Introduction to the Doctrine.
This is a doctrine recently developed by the Reformers and Protestants. Many today who choose to be of the Protestants hold this same view. Chafer in his Systematic Theology states, “the invisible concept of the church is a Reformation doctrine newly arrived at by them.” When the first reformers made their break from the Catholic Church they carried with them their love and devotion to State-Church union. They failed to shake off the old way of viewing the church and held it to be Catholic, which is Universal.
The Necessity of Two Churches.
The second generation of reformers, disgusted by the establishment of more cruel "Catholic" churches, broke away and felt they had to redefine the church. This they did with a Universal Invisible Church design. They made this church to contain all the redeemed of God. However, who exactly are all the redeemed is in dispute. Some say all saints from Adam and others only those of the New Testament era beginning at the Day of Pentecost. A few go to the extreme of including the children/infants of “those who profess the true religion.”
But that concept alone fails in the examination of New Testament scripture. Thus they were forced to concede the addition of a second definition or form of the church. This is their variance with the Catholics. They assert that the REAL church is the universal, single, invisible Church. The phenomenon of local visible churches is simply a visible manifestation of the invisible. That is, local churches are a microcosm of the whole. Some identify local churches as a type of the real, but are not the real church. The Universal Invisible Church doctrine is always coupled to a second church, local visible. Hence, there are two churches.
Further, they maintain that the church is never spoken of in the New Testament in the intuitional, denominational, sense. By their theory it is taught that the true church can and has expressed itself in many bodies, but no one can claim to be exclusively the church, not even in the apostolic New Testament. However, the Protestants are split on this issue in practice for many denominations claim that they are the true church even while teaching the true church is Universal Invisible.
There is a consistency among many of their theologians when defining the church. They emphatically state that the Universal Invisible Church is the TRUE Church, or REAL Church. Many keep to the pattern of capitalizing church, when speaking of "The Church" (single) and using lower case for churches (plural). It is their way of glorifying the one and slighting the other. Some, however, believe that the local church is as valid as the universal church and there is just one church, which is found in two aspects. With this view they assert that both churches began with, what they call, the baptism by the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2 and I Cor. 12:13).
Another phenomenon is their dealing with the Greek word ekklesia. Ekklesia is the exclusive word used in the New Testament translated into English as “church.” And while they make much of the “being called out” they persistently evade the “assembling.” The image is that of people being called out and wandering in a fog. Since there is no real earthly church there is nothing for them to acceptably attach themselves.
When did this doctrine of the church begin?
The first concrete evidence of this doctrine of the Universal Invisible Church is found in the writings of John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion (year 1535: book four, chapter 1, article 7). In the same article Calvin also makes clear that there is a second church, visible before man.
“The judgment which ought to be formed concerning the visible Church which comes under our observation, must, I think, be sufficiently clear from what has been said. I have observed that the Scriptures speak of the Church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God…. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world. Hence, as it is necessary to believe the invisible Church…..”
There are other statements of faith made prior to Calvin, which infer a belief in the Universal Invisible Church, but these are vague and ambiguous. However, even these occur after the advent of Luther and the Reformation of 1517.
The Anabaptists, Paulicians, and the Waldenses in their principles of beliefs before the reformation show that they knew only the local visible church. When we say Anabaptists it is meant those existing prior to the sixteenth century.
What prompted this new church definition?
Since this doctrine is a product of the Reformation, we ask the question, “Why?” What caused this church position to come about? Prior to the reformers only two views existed, that of the Catholic Church (Universal Visible) and their rival churches (Local Visible). Something in the reformation prompted this new doctrine. Something made it essential that a new view of the church had to be defined. A necessity gave birth to the doctrine. In order to understand this we must briefly examine the Reformation.
Four doctrines of the early reformers held consistent with that of the Catholic Church. They were the State-Church atrocity, mass, baptism of infants, and baptismal regeneration. Both of the powerhouses of the reformation, Luther and Zwingli, initially came preaching Sola Scriptura “Scripture only,” and freedom of religious conscience. But that preaching rapidly and radically changed when civil authority and power was offered to them. When they accepted the union of their “Church” with the State it corrupted them to such a degree that they became every bit as tyrannical as the Romans.
