UNIVERSAL INVISIBLE CHURCH
Elder Milburn Cockrell
Pastor - Berea Baptist Church
Chapter I THE MEANING OF 'EKKLESIA
Chapter II THE MEANING OF 'EKKLESIA (Continued)
Chapter III THE EVILS OF THE UNIVERSAL CHURCH THEORY
Throughout all Protestant Christendom there prevails the teaching that the word church has a twofold meaning in the New Testament. They say at times it is used in the local sense and at other times in the sense of a universal, invisible church consisting of all believers. They make the word to have a literal sense and a figurative sense.
Universal church people are not agreed on just what this invisible church really is. The strict dispensationalists would give this definition: "The true church, composed of the whole number of regenerate persons from Pentecost to the first resurrection (I Cor. 15:52), united together and to Christ by the baptism of the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:12-13), is the body of Christ of which He is the Head (Eph. 1:22-23). As such it is a holy temple for the habitation of God through the Spirit (Eph. 2:21-22); is 'one flesh' with Christ (Eph. 5:30-31); and espoused to Him as a chaste virgin to one husband (II Cor. 11:2-4)." (See The Scofield Reference Bible, footnote on Hebrews 12:23, p. 1304).
Strict covenant theologians have a much larger church than dispensationalists. They say: "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 fulness of Him that filleth all in all" (Confession of Faith of the United Presbyterian Church, Chap. 25, Article 1, p. 36, of the 1961-62 annual).
For 117 years of its existence the Southern Baptist Convention had no article of faith about the universal, invisible church. In the 1950s and 1960s the liberals ceased power, and in 1962 a revised confession was adopted which said: "The New Testament speaks also of the church as the body of Christ which includes all the redeemed of all ages" (Article VI). This is essentially the strict covenant view of the church.
The dispensationalists make the church to be the whole number of regenerate persons from Pentecost to the first resurrection. They would exclude the Old Testament saints from being in the church and all New Testament saints before the day of Pentecost. The covenant theologian has a much larger church consisting of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one. Nevertheless, both schools have a universal, invisible church. This view is so generally believed that any person who dares to reject it is branded as a "misguided fanatic."
In this booklet I shall not inquire any more as to what theologians and creeds say about the church. There is no such thing as an inerrant creed or an infallible theologian. The final court of appeal is the Bible. What men may say about the Bible is unimportant. The great question is: What is the New Testament idea of a church? Does the New Testament authorize only the local idea of the word church, or does it authorize the universal, invisible idea, or both? It will be my purpose to prove that when we are shut up to the New Testament alone, only one definite idea of the church rules the field. In the New Testament the true and actual church is a local, visible body of baptized believers.
A limited reading of the New Testament will prove that a church made disciples (Matt. 28:19), baptized these disciples in water (Matt. 28:19), and taught them what Christ commanded (Matt. 28:20). A true New Testament church received members (Rom. 14:1), elected officers (Acts 1:23; 6:5), sent out missionaries (Acts 13:1-4), observed the Lord's Supper (I Cor. 11), had regular and stated meetings (Acts 20:7; I Cor. 16:1-2), settled disputes (Acts 15:1-41), excluded the disorderly (I Cor. 5:9-13; II Thess. 3:14), restored the penitent (II Cor. 2:1-10), and condemned false doctrine (Rom. 16:17-18). None of these things could have been done by a universal, invisible church.
Since the term "the universal, invisible church" is no where found in the New Testament, I must say that we do not have much to go on in our search. But in order to make sure the word church never has any meaning other than a local church, we must examine every passage in the New Testament on this important subject. Let us look into the Book and see what God has been pleased to reveal. If the universal, invisible church is of the great importance which some attach to it, surely the Bible will set this doctrine forth in plain language for all to see. Otherwise, there is no need nor place for the universal, invisible church.
The word "church" found in our KJV is a translation of the Greek word ekklesia. In the Greek New Testament it occurs 115 times. In our KJV church is found 114 times. However, two of these times should be excluded from our study. In Acts 19:37 the Greek word is hierosulosnot ekklesia. This is the Greek word for temple. Then in I Peter 5:13 ekklesiadoes not occur in the Greek text. The word church is supplied by the translators. 'Ekklesia is translated three times "assembly" in Acts 19. Hence we need to subtract two passages in the KJV (Acts 19:37 and I Peter 5:13) which makes 112. Then we need to add 3 (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). Thus giving us 115 times ekklesiaoccurs in the Greek New Testament.
THE NON CHRISTIAN USAGE
In order to discover the primary and literal meaning of the Greek word ekklesia, let us look carefully at its non- Christian usage in Acts 19. "For the assembly (ekklesia) was confused" (Acts 19:32). Acts 19:39 says: "It shall be determined in a lawful assembly" (ekklesia). Acts 19:41 declares: "He dismissed the assembly" (ekklesia). Hence we see the competent scholars of the King James Version believed that the literal meaning of ekklesia was "assembly." They did not translate it "the called out."
