The Universal-Invisible Church Theory Examined
Bear in mind that this so-called invisible church is supposed to be a real, functioning body of the Lord Jesus Christ in the world today and at any given time at least during the last two thousand years, that it is composed of all or some part of believers in Christ by the mere fact that they have believed and have been saved, and that through this body of believers the Lord is carrying out His purposes in the gospel age until He comes again.
No definition of it would be adequate for every advocate of it, but what we have said may serve to convey the idea of what it is supposed to be. Our own view is that there is no such institution indicated in the New Testament, and we shall proceed to show why we thus believe.
1. Nobody seems to know for certain what it is.
There is no definite agreement among the scholars or the creeds as to this concept of the church. There is much confusion among them as to what it really is, how it operates, where it is, who belongs to it and perhaps other characteristics of it. Despite the fact that the concept is so popular, there is a wide divergence of opinion about it. A few examples will suffice to substantiate this claim.
The Scofield Bible holds that there are three churches. The one which concerns us at this point it calls the "true church."1 According to the notes on Hebrews 12:23, this "church" includes "all regenerated persons from Pentecost to the first resurrection (I Corinthians 15:52), is united together and to Christ by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (I Corinthians 12:12, 13). As such, it is a holy temple for the habitation of God through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:21, 22); is 'one flesh' with Christ (Ephesians 5:30, 31): and espoused to Him as a chaste virgin to one husband (II Corinthians 11:2-4)." The other two "churches" indicated in the notes of the Scofield Bible -
the "visible"2 and "local"3 churches - constitute a very confusing addendum to the subject, but they do not concern our present discussion.
Along this same line with the idea of the "true church," Dr. W. W. Evarts says that "Christ's ekklesia, or church, embraces all the redeemed variously described as the mystic body, bride, family, temple or kingdom of Christ."4 This certainly poses a problem for those who seek something definite.
Dr. Henry G. Weston, who holds some of the same ideas as does the Scofield Bible, defines ekklesia in one sense as "the whole body of believers in Christ, from the day of Pentecost to the end of the dispensation." 5
Dr. A. H. Strong, great Baptist theologian, says:The church of Christ in its largest signification, is the whole company of regenerate persons in all times and ages, in heaven and on earth. . . . In this sense, the church is identical with the spiritual kingdom of God; both signify that redeemed humanity in which God in Christ exercises spiritual dominion (John 3:3, 5).6He distinguishes the invisible, universal church from the local or individual church; the latter constitutes a voluntary association of regenerate persons. This local church is a temporal form of the universal "in which the idea of the church as a whole is concretely exhibited."
Dr. Strong rejects any idea of an imperial or provincial connection of the word ekklesia, and he does this by designating a generic collective use of the word "to denote simply the body of independent local churches existing in a given region or at a given epoch." 7 It is our view that a recognition of this principle, if extended further, explodes not only the imperial and provincial theories, but the universal, invisible theory as well.
Dr. F. J. A. Hort, great Anglican theologian, holds somewhat
to the invisible, universal church theory, but admits that it is without historical foundation. He despairs of finding any such concept in any of the Biblical records with the exception of Ephesians and Colossians. The concept of "the one universal Ecclesia absolutely" is confined to these twin epistles, according to Dr. Hort. He says:Here, at last for the first time in the Acts and Epistles, we have "the Ecclesia" spoken of in the sense of one universal Ecclesia, and it comes more from the theological than the historical side. . . .8Dr. Hort has great difficulty in establishing the conventional Protestant conception of a universal church that is invisible. Most of his testimony rather affirms the persistent local idea. To establish Dr. Hort's theory involves the further difficulty of the Apostle's wavering back and forth from a universal to a local significance of the ecclesia.9
George Dana Boardman finds three churches: "A particular company of Christians banded together in a definite place. . . , secondly, the entire aggregate of professing Christians10 . . . , and lastly, the spiritual company or ideal corporation of all Christians, including the saints on earth and the saints to come. . . .11 As if to clear the whole matter up, Dr. Boardman declares venerably:Thus the word "ekklesia," translated "church," is a noble instance of verbal transfiguration, showing how our King does indeed make all things new, infusing into the originally secular idea of a lawful assembly of Greek citizens the new and exalted idea of a universal and celestial society, even Christ's own body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all."12It is safe to say that Christianity gave a new and Christian significance to ekklesia, but not one contrary to its recognized meaning.
Dr. A. Dakin, President of Bristol Baptist College in England,
identifies the church of God with the family of God:In the absolute sense it means the whole family of God as this is at the moment, and will be at the end. It includes all who have been, or are being, or will be redeemed in Christ. It thus embraces present fact and and future reality, linking the present aeon with the age that is to come. Part of the church of God is actually in time at any given moment, part of it is in eternity, and part is not yet born. 13When we read a statement like this we cannot help wondering how Paul's figure of the body of Christ would look on such a pattern. For instance, where would the Head be, where the arms, where the feet, and so on? Certainly, this sounds ridiculous, but. . .
