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The Relationship Between Universal & Local Church

Official or Unofficial:

Mae and Tou have been living together for over a year and yet there are no eminent plans to make their relationship “official.” They like the idea of freely being together and sharing their love with one another without the institutional baggage of marriage. They are committed to one another while finding no need nor necessity to express their loyalty in holy matrimony. For them, it is one’s expression of commitment without the confines of commitment; that is, to phrase it in question form: how could we put boundaries around love? How could we trivialize something like love to the peripheries of institutional marriage? These ever-important affections cannot be expressed by the sheer notion of ball-and-chain! What they, Mae and Tou, have is special, and to complicate it with an institution is simply unbecoming of their authentic and genuine expression of love for one another.


In a postmodern, anti-institutional, and anti-authoritarian age (whew, let me catch my breath) there is a recoiling-effect that comes with the notion of assembling perimeters around the confines of social and/or communal elements. We have been imbued by Romanticism and, in turn, find in our modern sensibilities a polarization of form and substance, systems and affection, institutions and authenticity. We are encouraged to think that the “good” affections like love, mercy, grace, etc., cannot be domesticated nor tamed. To do so, through our naturalistic worldview, would be to contaminate the essence (esse) of what we would deem as honest and pure.


Universal Church or Local Church:


The church is the covenantal gathering of saints communally devoted to worship, fellowship, and the mission of the triune God (missio Dei). She assembles with the aim to glorify God and edify the body of saints for the redemptive service to the world. The congregation in Christ is reinstated as priest/kings to uphold the purity and faithful mediation of God’s kingdom through the Spirit inspired Word. The local assembly exemplifies their covenantal union with God and one another through the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Authority, in turn, resides in the congregation in which the office of elders is instituted to equip the saints through the Word toward conformity into the image of the Son (Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:10). Simultaneously, the office of deacon functions as hands and feet from the body for Gospel service.


How are we, then, to understand the essence (esse) of the church in relation to its physical manifestation (bene esse)? What is the relationship between the universal church and the local church? How does understanding these concepts in a complementary fashion assist in healthier expressions of the local assembly of saints? Thus, the premise of this article will seek to identify the distinction and unity of the universal and local church paradigm and, in turn, argue for the necessity of the local assembly of saints.


Universal Church. The universal church encompasses all those who from time-past to time-present have placed their faith, hope, and trust in the finished work of Christ Jesus. It transcends any one particular geo-spatial context and rises to the rulership of heaven. As Mark E. Dever asserts, “Universality is not the domain of any one group of true Christians. . . . The continuity of the church across space and time prevents the church from being held captive to any one segment of it.”[1] Gregg R. Allison notes that the Apostle Paul conveys, in one sense, that the church consists of a “concrete reality composed of all Christians throughout the world [which is] the church as the body of Christ who, as the exalted sovereign head over all things, has been given by God to be the head of the church (Eph. 1: 21-23).”[2] The entry point into the universal church, then, is built upon believing on Christ and trusting in His redemptive work. It is, for our purposes, the umbrella which shades the contours of our fundamental understanding of the local church.


The Local Assembly of Saints. The local assembly, then, is the fountainhead that is fed through the universal reality of God’s people in Christ Jesus. The covenant community cannot assert universality in their geo-spatial locale but, conversely, is a representative agent. That is, catholicity is beyond the scope of the local agency found within the gathered community and, thus, her existence within a geographic setting is emblematic or symbolic to the universal church. One way to reconcile these concepts of the church is to see the universal church in an ethereal or spiritual existence transcending space and time, while on the other hand viewing the local church in its corporeality or in its material sense.


Thus, if the local assembly is the manifestation of the universal church, there must be tangible markers that will differentiate or set aside the legitimacy of such gatherings of saints. To put it, again, in question form: what is the difference between the corporate gathering of a church and a generic bible study? Fundamentally, the difference lies in their constitution; that is, in their polity. Jonathan Leeman rightly contends, “polity provides the nexus between the universal church and the local church.”[3] Polity, then, embodies a public declaration that sets aside the gathering saints from other forms of social gatherings. It distinguishes, fundamentally, what kind of community is in operation.


And yet what does this polity do? How does the constitution distinguish its members from other institutions?