When freedom-loving men heard the initial declarations of Luther and Zwingli for the emancipation of man many flocked to them. The Anabaptists, Waldenses, Brethren and others gave them their welcomed support. Even Catholics disgusted with the horrors of their own Church looked to them to champion human rights. However, when these two armed with the sword of secular authority bloodied it on the innocent; many of them became disillusioned and rebelled against them.
The Wedge of Intuitional Salvation and Infant Baptism.
Just as Rome had done they declared that salvation lay only within their church and its sacraments. To justify this and enforce it they had to keep the Universal Visible Church doctrine. Salvation was only in the State-Church.
The next evil was that of baptismal regeneration. Only those who have the authority to baptize could administer baptism. That authority could only come from the “Church” (which ever of the three happened to be speaking at the time).
The practice of baptizing infants began with the Roman Catholic Church. Their reasoning is reported to be that since baptism saves then it would be wrong to deny baptism, salvation, to infants. Thus we are expected to believe that out of the goodness of their hearts and compassionate motives they insist, nay demand, even to the point of brutal coercion that they baptize all babies. This is all a smoke screen. It is not the eternal soul of that infant which concerns them; it is about initiating that person into their ranks. To illustrate this point these baptisms are called christenings. Christenings are literally the “Christ-ing” of a person, bringing them into Christ, making them to be “Christian.” Which to the Catholic Church it is quite clear that they are adding them to their church. They are christening them to be Catholics, or Lutherans, or whatever. In a Statement on the “Effects of Baptism” the Catholic Encyclopedia reads: “This sacrament is the door of the Church of Christ [The Roman Catholic Church].” Pius IX., in a letter, August 7, 1873, to William King of Prussia, he claimed that everyone who had been baptized belonged in some way or other to the pope. (Armitage XIL.)
This same doctrinal scheme of infant baptism was the methodology of the Reformers.
There is no mistaking this fact of baptismal-admission. We ask, why did the dissenters of the Catholic Church refuse, even on the pain of a cruel death, to have their children baptized by the Catholics, and later the Reformers? They knew full well this baptism meant nothing, that it was ineffectual for any kind of grace of God. Was it just on the principle of the thing that they refuse their demands? No! It was for much more. They all, Catholics, Reformers, and dissenters knew what was at stake: that to be baptized at their hands would place them in their church, forever under their control. Infant baptism is the act of domination. If this is doubted, ask any Cathoic Priest if any Roman Catholic can entirely relinquish their Catholic Church membership?
Because of their brutality, cruel tortures, confiscation of property, banishment, murdering, and abuse against innocent men, women and children, the people revolted against them. They abhorred what they were witnessing. This led to the Second Generation of Reformation. Before this rebellion Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin only had their struggle against the Catholics, now they faced new opponents of their own making. They were not about to renounce their State-Church nor their doctrine of Universal Visible Church, which fabricated them as the one and only true Church. They were stuck with what they had created and their domination over men was being challenged, and little by little it was all slipping away. They were in a quandary.
When John Calvin came upon the scene with his reformation he experienced the same problem of Luther and Zwingli over the church issue. Calvin apparently picked up where Zwingli left off in Switzerland. He assumed the reigns of the State-Church institution with his radical ideas. But he quickly found, as Luther and Zwingli did, that the people, both Christian and secular, were dissatisfied with the “Church-State,” and especially their vicious persecutions. He saw the rebellion and exodus from Luther by those who were becoming the Second Generation of Reformers. At the core of the erosion was the Universal Church doctrine. Calvin and the others could not admit that they were not the “true” church, or that Local Churches are the true, for to do so would raise the question, “Why then are you the exclusive State-Church?” So Calvin, a brilliant man in his own right, put forth another definition of the church. It did not replace the first but was in conjunction with it. That new doctrine was that the church in one sense is Universal Invisible.
To placate the dissidents he formulated the Universal Invisible Church doctrine. After all, Calvin could reason, since we are all in the true invisible Church before God, why should we have division among ourselves here on earth? The emphasis is on unity and peace within the church. Naturally, that meant unity with him. When unity is paramount doctrine is cast aside. This new policy still limited the church to the single entity on earth, it still held in force the concept of State-Church. It gave the sense of broadmindedness, toleration, and a false feeling of softening the hard lines. It seemed a perfect solution, which changed nothing.
