There is not the slightest difficulty in understanding the meaning of the words church and churches as they occur in most of the New Testament. Assembly, local and visible is unmistakably meant. There would likewise be no difficulty in understanding the meaning of church in the remaining instances were it not that men have a theory to seek to substantiate. Such persons usually use a few verses in the writings of Paul to the Ephesians and Colossians. Has Paul labored to establish churches - assemblies - and has he often felt "the care of all the churches," as he expresses it, and has he involved his very life with the welfare of the churches, and then has he all at once originated an entirely new church conception? Has he decided that there are really two churches, one kind local and visible, and the other Universal and Invisible? How utterly foolish to assume this! It is wholly unnecessary to assume an entirely new kind of church. The only thing necessary is to construe words according to the established law of language. The institutional abstract meaning of church in some instances, the generic meaning of the word in other instances, and the concept of the church win prospect, will take care of the problem without the need of a new church entirely different from the kind of church signified by the word ecclesia, and taught most plainly in nearly all of the instances where the term is used. Let us take note of a few of the Scriptures where church is used in a way that enables the Universal Church heretic to seek to bolster his theory.
I Corinthians 15:9 - "I persecuted the church of God."
Small help to be derived by the Universalite from this.
So far as the Scriptures reveal, Paul never persecuted but one church - the church at Jerusalem. It was a large church composed of several thousand people, and Paul "made havoc" of it, scattering it all over the country. His persecution affected one local, visible assembly - the church at Jerusalem.
Ephesians 1:22-23 - "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all."
There is nothing in this to justify the idea that Paul was writing about a new kind of church. He is using the term church in the institutional sense, but had he particularized, according to the law of language, he would have signified a local assembly.
For illustration, one might speak of the American home as being based on marriage. Wouldn't it be foolish to think of the American home as some sort of Universal, invisible home? No, to particularize one would have to designate an actual visible home.
But the argument is made that this Scripture requires something bigger than a mere local body, since Christ is head over all things to it. Why? The truth is each local assembly is a body of Christ, and He should be head over all things to every such church. Paul, the writer of this Scripture likewise writes to the Corinthians as expressed in I Corinthians 12:27 and says, "Now ye (the Corinthian church) are a body of Christ and members in particular." The King James translates it "THE body of Christ," but the definite article is missing from the Greek. If the Corinthian church was "A body of Christ," then every other such church is likewise the same.*
Ephesians 3:21 - "Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end."
Is this a different kind of church than the kind spoken of so many times in the New Testament? By no means. Reference there is to the church in prospect. We can conceive of a time when there will be a general assembly composed of all of the saved members of all of the local assemblies of all time. This will be both local and visible. Such a church does not now exist, but we can conceive of such church in prospect. It will come to exist, and it will glorify Christ throughout the eternal ages.
Ephesians 5:27 - "That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish."
How the Universal churchites do love this passage, but the truth is, it does not bolster their argument. Here again we have the church in prospect. This Scripture looks beyond this age, out to that time when there shall be a general assembly, composed of all the saved members of the true local assemblies of this earth. I shall later deal with this question in more detail. The language used here does not militate against the usual use of the term ecclesia, for when the church is presented to Christ in the sense mentioned here, it will be both local and visible.
Local, visible churches - the only kind known to the New Testament, are imperfect. They have spots and wrinkles. The Universal Invisible Church wouldn't have such, and if it did, being invisible they couldn't be seen. These visible assemblies will at that wonderful time in the future, be purged and cleansed of all imperfections forever.
Colossians 1: 18 - "And he is the head of the body." Colossians 1 :24 - "For his body's sake which is the church."
The Universalite seems to think that it would be wholly unbecoming for Christ to be the head of each local church - it must be some big, hazy, Universal, Invisible something worthy of His head ship. Well, let me say that Christ IS THE HEAD OF EACH GENUINE CHURCH, and it is the big, hazy, Universal, Invisible mythical Thing that is unworthy of Christ's head ship. Earlier in this chapter, I proved my point when I pointed out that Paul wrote to the Corinthian church (I Corinthians 12:27) and said, "Now ye are a body of Christ."*
Since the Universalist theorizer sets so much store on it having to be a Big Universal Church for Christ to be the Head of it, let me go a bit further to show that this is not true. Turn to I Corinthians 11:3 and you will read these words, "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man ..."
