III. As Revealed by the Apostles in Acts and the Epistles
A. Established Locally in Separate Cities
Whereas the universal church has been formed by Christ once for all, the local churches are established locally in separate cities. Therefore, the believers live in churches that are in their localities respectively. Acts 8:1, for example, speaks of the church in Jerusalem. This was the first church established in a locality within the jurisdiction of a city, in this case the city of Jerusalem. It was a local church in its locality, as indicated by the Lord in Matthew 18:17. As such a local church, it was part of the universal church, which is the Body of Christ. The record of the New Testament consistently reveals the establishing of local churches in different cities.
Witness Lee continues to trace the development of the concept of the local church throughout the Bible by turning next to the Epistles of Paul. Here he cites two separate references to the local church, one in Romans and the other in 1 Corinthians. He begins with the first reference, in Romans chapter 16:
The first mention of a local church in the Epistles is in Romans 16:1. In this verse Paul says, I commend to you our sister Phoebe, who is a deaconess of the church which is at Cenchrea. (2152)
Witness Lee goes on to discuss the universal and, particularly, the local aspects of the church so wonderfully portrayed in 1 Corinthians chapter 1:
In 1 Corinthians 1:2 Paul addresses the church of God which is in Corinth. This reveals that the church is not the church of any person, practice, or doctrine; rather, the church is of God. The church is the church of God because it is constituted of the universal God. Such a church existed in Corinth, a definite locality. In nature the church is universal in God, but in practice the church is local in a definite place. This means that the church has both the universal aspect and the local aspect. Without the universal aspect, the church has no content; without the local aspect, it is impossible for the church to have any expression and practice. For this reason, the New Testament emphasizes the local aspect of the church.
The description of the church in 1 Corinthians 1:2 is marvelous. The church is of God, for it is constituted of the element of God. But the church which is of God is also local. Hence, in this one verse we see both the universal aspect and the local aspect of the church. The universal aspect refers to the constitution, nature, and content of the church; the local aspect refers to the expression and practicality of the church. If we have only the local aspect but not the aspect of the church being of God, we shall have only an outward formality. We shall be lacking the inward reality. But if we have only the universal aspect but not the local aspect of the church in a particular locality, we shall have the reality but not the practicality. On the one hand, the church is constituted of God; on the other hand, the church is expressed in a particular locality. The universal church is expressed and practiced in particular localities. (2152-2153)
As Witness Lee continues, he shows through a number of additional examples that even though the church is one universally, through the local churches it has many expressions in many places:
The Bible never speaks of the churches in one city but always of the church at a particular placefor example, the church at Jerusalem, the church at Antioch, the church at Cenchrea, and the church at Corinth. Every local church is an expression of the one church. The church is one, but the expressions of the church are many; and these many expressions of the church are the local churches. The churches of Macedonia (2 Cor. 8:1), the churches of Galatia (Gal. 1:2), the churches of Judea (Gal. 1:22; 1 Thes. 2:14), the churches of the nations (Rom. 16:4), the churches of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:41), everywhere in every church (1 Cor. 4:17), in every church (Acts 14:23), the churches of God (1 Cor. 11:16), the churches of Christ (Rom. 16:16), all the churches of the saints (1 Cor. 14:33), and all the churches (1 Cor. 7:17) mentioned in the New Testament all refer to the local churches, which were the many local expressions of the one universal church in the first century on earth, both in the Jewish world and in the Gentile world.
Revelation 1:4a 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 verse 11. The seven churches were in those seven cities respectively. (2153)
In these paragraphs, Witness Lee points out that according to the recorded practice of the apostles in Acts and the Epistles, the local churches were clearly established in separate and respective cities.