The Baptist Pillar © Brandon Bible Baptist Church 1992-Present www.baptistpillar.com
"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
From the book, The Church That Jesus Built, 1923 (Chapter 3)
"Jesse B. Thomas, in his great book, The Church and the Kingdom,' has forever settled the matter that the church emphasized in the New Testament is not the universal invisible church, but a local, visible body. It will be many a day before an intelligent man will even attempt to reply to this book, and no one will ever really reply to it."
T. T. Martin, in "The, New Testament Church."
"I have not been able to get from fifty years' study of the Bible a conception of the church as a great nation-wide or world-wide ecclesiasticism, embracing all Christendom in all ages and countries. To my mind there can be no such thing. The universal invisible church is to me nonsense. Nothing, as I understand it, is a church except a local, self-governing body of professedly regenerated people, organized according to the New Testament and acting under the authority of Jesus Christ, as taught and practiced by His inspired apostles and writers."
Calla Midyett, in "Western Recorder."
We have seen that Jesus established a church, and have determined from the New Testament record that He did this during the period of His personal ministry on earth. It is now In order for us to consider the third question: "What kind of church was it that Jesus founded?" Just what did He mean when He said, "I will build my church"? If all persons were willing to accept the New Testament without bias, prejudice, or preconceived notions and theories, there need be no difference of opinion at all on this point.
Unfortunately all are not willing that the New Testament should be permitted to mean what it says. The clear meaning of "ecclesia: which Christ used to designate His new institution, does not fit into the church theory of some, so they have coined a new meaning for the word. In this way, by using ecclesia in an unwarranted sense, they have invented another "Church" than the one that Jesus established.
Rome, in order to justify her theory, overlooks the distinction that the Scriptures make between the church and the Kingdom, and seeks to identify the church that Jesus founded with the hierarchical organization that we today know as the Roman Catholic Church. In Catholic thought, the "Church" is the visible Kingdom of God on earth, and with them there are no churches, separate, local, independent bodies, but one great, all-embracing, world-organization under papal dominion and control. Accordingly we find Cardinal Gibbons saying (Faith of Our Fathers, p. 6), "The Church is called a Kingdom." And following this he goes on to show that the members of the Catholic Church, although many are, to use his own words, "all united to one supreme visible head, whom they are bound to obey."
I not here take the time to discuss the difference between the church and the Kingdom. That difference is very clearly marked in the New Testament, as I will show in the next chapter.
The theories held by the various Protestant denominations (let it be kept in mind that Baptists are not Protestants) are somewhat different from that of the Catholics. Some of these denominations with the Catholics, repeat the Apostles Creed and affirm a belief in the "Holy Catholic Church," but at the same time attach to the words a different meaning. Protestants have conceded out of necessity that Jesus founded and established a church. And they have recognized the fact that if this church was a local, visible body they cannot be members of the true church, the one founded by Jesus, since the organizations that they belong to have, without exception, originated hundreds of years since Christ established His church.
In this situation only two things remain to do, either frankly admit their organization to be extra-scriptural and rivals of Christ's church or else devise some theory that will justify their separate denominational existence and still permit them a place in the ecclesia of Christ. The latter alternative is the one that has generally been taken, for there have been theories a-plenty. One of these is what is sometimes called "the church branch" theory.
It is the theory that all of the various Protestant churches are but "branches" of the true church. It embraces the idea that all are headed for the same place—all are part and parcel of the same thing—the Church of Christ. However, this church "branch" theory immediately raises the embarrassing question as to the identity of the trunk of the church tree to which the "branch" denominations belong. I use the word "embarrassing," and it is embarrassing in the light of the historical fact that all of the great Protestant denominations (remember again that Baptists are not Protestants) have either directly or indirectly "branched off" from the Catholic Church.
Of the theory mentioned above, Dr. R. L. Baker aptly says:
"The branch church theory has a great place in the popular thinking. It is untenable, unscriptural, and even unthinkable. Plant a water melon, let its branches run out in several directions, on one branch there grows a pumpkin, on another a melon, on another a citron, and so on until we have the various branches all covered in the Protestant melon patch. Who would not say this is a freak of nature, a real monstrosity? Yet this is the average reasoning of today amongst the branch theory people. 'Tell it to the church' would hardly work in such a wonderful monstrosity."
But the theory that is most commonly relied upon, by those who belong to apocryphal institutions and do not wish to admit the truth of Baptist claims, is the "Universal, Invisible Church" theory. This theory, which plays exegetical tricks, employs specious arguments and minimizes the importance of the true churches of Christ, is a theory that has been and is a curse to the cause of Christ. It is one of the most widespread and hurtful heresies of our day, and yet, strange to say, without foundation and contrary to common sense once it is subjected to close scrutiny.
