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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15
There has been a confusion amongst Bible believers that has lasted for hundreds of years. Many have been deceived for so long, they will not even hear what the Word of God really says. There are others who are not even aware of what their "so-called" churches are standing on. I am speaking about the "universal, invisible church" theory.
The word "church" occurs 77 times in the singular form, and 37 times in the plural form in the Bible. All these verses are found in the New Testament. Therefore it is one of the ten New Testament mysteries. "A mystery is defined as truth withheld from the Old Testament but revealed in the New Testament." (Landmarks of Bible Prophecy, page 54). "This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church." (Ephesians 5:32).
Although it is a mystery, it doesn't mean that it needs to be mystical. And what would be more mystical than a "universal, invisible" church? The church was a mystery for the Old Testament saints because it had not been revealed to them yet. But it was revealed to the New Testament saints. Jesus said that He would build His church, and that He would preserve it. Nothing would prevail against it, not even the gates of hell!
The meaning of the word "church" (Ekklesia) is "a lawful, organized assembly". Strong's Concordance defines it as "a calling out, a popular meeting, assembly." The very definition of the word "church" proves that it is a local church, and not an "invisible, universal" church. An assembly must be local, visible, organized, and constituted. None of these attributes could describe the "universal, invisible" church.
The first occurrence of the word "church" is found in Matthew. "And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18). As we have learned in Bible Institute, one of the general rules of Bible interpretation is the "Law of First Mention". The first place a subject is mentioned in the Bible usually gives us the key to its meaning.
If this is going to be our key verse, let's look at its context. Starting at verse 15: "He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." Who is speaking? Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God. Who is He speaking to?
First he speaks to his disciples, then he turns to Simon Peter. When is this conversation taking place? He says in verse 18 that He will build his church. When did He actually build his church? For the ones who are confused and think that the church started at Pentecost: two chapters later, the church is already in existence. "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 a heathen man and a publican." (Matthew 18:17). Jesus was building His church at that very moment (Matthew 16:18). He had already called His disciples back in chapter 10 of Matthew, and He was giving his instructions on how to conduct the church.
Some seem to confuse who the rock is. "Peter" (Petros) is a piece of rock, while "rock" (Petra) is a mass of rock (Strong's Concordance). Some assume that Peter is the rock on which Jesus built is church, but 1 Corinthians 3:11 takes care of that. "For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ." From other Scriptures it is obvious that the "rock" is Jesus Christ. "And did all drink the same spiritual drink: for they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them: and that Rock was Christ." (1 Corinthians 10:4). Here is a list of verses that will show who the rock is without a doubt. Deuteuronomy 32:4, 15, 18; 1 Samuel 2:2; 2 Samuel 22:2, 3, 32, 47, 23:3; Psalm 18:2, 31, 28:1, 31:3, 42:9; 62:2, 6, 7, 71:3, 78:35, 89:26, 92:15, 94:22, and Romans 9:33.
"Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 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 a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:15-20).
This portion of Scriptures deals with problems in the church, and the proper way of dealing with them. The last resort is church discipline. And again, we see the authority of the church given by Jesus Christ. This portion of Scriptures could not possibly be speaking about an "invisible, universal" church. How could you practice church discipline if it is invisible? Nonsense!
"Then Peter said unto them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. And with many other words did he testify and exhort, saying, Save yourselves from this untoward generation. Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added unto them about three thousand souls. And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers. And fear came upon every soul: and many wonders and signs were done by the apostles. And all that believed were together, and had all things common. And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved." (Acts 2:38-47).
Here, Peter is preaching to the church. They had received the power of the Holy Ghost Jesus had promised in Acts 1:4 and 5. This was the greatest revival ever. Notice that they were all of one accord. Thousands of souls were getting saved, baptized, and added to the church. Once more, how can you add to something that is not yet existent?
Let's look at the four characteristics of the local church or "assembly". An assembly must be local. Here is Webster's definition for "assemble": "To collect a number of individuals or particulars into one place, or body; to bring or call together; to convene; to congregate." A church must come together into one place. Hebrews 10:25 says "Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching." We are instructed in the Word of God to come together in one place.
If the church is universal, how are we supposed to do that? In almost all the verses where the word "church" or "churches" appear, it speaks of a specific place or locality. For example the church at Jerusalem was a local church. "... And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles." (Acts 8:1) So was the church at Cenchrea and at Corinth. "I commend unto you Phebe our sister, which is a servant of the church which is at Cenchrea:" (Romans 16:1). "Unto the church of God which is at Corinth,..." (1 Corinthians 1:2). You can also look up these following verses: 1 Corinthians 14:23, 16:19, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Colossians 4:15, 16, 1 Thessalonians 1:1, 2 Thessalonians 1:1, Philemon 1:2, 1 Peter 5:13, Rev. 2:1, 8, 12, 18, 3:1, 7 and 14.
The Universalists like to use Ephesians 5:23 to prove that the church is not local. "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." They say that it can only mean one "universal" church because there can only be one head. But what about the rest of the verse? Is there also a "universal" husband and wife? 1 Corinthians 11:3 tells us that Christ is head over many men. "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God."
In the Bible, there are three metaphors concerning the church. A metaphor is a short similitude; a similitude reduced to a single word; or a word expressing similitude without the signs of comparison. (Webster's dictionary). The first metaphor is the body. "And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence."(Colossians 1:18).
The second metaphor is the building. "And are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone; In whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: In whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit." (Ephesians 2:20-22). The third metaphor is the bride found in 2 Corinthians 11:2, "For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ."
As we look at each of these, we see that they must all be local. If a body is scattered or dismembered it is no longer a body. A building must be built on a foundation and in one place. A bride must be in one place.
