Perhaps it would also be helpful in a discussion like this to observe the different "senses" in which the church is mentioned in Scripture.
The Universal Sense
In the universal sense, the church is the worldwide body of the saved. This is the sense that we have been referring to in the previous two pages of this article. It is everyone around the world, of every nationality or location, who is saved. Scriptures where the church is referred to in the universal sense abound, but some examples include Matthew 16:18, 1 Corinthians 10:32, and Ephesians 1:22-23. One passage that beautifully captures the essence of the universality of the Lord's church has the following being declared to Jesus in heaven,
"Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation." (Revelation 5:9)
Indeed, praise be to God that today the church exists in the vast majority of nations currently on the earth, all around the globe. Men and women of all skin colors have obeyed the gospel, the very gospel which is being preached and taught daily in countless languages and dialects!
It is in this universal sense that every believer who is saved is added to the "one body" of Ephesians 4:4. As it is written,
"For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12:13)
When speaking in this universal sense, it is important to understand the "church of Christ" not as a name but as a relationship, a designation of ownership and allegiance. It is the church that belongs to Christ.
The Local Sense
Along with the universal sense, the other sense in which the church is mentioned in the New Testament is the local sense. This geographical sense simply refers to individual congregations of the universal church, in various local vicinities. As it is neither practical nor possible for the entire, universal church to assemble together at any given time (until heaven!), Christians around the world gather together with other Christians in their locale, in the area where they live. It is convenient to refer to these as "congregations." It is here that brethren who live near each other share daily and weekly fellowship, worship together, and learn together (among other things).
We can see many examples of these local churches in various cities in the book of Acts and the New Testament letters:
- "the church that was at Antioch" (Acts 13:1)
- the church in Ephesus (Acts 20:17)
- "the church of God which is at Corinth" (1 Corinthians 1:2)
- "the church that is in [Aquila and Prisca's] house" (1 Corinthians 16:19)
- "the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Thessalonians 1:1)
In mentioning these separate "churches," Paul was not speaking of multiple universal churches, but of the numerous local "churches" (congregations of the one universal church) in each city, when he said, "All the churches of Christ greet you." (Romans 16:16)
The Regional Sense
While the universal and local senses are by far more relevent and common, there is also the regional sense. This is where areas or larger geographical regions are mentioned in which multiple local churches exist. For example,
- "the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria" (Acts 9:31)
- "the churches of Asia" (1 Corinthians 16:19)
- "the churches of Galatia" (Gal. 1:2)
- "the churches of Judea which were in Christ" (Gal. 1:22)
Places such as Judea, Asia and Galatia were not specific cities, but rather they were larger provinces in the Roman Empire which was ruling at the time. A modern equivalent would be to say "the churches of California," or to identify the same group of congregations as a limited part of the universal church: "the church in California." By the grace of God, there are even many cities around the world today with numerous congregations due to the greater size of the city and/or the greater number of saints in the city; for example, "the churches in Sydney."