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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
J. R. Graves
It was a Local Organization, a Single Congregation
Now, there are three theories concerning a church, and upon one or the other of these all organizations claiming to be churches are built; but, according to Bishop Doggett, only that one can be a Christian church that is in all respects conformed to the scriptural model, so particularly described by the inspired writers. Let us examine these theories:
The first is the Catholic or Universal church theory. According to this, there can be but one church, of the denomination adopting it, throughout the world. No single congregation is a church in any sense, but an infinitesimal part of the universal idea. The Greek Catholic Church is formed upon this theory, having the Grand Patriarch at Constantinople for its Supreme head. The Latin, or Roman Catholic Church, is constructed upon this idea. No local congregation in one place is a church, but only a minute part of the great whole, the seat of which is at Rome, and the absolute governing power, the Pope.
Notice that, according to this theory, (1) the word cannot be used in the plural — there is but one Roman Catholic, and but one Greek Church in the world; (2) that the local congregations are not churches; and (3) that these universal churches never were, and never can be, assembled in one place for any purpose.
The second is the National or Provincial theory. This is like the universal, only limited. All the local congregations in the nation, province or country, in some way associated, constitute the one church of that nation or province.
The Church of England is an illustration of this theory. The thousands of local societies scattered throughout the empire of Great Britain are not churches, but only parts of the one great state church, of which the reigning king or queen and Parliament is the supreme head, determining the faith and enacting the laws for the government of the body.
The Old School Presbyterian Church of this country conforms to this idea. Before the division of the Old School body, all the local bodies in the United States, with all the Presbyteries and Synods, constituted but one church, of which the General Assembly was the central head and ruling power.
The Methodist Episcopal Churches of America also illustrate the provincial theory. There are only two Methodist Episcopal Churches in these United States, the one North and the other South. Before the division there was but one. The local societies, to which the members, but not the ministers, belong, are in no sense churches — have none of the prerogatives of churches. They have no voice in determining the doctrines they must believe; they cannot elect their own ministers to teach them, nor can they dismiss them when they prove inefficient, or discipline them should they fall into the grossest vices; they are not even allowed to hold the titles to the houses of worship which they build and pay for with their own money; and no acting minister, circuit rider, presiding elder or bishop belongs to one of these local societies to which the lay members belong; but these ministers belong to the Annual Conference; so that if the local societies are indeed churches, the ministers do not belong to a church; if they are not, the members do not belong to any church!
But this point needs no argument, since it was forever settled by the Supreme Court of the United States, in accordance with the instructions of the bishops, North and South, that no Methodist society is a church in any sense, or even a constituent part of the Methodist Church. Of this “church,” the General Conference, which meets once in four years, is the supreme head and all governing power, and, according to the above cited decision, is alone the Methodist Church; but, strange for a church, no minister or member is, or can be, a member of it, save the bishops only, except appointed by some Annual Conference!
Let it be borne in mind that, according to this theory of church building, (1) “ecclesia” cannot be used in the plural, and (2) the church cannot be gathered into one place to discipline its members or to observe the ordinances.
The third is the Baptist, or scriptural theory; the church is a local organization. This implies that the primitive model was a single congregation, complete in itself, independent of all other bodies, civil or religious, and the highest and only source of ecclesiastical authority on earth, amenable only to Christ, whose laws alone it receives and executes — not possessing the authority or right to enact or modify the least law or ordinance, or to discipline a member, save for the violation of what Christ himself has enjoined. This church acknowledges no body of men on earth, council, conference or assembly as its head, but Christ alone, who is invisible, as “head over all things” to it.
1. The term ecclesia itself.—The Holy Spirit selected the Greek word, ecclesia, which had but one possible literal meaning to the Greek — that of a local organization.
2. New Testament use. — It is used in the New Testament 110 times, referring to the Christian institution, and in 100 of these it undoubtedly refers to a local organization; and in the remaining 10 instances it is used figuratively — by synecdoche — where a part is put for the whole, the singular for the plural, one for all. In each of these instances what is true of all the churches is true of any one — e.g., Eph. 1:22; 3:10; 21:5, 23, 24, 25, 27, 29, 32; Col. 1:18. There is no occasion whatever for any misapprehension touching this use, nor is there one passage that affords the shadow of a ground for the idea of an invisible church in heaven, any more than for a huge universal, national or provincial church on earth, but a multitude of passages preclude the idea.
3. Ecclesia in the plural. — It is used in the plural thirty-six times, which fact is demonstrative that the universal or provincial idea was not then known.
4. The ecclesia of the New Testament could, and was required to assemble in one place. — This is impossible for a universal or invisible church to do. It was often required to assemble. (Matt. 18:17; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:23) Discipline, baptism and the Lord’s Supper could only be administered by the assembled church.
5. Ecclesia in a single city and house. — “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2); “the church which was at Jerusalem” (Acts 11:22); “the churches of Asia salute you;” “Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord with the church that is in their house” (1 Cor. 16:19). “Salute .. Nymphas and the church which is in his house” (Col 4:15); “and to the church in thy house” (Philemon 2). Now a complete church was composed of the members of these individual households, and, probably, a few others, and were wont statedly to meet in the houses of these brethren for worship and the transaction of business, and it is certain that it could have been nothing else than a local society.
6. Historical testimony. — The earliest writers knew nothing of an invisible, universal or provincial church:
Clement, A.D. 217: “To the church of God which sojourns at Rome;” “To the church of God sojourning at Corinth.”
Eusebius, referring to this epistle says: “There is one acknowledged epistle of this Clement, great and admirable, which he wrote in the name of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth; sedition then having arisen in the latter church. We are aware that this epistle has been publicly read in very many churches — both in old times, also in our day.”
Irenaeus, A.D. 115-200: “For the churches which have been planted in Germany not believe or hand down anything different; nor do those [i.e., churches] in Spain; nor those in Gaul; nor those in the East; nor those in Egypt; nor those in Libya; nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.”
Tertullian, A.D. 150: Expressed the idea of a Christian church in his day in these words: “Three are sufficient to form a church, although they be laymen.”
Gieseler: Of the churches of the first and second centuries, says: “All congregations were independent of one another.” Vol.1, Ch. 3.
Mosheim: “During a great part of this [second] century the churches continued to be, as at first, independent of each other; each church was a kind of little independent republic.” Vol. 1, p. 142.
Bro. Owen: “In no approved writer for two hundred years after Christ is mention made of any organized, visibly professing church except a local congregation.” By Crowell, in "Ch. Man.," p. 36.
No fact is better established than this, and therefore the various Catholic and Protestant organizations can lay no just claim to be patterned after the apostolic model; and, according to Bishop Doggett’s axioms, should not be considered or called Christian churches.