The Universal Church Theory
WEIGHED IN THE BALANCES AND FOUND WANTING
By Thomas Williamson,
For many decades independent Baptists, and other fundamentalist believers, have called for ecclesiastical separation from denominations and conventions controlled by unbelievers; but why should we separate from believers in these denominations if we are all part of one great Universal Church?
We have valiantly opposed the ecumenical movement; but why should we not all get together if we are already joined in a Universal Church anyway?
We have championed the autonomy and final authority of the local church, as opposed to control over local churches by a convention; but if the Universal Church exists, isn't it selfish for local churches to insist on having their own way, at the expense of the greater good of the greater Church?
The answer to these questions is simple. The doctrine of the Universal Church is unscriptural--the Universal Church does not exist
Yet many independent Baptists continue to believe in and teach the existence of the Universal Church, even though such teaching undermines everything that independent Baptists stand for, and contradicts our Bible-based ecclesiology.
Instead of undermining our own position and principles by teaching the Universal Church theory, it is absolutely necessary and urgent that we examine that theory, and expose it for the fraud that it is. That is what this booklet is all about. The material in this booklet demands your thoughtful, prayerful attention.
AN INQUIRY INTO THE MEANING OF THE GREEK WORD ECCLESIA
Beliefs about the nature of the Universal Church vary among the different branches of Christendom. Evangelical Protestants teach that the Universal Church is a body of believers stretching across thousands of years of time, from Pentecost to the Rapture, including the dead and many not yet born; that its membership includes believers all over the earth and cuts across denominational lines; that all in this far-flung membership are somehow organically related to one another in an undefined, mystical way even though they never meet; and that this vast collection of believers is one and the same with the Body of Christ which Paul referred to in his epistles.
Does the Universal Church really exist? To find out, we must turn to the Bible. Our logical first step is to conduct a word study of the Greek word ecclesia, which is translated "church" in our English Bibles, to see if the meaning of this word teaches, or allows for, a Universal Church.
In a word study of ecclesia, our natural starting point is with the well-known lexicons and dictionaries of Greek New Testament words. In the dictionary appended to Strong's Concordance, we find this definition: "Ekklesia...from a comp. of 1537 and a der. of 2564,- a calling out, i.e. (concr.) a popular meeting, espec. a religious congregation (Jewish synagogue or Chr. community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both):--assembly, church."
Berry's lexicon defines ecclesia in this way: "Ecclesia...an assembly of Christian believers, a church in one place, Ac. 11:26; often plural, as Ac. 15:41; the whole body of believers on earth, 1 Cor. 12:28; Ep. 1:22;or in heaven, Heb. 12:23."
Vine describes ecclesia in these terms: "Assembly. 1. Ekklesia, from ek, out of, and klesis, a calling (kaleo, to call), was used among the Greeks of a body of citizens gathered to discuss the affairs of State, Acts 19:39. In the Septuagint it is used to designate the gathering of Israel, summoned for any definite purpose, or gathering regarded as representative of the whole nation. In Acts 7:38 it is used of Israel; in 19:32,41, a riotous mob. It has two applications to companies of Christians, (a) to the whole company of the redeemed throughout the present era, the company of which Christ said, 'I will build my Church,' Matt. 16:18, and which is further described as 'the Church which is His Body,' Eph. 1:22, 5:22, (b) in the singular number (e.g., Matt. 18:17, R.V., marg., 'congregation'), to a company consisting of professed believers, e.g., Acts 20:28; 1Cor.1:2; Gal. 1:13; l Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess.1:1; 1 Tim. 3:5, and in the plural, with reference to churches in a district."
It would appear that here we have convincing and unanimous testimony, by the experts, indicating that the word ecclesia has a double meaning, and can refer to a local church. or the Universal Church, depending on the context in which it is used. We might be tempted to conclude our word study here, with the determination that the concept of universality inheres in ecclesia.
But that would be a mistake. It is clear, from the definitions we have seen, that the authors of these lexicons have read into the Greek word ecclesia a concept of universality derived from an assumed universal-church interpretation of certain New Testament verses. Berry and Vine quote some of those verses while Strong does not. It will become evident to us that these lexicographers have not defined ecclesia according to its classical Greek meaning at the time the New Testament was written, enabling us to take that definition to the New Testament to determine what is meant. Rather, they have defined or assumed a meaning for these verses based on the presuppositions of their theological background, and then described ecclesia in such away as to fit their interpretation.
In our next chapter we will examine the verses cited by Berry and Vine, as well as other verses, that are alleged to teach a Universal Church. This will enable us to conclude that no Universal Church can be found in those verses, and that this second or double meaning for ecclesia expounded by the lexicographers has no factual basis. In the meantime, it is sufficient for us to remind ourselves that even experts in the field of lexicography are not infallible. The Reformed scholar Louis Berkhof warns us that:
"It is necessary to bear in mind that the Lexicons are not absolutely reliable, and that they are least so, when they descend to particulars. They merely embody those results of the exegetical labors of various interpreters that commended themselves to the discriminating judgement of the lexicographer, and often reveal a difference of opinion. It is quite possible, and in some cases perfectly evident, that the choice of a meaning was determined by dogmatical bias... If the interpreter has any reason to doubt the meaning of a word, as given by the Lexicon, he will have to investigate for himself." (Principles of Biblical Interpretation, Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1950, pp. 68-69)
Our next step in understanding the meaning of ecclesia is to consider its etymological meaning. We have already seen that the word literally means "to call out of." Universal Church advocate Sweeting says: "The word for 'church,' ekklesia, is made up of two separate words: the preposition ek, meaning 'out of,' and the verb kaleo, meaning 'to call.' So the word 'church,' speaks of a called-out group of people, a people separated by God unto Himself." (George Sweeting, "You and Your Church," transcript of a radio message provided by "Moody Presents," Moody Bible Institute, Chicago, 1986, p.2).
Berkhof seconds that statement, saying: "Take the New Testament word ekklesia, derived from ek and kalein. It is a designation of the Church, both in the Septuagint and in the New Testament, and points to the fact that this consists of a people that is 'called out,' i.e., out of the world in special devotion to God." (op cit., p. 67).
It would be tempting for us to conclude from the etymology of ecclesia, that the word refers to all of God's elect, in all places and ages, thus supporting a Universal-Church interpretation of the word. Such a conclusion would be premature, however. B.H. Carroll insists that the members of an ecclesia, in its classical Greek usage, are called out not from the world as believers, but from their homes to attend a meeting: "What, then, etymologically, is the meaning of this word? Its primary meaning is: An organized assembly whose members have been properly called out from private homes or business to attend to public affairs. This definition necessarily implies prescribed conditions of membership...Locality inheres in Ecclesia. There can be no assembly now or hereafter without a place to meet." ("Ecclesia - The Church," Little Rock, Challenge Press, n.d., pp. 8, 22).
The question of whether the members of an ecclesia are elect believers of all ages "called out" from the world at large, or members of a local assembly "called out' from the community to their place of meeting, is one that need not, and indeed cannot, be settled by etymological evidence alone. The meaning of a word often changes over the centuries, so that its meaning in current usage may be quite different from its meaning when the word was coined. Thus etymological evidence, while useful, must not be subordinated to a consideration of the meaning of the word in current usage. Berkhof cautions us that "The etymological meaning of a word does not always shed light on its current signification...The current signification of a word is of far more importance for the interpreter than its etymological meaning." (op. cit., pp. 67-68).
Edward Overbey gives some examples of words whose meaning has changed, and decides that no hard-and-fast conclusions can be made about the meaning of ecclesia based on its original etymology: "A few words should be said about the etymology of ekklesia before going on...A distinction should be maintained between the etymology of a word and its meaning at some particular time in history. Sometimes the two are the same: many times they are quite different. 'Hussy' came from 'huswife' which means housewife; today it means worthless woman, or girl, or a pert girl. 'Constable' came from 'comes stabuli' which means attendant of the stable; today it means a peace officer. Ekklesia came from ekkletos which means called out but in the times prior to the New Testament it meant assembly or called out assembly. To say it means the called out is not correct. Broadus writes, 'The Greek word ecclesia signified primarily the assembly of citizens in a self-governed state, being derived from ekkaleo, to call out; i.e., out of their homes or places of business, to summon, as we speak of calling out the militia. The popular notion that it meant to call out in the sense of separation from others, is a mistake...' Hort also confirms this when he writes, 'There is no foundation for the widely spread notion that ekklesia means a people or a number of individual men called out of the world or mankind." ("The Meaning of Ecclesia in the New Testament," Little Rock, Challenge Press, 1974, p.10). Added note: The word "stewardess" comes from the Anglo-Saxon words meaning "warden of the pigsty," but the word no longer means that today.
Thus the etymological case for a universal-church rendering of ecclesia is inconclusive. The word originally meant "called out," but those who glibly state that the called out are elect believers of all ages appear to be reading into the word more meaning than the etymological evidence can sustain. In addition, it is evident that the meaning of this word in the Greek language at the time that the New Testament was written is not necessarily determined by its etymological meaning.
Even if we admit that ecclesia has the etymological meaning that universal-church advocates assign to it, this would not settle the question of the grammatical interpretation of that word in the New Testament, especially since all promoters of the Universal Church admit that ecclesia in the New Testament refers, in the vast majority of occurrences, to a local church. To define the meaning of ecclesia in First Century A. D. usage, we should examine its usage in Greek language texts available to us from that era or the centuries immediately preceding it. These citations are found from three categories of literature: classical, secular Greek literature, the Septuagint (the first Greek translation of the Old Testament, from the Third Century BC,) and the New Testament itself.
Concerning classical Greek usage, S.E. Anderson makes this observation: "We know it is not fair to impose distorted 20th-Century definitions on a good First-Century word. Classical Greek writers defined ekklesia as assembly or congregation." ("The Meaning and Use of Ecclesia in the First Christian Century," Little Rock, Challenge Press, n.d., p.2).
Carroll lists a number of quotes from the writings of Thucydides, Demosthenes and Aristophanes, in all of which the context shows that ecclesia refers to a local assembly, and concludes: "Ecclesia, Primary meaning. An organized assembly of citizens, regularly summoned, as opposed to other meanings." (op. cit., p.44).
