The Church Defined and Its Nature

Gresham Machen correctly observed that the validity of any system of thought is best evaluated by pursuing the logic of it relentlessly to its ultimate conclusion.
Machen, Gresham: quoted by J. I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, London, InterVarsity Press, 1958, p.26.


      “The ekklesia was the lawful assembly in a free Greek city of all those possessed of the rights of citizenship, for the transaction of public affairs. That they were summoned is expressed in the latter part of the word (klesis --> kaleo: call); that they were summoned out (ek: out) of the whole population, a select portion of it, including neither the populace, nor strangers, nor yet those who had forfeited their civic rights, is expressed in the first.” Richard C. Trench, Synonyms of the New Testament. The meaning of the word can be found in every Greek lexicon/dictionary. Some provide more details than others. This term is of the Greek secular usage for a group of qualified citizens of a municipality called to assemble for the purpose of transacting some civic duty or business. When the business was concluded the assembly or body, ekklesia, disbanded and no longer continued. No individual member of the ekklesia was legally authorized to conduct any business or affairs apart from the whole. Naturally this secular meaning cannot be anything but a local/visible assembly. When the members of the ekklesia were dismissed they dispersed into the general population of the country. The ekklesia was not the kingdom, but was a portion of the kingdom with the authority to carry out the affairs of the nation, keeping within the limitations of the laws of that nation. The entire citizenry did not legally have this right.

      When B. H. Carroll was asked the question, "Was not ecclesia in the New Testament used in a new, special and sacred sense?" He replied, "The Pedobaptists tried hard and long to make this same argument in the baptismal controversy. Their contention then was that though baptizo meant to dip or immerse in classic Greek, yet in the Bible it was used in a new and sacred sense. The scholarship of the world rebuked them. Words are signs or ideas. To mean anything they must be understood according to the common acceptation in the minds of those addressed. I know of no more dangerous method of interpretation than the assumption that a word must be taken to mean something different from its real meaning. Revelation in that case ceases to be revelation. We are at sea without helm, or compass, or guiding star." He further stated, "Some terms or descriptions commonly applied to the church by writers and speakers are not only extra-scriptural, that is, purely human and post-apostolic, but may be so used as to become either misleading or positively unscriptural." This is sound hermeneutics.


      Today there are three commonly held positions on the nature of the church among “Christian” denominations. Briefly, each of the three fall into one of the following groups: Catholic, Protestant/Reformers (and those who have chosen to align themselves with them), and the Baptists who deny any historical association with Protestants, Reformers or the Catholics.

      The expressions used in defining the church of the New Testament are: Universal (everywhere), Local, Visible, and Invisible. They are always used in pairs. Local and Universal are mutually exclusive and cannot be coupled. Nor can Visible and Invisible be joined. But the term Universal is not as clear as it might seem at first glance. Normally Universal and Local are mutually exclusive but not always. It depends on how the term Universal is used. Three concepts historically have been determined on the term Universal Church. For the Catholics, Universal is applied to the Church meaning “One Single Church” (one denomination containing both saved and lost) incorporating all in a given territory (diocese: which means neighborhood) and it is visible (it assembles). For the Protestants, Universal also means “One Single Church” (non-denominational) existing throughout the world and heaven, but it is invisible (mystical-never assembles). For both of them the Church contains all the saved but with different emphasis on where they are. Then there is the misunderstood ancient usage that is rarely used today. This last type of Universal (Catholic) church was used prominently by Christians in the second and third centuries, and later by the Waldenses and Paulicians, which they took as the Church existing throughout the world in multiple Local Churches (all of one faith and order) which assembles and thus visible. (See endnote on catholic)

Aberrations of the Catholic, Universal philosophy of the Church.

      Two interrelated consequences developed from the Universal proposition of the Church. They were the policies of Persecution and something called Uniformality. These two policies were pursued with ever growing zeal and fervor even to the point of fanatic passion void of any human decency. Theirs was a dedication to the cause of their religion, which led them to many perversions and cruelties. This is the danger when any cause supplants the righteous virtue of the Gospel, even if it is labeled "The Cause of Christ!”

      Uniformity fosters intolerance. The greater the uniformity, the greater the intolerance. All challenges against the prevailing church’s creeds and dogmas are viewed as a threat. Thus came the insatiable drive for uniformity. If universality was ever to be established it had to come by the power of the Princes and Emperors of the State and enforcement through the power of the magistrates. This was the "god of Uniformality" on whose altar all liberty was to be forfeited and sacrifices made of dissidents. The god of unity and conformity was the true god of the State. To be otherwise than that of the official church was treason. Abuse and death was the sentence. It had the aim of putting into repression every man, woman and child.      

“It is an awful historical fact, a fact written in indelible characters with the blood of thousands, that all denominations of Christians, who have enforced the necessity of uniformity in religion by the sword of the magistrate, have been all guilty of the dreadful crime of persecuting the followers of Jesus. Regardless of the divine precept, "Learn of me, for I am meek and lowly of heart," they have imitated the worst spirit ever manifested by the apostles of Christ, when they said, "Lord, shall we command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, as Elias did?" [Luke 9:51] And they have done this as Christians, thinking to do God service; and professedly out of regard to divine authority. When the magistrate has been on the side of any who held this principle, they have found no difficulty in proving the divine right of their form of church government. Thus the Papists pleaded the divine right of Popery, and the universality of the church of Rome.--The English Reformers, who objected to this, soon pleaded for the divine right of Episcopacy, and the universality of the church of England.--Many of the Puritans, who dissented on account of these sentiments, no sooner overthrew Episcopacy, but they pleaded for the divine right of the Presbytery, and the universality of their provincial assemblies [ref. the persecutions of the Massachusetts’s Bay Colony]. And the Independents, who had fled to the wilds of America because they would form churches not subject to external control and influence, were found in their turn pleading the divine right of Independency, and the universality of their authority in the province where their churches existed.” A History of the English Baptists, Joseph Ivimey 1811.