John Knox, a disciple of Calvin, carried this doctrine to Scotland and had it incorporated into the Scottish Confession of Faith. Chapter 16: Of The Kirk. "….which kirk [church] is Catholic that is, universal because it contains the elect of all ages This kirk is invisible, known only to God, who alone knows whom he has chosen, and comprehends as well (as said is) the elect that are departed (commonly called the kirk triumphant), as those that yet live and fight against sin and Satan as shall live hereafter." Here is a portion of their statement on baptism: “We confess and acknowledge that baptism appertains as well to the infants of the faithful, as unto those that be of age and discretion. And so we damn the error of the Anabaptists, who deny baptism to appertain to children before that they have faith and understanding.” (Chapter 23: To Whom the Sacraments Appertain) [Emphasis mine]
Sustaining this Doctrine
The Scriptural Proof?
Thiessen only gives two verses for his claim of Universal sense of the church, I Peter 1:3, 22-25; and I Cor. 12:13. His I Peter scriptures reveal nothing of the nature of the church, but concerns salvation. His second reference, (I Cor. 12:13) is predicated on the mistranslation of the verse in the Authorized King James Version. This is discussed in greater in the article "Church Origin / Pentecost or Before?" But for now, the second word “by” is incorrect, the word is “in” thus making it read “For in one spirit . . . ” The assumption of “spirit” meaning the Holy Spirit is not required in either place of this verse. To make it mean so shows presumption.
Schofield also uses 1 Cor. 12:13 as the text proof.
Broadbent gives John 3:16 as justification of this position.
Calvin, who began it all, and many others give no scripture, but use sophistry for their conclusions.
John Knox refers to Eph. 2:19; 4:5; 2 Tim. 2:19; John 13:18.
Ephesians 2:19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God;
Ephesians 4:5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism,
2 Timothy 2:19 Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.
John 13:18 I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me.
The Easton Bible Dictionary gives these verses to support the Universal Invisible Church under Point 2 of what is the sense of Church in the New Testament: “It denotes the whole body of the redeemed, all those whom the Father has given to Christ, the invisible catholic church (Eph 5: 23, 25, 27, 29; Heb 12: 23).”
Ephesians 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
25 Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it;
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.
29 For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church:
Hebrews 12:23 To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
If one chooses to interpret these verses as speaking of an invisible catholic church he is at liberty to do so, but these verses do NOT establish nor prove that fact (see section on Metaphors). To say that they do is inconsistent with the context of the subject. In fact these verses speak either of salvation or the church generically. They contain no evidence to indicate all the saved are in the church.
Scripture cannot sustain the justification for the Universal Invisible Church. The concept simply does not exist. It is readily apparent that there are times when the church is spoken of in its generic sense, such as when Paul confessed that he persecuted the church. The generic usage has the single noun church standing in place of churches, plural. Technically, this is a figure of speech called A synecdoche, which is the substitution of a part of something for the whole of the whole for the part.
Assertions and Conclusions Drawn from the Universal Invisible Church Doctrine
Since the believers of the Universal Invisible Church considered the church in two senses, Universal and Local, it is relevant to give the following sampling of their teachings related to these two churches. To be fair it must be said that not all Universalists believe or teach all of these points.
Universal Invisible Church assertions.
The Church is not a denomination.
The Universal Church advocates state that it is the only church which is truly apostolic. It is built on the foundation laid by the Apostles, and holds the doctrines which they preached. The two grand objects at which its members aim are apostolic faith and apostolic practice. This is the only True and Real Church! This is the church, which does the work of Christ upon earth. This church will continue through all ages to the end of the world. It can never be destroyed. It is an "everlasting kingdom." This is the only church, which is certain to endure unto the end.
- Chafer: It is peculiarly advantageous for the student to become clear in his mind on this fact that the true church is not to be confused with any membership of earth.
- Sectarianism is sin.
- No visible church (denomination) on earth can claim to be the True church.
- The church is not confined to any particular country or outward organization.
- The church existence does not depend on forms, ceremonies, or doctrines.
The Church is a pure society.
- This is the only church, which possesses true sanctity. Its members are all holy.
- It contains only the regenerated of Christ
- This is in contrast with any visible earthly church, which contains a mixture of “Tares and Wheat.”
They are not merely holy by profession, holy in name, and holy in the judgment of charity; they are all holy in act, and deed, and reality, and life, and truth. They are all more or less conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. No unholy man belongs to this church.
The Church has perfect unity.