The theory has variations, but in the main the holders of it maintain that the church mentioned in Matthew 16:18, the one that Jesus said He would build, was not the local assembly, but consisted of all believers of every church (or no church, as the case may be) everywhere. According to this view, one becomes a member of this church automatically when he becomes a Christian. To believe this one must believe that side by side to-day exists two churches, one local and visible, consisting of men and women organized for the carrying out of Christ's commands, the other unseen and invisible and entrusted with no work or mission. Moreover, this involves that these churches have a different membership, since some presumably belong to the universal, invisible Church who have never joined the local and visible body. Not only that, it further makes Christ the author of two churches, unless we utterly deny that He is the Founder and Head of the local, visible church.
It ought to be clear to everyone that much is involved in the meaning of Matthew 16:18, and in the correct answer to the question, "What kind of a church did Jesus build?" If the church which Jesus promised was "universal and invisible," then it follows that the Baptist claim to perpetuity is absurd, and the product of an unwarranted arrogance. This being true, the Baptist claim to church perpetuity stands or falls according to the meaning of ecclesia in Matthew 16:18, and other passages of the New Testament.
After careful study of all the passages in which the word ecclesia occurs in the New Testament, and the Septuagint, and after examining to ascertain the use of the word in classical Greek, I submit the proposition that the church that Jesus founded was the local assembly, and that to use the word ecclesia to designate a "universal," or "invisible" Church is to pervert its meaning, and to fall into serious error.
I realize full well that for me merely to make the bare statement recorded above is not enough. Proof is, of course, required. But I believe that ample proof can be produced to satisfy any mind that is open to the truth.
Since the validity of the Baptist belief in the perpetuity of their churches hinges upon the kind of church that Jesus established, it seems advisable to deal with the question somewhat at length. I trust that the reader will pardon me if I seem to spend an undue amount of time on this point. It is because the question of the kind of church that Jesus founded is absolutely fundamental to the discussion of church perpetuity.
If the church that Jesus established was the local assembly, the Baptist claim that their churches are the true New Testament churches which have had a continuity of existence since the days of Jesus, is simply unassailable. I have a number of reasons to offer as to why I believe that the church founded by Jesus was the local, visible assembly.
My first reason is that the meaning of the word "ecclesia" used in Matthew 16:18 irresistibly leads one to believe that the local assembly was meant. Indeed, locality inheres in the very word, so that it is really improper for anyone to speak of the "local" or "visible" assembly, since the only kind of an assembly that can exist is both local and visible. In this book I only use the terms "local" and "visible" because of the failure on the part of so many to recognize the truth that there can be no ecclesia or assembly anywhere without a place to meet. By using these terms so commonly used I hope to be better understood, although I realize that to do so is to use mere tautology.
The very strongest argument against the "universal, invisible theory" is a correct understanding of the meaning of the word ecclesia or church. Indeed, to make a study of the word in the light of its usage in the time of Christ and preceding, is to see how impossible and absurd is the belief in a "universal, invisible Church." To make the word as used by Jesus in Matthew 16:18, refer to other than the local assembly is to attach a meaning to the word utterly foreign to its nature, and completely out of harmony with its ordinary use.
Let us briefly consider the word as regards its meaning in classical and New Testament usage:
The word ecclesia, rendered "church" in English versions, was not a new word coined by Jesus, but a word already in current use at that time and moreover a word the meaning of which had become definitely fixed and established. This being the case, it would seem highly improbable that Jesus, speaking to the disciples, would use the word in some sense altogether foreign to its current use, and that without a single word of explanation.
As one writer puts it: "It is not ingenious for a teacher without a word of explanation to use words to his pupils with a meaning entirely different from what they understand the words to have." Dr. Jesse B. Thomas says in his book, The Church and the Kingdom: "No such difficulties attend the construction of the language—it simply supposes our Lord consistent with Himself, and with the ordinary usages of speech, assuming that He whom 'the common people heard gladly' would not wantonly use words in a strange sense that would inevitably perplex and mislead the common man."
What, then, let us ask, did the word mean as understood by the people of that day? Says Dr. George W. McDaniel (The Churches of the New Testament), "Both with the Greeks and the Jews, the word denoted an assembly of the people . . . Among the Greeks ecclesia was the assembly of the citizens of a free city-state gathered by a herald blowing a horn through the streets of a town."
Dr. Thomas says in another place, "It was the organized assembly of the authorized voters of the local community met to transact business of common concern. It corresponded to the town meeting of New England of later days."
Liddell and Scott (Greek Lexicon) define the word ecclesia as follows: "An assembly of citizens summoned by the crier, the legislative assembly."