Dr. H. Harvey, with sufficient looseness, defines the concept this way:It denotes the entire body of the elect in heaven and on earth-all who are embraced in the covenant of grace and who shall be gathered into the everlasting kingdom of Christ. Here the word is used figuratively, the name of a part designating the whole; and all the redeemed are conceived as forming one grand assembly.14Eric Sauer, in his The Triumph of the Crucified, says of this church concept:This people of God to be newly won the Scripture names ecclesia (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 1:22). It is the company of the redeemed who, by means of the proclamation of the gospel (II Timothy 2:7), have been called out of the Jews and Gentiles (Ephesians 2:11-22), who, in enjoyment of the heavenly citizenship (Philippians 3:20) and possession of the divine ennoblement (John 1:12, 13), will become the future "legal representative assembly" of the kingdom of heaven (I Corinthians 6:2, 3). They are to be glorified with Christ. They are "from heaven, in heaven, for heaven." Their nature is eternal. The church originates in eternity and is for eternity, taken out of time.15Emil Brunner, noted European theologian, refuses to identify
the ekklesia of the New Testament with the historical "church," He argues that:The New Testament Ecclesia, the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is a pure communion of persons and has nothing of the character of an institution about it: it is therefore misleading to identify any single one of the historically developed churches, which are all marked by an institutional character, with true Christian communion.16His argument that the ekklesia was a genuine spiritual fellowship and not an institution contains great spiritual value and an emphasis much needed in this day, but we question his success in showing that it is not an institution. However, he insists that "one must then recognize that the Ecclesia of the New Testament, the Christian fellowship of the first Christians, was not a 'church' and had no intention of being a 'church.'17
Karl Barth, considered generally as more conservative than Brunner, is, if anything, more vague when he says that "the church is wherever man hears God." 18
We could go back over the creeds of the different denominations, bringing quotations of their concept of the church, but in most cases there would be little variation from the examples which we have quoted. A typical example is from the Westminster Confession of Faith (1647):The Catholic or Universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all. . . . The visible church, which is also Catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law) consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, and of their children; and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.19
The same could be said of the writings of Calvin, Luther, Wesley and other reformation leaders, as well as other modern scholars: they all have some general concept of a universal-invisible body of Christians constituting the one great catholic church. Some believe it includes all the elect, living, dead and unborn: others limit it to the believers of this church age; still others to those only who are living at a particular time in this age. Some identify it with the kingdom of God, the family of God, or the "body of Christ," whatever they conceive this body to be, and so on, ad infinitum. From all these sources, not including, of course, the Roman Catholic group who insist on mixing their concept with the imperial aspects of a universal-visible church, we would find a mingling of the same views expressed in the examples given.
With the reader's permission, we shall save printer's ink here by limiting the evidence of our research at this point. We are prepared to prove that further research among the creeds and scholars will bring no less confusion than is already evident, but possibly more.
REPRESENTATIVE OPPOSING VIEWS
Conversely, the opposition to the universal church theory has its differences. It would seem sufficient to present only two rather definite- viewpoints in opposition to this commonly accepted theory.
(1) The Ideal Concept. Dr. H. E. Dana, late of the Central Baptist Seminary, Kansas City, sets out an ideal concept of the church as representing what is known as spiritual Israel. 20 This concept is anti-universal in that it does not embrace "all churches in some objective form of organization." 21 He does not hold to the orthodox Protestant conception of a functioning, universal, invisible church. His view is more or less figurative, a view which cannot be made the basis for a theory of church polity. Dr. Conner, late professor of Systematic Theology in Southwestern Baptist Seminary, Fort Worth, Texas, agrees to a large extent with this concept. He feels that the word church "seems
to be used in the sense of a body of Christians on earth at any particular time. . . ."22
Even though he shares this concept, Dr. Conner does not conceal from himself the difficulties that attend the effort to fix the invisible idea. He readily admits that "the term invisible . . . is not a happy one.23
There are two outstanding differences between the ideal concept and the commonly accepted universal-invisible church theory.
The advocates of the universal-invisible church theory usually teach that the local church is merely a manifestation of the invisible, but Dr. Dana maintains that:This spiritual conception of the ekklesia has no concrete expression in the form of objective existence, for the local ekklesia is a thing of different nature and function.24A further departure from the universal-invisible church theory is Dr. Dana's sweeping rejection of Matthew 16:18 and all the passages except those in Ephesians and Colossians as proof texts. The most important of these is Matthew 16:18, which he does not even use to prove his ideal concept. He defines the use of ekklesia here as "the local significance, used in a generic sense."25
Although these major differences exist between Dana's view of the church and the universal-invisible church theory, it will be observed that the similarity is great. Both concepts of the church constituted the entire number of the redeemed for some period of time.