The same author states that ecclesia was a word that was used by the Greeks specifically for local assemblies only, and that another word was used exclusively for assemblies of a more general or universal nature: " . . . those showing the discriminating character of the Greek mind in the use of panegyros, as distinguished from ecclesia. Ecclesia was the particular and independent business assembly of any Greek state, however small. Panegyros was the general assembly of the people of all the Greek states. It was a festive assembly looking to rest, joy, peace, glory, and not to business and war." (Ibid.., p.26).
The search for any classical Greek citation of ecclesia that would support a Universal Church interpretation is bound to end in failure. Anderson states: "Some of the greatest Greek scholars say that no case has been found in classic Greek where ecciesia is used of unassembled or unassembling persons. " ("The First Church," Little Rock, Challenge Press, 1964, p.88).
Roy Mason elaborates on that statement: "Prof. Royal, of Wake Forest college, North Carolina, who taught Prof. A. T. Robertson, of the Louisville Seminary, and Prof. C. B. Williams, Greek, when asked if he knew of an instance in classic Greek where ecclesia was ever used of a class of 'unassembled or unassembling persons’ said: 'I do not know of any such passage in classic Greek.' With this statement agree Professors Burton of Chicago University, Stifler of Crozer, Strong of Rochester and many other scholars." ("The Church That Jesus Built," Clarksville, Tennessee, Baptist Bible Church Publications, 1977, p.40).
We may conclude our remarks on classical Greek usage with these further comments by Mason: "What, then, let us ask, did the word mean as understood by the people of that day? Says Dr. Geo. W. McDaniel (The churches of the New Testament), 'Both with the Greeks and the Jews, the word denoted an assembly of the people... Among the Greeks ecclesia was the assembly of the citizens of a free city-state gathered by a herald blowing a horn through the streets of a town.' Dr. Thomas says in another place, 'It was the organized assembly of the authorized voters of the local community met to transact business of a common concern. It corresponded to the town meeting of New England of later days.' Lidell and Scott (Greek Lexicon) define the word ecclesia as follows: 'An assembly of citizens summoned by the crier, the legislative assembly....' Therefore, since ecclesia in its accepted meaning carried with it the idea of locality and organization, to make it refer to a so-called 'universal, invisible' church, possessing neither locality nor organization, is to do violence to the word and to use it in a purely arbitrary sense." (Ibid., p.28).
Thus from a survey of classical Greek usage, we see that the word ecclesia meant more than "called out." It meant a "called-out assembly," with emphasis on the concept of a local assembly. The concept of Universality cannot be supported from Classical Greek usage. Indeed, the Greek definition appears to rule out the idea of a body of believers scattered through space and time, who never meet.
Our second source of information on the actual meaning of ecclesia is the Septuagint. Carroll quotes all 92 passages in the Septuagint, including Apocrypha, where the word ecclesia appears according to the concordance of Trommius, and then adds citations found in other versions of the Septuagint, showing that all of these citations, without exception, refer to a local assembly, company or congregation. He concludes: "In every instance of the 114 cited the word means a gathering together--an assembly. You can see that for yourselves by the context of your English version. The Septuagint usage is as solidly one thing as the Macedonian phalanx. " (op. cit., p. 27).
Overbey makes these observations: "Ekklesia never translates the Hebrew word edhah which Hort says might be 'Israel . . . whether assembled or not assembled' but translates qahal, which means assembly.... Dana concludes his study of ekklesia in the Septuagint in these words, 'There are three facts about the Septuagint use of ekklesia, and the Old Testament use of qahal, which are of importance to us in a study of the church. (1) It is never contemplated as a spiritual fact, independent of spacial and temporal limitations. (2) The assembly (ekklesia) of Israel as a peculiar possession of Jehovah was contemplated as an ideal conception, but having its literal counterpart in a definite gathering of the people. (3) The word came, especially in the inter-biblical period, to denote a local gathering for purposes of worship....'
"After personally examining every place where ekklesia occurs in the Septuagint I am convinced that the word retains the same basic meaning it has in classical Greek of assembly in every place.... A principle accepted by all scholars is that the most prevalent meaning of the word must stand in every place as long as it makes good sense. A new or rare meaning cannot be admitted even though it could be shown that it would make good sense in some particular place as long as the prevalent meaning fits the context." (op. cit., pp.11-13).
Thus we conclude that the Septuagint, which was widely circulated among, and well known to, Jews and Christians of the First Century A. D., contains no hint of any usage of ecclesia to mean anything other than a local assembly. The testimony of both classical Greek usage, and usage in the Septuagint, is unanimous on this point.
It remains for us to examine the usage of ecclesia in the New Testament for any signs of teaching of the Universal Church. We will do so in the next chapter. It is to be admitted that even though an examination of classical Greek and Septuagint usage utterly fails to support any conception of ecclesia as universal, yet the word may be used in a different sense in the New Testament to teach new truths that were not revealed by God before the Christian era, including the truth of the Universal Church. However, the way to find out whether ecclesia is used in a new way in the New Testament is through a careful exegesis of the verses where it occurs, without reading in the theological assumptions of later centuries, and without any assumption that universality inheres, or can be found in, the original meaning of the Greek word.
As a preliminary observation, before beginning a study of ecclesia in the New Testament, let it be noted that it is widely admitted, even by Universal Church advocates, that ecclesia in the New Testament refers to a local church or assembly in the vast majority of cases. Henry Vedder states: "Though in the Gospels we find little about the church, as has already been noted, in the other New Testament writings we find much. The word ecclesia (assembly, church) is used in these documents 114 times, and in three different senses as applied to Christians: once to denote the assembly of the saints in heaven (Heb. 12:23); often to describe the one assembly of the saints, the church universal, composed of all followers of Christ; but in the great majority of cases (85) to denote a local assembly or congregation of the followers of Christ. The church universal is not regarded in the Epistles as a visible and organized body, but is wholly spiritual, incorporeal, corresponding essentially to the idea of the kingdom of God taught in the Gospels. The only visible and organized body of Christians recognized by the New Testament writers was the local assembly or congregation. In other words, the apostles knew nothing of a church; they knew only churches." ("A Short History of the Baptists," Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Judson Press, 1967, p.24).
Universal Church advocate Paul Jackson finds that ecclesia in the New Testament refers to the local church "some 90 times," and to the Universal Church about 20 times. ("The Doctrine and Administration of the Church," Schaumburg, Illinois, Regular Baptist Press, 1968, p. 11).
If the word is used in a local sense most of the time, then the burden of proof rests upon those who insist that it is ever used in a universal sense.
We must determine at this point that as we study the New Testament references to ecclesia, we have no justification for reading in the concept of the Universal Church. Classical Greek usage and Septuagint references unite in opposing such an interpretation. The etymology of ecclesia provides no conclusive evidence, since it does not tell us where those in the ecclesia are called out from or to what they are called out. All the evidence we have so far indicates that they are called out to an assembly that is local, not universal, in nature.
Since the idea of universality is not inherent or latent in ecclesia, we are entitled to expect that the New Testament teaching on the subject of the church must plainly state the doctrine of the Universal Church, leaving us no doubt that the concepts taught cannot be understood in the usual sense of a local assembly. It will not be sufficient to assume, since theologians of later centuries taught a Universal Church, that the idea is hidden in the New Testament somewhere. Only if an unbiased exegesis of the text in its context clearly demonstrates that there is an ecclesia that is not bound by the normal space-time limitations of a local assembly, are we then permitted to retain the doctrine of the Universal Church in our statements of faith and our Christian dogma.
NEW TESTAMENT USAGE OF ECCLESIA AND SUPPOSED REFERENCES TO THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH
It is not necessary for us to examine all of the 114 occurrences of ecclesia in the Greek New Testament, since it is admitted by all that most of these occurrences refer to a local assembly or gathering, whether religious or, as in Acts 19:32, secular in nature. Since the well-known and widely circulated Scofield Bible (1917 edition) cites 12 verses or groups of verses which, if considered together, are supposed to teach a doctrine of a Universal Church, it should be sufficient to examine these verses, which are widely cited as proof-texts by Universal Church proponents. If the Universal Church cannot be found in these verses, it probably cannot be found anywhere in the Bible.
A. MATTHEW 16:18
Matthew 16:18 is the first in Scofield's chain of proof-texts that allegedly prove the existence of a Universal Church, or "the true church" as Scofield calls it. The verse reads: "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it."
Is the church referred to here the Universal Church, or could it be a local assembly? Scofield admits, in a footnote to this verse, that the word ecclesia does not in and of itself indicate universality: "Gr. ecclesia (ek = 'out of,' kaleo = 'to call'), an assembly of called-out ones. The word is used of any assembly; the word itself implies no more, as, e.g., the town-meeting at Ephesus (Act. 19:39), and Israel, called out of Egypt and assembled in the wilderness (Acts 7:38)."
In other words, any teaching of a Universal Church must be found in the context of Scripture in which the word ecclesia appears, since the word itself gives no encouragement to Universal Church doctrine. If Matthew 16:18 is considered in the context of all references by Christ Himself regarding the Church, it is found that in all other cases, Christ was clearly referring to a local assembly. Only in Matthew 16:18 is it alleged that Christ spoke of a Universal Church. Mason makes this observation: "All kinds of efforts are being made today to make this passage refer to the universal church. It does nothing of the kind. The word is used here in an institutional or abstract sense. That He did not refer to a universal church Jesus made plain in His very next mention of the word church (Mt. 18:17) where He counseled 'tell it to the church.' How could they tell something to a universal, invisible, spiritual church? Absurd." ("Myth of the Universal Invisible Church Theory Exploded," Little Rock, Challenge Press, 1978, p. 20).
Another writer has elaborated on the same point: "The word translated 'church' in Matthew 18 is the word ekklesia - literally, 'a called out assembly.' Its occurrence here was not the first time the Lord's disciples heard it from the lips of their Teacher. Earlier, in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said to the same group of men, 'I will build my church (ekklesia); and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.' From that point on, ekklesia took on a new and special significance to the disciples. When they heard the same word just a short time later, they undoubtedly continued to think of it in terms of the same called-out assembly against which the gates of hell would not prevail. That understanding of ekklesia, however, still leaves two choices for its interpretation - either the universal church or a local church. Since to assemble the universal church to do what He commanded in the passage would be physically impossible, Jesus clearly had a scripturally organized local assembly of New Testament believers in mind when He gave those instructions. " "Does the Bible Teach Congregational Rule?," Baptist Bulletin, February, 1986, p.15.
