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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.