There are other plausible objections to the concept of an ideal church constituting spiritual Israel; however, this is not the place for their discussion, since we have introduced these views here mainly to show the confusion and disagreement among scholars as to the nature of the so-called universal-invisible church. It must be recognized that Dr. Dana and others have made valuable contributions in clarifying some of the particulars of the problem and nature of the church, but generally speaking,
the ideal concept is an explanation that does not fully solve the problem.
(2) The Glory Church View. The second representative opposing view is set out by Dr. B. H. Carroll, patriarch of Southwestern Baptists. He accounts for the passages of broader significance as representing a church in glory .26 He describes the ecclesia here as "prospective, not actual."
The same idea is described by other writers as "The Church Triumphant," "The Heavenly Church," and other futuristic connotations.
Dr. Carroll's interpretation is a possibility. That is, if his theological assumptions are true, his use of the word prospectively is consistent with its essential meaning, as well as is the generic sense.
It may be then that in their perfected state, all believers shall be presented to Christ as an assembly "without spot or blemish." This is future, and to say that all believers in the aggregate constitute such an ekklesia now is a perversion of the imagination.
Nevertheless, there are plausible objections to this theory. The two passages cited as proof texts are not sufficient to establish the doctrine of a glory church. The majority of Christian expositors regard these passages as references to the Bride of Christ, but that is not expressly stated in either case.
The passage in Ephesians 5:25-27 can only be assumed to refer to the Bride of Christ, an assumption that is extremely questionable as Dr. Dana points out:Nowhere in the passage does he call the church the bride of Christ, but says only that a husband should love his wife with the same intense love that Christ had for the Church.27The assumption that this passage refers to the Bride of Christ is arrived at by connecting it with the apocalyptic reference to the "bride" in Revelation 21:9, 10. Indeed, in Revelation the "bride" is not described as the church, but as the holy city, a throne being in the midst, and it is difficult to see how this can coincide with the representations of the early ekklesia.
However, it is to be admitted that the glory church view is far more adaptable to the requirements of Scripture than is either the ideal or the invisible church theory.
To summarize, all the advocates of the universal-invisible church theory agree that there is some kind of a universal-invisible church which includes all or some part of the believers of both the Old and New Testament eras, but there is no agreement among the various creeds or among the leaders of religion or among the scholars of recent times as to its essential characteristics. They all agree with the Scriptures where they call it "the body of Christ," but this abstraction is variously understood. Some say it is identical with the kingdom of God; others say it is the whole spiritual family of God, but that this is not the same as the kingdom. It is also thought of as "spiritual Israel," and the inclusions here vary, but generally they have in mind the blending in some way of all the saints of God into one body. Some think the "one body" is a new thing with New Testament limitations (Scofield et al.). The shades of interpretation are numerous and confusing.
What we have shown would seem to justify the conclusion that on this universal-invisible church concept, so readily accepted without question as a genuine reality by the large majority of those who have an opinion on this subject, there is infinite uncertainty and confusion. If there really is such a church, does it not seem logical that somebody should give us an accurate identification of it, tell us whom it includes, how it operates, et cetera? As of this date, nobody seems to know the answers to these perplexing questions. Certainly, nobody ever saw it! It never had a meeting! It has no plans to meet in this world.
The most plausible concept of a general church is Carroll's view of the "glory church," and that church does not now exist. According to this view, it is in the process of building, and when Jesus comes, it will be local and visible.
2. The theory is lacking in scriptural support. It is admitted that the word ekklesia in Ephesians and Colossians could appear to mean some kind of general, spiritual, or invisible church. However, we insist that those who hold this view must admit that their interpretation is a purely arbitrary one. Other able brethren, as we have shown, say that the word ekklesia is used here in the "ideal" or spiritual sense "without any idea of concrete expression in the form of objective existence."
They identify this concept with what they call "spiritual Israel," and claim that this is what Paul had in mind in these two letters. Thus, the advocates of the universal invisible theory have strong opposition here.
An equally strong challenge to this interpretation is held by those who say that the word is used in these letters in the generic sense, with the concrete expression of the church being local. The same division of opinion indicated here between the two groups just mentioned is found also in their interpretation of Matthew 16:18. One group has just as much right to assign its meaning here as does the other. Both groups stand on an assumption. Hence, to say the least, the universal-invisible church advocates have no corner on the interpretation of these passages.
The same can be said for the passage in Hebrews 12:23, a very useful passage for those who advocate the invisible church. At this moment we are not taking sides, but we say with all emphasis that if the use of the word in the passages indicated up to this point means any sort of a general or spiritual church, then the "glory church" view is far more acceptable than any other. Thus, the invisible church advocates are still on an arbitrary interpretation.
But this is not all. The key passage for those who hold the universal-invisible church theory is I Corinthians 12:13. Here again the interpretation is purely arbitrary. They say that this is what it means, and without any apparent consciousness that their dictum needs any proof, they leave it there. Furthermore, the popular acceptance of their assumption, as far as they are concerned, seems to put any objector to this interpretation in a class with the unlearned.