Since the church that meets in Matthew 18 to exercise church discipline is clearly a local assembly, and since Christ did not stop to explain to His disciples that this church was of an entirely different nature from the one He had just spoken of in Matthew 18, it appears that Christ was not speaking of a Universal Church in Matthew 16:18. Anderson expands the point further by noting that all of Christ's other references to the church, in Revelation as well as in Matthew, were to the local church: "Since Jesus used 'church' 22 times as a real assembly, then His use of it in Mt. 16:18 has to mean the same thing. He would not mean one kind of church first, and ever thereafter mean a far different kind of church. More, He did not say, 'I will build two kinds of churches.' That would be extremely confusing for who could tell which kind He meant in every case?" "Meaning and Use of Ecclesia," p.3.
He adds: "Scofield's first reference to his alleged 'true church' is Mt. 16:18 - 'I will build my church.' If Jesus meant a ‘universal' church here, then He never referred to it again. But He mentioned 'church' twice in Mt. 18:17, and 20 times in the Revelation, each time meaning real, local churches. More - what is there about a 'universal' church to build? Worse, Scofield denies that Christ did build His church! With no support whatever, he says 15 times that the Spirit 'formed' the church at Pentecost." (S.E. Anderson, "Four Front Doors to New Testament Churches," Little Rock, Challenge Press, 1976, p.63).
Since Christ never described His church as anything other than a local assembly in His other references, it would be improper to suppose that He did in Matthew 16:18 unless there is clear evidence from that verse, in its immediate context, that He regarded the Church here as universal. It is often stated that since He referred to the Church as singular, not plural, He could not have been speaking of many local churches, only of one Universal Church. However, this is a false assumption, since we often refer to things in the abstract as singular, to denote all items of that class. Anderson explains:
"The first use of 'church' in Mt. 16:18 is generic or institutional. Jesus meant to have more than one, even as God planned more than one man when He said in Gen. 1:26, 'Let us make man.' We hear 'the dog is man's best friend' which means not a universal dog or a universal man. So the generic use of 'church' in Mt. 16:18 and elsewhere means each real church." ("Meaning and Use of Ecclesia"), p. 3.
Carroll further elucidates on the concept of the generic use of ecclesia: "Whenever the abstract or generic finds concrete expression, or takes operatic shape, it is always a particular assembly. This follows from the laws of language governing the use of words. For example, if an English statesman, referring to the right of each individual citizen to be tried by his peers, should say: 'On this rock England will build her jury and all power of tyrants shall not prevail against it' he uses the term jury in an abstract sense, i.e., in the sense of an institution. But when this institution finds concrete expression, or becomes operative, it is always a particular jury of 12 men, and never an aggregation of all juries into one big jury." (op. cit., p. 9).
Thus the fact that Christ spoke of the church as singular does not provide any evidence that He spoke here of the Church as Universal, rather than local.
Another objection often made is that Christ said that the gates of hell would never prevail against His Church, and that such a statement could refer only to the Universal Church, not to local churches, many of whom have failed for one reason or another. For instance, Robert Sumner states: "While most references to the church in the Word of God admittedly refer to a local church, there are other references that do not fit such a designation. For example, Matthew 16:18 could not possibly refer to the local church. The gates of Hell have, alas, prevailed against altogether too many local churches." (Footnote to William Barber, "The Importance of the Local Church," Biblical Evangelist, May 1, 1986, p. 15).
Is it true that Christ could not have been speaking of local churches, in His reference to the gates of Hell? Not necessarily. Charles Erdman interprets the "gates of Hell" as a reference to death: "Upon such a man, and such men, the church was founded; and of such men the church of all ages has been composed. Such a church, too, is imperishable; 'the gates of Hades,' i.e., 'death,' the entrance to the under-world, 'shall not prevail against it." ("The Gospel of Matthew", Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1983, p.150).
Such an interpretation does not force us to regard this church as universal. It indicates that the institution of the church or churches, whether local or universal, will continue to exist in spite of the death of some of its members.
Mathew Henry interprets the "gates of Hell" as a reference to satanic opposition and persecution, saying: "Christ here promises to preserve and secure His church, when it is built; 'This implies that the church has enemies that fight against it, and endeavor its ruin and overthrow, here represented by the gates of hell, that is, the city of hell; (which is directly opposite to this heavenly city, this city of the living God), the devil's interest among the children of men. This assures us that the enemies of the church shall not gain their point. While the world stands, Christ shall have a church in it. Somewhere or other the Christian religion shall have a being, though not always in the same degree of purity and splendour, yet so as that the entail of it shall never be quite cut off. The church may be foiled in particular encounters, but in the main battle it shall come off more than a conqueror. " ("Commentary on the Whole Bible", Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1961, p. 1287).
This interpretation also lends itself to a local church concept. Though some local churches will cease existence, due to persecution and other causes, yet there will always be local churches somewhere in the earth. The failure or demise of some local churches does not imply the collapse of the institution of the local church, any more than the death of some horses spells the doom of all "horsedom," or the junking of some automobiles indicates the end of the Automobile Age.
If it could be proved that at one or more points in church history, there were no local churches of true believers functioning upon earth, then this might lend credence to the belief that Christ was not speaking of local churches, but rather a universal church. But such a theory would be impossible to prove, and to propose it would imply an omniscience concerning the religious history of the entire planet for the past 1900 years that is beyond the reach of any mortal man. On the contrary, it is generally accepted by church historians that evangelical local churches, consisting of born-again believers, have always existed at least somewhere on earth throughout those years.
For documentary evidence of the existence of true evangelical local churches from the time of the Apostles until now, the reader is invited to consider such works as "The History of the Baptists" by Thomas Armitage, "Baptist Church Perpetuity" by W.A. Jarrel, "A History of the Baptists" by John Christian, "Baptist History" by J.M. Cramp, and "The Waldenses Were Independent Baptists" by Thomas Williamson. (The last named title is available in full on the Internet at http://users.aol.com/libcfl2/walden.htm)
Besides, the burden of proof here is not on those who believe that the local churches have always existed in fulfillment of Jesus' promise, but rather on those who would claim that they died out at some point, before we can be forced to adopt a universal-church interpretation of Matthew 16:18.
Thus we see that there is nothing inherent in the phrase "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" that cannot be applied to the concept of the local church, or that requires a universal-church interpretation of Matthew 16:18.
What Christ said in Matthew 16:18 was that He was going to continually build His institution of the local church, (of which at least one was already in visible, functioning existence at that time), and that as a result of His continuous building and edifying activity, there would always be local churches somewhere on earth until His second coming, and that they would be victorious against the forces of hell. No universal-church teaching is stated or implied in Matthew 16:18, and to read it in to this verse does violence to the "first mention principle" of Biblical hermeneutics, which teaches that "the first time a thing is mentioned in Scripture it carries with it a meaning that will be carried all through the Word of God." (J. Edwin Hartill, "Principles of Biblical Hermeneutics," Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1947, p. 70).
If Christ's first mention of the church was of the Universal Church, then we would expect His subsequent references to the church to have the same meaning, or else we would expect Him to stop and carefully explain that He was now talking about something different. We have already seen that all of Christ's subsequent references to ecclesia refer to a local church, with never a hint that this kind of church is different from the church in Matthew 16:18. The Universal Church cannot be found, nor is it taught, in Matthew 16:18.
B. ACTS 2:47
The second proof-text cited by Scofield for the existence of the Universal Church is Acts 2:47, which reads: "Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved."
Is the Universal Church in view here? The context indicates otherwise. In Acts 2:41 we find that the way that new members were added to this church was through water baptism. This could apply only to a local church, not the Universal Church, since universal-church advocates teach that it includes all who are saved, whether they have been baptized or not. Mason comments: "After he has been born-again he is not yet in a church of God but is now a scriptural subject for admission into a church of God. 'The Lord added to the church daily the saved.' (Acts 2:47). Church membership was not something a man got with salvation, but a subsequent blessing he got after salvation by being added to the church." ("The Church That Jesus Built)," p. 39
We also find in the context, in Acts 2:42-46, that this church was not universal but local in extent. Its members were close enough to worship, fellowship, and pray together, to observe signs and wonders done by the apostles, to share their goods with each other, to meet at the temple, and to visit each other in their homes. Based on this evidence, Anderson concludes: "There was already a church to be 'added to.' and it was decidedly local - IN Jerusalem. 'They continued steadfastly...Fellowship... and all that believed were together...' No invisible, universal church here; it was a real church, localized in Jerusalem." (Four Front Doors", p. 63).
No believers or converts outside of the city of Jerusalem are mentioned in Acts 2. The church mentioned here was the local church in Jerusalem, which had at least 120 members before the day of Pentecost, and added 3000 before that day was over. None of those members were far removed, in time or place, from that local assembly in Jerusalem. This could not have been the Universal Church, because the Universal Church does not require baptism for membership, nor does it ever meet at one time at the temple or anywhere else.
Charles Ryrie describes the church of Acts 2:47 in these terms: "It was characterized by four things. (1) The teaching of the apostles. This would have consisted largely of the rehearsal of the fact, and meaning of the life of Jesus. (2) Fellowship. This means the sharing of their spiritual blessings in Christ and the sharing of their material substance. (3) Breaking of bread refers to the remembrance of the Lord in the Lord's Supper. (4) Prayers." ("The Acts of the Apostles," Chicago, Moody Press, 1961, p. 25).
To apply this description to the Universal Church would be absurd. The church of Acts 2:47 administered the Lord's Supper, which is something that universal-church advocates will admit is never done by the Universal Church. There is no Universal Church teaching in Acts 2:47 or its immediate context.
C. I CORINTHIANS 12:12-28
This lengthy passage reads: "For as the body in one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also in Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentile, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot shall say, Because I am not the hand, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? And if the ear shall say, Because I am not the eye, I am not of the body; is it therefore not of the body? If the whole body were an eye, where were the hearing? if the whole were hearing, where were the smelling? But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee; nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Nay, much more those members of the body, which seem to be more feeble, are necessary: And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. For our comely parts have no need: but God hath tempered the body together, having given more abundant honour to that part which lacked: That there should be no schism in the body; but that the members should have the same care one for another. And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one member be honoured, all the members rejoice with it. Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular. And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues."
