Let me start off by saying, I believe in the universal church and the local church. Let me explain. The universal church sometimes called the invisible church consists of all true believers past, present and future. The local church or the visible church consist of true believers who gather together at a locality. Why is the church invisible yet visible? The universal invisible church is everywhere and nowhere. You can’t take your friend to see the universal church. On the other hand, if someone asks you to take him/her to see a local church, you will probably respond “which one” because you can actually take him/her to see a local church like BHC who meets in Seattle. Why make such a stink over this? Simply put, your understanding or misunderstanding of the difference affects your spiritual life and the Great Commission.
Over the years, some people and some well meaning para-churches (Christian organizations that are not local churches) have both intentionally and unintentionally undermined the local churches. Some para-churches for instance, rather than coming alongside the local church to assist just replaced the local churches. You may be asking, “so what?” The unintended consequence is that the local church disciple-making muscles atrophies and the local churches turn inward and not outward. It is a vicious cycle where para-churches grow stronger while local churches grow weaker. Local churches give token efforts in making disciples and just throw money at mission organizations and/or other para-churches to act as their disciple making surrogates or contractors. You may be thinking so what? Who cares so long as someone is making disciples? Great question!
In my own study of all 114 occurrences of the word “church (ἐκκλησία)” in the New Testament (click here to see the findings), I’ve found that 88 referred to the local church, 22 could be argued for either universal or local, and 4 were not applicable. Simply put, God designed it so that healthy biblical discipleship happens in the context of the local church. When disciples are made outside the context of the local church, it sometimes produces strange orphan bodiless Christians. This is similar to how God designed the family so that the optimal context to raise children is in the context of a family made up of a father and a mother. Why can’t child rearing happen apart from the family? It could, but should it? Some professing Christians proudly boast in the fact that they don’t belong to a local church. These same people hop from one local church to another critiquing sermons and church programs. In extreme cases, these same people abandon the local churches altogether and worship by themselves on youtube. Sadly, these people tend to remain immature disciples incapable of reproducing. They say, they don’t need to belong to a local church because they belong to the universal church.
Let me ask some questions. New Testament uses the metaphor of a body to describe the local church. If a Christian does not belong to a local church body, then what body do they belong to? Universal church body? Give it a try, you have to do all kinds of biblical and logical gymnastics to make the church body metaphor work for the universal church. Bible also describes the church as a household of God (1 Tim 3:15). How can the invisible universal church in any way function as a household of God? Who in the universal church is the elders/pastors and deacons described in the New Testament? Let me affirmatively tell you this, that I am the Senior Pastor serving the BHC flock and not any other bodiless Christians or people from other local churches. From a pastor’s perspective, in the framework of the the universal church, how does Heb 13:17 apply to me? Hebrews 13:17 (ESV) Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you. Do I give an account for non-BHC members and people I don’t even know? If so, then I’m in serious trouble with my Lord and Master Jesus Christ. How can the estimated 61 New Testament “one another” commands (e.g. Gal 5:13 “… Serve one another in love”) given to the local church be done apart from the local church? How can the universal church fulfill the Great Commission when it consists of all true believers past, present and future? How can past Christians (meaning dead Christians) or future Christians (yet to be born again) make disciples? The only way for this to work is to say, the Great Commission was given to the universal church, but only to those presently alive which is the local church. You see, you have to do some spiritual/logical gymnastics to make this work. If the local church can be replaced with the universal church and/or the local church is truly optional, then why do missionaries, para-church workers, and even our local communities turn to the local churches asking for help and money? Why don’t they ask the universal church or other organizations? God designed it so that discipleship should happen in the context of the local church. If there is no local church then there is no visible church that can do the work of the Great Commission.
The truth is that Jesus died for His church and commissioned the visible local churches to fulfill the Great Commission. Jesus did not directly establish orphanages, para-churches, food banks or any other organizations. He established His local churches as His visible representation on this Earth to make healthy biblical disciples. Having said that, our church is part of a movement to get our local churches healthy so that the local churches produce healthy disciples who in turn make other healthy disciples. That is why, our church vision/mission is the Big Church Small Church making disciples, meaning local church making disciples. That is what we want to see happen and that is where we will invest. Everything at our church must and will align under this vision. That means steps of faith into the unchartered deep waters to fulfill our church vision. I believe God is working at BHC. I envision our church making disciples through our Big Church and Small Church by taking a STAND. I envision, BHC reaching the world through our UW campus Small Church. All this is possible because God has called BHC local church to make disciples. I am asking our church to say yes Lord and consider it a privilege to do so.