As a matter of fact, there is strong possibility that this passage means water baptism of the converts at Corinth. It is so construed by Dr. Robertson in his Word Pictures. Many conservative brethren whom we know personally, and whom we regard as having enlightened understanding of the Scriptures, hold this view. We do not insist upon this interpretation, but a good case is made out for it by this reading which is in line with the original language: "For in one spirit (that is, in one disposition of mind and heart) were we all baptized into (or unto) one body (meaning the church at Corinth: parentheses ours - BHK) . . ." Considering the many matters of a local nature in this letter, this reading is entirely possible.
However, if one insists on this passage meaning some kind of a general or spiritual church, then we say again, by all means the "glory church" view is far more satisfactory.
Dr. Carroll believes, as is shown elsewhere, that the so-called baptism of the Holy Spirit took place upon this church in Corinth for the definite purpose of authenticating and approving it as the body of Christ in that place, and through which He spoke in that new region where supernatural manifestation was needed to convince the multitude of Jews and Gentiles that this was His church, His body in this world. Dr. Carroll very sensibly, it seems to us, regards this as the final phase of this supernatural baptism of the Spirit which began at Pentecost. However Dr. Carroll rates as a scholar in this day, his discussion 28 on this subject cannot be ignored.
This, in a general way at least, covers the passages on which the universal-invisible church advocates build their theory. It seems to us conclusive that their interpretation of these passages is purely arbitrary, and that not a single passage among them can be held as conclusive support of their view. In every case they must yield to the possibility, and often to a strong probability, of another interpretation.
3. The origin of the universal-invisible church concept is not apostolic.
The appellatives "universal," "invisible," "true," "general" and other similar terms are used so freely by the advocates of this theory as to lead the unsuspecting to believe that they are actually contained in the Scriptures. However, a critical examination of the origin of these terms reveals that they, as well as the universal church theory itself, were formulated after the days of the apostles. Such phrases as "the universal church," "the invisible church," "the rapture of the church," "the mystical body of Christ," like "the baptism of the Holy Ghost" and others, are commonly quoted as scriptural terms, and the greater part of the Christian world has not stopped to realize or discover that they are not a part of God's language.
The evidence is against any idea of a pre-apostolic or apostolic concept of an ekklesia other than a visible assembly. Even when
the word was used to designate ancient Israel, it was used to characterize them only in an assembled capacity. It was never used to designate scattered or unassembled Israel.
Adolph Harnack, 29 the great German historian and theologian, testifies against the idea of a universal, invisible church in the days of the apostles. He says:No one thought of the desperate idea of an invisible church; this notion would probably have brought about a lapse from pure Christianity far more rapidly than the idea of the Holy Catholic Church.30The first two centuries are almost devoid of any heresy concerning the nature of the church. Evidently its inherent local nature was not questioned or disputed.The works of the Fathers of the first two centuries that have come down to us contain no distinct treatise on the church. The statements on the subject scattered through their writings, though by no means scanty, are for the most part of a purely practical or even devotional character. Rarely do the definitions of the Church found in the pages of Ignatius or Irenaeus, Tertullian or Origen, make any approach to scientific precision.31Ekklesia was a Greek word that would have been understood by all who used this universal language in the days of the apostles as meaning a visible assembly even after it had acquired a Christian significance. Christianity did not change the meaning of the word but adopted it as a fit description of this divine institution.
It has further been affirmed by [Jesse] Thomas that "Early Christian literature is equally innocent of any such application of the term."32
Only in post-apostolic times is there any record of the universal or invisible significance being attached to the word ekklesia.
This is easy to understand because it is not uncommon for a wordi; at different points in history, to acquire new meanings. To determine, though, what a writer means to say, it is necessary to ascertain the meaning of his words in the day in which he uses them.
The expression of a "universal" or "Catholic" church was the first new idea to make its appearance after the New Testament age. According to Dr. Fish, this term "first occurs in the year 169 A.D., in the Encyclical Epistle of the church of Smyrna concerning the martyrdom of its beloved pastor, the renowned Polycarp. . . ." 33
By this time the New Testament canon had been completed. All of the books of the New Testament were written before 100 A.D. In order to establish historical grounds for the universal church, some archeological or etymological evidence will. have to be produced to prove that this definition of the ekklesia did not originate after the apostolic age.
Historically, the idea of a universal church was a gradual development. In the early period the churches existed and functioned independently of any formal organization into unitary groups. The work of the bishop was confined to a particular assembly, but gradually the bishop became overseer over many churches - abuse that also came after apostolic days.
The notion of an ecumenical church had not ripened into definite form until the calling of an ecumenical council under the world ruler, Constantine.34 The decrees of this council were endorsed by the imperial hand, and the church thus consolidated into a world organism."35 A natural and later development was the "Holy Roman Empire," and in the end the "Holy Catholic Church" of this present day.36
The term "invisible church" did not make its appearance until after the time of the Reformation. When it did emerge, it appears as a counter-invention to the claims of the papacy.