At first glance, there does not appear to be any Universal Church teaching here, or any statements that could not apply to the local church at Corinth, to which the Apostle Paul was writing. This passage has been widely interpreted to refer to the Universal Church, but it provides no basis for such an interpretation. The context of the passage is that of an epistle to one definite local church, not to a scattered aggregate of believers who might constitute a Universal Church: "To interpret any part of l Corinthians to teach the universal heresy is a violation of all the laws of hermeneutics. The book of 1 Corinthians was written by the Apostle Paul to the local congregation of believers in Corinth. Throughout the epistle, Paul deals with problems in that local church... To base one's belief in a universal church on the 12th chapter of 1 Corinthians is to ignore the context of this passage. Unless Scripture is interpreted in relationship to that which preceeds and to that which follows, utter confusion will result." (J.H. Melton, "Thirty Expository Lessons in First Corinthians," Little Rock, Challenge Press, 1976, p. 110).
I Cor. 12:13 is commonly supposed to refer to a baptism by the Holy Spirit which introduces all converts into a universal body of Christ. However, in the context of this chapter, it is clear that "body" is a reference to a local congregation such as the church at Corinth to which Paul was writing this epistle. Concerning Paul's illustration of the interdependent parts of Christ's body, Anderson says: "Verses 14 to 26 of I Cor. 12 strongly emphasize the vital and necessary togetherness of all parts of each human body. The hands cannot live if cut off from the body; neither can the feet, eyes, ears or nose. Each part would die quickly if cut off, and the rest of the body would suffer great harm. All this exaggerates the interdependence of members of each real church body, for Paul was desperately anxious to have the Corinthian schismatics back together. And this is quite the opposite of the 'universal body of Christ' theory...The word 'body' cannot apply with any reason to a scattered, invisible, dismembered, dispersed and disintegrated number of separate, never-meeting, isolated, slices or segments. In NO WAY is the 'universal' church like a body." ("Four Front Doors," pp. 80-81).
Based on the immediate context, Melton correctly understands 12:13 in a local church context: "The 'baptism' by which one enters 'into' a New Testament church is water baptism, for the Holy Spirit does not 'baptize' anybody in a local assembly... All the members of the local church have been baptized 'in one spirit,' that is, in one mind, purpose, accord, and there is therefore oneness of aim for them to follow, oneness of privilege to enjoy, oneness of responsibility to discharge. Furthermore, they are said to 'drink of one spirit,' that is, they one and all appropriate (symbolized by drink) this oneness of spirit." (op. cit., pp. 111, 114).
Since there is nothing in the context of this verse to indicate a figurative or non-literal baptism, the usual, literal meaning of water baptism must be meant. Since water baptism is required for membership in a scriptural local church but not in the Universal Church, the local church must be in view here. The interpretation that the Holy Spirit baptizes believers, in a non-literal way, into a Universal Church, has no support from the immediate context or the teaching of the New Testament as a whole.
In fact, it contradicts the reference to "one baptism" in Ephesians 4:5. If we admit to the concept of a non-literal "Spirit baptism" in 1 Corinthians 12:13, then we have two baptisms, not one, which would lend credence to the "ultradispensationalist" teaching of J.C. O’Hair and Cornelius Stam who taught that water baptism is not for this age and that the "one baptism" of Ephesians 4:5 is a spirit baptism. To prove that the "one baptism" is immersion in water, not spirit baptism, is beyond the scope of this work, but that is the view of this writer, who certainly does not take the inconsistent and unscriptural view of "two baptisms," one of them literal and the other non-literal.
Thus the concept of the Body of Christ is seen to refer to a local church assembly like the one at Corinth. There is no basis, in this or any other New Testament passage, for the common use of the term "Body of Christ" as a synonym for the Universal Church. Mason expands on this point by saying: "The truth is each local assembly is a body of Christ, and He should be head over all things to every such church. Paul, the writer of this scripture, likewise writes to the Corinthians as expressed in I Corinthians 12:27 and says, 'Now ye (the Corinthian church) are a body of Christ and members in particular.'. . . If the Corinthian church was 'A body of Christ,' then every other such church is likewise the same." ("Myth of the Universal Invisible Church," p. 26).
Barber concurs with this view of 1 Cor. 12:27: "How refreshing to read 1 Corinthians 12 with reference to the local church, realizing that it is a body of Christ, and as such, presents God's sufficiency for our collective worship and service needs. A key to understanding that each local church is a body of Christ is the proper grammatical understanding of 1 Corinthians 12:27 where Paul says literally: 'Now you are a body of Christ.' The Greek reads umeis de este soma kristou. There is no definite article before soma (body) and this anarthrous construction yields a literal grammatical rendering 'a body of Christ.' " (Barber, op. cit., p. 15).
Melton finds a number of elements in the passage that consistently point to a local-church application. For instance, he states: "In 1 Cor. 12:26 we read 'and whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it, or one member in honored, all the members rejoice with it.' Now is this true of a Universal Church? Certainly not. Is it true that wherever a believer in Christ in India or in China (of whom I have never heard) 'suffers,' that 'all the members,' all the believers in America 'suffer' with it or him? Certainly often in experience, that when one member of a local church 'suffers' all the members of that local church suffer, too." (op. cit., pp.1 13-114).
The teaching of 1 Corinthians 12-12:28 may be summed up in this manner: The church here is the local church at Corinth, to which this passage is addressed. It is a church in which all members have submitted, in a spirit of oneness, to the ordinance of water baptism, which was taught and practiced by Paul when he founded the church, Acts 18:8. This church can now be thought of as a closely-knit body of believers, bound together with close ties of sympathy and interdependence. All of the members of this body are in one place and time, having intimate knowledge of each other, and sharing the benefits of the spiritually gifted persons that God has placed in their midst.
The Universal Church is not taught, hinted or intimated here in any way. To declare that this Body of Christ is really the Universal Church, scattered in space and time, is as absurd as to postulate the existence of a living, functioning human organism, some of whose hands, feet, eyes and ears are detached from the whole at a distance of 1000 miles, or to be found 1000 years in time away from other living, functioning parts of that body. Whether it is considered anatomically or theologically, Paul's famous illustration of the Body of Christ must refer to an organism found in one place and time.
D. 2 CORINTHIANS 11:2-3
We now move on to the next proof-text cited by Scofield, which reads: "For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ. But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ."
To understand why anyone would construe this passage as a reference to a Universal Church is quite difficult. Paul is still speaking here to the local assembly at Corinth, not to believers as a whole, or to any Christians outside of the local church at Corinth. Universal-church advocate John R. Rice fails to find any application of this passage beyond the local church at Corinth: "Paul desired to 'present you as a chaste virgin to Christ' (vs.2) ...Paul looked forward to the judgement seat of Christ when all these he had won to Christ in Corinth would appear." ("The Church of God at Corinth," Murfreesboro, Tennessee, Sword of the Lord, 1973, p. 247).
Homer Kent concurs that the reference here is to the local church at Corinth:
"In Paul's relationship with the Corinthian believers, he had fathered them in the faith. Now he adopted the figure of betrothal and pictured himself as the father of the bride. At their conversion these believers had collectively become the betrothed bride of Christ.... So Paul felt obligated to protect the purity of the Corinthian church until Christ should come. He wished to make sure that the church Christ would find at His coming was a pure one, not adulterated with falsity of doctrine or of life." ("A Heart Opened Wide - Studies in II Corinthians," Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1982, pp. 162-163).
There is abundant and conclusive contextual evidence for limiting the composition of the "chaste virgin" of this verse to the membership of the church at Corinth, and there is no basis for reading in the concept of the Universal Church, unless such a concept can be found to be clearly taught elsewhere in the Scripture. So far we have not been able to find any such teaching. Concerning this verse, Anderson concludes: "2 Cor. 11:2. No reason exists for reducing this message to Corinth down to an indefinite, vague, unseen, unreal 'church' of any kind. Damage: the 'universal' church idea condones neglect of real church loyalty as 'a chaste virgin to Christ,' in favor of cheap loyalty to an imaginary 'church'." ("Four Front Doors," p. 66).
E. EPHESIANS 1:22-23
This passage reads: "And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all."
This passage is referred to in numerous church confessions, and by innumerable advocates of the Universal Church position, as a crowning proof of the existence of the Universal Church in this age. However, we have already seen that in Matthew 16:18 Christ spoke of His church in a generic sense, as the institution of the local church or local churches, not as one great organism covering all Christians of all ages; thus, no conclusion can be drawn here that God is speaking about the church any differently. We have also seen that the Body of Christ is an organization that is local, closely knit together, with interlocking functions indispensable to the healthy life of the whole, and to be identified with a local church such as the one in Corinth (or in Ephesus or Laodicea.) Nowhere in this passage of Ephesians or its context do we find any basis for interpreting the terms "church" or "body of Christ" in a manner different from what we have consistently found these terms to mean in other contexts. Thomas Armitage explains further: "When the New Testament speaks of the entire Christian community as one 'Ecclesia,' it simply uses a common synecdoche, by which the whole is put for a part or a part for the whole, as the case maybe; the genus is put here for many individuals. Consequently, when Jesus is called the Founder, the Head, the Redeemer of His 'Ecclesia,' it is clearly meant, that what He is to one Christian congregation He is to all such congregations, the same severally and collectively. Exactly the same collective figure is used of a single Christian assembly, which is made up of many individuals. It 'is one body,' putting the one for the many, because each congregation is 'the flock,' the 'family,' the 'household,' of Christ, and what is true of each such assembly is equally true of all." ("The History of the Baptists," Minneapolis, James and Klock, 1977, p. 119).
It is important to keep in mind that Paul wrote the words of this epistle to one particular local church, the church in Ephesus (although he intended that it be read in other local churches in Asia as well.) It would be natural for the hearers to apply the words of Ephesians 1:22-23 to their own local church body, especially since in the following verses Paul speaks particularly of the circumstances of the conversion of the Ephesian believers which resulted in their joining that church. The only reason we read a Universal Church concept into these verses is because we have been taught to do so from our denominational creeds and the notes in our study Bibles; however, the context of these verses and the epistle as a whole is that of a local church in Ephesus, not a Universal Church.