Wickcliff (1380) translates these three passages "church." Tyndale (1534), Cranmer (1539), the Geneva Bible (1557), and the Rhemish Version (1582) all translate the word in Acts 19 "congregation." The New International Version, the New English Bible, The New Testament by Charles Williams, the Twentieth Century New Testament, the Centenary Translation, the Judaean New Testament, the Weymouth Version, Moffatt's version, and the Emphasized Bible all translate all three verses in Acts 19 as "assembly." The Amplified New Testament translates verse 39 and 41 "assembly," but in verse 32 it is "gathering." The New Berkeley Version translates verse 32 and 39 "assembly," but in verse 41 it is "gathering." The New Testament in Basic English has "meeting" and so does the Good News for Modern Man (a version which is so bad it ought to be called bad news for any man).
None of these translate ekklesia "the called out." If as our opponents claim the word means "the called out," why did not any of these scholars so translate? Yet they say all scholars agree with them! The word ekklesia does not mean "the called out." It means "assembly," "congregation," "gathering," or "meeting." This literal and primary meaning precludes the so-called universal, invisible church. There is no such thing as an assembly which cannot assemble, or a congregation which never congregates. The meaning of the word prohibits such a meaning. The universal, invisible church has never assembled and never will on this earth in this gospel age. Hence such a thing is a mere concept of the mind, having no real existence in time or place.
One time in the New Testament the word church ekklesia is applied to the congregation or assembly of Israel in the wilderness: "This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us" (Acts 7:38). The congregation in the wilderness was not a church in the New Testament sense. But it was a local, visible body of people in one place. There was no universal, invisible congregation of the Israelites. This cannot mean "the whole number of regenerate persons from Pentecost to the first resurrection," nor can it mean "the whole number of the elect, the have been, are, or shall be gathered into one." Ekklesia (church) retains its primary and literal sense of assembly or congregation.
ITS PLURAL USAGE
The word Ekklesia in the plural form occurs 36 times in the Greek New Testament (Acts 9:31; 15:41; 16:5; Rom. 16:4, 16; I Cor. 7:17; 11:16; 14:33-34; 16:1,19; II Cor. 8:1, 18, 19, 23-24; 11:8, 28; 12:13; Gal. 1:2, 22; I Thess. 2:14; II Thess. 1:4; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; 2:7, 11, 17, 23, 29; 3:6, 13, 22; 22:16). So far as I know no one has yet invented the doctrine of the universal, invisible churches. Therefore, the plural tolerates nothing but the local idea. It leaves no place for either the universal, invisible church of the Protestants, or the universal visible church of the Catholics. These 36 plural usage's confirm the literal and primary sense of the word is correct. This leaves 75 other passages.
Some make a big to do over Acts 9:31. They contend the Greek text has the word church in the singular here. It is true that Greek copies vary between "churches" and "church." The Alexandrian copy, the Latin Vulgate, the Syriac, the Ethiopic Version, and some others read in the singular number. However, the Textus Receptus has "churches." I believe this is the proper original text, and I will leave the matter there. But even if one receives the translation of "church" rather than "churches," he does not have a universal, invisible church. Instead, he would have a provincial use of the word church, a thing which would favor the meaning of the word church as held by the Catholics.
THE CHURCH IN A CERTAIN PLACE
Twenty times the word church is used in the singular number, and it points to a church which meets in a certain place. These passages are as follows:
"The church which was at Jerusalem" (Acts 8:1).
"The church which was in Jerusalem" (Acts 11:22).
"The church that was in Antioch" (Acts 13:1).
"The church at Cenchrea" (Rom. 16:1).
"The church that is in their house" (Rom. 16:5).
"The church of God which is at Corinth" (I Cor. 1:2).
"The church which is in his house" (Col. 4:15).
"The church of the Laodiceans" (Col. 4:16).
"The church of the Thessalonians" (I Thess. 1:1).
"The church of the Thessalonians" (II Thess. 1:1).
"The church in thy house" (Phile. 2).
"The church of Ephesus" (Rev. 2:1).
"The church in Smyrna" (Rev. 2:8).
"The church at Pergamos" (Rev. 2:12).
"The church in Thyatira" (Rev. 2:18).
"The church in Sardis" (Rev. 3:1).
"The church in Philadelphia" (Rev. 3:7).
"The church of the Laodiceans" (Rev.3:14).
These verses most certainly refer to a local church, an assembly of people who meet in a given locality, a body of baptized believers. There is no such thing as a universal, invisible church which meets in a certain place. A church which gathers in a certain place is both local and visible. This leaves 55 more verses to consider.
LOCATION IN THE IMMEDIATE CONTEXT
In 23 other passages the word church is located in a certain place in the immediate context. These verses are as follows:
"The Lord added to the (Jerusalem) church" (Acts 2:47).
"Fear came upon all the (Jerusalem) church" (Acts 8:3).
"As for Saul, he made havock of the (Jerusalem) church" (Acts 8:3).
"His hands to vex certain of the (Jerusalem) church (Acts 12:1).
"But prayer was made without ceasing of the (Jerusalem) church" (Acts 12:5).
"And being brought on their way by the (Antioch) church" (Acts 15:3).
"They were received by the (Jerusalem) church" (Acts 15:4).
"He ... saluted the (Jerusalem) church" (Acts 18:22).
