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Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209
How do you come to the conclusion that there is no such thing as a
universal, invisible church?
Thanks for your inquiry into the truth concerning the church. The
following is a brief outline of a message I preach concerning this topic.
Seven Reasons why I do not believe in a universal, invisible church.
I. The Linguistic Reason
"Ecclesia" has a meaning. When Christ used the word in Matt 16:18, he did
not come up with a new word. His disciples knew what he meant, for they
had gone to ecclesias all their lives. Now Christ was going to build His.
Thayer says, "A gathering of citizens called out from their homes into
some public place, an assembly". Thucidicies used it as, "The assembly of
the people at a public place". In the Septuagint, it refers to "the
assembly of Jews gathered for sacred purposes". It is used in Acts for a
mob, or a group assembled together by chance. Thayer also gives the
"Christian" definition: "An assembly of Christians gathered together for
worship", or "a company of Christians". All these Thayer lists as
definitions. Note the words used: "gathering into, assembly at, assembly
gathered, gathered together". Then at the bottom of his lexicon, Thayer
puts, (in a different style of type, which leads me to believe that he
viewed this definition as being different from the others; probably
because it is NOT a definition, but rather a theological concept), "The
whole body of Christians scattered throughout the earth". Note the
difference, all the other definitions talk about assemble together, but
this definition says "scattered throughout". Scattered and gathered are
not the same thing! The word never meant scattered, it never meant
everyone, it never meant universal, and to make it mean that is to change
the meaning of the word! B. B. Warfield said, "The question is, after
all, not what can the word be made to mean, but what DOES it mean, and
the witness of its usage elsewhere, its form and mode of composition, and
the sense given it by its readers from the first, supply here the primary
evidence". In Matt 16:18, when Christ said He would build his church,
what did the disciples think? Were they confused? Did they think that he
had redefined the term that they always used? Of course not! They assumed
He meant what He said-an assembly. Please note what others have said:
James Broadus: "The Greek word ecclesia signified primarily the assembly
of citizens in a self governed state, being derived from the 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."
John Hort (certainly no wild-eyed fundamentalist, but as man who knew the
Greek language): "There is no foundation for the widely spread notion
that ecclesia means a people or a number of individuals called out of the
world or mankind."
He further states, " The English term church carries with it associations
derived from institutions and doctrines of later times."
C.I Schofield (who popularized the doctrine of the True Church verses the
local church), "The word is used of any assembly, the word itself implies
II. The Hermeneutic Reason
Principle 1- The sacred writers did not desire to be misunderstood.
Principle 2- Use the Grammatico-Historical method of interpretation.
"Gather from the Scriptures themselves what the writers intended to
convey." "Use the laws of grammar and the facts of history".
Principle 3- If the literal sense makes sense, seek no other sense
Principle 4-Interpret all Scripture in the light of other Scripture.
Principle 5- All interpretation must be grounded in the original
Using these principles, we must come to the conclusion that ecclesia
means a local assembly when it occurs. Christ was not trying to throw the
disciples off by changing the meaning of the word. The laws of grammar
indicate that a local assembly was meant, as do the facts of history. The
idea of a literal local church works in every context- there is no
passage that demands a different interpretation. The many clear uses of
ecclesia show us the meaning of the obscure passages. The word meant
something in the original language, and we dare not stray from it.
III. The Contextual Reason
In over 100 out of 115 times the word ecclesia is used in the New
Testament, it is obviously a local assembly. In the 114 times it occurs
in the Septuagint it is obviously a local assembly. Why then should the
meaning be changed in those last few passages? In Matt 16, Christ talks
about ecclesia, and in chapter 18 he talks about ecclesia. Did the word
change meanings between those two spots? Most believe that Matt 16 is
universal, but Matt 18 is local. Confusing, huh? In I Corinthians 12:13,
Paul talks about a body, and in verse 25 he talks about a body. Is the
body of verse 13 universal, but the body of verse 25 local? Did Paul
keep using the same word in the same context, yet change its meaning?
IV. Illustrative Reason
Col. 1:18,24, Eph. 1:22-23, I Cor. 12:27 all indicate that the Body of
Christ is the church. These two things equal each other. There is no
question about that. God has chosen the body to illustrate the church. He
could have chosen something universal and invisible, like the wind, to
illustrate the church, but He did not. He chose something local and
visible, a body, to illustrate His church. My body is right here. You can
see it, you can touch it, it is all assembled together. All the parts are
continually connected to each other. This is obviously not what takes
place in as universal church concept.