The Reformers were justly charged by Bossuet with "the later invention of the notion of an 'invisible catholic' church, as
a device to preserve the catholicity without its inevitable implication of external reality."37
Dr. Maiden attributes the full development of the theory to the period of the Reformation. He claims that "Following the Reformation period and born of the Reformation movement, there emerged a new theory of the church -- the universal, invisible spiritual theory."38
Dr. E. J. Fish, a prominent Michigan Baptist of the last century, summarizes the emergence of this idea in this way:Martin Luther, denying that the Church of Rome, which had arrogated to itself the title Holy Catholic or Universal Church, was the true church, was asked: "Where, then, is it?" He replied: "It is invisible," thus originating a designation of the church which has very extensively, I might say universally, ruled the Protestant Christian world until this day. The thought was not new, but the expression.39It is true that this idea was in the minds of significant medieval Christians, but never formally uttered. "The force of that strange spell, a name, remained for Luther to impart."40
Thus we enter an area of unprecedented complexity of church concepts. This new name was a convenient designation to justify predetermined conclusions, but the novelty only spelled more conflict, a conflict not only between the "local" and "external universal" but an added conflict between the 'invisible universal."
THE MODERN EMPHASIS
The modem emphasis of the universal church theory is expressed in two excesses - the interdenominational and ecumenical movements.
An invisible church, contradistinguished from the local by the adjective "true," becomes a very important concept to all interdenominational activity. It has great utilitarian value, as its theme song of a great invisible church composed of all Christians is regarded as the only important entity. It thus helps to break
down all distinguishing historic principles and beliefs of the separate denominations and to bring them together in a new organization, the basis of belief of which is the lowest common denominator. It is easy to see how such a theory or concept is vital to the continued existence and prosperity of the new "inter-denominational denomination." 41
The ecumenical church advocates have just as enthusiastically and vigorously propagated the universal, invisible concept but with the ulterior motive of establishing a world-wide church. The universal church is admittedly the time-honored concept of ecumenicity. Man's Disorder and God's Design,42 a volume prepared under the auspices of the First Assembly of the World Council of Churches, expresses repeatedly this concept as it is shared by many of its leaders.
RE-EXAMINATION OF THE APOSTLES' CREED
Repeated reference is made by all advocates of this theory to the Apostles' Creed. In the minds of many people, this is regarded as next to final authority with Scripture. A tradition, now wholly abandoned as an illusion, credits "each of the apostles with having contributed a clause to it."43
Dr. Jesse B. Thomas, erstwhile professor of Church History at Newton Theological Seminary, contends that "neither the creed itself nor the emphasized phrase Holy Catholic Church are traceable to the first century."44
Dr. Thomas' findings in respect to the creed help clarify its authority and show that it is far from a sufficient basis for establishing this proposed church concept. He says:The creed, in its present form, is affirmed by Harnack to be traceable no further back than to the middle of the fifth century. The "complete form of the creed," as Dr. Stimson admits, "gained general currency in the west" only "after the eighth century." The version in use before that time (itself going back only to the third century) omits the word "catholic," speaking only of
the "Holy Church." That this was the early form is admitted by Romanists as well as Protestant historians. 45It thus becomes obvious that a historical foundation for the universal church theory is lacking. Both the New Testament Scriptures and the earliest Christian documents fail to define the church as "universal" or "invisible."
4. The Universal-invisible Church cannot possibly be a reality in this world.
(1) It cannot have corporeal existence. A church must be composed of people. Whom does it include? Who constitutes it? As we have shown, the scholars are divided and confused on this matter. The basic meaning of the word ekklesia is "assembly" or "congregation." Although the word comes from a combination which could be made to mean "the called out," the Greek and Jewish minds both understood its meaning as "assembly." If one should insist on its meaning being "the called out," thereby making it admit a genera! spiritual body such as a universal church, then, again, the "glory church" view is far more satisfactory. Let the universal-invisible church be composed of individual people or of churches, it still cannot meet or assemble, it cannot realize intra-contact, it cannot perform any of the functions of an assembly, nor can it be contacted in any corporeal sense. It therefore has only imaginary existence.
(2) It cannot find unity without assembling.
Let us assume that the universal-invisible church exists, including those who have died as well as those who are living today. Certainly, those who have gone before to be with Christ know better than do we the answers to the many difficult questions which divide us here. Since the living "universal church," that is, that part which is in the world today, is hopelessly divided on what the Scriptures teach, and since that part that has gone to be with Christ knows who is right and who is wrong, how can we ever achieve unity unless we can meet and exchange ideas in personal association?
If brethren insist that the universal-invisible church includes only the saved who are living on the earth at any given time, why are they so divided? Is not this great mass of denomination and sects and creeds a fatal testimony to the hope of unity in this church?
