Category Archives: Theology

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory- Part II


[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

Part 1

If we are to properly understand the development of the universal church theory, then we must understand the foundation from which it sprang, namely the formation of the office of bishop, collectively called the episcopate.  According to church historian Philipp Schaff

“The most important and also the most difficult phenomenon of our period (AD 100-325) in the department of church organization is the rise and development of the episcopate as distinct from the presbyterate.” (Vol. 2 pg. 133)

Though I believe it can be shown that the presbyterate was itself a modification of the New Testament model, nevertheless it is clear that the episcopate shifted into a position of primacy during the 2nd Century.  Schaff continues his overview of this development by pointing out that it was driven by

“the need of a tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church.  It is therefore inseparable from the catholic principle of authority and mediation.”

The episcopate was a divergence from the New Testament supernatural, organic expression of the gathering of God’s people towards a more formal, rigid, and institutional organization whereby the bishops assumed authority and mediated God to the people.  While discussing the validity and evolution of the episcopacy is outside the scope of this overview, we will summarize its key proponents and then conclude with a word about its impact on the historical development of the universal church.

The first seeds of this development of church governance can be traced to Ignatius (AD 35-107), who interestingly is the also the source for the first recorded use of the term catholic church, linking the two together from their source.  With Ignatius, specifically in his epistles, we find him proposing, “earnest exhortations to obey the bishop and maintain the unity of the church against the Judaistic and docetic heresies.”  Additionally, Schaff comments on these developments from Ignatius, “The human bishop is the centre of unity for the single congregation, and stands in it as the vicar of Christ and even of God.  The people, therefore, should unconditionally, obey him, and do nothing without his will.  Blessed are they who are one with the bishop, as the church is one with Christ, and Christ with the Father, so that all harmonizes in unity.  Apostasy from the bishop is apostasy from Christ, who acts in and through the bishops as his organs.” (Vol. 2, pg. 146)

In his own words, Ignatius writes, “Let all of you follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ [follows] the Father; and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons as the ordinance of God.  Without the bishop let no one do anything connected with the church.  Let that Eucharist be accounted valid which is [offered] under the bishop or by one he has appointed.  Wherever the bishop is found, there let the people be; as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church.  Without the bishop it is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate the love-feast.”

It is significant that in our examination of the promise of Christ’s dwelling with the gathering of His people (Matthew 18:20), we see no mention of a bishop, pastor, or any other “office”.  Nevertheless, in the previous two quotes, we see that Ignatius’ doctrine of the episcopate establishes the bishop as the rule and authority of a congregation, who in turn should obey him unquestionably.  Ignatius intertwines the bishop with the unity of the church, faithfulness with obedience to the bishop, and apostasy from the bishop as equivalent to apostasy from Christ.  Primarily, Ignatius is establishing the bishop as the vicar, or earthly representative of Christ.  This is the basis for the Roman Catholic papal (pope) system.  Clearly then, any person or group that would dissent from the bishop, either on the basis of doctrinal or moral grounds, would be immediately banished and labeled an apostate, or worse…a heretic.  As Schaff notes, this essentially makes salvation dependent upon obedience to the bishop.

Can any passage of Scripture be used to support this position?  No.  Clearly then, with the “early church fathers” we already find a departure, at least as it relates to ecclesiology, from the New Testament pattern. This is worth keeping in mind as we continue through this series.

One final note on Ignatius, it’s in his writings that we find the requirement of celibacy within the episcopate, “the ascetic system of Catholicism starts in celibacy, as the hierarchical organization of Catholicism takes its rise in episcopacy.” (Vol. 2, pg. 147) For opposition to this, see 1 Timothy 4:3

Next we turn to Irenaeus (AD 125-202) and Tertullian (AD 155-240), whose doctrine of the episcopate is less developed than that of Ignatius.  With Irenaeus we see two key movements, namely the episcopate as a continuation of the apostolate (apostolic succession, which clearly smells of Roman Catholicism) and the assertion of doctrinal unity in opposition to heresies.  While initially embracing the episcopate, in Tertullian we see a departure from supporting the episcopate with his embrace of Montanism (more on this later) as he asserted that the church does not consist of bishops, but instead is comprised of a priesthood of all believers.

