class or people, or vice-versa. For example, in Ephesians 5:23 it says "the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church." While no specific husband is meant, no one would ever argue that there is some sort of universal invisible husband nor a universal invisible wife. All husbands and all wives are local — without exception. In this case the word husband and the word wife are used as figures of speech in which one is used for the whole. That is fairly simple.

Why then do some want to complicate matters and make the word church in this same verse mean something entirely different? The word church in this verse is also used as a figure of speech in which one is used for the whole. Christ is the head of every church and not of some mystical body called a "church."

Many take some verses to mean that "the church" refers to all of the saved. Some believe it to be made up of all the saved in all ages, some that it is the saved of the church age and some think it to be the saved who are living. This is called the universal church.

If this universal church did exist, it would have no practical purpose. It has no pastor to visit you in the hospital. It sends no missionaries. It has no meetings. It does not evangelize. It does nothing. With that being said, why are some people so emphatic in holding to such a theory? I can only give you my opinion.

It seems that to some the most important thing is the universal church. Then the so-called "local churches" are only expressions of the universal church. It is like a tree, the universal church is the trunk and all of the local churches are branches from the same trunk. That means doctrine is not important, baptism is not important, the origin of the church is not important, church history is not important. One church is as good as another because all churches are all just local expressions of the universal church. As long as you have a group of saved people, you have a church.

I really feel that the reason some churches and pastors embrace this universal church theory is to become less offensive and attract more people. Because, when you embrace the universal church theory, you immediately weaken your stand on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, two of the most offensive doctrines to the world.

You cannot have a universal assembly. Try to imagine a universal assembly. It is impossible. If it is universal it is not an assembly and if it is an assembly it is not universal. Universal church (assembly) is an oxymoron.

If you will follow the New Testament example you will find that a church was always made up of saved people who had been baptized and joined themselves together to carry out the Lord’s commands. If you have an assembly of unsaved people, you do not have a church. If you have an assembly of saved people who have not been baptized according to the Scriptures, you do not have a church. If you have an assembly of people who have been saved and properly baptized but who have not bound themselves together, you do not have a church. For example, in our chapel services we have a group of saved students who have been baptized but have no desire to be bound together as a church.

The way we use the term church today is often different from the way it is used in the New Testament. We often see a church building and call it a "church." In the New Testament the word church is never used to refer to a building. We sometime use the word church to refer to a denomination, like the United Methodist Church or the Roman Catholic Church. In the New Testament the word is never used to refer to any sort of denomination.

by Raymond McAlister
September 2006