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The Concept of the Church as A Universal, Invisible,
Mystical, Spiritual Body Composed of all Believers,
Either of All Time, or the Church Age

by E. Nile Fisher
      With all that may commend itself to this view, together with the number of Bible teachers who embrace it, it yet remains an interpretation carrying with it some of the gravest questions and paradoxes. There are some eighteen problems existing in the face of it.

      1. The problem of etymology and usage of "ecclesia."
      The terms "universal" and "invisible" are opposed to the original meanings of "ecclesia." There is the problem of the attempt to unfold a supposed greater truth by the usage of a word in a limited and unprecedented sense.

      2. The problem of history.
      Harnack, in History of Dogma declares, "The expression, invisible church, is found for the first time in Hegessipus, Eusebius, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Hiero, Cornelius, and Cyprian, all used the term, holy churches, and never the Catholic or Universal Church." [See note at the end of paper.]

      H. Boyce Taylor points out in his book, Why be A Baptist?, [pages 51-52] "...Hort in his book, The Christian Ekklesia confesses the necessity of finding some other than etymological, grammatical or historical grounds by which to prove the idea of a universal church. He admitted that the use of the word ekklesia was 'always limited by Paul himself to a local organization, which has a corresponding unity of its own: each is a body of Christ and a sanctuary of God.' Look at this statement. That, 'The Christian Ekklesia' ever refers to anything but a local church cannot be proved by history: it cannot be proved from the etymology of the word: and it cannot be proved by the grammatical construction of the Scriptures where used. The only ground, Mr. Hort says, on which the use of the word as referring to anything but a local church can be defended at all, is on theological grounds. That means you cannot prove it from the Greek New Testament at all: but you perhaps might read it into the New Testament from some book of theology."

      Mr. Hort was famed for his scholarship in the field of Greek, and with Westcott, published an edition of the Greek New Testament.

      3. The problem of Matthew 16:18-19 with 18:17-18.
      Jesus said, "...upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" [Matthew 16:18-19].

      "And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church..."

      "Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be bound in heaven" [18:17-18].

      It is apparent that the church in Matthew 16:18 is the same as that in 18:17. Verse 19 of the 16th chapter and verse 18 of the 18th chapter tie them together and so identify them. It is furthermore apparent that the church of chapter 18 is local. There is no possible way to tell a thing unto a universal church. It is, therefore, imperative for the sake of consistency, to accept 16:18 as local, otherwise there exists a problem without solution.

      4. The problem of the existence of a church without divine command.
      If Matthew 16:18 means an invisible, universal, mystical, spiritual church, there is no divine command, nor evidence for the existence of local churches given. Yet more than 95 of the 111 uses of the word ecclesia are unquestionably local, with divine command to have elders and deacons. There is the problem of a divine authority for officers of an institution that exists apart from divine authority.

      5. The problem of the existence of an invisible church without explanation.
      On the other hand, without Matthew 16:18 to support the theory of an invisible, mystical, universal church, it would exist without reference to beginning, authority, structure, or commission.

      6. The problem of I Corinthians 11:18-22.
      Verses 18-20 twice reference is made to the Corinthians coming together in the church. Undoubtedly this means their gathering in the local assembly in Corinth. Verse 22 then goes on to state, "What, have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God..." This church that gathered together in a locality is called The Church of God. Chapter 10, verse 32 records the same phrase. If The Church of God refers to a universal, invisible, mystical, spiritual body composed of all believers, how can it gather together in one place before the rapture?

      7. The problem of I Corinthians 12:14-21.
      If there exists literally a universal, invisible, mystical, spiritual body, composed of all believers, of which Christ is the head, how is it that some members are likened to the eye, others to the ear, and. some to the nose; all of which are parts of the head. These members are here on earth and Christ the head is in heaven. Yet these members are said to be part of the head.

      If there is a literal body now in existence on the universal plane in all its mystical wonder, the Scripture in question is impossible of explanation. If, however, the term "body" is a metaphor to explain the nature of a local church, there exists no problem in this passage.

      8. The problem of I Corinthians 12:22-23.
      There are members said to be "more feeble" and "less honorable." Are those feeble members necessary to a universal, invisible, mystical church, the product of divine workmanship? It must certainly be conceded that whatever this universal church is by nature, it could not be perfect.

      Furthermore, if this refers to a universal body, designed by, and under the operation of the Holy Spirit, how is it possible for men to set some in places of honor, as verse 23 suggests? This is a thing that Christ said was impossible in God's universal program when the disciples sought places of honor. This is possible in the local church however.

      9. The problem of I Corinthians 12:24-25.
      If there is a universal church existing now, and I Corinthians 12 refers to it by the term "body," then it is subject to schism. Paul gives instruction and said, "That there be no schism in the body..." But how can this possibly be? Certainly such a church would be the product of divine workmanship into which human responsibility and failure do not enter. Paul definitely affirms [verse 27] "Ye (Corinthian believers) are the body of Christ," and then he goes on to state [11:18] "When ye come together in the church, I hear there be divisions among you."

