In a 1963 address given to members of the Westminster Fellowship of Ministers, Martyn Lloyd-Jones offered the following question for discussion,
“Is anything spoken of in the New Testament apart from the local church? Have we any right to talk about the holy Catholic church in the sense of a visible institution? In terms of the New Testament, is it right to speak of the holy Catholic church in any sense except the invisible? I think it is an acute problem. It may be a part of the solution to many of our difficulties.”
Lloyd-Jones was not asking about the Roman Catholic Church, as is common to speak of today, rather his concern was to bring attention to a notion of a catholic or universal church. This concept of a catholic or universal, invisible/visible church is where we now turn our attention in our ongoing study.
Over the past few months we’ve been slowly working our way through the doctrine of the church, or what some call ecclesiology. Through this study we’ve seen the distinction between the original Greek word ekklesia and it’s English counterpart, church, the former being a gathering, assembly, or congregation and the latter a people belonging to the Lord or building where said people meet. Despite this distinction, we’ve yet to really see why it matters, until now.
More recently, we opened up Matthew 16:18 to examine the first mention of ekklesia in the New Testament, one of three uses in the gospels, all found in Matthew. This principial use of ekklesia has had no shortage of controversies regarding its contextual interpretation, the first of which we looked at last time concerning the foundation or rock upon which Christ’s ekklesia was to be built. Here we want to discuss the second of these controversies, this time specifically regarding the nature of Christ’s ekklesia.
It has often been assumed that the mention of ekklesia in Matthew 16:18 is substantially different than that in Matthew 18:17. The rationale being that Christ’s use of the word in the former is a larger more inclusive concept while His use in the latter is more narrow in scope. This has often led to the distinction of the catholic or universal (Matt. 16:18) vs. local “church” (Matt. 18:17). Similarly, this has led to further distinctions in understanding the nature of the church by identifying it as both visible and invisible.
Without question, the majority report on ekklesia by the New Testament relates more to the concept of the local church than to any notion of a catholic or universal church. However, a few exceptions, including this passage from Matthew, have opened the possibility to this universal theory. Bear in mind that if we allowed these words to retain their natural meaning, we’d be asking whether Scripture speaks of a universal gathering or assembly, not necessarily a universal people of God. Considering this even briefly, and we’d begin to understand why Tyndale, Luther, et. al. pushed back against the translation of church instead of congregation, assembly, or gathering. They were quite aware of the monolithic, institutional implications of this translation. Nevertheless, our role is not to rewrite history and strike the use of church from the record, rather to speak with clarity and consistency to better inform our future understanding.
For our purpose of introducing and discussing the concept of the universal church theory, the Westminster Confession (1646) offers a representative description of the catholic or universal, invisible/visible church.
I. 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 fullness of Him that fills all in all.
II. 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.
III. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.
IV. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.
V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.
VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.
Summarizing the Westminster Confession of Faith, the catholic or universal church is invisible in its extent, comprised of the elect from the past, present, and future, under the headship of Christ.
Furthermore, the sometimes more sometimes less visible church, also catholic or universal, consists of all those that profess true religion, i.e. faith in Christ, and their children. Additionally, the church IS the kingdom of Christ and IS the house and family of God.
On the surface of this universal church definition, which has somewhat evolved since its origin, we can perhaps see three issues that have likely led to the controversy surrounding it. We’ll point these out below and then look at them in more detail later.
First, when has there been an actual gathering or assembly of the elect from the past, present, and future?
Issue #1, the theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering). This gains clarity in the additional problems below.
Second, notice that after making a strong statement regarding the elect of God, the second paragraph not only defines the church as those who profess a true religion, but also their children. This is primarily due to the Westminster (Presbyterian) over-emphasis in continuity between the Old and New Covenant. In other words, that infant circumcision under the Old must have a correspondence under the New and that correspondence is infant baptism, which admits “their children” into membership in the universal church.
Issue #2, the theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church. As we saw in our OT look at ekklesia, it provides a foundational understanding of the NT ekklesia, but obviously there are differences. The people of God have always and only included those who by faith have embraced Him as Lord, whether in the Old Testament or in the New. There is one consolidated people of God in Christ. The relationship between OT Israel and NT “church” has continuity and discontinuity, but also typology which simply cannot be overlooked.
Third, notice that paragraph two conflates the church with the family of God and the kingdom of God. Does ekklesia anywhere in the New Testament ever refer to the family of God or the kingdom of God? Largely this is an Augustinian error, as we will see, and is often rooted in faulty exegesis of Matthew 13’s parable of the weeds.
Issue #3 The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.
The historical development of this theory deserves our attention, just as Lloyd-Jones sought to bring attention to it in his own day. Understanding and applying the implications of this theory have led some to consider whether they are Roman Catholic or Protestant; whether one is Presbyterian or Baptist; Whether one can simply belong to the universal church without belonging to a local church; Who belongs to the “church”; and perhaps most profoundly it leads one to question the idea that a monolithic universal church was plunged into the darkness of Catholicity only to be rescued by the light of the Reformation. In our next post, we’ll examine the historical development of the universal church theory.