      But never can the accusation of persecution and the denial of religious and secular freedom be laid against the Baptist. Many, with good evidence, believe that the First Amendment of the Constitution of The United States is due to the Baptist. See Baptist Thorough Reformers, 1876, John Quincy Adams, pages 101-103.

      Edward Hutchinson in his 1676, A Treatise concerning the Covenant and Baptism wrote of the Baptists:

"Nor is it less observable, that whereas other reformations have been carried on by the secular arm, and the countenance and allowance of the magistrate, as in Luther’s time by several German princes; the protestant reformation in England by King Edward, Queen Elizabeth, &c.; and the Presbyterian reformation by a parliament, committed of estates, and assembly of divines, besides the favour and assistance of great personages; you (Baptists) have had none of these to take you by the hand; but your progress was against the impetuous current of human opposition, and attended with such external discouragements as bespeak your embracing this despised truth to be an effect of heart-sincerity, void of all mercenary considerations. Yea, how active has the accuser of the brethren been to represent you in such frightful figures, exposing you by that mischievous artifice to popular odium and the lash of the magistracy; insomuch that the name of an Anabaptist was crime enough, which doubtless was a heavy obstacle in the way of many pious souls!"

"Is it to be wondered at, if these absurd notions, so popish and antiscriptural, should have a tendency to encrease the number of Baptists, who had both reason and scripture to plead for their sentiments? But such daring innovators, who presumed to rend the seamless coat of Christ, and refused to worship the idol of uniformity which the reformers had set up, were not to be tolerated in a Christian commonwealth."

      The Churches with apostolic succession certainly desired a degree of agreement and commonality of doctrine, practices, and purpose among themselves. But the principle doctrine of individual freedom and accountability and their refusal to make themselves the judge over others has allowed tolerance in these areas. If the state of affairs developed to such a crises where they could no longer fellowship, they simply withdrew and acknowledged the rights of others to their beliefs without coercion.


Notes on Catholic

Robinson commented on the initial use of the term catholic, "There was among primitive Christians an uniform belief that Jesus was the Christ, and a perfect harmony of affection. When congregations multiplied so that they became too numerous to assemble in one place they parted into separate companies, and so again and again, but there was no schism; on the contrary all held a common union, and a member of one company was a member of all. If any person removed from one place to reside at another, he received a letter of attestation, which was given and taken as proof, and this custom very prudently precluded the intrusion of impostors. In this manner was framed a catholick (sic) or universal church. One company never pretended to inspect the affairs of another, nor was there any dominion or shadow of dominion over the consciences of any individuals. Overt acts were the only objects of censure, and censure was nothing but voting a man out of the community." Ecclesiastical Researches, The Church of Rome, Pg. 123

Tertullian at the time of the rise of the term catholic wrote (approx. 211 A.D.) of the simple association of churches: “communication of peace, the appellation of brotherhood, the token of hospitality, and the tradition of a single creed.” Irenaeus of Lyons (175-185) wrote: "The Church, having received [from the Apostles] this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. She also believes these points [of doctrine] just as if she had but one soul, and one and the same heart, and she proclaims them, and teaches them, and hands them down, with perfect harmony, as if she possessed only one mouth. For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those 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." (Book I: Chapter X.-Unity of the Faith of the Church Throughout the Whole World.)

Catholic was not in the mind of the second and third century churches to be that of a formal Association of Churches. Nor were associations viewed as a necessity. No conformity to specific creeds was imposed on the churches at this time; they abided in unity but not in uniformity and existed independently. Catholic to them meant the church was universal as widespread (churches worldwide); it did not take the meaning of a single universal body composed of all churches until the fourth century. This was due to the influence of Constantine.

Alexis Munston wrote that the catholic (universal) church concept existed from the first century and references this to I Peter and James when they addressed their epistles to Christians dispersed. He says: “It is meant by the Catholic Church the whole body of Christians of that time – Christians who were apostolic. Now the Vaudois [the Waldenses of the Piedmonts], in their most ancient works, written in the Romance tongue, at a date when there existed schismatic sects which have now disappeared, speak of themselves as being in union with the Catholic Church, and condemn those who separate from it, but at the same time the doctrines which they set forth in their works are only those of the primitive Catholic Church (the original catholic concept), and not at all those of later Catholicism. The successive corruptions which gradually constituted it, were everywhere introduced by small degrees, and did not for a long time reach the threshold of their secluded valleys. When they did become known there, the Vaudois boldly stood up against that variety of invented things, which they called a horrible heresy, and unhesitatingly pointed them out as the cause why the Church of Rome had departed from the primitive faith. They no longer gave to popery the name of the Catholic Church, but speak of it as the Roman Church; and then also they openly separated from it, because it was no longer the primitive church, such as theirs had been left to them by their fathers, but a corrupt church, delighting in vain superstition.

Return to Home

Return to Home Page

:: Universal and Visible Church Position :: :: Universal and Invisible Church Position :: :: Local and Visible Church Position :: :: Defense of the New Testament Chruch :: :: Return Home ::

Hosted by SRO Hosting

All Content Copyright © 2004 WFB
All Rights Reserved