Is not unity the hope of the ecumenical church? Is it not
seeking to bring about that unity by assembly? Some will say that this great universal-invisible church finds its unity in the Spirit. It is a known fact from the Bible itself that there cannot be unity in the Spirit without unity in the Word. Is not that why the Antioch brethren and the Jerusalem brethren had to come together for a discussion? How can we achieve unity without discussion, and how can we have discussion Without assembly?
Our divisions are serious. We are divided on the question of how lost men are saved. A church must not only be made up of saved people, but it must also tell how we are saved. This has been the battle ground of the ages. Are we saved by grace through faith alone, as some claim? By grace plus works? By works alone? Are we chosen to be saved from the beginning? Do we come to Christ on our own free will? Or by both? Does baptism save us or help save us? Are infants saved through baptism? Can we be lost after we have been saved? If so, can we be saved again? These and many other similar questions have furnished the issues of martyrdom for nearly two thousand years. Millions have died in the conflicts over these questions.
Has this great universal-invisible church ever found unity? And yet, is not the unity of that church its outstanding goal? Is not that the aim of ecumenicity? If a church have not unity, can it eat the Lord's Supper (I Corinthians 11:18-20)? Unity is urged as basic (1 Corinthians 1:10), and that unity is to be in what the church speaks as well as in what it experiences.
The final thrust of this book will show that a church is mainly for the purpose of propagating and interpreting the saving message of God to a lost world. It is a preaching institution. It has something to say as well as something to experience, and what it says must be what the Word of God teaches. It must have unity in its interpretation of its experience as well as in the experience itself.
Now, measure the universal-invisible church by that rule. If God has chosen to use it as His agency of spiritual and doctrinal expression, should it not find unity in both the Spirit and its doctrine?
Let us take, for example, the conflict over the ordinances. As we have said, this has caused the death of thousands of believers. History is bloody with persecution over such matters. The councils and ecclesiastical leaders of history, instead of solving
the conflict, have left the field more divided than ever. What shall we do with the Anabaptists, for instance, and all their kin? Shall we include them in the universal invisible church, yet refuse to recognize their testimony? We know that many of them were believers in Christ and died for their testimony. What shall we do with men like Calvin, Luther, Knox, Wycliffe, Huss, Zwingli and others of the Reformers? What were they trying to reform? Was there something wrong with the universal invisible church that made this group divide up so many different ways? And did their solutions bring unity to the church?
What about the church fathers and their varying views on fundamental issues? Do they now know who was right and who was wrong? If they could assemble with us, could they not help us solve some problems? What about the Roman church leaders and the ever-increasing doctrinal and ceremonial structure of their great imperial church? Why have the Roman and Eastern branches been divided so long and over what?
If there can be unity in a universal-invisible church, why can there not be unity in a universal-visible church? And if there cannot be unity in a universal-visible church, such as the Catholic Church, how can there be imbedded in this world-wide and heaven-wide ecclesiastical mass a church that can find invisible unity which cannot be expressed visibly and orally?
Again we exhort you to remember that the chief goal and claim of this invisible church over the local, visible church is unity. The goal of all its advocates is to be rid of conflict. And yet, conflict is the one outstanding characteristic of its history.
If we are to eliminate all that divides us in order to have unity, then by all means, let us drop the ordinances with all their connections. Let us drop also the question of the inspiration of the Scriptures, the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the controversial doctrine of election and free will, eternal security, sanctification, and the dozens of other matters in which we find controversy. Whatever brings disunity, let us throw it out; and when we have emptied the "church" of all that divides us, let us throw the empty shell back into the thin air of imagination from whence it came and go down the road or down the street to a church like the one at Antioch or at Jerusalem or at Philippi, where the members are assembled and where they are speaking to each other in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, making melody in their hearts, where the preacher is "holding forth the
word of life," and there we think you will find the Holy Spirit working through what the Bible calls a church.
If someone remarks that in these churches there is much disunity, we will agree. This is to be expected in an arena where the issues of eternity are joined; but it is likewise the only place that unity can be and is achieved. But the unity of the universal-invisible church, like the "church" itself, is, in our opinion, achieved only in the imagination, mainly because in such a structure of unreality the issues that divide us can never be joined. Thus Satan draws into one tent of imagination all the various religious faiths, and, by forbidding a pointed discussion on the issues that divide us, he presents to the undiscerning world the big lie that the church is united in Spirit even though it may be divided in doctrine.
This, it seems to us, makes the reality of this "church" an impossibility.
5. This concept does not fit the figures used in Scripture to represent a church.
(1) "Ye are God's building" (I Corinthians 3:9).
