Tag Archives: Ekklesia

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.

A Universal Theory of the “Church”

 

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.[11] 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.