In my last post on how to do church I stressed that New Testament writers always used the Greek word ekklesia to mean a local church rather than the universal church. I have been challenged on that, so here is the article from the New Bible Dictionary (IVP) that I was quoting from:
"Although we often speak of these congregations collectively as the New Testament Church or the Early Church, no New Testament writer uses ekklesia in this collective way. An ekklesia was a meeting or assembly. Its commonest use was for the public assembly of citizens duly summoned, which was a feature of all the cities outside Judea where the gospel was planted (eg Acts 19:39). Ekklesia was also used among the Jews (LXX) for the 'congregation of Israel' which was constituted at Sinai and assembled before the LORD at annual feasts in the persons of its representative males (Acts 7:38). Whether the Christian use of ekklesia was first adopted from Gentile or Jewish usages, it certainly implied 'meting' rather than 'organization' or 'society'. Locality was essential to its character. The local ekklesia was not thought of as part of some world wide ekklesia, which would have been a contradiction in terms. The reference in the best texts of Acts 9:31 to the church 'throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria' is not an exception. Since this verse concludes the pericope (that's a technical term for a short passage of Scripture read in public worship so why they don't use 'passage' is beyond me; obfuscation for the sake of it) describing the scattering of the Jerusalem church (Acts 8:1) it seems right to take ekklesia here to be the Jerusalem church so spread as to occupy the territory of 'the ancient ekklesia which had its home in the whole land of Israel' (the quote is from Hort: The Christian Ekklesia)".
"While there might be as many churches as there are cities or even households, yet the New Testament recognized only one ekklesia without finding it necessary to explain the relationship between the one and the many. The one was not an amalgamation or a federation of the many. It was a 'heavenly' reality belonging not to the form of this world but to the realm of resurrection glory where Christ is exulted at the right hand of God. (Eph 1:20-23, Heb 2:12 and 12:23) (ie the 'locality' is heaven). Yet since the local ekklesia was gathered together in Christ's name and had Him in its midst it tasted the power of the age to come and was the first fruits of that eschatological ekklesia. So the local church was called 'the church of God which he has purchased with His own blood (Acts 20:28)."
I think that what the author was keen to emphasize was the error of Rome, which talks about one church based in Rome that has branches everywhere. The church is not like Wal-Mart with a headquarters somewhere in Bentonville, Arkansas and branches everywhere. He is stressing the autonomy of the local church against this. He sees our membership of a single universal church as a heavenly truth - an eschatological certainty - which may be realized in a spiritual sense now; we are all part of one body, but does not become a reality until the second coming. As far as I can see, where the reference is not confined to a local church, our membership of one body always relates to our relationship to Christ - who is in fact in heaven. We have a closeness to our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in other localities, but that relationship is through Christ, not in any earthly hierarchy. We relate to our brothers and sisters in Canterbury because we are all adopted into the family of God, not because the Archbishop of Canterbury has a lordship or oversight over all Christians in England.