Tag Archives: What is the universal church?

Paneled Houses

 

[This will be a little longer post than normal.  Rather than split it up into parts, I wanted to keep the flow together as I interact with MLJ on a very important, albeit controversial subject.]

Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Haggai 1:3-6

One of the men from whom I have learned from the most is the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  His book The Plight of Man and Power of God was my first exposure to his ministry, but helped me to understand the depravity of man and the sovereignty of God.  His sermons on 1 John were an aid not only my own sermon preparation, but a balm to my own soul when I was bridging the gap as an interim youth pastor.  While his book Spiritual Depression helped navigate me out of the darkness that came with being passed over for a full-time pastoral position.  More recently, his lesser known message, Ecclesiola in Ecclesia completely rocked my ecclesiastical world, from which I have yet to recover.  Alongside this, another prominent message, placed into print, has impacted my views on the nature of the church.  It was delivered to the Westminster Assembly at Welwyn on June 19, 1963, later titled “‘Consider Your Ways’: The Outline of a New Strategy” and may be found in the collected works entitled Knowing the Times.  The text for this message has been included above, from Haggai 1:4-5.

After introducing his message, and walking through his reasons for the subject, Lloyd-Jones says, “…our tendency is to say that all is well.  We are in our ‘cieled [paneled] houses’ (Hag. 1:4); everything is all right with me; my church is flourishing; everything is going well; and we tend to forget the conditions that prevail in the greater part of the country.  I am increasingly appalled at this and troubled about it: faithful evangelical people all over the country cannot get fellowship, cannot get spiritual food, and are at their wits’ end as to what is to be done in their areas.  This is a tremendous challenge to us.” (Knowing the Times, pg. 169)

From here, Lloyd-Jones proceeds to decry various evangelical movements and societies which in his day tried to rectify these issues by unifying for various causes.  This leads him to the major question of his message: What is the Nature of the Church?

“In the light of what I have been saying it is obvious that it is the nature of the church which has become the major question and problem.  What is the Christian church?  What is the real nature of the church?  How do you decide that?  We are all agreed in saying that you can only decide the question by the Scripture, but, as I have already hinted, when it comes to the realm of practice and the realm of actual decisions so often we are influenced more by tradition and history than we are by purely biblical exposition.  We are so influenced by the need to maintain the status quo that we start with that rather than with the scriptural teaching.” (KTT pg. 178)

Realizing, with Lloyd-Jones, that this is indeed THE question that needs to be asked and answered, given the current condition of evangelicalism some 55 years after his message, has led me to read, write, and study much regarding how our practice of doing church, whether you call it liturgy or a worship service or something else, has come to be what it is.  Regardless of where we find ourselves on Sunday morning, is there anything that we participate in that looks like or even resembles anything from the New Testament?  As Lloyd-Jones points out, not only in this message but consistently in his ministry, when faced with this question we are guilty of the great error of reading our existing situation back into Scripture, our inherited position as he calls it.

“The argument is that throughout the centuries certain things have happened and developed so that we find ourselves confronted by an existing situation.  That is all right as an actual historical statement but if we make the traditional ‘existing situation’ our starting point, we face a grave danger.” (KTT pg. 178)

Looking to our present circumstances, even looking to history, particularly the post-Reformation era, is simply a blind guide.  The fact is that if we were to take Scripture alone into the Congo jungle, having no prior knowledge of what a church should look like, it would be impossible to produce what it is that we see and experience today.  Therefore we must, as Lloyd-Jones says, return to the New Testament.

After making the case that our churches are given much to the practice of expediency of the times in which we exist, rather than a consistent application from Scripture, he turns to his second great question, “What is a church?”

This is a question that I’ve Iabored long and hard over, fighting through the tendency to answer this question without reading the present situation back into Scripture.  I commend to you the series on ekklesia found in the Doctrinal Index Tab.

The answer, according to Lloyd-Jones, is that the New Testament picture of the church is, “a gathering of people who have been ‘born again’.  It is the association of people who are the body of Christ and member in particular.  It is those who are ‘in Christ’.  That is how the New Testament regards them; that is how it always addresses them.  They meet together, conscious of His presence in the midst, conscious that they are a spiritual society with the Holy Spirit as their companion, as the one who leads them, and the one who inspires them, as the one who has been given to them to lead them into all the truth.” (KTT p. 179)

This definition is a good working definition and a starting point for understanding and defining a church, or better an ekklesia.  Even using Lloyd-Jones’ definition, is it fitting to refer to a universal church?  This becomes one of his closing questions for discussion, “Is there anything spoken of in the New Testament apart from the local church?” (KTT pg. 193)  This isn’t a fringe, Plymouth Brethren, or marginalized Anabaptist asking such questions, this is the good doctor, the revered Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  Again, questions like this from him is why there are 8 posts and Lord willing more to come untangling this misapplication of a universal church (see the Doctrinal Index).

Returning to our question from Lloyd-Jones on what is the church, he brings us to Acts 2:41-47.  We’ll look at this passage in depth another time, but for now conclude with Lloyd-Jones, “Now that is the church.  The people who are being saved, who believe the truth, are conscious of this change in their lives; they have been taken out of the world, and are conscious of a new life and a new outlook, and have the desire to be with others who are the same; and the others gladly receive them.”

Next, Jones asks, “What, then, are the marks of a true church?”  This is naturally the next question.  What should a church look like or how does the ekklesia function when it gathers together.  Of the entire message, this is the only point of Jones’ that I would offer push back on, mainly because the answer to the previous two questions define how this particular question gets answered.  That said, Jones answers the question in accordance with traditional reformed views, The Preaching of the Gospel, The administration of the sacraments, and The administration of discipline are the marks of a church.