The foremost proponent of the episcopate during this period was Cyprian (200-258).  By far the major advancement of the episcopate, along with Ignatius’ early doctrine of the catholic or universal church, is found in the writings of Cyprian, who, as Schaff notes, is the “typical high-churchman of the Ante-Nicene age.” (Vol. 2, pg. 150)  The key summary statement from Cyprian is, “The bishop is in the church, and the church in the bishop, and if any one is not with the bishop he is not in the church.”  This, as with Ignatius, equates Christianity with obedience and submission to the bishop.  It’s important to note that Cyprian provides the clearest expression of the papacy in its infancy, beginning with the superiority of Peter and advancing the idea of apostolic succession that appeared in earlier writers.

In closing our overview of the episcopate as the pillar of the universal church, we have a summary from historian Philipp Schaff

“We cannot therefore assume any strict uniformity [in the early episcopate].  But the whole church spirit of the age tended towards centralization; it everywhere felt a demand for compact, solid unity; and this inward bent, amidst the surrounding dangers of persecution and heresy, carried the church irresistibly towards the episcopate.  In so critical and stormy a time, the principle, union is strength, division is weakness, prevailed over all.  In fact, the existence of the church at that period may be said to have depended in a great measure on the preservation and promotion of unity, and that in an outward, tangible form, suited to the existing grade of culture.  Such a unity was offered in the bishop, who held a monarchial, or more properly patriarchal relation to the congregation.

In the bishop was found the visible representative of Christ, the great Head of the whole church.  In the bishop, therefore, all sentiments of piety found a centre.  In the bishop the whole religious posture of the people towards God and towards Christ had its outward support and guide.” (Vol. 2, pg. 142-143)

The universal church theory was built on the foundational establishment of the episcopate.  If the latter is proved to be unbiblical and a departure from the New Testament, what does that say about the former?

In our next post, we’ll examine how this newly formed episcopate and universal church dealt with dissenters from three movements that separated from the bishops and the people of the universal church, primarily due to a lack of holiness.



The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part 1


[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]


Recently we looked at the inception of a gathering of God’s people and saw that where two or three, at minimum, are gathered together in the name of Christ, He has promised to be among them.  This small gathering outlines the parameters for what is commonly called church.  We left that post with the question of whether this definition of a minimal gathering could or ever has been rightly applied to a universal concept of church.  While it’s been several months since we broached the discussion of our modern conception of church and its development, today we return to the issue of the origin of the universal church theory.

It’s not uncommon in Christian parlance to hear mention of the universal church (and relatedly the visible/invisible distinction), after all the term shows up in some of the most frequently quoted creeds and confessions such as the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Westminster, as we’ve seen introduced and defined in A Universal Theory of the Church (more on this later).

In that post, we saw that a traditional definition was, “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.” ** As we recall this definition and begin our series here, it will become evident how the early conception of the universal church and this post-Reformation definition differ drastically.  Also, it will be important to remember the definition of ekklesia, an assembly or gathering, which is translated into English as church.

Finally, in previous posts we have seen that the Scriptures overwhelming apply this term ekklesia (church) to a local gathering.  Before proceeding, we must ask can either the meaning or use of ekklesia or the aforementioned promise of Christ’s presence in that gathering, ever be applied to all believers from all time, past, present, and future?

The answer clearly is no.

There has never been a time when all believers have been gathered together, nor has there ever been a time when Christ has dwelt in the midst of a universal gathering.  Using this universal language also does an injustice to future believers as well, meaning, despite the definition from the Westminster Confession, we cannot logically refer to a universal church occurring in the present if it has yet to be gathered or has members who are yet to be saved.  On this basis, and others that we will see, it is far more appropriate to refer to an Eschatological Church, rather than a Universal Church.  More on this later in the series.