"Called the elders of the (Ephesian) church" (Acts 20:17).
"The church that is in their house" (Rom. 16:5). The name of this church is uncertain, but it was local for it met in a house.
"Least esteemed in the (Corinthian) church" (I Cor. 6:4).
"Despise ye the church of God" (I Cor. 11:22). Paul called the Corinthian church by this title in I Corinthians 1:1.
"He that prophesieth edifieth the (Corinthian) church" (I Cor. 14:4).
"The (Corinthian) church may receive edifying" (I Cor. 14:5).
"The edifying of the (Corinthian) church" (I Cor. 14:12).
"In the (Corinthian) church I had rather speak" (I Cor. 14:19).
"Let him keep silence in the (Corinthian) church" (I Cor. 14:28).
"For women to speak in the (Corinthian) church" (I Cor. 14:35).
"Let not the (Ephesian) church be charged" (I Tim. 5:16).
"In the midst of the (Jerusalem) church will I sing praise unto thee" (Heb. 2:12).
"Thy charity before the (Ephesian) church" (III John 6).
"I wrote unto the (Ephesian) church" (III John 9).
"Casteth them out of the (Ephesian) church" (III John 10).
IN CONNECTION WITH COMING TOGETHER
We are now going on to consider the remaining 32 passages. Three times the word church is connected with a coming together. This precluded a universal, invisible church in the strongest possible manner. They also demonstrate what a church really is in the New Testament sense. These verses can mean nothing but a local, visible body of baptized believers.
First, consider Acts 11:26 which says: "And it came to pass, that they assembled themselves with the church, and taught much people." The reference is to the church at Antioch. With this local, visible body of baptized believers Paul and Barnabas assembled themselves; they assembled with the assembly. We also see that the church is a place where people assemble to hear the Bible taught.
Second, look at Acts 14:27: "And when they were come, and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all that God had done with them, and how he had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles." Please note the words ''gathered the church together.'' A church in the New Testament sense can be gathered together in one place. In this one place the things of God can be rehearsed. Such can never be said of some supposed universal, invisible church.
Third, I Corinthians 11:18 tells us: "For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it." Please observe the words "when ye come together in the church." A church is a place where people "come together.., into one place" (I Cor. 11:20). To use the word church of some ideal multitude who have never come together into one place is absurd. Such a thing cannot be a church in the Biblical sense; it is only a mythical church, a church that is made to exist in religious minds out of theological necessity.
THE WHOLE CHURCH
We now have 29 passages left. Thus far we have not found even one thing which in the least resembles the universal, invisible church. To the universal church people the whole church consists of "the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one." But in the New Testament "the whole church" is always used to refer to a local church. Then why do they use the expression "the whole church" to mean all the elect? Where is their Scriptural authority for doing so?
I shall prove what I have said. "If therefore the whole church come together into one place, and all speak with tongues, and there come in those that are unlearned, or unbelievers, will they not say that ye are mad?" (I Cor. 14:23). The whole church here could be assembled into one place. The meaning is the whole membership of the Corinthian church. Note Romans 16:23: "Gaius mine host, and of the whole church, saluteth you." This is the church which met in Gaius' house, the church which could salute the Roman Christians. The same usage can be seen in Acts 15:22 "Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church." The "whole church," in this verse is the church at Jerusalem.
COUPLED WITH OTHER WORDS
We are now down to 26 passages yet to be studied. Two times the word church is accompanied by the word "every."
"And when they had ordained them elders in every church" (Acts 14:23).
"I teach in every church" (I Cor. 4:17).
One time church is coupled with "no."
"No church communicated with me" (Phil. 4:15).
These verses point also to a local visible body of baptized believers. These churches had elders and sent offerings. The universal, invisible church has no elders and sends no offerings, seeing it is a conception of the mind, having no existence in time or place, and is not a historical fact, being only an ideal multitude without organization, without action, and without corporate being.
We have already seen that 92 out of the 115 times the word ,ekklesia(church) occurs in the Greek New Testament it means a local body as well defined as the legislative assembly of a Greek Free City. This makes it certain that the local idea commonly and exclusively rules in the New Testament. Ninety-two verses out of 115 favor my position - a very strong argument in favor of the Landmark position. Unless there are good reasons contained in the Scriptures themselves to make the word have a new meaning, we must always understand the word church to refer to a local body of baptized believers.
FIVE OTHER SURELY LOCAL
When one takes a close look at five other passages, he will see that they also point to a local body.
I Timothy 3:5 says: "For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?" This cannot be the big church, for no pastor can take care of such a church.
James 5:14 says: "Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church." This, too, is a local assembly, for no one could call the elders of the universal, invisible church.
Three other passages need not claim our attention long either.
"I persecuted the church of God" (I Cor. 15:9; Gal. 1:13).
"Concerning zeal, persecuting the church" (Phil. 3:6).
Any person knows that Paul did not persecute the elect of all ages, some dead, some alive, and some not born. According to Acts 8:1-4, Saul or Paul persecuted the Jerusalem church. Here again the sense is doubtless local. Thus 97 out of the 115 permits the meaning of a local, visible body of persons. This leaves 18 more verses.