Concerning these verses, Anderson comments: "Eph. 1:22-23'...the church, which is His body...' This body is defined in Eph. 4:16 as 'fitly joined together and compacted;' no 'universal body' or church fits, or is joined, or is together in this age! And our omnipresent Christ is able to be Head of each independent church as Conrad Hilton is to be the head of each of his hotels, worldwide." ("Four Front Doors, p. 66).
If we are tempted to believe that the exalted language of Ephesians 1:23 could only apply to the Universal Church, we should remind ourselves that Paul uses the same language in Ephesians 3:19, which is clearly a reference to the local church in Ephesus. Louis Entzminger states: "Ephesians 1:22 and 23 is one of the special passages the brethren use to prove the Universal Invisible Church idea. ...To prove clearly that the Apostle had reference here to the Church at Ephesus, in Eph. 3:19 in the great prayer he was making for them, he prays that they might live up to the high privileges claimed for them in 1:23, when he prays 'That ye might be filled with all the fullness of God' (3:19). And with reference to the statement 'the head over all things to the church,' presents no problem so far as that being a particular church. All the requirements of the language are met when, First, He is head over all things to the church on earth as an Institution; Second, He is head over all things to any and every particular church on earth; Third, He is head over all things to the general assembly in Glory, the glorified church." ("Studies in the New Testament Church," Little Rock, Challenge Press, 1976, p. 13).
We may safely conclude that there is nothing in Ephesians 1:22-23 that teaches the Universal Church, or requires a Universal Church interpretation.
F. EPHESIANS 2:19-22
The passage reads: "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God; And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit."
Since Paul is still addressing the local assembly at Ephesus, and is speaking of the close relationship and fellowship that they enjoy, it is difficult to see how this passage can be used in any way to support the Universal Church theory. The only support this text can yield for Universal Church teaching is found by seizing upon the phrase "all the building" and interpreting it as a reference to all the redeemed of all ages and on all continents, even though it could just as easily refer to the building or temple of the local church in Ephesus.
In any case, the phrase "all the building" may be understood to mean, "each several building:" R. Nelson Colyar sees it that way: "Quoting Dr. S.D.F. Salmond:'...We have to ask whether the phrase is to be rendered "the whole building" or "every building." The former rendering is certainly the one that first suggests itself, while the latter seems at first difficult to relate to the context.' He concludes: 'Hence the rendering here must be "every building" or "every several building."'(Expositor's Greek Testament, III, 300f.)
"Dr. James Robinson Boise prefers the rendering: 'each several building' or 'every building.' (Notes on the Greek Text of Paul's Epistles, 369.)
"Another authority on New Testament Greek translates: 'Each several building. 'Then he goes on to observe: 'Ordinary Greek idiom here calls for "every building," not for "all the building," though it is not perfectly clear what that means.' (Robertson, Word Pictures, IV, 529.) Dr. Robertson is candid in giving a correct rendering of the text, though it does not fit his 'universal spiritual church or kingdom' concept of the Church.
"...The translation 'each several building' favors the idea that 'every building, by being carefully framed and joined to every other, causes the growth of the whole into a holy temple in the Lord. The metaphor "each several building," or "every building," may represent the various bodies of Christians (ekklesia) in different places.' (Dr. Boise, Notes on the Greek Text of Paul's Epistles, 369.)
"...We adopt the following translation as being the correct one: 'In whom every building fitly joined together increases unto a holy sanctuary in the Lord.'
"...Compare with 'every building' (pasa oikodome) of this text other Scriptures where similar construction appears, as examples: in I Tim. 4:4 pan ktisma is rendered 'every creature' in both the A.V. and R.V....In 1 Cor. 4:17, pasei ekklesiai is translated 'every church' in both versions. And in Eph. 3:15, pasa patria is translated 'the whole family' in the A.V. and 'every family' in the R.V." ("Studies in the New Testament Church," Little Rock, Challenge Press, 1976, p. 13).
Thus it appears that Paul was speaking here of various distinct local churches, since he knew that this epistle would be read in a number of different churches in the province of Asia. But even if the reading "all the building" is accepted as correct, this could easily refer to the local church in Ephesus, not the Universal Church. Since we have not yet found any New Testament teaching concerning the existence of the Universal Church, we cannot read that idea into this passage. Paul here is talking about the spiritual growth of a local church, or local churches, built upon adherence to the doctrine of Christ, the apostles and the prophets.
Anderson concludes: "The church at Ephesus was like a building 'fitly framed together' as 2:21 says so well. No unreal, universal church can fit into that good verse. The Ephesians knew very well what an ekklesia was. They had a town assembly long before Paul appeared--and he knew also what ekklesia meant." ("Meaning and Use of Ecclesia," p. 6).
G. EPHESIANS 3:1-10
The passage reads: "For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward: How that by revelation He made known unto me the mystery; as I wrote before in few words, Whereby, when ye read, ye may understand my knowledge in the mystery of Christ which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed unto His holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit; That the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs, and of the same body, and partakers of His promise in Christ by the Gospel: Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the grace of God given unto me by the effectual working of His power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this grace given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; And to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery, which from the beginning of the world hath been hid in God, who created all things by Jesus Christ: To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God."
The mystery here, which was not made known in the Old Testament and was now being revealed to Paul and other apostles and prophets, was that Jews and Gentiles were to be united in the institution known as the church. However, this in itself tells us nothing about the nature of that church, whether universal or local, and everything we have seen so far indicates that local churches were the only kind known in the New Testament. Most local churches at the time of Paul included Jews and Gentiles. Although Paul addresses the church at Ephesus as a predominantly Gentile church, it appears that there were Jews in the congregation, as seen by the fact that Paul took disciples with him when he departed from the Jewish synagogue, where he began his Ephesian ministry, Acts 19:8-9. Apollos, Aquila and Priscilla, all Jews, were members of the church at Ephesus for a while, Acts 18:24-26.
Since the union of Jews and Gentiles in one body was a well-known reality at Ephesus and many other local churches, there is no necessity or justification for postulating a Universal Church in which Jews and Gentiles may unite. Nor is a Universal Church necessary to explain the new teaching which was such a mystery in Old Testament times; the union of Jews and Gentiles in a local church would have been as much a mystery to the ancients before Christ as any Universal Church could have been.
Anderson's comment on this passage is appropriate: "Eph. 3:6, 'the same body' refers to Jews and Gentiles being members of the same Ephesian church. Damage: Scofield robs each real church by making Eph. 3:10 refer to his imaginary church. 'The manifold wisdom of God' is needed by each church and is to be made known through real churches to the 'principalities and powers in heavenly places.' This gives each real church much responsibility as well as tremendous honor." ("Four Front Doors," p. 67).
H. EPHESIANS 5:23, 25-27, 29-32
These verses read: "For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. ...Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish ... For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church."
This is a proof-text that is widely and fondly quoted by universal church advocates, but the "proof" falls apart when it is recognized that "church" is one of several words used in the passage in a generic, abstract sense. The words "church," "body," "husband" and "wife" all refer to a plurality of churches, bodies, husbands and wives, not to one universal, idealized, all-encompassing Church, Body, Husband or Wife.
So says Colyar: "The word church is used here in its abstract sense, as also are the words husband and wife. No particular husband is meant; no particular wife is meant; no particular (local) church is meant. The moment these terms become concrete in their application, then some particular husband, wife, or church is referred to." (op. cit., p.104).
Anderson agrees: "'For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church; and He is the savior of the body.' Here four singular nouns represent many husbands, wives, churches and bodies. No one universalizes or vaporizes a husband or a wife! Why do it to a body or a church? The generic sense is used here properly; the singular refers to many of the same kind. Each real church must obey Christ as each good wife obeys her husband." ("Four Front Doors," p. 68).
Henry Morris expands on the same thought: "In the remaining occurrences (15, or possibly 25, times) the word seems to have a broader meaning than that of a particular local church. An example is Ephesians 5:25: 'Christ loved the church and gave Himself for it.' Matthew 16:18, quoted earlier, is another example.
"The fact that in the great majority of occurrences of the word a particular local church or group of such churches is meant (approximately 5 to 1) would seem to indicate that this must be the primary, definitive meaning of the word. Therefore any other meaning must be a derivative meaning tied in some clear way to the basic meaning. The idea of an actual physical assembly of people is thus implicit, as is evident also from the four times it is used for a non-christian congregation.
"The relatively few cases where the word is used in the broader sense can be harmonized with the basic meaning by recognizing two derivative meanings, both retaining the basic concept of a real assembly of Christian believers.
"One is the 'generic' usage, in which the concept of the local church, rather than a particular local church, is in view... The other is the 'prophetic' usage, anticipating the time when a great future assembly of all who have believed in Christ since He first founded the church will be called in heaven...
"In the present world, therefore, New Testament usage compels us to recognize that the true church is a local group of Christian believers, not an 'invisible' or 'universal' entity of some kind with no physical substance, no meetings, no church officers, no ordinances, and no organized work of evangelism or worship or training." ("The Bible Has the Answer," Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1971, p.132).
While Ephesians 5:25 fails into Morris' first category, Ephesians 5:27 falls into the second category, of references to the Church in its future eternal state. It may be said that a Universal Assembly of sorts will exist then, but this is cold comfort to Universal Church advocates, since it is obvious that that glorious church without spot or wrinkle does not exist in this age, and even in heaven the Church will still be a local assembly in space and time, not the atomized, scattered "church" that Universal Church advocates propose for this age.
Concerning Ephesians 5:27, Mason says: "How the universal churchites do love this passage, but the truth is, it does not bolster their argument. Here again we have the church in prospect. This scripture looks beyond this age, out to that time when there shall be a general assembly composed of all the saved members of the true local assemblies of this earth. I shall later deal with this question in more detail. The language used here does not militate against the usual use of the term ecclesia, for when the church is presented to Christ in the sense mentioned here, it will be both local and visible. " ("Myth of the Universal Invisible Church," pp. 26-27).
Thus we must conclude that the Universal Church is not taught in Ephesians 5:23-32, and that the language of this passage could easily be applied to the concept of a church as local assembly. The passage should be read that way, since we have not yet found any Scriptural teaching concerning a Universal Church in this dispensation.
I. COLOSSIANS 1:18, 24
"And He is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the preeminence... .Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for His body's sake, which is the church."
