Of the three definitions of the church this is the most ancient. It is clear that the inspired writers and Christ Himself addressed the church as a local, visible assembly. It was not until the second century that the term "Catholic" came into use. This view of the church lived on through the “Dark Ages” and the Reformation period. Those who held this doctrine of the church were commonly called Anabaptists. It was the practice for the dissenters of the Roman Catholic Church to be given pseudonyms characterizing some distinction about them. This could be the name of an outstanding leader, some practice or doctrine they held, their geographic location, or a striking feature of them. These would include the Paulicians, Montanists, Cathari, Donatists, Waldenses, Albigenses, the Welsh, Monrovians, the Manicheans, etc. But there was one name which very often was applied to many of them, and that was Anabaptist. This came from their practice of re-baptizing those who come to them from alien churches. These all saw the church in no other form than that of being localized congregations. (A fundamental distinction exists between the ancient Anabaptists and the Reformation Anabaptists which held the opinion of a Universal Invisible Church.)
The Church as Defined by this Doctrine
This definition of the church excludes any reference to a Catholic or Universal Church interpretation. It is unique in several aspects. By this doctrine there is no single great church, it is the only model of the church. It does not look to a universal church, visible or invisible, to define it. It is the single primary church without any secondary mystical body giving it impetus or a system of belief.
This local visible church of the New Testament exists in the plural, churches. The local visible church view requires no second nature to accommodate the language of the New Testament. Thus only the local church is the Real or True Church. It is not an appendage or an image of the so-called “real” mystical church.
They are further unique in that they do not recognize baptisms by any other denominations. These they refer to as alien baptisms. They also practice “closed” communion, members only of that particular church may partake of the Lord’s Supper. (However at times some did hold to “close” communion, the practice of members of "sister churches" may partake the Lord's Supper of the host church). While not entirely unique with them, they repudiate any form of earthly hierarchy, either internal or external. All members are equal, although higher esteem, but not veneration, is given to elders. Their form of government is purely democratic. They hold that the true and only leadership of the church is the Holy Spirit as He moves the body of the church.
They are unique in that they abhor the idea of any religious union with civil authority. They have historically held to the proposition of liberty for all to learn of the Bible and freedom to interpret for themselves without coercion or threat. They have never persecuted or victimized others, even their enemies. They leave all judgment to God in these matters.
Perhaps the greatest distinction of this doctrine of the church is that only God founded it. No man, no group of men, no earthly organization instituted or built the church of the Living God. It began during the days of the earthly ministry of Christ and has never ceased to exist. All those who have come afterward are not the church of the New Testament.
What does the New Testament require of the Nature of the Church?
Each of the proponents of the three views of the church insists that their definition of the nature of the church represents the True and Real Church. They all conflict; there can only be one which correctly portrays the true and real nature of the church. Those who make a dichotomy (a division of the whole) of the church still maintain only one True and Real Church. These are those who believe in the universal invisible church. For them to resort to two natures of the church (invisible and visible) is not honest to their position. If a visible assembly is not the true church of Christ, then it is no church at all. It cannot be both! There is only one nature of the church. So what does scripture have to say?
I Corinthian Chapter 12:25, 26 - Fellowship
These two verses give very specific instruction as to how members of the church are to treat one another. If one member suffers all suffer with it, or one member rejoices all members rejoice with it. The purpose is clear: so that there should be no schism in the body. This cannot possibly happen unless the church is a local assembly. If the church’s membership is all the saved (a universal church) there is no possible way for this to take place. Many, if not most, saved people do not belong to any church. The only model of the church, which is able to accommodate these instructions, is the local church.
I Corinthian Chapter 5 - Discipline
In this chapter Paul gives the details of excluding a member from the church. In this instance the grounds of exclusion is that of immoral behavior. Paul makes it clear that the Corinthian Church is “not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.” The eating is with regard to partaking of the Lord’s Supper. Some object to this interpretation and say it means not to eat common meals with them. Consider, if they could not dine with them in common meals how could they possibly dine with them at the Lord’s Table? The fact of the matter is that if any member is refused the Lord’s Supper by a church they are no longer a part of that church. Exclusion can only be done by a local church. No mystical church has ever excluded any member. Exclusion of course is church discipline to maintain the purity of the church.
