Some people deny that the Scriptures make a distinction between the local, organized church and the universal, spiritual church, claiming that every time the church is mentioned in the New Testament the reference is to the local church. There are, however, practical,common-sense reasons to distinguish between them. In Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares ( Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 ), false Christians (the tares) are portrayed as hidden within the organized, visible church until the end of the age when Jesus and His angels will remove the tares from the wheat. In addition, when the apostles told new converts how they could be saved, they never made involvement with the church or membership in a church a condition ( Acts 3:12-26; 16:30-31 ).
Since some people within the local, visible church are not true believers and some true believers may not yet be associated with a local church, it seems clear that it is possible for people to be part of the body of Christ (as believers in Christ) even if they are not part of the organized, earthly church. Likewise, it seems apparent that a person can be part of a local, organized church and still not be a part of Christ’s true, universal church.
Some groups, such as the Quakers and the Plymouth Brethren, minimize the importance of membership in the institutional church by pointing to the corruption that has always existed within it. They stress the relationship of the believer to God through Christ and avoid the establishment of membership roles and formal patterns of leadership or organization.
Others, like the Roman Catholic Church, believe they can trace their beginning to the establishment of the church by Christ ( Matthew 16:18 ) and claim that they have inherited from the apostles the authority to forgive sins and convey the saving grace of Christ. They believe that the personal spiritual condition of the ministering authorities is irrelevant, as long as they are the duly appointed representatives of the institutional church.
Probably a middle position is best, recognizing that while the local church isn’t necessary for salvation, it plays an essential role as a source of applied doctrinal teaching and fellowship, a place of service and prayer, and as an authority for discipline.
The fact that hypocrisy exists within the visible, institutional, local church doesn’t justify a blanket condemnation of the church and its work. The earliest believers saw a need for united prayer, study, and fellowship ( Acts 2:41-47 ). The writer of Hebrews actually warned people not to forsake the assembling of themselves together ( Hebrews 10:25 ). The apostle Paul emphasized the interdependency of believers by describing how every believer is gifted spiritually in ways that build up other believers ( Romans 12:1-8; 1Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:11-16; 1 Peter 4:10-11 ).
People who willingly ignore or disregard church fellowship imply that they have no need of the spiritual gifts God has bestowed on others for the common good ( Romans 12:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-31 ). Just as we are born into a family for our care and nurture as infants, so believers are born into the family of God and need more mature Christians to nurture them in their years of immaturity ( 1 Corinthians 3:1-15 ).
Participation in a local church, with a realistic eye toward the shortcomings of all institutions and other believers, is the best way that we can grow spiritually and help build God’s kingdom.