Here the church is represented as a building. This throws upon our minds a concept of a building with all its parts in contact and with the possibility of each part being visible, present in one place, and placed there at one time. It seems impossible to stretch the figure so it will represent the universal-invisible church concept. Where shall we place the various parts — the foundation, the walls, the roof and so on? What would it look like with a part of it buried in the ages gone by, part of it scattered over the present world and part of it yet unbuilt? How can we see it as anything but a figment of the imagination? "Ye are God's building" can mean nothing real to this author except as it applies to the church at Corinth along with the other matters directed to his church. We do not mean to argue the question; we simply confess that we have great difficulty, even in the realm of imagination, to find any likeness of a universal-invisible church in this figure.
(2) "Ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular" (I Corinthians 12:27).
Some say this should be translated "a body of Christ" because there is no article in the Greek. The whole passage begins with verse 12. The same questions in the section immediately above could be applied to this figure with the same
results. We declare that we are searching our soul when we say that we cannot find any reality in a universal-invisible church when represented in this figure. We are not appealing to the ridiculous when we say that such a body must not only be spread over the whole area or perhaps sections of the earth, but it must also be made to accommodate the periods of time included. in any particular view of whom the body is composed over the ages. There can be a very beautiful illustration of unity and harmony here, but how can we get from this any sensible concept of a church which has to be stretched over the areas of earth and the ages of time? How can it be like a body when part of it is in the graves or in Heaven, part of it here in the earth alive in the body and part of it yet unborn? What kind of an "assembly" is this? To conceive of the various parts of the body working together in harmony in such a church taxes the imagination beyond its capacity.
(3) "The household of God" (Ephesians 2:19).
This suggestion of the church finally becomes a building "fitly framed" and growing together "unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit" (vs. 21, 22). Here again the analogy applies with the same result.
(4) "Pillar and ground of truth" (I Timothy 3:15).
Here the "church of the living God" and "the house of God" are called "the pillar and ground of truth." With all the disconnected elements, divisions, and confusion of the ecclesiastical bodies of the world, how can we synchronize this concept of the church with a universal-invisible church concept?
Other references could be introduced, but we feel that this is sufficient to prove that the universal concept of the church does not fit the figures used in the Scriptures to illustrate the church.
6. The concept lends itself to abuse and subtle deception.
We do not mean that the advocates of this view of the church intend any evil with it, but even so, Satan is alert to make the most of it.
(1) This view of the church has no real, practical value. It is admittedly popular and for the undiscerning seems to solve many problems about the church, but it has the result of releasing people from the practical responsibilities of this life as a believer.
It is admitted that there are many exceptions to this rule, that many who hold this view are more industrious and zealous than are many who do not believe it. It is a puzzling paradox that some who claim to be the most orthodox often seems to be the least industrious. There is too often a tendency to rest in the supremacy of sound doctrine. This ought not to be.
Nevertheless, multitudes who believe in the universal-invisible church concept relax from particular responsibilities as believers. In their mind there is no church to oversee them, exhort them, point out their needs or provoke them to industry. They are in "the big church" of their imagination; why worry about attending visible churches or whether or not these churches are preaching the truth? Somebody will carry on. In fact, "the church" itself will somehow carry the gospel to the ends of the earth.
Then, there are those who lead great mission movements, advertise their work by radio and television, direct the work personally, but what would most of them do if it were not for the members of visible churches who support them? At the same time they magnify the great universal-invisible church!
(2) More useful to Satan yet is the invisible aspect. Until Jesus came, God was invisible. During that time man made God after his (man's) own image (not that he does not today). That is, the invisible God took the form and character of the imagination of man. Everyone could have God as he himself imagined Him to be, and nobody could take issue with him. His religion and his God were all personal matters.
This was true, for example, in the ship on which Jonah was going to Tarsus. In the midst of the storm his companions said: "Pray to your god, and we will pray to ours." No argument over the gods; each could have his own. As long as God was invisible, each one could have his religion without conflict and as many gods as he chose. But when Jesus came, conflict arose. The people were "divided over Him." He was a visible God, and people had to deal with Him in person. Furthermore, He was exclusive; He allowed no other gods. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve." "Sell all and follow me." "All power is delivered unto me, both in heaven and on earth." "I am God, and besides me there is none other."
When a man faces Jesus, he does not face an imaginary God, one whom he has formed after his own mind; he faces the real
God in a visible body. But when men faced God in this form, what did they do with Him? Yes, they crucified Him.
This is the story of the local, visible church. As long as the church is invisible, all the different brands of religion can find a make-believe harmony under its broad canopy. They are all in the great invisible church, so why argue about their differences? Each can have his own. But when we set before them the local, visible kind of church, where they must take a stand and be identified before the world as committed to the doctrines of salvation and where they must be responsible for definite commitments to service; a church which requires a covenant relationship spelled out in certain practical acts of conduct; a church whose services they must attend and which they must support with their money, there arises a resistance to its reality. It is too exacting, too definite and real. It requires bodily presence, not just spiritual. It is the body of Christ in the flesh where it can be seen and communicate, the incarnation of the Lord Himself in a fellowship of real, live human bodies and spirits.