I Tim. 3: 15 - Beliefs
"But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
Contrary to the King James the definite article is not used before “house,” or “church.” However, it is used before “truth.” A better reading of this verse would be: “… that you may learn how you ought to behave yourself in a house of God, which is an assembly [ekklesia] of Living God, ground and pillar of the truth.”
The admonishment for Timothy is for him to know how he is to conduct himself in church. The context makes clear that Paul is not saying how Timothy is to live his life as a Christian in a universal, invisible church.
Three things are detailed about the church: It is the house of God, the church of the Living God, and the depository of the truth.
This church (ekklesia) is the pillar and ground of "the truth" and not "a truth." No mystical invisible church is the ground and pillar of truth. When “the truth” is specified it is definite, and all-encompassing. It is contained in the congregations of God, and not in the hands of all, some, or a few saved people disassociated with one another. There are very few doctrines with which all the saved are agreed; in reality they mostly oppose one another in their beliefs. Jesus told his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come upon the church and lead it into all truth. He did not promise this to every saved person, only to that specific body assembled in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost. It is the local assemblies of God, which have the unique indwelling of the Holy Spirit making them the ground of the truth.
Think on this: If the “real” church consists of all the saved and it only is the pillar and ground of the truth, what is the truth of such a church? What are the doctrines, the teachings, the practices, the discipline, the ordinances, the government, and offices of that church? Would these things be made to accommodate every belief held by the individuals of that church, or some of their beliefs, or none of their beliefs? Any universal church is by necessity a church of universal doctrines. In the case of the Protestants there is no unity of faith in this. This is not the pillar and ground of The Truth! It is chaos.
This verse requires the nature of the church to be local and visible!
Revelation Chapters 1-3 Churches in Jeopardy
The book of Revelation was written to seven churches of Asia and not addressed to a single “The Church,” which is in seven locations. They are called seven candlesticks, plural, and Christ walks among these churches. These are local multiple bodies of Christ, and they are real and true. Seven times there is an admonition to “Hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches,” not what the Spirit says to the church, which is what we would expect if the church were only in the Single Universal Church.
The church in Ephesus was a church in crisis and the message to them was "Repent or else." The “or else” was that they would lose their candlestick and no longer have the illuminating light of God. They would cease to be a church of the living God, the ground and pillar of the truth. (The church in Laodicea was also in jeopardy.)
What was wrong with the Ephesian church? Jesus commended them for their works and patience. They labored for His name’s sake, but He called them a fallen church. He had this against them: they had left their first love. Regardless of what their first love may have been, the accusation against them is so serious that they were in great jeopardy as a church. They were given the warning, and now it was up to them to hear and heed, for if they would not repent, and would not hear Jesus, what else was to be done to such a body but to cut them off. This was insubordination in the house of God. Lose their salvation? Certainly not. Cast them out of the universal church containing all the saved? Not unless you believe in maintaining salvation by works. It matters not how many saved people are in this church, but rather that as a body they need to be in compliance with the will of God.
This demonstrates a required qualification for a congregation to be His church. Throughout history many churches have come and gone. None of the original New Testament churches are in existence today. Some churches have been persecuted to death, and others have fallen by their own hands by not committing themselves to preserve the great privilege in which they were called.
This episode of the Ephesians requires the nature of the church to be local and visible!
Distinctions of this Doctrine
As previously stated, this position of the local-visible church is believed to be the original and only view of the New Testament church as put forth personally by Jesus Christ. The New Testament bears out the testimony that there is indeed a real and true church. Except when it is spoken of in the generic (singular) it is always found to be visible, and in specific locations.* This is the church which Jesus founded. It began when He began to call out unto Himself disciples to follow Him and unite with Him. He called men, assembled them, and gave them a commission of work to be done. He gave His authority to carry out His commands and ordinances. He placed in His church the offices of pastor and deacon. All of this was divinely appointed. This church, these local bodies of Christ have their origin with Christ.