An assembly must be visible. A church can not operate unless it is visible. Who has ever heard of invisible believers, invisible tithes, or invisible church discipline? "Night and day praying exceedingly that we might see your face, and might perfect that which is lacking in your faith?" (1 Thessalonians 3:10). And again, the three metaphors (body, building and bride) must also all be visible.
An assembly must be organized. Remember the definition of "ekklesia"? "A lawful, organized assembly." 1 Corinthians 14:40 says, "Let all things be done decently and in order." This is speaking of the church for it says in verse 33, "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints." "For though I be absent in the flesh, yet am I with you in the spirit, joying and beholding your order, and the stedfastness of your faith in Christ."(Colossians 2:5). "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee:"(Titus 1:5). "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." (1 Timothy 3:15). Here again, the three metaphors must also be organized.
An assembly must be constituted. Constituted means, "Set; fixed; established; made; elected; appointed." Members of an assembly must meet some qualifications. Can just anyone be a member of a New Testament church? No, first they must be born again, and then baptized. It must be established. The same goes for the metaphors. The body, the building, and the bride must be made with just the right materials.
I'm sure by now, you are convinced that the word "church" in the Scriptures is not even close to a "universal or invisible" church.
Let's look for a moment at how the theory of the universal church got started. This theory is not by any means based on the Bible. The early Christians knew nothing of this theory. So, where did this theory get its origin?
The Roman Catholic church came up with the "Universal Visible" church by confusing "Church" (ekklesia) and "Kingdom" (basileia). This is Webster's definition of "catholic": "Universal or general; as the Catholic church." This is what the Roman Catholic church is based on. They confused the "kingdom of God", or the "family of God" with the "church of God". As we will see later, God's family and God's church are two different things.
So, how did we pass from a "universal, visible" church to a "universal, invisible" church? During the Reformation, when people started to see some of the heresies of the Catholic church, began to leave and start their own "churches", they had to come up with something to take the place of the "universal, visible" church. They were still confusing the "church" with the "kingdom". The "universal, invisible" church was their answer.
Here is what Dr. R. K. Maiden, former editor of the Word and Way of Missouri has to say about this theory:
"As nearly as can be determined, the first formal, official identification of church and kingdom was projected when the Roman Empire became nominally Christianized, about the time of the consummation of the great ecclesiastical apostasy. It was the Ecumenical Council of Nice, called by the Emperor Constantine, that affirmed and projected as its creed the idea of a 'Catholic' World Church. From then down to the Lutheran Reformation of the sixteenth century, the universal visible theory of the church held the field, except for the scattered, comparatively obscure, hunted and persecuted little churches known by various names at different times –churches of the New Testament type in doctrine and policy. Following the Reformation period and born of the Reformation movement, there emerged a new theory of the church – the universal, invisible spiritual theory." (The Myth of the Universal Invisible Church Theory Exploded, page 11.)
What it really comes down to is the Universalists confuse the "Church of God" with the "Kingdom of God". And yes, the Kingdom of God is universal and invisible.
The word "kingdom" means "the power or authority of a king; a realm or a domain over which it extends." (Landmarks of Bible Prophecy, page 17) The "Kingdom of God" is also called the "Kingdom of Christ"–"For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God." (Ephesians 5:5), and the "kingdom of Heaven" throughout the book of Matthew.
Let's compare the "kingdom of God" in the same way we did the "church". The "Kingdom of God" is universal. Unlike the "church" it is not local. It is made up of all the saints of all ages. "Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named," (Ephesians 3:15). "Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:6-9, 26). Therefore, it is impossible for the "kingdom of God" to assemble together in this present age.
The "kingdom of God" is invisible. It is a spiritual kingdom. Luke 17:20-21 says, "And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you." Romans 14:17 says "For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost."
There is only one "kingdom of God", but there are many local New Testament churches. The local church practices church discipline, but it is not so for the "kingdom of God". The church practices democracy while the "kingdom of God" is totally theocratic. The church has pastors and ordinances, but the "kingdom of God" doesn't. "To whom also he showed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power." (Acts 1:3-7).
What about 1 Corinthians 12:13 "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit." and Ephesians 4:3&4 "Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling;" The Universalists use these two portions of Scriptures to prove their theory by wrong interpretation. They believe the word "body" is speaking of the "universal" church, but the word itself means it is local. Remember the metaphor we spoke of earlier? What did it represent? The local church.
The Universalists have come to their erroneous conclusion by starting out with an idea, and then going to the Scriptures to prove it. The Catholics said the "body of Christ" was the "universal, visible" church, and the Protestants said the "body of Christ" was the "universal, invisible" church. We must interpret Scriptures with Scriptures; not Scriptures with man's ideas. All this verse is saying is that by the same Spirit (the Holy Spirit) that lead us to salvation, we are lead to be baptized and become part of the body of Christ, the local church.
What has the "universal, invisible" church theory accomplished? It has made Jesus Christ out to be a liar. Jesus said He would build His church, but the "universal, invisible" church theory says the Holy Spirit did. They also say that the church wasn't started until Pentecost, but I proved them wrong earlier. "Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it."(John 8:44).
How the devil must be laughing! He has succeeded in spreading his seeds of confusion and he is now reaping. Believers will neglect the church of God–the local New Testament church–because it is not important to them. They believe the great commission was given to individuals and not to the local church. The ordinances are not important, neither is baptism. And that might as well include their personal testimonies, too.
The Universalists refuse to believe God's Word. They would rather believe man made fables. They want to hang on to their religion. They need to repent, turn to God, and stop relying on traditions. "God forbid: ye, let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged." (Romans 3:4). "For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints. (1 Corinthians 14:33).