If it can be established what the church truly is, and not what we may suppose it to be, this will define the nature of the church. In order to do this certain premises have to be established and this is where we begin.
When examining doctrine, fundamental principles of biblical interpretation must be applied. These principles are premises drawn directly from scripture and sound reasoning. Whatever is set forth as truth must satisfy the following premises: It must (1) be in harmony with and cannot contradict the language, (2) be in harmony with the whole counsel of God’s Word, (3) it must have practical value or worthiness and (4) be realistic to life’s situation.
Is God frivolous?
Has God commanded without rationale? Has He spoken or acted frivolously without reason or meaning? Or do His covenants, commandments and doctrines serve a purpose? All that God has said and done is for the good of creation, man in particular, and for His own glorification. Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 8:3 in His reply to Satan, “It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God,” Matthew 4:4. Again in II Timothy 3:16, 17, Paul stated, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” All His words are profitable and with purpose.
His words are meant to produce blessings and benefits for His creation. Moreover, His words carry warnings against the foolishness of ignoring Him. They are to influence our conduct, attitude, and reasoning. Thus, what He has spoken has significant merit in practical ways. His commandments produce blessings and benefits for mankind if they yield themselves to them.
Consider Psalm 19:7-11, "The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring for ever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb. Moreover by them is thy servant warned: and in keeping of them there is great reward."
All doctrines must possess an inherent value.
Because conflicts exist between the doctrines of man and God, the worthiness of every doctrine needs to be questioned. Doctrines found to be without merit or prove to be harmful are not from God and should be abandoned. Doctrines need to be practical in the sense that they are reasonable, performable and do not propose some abnormality apart from realism. At best the commands and doctrines of men are useless, at worst they destroy what God has given and greatly injure the spirit and soul of men. A major test of the validity of any doctrine is to evaluate its practicality and worthiness. If a doctrine is not practicable or carries with it no value or worth, then it should be viewed with suspicion and skepticism. If it does not reflect reason or purpose, it must be challenged as to why it should be considered at all. Furthermore, all doctrines need to be carried out to their logical conclusions and such conclusions examined for their soundness.
With these premises of doctrinal soundness we test the two prominent doctrines of the nature of the Church.
As a review we consider the two opposing definitions of the church. One is that the church contains all the redeemed. It is still debated whether this means only those alive or both the living and dead. This church is only in the singular (church) and not in the plural (churches). It is called universal on the ground that the church exists everywhere and is not in any one location. It is invisible and mystical in nature. This church is the aggregate of all the saved. This is believed to be the only real or true church. Local churches are not real nor are they true, but are copies or a pretense of the real church and God has not made any such church. A very important feature of this church is that it never congregates, it never conducts any business, and it does nothing at all.
The second interpretation of the church is that it is local in nature, and that there are churches in the plural existing in specific locations. This makes the church visible; it physically assembles. With this view, only the local church is real and true and the universal church does not exist.
The most glaring fault of the invisible church is that it fulfills no useful purpose. Since it never meets and remains invisible it offers nothing of merit or benefit for either the saved or the lost. It preaches nothing, holds no agreed creed of belief, it practices nothing, never baptizes, never partakes of the Lord’s Supper, offers no intimate fellowship, cannot administer discipline or any other services as required in the New Testament church. This doctrine is useless for it accomplishes nothing and has no merit of personal value for the child of God. If it be argued that Christians who are a part of the invisible church perform these acts let it be recalled that by their own definition no individual or assembly constitute a church.
We now test the two church views to see how well they comply with the requirements of the church.
Compliance to assemble.
The command of Hebrews 10: 25 admonishes against forsaking the assembling of ourselves together. The invisible church is contrary to this command since it never assembles. What could possibly be meant in this verse other than assembling in a church? The question is what assembly is meant in Hebrews 10: 25; is it the assembly which man has assembled or that which God has assembled? According to the Universalists this is to assemble in some artificial man-made church which has no divine origin, command, or authority to assemble. Is God requiring that we are to unite with such assemblies, and if so which one of them? Actually, their doctrinal interpretation of the church gives a ready-made excuse for not attending church at all since they are all in the wrong. This is harmful.
Practical or Impractical?
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:19, 20)
Three commands are given to the church in this commission: make disciples, baptize them and teach them. A mystical body can do none of these things. It cannot make disciples (the making of disciples is a step beyond that of being saved), it does not baptize nor does it teach. This commission is an authoritative order, granting to the church authority to act in a capacity to perform this charge. Some may argue that individuals act as agents of the universal invisible church to perform this commission on behalf of the church. The question naturally follows; when and by what authority were they commissioned or appointed as agents of the church? From where did such an authoritative charge of this function come and who granted it? There is no definitive answer for this. Only the local church is able to fulfill this responsibility.
Discipline is the guardian of the church. Without discipline the church is highly susceptible of falling into immorality, misconduct, and divisions of sects and doctrines. Does not this describe the state of the church if it contains all the saved? Are all Christians pure in their morality? Do they all conduct themselves in an orderly fashion, keeping the commands of Christ? Are they unified in their beliefs and fellowship? Or are there divisions of doctrines and sectarianism among them? In truth, Christians are far more apart than they are in agreement in unity or purpose. It may be said that local churches have some of these same problems, but the difference is that the Local church has a prescribed system for dealing with such problems for the sake of its purity.
Consider these verses dealing with the matter and subjects of discipline in the first century.
** Wicked Persons.
I Cor 5: 11 But now I have written unto you 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.
12 For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?
13 But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.
** The Disorderly.
II Thess 3: 6 Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us.