      There not only can be, but there was in Corinth, division or schism in "the body."

      10. The problem of I Corinthians 12:26.
      "And whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it: or one member be honored, all the members rejoice with it."

     If this is a universal church, we have the following proposition: A Christian in Africa suffers. We do not know him. We are not acquainted with the circumstances of the case. We never heard of it. How can this possibly affect us in America? Do we rejoice when all or any of the Chinese brethren rejoice? Does every Christian the world around rejoice or suffer when you and I do? This is a condition that can only be experienced in a local assembly.

      11. The problem of I Corinthians 12:27.
      "Ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular."

      Paul speaks of the Corinthians believers, even excluding himself. They were said to be The Body of Christ. How could this situation obtain if the terms "Body," or "body of Christ," mean a universal church?

      12. The problem of Ephesians 1:22-23 with 3:19.
      "...and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all."

      This is the most often used Scripture to refer to the universal church. Yet, even this same body, "filled unto all the fulness of God," is presently applied, in the apostle's prayer, to the particular congregation in 3:19 when he prays they might be "filled with all the fulness of God."

      13. The problem of Ephesians 2:21-22.
      The church is said to be the temple or dwelling of God. The text [ARV] "In whom each several building, fitly framed together, groweth into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom ye also are builded together for a habitation of God in the Spirit."

      "Each several building" is a reference to the local church. It carries the idea of each local congregation, of which the Ephesian church was one. It is difficult to conceive of the church as a temple referring to a universal thing. Each several building - each local congregation grows together to form a holy temple in the Lord. It is clear that "temple" is a metaphor used of local churches in their place as the habitation of God.

      14. The problem of Ephesians 4:3.
      This, with the verses that follow, form an exhortation to the Ephesian church to unity. The sevenfold basis of unity is given, one of which is said to be "one body." How could that church, or any other, keep the unity in the matter of one body, if that body is universal and invisible?

      15. The problem of Ephesians 4: 7-12.
      Christ has given evangelists, pastors and teachers for the "perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ." How can evangelists, pastors and teachers edify a universal, spiritual body, when they can only minister in one locality at one time? They could edify part of it (if it were universal), but not the whole of it. Yet they are said to be given to edify The Body of Christ.

      16. The problem of Ephesians 4:12-16.
      As we have seen in the above, Christ gave His church the gifts "For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying if itself in love."

      How can a universal, invisible church come to a full maturity and be not tossed about by every wind of doctrine? If this refers, as many believe, to the universal church, it has never reached this position. It would follow, therefore that the gifts (for they were given to this end) have all failed, and are failing, and probably will continue to do so until Jesus comes.

      17. The problem of Ephesians 5:25-27.
      "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 to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."

      How can a bride be existing as such when not yet wedded to Christ, nor complete? The bride must be complete, accepted and glorified according to this Scripture and Revelation 19.

      18. The problem of the actual nature of a universal church.
      If a universal church is in existence today, what is it? Of whom is it composed? If it is the body of the redeemed from Pentecost to the Rapture, the same thing obtains. Can a part of the whole exist as the whole? If the body of Christ exists today as such, then a part of the whole is called the whole, else you do not have it in existence. Looking at it from another standpoint, can the church be universal until the last soul is saved? If so, then it is a universal church before it becomes universal.

      Furthermore, if the universal church exists today, where is it? Thousands of the redeemed are dead and their souls are in heaven; their bodies are in the grave. Thousands are living upon the earth in unredeemed bodies. Thousands (and perhaps millions) are yet to be saved. If all the saints, either of all time, or from Pentecost to the Rapture compose it, then part of it is in heaven, part of it is in the grave (for the glorified body is part of God's program according to Ephesians 5; Revelation 19; etc.), part of it is scattered upon the earth, part of it hasn't yet come to pass. With this in view, we have a universal body, with the members scattered over the earth, some members not yet in existence, and some scattered in heaven. This is a breakdown of the very idea of organic union and function as pictured in the term "body."

      And again, if there exists a universal church, what is it doing? It certainly is not carrying out the great commission. It has never baptized anyone. It has never called a preacher. It has never nurtured new converts. It has never set up a teaching program. It has never conducted a church service. It has never held a prayer meeting. It has never gathered together as an assembly. Where all of this has been done, it was done by local churches or individuals acting on their own.

      If there is a universal church existing today, what is its purpose? Why does it exist? It can't meet together. It can't organize to do the work of Christ. It can't promote an evangelistic campaign. It can't do anything but exist as a figment of some person's imagination. What good is a theological concept that can find no concrete expression?

      Note: [See page 1, article 2, The problem of history.]

      Again, [Volume 2, p. 83], "No one thought of the desperate idea of an 'invisible Church;' this notion would probably have brought about a lapse far more rapidly than the idea of the Holy Catholic Church."


[Bro. Fisher was pastor at Emmanuel Baptist Church, Dayton, OH for 35 years. This article was written in the late 1950s and this copy is from Bro. Paul Kirkman, Fairborn, OH. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

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