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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.]

Reviving the Doctrine of Church Studies


It’s been a few months since we visited our ongoing study regarding the form and function of church.  We left off with an introduction to the universal concept of church as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.  Recall that generally speaking, the doctrine of the universal church finds chief support in Matthew 16:18 as compared with Matthew 18:17, though as we’ll soon see, whether rightly or wrongly some other verses are brought into the mix for support as well.

Additionally, in that last post, we looked at three key issues which have been the source of debate and disagreement regarding the nature of a universal church theory.  They were:

  1. The theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering), the New Testamen Greek word that is translated as church in our English bibles..
  2. The theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.
  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.

We left that post with anticipation of a historical look at this theory’s development and to hopefully determine whether any of these objections have merit.  That is where we find ourselves today, reviving our studies on the doctrine of the church.

In order to accomplish this historical review, we’ll lean heavily on the overview provided in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof who provides a succinct history on the doctrine of the church.  I’ll be quoting him extensively as a solid, well-respected, point of reference, but ultimately to show how some of the conclusions we may reach are not unique, but have at least been mentioned in times past.  It of course does not mean that by citing him that we necessarily have come to agreement with his conclusions.  Generally speaking, Berkhof’s conclusions are typical of the Reformed tradition.

By way of continuing our review, in order to resume our series here, and as an introduction to Berkhof, we will follow his outline beginning with a well thought out introduction to the meaning and use of ekklesia in the New Testament (Old Testament as well).  For an expanded study, our post on this issue may be found here: What is an Ekklesia?

Berkhof writes,

“The New Testament also has two words derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.”  The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jew or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.  The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies.” Pg. 555-556

As in our study, Berkof points out the two significant terms in the New Testament which find their roots in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), sunagoge (synagogue) and ekklesia, which as we’ve mentioned is translated into English as church.  After doubting the validity of deriving the meaning of ekklesia from the compound of ek and kaleo, Berkhof adds,

“Deissmann (1866-1937, German Protestant) would simply render ekklesia as ‘the (convened) assembly,’ regarding God as the convener.  Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation.  Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God.  It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel.  Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquitted various significations.  Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ.”

Here we may observe a few noteworthy points, namely the recognition that ekklesia refers to the “convened assembly” and that Christ’s use of ekklesia, from Matthew 16:18, alluded to those who were “convened” or gathered around Him.  That’s an important point that is often neglected and may aid to ones understanding of whether Matthew 16:18 is a universal church reference or not.  Remember that this particular verse is often championed as evidence of universal church, i.e. that Christ’s use of ekklesia here necessarily implies that He is talking about the whole community of God’s people.  Contrary to this, Berkhof is describing it as the actual fellowship of those around Him, beginning with the twelve.

After this, Berkhof begins his descriptions of these various uses or connotations of ekklesia in the New Testament, the first of which he discusses is the most frequent usage.  According to him the most frequently used meaning of ekklesia “designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship.”  Here, Berkhof concludes that an ekklesia may be an ekklesia, even if they are not actually gathered together.  Additionally, he concludes that regardless of whether they are gathered or not, geographic location is still a determinant factor.  He then lists several passages as examples for gathered and ungathered, which I’ve included below.[1] This of course brings up an interesting point of discussion, which we’ll take up another time, namely, is a church a church when it is not gathered.

The second use of ekklesia in the New Testament, he concludes, sometimes “denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual,” citing instances of this word in Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15, and Philemon 2.  Along a similar line, Berkhof notes that at least once, Acts. 9:31, the word is used in the singular to denote a collection of churches from Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.  This usage is a debated passage and as he points out, “this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination.”

His final two uses, again by way of review for our own study here, are critical towards understanding the issue at hand, namely whether it is accurate to speak of an universal church, and if so, what exactly this should refer to.  He states, “in a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.”  With some hesitancy, Berkhof suggests this is found in 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28 and possibly the intention for the use of ekklesia in Ephesians.  Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Matthew 16:18 as so many do, so we’ll need to examine these additional references if we’re to find evidence of a universal theory of church.  Finally, he states that the word in its “most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Savior.”  He cites some examples that I’ve listed below.[2]

Wit this point, let’s recall the actual meaning of the word under discussion here, namely ekklesia, which refers to a gathering and note too the most frequent usage cited above.  Would it therefore be proper or accurate to refer to the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, or whether or not they have been united to Christ or not (saved) as the ekklesia, i.e. church?

Summarizing then these uses of ekklesia in the New Testament, at least according to Louis Berkof, we have the following

  1. A convened assembly with God as Covener.
  2. First used by Christ in Matthew 16:18 – a reference to those convened about Him.
  3. A circle of believers in a definite geographic location.
  4. May or may not be gathered together (for worship), meaning that they may be called a church whether they are physically present together.
  5. Ekklesia in the New Testament often referred to a gathering in a particular house of an individual.
  6. Ekklesia may generally refer to the collected body of believers throughout the world.
  7. The most comprehensive meaning of ekklesia refers to the whole body of believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been united to Christ.

After giving an overview of how the meaning of the English word “church” was transferred to the use of ekklesia, which we looked at earlier in this post, Berkhof overviews other scriptural concepts that refer to the people of God (i.e. Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, New Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, Pillar and ground of the truth) and then opens up his section on The Doctrine of the Church in History.  Here is where we will pick up in the next post for the purpose of understanding how this concept of the universal church has developed in history.

In the meantime, you can get caught up on this series here:

[1]Assembled: Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28,35; Not assembled: Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14

[2]Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18,24