We have been surveying the ground of confusion, of assumption, of arbitrary interpretation and of a variety of vague guessing as to the nature and reality of the universal-invisible church. Possibilities have been admitted, but no positive identification of the church of the New Testament has been fixed beyond question. We come now to something definite and certain, namely, the local, visible church1 of the New Testament.
We assume that no one doubts the reality, both in Scripture and in history, of this local, visible kind of church. Speaking personally, I find it necessary to adjust myself to some kind of tangible church life. Since I cannot "get hold" of the universal-invisible or general or spiritual church, since it never assembles, never has any tangible existence as far as my life is concerned; since there is apparently hopeless confusion and disagreement among Bible scholars as to what it is and who belongs to it; and since there is definitely in the Scriptures and in history a local, visible kind of church, it seems quite sensible for me to make my adjustment to that kind of church. I must have relation with something which I can identify in the Scriptures, something that has definite meaning and privilege and responsibility in my life. The local, visible church is the only one where I can find this. Any other church leaves me wondering like I do when some of my brethren do not show up at church meetings, then tell me they were with me in spirit though absent in body. It hardly satisfies.
However, in order to relieve any feeling of dogmatism here, let us grant that there may be such an institution as a universal-invisible church; or, let us grant that there is or will be a church in glory; we are still faced with the unalterable fact that the only living, visible, working, preaching church in the New Testament is an assembly located in some particular place. We are
also faced with the fact that there are many of them, each one identified by the name of a particular place; that this is what the Lord Himself called a church; that Christ recognized these churches by writing letters to them and sending messengers by direction of the Holy Spirit to them. Whereupon, our judgment is that the confusion about the different concepts of the church of the New Testament is thoroughly dispelled by the Scriptures themselves. We have emblazoned upon the pages of Holy Writ the record of our Lord's own dealings with His churches in various places, and that writes off as futile any argument about what the Lord means by "my church."
Generically or institutionally, it is "my church;" visibly and locally, they are "the churches." And if there be such a thing as a universal-invisible church, so vague and indefinite that I cannot realize its existence nor adjust myself to its privileges and obligations, I propose to leave the running of that institution to Him who runs the universe! The instructions in the New Testament concerning the conduct of a church, as far as they apply to this local, visible person, seem to concern the conduct of a local, visible church.
Furthermore, there seems to be no practical way in which the Lord could express Himself through an invisible church, just as He could not express Himself through an invisible human body (and one seems to be about as possible as the other). The incarnation could not take place in an invisible spirit entity. It cannot meet, it cannot be seen, it cannot speak or be spoken to with any intelligence or direction. It cannot have an existence which means anything to us except in our imagination. Visible, local churches are the logical means by which Christ through the Spirit would spread His gospel over the world, and they are thoroughly scriptural.
Let us emphasize that this is not just an opinion; it is the working order of church life as is shown abundantly in the New Testament. Let it be deeply impressed upon the reader here that our appeal is not to history, but to the Scriptures. History has had its good and bad days, and that which has evolved through the councils and creeds of the last two thousand years is not the right basis of argument here. We go to the New Testament for our proper understanding of the church, and anything in history which does not agree with that is wrong.
In fulfilling the design of our Lord in church life, we must be careful not to move off into realms ethereal or celestial. We must stay right here on the earth where people in real, human, sinful bodies walk and live; where the mind is darkened by sin and the way of man is earthy. Man must be met and talked to, and his mind must be enlightened about God just as he must be taught how to plow. It is the Spirit who takes the message which we preach, and who translates it into heavenly meanings which penetrate the heart and soul of a sinner and bring him alive from the dead. This is a great mystery, but no greater mystery than that of air and food and water being translated by bodily processes into mind and thought and realization. All of this must begin at the grass roots of man's existence, in his mind, and only through the real body in which he lives can this truth be transmitted. In this "earthen vessel" the Lord proposes to take up His abode (in the person of the Spirit), and, by this miracle of indwelling, to transform the earthy into the heavenly.