V. Practical Reasons
I Cor. 12:26 states that all members of the body suffer and rejoice with
all other members. That can only take place in a local church. We don't
know all the other believers in the "universal church", so how can we
suffer or rejoice with them? We can empathize with the needs of other
churches that we hear about, but the bottom line is that we don't care
about other church's needs like we care about our own. If we would go out
to lunch together, and I were to slam my finger in the car door, you
would sympathize with me. However, you would not react like I would. My
heart would race, my blood pressure would rise, my voice would holler, my
brain would react, my other hand would grab it, I might jump up and down,
etc. Why would you not do all those things? Because it is not your body.
I have a man in my church with cancer. Are you begging God for that need
in every church service? Probably not. Why not? You are to weep with him,
if we're all part of the same body. But you know what? We pray for him
specifically at every service. Do you know why? He is a part of our
body, and we do weep with him. Another member was rejoicing last night
because of answered prayer. Did you rejoice? You didn't even know. How
can that be, if we are all part of the same body? Some say that those
verses refer to the local church, but still believe in a universal
church. If 1Cor. 12:13 refers to a universal body, then these verse do
to, or else Paul wrote in a very confusing manner by changing the
meanings of words within paragraphs. Schizophrenic?
Ephesians 4:12,16 tells us that the office gifts were given to edify the
body of Christ. If we believe in a universal church, that means that I
as a pastor am to be edifying all Christians. I guess I am failing badly,
because I don't know the vast majority of them. You are too, unless your
ministry is more far-reaching than I think it is. Again, we can't say
that these verse refer to the local church if we are going to say that
Ephesians 1-3 refer to the universal church. Paul would be suffering from
that schizophrenia again.
I Cor. 14:4,5,26 teach that all Spiritual gifts were given to edify the
church. People in my church are not edifying people in your church.
Neither of us are edifying Christians in China or India. We are failing
to use our gifts properly, if we believe in a universal body. Again, if I
Cor. 12:13 is a universal body, I Cor. 14 is too.
I Cor. 12:25 says that there is to be no schism in the body. If this is a
universal body, then we can never practice ecclesiastical separation from
brethren. This would mean that Paul was in error in 2 Thes. 3:6,14-15
when he speaks of separating from disorderly brethren. I must open my
pulpit to charismatics, baby sprinklers, those who deny eternal security,
immoral pastors, those who deny inspiration, etc. All that matters is
that they are saved. This is the position that led Jack Van Impe astray.
He came out in the late 70's with his book "Heart Disease in the Body of
Christ", in which he stated that since all believers were part of the
body, then we ought to get along with all believers so that there would
be no schism in the body. That ultimately led him to his current
position, which is that Catholics are OK, etc. Of course, if I Cor. 12 is
a universal church passage, then he is right, as are all those who
espouse the ecumenical movement. If you hold to a local church only
position, this problem is solved by church discipline. If someone is
causing a schism, they are removed from the body. How do you remove
someone from the universal church?
VI. Numerical Reasons
How do you get into the universal church? Of course, you get in by Spirit
Baptism from I Cor. 12:13. Eph. 4:4-5 tell us that there is only one
body. Since we know that body = church, this means that there is only
one church. Which one is it: the local or the universal? You can't have
both, when Paul clearly says there is only one. Verse 5 tells us that
there is one baptism. Is it water or Spirit? It can't be both, because
Paul clearly states that there is only one. It doesn't mean one "kind" of
baptism (as in immersion vs. sprinkling), because we know that "baptize"
means "immerse". There is one immersion: is it water or Spirit? If it is
Spirit, then quit baptizing your converts. If it is water, then you don't
have Spirit baptism into a universal body. We could discuss what Spirit
Baptism means, but that will wait for a later date.
VII. Historical Reasons
Where did the concept of a universal church come from. We all know that
the word "catholic" means "universal". The Catholics believed in a
universal, visible church. The Reformers came out, but brought much of
Catholicism with them (state church, infant baptism, etc.). They modified
the Catholic concept into a universal, invisible theology. Pope Gregory
the Great who called himself a "universal bishop". In the second century,
Ignatius used the word "Catholic" with "church". Augustine taught the
same thing in the 5th century.
What have Baptists believed? The Baptist Confession of 1646, Michael
Sattler's Schleitheim Confession of 1527, the New Hampshire Confession
of 1891, all hold to a local church position. A universal body is never
mentioned. Baptists holding to a universal church position is a recent
phenomenon. It came out of the Reformation, and the Reformers came out of
Ecclesia means assembly. It always has, and it always will. To make it
mean anything else is to do violence to the word itself. I know that
there are instances where you could plug a universal church in, and make
it work. However, we know that there are places in the Scripture where
you could plug in baptismal regeneration and make it work. Words have
meaning, and all Scripture must be interpreted in the light of other
Scripture. I do believe that the Bible may refer to the church in the
future in Heaven. Do you know what that will be? A local and visible
I hope this helps you. May the Lord bless you.
Dr Mark Montgomery
Ambassador Baptist Church
1926 Babcock Blvd
Pittsburgh, PA 15209