Recently I was reading the Life-Study of Revelation by Witness Lee and came across a section explaining how the universal church is expressed, realized, and made practical in the local churches.
The universal church as the Body of Christ is expressed through the local churches. The local churches, as the expressions of the one Body of Christ (Rev. 1:12, 20), are locally one (Acts 8:1; 13:1; Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 1:2). Revelation 1:4 says, “John to the seven churches which are in Asia.” Asia was a province of the ancient Roman Empire in which were the seven cities mentioned in 1:11. The seven churches were in those seven cities respectively, not all in one city. This book does not deal with the one universal church but with the local churches in many cities. The church is firstly revealed as universal in Matthew 16:18 and then as local in Matthew 18:17. In Acts the church was practiced in the way of local churches, such as the church at Jerusalem (8:1), the church at Antioch (13:1), the church at Ephesus (20:17), and the churches in the provinces of Syria and Cilicia (15:41). Except for a few written to some individuals, all the Epistles were written to the local churches. Not one was written to the universal church. Without the local churches there is no practicality and actuality of the universal church. The universal church is realized in the local churches.
What are the local churches according to the Bible?
In 1:11 the voice said to John, “What you see write in a book and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, and to Smyrna, and to Pergamos, and to Thyatira, and to Sardis, and to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” This verse is composed in a very important way. In this verse we see that the sending of this book “to the seven churches” equals the sending of it to the seven cities. This shows clearly that the practice of the church life in the early days was that of one church for one city, one city with one church. In no city was there more than one church. This is the local church, local city-wise, not street-wise or area-wise. The jurisdiction of a local church should cover the whole city in which the church is; it should not be greater or lesser than the boundary of the city. All the believers within that boundary should constitute the one unique local church within that city. Hence, one church equals one city, and one city equals one church. This is what we call the local churches.
Why can’t we just solely have the one universal church?
The church needs to have its expression. If we talk about the church without having the expression of the church, our talk is entirely theoretical; it is not practical. For the church to be real and practical, there is the need of the local churches. If you do not have the local churches, you do not have the church. Likewise, if you do not have the members, you do not have the Body. If you do not have the local church, you cannot have the universal church, for the universal church is composed of all the local churches just as the human body is composed of its many members.
Local Churches not being another Denomination:
In 1963 I was asked to speak at a certain place in Missouri. At the end of the meeting, the host stood up and, in a nice, humble, polite way, said, “Brother Lee, please tell us why you call yourselves the church in Los Angeles.” I replied, “Brother, if we don’t call ourselves the church, then what should we call ourselves? We simply are the church. This is not only the truth but also the fact.” We are what we are. Although we might pretend or presume to be something else, that is not what we truly are. Before the Lord’s recovery came to the United States, no Christians said that they were the church in Los Angeles. Therefore, when we came to Los Angeles, we had to call ourselves the church in Los Angeles.
Revelation 1:20 says, “The mystery of the seven stars which you have seen on My right hand and the seven golden lampstands: the seven stars are messengers of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are seven churches.” When John saw the seven stars in the right hand of Christ and the seven golden lampstands in the midst of which was Christ, it was a mystery to him. He did not realize the significance of the seven heavenly stars and the seven golden lampstands. Hence, the Lord unveiled the mystery to him, saying that “the seven stars are messengers of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are seven churches.” The significance of this was not only a mystery to John, but also to believers today. All believers need the unveiling of this mystery to see the churches and their messengers.
The churches, signified by the golden lampstands, are “the testimony of Jesus” (1:2, 9) in the divine nature, shining in the dark night locally, yet collectively. The churches should be of the divine nature—golden. They should be the stands, even the lampstands, that bear the lamp with the oil (Christ as the life-giving Spirit), shining in the darkness respectively and collectively. They are individual lampstands locally, yet at the same time they are a group, a collection, of lampstands universally. They are not only shining locally, but also bearing universally the same testimony both to the localities and to the universe. They are of the same nature and in the same shape. They bear the same lamp for the same purpose and are fully identified with one another, not having any individual distinctiveness. The differences of the local churches recorded in chapters two and three are all of a negative nature, not of a positive nature. Negatively, in their failures, they are different and separate one from another; but positively, in their nature, shape, and purpose, they are absolutely identical and connected one to another. It is easy for believers to see the universal church, but it is difficult for them to see the churches.