Is there a universal church, or just a local, visable church?
Ephesians 3:1-21 says, “For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation he made known unto me THE MYSTERY; (as I wrote afore in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ) Which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; THAT THE GENTILES SHOULD BE FELLOWHEIRS, AND OF THE SAME BODY, and partakers of his promise in Christ BY THE GOSPEL:”
Those verses state that it is BY THE GOSPEL, that people become “fellowheirs, and of the same body.” That “body” and the relationship of being made “fellowheirs” cannot possibly just be referring to a local church, because people cannot become members of a local church through the gospel alone (that is, just because people get saved, does not mean that they are members of a local church). To become members of a local church, they must also then follow the Lord in believer’s baptism, and state their desire to join that local assembly. In Acts 5:11-14, we read, “And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things. And by the hands of the apostles were many signs and wonders wrought among the people; (and they were all with one accord in Solomon’s porch. AND OF THE REST DURST NO MAN JOIN HIMSELF TO THEM: but the people magnified them. And believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.)” Multitudes of people were getting saved, but they were afraid to join that local church after the death of Ananias and Sapphira.
Ephesians 3 continues, “Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE MYSTERY, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God, According to the eternal purpose which he purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord: In whom we have boldness and access with confidence by the faith of him. Wherefore I desire that ye faint not at my tribulations for you, which is your glory. For this cause I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, OF WHOM THE WHOLE FAMILY IN HEAVEN AND EARTH IS NAMED, That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; THAT CHRIST MAY DWELL IN YOUR HEARTS BY FAITH;”
There is a whole family in heaven and earth, and it is not entered by joining a local church, but by faith receiving the Lord Jesus Christ into your heart. Both Jews and Gentiles can BECOME A FAMILY, which consists of people both IN HEAVEN AND UPON EARTH. This cannot be said of any local church. Local churches drop the names of deceased members — you cannot take your local church membership with you to heaven. You cannot even take your marriage with you to heaven. Matthew 22:29, 30 says, “Jesus answered and said unto them, Ye do err, not knowing the scriptures, nor the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven.”) This “family” can in no way be referring solely to a local church, because it is in heaven and upon earth.
The passage continues, “…that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, UNTO HIM BE GLORY IN THE CHURCH by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”
Ephesians 3 is clearly talking about the CHURCH by the use of several terms: fellowheirs; of the same body; the whole family in heaven and earth; etc.
Consider also the previous chapter, Ephesians 2:8, 9, which says, “For BY GRACE ARE YE SAVED THROUGH FAITH; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” Ephesians 2:12-19 says, “That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world: BUT NOW IN CHRIST JESUS YE WHO SOMETIMES WERE FAR OFF ARE MADE NIGH BY THE BLOOD OF CHRIST. For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us; Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man, so making peace; And THAT HE MIGHT RECONCILE BOTH UNTO GOD IN ONE BODY BY THE CROSS,”
Once again, this cannot be referring to the local church, because a person enters this “body” through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ which was shed on the cross.
We continue on, “…having slain the enmity thereby: And came and preached peace to you which were afar off, and to them that were nigh. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father. NOW THEREFORE YE ARE NO MORE STRANGERS AND FOREIGNERS, BUT FELLOWCITIZENS WITH THE SAINTS, AND OF THE HOUSEHOLD OF GOD.”
Do we achieve that “saint” status through joining a local church? No. We receive that through the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Do we become part of the household of God through joining a local church? No. There are church members in many churches that are not of the household of God — they are lost. They are like Judas. You can become a “saint” and “of the household of God” only through the precious blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Your question is a loaded one (whether you knew it or not), and is somewhat similar to, “Are you a Calvinist, or an Armenian?” My answer is, “I am neither a Calvinist, nor an Armenian, because I believe the Bible.” The Bible teaches the sovereignty of God; the free will of man to accept or reject the Savior; and the eternal security of salvation. Neither Calvinism nor Armenianism fully hold to what the Bible really teaches, so I reject them both, and I simply believe what the Bible plainly says.
It is the same when it comes to this matter of the “universal” church vss. the “local” church argument. The universal church position (held to by the Catholics) is not the Biblical position; and the local church position (held to by the Baptist-Briders) is not the Biblical position. As we have seen above, this doctrine is called a mystery, and man with his finite mind seems to have trouble understanding the mysteries of God. Ephesians 5:30-32 says, “For WE ARE MEMBERS OF HIS BODY, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. THIS IS A GREAT MYSTERY: BUT I SPEAK CONCERNING CHRIST AND THE CHURCH.”
The moment that you are saved (repent of your sin and place your faith solely in the Lord Jesus Christ and His precious, sinless blood shed on that cross for your sins), then the Bible says that you are a MEMBER OF HIS BODY, which it clearly says above is HIS CHURCH. That is not the same as being a member of a local church. For that, you must first be saved, and then follow the Lord in believer’s baptism, and then join a local church. That is a local body of baptized believer’s banded together to worship and serve the Lord Jesus Christ.
Those who teach that there is no such thing as the “body of Christ, the church in heaven and upon earth,” are teaching doctrinal error, and need to read their Bibles more, instead of man’s books. To compare those who simply believe this mystery that the Bible teaches, to the Catholics, is just like those that demand you must choose between Calvinism and Armenianism. You do not have to choose either group, because you can choose to believe what the Bible really teaches. Even so, those who demand that you must be either in the Catholic group (universal church), or in the Baptist-Bride group (local church only), are in the same error. The Bible clearly teaches that the moment you are saved you are a member of Christ’s body, His church; and that then you need to get baptized and join a local church and faithfully assemble with it.
Part of this whole present day problem with this issue is that men want to impress, or be accepted with certain groups of men. For many, their loyalty seems more to their “group,” than to the Lord and to His Word. I am not interested in that type of politics in the ministry. I am going to preach what God’s Word says (by God’s grace and enlightenment to this frail human vessel), whether any other man likes it or not. This local church is not under the authority of any group of men and their pet, false doctrines and classifications.
I am not in the Catholic, universal church group; and I am not in the Baptist-bride, local church only group; because both groups teach error from one extreme to the other. I simply believe what the Bible really teaches about this matter, and it is not hard for me to believe, at all.
I have no idea if you know all of the background of the question that you asked, but it is of the exact same nature as the Calvinism/Armenianism debate. Just keep faithfully reading and studying the Bible, and the Lord will teach you the truth on this subject, and all others that will arise.