These verses mention the church without in any way teaching that it means an all-encompassing organism of all Christians of all ages. Therefore, they must be interpreted in the context of the consistent New Testament teaching on the subject, which describes the church as a local assembly. As for their immediate context, we must remember that Paul was writing these verses to a local church, that of Colosse. It makes perfect sense to say that in verse 18 Paul was describing Christ as the head of the church at Colosse, and that in verse 24 he found meaning in his sufferings in Roman imprisonment by using the opportunity to serve churches, like the one at Colosse, by getting out the word of God to them. There is no need to make an artificial distinction between Paul's sufferings "for you," in verse 24a, and his sufferings for "the church," 24b. In both cases he was suffering for the church at Colosse..
Concerning these verses, Anderson comments: "A real problem is -- how can any body, real or metaphorical, be always disconnected and dispersed, never meeting together in this age, and yet be called a body? To speak of all Christians as 'The Body of Christ' is using words liberally - as liberals do - wresting the Scriptures from sensible meaning. Church and body are used synonymously in Col. 1:18, 24, meaning the church at Colosse and by implication all similar churches. Ideally, each church is 'knit together' as Col. 2:2, 19 says so beautifully. And what can be more opposite than a 'universal' church which is never together on earth?" ("Meaning and Use of Ecclesia," p. 7).
We may conclude by saying that it is a mistake, with these verses as with all others, to assume that the Body of Christ must refer to something larger than a local church, or that reference to the Church in an abstract, generic sense necessarily implies a Universal Church.
J. HEBREWS 2:12
The verse reads: "Saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee"
This is a verse that can be understood in various ways, but by no means does it demand a Universal Church interpretation. Mason finds the fulfillment of this incident within a local-church context: "This passage is quoted by the inspired writer of Hebrews from the 22nd Psalm. To what incident in the life of Christ does it refer? Upon what occasion did He sing praises in the midst of the church? Turn to Mark 14:26, and you will find the occasion mentioned. It was following the institution of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper that Jesus in the midst of His little church joined with them in singing a hymn. ... Exegetical and eisegetical ingenuity has been exerted to give the passage just quoted some other meaning, but the fact remains that that interpretation that I have indicated is the simplest and most natural one." ("Church That Jesus Built, p. 17).
Anderson concurs with this view: "Where is 'the midst' of a 'universal' church? No one knows. But we do know where Christ sang; it was in the midst of His disciples at the Last Supper, Mt. 26:30; Mk. 14:26. Simple logic tells us that Heb. 2:12 refers to Christ's church meeting together in the upper room, Lk. 22:12. This was a real church body of called-out, baptized believers in Christ as Head." (" Four Front Doors," p. 70).
It is not necessary to accept this interpretation as certain, in order to agree that Hebrews 2:12 can refer to a local church in which Christ sang praises with His brethren, whether before or after His resurrection, and that there is no teaching concerning a Universal Church in this verse. Actually, the verse is a direct quote from Psalm 22:22, which reads: "I will declare thy name unto my brethren: in the midst of the congregation will I praise thee."
Scofield, in his note on Psalm 22:22, finds the fulfillment of this verse in John 20:17, where Christ commanded Mary Magdalene to carry news of His resurrection to the disciples, who were all members of one local church. Where is the Universal Church to be found, either in Psalm 22:22 or John 20:17?
(It is interesting to note that Scofield finds the fulfillment of a verse about the Church in John 20:17, before Pentecost, and yet insists that the Church was not founded until Pentecost. This is just one of many inconsistencies in Scofield’s artificial system of interpretation which he has imposed on the Scriptures).
K. 1 THESSALONIANS 4:16-17
The verse reads: "For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we which are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord."
One reads this "proof-text" with astonishment, since there is no mention of the Church here at all. Of course, those who are already convinced of the existence of the Universal Church would assume that the entire membership of that Church, not more or less, will take part in this sudden departure from earth. But Paul gives no basis for such an assumption, not in this passage nor anywhere else. Concerning this verse, Mason says: "Note that there is no mention of the church. It says, 'The dead in Christ,' and 'We which are alive and remain.' The word church is not used. Reference is to believers. 'Oh,' says someone, 'but it means the church.' That is pure assumption - that is part of a theory. All believers are not members of the genuine church - the one that Jesus started." ("Myth of the Universal Invisible Church," p. 67).
Anderson agrees: "No church or body is mentioned here. It concerns the second coming of Christ for His redeemed, wrongly called the rapture of the church. In no place is 'the church' said to be taken. Instead, all the redeemed will be raptured, including children and saved people who may not be members of any church but who are in the kingdom." ("Four Front Doors, p. 67).
It may be said that when we all meet the Lord in the air, a universal assembly will be formed then. This may be true, but this event is still in the future, and the general assembly of that day will still be local and visible, together in space and time, not answering to the definition of the Universal Church which is said to exist today.
L. HEBREWS 12:22-23
The final proof-text which Scofield gives for the existence of His "true church" is Hebrews 12:22-23, which reads: "But ye are come unto mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect."
There is probably no finer explanation of this passage than that given by Milburn Cockrell, late editor of the Berea Baptist Banner. Concerning this passage, he says, "This cannot refer to the universal, invisible church of all believers, for the writer says, ‘Ye are come.’ The invisible church has not come together as some of its members are unborn. Nor can it point to some sort of a visible glory church to be gathered in Heaven at some future day. ‘Ye are come’ militates strongly against the glory church idea. The writer does not speak in Hebrews 12:22-24 of a future church, but of a present church.
"This section of Hebrews 12 contrasts the Old Testament dispensation with the New Testament dispensation, the earthly Mount Sinai with spiritual Mount Zion. The writer shows the excellencies of the New Covenant are far superior to the Law Covenant. This is being done as a means of causing the Hebrews to persevere in their Christian profession.
"We cannot understand this to mean these Jewish Christians had literally come to Mount Zion in Jerusalem, for that was as true of the whole Jewish nation as of those the apostle addressed. Nor can we understand that they were literally in Heaven, for none to whom he wrote were in Heaven at the time he spoke. He must have meant that by the characteristics of the new dispensation the Hebrew Christians had done these things. He is showing the blessings which presently belong to the gospel dispensation. These are not future but present. Hence he says, ‘Ye are come.’
"Mount Zion speaks of the gospel church as a Divine institution. The Hebrews had come to Mount Zion by becoming members of the New Testament church." ("In Search of the Universal Invisible Church," Mantachie, Mississippi, Berea Baptist Church, 1982/2003, pp. 21-22). The "church" that the Hebrews had come to was a scriptural local church, replacing the outmoded Jewish temple.
Having completed our survey of Scofield's 12 proof-text passages that are said to demonstrate the existence of a Universal Church in this age, we are forced to this conclusion: Some of the passages cannot possibly refer to or teach a Universal Church in this age, while others could be interpreted that way if taken in isolation, but cannot be if we look at them in the total context of the New Testament in which ecclesia means a local assembly only. There is no clear statement of the existence of the Universal Church in the New Testament, nor any body of verses, which, when taken together, point to its existence. Therefore, the doctrine of the Universal Church should be rejected as lacking in scriptural basis.
M. OTHER SCRIPTURAL REFERENCES
In addition to Scofield's proof-texts, concerning the "true church," he presents another chain of references on the "visible church," which he defines in this way: "Church (visible), summary: The passages under this head (1 Cor. 10:32, 1 Tim. 3:15) refer to that visible body of professed believers called, collectively, 'the church,' of which history takes account as such, though it exists under many names and divisions based upon differences in doctrine or in government. Within, for the most part, this historical 'Church' has existed the true church...."
Although men may refer to visible churches collectively as "the church," we have seen that such terminology is unscriptural. Scofield's chain of references on the "visible church" includes 1 Corinthians 10:32, 12:28 and 15:9, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:6 and 1 Timothy 3:15. Anyone who looks up these references will find absolutely no mention of a Universal Church, or any body of believers that extends beyond a local church; he will find only references to local churches such as the one at Corinth or the church where Timothy was pastor.
In several of these verses, Paul speaks of having persecuted the church, not churches. Some may conclude from these references that Paul must have been speaking of a Universal Church, but this is an erroneous conclusion. Concerning 1 Corinthians 15:9, Mason says: "'I persecuted the church of God.' Small help to be derived by the universalite from this. So far as the Scriptures reveal, Paul never persecuted but one church - the church at Jerusalem. It was a large church, composed of several thousand people, and Paul 'made havock' of it, scattering it all over the country. His persecution affected one local, visible assembly - the church at Jerusalem." ("Myth of the Universal Church," p. 25).
Thus, the concept of a "visible church" covering an entire nation, or the planet, or any group of believers larger in extent than a local assembly, is found to be an incorrect use of the word "church," a misuse of the Biblical word. Some might find an exception in Acts 9:31, which in the New American Standard Version reads, "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up...." Most modern translations, including the Revised Standard Version and the New International Version, agree in translating "church" as singular in this verse, while the King James Version reads, "Then had the churches rest throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and were edified...."
I accept the reading of the King James Version, based as a whole on more reliable Greek manuscripts, as accurate: Acts 9:31 refers to many local churches, not one church covering a region with many local branches. My mention and acknowledgment of the existence of a different rendering in other translations should not be construed as an endorsement of those translations. If we are to fully examine this subject, we must cover all the bases and recognize that other translations of Acts 9:31 do exist and that they differ from the KJV, so that we can refute any appearance of confirmation for the Universal Church theory in those other translations.
The best way to refute any possibility of inferring a Universal or even a regional church, in the modern translations, is to point out that Paul persecuted only members of the church of Jerusalem, and that members of that church had been scattered throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria, Acts 8:9. Vine says: "There is an apparent exception in the R.V. of Acts 9:31, where, while the A.V. has 'churches,' the singular seems to point to a district; but the reference is clearly to the church as it was in Jerusalem, from which it had just been scattered, 8:1." (op. cit., pp. 84).
Concerning this passage, Carroll states: "But accepting the singular, according to the Revised Version, then, says Broadus, 'the word probably denotes the original church at Jerusalem, whose members were by persecution widely scattered throughout Judea and Galilee and Samaria, and held meetings wherever they were, but still belonged to one original organization...' This was the church which Saul persecuted and of which he made havoc. Concerning the effect of this persecution the record says 'they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria,' Acts 8:1. ... So, when in a paragraph just preceding our Scripture, there is an account of Saul, as a convert, worshipping and preaching with the church he had formerly persecuted, we may not be surprised at the statement 'so the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace." (op. cit., pp. 34-35).