This says that the Head of every man is Christ, and if Christ is head of every man (no doubt he is writing of saved persons), then what is presumptuous about believing that Christ is the Head of every true church?
And note something else: It says here that the "head of the woman is the man." Does that mean a big universal in visible woman? Ridiculous! Yet no more ridiculous than the theory of a big Universal Invisible Church. No, "woman" is used here in the abstract sense, but when the abstract is made concrete and the meaning exactly defined, an actual woman must be specified. Failure or refusal to accept this law that relates to language, is at the bottom of the continued existence of the Universal Church theory. People who without question speak of institutions and things in the abstract sense, then particularize with the concrete meaning, go right ahead refusing to allow the same law to operate in the use of the term church. For instance, it is said, "The automobile kills more people than does war." What automobile? A big universal invisible automobile? No, none have ever been killed by such. When one gets down to the concrete and particularizes, it is always a local, visible automobile that perpetrates the deed. Why not have as much sense concerning "church" as we have about automobiles? Those who come to their senses concerning the significance of the word, throw away their Universal theory, just as I did.
WHAT DID CHRIST MEAN?
The first recorded instance in which Christ used the term church is in Matthew 16:18 - "Upon this rock I will build my church ..." If He meant a Universal, Invisible something, as say the Universalites, then we are faced with the fact that He twisted the usual, well established, universally understood meaning of the word.
If it was the Universal Church that Jesus started, then we are faced with the fact that SOMETHING ENTIRELY DIFFERENT CAME INTO EXISTENCE. The local, visible church in that case would have to be a miserable counterfeit. In such case would not Jesus have said to His disciples, "No, I didn't mean that I would build that sort of church. You have things all wrong. I meant a Universal Invisible Church?"
FACE THIS PLAIN FACT: JESUS CHRIST DID NOT START TWO DIFFERENT KINDS OF CHURCHES - ONE LOCAL AND VISIBLE - THE OTHER UNIVERSAL AND INVISIBLE!
The truth is, Jesus started only one kind of church - the local visible assembly. The Universal Invisible Church did not begin in the mind of deity, but in the mind of his Satanic Majesty!
I suggest proof that Jesus meant the local visible assembly. It has already been pointed out that in the very next mention of church, (Matthew 18:17) Jesus used the word in the sense of the local assembly. If you should hear a speaker use a term that you didn't exactly understand, and if he should then subsequently use the same term in a perfectly understandable way, you would cease to be puzzled about his meaning. Such is exactly true in this instance. If there should be any room for doubt as to what Christ meant by church in Matthew 16:18, His later use in Matthew 18:17 should make it perfectly plain.
But MORE THAN THIS! In the Book of Revelation we find Jesus sending a series of messages to the seven churches of Asia. Did He say, "The seven stars are the angels of the CHURCH in Asia?" He did NOT? He used the term "churches." Then He went further and sent a definite message to each church. He said, "Unto the angel of the church at Ephesus write - " and so on to the whole seven. Several things stand out clearly:
(1) Here we have defined Christ's meaning of the term church. He meant local, visible assemblies.
(2) Here we have Christ's approval expressed concerning the kind of church He started.
(3) Here we find nothing to indicate that He started the Universal Church, but that His followers ignored that and went ahead and started local visible assemblies. Christ was displeased concerning some of the things that existed in these churches, but no word of His indicates that He was displeased with the churches being of the local visible sort.
* Note by Louis A. Turk: while I agree with what it proved by this chapter, I disagree that 1 Cor. 12:27 is mistranslated in the KJV. The word "church" is being used generically in that verse, and the word "the" does not imply that the church is universal or invisible.