For many it is all too literal and imperfect and visible. It is much easier to live in a dream church than in a real one. The slacker cannot hide in the mystic folds of a visible church, for there are none. The sinner can be found out and judged. This visible church is committed to the Word of God and not to the varying desires of fleshly members. It is committed to a doctrine that identifies it from false churches. The worldling is not at liberty to make this incarnate presence after his own idea of God. He must conform to the Word.
What is the reaction of those who do not wish to conform to the life of the local, visible church? They crucify it as they crucify its Head and seek hiding in what appears to us to be the monstrosity of the universal-invisible church.
Satan makes no attack upon this concept. As I have indicated, he often finds it very useful. But he centers his attack upon the local, visible church. There is where he can get at the church, through the flesh of its members, the only place where he has any access to God's militant army. There is where he arouses conflict and is able to make the church look bad before the world.
It is not surprising that churches have trouble, conflicts, splits; that is Satan's battle ground. But here, too, is the only place
where unity can be achieved and actual fellowship realized. It is the only place where differences can be discussed and harmony obtained, and where the actual implementation of the work of the Lord finds its resources.
The author is aware of the strong language used in this discussion, and he wishes to state that there are many exceptions to some of his conclusions. Many godly and zealous men share the concept of the universal-invisible church. But the harmony between this concept and that of the local, visible church is far more imaginary than real.
It is also true that many believers are serving the Lord in individual capacity, but their resources lie mainly in those churches which have their feet on the ground. It will also be seen that the measure of their support from the churches will largely depend on their harmony of doctrine and practice with these churches.
The inventions of the so-called universal-invisible church concept provide a dream church where the believer can escape the conflict found in the local church and yet enjoy the complacent comfort of feeling that he is in a higher spiritual relationship with God. In this way this church concept becomes a great offensive against "the churches of God."
1 Scofield Bible, page 1304.
2 Ibid, page 1276.
3 Ibid., page 1257.
4 W. W. Evarts, Baptist Layman's Book, 1887, p. 41.
5 E. H. Johnson, An Outline of Systematic Theology and Henry G. Weston, of Ecclesiology, 1895, p. 319.
6 Augustus H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 1899), p. 494. Proof text for statement: Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 1:22, 23; 3:10; 5:24, 25; Colossians 1:18; Hebrews 12:23.
7 Ibid., p. 494.
8 F. J. A. Fort, The Christian Ecclesia, 1900, p. 148.
9 Ibid., p. 161.
10 George Dana Boardman, The Church, 1901, p. 162. Proof texts for the second concept: Galatians 1:13; I Timothy 3: 16.
11 Ibid., p. 62. Proof texts for the third concept: Matthew 16:18; Hebrews 12:23.
13 A. Dakin, The Baptist View of the Church and Ministry, 1945, p. 7.
14 H. Harvey, The Church: it Polity and Ordinances, 1789, p. 27.
15 Eric Sauer, The Triumph of the Crucified, 1952, p. 58.
16 Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, 1951, p. 17.
17 Ibid., p. 16.
18 Karl Barth, God In Action, 1936, p. 28.
19 Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, 1931, 6th ed., Vol. III, p. 657.
20 Cf. H. E. Dana, A Manual of Ecclesiology, 1944), p. 56.
21 Ibid, pp. 56, 57.
22 Walter T. Conner, The Gospel of Redemption, 1946, p. 270.
24 Dana, op. cit., p. 57.
25 Ibid., p. 40.
26 Cf. B. H. Carroll, An Interpretation of the English Bible, "Colossians, Ephesians and Hebrews", pp. 162ff.
27 Dana, op. cit., p. 59.
28 Cf. Carroll, op. cit., "The Acts", chap. 4, et al.
29 Harnack is an acknowledged master among the historians of primitive Christianty, and so his testimony in this connection carries great weight.
30 Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma. Translated from the third German edition by Neil Buchanan, (Williams and Norgate, 1896). II, p. 83.
31 John J. McElhinney, The Doctrine of the Church, 1871, p. 19.
32 Jesse B. Thomas, The Church and the Kingdom, 1914, p. 151.
33 E. J. Fish, Ecclesiology, pp. 33, 34. (Cf. McElhinney, op. cit., p. 27.)
34 Cf. Thomas, op. cit., p. 166.
37 Ibid., p. 176.
38 R. K. Maiden, "'Universal Church' Heresy," Re-Thinking Baptist Doctrines, ed. by Victor I. Masters, 1937, p. 161.
39 39 Fish, op. cit., p. 40.
40 40 Ibid., p. 41.
41 Not a denomination in the sense of organized cooperation, but independent societies with mutual distinguishing beliefs; a label of a kind.
42 Published by Harper & Brothers, New York.
43 Thomas, op. cit., p. 190.
44 Ibid., p. 151.
[Buell H. Kazee, The Church and the Ordinances, The Little Baptist Press, Lexington, KY, 1965, pp. 5-27.]
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