The Church Triumphant
In a number of cases, the word “church” is used to speak of Christians within a certain geographical region without specifying one particular congregation. In Acts 8:3, for example, we are told, “Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.” Saul was ravaging more than one local congregation. In Acts 9:31, we read: “So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace and was being built up. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it multiplied.” This had to do with believers in a number of cities in a large region.
Finally, some passages use the word “church” in a more universal sense, referring to all believers. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus says, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He isn’t talking about this or that local church. He’s talking about the universal church. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12:28, writes, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues.” God did not bestow gifts only on the local Corinthian church. He bestowed gifts on the entire church. In Ephesians 1:22–23, Paul writes, “And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” The body of Christ is not limited to the local church in Ephesus. This, too, is a reference to the entire church.
Speaking of the universal church, Westminster Confession of Faith 25.1 explains:
The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that fills all in all.
When we consider the church in this larger sense, the Bible forces us to make several distinctions in addition to those between the local church and the universal church. The distinction between the visible church and the invisible church, for example, helps us understand the difference between those who profess faith and are regenerate and those who profess faith without having been regenerated. It is a way of distinguishing among the kinds of seed that Jesus speaks of in the parable of the sower (Matt. 13:1–23; Mark 4:1–20; Luke 8:4–15).