Again, Dr. B. H. Carroll says: "Its primary meaning is: An organized assembly, whose members have been properly called out from private homes for business to attend to public affairs. This definition necessarily implies prescribed conditions of membership. This meaning applies substantially alike to the ecclesia of a self-governing Greek state (Acts 19:39), the Old Testament ecclesia or convocation of National Israel (Acts 7:38) and to the New Testament ecclesia. When our Lord says: 'On this rock I will build my ecclesia,' while the 'My' distinguished His ecclesia from the Greek state ecclesia, and the Old Testament ecclesia, the word itself naturally retains its ordinary meaning." (Ecclesia the Church).
Therefore, since ecclesia in its accepted meaning carried with it the idea of locality and organization, to make it refer to a so-called "universal, invisible" Church, possessing neither locality nor organization, is to do violence to the word and to use it in a purely arbitrary sense.
"But," someone objects, "does not the actual use of ecclesia in certain New Testament passages indicate a broader usage than to designate a local organized assembly?" In reply to this it may be said that in the Christian usage of the word there were three ideas, viz., an institution, a particular congregation, and the redeemed of all time considered in the light of a church in prospect. In each case where the word is used there is nothing that argues against the general usage.
To particularize: The word is used fourteen times to denote an institution. When it is used in this way it is, according to Dr. Carroll, used in either an abstract or generic sense. "This follows," he says, "from the laws of language governing the use of words. For example, if an English statesman, referring to the right of each individual citizen to be tried by his peers, should say: 'On this rock England will build her jury, and all the power of tyranny shall not prevail against her,' he uses the term jury in an abstract sense, i.e., in the sense of an institution. But when this institution finds concrete expression or becomes operative, it is always a particular jury of twelve men and never an aggregation of all juries into one big jury."
Then he cites Matthew 16:18 as an example of the abstract use of ecclesia. Matthew 18:17 he cites as an example of the generic use of the word. Then he adds these words: "Whenever the abstract or generic finds concrete expression or takes operative shape it is always a particular assembly."
It is permissible for us to use the word "church" abstractly as did Jesus in denoting the institution He founded. But, as Dr. Carroll points out, when we begin to particularize we must, according to the very laws of language, settle upon a particular assembly of baptized believers in Christ. So we can see that the abstract or generic use of the word is, after all, at bottom, no different in meaning from the use of it to denote a particular assembly. And it is to denote a particular local body of believers that the word is mostly used—indeed by actual count, ninety-three times out of a little over a hundred times that the word occurs in Christian usage.
And now for the third idea contained in the Christian usage of ecclesia, viz., the use of it to denote the redeemed of all time, considered in the light of a church in prospect. At least two passages seem to use ecclesia in this sense, and these two in no wise militate against the general use, since this is an assembly that exists only in prospect. Dr. Carroll states the whole case very clearly in his booklet, as follows: "This ecclesia is prospective, not actual. That is to say, there is not now but will be a general assembly of Christ's people. That general assembly will be composed of all the redeemed of all time.
Here are three indisputable and very significant facts concerning Christ's general assembly:
First, many of its members properly called out, and now in Heaven.
Second, many others of them, also called out, are here on earth.
Third, indefinite millions of them, probably the great majority, yet to be called, are neither on earth nor in heaven, because they are yet unborn, and therefore non-existent.
It follows that if one part of the membership is now in Heaven, another part yet unborn, there is as yet no assembly, except in prospect. We may, however, properly speak of the general assembly now, because, though part of it is yet non-existent, and though there has not yet been a gathering together of the other two parts, yet the mind may conceive of that gathering as an accomplished fact. In God's purposes and plans, the general assembly exists now and also in our conceptions or anticipations, but certainly not as a fact"
I have quoted Dr. Carroll somewhat at length because his booklet is one of the sanest, most careful and scholarly examinations of the New Testament church that has ever been written. Many scholarly men fully accord with his position as here outlined. For instance, Dr. J. G. Bow, in his What Baptists Believe, writes as follows: " 'The general assembly and church of the first-born'--this last will evidently be local when they shall have assembled."
A second reason as to why Matthew 16:18 refers to the local assembly and not to the Church universal, is that Christ's own use of the word prohibits us from believing that He meant anything else. Suppose that one should hear a speaker use a certain term, the meaning of which seems doubtful. Later on in his address the speaker uses the same word at least a score of times, and in such a way as to be perfectly clear as to his meaning. Would it be wise for one to judge that he meant something totally different in his first use of the word than in the twenty times in which he subsequently used it? Or would it be the part of common sense to interpret the meaning connected with the first use of the term, in the light of his subsequent use? This illustration sets forth the exact situation as regards the interpretation of Matthew 16:18.