Thus we see that Acts 9:31 provides no support for the concept of the Universal Church, or even for a regional church, regardless of what textual reading is accepted for the passage.
Another verse often pressed into service for the Universal Church is Ephesians 1:10, which supposedly describes the extent of membership in the Universal Church, partly in earth and partly in heaven. Robert Sumner states: "There are other problems, such as the fact that part of Christ's 'one body' (singular, not plural) is currently 'in heaven' and part is currently 'on earth' (Ephesians 1:10). That could not possibly be a local assembly."
However, there is absolutely no mention of the church or the Body of Christ at all in Ephesians 1:10 or its immediate context; thus we have no basis for assuming that Paul was talking about any church, universal or local, in Ephesians 1:10. Paul makes no mention of the church or Body of Christ at all in this epistle until 1:22 23. Nor does 1:10 state that the 'things in heaven" are deceased believers, or in any way part of a church, or Body of Christ. H.C.G. Moule, a commentator who sees the Universal Church throughout Ephesians, regards the "things in heaven" of 1:10 as angels, and confines believers to the earth: "More precisely, regenerate men are specially intended by 'the things on earth,' as distinguished from 'the things in heaven,' the angelic race, which also is 'made subject' to the glorified Christ (1 Pet. 3:22, and see Col. 2:10.) The meaning here will thus be that under the supreme Headship of the Son were to be gathered, with the 'elect angels' (1 Tim. 5:21), all 'the children of God scattered abroad' (John 11:52).... So, nearly, St. Chrysostom interprets the passage; making the meaning to be that 'both to angels and to men the Father has appointed one Head, according to the flesh, that is Christ.' " ("Studies in Ephesians," Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1977, p. 51).
Since angels are not considered to be part of anyone’s Universal Church, this verse would not appear to provide any support to the concept of a Church partly in heaven and partly on earth during this age. Even if Moule's interpretation is rejected and Sumner's is accepted, there is still no teaching in Ephesians 1:10 or anywhere else to the effect that these believers in heaven and earth constitute a church, body or assembly of any kind. The "gathering together" is a reference to Christ's headship over the "all things" in heaven and earth, and does not imply a close relationship such as is assumed to exist in the Universal Church. Thus we see that although there are some verses where a Universal Church concept can be read into the passage, to do so would be a dishonest method of interpretation, in the face of consistent New Testament teaching that ecclesia means a local church and nothing else. A careful study of the Bible reveals absolutely no teaching or evidence for the existence of the Universal Church in this age. The testimony of theologians, commentators and creeds that the Universal Church exists can, and should, be set aside, since the Bible takes precedence over all human teachings and writings.
Some may downgrade the importance of this question as to whether there is a Universal Church, saying that it is no more than a matter of semantics. That is not so. Since it is generally agreed that in this dispensation, as opposed to all others, God is working on earth through the Church, the question of the nature of that Church becomes all important. Once we realize that there is no Universal Church, and that God is working only through the local churches, our thinking on many subjects will be revolutionized. Our final chapter will consider some of these implications.
CONCLUSION: PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
A. CHURCH MEMBERSHIP
Universal Church advocates regard themselves, and all Christians, as members of the Universal Church. For instance, one author states: "A person is joined to the true church at the very moment of his conversion. This church is made up of every true believer on the Lord Jesus Christ, regardless of race, color or culture." (Alfred P. Gibbs, et al., "What Christians Believe," Chicago, Moody Press. 1984, p. 97).
This belief causes many, who fancy themselves to belong already to the Universal Church, to be careless about taking the trouble to add to that illustrious membership by also joining a local church, or attending it regularly. For this reason, writers who affirm the existence of the Universal Church often take great pains to convince their readers that they should still join a local church, outlining the benefits of local church affiliation.
However, once it is generally recognized and taught that the local church is the only church that exists and that we may hold membership in, then there is no need to beg or plead with anyone to supplement their Universal Church membership by joining a local church. Believers will hasten to join churches, and to support them with their tithes, rather than mailing off their money to far-off television evangelist-personalities with questionable theologies. Those who join churches will seek out true New Testament assemblies, because if they place their membership in a "church" falsely so-called, they will not have any Universal Church membership to fall back on.
Once the Christian public is made to realize that the local church is the only church through which God works in this age, and the only church of which they can be members, a tremendous amount of confusion will be eliminated. Churches will be restored to their place of true importance, as opposed to the numerous student fellowships, free-lance religious meetings, and para-church organizations that often minimize the need for local churches and schedule their meetings at the same time as church services. We will be able to avoid the problems described by Anderson: "The universal church idea invites proselyters and cultists to seduce those who belittle real churches; it also encourages mavericks, floaters, footloose and irresponsible people to neglect the real church membership... The universal church idea condones non-resident membership of millions of people who give money to non-church causes, thus robbing real churches." ("Meaning and Use of Ecclesia," p. 8).
Also, since baptism is not required for membership in the mythical Universal Church, but is required to join any true, New Testament local church, we will magnify the importance of the ordinance of baptism, and find more applicants for that ordinance, when we teach that the local church is the "true church" and the only church that Christ is now building.
B. THE ECUMENICAL MOVEMENT
A familiar sight at any gathering of the World Council of Churches, or ecumenical convocation of any type, is the spectacle of religious leaders beating their breasts in disgust over the "sin of schism" of God's Church in the world, and over the desperate need for all branches of the Church to unite in a great One World Church, over which these power-hungry ecclesiastics will then bear rule. When we recognize that there is no Universal Church, then true New Testament churches will realize that it is not an act of schism for them to remain aloof from the WCC and its American affiliate, the National Council of Churches, which are currently promoting a Marxist "Kingdom of God Society" and the eventual reunion of all churches with the Roman Catholic Church.
Universal-church teaching helps feed the ecumenical impulse, as stated by Colyar: "The present movement toward the union of all Protestant churches into one great Program is the product of the universal-church heresy which is held in one form or another by the vast majority in professing Christendom today." (op. cit, p. 51)
While some are content to regard the Universal Church as invisible, there have always been others who have pushed for a Visible Universal Church on earth, and this quest leads to one goal - a union, forced if necessary, of all churches and believers into the Roman Catholic Church. This has been true from the earliest ages. Armitage traces the rise of the Universal Church heresy back to the Third Century, stating: "This century was marked by the introduction of a centralized Church government, largely to the destruction of Congregationalism; and by crystallization of the ideas and pretensions of Episcopacy. As to the first of these, Neander clearly shows how a crude notion arose concerning the inward unity of a universal but unseen church, and the outward unity of a Church dependent on outward forms. Out of this speculative idea came the purpose to form one great organic body, which should take the place of the Church-family idea, as Christ founded it on the social nature of man. The first step was to depress the individuality of the Church in this or that home locality, supplanting it with the Church of the district; then, of course, would follow that of the nation and of the world. Cyprian carried this thought to its sound logical conclusion, in his remarkable book on the 'Unity of the Church' (De Unitate Ecclesia) written about the middle of this period, amid the confusion with which this innovation had to contend... The organic Catholic Church itself arose out of the ambitious scheme to sap the foundations of Congregational liberty, and to crush heretics. " (op. cit., p 179).
By rejecting the dogma of the Universal Church, we strip away much of the theological underpinning of the ecumenical movement. True ecclesiology recognizes the independence of the various local churches or bodies of Christ, which each recognize Christ as the Head, and require no organic union with other churches to make their ministry valid, or to prove the sincerity of their love for and spiritual unity with other Christian believers.
C. INTERDENOMINATIONAL CO-OPERATION
It may be objected, and quite rightly, that not all advocates of the Universal Church are ecumenists and that the usual application of the doctrine of the Universal Church in evangelical circles is not to advocate organic church unity, but to promote interdenominational co-operation among various Bible-believing churches. In theory, it may appear that no one could find fault with such lofty motives for Universal Church teaching. But Chester Tulga does find fault, saying: "There is no actual functioning universal church, invisible or visible, in existence today... Interdenominational fundamentalism must have as a basis of unity a speculative invisible church, a church not found in the New Testament but invented and used by Augustine, Luther and Calvin as a useful device for holding a contradictory mixture together. " (Quoted by Anderson, "Meaning and Use of Ecclesia," p. 7).
Perhaps the time has come for an honest discussion of the current mania for interdenominational co-operation, with its bitter condemnations of those who, for whatever reasons, choose not to participate. One purpose, or at least one effect, of this movement is to harness the money, labors and other resources of independent Baptists on the behalf of churches and para-church organizations that are not independent Baptist in nature. Those who decline to support causes or crusades they do not believe in are slandered as unloving, hateful and murderous in intent, are branded as dangerous "neo-exclusivists," and are accused of causing "heart disease in Christ's body" as Jack Van Impe has described it. It appears that the only way to avoid such accusations is for independent Baptists to surrender their independence and enthusiastically align themselves with every questionable religious bandwagon that comes their way.
Once we have rejected the doctrine of the Universal Church, we can recognize that we are not in the same body, organization, organism or "church" with other Christians of differing doctrinal beliefs, and will reject feelings of guilt over our failure to co-operate with different denominations in religious endeavors. This recognition should not lead us to a feeling of smugness or superiority over other Christians. We should recognize them as born-again believers, should extend full courtesy and fellowship to them, and should avoid unnecessary attacks against them. However, we are not in any way obligated to support their churches, colleges, evangelistic crusades, or missionary efforts, any more than they are obligated to support ours. True love, instead of seeking a coerced, uneasy program of cooperation, will recognize that independent Baptist churches, and all other churches, have the privilege of working to promote their own congregations and institutions, and to co-operate with others only to the extent that they see fit.
D. LOCAL CHURCH AUTONOMY
Belief in the Universal Church leads to denigration of the importance of the local church and the need for local church autonomy. Why should the local churches be independent, when to take such a stance may cause harm to the cause of the Universal Church, which is thought to be so much more important than any local congregation? Also, those who believe in a Universal Church will tend to regard their denomination as one great Church whose betterment requires a willingness by the local churches to give up their selfish autonomy. Baptists are not immune to such thinking; Universal Church theology has already helped many Baptists to give up their congregational forms of church government, in favor of control by a powerful convention. Robert Torbet has observed: "There has also been among many Baptists a gradual growth of an ecclesiastical view of the church; That is to say, the local churches are conceived as constituting one corporate body. This trend has been particularly prevalent among many Northern Baptists who tend to conceive of the denomination as a Church within which the local churches operate." ("A History of the Baptists," Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, Judson Press, 1975, pp. 436-437).
