Why And When This Theory Started
There is no mention of a Universal Church in the Bible. The warmest advocates of the theory will of necessity admit that nearly every instance in which ecclesia, translated church, is found, reference is to an actual, local, visible church. The other few times ecclesia is used, according to the laws of language, the term is used in a generic or abstract sense, and does not at all refer to an all-inclusive Universal, Invisible some thing. This will be dealt with later.
Not only does the New Testament know nothing of a Universal, Invisible Church, Christians of the early centuries knew nothing of such. I have read rather widely in the writings of the early church fathers - the writings of the Christian leaders who lived in the early days of Christianity all the way from Polycarp who knew John the apostle, on down. In their writings they don't speak of an all embracing spiritual Universal, Invisible Church. Doubtlessly they would have been amazed at such a doctrine. They speak of church and churches - never of a vague Universal, Invisible monstrosity composed of all the saved everywhere. They knew the Greek language too well to try to use the term ecclesia in such a sense anyhow.
As time passed, Satan managed to introduce heresies and perversions among the churches. These eventually produced the Roman Catholic Church. Bear in mind that Roman Catholicism did not spring full grown into the world. It is the product of error and false doctrine accumulated over a period of several centuries. Dr. R. K. Maiden, former editor of the Word and Way, of Missouri, has the following to say about the rise of the Universal Church theory:
"The conception and adoption of the Universal Church Theory, is the parent heresy in ecciesiology. How and when did this theory originate? The change from the idea of the individual, self-governing church, to the Universal Church had its origin in one of the most colossal blunders of all Christian history - that of making 'ecclesia' and 'basileia' identical. So far from being identical, the difference between 'church' and 'kingdom' is so great as to require that they be contrasted rather than compared. Jesus and the writers of the New Testament never confused the two terms. The taproot of the Universal Church theory is the identification of the church and kingdom, making the two coincident, coextensive and coterminous. The theory of the identity of church and kingdom and of the universality of the church were twin born. New Testament writers knew nothing of a world church. As nearly as can be determined, the first formal, official identification of church and kingdom was projected when the Roman Empire became nominally Christianized, about the time of the consummation of the great ecclesiastical apostasy. It was the Ecumenical Council of Nice, called by the Emperor Constantine, that affirmed and projected as its creed the idea of a 'Catholic' World Church. From then down to the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century, the universal VISIBLE theory of the church held the field, except for the scattered, comparatively obscure, hunted and persecuted little churches known by various names at different times - churches of the New Testament type in doctrine and polity. Following the Reformation period and born of the Reformation movement, there emerged a new theory of the church - the UNIVERSAL, INVISIBLE SPIRITUAL THEORY."
The Universal Visible Church theory is an utter necessity of the Roman Catholic Church. There is not the slightest resemblance between the simply organized, self-governing churches of New Testament times, and the great, complex hierarchical pope dominated institution that we know as the Roman Catholic Church today. Conditions in that church became so intolerable that they produced the Protestant Reformation. Let it be remembered, and never forgotten that Baptists are NOT Protestants. They existed long before the rise of Protestantism.
When the Protestant reformers split the Catholic world, they did not make the radical changes they would have made had they gone back to the Bible as their standard of life, and doctrine, and conduct. They of necessity rejected the Roman Church as the Universal Visible Church, but they did not go back to the New Testament Church type. What would they do? With what would they replace the doctrine of the Universal Visible Church? They solved the problem by coining the doctrine of the Universal INVISIBLE Church. So the Universal, Invisible, spiritual theory of the church WAS INVENTED! Such a thing didn't exist for over fifteen hundred years after Christ started His church! But this is now the working theory of all Protestantism - and sad to say many Baptists have unwittingly been snared by this theory.
THE MOTHER OF HERESIES
Down in Florida where the writer lives, we often have severe hurricanes, and sometimes these spawn a whole bunch of violent tornadoes. They literally spin off of the parent storm. This same thing is true of the mother heresy, the Universal church theory. She spawns a lot of other heresies. The Church Branch theory is a case in point. Some years ago there was a preaching mission sponsored by the Federal (now National) Council of Churches. Dr. E. Stanley Jones acted as a special spokesman for the Council, in an attempt to keep it and its aims before the people. Dr. Jones advocated the formulation of a kind of super church entitled "The Church of Christ In America", formulated by all the denominations. He said, "The figure that I have in mind is that of a tree, with many different branches adhering to the central trunk - "The Church of Christ In America ..."
Dr. W. L. Poteat, a former president of Wake Forest College, and a very loose Baptist, in his book entitled, "Can A Man Be A Christian Today," in referring to organized Christianity calls it, "The Christian Church." Dr. Marshall, teacher of McMaster's University, is quoted as saying in a sermon, "Baptists do not regard baptism as essential to membership in the 'Christian Church' - the church universal - even though they insist on immersion as a condition of admittance into the BAPTIST SECTION OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH." The National and World Council of churches operates on the theory that all of the churches of different and even conflicting faiths should be united into one big world church, with the leaders, the "Big Boys" directing its course. Beyond this seen conglomeration however, is the Church Universal concept, the mother of the smaller church heresy.
SUMMARIZING: The Universal, Invisible theory is unknown to the Bible; is unknown to the writings of the early church Fathers who lived back near apostolic times; was unknown during the centuries when Roman Catholicism dominated Europe, and when the Universal Visible theory was in vogue. It is AN INVENTION of Protestantism designed to take the place of the Catholic Universal Visible theory. No one who seeks to follow the Bible should adopt as an item of doctrine an unscriptural invention of men.