Let us, for the sake of argument, say that we are in doubt as to what Christ meant by "church" in this passage just mentioned, which is the first in which the term occurs. Let us look at the other places in which He uses the word, and see what Ile meant there. We find, upon making a careful search that lie subsequently used the word ecclesia or church twenty-one tunes. Following the first place in which church is mentioned, we find that the next, and the last place in which church is mentioned in the Gospels, is Matthew 18:17, where Jesus says: "Tell it to the church, but if he neglect to hear the church..." To affirm that Jesus was here speaking of a universal, invisible Church would be to descend to absurdity, since it would be impossible for a church member to bring a matter before a universal, invisible, unorganized "Church" not possessing locality. Jesus plainly meant local assembly; nothing else would fit the case at all.
The other instances in which Christ used the word ecclesia are found in the Revelation. Examples are as follows:
"To the angel of the church at Ephesus;"
"Hear what the Spirit, sayeth to the churches;"
"The seven churches," etc.
With reference to the last example, Sir William Ramsey, world-renowned scholar, affirms that the seven churches mentioned were actual, local churches that existed at that time. In each of the twenty-one times that Jesus used ecclesia, subsequent to his utterance recorded in Matthew 16:18, He plainly and unmistakably referred to the local assembly.
As Dr. T. T. Eaton remarks, in commenting on this question: "The probability therefore is twenty-one to nothing that He meant local assembly in Matthew 16:18. A probability of twenty-one to nothing is a certainty. Hence it is certain that Christ meant the local assembly when He said: 'On this rock I will build my church.’"
Again, a third reason for believing that Matthew 16:18 refers to the local assembly is that Christ only promised to build one kind of church. He never intimated in any way that He would found the local assembly and also a universal, invisible Church, composed of the redeemed of all the so-called churches. Consequently when we turn to the book of Acts and the Epistles, and find local assemblies of believers springing up here and there, we immediately identify these with the church that Jesus spoke of. To do otherwise would be to assume that something else came into existence other than the institution which Jesus promised.
Therefore, since Jesus only spoke of one kind of church, and since the kind of church which we find in apostolic times is the local assembly, for one to seek to introduce a universal or invisible Church is to seek to create a second ecclesia—another than Christ began. This is to breed confusion.
A fourth reason for believing that the church referred to by Jesus was the local assembly is that the universal, invisible theory is not only unscriptural but according to history is post-apostolic in its origin. Harnack, the church historian, in his "History of Dogma," makes this clear. He says: "The expression, invisible Church, is found for the first time in Hegessipus, Eusebius, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Hiero, Cornelius, and Cyprian, all used the term holy churches and never the Catholic or Universal Church." Again in Vol. 2, p. 83, he says: "No one thought of the desperate idea of an 'invisible Church;' this notion would probably have brought about a lapse far more rapidly than the idea of the Holy Catholic Church."
A fifth reason for believing that Jesus founded the local as assembly is that the local assembly is not only the only kind of an assembly that can exist; it is the only kind to which Jesus could have entrusted the Commission and the ordinances. Christ's chief purpose in forming His church was in order that it might reach the lost with the gospel, and then might build up those saved by teaching and training them in all things He commanded. The functions of a church as outlined by Jesus can only be performed by a local assembly. A universal, invisible Church composed of an unorganized throng of "members of all the churches," is, from the functional point of view, simply inconceivable.
Again, when Christ promised the church, He promised that the "Gates of hades shall not prevail against it." Slight difference of opinion as to the exact meaning of the "gates of hades" does not obscure the fact that Jesus meant that His church would have foes and would encounter opposition. The history of Baptists as they were imprisoned, martyred, driven into the dens and caves of the earth, shows that His church has had to contend with the organized forces of evil. Baptist churches can be and have been persecuted, but a universal, invisible Church cannot be. Men cannot persecute an invisible something. Christ's promise is meaningless if applied to such.
A sixth reason that suggests itself is this: The conception of a universal, invisible Church usurps the place reserved in the New Testament for the Kingdom of God. Those who hold this theory practically identify church and kingdom. This is wholly out of accord with the Scriptures, for they make a very clear distinction between the two, as will be shown in the next chapter.
When I think along the line that I have tried to carry the thought of the reader, and am led to see the lack of any sort of foundation for the theory of an invisible, universal Church, I can heartily join with Dr. J. Lewis Smith in saying:
"Here, then, is the inevitable and irreversible conclusion. This Catholic or Universal Church as well as the Invisible Church idea are things of man's devising, and when we say, I believe in the holy Catholic Church, we are placing a figment of the imagination—a chimera—a misnomer above the real local church idea which Christ Himself used, and one of which churches He built and to which He gave His great Commission and His ordinances, baptism and the Lord's Supper."