* Norman Geisler in his Systematic Theology vol. 4 pg. 65, wrote: “Of the 115 New Testament references to church or churches, nearly one hundred of them refer to the visible church(es).” Even if his assertion is correct he gives a percentage of over 86% for the local church above the universal church. He makes the universal church the work of Christ and the local church the work of the apostles (men).
The Apostolic Church gives no evidence as being mystical or securely kept intact by any individual person or a dominating supreme church.
This doctrine of the church as local, visible is the only one, which precisely answers to all instances of the church in the New Testament. It requires nothing to be added to it or adjusted to accommodate what the Holy Spirit has said about it or its functional operations. This was the view of the church from Christ, the apostles, and those who were a part of it. The context, syntax, vocabulary, and figures used all speak of the church as a local, visible assembly, a congregation of disciples.
We have made much of the Greek term ekklesia. The word means a called out body, which assembles for some specific purpose. Any body, which assembles, is visible! The “Catholic,” universal invisible body never assembles. The protestant universal church says it is called out but goes no further in its constitution. The Roman Catholic Church claims that it assembles, but in no way can it justify that it is called out since it embraces all it can amass. Only the local visible church doctrine is consistent with the inspired language of the Holy Spirit. Most assuredly God could have chosen a word other than ekklesia if He did not intend this definition of the church. He could have used synagogue or simple assembly but He did not. Why? By observation we come to understand He built something new and very different, which was based upon highly qualified requirements to be apart of it, He wanted only disciples.
Nowhere in the New Testament is the word ekklesia used to represent an invisible organization. If for no other reason this is true because of the very meaning of the word. In those cases where ekklesia is in the singular with the definite article it is still not forced to be universal. When “The Church” is present some call this a generic term usage. If this generic explanation seems somewhat vague or arbitrary there is a better clarification, which is sustained by good hermeneutics. It is the figure of speech called a synecdoche, which is the substitution of a part for the whole or the whole for the part. (John 12: 19 The Pharisees therefore said among themselves, Perceive ye how ye prevail nothing? behold, the world is gone after him.) In this case it is the single part (of the church) standing in place for the whole (all churches). The inflexible rush to the conclusion that “The church” is now an entirely new concept for ekklesia is uncalled for and is forced upon the language.
Where is The Church? On Earth (visible), in Heaven (invisible), or Both (universal)?
Never is it suggested by scripture that the church or any part of it is in Heaven. The burden of proof of this is upon those who make the claim. They offer no such proof, it is all opinion based on what they prefer the church to be and not what it truly is. Certainly members of His church die and are in the presence of the Lord, but their labor is over. The church continues here, on earth, passing from one generation to another. The dead do not take the church to heaven. The Great Commission is not carried out in heaven but among the living. Some use the term “Church Triumphant” for the church in Heaven, and “Church Suffering” (or as the Roman Catholics have it, “Church Militant”) for the church here on earth. These terms are nowhere to be found in the language of the Holy Spirit but are creature-originated.
To say that the True Church does not exist on earth, but only in some mystical spiritual realm, is to negate the words of Jesus and the inspired writers.
Christ made it clear that the church is built on Him and that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it (Matt 16:18). What He made was on earth.
His Great Commission was given to an earthly church.
We ask also what did Jesus mean in Matt. 18:17, when He said “tell it to the church,” and “hear the church” if there was no church physically present with them?
If the nature of the church is all the saved (universal) why then were the Jews shocked when God made it clear to them that He added Gentiles to it? It just will not do to say that the Jews believed that Gentiles could not or were not ever saved. The largest revival in the Bible took place with Gentiles. Jonah preached to the enormous city of Nineveh and all, from King to peasant, repented and were saved. Jesus found great faith among Gentiles such as the Roman centurion. Salvation is not of the Mosaic Covenant nor of the Church Covenant, it is with the Adamic Covenant. Salvation is not within the church.
Rev. 1:4, 11, 20. Jesus specifically addressed seven churches located in Asia. Seven times Christ warns, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.” Again in Rev. 22:16, “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches.”
It has already been brought out that the church is the ground and pillar of the truth. If the church is not on earth as visible and local then the sure footing of the truth is lost. No man, pastor, pope, academy, councils or otherwise, is the ground and pillar of the truth.