If there is a Universal Church, it is right and proper for local churches to yield their autonomy to the greater good of their Church body, and it is wrong to separate from Christians in a denomination controlled by liberals, because we and they are all part of one Church. However, we have already seen that the Universal Church does not exist. With this recognition, independent Baptists may safely affiliate with loose associations of churches, if they wish, while maintaining total autonomy for the local congregation, and remaining separate from conventions controlled by liberals. Rejection of Universal Church teaching leads to the conclusion that God is working today through local churches, not through denominational headquarters.
E. DOCTRINAL PURITY
Regardless of the bad effects, or hypothetical good effects, of Universal Church teaching, this doctrine should be rejected for the simple reason that it is not in the Bible, and is contrary to all that the Bible teaches concerning the nature of the church. Our confessions of faith and doctrinal preaching should not include any unscriptural doctrines, no matter how beneficial we may feel those doctrines to be. There is great joy and blessing in knowing that our doctrine of the church is based entirely on the Bible, not on the traditions of men or the writings of the Church Fathers, Reformers, Darbyites, Scofieldites, ecumenists, interdenominationalists, or even Baptist confession-writers.
The continued presence of Universal Church teaching today can be traced back to the Protestant reformation of the 16th Century, with its imperfect recovery of Biblical truth which had been suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages. The Reformers replaced the "universal visible church" of the Catholics with a "universal invisible church." They should have taught a "local visible church" instead (while still holding to the unity of all believers in the "Family of God)."
The Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, were great men but they only began the process of revealing and restoring basic Bible doctrines, removing the tangle of traditional dogmas that had obscured the truth. We must not be afraid to continue that process. As a part of that process of recovery of the original teaching of the Bible, we must remove the doctrine of the Universal Church from our confessions of faith, our teaching and our thinking.
APPENDIX: COMMENTS ON THORNBURY’S "THE DOCTRINE OF THE CHURCH"
John Thornbury’s book "The Doctrine of the Church - A Baptist View," first published in 1971, makes a strong pitch for the Universal Church theory. He declares the baptism of Galatians 3:27 and Romans 6:3 to be non-literal, not water baptism, and then extrapolates from Galatians 3:27 that the baptism of 1 Corinthians 12:13 must be a non-literal Spirit baptism, and that the "body" which that Spirit baptism places us into must be the Universal Church.
I would disagree with this analysis, and view the baptism in all 3 of these verses as water baptism. According to Thornbury, if we take the baptism of Galatians 3:27 as water baptism, that would mean that Paul was teaching baptismal regeneration. However, the verse does not say that "those of you who were baptized were saved (put on Christ) at the moment of, or as a result of, your baptism." What Paul is saying in this verse is that to be saved (to put on Christ) and to be baptized are 2 things that just naturally go together. Ideally, everyone who is saved will also be baptized, and no one will ever be baptized before they are saved. We know that it does not always work that way - there are some saved people who have not yet been baptized, and there are some baptized people who have not been saved. In Galatians 3:27 Paul is speaking of things as they ideally will be, but he does not mean to imply that there has never been a person who was water-baptized who was not saved, any more than he means in Galatians 3:28 that there were not at that time any differences or distinctions made between Jew and Greek, bond and free, male and female. Since I accept the baptism of Galatians 3:27 as water baptism, therefore I do not accept Thornbury’s conclusion that the baptism of 1 Corinthians 12:13 is Spirit baptism and that the "body" we are thus baptized into is the Universal Church rather than a local church.
Thornbury gives us only two choices for the baptism of Galatians 3:27: it must be either water baptism which results in baptismal regeneration, or else a non-literal Spirit baptism. His main "proof" for the Universal Church falls apart as soon as we realize that there is a third legitimate (and correct) interpretation of Galatians 3:27 which sees it as a reference to water baptism but without baptismal regeneration. For instance, see Adam Clarke’s commentary on this verse: "All of you who have believed in Christ as the promised Messiah, and received baptism as a public proof that ye had received Christ as your Lord and Saviour, have put on Christ - have received His Spirit, and entered into His interests, and copied His manners. To put on, or to be clothed with one, is to assume the person and character of that one: and they who do so are bound to act His part, and to sustain the character which they have assumed. The profession of Christianity is an assumption of the character of Christ; He has left us an example that we should follow His steps, and we should, as Christians, have that mind in us which was in Him."
It would take far more evidence than the meager and doubtful case for "Spirit Baptism" presented by Thornbury, to cause me to adopt the notion that the baptism of 1 Corinthians 12:13 is "Spirit baptism." Based on the "one baptism" reference in Ephesians 4:5, we would then be forced to conclude that water baptism is not for this dispensation at all - or we would have to inconsistently teach "two baptisms" when Ephesians 4:5 says there is only one true baptism for Christians. Let my readers be assured that Thornbury has failed to make his case for Spirit baptism - therefore, let us continue to observe the true baptism in water.
Thornbury goes on to make a historical argument for the Universal Church principle, pointing out that the concept appears as early as 107 AD in the writings of the church father Ignatius. In his epistle to the Smyrnaeans, Ignatius refers to the Catholic (universal) Church, or in some translations, the "worldwide church." Naturally, such a reference, appearing this early in church history, carries some weight. Some have regarded the Ignatian Epistles as forgeries from a later time. Philip Schaff, in his lengthy discussion of these epistles in his "History of the Christian Church," states (Vol. 2, p. 662) that "the integrity of these epistles, even in the shorter copy, is not beyond all reasonable doubt." But his analysis concludes by stating that the shorter genuine Greek epistles of Ignatius appear to be genuine. This would include the epistle to the Smyrnaeans with its reference to a "catholic" or "worldwide" church. Was Ignatius referring to the Universal Church concept as we know it today, including all Christians of all lands of the past, present and future? Quite possibly, he was. Or was he referring to a worldwide institution of the church, used generically to describe all the local churches of the Roman Empire? The Church Fathers of those days did not necessarily fit into all the carefully defined theological categories that are familiar to us today, almost 2000 years later. We grant the possibility that Ignatius believed in and taught a Universal Church, but of course the opinions of the Church Fathers are not inspired and in many cases are filled with errors that we would not accept today, such as baptismal regeneration, etc.
Adoniram Judson stated, with regard to the end of the apostolic age, that "the truth is, that as soon as the spirit of inspiration withdrew from the earth, a multitude of errors and corruptions rushed in and deluged the church" ("Christian Baptism," Laurel, Mississippi, Audobon Press, 2000, p. 90) and he cites Ignatius as an example of this, with regard to his teaching of episcopal rule in the church.
Thornbury goes on to state, in his historical argument for the Universal Church, that "the universal church concept was universally believed among Baptists prior to the Landmark movement of the 19th century." This is certainly a compelling and convincing argument, if true. It may be true that there were not a lot of clear statements made in opposition to the Universal Church prior to the time of J.R. Graves in the mid 19th Century, because it was not until that time that this point became a matter of strong controversy, as a result of the strong trend in favor of ecumenism involving Baptists and non-Baptists both on the mission fields and at home during the early 19th Century. The stand against the Universal Church by the early Landmarkers was part of the reaction to that ecumenical trend.
However, there is evidence that some Baptists before the time of J.R. Graves conceived of the Church in purely local terms. The Dordrecht Mennonite Confession of 1632 states that "We believe in and confess a visible Church of God, consisting of those, who, as before remarked, have truly repented, and rightly believed; who are rightly baptized, united with God in heaven, and incorporated into the communion of saints on earth." The insistence on proper baptism foreshadows the later Landmark emphasis on this issue, suggesting that Christians who have not been "rightly baptized" are not part of the Church. See also John Smyth’s confession of 1609: "The church of Christ is a company of the faithful, baptized after confession of sin and of faith."
Article 33 of the First London Confession of 1644 (Baptist) gives a local-church definition for the Church: "That Christ hath here on earth a spiritual kingdom, which is the Church, which he hath purchased and redeemed to himself, as a peculiar inheritance: which Church, as it is visible to us, is a company of visible Saints, called and separated from the world, by the word and Spirit of God, to the visible profession of the faith of the Gospel, being baptized into that faith, and joined to the Lord, and each other, by mutual agreement, in the practical enjoyment of the ordinances, commanded by Christ their head and King."
The 1800 Doctrinal Statement of the Green River Association of Kentucky stated, "We believe that the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful persons, who have obtained fellowship with each other, and have given themselves up to the Lord and one another, having agreed to keep up a Godly discipline according to the rules of the Gospel." The Sandy Creek Association Confession of 1816 stated "That the visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful persons. . . ." This same language was adopted by the Barren Creek Association in 1830.
J. Newton Brown, editor of the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, wrote these words prior to the beginning of the Landmark movement: "Christ has had, for 1800 years past, a visible church in earth - made up of the entire body of particular churches formed under the general constitution of the New Testament. . . The term ‘church’ is here used, it will be seen, not for the whole body of the elect which is ever invisible on earth. . . ." (Quoted by Robert Ashcraft, "Landmarkism Revisited, Mablevale, Arkansas, Ashcraft Publications, 2003, pp. 116-117). Article 13 of the New Hampshire Confession states, "That a visible Church of Christ is a congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the Gospel." There is no hint whatsoever of a Universal Church in this confession that has been very widely used by various groups of Baptists in America from 1833 to the present date.
It is conceded that many Baptists, prior to the rise of Landmarkism, and being under the influence of the Presbyterian Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) and other such Protestant influences, did hold to the Universal Church concept. However, it is not true that all Baptists prior to the mid 19th Century held to such principles. A study of historical theology, with reference to the great Baptist confessions and commentators of the past, is of some value and carries some weight. But in the final analysis, matters of doctrine are to be decided by the Word of God, not by majority vote of believers of the past or present.
We conclude this study by pointing our readers to the weight of Biblical evidence for just one meaning for ecclesia - it is a local church. Thornbury has failed to make a convincing case for the Universal Church.