** The Insubordinate.
Matt 18: 17 And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
** The Discordant.
Titus 3: 10 A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject;
Rom. 16: 17 Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
I Cor 1: 10 Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
Discipline maintains the purity of the church. These first century faults of church brethren have never ceased. They still exist among Christians. Churches still need to exercise discipline or become unchaste and carnal. Only the local church is capable of exercising discipline on its members. It is impossible for the universal church to perform this requirement charged to the church.
If it be argued that local churches under the definition of the universal church can exercise discipline then let it be recalled that the local church is a sham church and is not a true church. By their doctrine the local church is only a society of self-gathered people who have instituted their own by-laws to govern their own social order. Thus if a person is disciplined by such a group he can justly challenge the group’s right to discipline him and challenge their authority for such action. This artificial church would have to concede that their authority is self-appointed for their own congregation only. So there would be no binding or releasing in heaven as stated in Matthew 16:19. Thus the sinning person merely finds himself excluded from that particular group and is free to find another imitation church without any sense that he is under discipline from God’s appointed authority. This is makes for a lame and flimsy doctrine of discipline and has no practical value for the child of God. This may be why many churches do not practice discipline at all.
Church discipline has a great practical value for the wayward child of God. By church discipline the lesson is taught that profane conduct is not tolerated and openly disapproved. But the universal church makes no such statement; it gives no benefit for the child of God for their correction, because it cannot claim the sanction of God for their actions. This discipline goes beyond that of mere peer pressure, for it excludes from the company of saints those who are troublesome and disobedient. This makes a powerful statement. Only the local church is able to provide this unique service of edification, the building up and restoration of those in broken fellowship with the Lord.
Worthy or Unworthy Church?
Under this heading the issue of fellowship is cardinal. There exists only a restricted and shallow fellowship within the universal church apart from having a common salvation. The members of the universal church are nearly all unknown to one another. How can they have fellowship with those they know not of, even though they might live next door? In Amos 3:3 the question is asked, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” There were many disciples who walked away from Christ because His sayings were hard. Was there fellowship with those departed disciples and the ones who remained with Christ?
Fellowship spoken of in the church extends far beyond that of simply having the common bond of being saved! The fellowship found in I Corinthians 12:25-27, speaks of an intimate knowledge and tender care within the membership of the Church.
Ephesians 4:16 “From whom the whole body fitly joined together and compacted by that which every joint supplieth, according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love.” The fellowship within the church places every member not in just close proximity but in actual contact. Peter said that the Church is made of living stones fitted and framed together and in unison they are dedicated to the same purpose and commitment. They harmonize together, they watch over one another, they look upon the things of others, and they consider the edification of their brethren as a higher priority than their own goods, welfare and self interests. Not only do they love (agape) but also are friends (philo) of each other. They esteem others better than themselves. This is the fellowship of the New Testament church! Can this possibly exist in a mystical body of Christ that is intangible and not identifiable, even to itself? No, in the matter of fellowship the universal church is of no practical value. Only the Local Church can satisfy this practical need of the Children of God.
The interpretation of the church as universal makes it incapable to perform acts necessary of the church. The universal church cannot perform the actions of giving comfort, fellowship, council or guidance for the child of God. Since this invisible church never assembles, none can attend its service. Where then is the house of God? Just as the Old Testament temple was the visible manifestation of the presence of God among men so it is with the church today.
The basic commands given to the church such as the great commission and church discipline are impractical in the mystical church. The fact that the church is the ground and pillar of the truth is unattainable in a church which is guilty of never teaching or teaching all things. The mystical church offers no stability for the saved since its doctrines and practices are uncertain.
The church was meant to be a provocation to the world. It stands visibly in contradiction of the righteousness of the world and portrays the righteousness of God. It condemns the world by example of holiness and purity. It is seen and very often persecuted by the world which hates it. No individual, unidentified Christian, can provoke such a response. It is the church visible which is attacked.
The True Church
The grievous consequence of the universal church theory.
Putting it all in perspective, the universal invisible church has no worthy value to it. It is a useless doctrine and serves no practical purpose. This version of the church accomplishes nothing good; it does not edify nor bring forth blessings or benefits to anyone. Negatively, this doctrine destroys and tears down the authority and legitimacy of the New Testament church. What God expects of His church, the universal church doctrine has made impossible. This version of the church is not benign; it is counter-productive to the commands and work of the church as seen in the whole counsel of God. This church is not the real or true church; it is an invention of men which negates the duty of submission to the commands of Christ. It presents a false church and stands in contradiction to the real church.
This invisible church theory makes the very concept of the church to be useless and impotent. This doctrine loudly proclaims that all local churches are not of God’s making but only existing through the efforts of man and runs counter to the purposes which Christ intended for His church. It is impossible for the church to be both universal and local or to be invisible and visible; it must be one or the other. For the carnal Christians this theory is very comfortable as it relieves them of the responsibility and accountability to God’s commands. It would be an unusual Christian indeed who would deny the enormous benefits of the local church to the world and the child of God. Yet, they say God did not make a local church and consequently men had to take it upon themselves to establish a local church to secure these wonderful advantages. Did God fail? Did God miscalculate? Did God really not want the companionship, encouragement, and mutual support for His children as found in local churches? Or could it be that the doctrine of the universal church is contrived and groundless? Who has erred, God or the theologians?
The universal church doctrine collapses under the weight of scriptural evidence. God has left us His house as the invited residence of the Disciples of Christ to congregate and assemble and work out His commands. The solitary nature of the church is local and visible; it cannot exist in any other form!