And, lastly the words of Paul, II Thess. 1:4, “So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God.”
On the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit did not come on all the saved on earth. He came to those to whom He was specifically promised, Christ’s Church (already in existence), John 16:13. This Comforter, this Spirit of Truth, came upon that small group called to assemble in Jerusalem. It was this group and those later added to them, which were guided in all truth and were taught by the Holy Spirit.
If the Real True Church is invisible then any visible church must be false or a sham, and guilty of usurping that which does not pertain to it. This is a slanderous charge against the local church.
Assertions and Conclusions Drawn from the Local Visible Church Doctrine
Those who oppose the local church as being the Real Church boldly insist that the church of the New Testament is not a denomination. They assert that the first century church was a non-denominational gathering of believers. Chafer in his opposition against denominationalism stated that sectarianism is a sin. This sin is the sin of dividing the Body of Christ.* Many consider the local Apostolic Churches as a happenstance meeting of saved people who formed themselves into groups having only salvation as their common ground of unity. J. Vernon Mcgee stated that the only denomination God ever made was Israel of the Old Testament.
*Novatian in the fourth century was condemned on this same charge when he separated from Catholic Church of Rome over the issue of impurity.
Is this true? Does this accurately portray the local churches of the New Testament? We test this claim by first understanding what a denomination really is.
Webster’s definition of denomination: “A class, or society of individuals, called by the same name; a sect; as a denomination of Christians.” Other definitions of “denomination” also include: “a group of religious congregations having its own organization and a distinctive faith:” “a name or designation given to a class, group, or type:” “a large group of religious congregations united under a common faith and name and organized under a single administrative and legal hierarchy.”
The churches of the New Testament were a class and society of individuals called “Christians.” They were a religious group of congregations having their own organization and distinctive faith, and beliefs. They were a group of independent autonomous congregations united by bonds of love, doctrine, mutual interests, and support. They were all organized under the single administration of Jesus Christ, and its hierarchy is the Holy Spirit. The New Testament church of Jesus Christ is precisely a denomination.
This is the church, which Jesus divinely established. It assembled, functioned, was persecuted and did no harm to any man. The love of good for one another and their fellow man set them apart from all other societies.
To this local church was given the commands and commission of God. The ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were placed in it. Gifts and special offices were placed in it. It had organization; it judged, practiced discipline, ordained men, sent missionaries, and had been given a charter of purpose by God. It had the leadership of the Holy Spirit; it had a divine message, the gospel, it had a specific faith. Within this church were the disciples of Christ, disciples like no others before them. These were men and women totally committed to Christ in their love, devotion and obedience. This is the True and Real Church.
Why then with all this evidence do men refute the idea that the true church is a denomination? The reasoning behind this is that a denomination makes it exclusive, restrictive and is disharmonious to the unity of Christianity. This is precisely correct. The very idea that the apostolic church is a denomination is criticized as being bigoted and narrow-minded. Those who hold this position are considered as unloving and unchristian, for they refuse the Lord’s Supper to those apart from the membership of that local church. They refuse to acknowledge any baptisms as “scriptural,” other than of their own denomination. They believe their faith to be the correct one.
For the church to be truly non-denominational and be universal it cannot be dogmatic. If the church is not allowed to be divisive then it cannot have any doctrines which would disrupt the unity of fellowship with all the saved. The fact is that there are very few beliefs on which all the saved can agree. The most basic and essential doctrine of salvation is not agreed upon, for some believe in baptismal regeneration others believe that faith does not save but salvation is in church sacraments. Not even the issue of morality and sin can be defined. The alternative is that the Church must, by necessity of the universalist view, contain every doctrine, which every saved person believes, no matter how outlandish they may be. The Universalists say the members of this imperceptible church are entirely agreed on all the weightier matters of religion. What are the weightier matters of religion? Who comes forth to tell us what the agreement is? This is chaos. Is this what Jesus intended?
The Church is THE ground and pillar of THE truth. It has only one system of beliefs. It does not shape itself to accommodate the beliefs of men or "political correctness" of the day. Men must be conformed to the truth of God. But, if truth is not found in the church which Jesus built then it cannot be found at all. The Gospel of Christ is in His church, it is the truth.