Finally, after making some applications of his message thus far to the situations and occurrences of his own day, Lloyd-Jones turns to his conclusion, a series of questions, in which he clearly points out that his goal is not to suggest a blueprint or a solution, only to ask questions and point us back to Scripture as the source of answers.

His first concluding question, which we mentioned earlier, concerns whether or not the New Testament speaks of anything other than the local church (He seems to be arguing against a visible, Catholic church).  Second, Jones says that in our look at history, we must return to the first two centuries.  He cautions that much of our time has been spent concentrating on the third and fourth centuries.  One may argue that this myopic view of history has resulted in a distorted view of the church, for which we are paying the price today.  Jones’ emphasis on the first two centuries is exactly right, and the reason why in our look at the universal church theory, we began with this period in order to see how the catholicity of the church came to be and why.

Third, Jones says that we then need to re-examine the history of Constantine and his supposed conversion.  This occurs in the fourth century, but remember that we must begin in the centuries prior in order to understand the events and circumstances that led to this.  Here is where we begin to find the putrid marriage of church with state.  The Reformers, as much as we may revere and appreciate them, were wrong to limit their views of church vs. state to Augustine and more specifically Constantine.  Jones writes,

“We have to be bold enough, in the light of the New Testament teaching, to query the most honoured names among us.  We have to venture to question and to query Martin Luther and John Calvin.  It would be a pathetic condition if we found ourselves saying that Calvin could never be wrong.  We have to question everybody, not that we think we are perfect – we know we are not – but we recognize that these men were fallible as we are.  We thank God for them; we rever their memories; but we do not believe they were perfect.  And, after all, they were men involved in such a fight and conflict that they could not possibly cover the whole field, and they tended to take certain things over.  To me, one of the tragedies of the Reformation was the way in which Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli tended to take over the notion of the state church.  They did it in different ways, but I think they all did it.” (KTT, page 194)

There is much more that could be said on this enlightening point from Jones, perhaps in a blog post soon, however the take away is that we simply cannot assume the position of the Reformers and adopt that to the twenty-first century.  They were working in a context that was coming out of the authoritarian abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.  Therefore, their audience was largely ignorant and unbelieving.  Why did Calvin preach every single day?  To get the Word of the Lord out to a starved and deprived people.  Unfortunately, as Lloyd-Jones so deftly points out, their position was proverbially out of the frying pan and into the fire.  In order to keep the momentum of the Reformation, avoid utter chaos from growing larger than it already had, and to provide protection against the power from Rome, the first and second generation reformers aligned their movement with the State, maintaining the concept of sacralism.

Not only the first couple generations of Reformers, but this continued into the time of the Puritans as well.  Per Jones,

“they all believed in a state church up to a point.  Their differences were about what form it should take.  We must examine whether they were not all wrong; whether their belief can be justified from the New Testament; and whether they were not guilty of accepting an inherited position.”

Though I genuinely love the Puritans, this indeed was their chief error.  They made some corrections to the positions of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, and they fought against the pretentious ‘church’ buildings of the day, but they didn’t go far enough.  What was their reward for maintaining an inherited position and then realizing its error?  The Great Ejection of 1662.  If the redwoods and oaks of the Reformation were guilty of adopting an inherited position, it is sheer arrogance to think that the same thing is not occurring in our day.  Therefore we must, must, return to the New Testament scriptures.

The final two questions that Lloyd-Jones poses are, “when does the church become apostate?” and the exercise of gifts in the church, specifically, “are we giving the members of the church an adequate opportunity to exercise their gifts?  Are our churches corresponding to the life of the New Testament church?  Or is there too much concentration in the hands of ministers and clergy?”  This section is summarized by the following lengthy, but nevertheless profound statement

“When one looks at the New Testament church and contrasts the church today, even our churches, with that church, one is appalled at the difference.  In the New Testament church one sees life and vigour and activity; one sees a living community, conscious of its glory and of its responsibility, with the whole church, as it were, an evangelistic force.  The notion of people belonging to the church in order to come to sit down and fold their arms and listen, with just two or three doing everything, is quite foreign to the New Testament, and it seems to me it is foreign to what has always been the characteristic of the church in times of revival and awakening.” (KTT, pg. 196)

As he concludes his message, Lloyd-Jones dismisses the idea that he has developed a new blueprint for the church, instead he says, “I do think…the time has come when it behooves us, indeed it is our bounden duty – because we are who and what we are and because of the grace of God to us – to face this question, of the nature of the church, together.

We cannot just go on in the position we have inherited, which we have inherited from mid- and post- Victorianism and Edwardianism.  The machine is still running so many of these things, but is it running to any good purpose?  It is for us to call a halt and to stop.” (KTT, pg. 196)

In my experience, I know of no other question that will generate more controversy, more side-eyed glances, more suspicion, than what is the nature of the church?  Assuming the inherited position is not only expected, it is enforced.  In fact some have gone so far as to suggest that one should not even ask this question, for fear of what might be found.  Jones alludes to as much in the conclusion of his message.

What then are we to do?  Simply put, a reexamination of Scripture on the nature – form and function – of the church, or as we have seen in studies here, the ekklesia.  Those in professional, paid, pastoral positions who assume the inherited position and refuse the allowance of others to Scripturally examine the nature of the church commit malpractice.   Those of us who sit amongst the pews and follow the inherited position like lemmings are guilty of a dereliction of duty.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones was not representing a fringe position in his clarion call to return to the New Testament description and teaching of the church.  His message was as relevant 55 years ago as it is now.  We would do well to follow his guidance and head his call.

 

Knowing the Times

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