It may come as no surprise that the world is vying for our attention. It’s certainly nothing new, but perhaps it has accelerated its program and expanded it’s offerings since the dawn of the Age of Consumerism particularly with technological advancements.
We’re surrounded by a sea of offerings from music, television, and the internet. We have media in our pockets and at our fingertips, literally a world in the palm of our hands. Long gone are the days of watching a favorite television show and having to wait an entire week to find out what was going to happen next. We live in an age of Netflix and binge-watching, where we can consume as much as we want, when we want, how we want, and where we want. Gone too are the mornings of slow and deliberate newspaper reading, we have and desire 24/7 news accessibility.
Additionally, we are bombarded with voices, even the one speaking through this meager blog; voices from blogs, podcasts, vlogs, radio, t.v., print, etc. all telling us how to think and what to think on. Not only are there talking heads on these various platforms, but there is social media, where literally thousands of voices can combine to leave comments on any topic or simply speak through their own platform. We are exposed to the lives, thoughts, and opinions of others without limit. In fact, we expose ourselves to them each time we open Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or turn on the radio or television.
The quantity and variety of media is limitless. Essentially, you can find anything you want at any time you want or simply wait and it will find you. If we stopped to think about it, the amount of information our minds are exposed on a daily basis is staggering. Oddly enough, despite all of the over-exposure to this information, all the while we remain un-engaged with people and with the media we are consuming. In a sense it is a mindless consumption. Simply observe a modern family in a restaurant, each with their own devices scrolling in a zombie-like, semi-vegetative state failing to realize the interactions they’re so desperately searching for lie across the table.
Is any of this consumption of spiritual profit to our minds? With all of these voices and media options garnering our attention, clouding our minds, and sending us into a catatonic state it can be difficult, rather it can be virtually impossible, to hear the only Voice that matters. The voice of Almighty God speaking through His all-holy Word.
Over and again in God’s Word we read such statements regarding the mind as
Romans 8:5-8 “5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. 8 Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.“
Colossians 3:1-2 “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.“
1 Peter 1:13 “13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Philippians 4:8-9 “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things“
Just in the sampling above, we see that there are calls to action for setting the mind on the things of God. How can this happen if we allow ourselves to be bombarded with a cesspool of virtual media? How are we to love the Lord with all of our mind if it is filled with all manner of worldliness, regardless of the media form in which it is delivered?
Simply put, we cannot.
This places a level of importance upon the much maligned and neglected practice of divine meditation.
Writing in Volume One of his works, Puritan John Owen says
“The mind must be spiritual and holy, freed from earthly affections and encumbrances, raised above things here below, that can in a due manner meditate on the glory of Christ. Therefore are the most strangers unto this duty, because they will not be at the trouble and charge of that mortification of earthly affections, — that extirpation* of sensual inclinations, — that retirement from the occasions of life, which are required whereunto.”
*killing; exterminating; unto extinction
Owen, speaking of the distractions of his own 17th Century, exhorts us that the mind must be freed from earthly affections and from those things which would hold us back and keep us from meditation, particularly on Christ. This is the chief reason why so few give their mind to meditation, they are entangled in the mindless distractions of this age. In order to meditate properly and effectively, these affections and distractions must be brought to extinction. Not merely placated. Not merely lessened. But totally eradication.
So then, we are faced with a multitude of problems, from over-exposure to media, to a failure to realize we are called to meditate on Christ, ignorance of how to meditate, a variety of media distracting our minds from the spiritual discipline of meditation.
How can we possibly prepare our minds for action if we are exposed to such a quantity of mental distractions?
Perhaps our answer may be as simple as realizing that those who have trusted in Christ have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:16; Philippians 2:5). A mind that is transformed by renewal, not conformed to this world (Romans 12:2; Eph. 4:23). Believer’s in Christ have been renewed in their inward man, a renewal of the mind (2 Corinthians 4:16). This gift of a renewed mind is not to be given over to worldly pollution again (Eph. 4:17).
Far too often it seems we are content to allow our minds to veg-out in media consumption, failing to realize that there is a daily war taking place, vying for our attention with a motivation to numb us to the core of our very souls.
For the unbeliever, your mind has been blinded by the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4) whose desire it is to keep you blinded by constant distractions. It is a mind given over to futility (Ephesians 4:17) and a mind set on the things of this world, which are hostile to Christ (Philippians 3:18-19). The only hope is a renewed mind in Christ through repentance of sin and embracing of Him by faith as Lord and Savior.
For the believer, it is a realization that we have the mind of Christ. A mind that is not to be subject to the calling sirens of the world. A mind that is not to be set on things below. A mind that is to be set on, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.“