In Matthew 16:19 Christ grants the keys of the kingdom to the apostolic office and, in particular, to Peter: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” The binding and loosening are tied to the profession of faith that was articulated by Peter prior to the giving of the keys (16:18). Meaning, the church is built upon Christ through His apostolic agents who affirms proper professions of faith in the finished work of Christ Jesus. These keys, in turn, are given to the congregation to safeguard and exercise priestly conduct over the temple of God—the church (cf. 1 Cor. 5:1-13; Gal. 1:6-10). This is indicative of what is seen in Matthew 18:20: “For where two or three are gathered in My Name, there am I among them.” The context is church discipline, and the substance of the passage conveys an agreement between two or three gathered saints. Leeman helpfully summarizes by saying,

The bottom line is that the keys of the kingdom authorize their holder to pronounce on heaven’s behalf a judgement concerning the who and the what of the Gospel: what is the right confession and practice of the Gospel, and who is the right confessor. To bind or loose is to render a verdict in heaven’s name. . . . Whoever possesses the keys has an interpretative authority over the Gospel word and Gospel citizens and in that sense precedes the Gospel word. . . . The keys, in short, are the authority over a church’s statement of faith and membership.[4]

Thus, church polity brings the skeletal structure to the meat of the people of God. It formulates the distinctiveness of the gathered saints from the social collectivism of worldly pursuits. Polity reinforces covenantal fidelity and, furthermore, communal inclusion through the regular practices of the ordinances which are not merely rituals confined to memorialism. Polity, in turn, draws hard lines in sanctifying or setting aside a people committed to loving and serving one another for the sake of Christ and His Gospel proclamation. The local church, then, is simply the expression of the universal church of God in a physical and communal form; that is, it is the incarnation of the universal church.


To Be or Not to Be:


The love between Mae and Tou is without question authentic and true. There is a genuine affection and care that is exhibited within their growing relationship. Yet, an unwillingness to express their solemn commitment and loyalty toward one another in marriage is quite simply oxymoronic. That is, to desire in affection a life-long pledge and devotion from one’s partner while negating an earnest vow toward holy matrimony is to plea for authenticity without producing any proper manifestations of those ideas. Or rather, by disavowing any notion toward marital union—which is biblically speaking the ultimate demonstration of commitment—is to put into question those emotive components that are being alluded to as an appeal for their relational union. In this case, love remains ethereal at best and deceptive at worst.


Yet, within the biblical worldview love produces proper action in expressing itself. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). Love is not merely an immaterial element within the life of the one who feels it. Rather, love compels one to flex their muscles toward the person whom their affections groan for. That is, their idea of love does not remain merely ethereal in essence but finds expression in function. “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me” (Jn. 14:21a).

Similarly, yes, the church is universal, and one belongs to her through the cross-work of Christ. Yet, the expression of that reality does not terminate upon one’s heart, but rather rolls over into holy devotion to the people of God—the body of Christ. Membership, church polity, and Sunday attendance—if viewed through the spiritual eyes of Christ—are not merely organizational guises found within Western idealism. Rather, they are the wisdom of God distributing His grace through His Word for His people by the power of His Spirit.


To say that one loves the Lord while dismissing the local church is to allow that love to remain merely an idea. “For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead” (Jas. 2:26).

 

***footnotes***

[1] Mark Dever, The Church: The Gospel Made Visible (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2012), 18.

[2] Gregg R. Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church, FOET (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 62.

[3] Jonathan Leeman, “Introduction—Why Polity?” Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015), 3. I am indebted to Leeman’s work on this subject matter. He has been concise and extremely helpful on the practical implications to a congregationalist model of church polity. My hope is to inform my local church of such exegetical and theological findings as well as the broader community. See also Jonathan Leeman. Political Church: The Local Assembly as Embassy of Christ’s Rule. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016; Jonathan Leeman, The Church and the Surprising Offense of God’s Love: Reintroducing the Doctrines of Church Membership and Discipline (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2010), 172-198.

[4] Jonathan Leeman, “A Congregational Approach to Unity, Holiness, and Apostolicity,” Baptist Foundations: Church Government for an Anti-Institutional Age, ed. Mark Dever and Jonathan Leeman (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2015),354-355.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (11), McColsen (9), and DeYoung (5). He is a Teaching Pastor at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and a homeschool dad to his four children. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.

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