- There are no division or schisms within it.
- It contains no sectarianism.
- Its members are entirely agreed on all the weightier matters of religion.
- Its members are all taught by one Spirit.
The Manner and Date of the Founding.
- The universal or true church is not the product of man’s efforts.
- It was not “organized,” but “born.” That is, the new birth is the first condition in the founding of this church.
- The second is the baptisms of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). Dispensationally this baptism occurred on the day of Pentecost.
The Membership of the Church.
- The new birth places one in the church, both the Universal and Local.
- In the Apostolic period (first century) the church contained all the saved (regenerated).
- The New Testament knows of no member of the church who is unregenerated, so also it knows of no regenerated person who is not a member of a local church.
This is the Church to which the Scriptural titles of present honor and privilege, and the promises of future glory, especially belong.
- This is the body of Christ.
- This is the flock of Christ.
- This is the household of faith and the family of God.
- This is God's building, God's foundation, and the temple of the Holy Ghost.
- This is the church of the first-born, whose names are written in heaven.
Samples of assertions made by them of the Local Visible Church.
The local church is simply a gathering.
- A local church is constituted when any group of believers in one locality assembles.
- The local church is a self-developing body; the Great Commission was for the church to build herself up.
Thiessen wrote (pg.414), “The local church sprang up in a most simple way. At first there was no organization, but merely a simple bond of love, fellowship, and cooperation. Gradually, however the earlier loose arrangement was superseded by a close organization. Man was active in organizing the local church, though the new life in Christ Jesus and the new relationship between people who believed in Christ, no doubt, gave impetus to the idea.”
“We prefer to speak of the organization of churches, rather than of the church. It is not possible to prove that the relation between the local churches was more than a loose one in apostolic times, and it is doubtful whether the Scriptures contemplate rigid denominational organizations.” Thiessen.
- Christ is taken out of the local church as its founder.
- It is not a divine institution, but a congregation of saints organized by their own volition.
P. T. Forsyth used a metaphor saying that the local church is the outcropping of the church composed of all true believers.
The local church is a fellowship in which all within become brothers or sisters.
The ekklesia exists from Pentecost to the final coming (parousia). The ekklesia is bounded--it has a beginning and an end. The ekklesia is limited.
The local church did such things as decide policy, as in the matter of circumcision. But it had no fixed creeds, no liturgy, no permanent pastors, and no New Testament in concrete form. It was a combination of unity and diversity in the matter of its beliefs.
This church was never conceived as an institution. In the local church beliefs were birthed. There will always be an institutionalizing, but the organization must stay at the service of the event which birthed it.
Moltmann, has said, "There is only a church if and as long as Jesus of Nazareth is believed and acknowledged to be the Christ of God."
All of these claims and assertions will be addressed and examined for validity in the next and following chapters. However, at least in some degree, the errors on the abovementioned should be obvious.
Why do so many insist on this Doctrine?
If it is admitted that the church is only local and visible and these churches constitute the “Real,” and “True” church, then there is a limitation, a restriction on who are in them. The implications of such a definition become unthinkable to them. It would mean that they are excluded from being in the Bride of Christ, that they are not the Ground and Pillar of the Truth, that they are not the “Church of the Living God,” the house of God. It would mean that they have no authority to administer baptism or the Lord’s Supper, that the Great Commission is not given to them, and thus are not able to make disciples, baptize, or teach men to observe all which Christ has commanded. Nor are they the body of Christ. Nor can they lay claim to the promises of Christ to the overcomers in His churches as mentioned in the Revelation message to the seven churches of Asia.
Moreover, if it is admitted that the church is local and visible then the statement of Jesus in Matt. 16:18 “…. the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is the testimony of Jesus Christ Himself that what He built has continuity to this very day; it never ceased to exist.
The alternative to their view is not acceptable to them! This concession would make them wrong and take away their legitimacy. Why? Because they are Protestants. They know they have neither any heritage to claim nor any doctrinal claim to be of the churches of the New Testament. They are not about to "unchurch" themselves!
All of the men who founded their new churches had opportunity to embrace the Church, which Jesus built, but they did not. They preferred their own doctrinal systems of beliefs. The cry was raised to re-establish the apostolic church, but it was right in their midst and they rejected it. This same opportunity is still available, but they deny even the existence of that one and only True Church, which Christ built.