So, the church must start with real, visible man, and, because of this, it must itself be a real group of people assembled where they can be seen and heard by that man who has no other way of finding God. This is the purpose of the incarnation, both in Jesus and in us.
We do not know all the purposes God has in using a church of people assembled in one place, but we do know that that was His plan. It might be said that it was necessary to have a church instead of merely individual believers (as the universal-invisible church would be) because of their need for fellowship. Such an arrangement gives strength and courage. It might also be said that the lost need to see God's people together demonstrating the kind of life and fellowship which God can produce in men. Or, it may be that He designed a visible church for the purpose of demonstrating the various gifts needed to convince the world of His power and divinity. Other reasons might be given, although the Scriptures do nothing more than to imply God's reason for having churches through which to do His work. We can be sure of one thing: that is what He had, and that is the way He did His work as it is recorded in the New Testament.
Furthermore, the wisdom of counsel among a number of people bound together in a purpose would be more certain in ascertaining the will of God than the judgment of one person would
be. This is demonstrated in the incident of the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15) as well as in other places. As we say, a church must keep its feet on the ground where its ministry lies. There is always danger in missing the mark if we become space-minded regarding the church.
We could easily list a large number of references to prove what is so generally known but so often forgotten about the reality of the local, visible church in the Scriptures, but to be sure that they are read, we shall impress the mind with some quotations.
As is often cited on this point, how could an offended brother "tell it to the church" (Matt. 18:17) if the church were invisible? Some will answer this by saying that "where two or three are gathered together in my name," there the invisible church exists in visible form. Referring to this passage (Matt. 18:20) the Scofield Bible comments, "The simplest form of a local church."
The context of this passage explodes this conclusion. The offended brother in the verses preceding this is directed to take with him "one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it to the church." Now, if two or three gathered in the name of Christ is a local church, the brother already had two or three with him, and these would constitute a church of themselves. Why, if the offending brother will not hear them, is the offended one directed to tell it to the church?
The simple conclusion is that Jesus had no idea of implying the existence of a local church or of a fragment of the universal-invisible church in the "two or three" indicated in verse 20. A church is an organism, it is true, but it is also an organization of people who have united in covenant relationship for a special purpose. It is not just a haphazard meeting of two or three believers. Besides, if "two or three . . . gathered together in my name" can constitute a church merely by being together, it can be either two or three, so two would be enough! This could border on the ridiculous.
Let us continue with quotations. When "the Lord added to the church" (Acts 2:47), the only church existing then was "the church which was at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1). This is the church of which Saul "made havoc" (Acts 8:3), and it is the same church that was praying for Peter when he was in jail (Acts
12:5)2. Acts 14:27 says, they "gathered the church together." The Spirit directed the church at Antioch to give visible expression to His appointment of Saul and Barnabas as missionaries to the Gentiles (Acts 13), and the Jerusalem church had nothing to do with it!
This kind of church is a visible assembly, for in Acts 11:26 we read that "it came to pass that a whole year they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people."
In Acts 15 we read of two churches counseling together on a great question. At Antioch somebody was insisting on obedience to the law as a means of salvation. Paul and Barnabas argued against this. The result was that the church at Antioch sent messengers to the church at Jerusalem "unto the apostles and elders about this question." There were some conferences, after which "it pleased the apostles and elders with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas" with a message containing the result of the conference. They did not organize an association. Just one church in one locality sent some messengers to another church in another locality for the purpose of counsel on a problem in which they had a mutual interest. They all went back to their respective churches.
The plural -- "churches" -- is used often in the New Testament to indicate the different local churches. Nowhere in the Acts do we find anything about the Lord working through a universal-invisible church. Acts 16:5 says, "And so were the churches established in the faith, and increased in number daily." The Corinthian letter is addressed "unto the church of God which is at Corinth." There is no doubt about the destination of that letter. In I Corinthians 4:17, Paul says: "As I teach everywhere in every church." In 7:17, he says: "And so I ordain in all churches." It would have been so easy for him to say "in the church," that is, the universal-invisible church. He also said,
(14: 34), "Let your women keep silence in the churches." Here, again he could easily have said, "the church," (invisible). In II Corinthians 11:28, he says: "That which cometh upon me daily, the care of the churches." Here, again, it would have been sensible to say "the church."