Moving from that introduction to a personal note, when I was first exposed to Reformed theology, I simply took the use of universal and invisible church as fact, without bothering to look at their origins or biblical bases.  I remember clearly making this distinction to a youth group I was pastoring, simply on the basis of what I had read in Reformed literature.  What happened in my case, and in the case of so many others, is that we read or hear of these terms, see their association with Reformed theology, and simply assume they are correct.  We then search for passages of Scripture to support their meaning.  That is the height of eisegesis, or reading meaning into a passage, and it is an improper way to learn or practice theology.

Before looking at individual passages of Scripture that have been used to argue for the existence of the universal and invisible church, we turn our attention, historically, to understanding the development of the universal term first, from the period known as the Patristic Period, sometimes called the Ante-Nicene (before Nicaea) Period.  This generally refers to the time after the apostles through those called the apostolic fathers until roughly the time of Augustine (approximately 100 – 451 A.D.).  This period of history is crucial for understanding the origin of many forms and functions for what has become known as church, not the least of which was the development of this universal concept of the church.

Turning again to Louis Berkhof, our helpful guide for over-viewing church history, we read that during this period,

“the Church began to be conceived as an external institution, ruled by a bishop as a direct successor of the apostles, and in possession of the true tradition.  The catholicity of the Church was rather strongly emphasized.  Local churches were not regarded as so many separate units, but simply as parts of the one universal Church.”

Immediately one can recognize the early seeds of the Episcopal form of government and feel early rumblings for the development of the Roman Catholic Church.  Also, here in this brief description we find that this period marked a shift from the Scriptural focus on the local church, to a more broad focus on the universal church.  Finally, notice that this inception of a universal church referred to an external church, meaning a visible, tangible church, with a bishop as its head.  This is distinctly different than the universal, invisible focus mentioned in the Westminster Confession above.

These developments were a product of the time and culture.

The overwhelming desire, and the perceived necessity, was to establish church unity, beginning at the head with an episcopate (group of bishops) and extending to the body with the catholic or universal church.  One of the chief purposes for this was to stem the rising tide of various so-called heresies, though certainly the local and widespread persecution was also a factor.  On the one hand, this was noble attempt to remain steadfast and combat errors.  On the other hand, it was an overreaction with catastrophic results.  One final introductory note, in addition to a desire for unity, visible leadership, and external organization, there was an increasing desire for an association of the church with the state, a term called sacralism, which we’ll flesh out later in this series.

In the next post, we’ll turn our attention to the episcopate, which is critical to the development of this early universal church doctrine.

[**Edit 3/8/2018: While there is certainly a difference that takes place between the early definition of universal, and visibile, church and the definition cited above from the Westminster Confession, the confession also defines the visible church, which I should’ve included.  Here is the paragraph from the Westminster Confession:

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.

We will flesh out these distinctions later in the series.]

The Inception of a Gathering


Question: what is the minimum number of people required to constitute a church or gathering of God’s people (ekklesia)?

It may be tempting to start answering this question by assuming this group must begin with a pastor/preacher, perhaps a plurality of elders – at least 3 for voting purposes, maybe a couple deacons, then expand to the congregation and say maybe 8-10 families?  So 20-30 people minimum?  Some people ask this question by placing it in the context of church planting and then ask what is the magic number for a launch team?  Or…what’s the maximum number of people a sending church could afford to lose and still provide a minimum number of people to sufficiently form a new church?

These are all questions that have been asked before, wrestled over, and then attempted to be biblically answered by many faithful servants of the Lord.  Generally speaking, a heavy dose of human wisdom is usually involved in the decision on how this question is answered.  That doesn’t make it wrong, or sinful, but it does make it subjective and situational.  Our aim here is to ask if Scripture bears any burden for answering these questions.

In Matthew 18, a passage well known for our Lord’s mention of ekklesia as the final stop of confrontation of a sinning brother, also provides for us the answer to these questions, though for some reason it often gets overlooked, confused, or downplayed, particularly when discussions of “church-planting” are taking place.

