The Lord Jesus has complete authority over all Creation. As its maker and sustainer, and being the one for whom ultimately it exists, He is Firstborn over it (Col 1.15). He has the same position over the Church. By the blood of His cross He brought it into being, He sustains it, and it is ultimately for Him just as a bride is for her husband (Eph 5.23,25-27). The metaphors used to describe the relationship between Christ and the Church not only include that of a bride but also a body (Eph 4.16). Salvation links us eternally to Christ and we become members of His body. We are linked to Him just as our limbs are joined to our own bodies. The picture is used to illustrate that our spiritual life is found in Him and is governed by Him. Every believer from Pentecost to the Rapture is a member of that organic whole.
Now at this moment many who have believed are already in heaven (2 Cor 5.8). The apostles and their successors have gone before "we which are alive and remain". The time will come when we are all there with Him (1 Thess 4.15-17). This is emphasised in the picture of the Bride in Ephesians 5: "Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it That he might present it to himself not having spot" (vv.25-27).
In this short article I use "church" consistently for ease in quoting Scripture while being well aware that "assembly" is a better translation though even that word is not immediately clear to a reader with no knowledge of Scripture. The mob that rioted in Ephesus (Acts 19.28-41) illustrates the meaning. That pagan gathering had come together in the name of the goddess Diana. It was an "assembly" (v.32). The town clerk appealed for matters to be decided "in a lawful assembly" (v.39) called in the name of the city. An assembly is therefore a group of people called together. In particular, what has called them together is a name, or rather a person or authority whose name is the point of gathering. We are gathered together in the name of the Lord Jesus.
That He alone is Head is unchallengeable. As Head, He who gave himself will cherish and nurture His bride and expects in return love, loyalty and obedience. When the whole Church is finally together in heaven there will be no possibility of its falling short. It will forever be true to Him.
A source of confusion in thinking of the Church comes from a failure to understand the distinction between it and the nation of Israel. Now it is the case that Israel has a distinct and unique place in Gods purpose. In Daniel 9.23-27 the seventy weeks described to the prophet by Gabriel deal with "thy people and thy holy city". They concern Israel the nation and Jerusalem the city. Sixty-nine of the "weeks" have passed, the Messiah has been cut off and the city destroyed; the seventieth week has yet to begin. During this intervening period God is not idle. Rather He is active in the salvation of men and women and their addition to the Church. When the final week of the seventy does begin the focus will not be the Church but the same nation and the same city that were the subjects of the first sixty-nine.
For the avoidance of any doubt it should be said that the sacrifice of Christ provides the basis not only for the salvation of the "members of the body of Christ" but also for every redeemed Israelite (and that includes Abraham)! Indeed, any forgiveness can only be so on the basis of the death of Christ. It is the sole effective sacrifice for sins. It is true that Christ loved the Church, but (despite the protests of some among them) He also loved Israel. "I have loved you, saith the Lord" (Mal 1.2). Nonetheless the Church has a special place in His affection as His bride.
Confusion between Israel and the Church and teaching that Israel has been replaced by the Church fails to take account of Daniel 9 and is also in conflict with Romans 11. Paul states clearly that "blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles be come in", and then "all Israel shall be saved" (vv.25-26). The gifts and calling of God are irrevocable.
The Church which is His Body is sometimes termed "The Universal Church" to emphasise that is comprises all believers in every generation from Pentecost till the return of the Lord Jesus for His people. Only then will we all be gathered together.
Of course the Lord does not want us to wait until we get to Heaven before we enjoy fellowship with one another. He expects us to meet with other believers in local churches. Each of these is to reflect the character of the greater whole to which we belong the Church which is His body and His bride. His relationship to each individual local church mirrors His relationship to the Universal Church. Among other things this means that He is the Head of each individual church, and that He is the Head, as with other truths about Him, calls for the response of obedience and worship.
John sees Christ walking among the candlesticks in Revelation 1 and records His message for each company in the two succeeding chapters. However one interprets the angels who are addressed in that section of Scripture it is obvious that, in each case, the message is given to "the angel of the church". It is not given to an archangel for subsequent distribution to the various churches. There is no hierarchy between Christ and the individual church. No archangel, no archbishop, no group of overseers representing several churches (or in the case in point, representing the seven churches in Asia) is given delegated power by the risen Christ to act on His behalf over several churches.
We therefore teach "the autonomy of the local church". That means independent accountability to the Lord. While good relationships with other local churches are valuable and to be fostered, it must not be at the expense of autonomy. The local church to which I belong may agree or disagree with the decisions and practices of others, but we have no right to interfere in their affairs or they in ours. Such churches are not called to establish formal links with one another. There is no evidence that Pauls reference to "the churches of God" in 1 Corinthians 11.16 denotes a formal grouping. Rather, in that early day, it was the case that practices were similar. The Corinthians give a sad example of the beginnings of departure which meant that they differed from others in dealing with headship and head covering. There was no sanction threatened other than that Paul himself would visit and deal with this and other matters and rebuke those who were arrogant in refusing his teaching (4.19). No group of overseers, no bishop will come to excommunicate them from a formal circle of churches. While such things can happen among denominations they are not scriptural. There is no set, established group of churches that we can define that alone can claim the Lord walking among them. As with individuals, so with churches, "The Lord knoweth them that are his". He alone can remove the lampstand (Rev 2.5).
As I move from one area to another it is a matter of my conscience as to where I as an individual will have fellowship with other believers, and I will surely seek that fellowship. It is my own responsibility as to where I meet, as it is the responsibility of those I approach as to whether they receive me. In going I will be guided by the overseers of the company I leave and carry a letter of commendation from them. The letter is a scriptural and courteous way of offering reassurance that I am not likely to cause problems for those who receive me but rather that I will be a help. However, a letter is not an admission ticket. Those who receive must exercise their own judgment before the Lord as to whether they will receive, remembering, of course, the responsibility to "receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God".
That a letter is not a ticket also means that a letter is not necessary where someone well known to the company is on a visit.
To be continued.