Paul's concept of the church was one which could assemble in one place. In I Corinthians 14:23, he says: "If therefore the whole church be come together into one place. . . ."
He believed also that a local, visible church was the kind of church which Jesus "hath purchased with his own blood." He says as much in Acts 20:17, 28. In verse 17, the account says: "And from Miletus he sent to Ephesus, and called the leaders of the church" (at Ephesus). In verse 28, he says: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over which the Holy Spirit hath made you overseers, to feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood." This is definitely "the church of God" at Ephesus and one "which he hath purchased with his own blood."
Any careful reading of the New Testament, and there are many more passages which parallel these we have given, will reveal that the Lord has in mind a local assembly when He speaks of a church which concerns us.
It seems to us that if there could be any place in the Scripture where the word ekklesia would be used in a purely abstract or spiritual sense, it would be in The Revelation. But John was instructed to write his vision in a book and "send it to the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and imto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea" (1:11). Then, verse 20 of this chapter says, "And the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches." At the close of this message to the seven churches, the voice says: "He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches."
Here the Spirit speaks to each church, just as He did at Antioch (Acts 13:2), a definite message to each church. The Spirit communicates with the churches. Churches! churches! churches! Dear reader, let the Spirit speak to you through this word: God recognized His churches in different places and communicated with them through the Spirit with separate and distinct messages for each one of them. This seems to be what the Lord has in mind when He speaks of "my ekklesia."
But there will be many who answer: "Oh, yes! we believe in the local, visible church, but we believe also in the universal-invisible church." If by this they mean Carroll's "church in glory," we could allow a strong possibility for this. Even so, that church will not be finished until the Lord comes, and then it will be both local and visible. But if they mean the so-called "universal-invisible church" as the functioning body of the Lord today, then we must say: Made up of what? Go to the scholars and creeds of the centuries past and find out. Bring back your answer clear and plain, without the confusion which we have encountered. Or go to the Scriptures and set it forth as plainly as we have the local, visible church. If it be real, it should be identified. If there be such a church, we have found no help from those who believe in it in identifying it. Nor have the creeds and councils of the last two thousand years helped us in identifying it.
It is admitted that there are in Colossians and Ephesians some passages which, as we have indicated, are difficult to apply to a local, visible church, but it is just as difficult to glean from them any satisfactory concept of a universal-invisible church.
But this local, visible body, known generically as "my church," and visibly, as the Scriptures definitely and abundantly state, "the churches," is a clear and indisputable body with which I can associate and through which I can receive spiritual blessing. Undoubtedly, this is the ekklesia which the Lord said He would build and in which He meant for us to grow and work. It is, without doubt, the kind of church to which three thousand souls were added on the day of Pentecost and of which we are to become members. This is scripturally "the church of God which he purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28). It is one of the innumerable "churches of God" (I Corinthians 11:16; I Thessalonians 2:14; II Thessalonians 1:4), of "all churches of the saints" (I Corinthians 14:33), of "the churches of Christ" (Romans 16:16), and of all the churches variously designated in the New Testament. Surely this is what our Lord meant for us to think of as His church.
1 It is assumed that this and similar instances of the use of the word "church" will be understood by the reader to be the generic sense.
2 While the reference given here says that "prayer was made without ceasing of the church," it is evident from verses 12 and 17 that not all of the church was present. However, this could be none other than the church which was at Jerusalem. The ideal nature of a local assembly would be for all of God's children (at least those of a particular faith) to be in one body in a given community, although they might meet in different groups generally but come together periodically in one body (See I Corinthians 14:23, which implies that this was the custom there as the reference noted above implies the same at Jerusalem). There is no doubt that we are too much divided for a good witness in this day.
[Buell H. Kazee, The Church and the Ordinances , Lexington, KY, 1965.
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