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”

It’s uncontroversial to assert that the context for this passage is clearly revolving around the concept of “church”, or as we have seen more accurately termed a gathering or assembly of God’s people (ekklesia).  The opening for this passage involves a scenario created by our Lord to explain how to regard a sinning brother.  Here we have 2 brothers (in Christ), one who sins against the other.  Jesus instructs His disciples that the offended brother should go and tell the offending brother his fault.  If he doesn’t listen, go to him with one or two others, and if he still doesn’t listen tell the matter to the church.  Remember that the use and meaning of church (ekklesia) already had meaning and significance in its everyday use (The Old Testament use of Ekklesia).  Jesus wasn’t inventing a brand new word.  However, to this point in Matthew we have only seen the promise of Christ building His church, from Matthew 16.

In our passage cited above, there are three important features that we will focus on in this post, a gathering of two or three of God’s people, gathering is in the name of Christ, and that when this gathering takes place, Christ is among them.

First, we see in verse 20 above that our Lord sets the minimum parameters for a gathering of His people as where, two or three are gathered.  This is key to answering some of our questions posed above and we already know that the context of this passage has to do with church discipline of a recalcitrant brother.  Notice that this small number of believers is mentioned throughout this passage

  • take one or two others along with you
  • that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 
  • If two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 
  • For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.

This idea of two or three recalls a passage from the Old Testament, where two or three witnesses are necessary for conviction of a crime (see Deuteronomy 19:15; also 2 Cor. 13:1).  While this mention of two or three occurs throughout the passage, as we’ll see, this last mention carries with it a distinction.

Next, this assembly of two or three is a gathering in Christ’s name.    The word translated as “gather” is verbal form of the Greek word synagogue.  In another post, we looked at the semantic overlap between ekklesia and synagogue as well as the relationship between church and synagogue.  Here we want to simply point out that this gathering is not a random gathering of believers for a ball game or to discuss the weather.  It has intentionality and purpose.  It is a gathering in the name of Christ.  This distinction is critically important for understanding these minimum requirements for a gathering are not limited to where a small number of believers gather, but where they gather in the name of Christ.

We might at this point ask, how does one gather in the name of Christ?  Is it simply a declarative statement, “We come together in the name of Christ”?  Is it an internal posture of the heart?  How can one be sure that this small group is gathering in the name of Christ?

It is where believer’s gather under the authority of Christ, i.e. His Lordship, for the open proclamation and profession of His Word.  Commenting on this passage in his New Testament commentary, Hendriksen clarifies this gathering in Christ’s name as, “in close fellowship with him; hence, with his atoning work as the basis of their approach to God, at his direction, and in harmony with that which he has revealed concerning himself.” (pg. 703)

Third, and finally, we see that this gathering of two or three in the name of Christ has a special promise attached to it, namely the presence of Christ in their midst.  This promise of our Lord’s special presence, in the midst of the gathering of His people, is not the same as His omnipresence.  It is a special presence of Christ in the midst of those who gather in His name.  It is here where Christ dwells in His temple (2 Cor. 6:16).

When this passage is often discussed in the context of defining the minimum gathering of God’s people, many have objected to it and denied that such a small group, two or three, could constitute a gathering of God’s people.  But that is precisely what our Lord is communicating.  We have no need for dozens to be sent out, nor does the institutional church with her hundreds meeting at once constitute a gathering anymore than two or three who gather in the name of Christ.

Writing in his classic work on the doctrine of the Church, Edmund Clowney offers the following affirmation, “Not only do we come to the assembly where our risen Lord is; he comes by his Spirit to the assembly where we are.  Where two or three gather in his name, there he is.  Because the Lord’s true assembly is in heaven, it appears in many ways on earth: in house churches, in city churches, in the church universal.  Even two or three gathered in his name may claim his power, for he is there.” pg. 31-32

This discussion brings up one additional question.  If this minimum group, of two or three, gathered in Christ’s name constitutes a “church”, when has the “universal church” ever been gathered together in the name of Christ?

Answer: they haven’t…yet.