There is no “the local church” if that means something distinct from “the church.”
There is West Highland Baptist Church, Pineland Baptist Church, Grace Toronto and so on. These titles name congregations that meet within buildings or rented space.
These congregations are local expressions of the body of Christ, that is, the church. The church is the body of Christ. The church is all believers united to Christ by faith in the Spirit.
Paul (and Jesus) regularly define the church in this way: “And he is the head of the body, the church” (Col 1:18), for example.
To pray for the church means to pray for the body of Christ, all believers. To pray for the local church means to pray for a local expression of the body of Christ in one place like West Highland Baptist Church in Hamilton.
The church in Corinth, Ephesus, and Thessalonica which Paul writes to names the “body of Christ” in that city. That why Paul writes to the “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae” (Col 1:2) which he defines as: “the body, the church” (Col 1:18).
As the body, Christ is the head. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit. We are the building where God dwells. Christ is head; we are body. We are members of one another; one is a hand, the other a foot.
The Bible is clear: “I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24) or: “Christ is the head of the church, his body” (Eph 5:23).
And when his body congregates together, they share in the gifts of the Holy Spirit:
“For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.”
And some of these gifts include gifts that edify the body through organization, leadership, and teaching: elders and deacons and their various other terms (bishop, pastors).
Now some might read this and nod along. Well, yes, because the Bible says it.
But I suppose the reason why I lay all of this out is that I have noticed that we tend to work from the notion of the “local church” to the notion of the “universal church.” Okay, totally fine. That’s how we experience things in regular life.
But theologically, Scripture seems to start with the body of Christ, the church, and then move to the local expression of that body in a single place.
Maybe the order does not matter much. But I have a feeling it does. I have the sense that starting with the body of Christ, the church, as Scripture clearly defines it would make us see the congregations around us as partners, parts of our body, rather than a building with people in it.
Local gatherings would still remain the primary organizational structure for our worship. But it would be part of an organic whole. It would make it easy to affirm with Paul (as he does in Romans) that local churches have a duty or obligation to one another.
In other words, there is THE CHURCH per se. And then there are local expressions of THE CHURCH, the body of Christ, which we call “local churches” as a shorthand for this theological long-hand.
In Paul’s language, he can write “To the church of God that is in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2). Note the ordering: the church of God (i.e. the body of Christ) “that is in Corinth” (i.e. in a locale).
That seems to matter a lot.