With the following words, The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 recognizes the New Testament existence of both the local and universal aspects of the church:
A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth…
The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.
Though some in Baptist history have emphasized the local aspect of the church to such a degree as to effectively deny the universal aspect, as Southern Baptists, the further removed we are from the heyday of the Landmark movement in the second half of the nineteenth century, the more we have distanced ourselves at the same time from a virtual denial of the Universal Church. The 1925 version of the BF&M did not even mention the universal aspect, while the 1963 version included the statement, “The New Testament speaks also of the church as the body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages,” which the 2000 version, in turn, expanded, adding the phrase “believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.”
Nonetheless, the present wording still reflects a certain degree of discomfort with the idea of the Universal Church, tacking it on, as it were, as a sort of obligatory appendage to the really important aspect of our ecclesiology: the local congregation. Even today, certain strands of Baptist ecclesiology put the emphasis on the local church to such a degree that the Universal Church, if not regarded as inexistent, is relegated to a status of virtual irrelevance for us as Christians in the present.
The argument often presented is that, since the Greek term ekklesia in its literal and etymological sense has reference to an assembly of people (for municipal political or other purposes), a Christian church, or ekklesia, must necessarily physically assemble together in order to qualify as a bona fide church. Since the Universal Church will never truly be assembled together until after the Second Coming of Jesus, it is only truly an ekklesia at the present in potentiality, and not in actuality. Thus, for the present, the only real representation we have of Christ’s ekklesia is on a local congregational level, and, as a result, as present-day disciples of Jesus we should place all our emphasis there.
One of the leading sources adduced supporting this emphasis on the local church are the transcripts of two lectures by B. H. Carroll entitled Ecclesia–the Church, Lecture I and Lecture II. The main plank of Carroll’s argument hinges on the number of times the term ekklesia is used in the New Testament to refer to a local assembly (according to Carroll, approximately 113) compared to the number of times it is used to refer to something beyond the scope of a local assembly (according to Carroll, only a handful ).
While a detailed response to Carroll’s full argument (not to mention similar arguments by others) is beyond the scope of this post, I would like to point out several factors I feel his argument fails to take into account:
- There are a certain amount of passages in which the usage of the term ekklesia with regard to its strictly local vs. translocal character is up for debate (for example, 1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28; 15:9; Gal. 1:13; Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23–32; Phil. 3:6; Col. 1:18, 24; 1 Tim. 3:15.)
- There is evidence that the term ekklesia is often used to refer to the collective of Christian disciples in a given locality, independently of whether they all regularly assembled together in the same place or not. Though the biblical evidence in and of itself is not conclusive, it is possible to read each of the following verses as referring to the church in this sense: Acts 8:1, 3; 11:22; 12:1, 5; 20:17, 28; Rom. 16:23; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:13; 3 John 1:9–10; Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14.
- Early church history testifies to the fact that the Christian community in most cities across the Roman Empire regarded themselves as one local church, even though they regularly assembled in a series of separate house churches. It was this situation that set the stage for the eventual development of the monarchical episcopacy, in which one pastor or elder from each city was recognized as the head elder or pastor over all the Christians in that city. The book Christians at Rome in the First Two Centuries: From Paul to Valentinus by German theologian and historian Peter Lampe has been lauded as “the most important historical and sociological study ever written on Roman Christianity.” Lampe gives the following description of the Christian community in Rome, which he believes was spread out between at least seven different house congregations (and very likely more), before the eventual acceptance of the monarchical episcopacy sometime in the second half of the second century AD:
The fractionation in Rome favored a collegial presbyterian system of governance and prevented for a long time, until the second half of the second century, the development of a monarchical episcopacy in the city… Before the second half of the second century there was in Rome no monarchical episcopacy for the circles mutually bound in fellowship… Fractionation into house congregations does not exclude that the Christian islands scattered around the capital city were aware of being in spiritual fellowship with each other, of perceiving themselves as cells of one church, and of being united by common bonds… people writing from outside of Rome could address the Roman Christians as a unity. Not only Paul but also Ignatius and Dionysius of Corinth did this. Conversely, the Roman Christians as an entirety could send letters to those outside… A plurality of presbyters leads Roman Christianity. This Christianity, conscious of spiritual fellowship within the city, is summed up under the concept ‘ecclesia,’ but that changes nothing in regard to the plurality of those presiding over it… Each presbyter in Rome apparently leads a worship assembly in a house community and therefore also takes care of needy fellow Christians there… At the same time, we observe the awareness of Roman Christianity as a whole as ‘ecclesia’ (pp. 397–99).
- The entity we normally refer to as “the church” or “a church” is frequently referred to in the New Testament by other terms besides ekklesia. This entity is alternately called the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, the whole family in heaven and earth, the faithful in Christ Jesus, the faithful brethren in Christ, the flock of God, God’s building, God’s field, God’s heritage, the house of God, the household of God, the temple of God, the temple of the living God, the household of faith, the saints, and the elect lady. When we take this into account, and redo the math, the comparative preponderance of references pointing to the strictly local as over against a translocal aspect of this entity is significantly reduced.
- While it is true that the Universal Church is not yet complete, and as a result, cannot physically assemble together, the biblical picture of the Universal Church is that of a building or temple that is still under construction. The first reference to church in the New Testament, and likely therefore a determinative reference for subsequent usage, is that of Jesus saying, in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church.” First Corinthians 3:9–11, Ephesians 2:19–22, 4:15–16, and 1 Peter 2:4–5 all refer to the church as presently under construction. In Hebrews 12:22–23 and Revelation 7:9–10, we find references to this same church fully built. The fact that a building is still under construction, however, does not render it irrelevant. The Sagrada Familia Basilica in Barcelona, Spain has been under construction for 130 years. Though it is not yet finished, it is still used daily as a center of worship and is visited by a steady stream of worshipers and tourists.
- In actuality, all local congregations are still constantly “under construction” in the same way as the Universal Church. If they are healthy, they are continually adding new members and maturing in spiritual growth. The fact that all of the past, present, and future members of a local church do not actually meet together does not render it irrelevant at the present.
- Some might object that local congregations, while not fully constructed, do at least assemble on a regular basis. But Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” My contention is that whenever this occurs, the Universal Church is represented in microcosm, and thus, similar to the local congregation, the Universal Church assembles regularly, albeit in a partial, incomplete manner.
- Indeed, we might logically ask, Does a local congregation cease to function as a legitimate ekklesia during the in-between time when its members are not physically assembled together? By the same token, the inability of the Universal Church to assemble at present does not, as a result, render it irrelevant. It still exists and fulfills a very important function, even though its actual assembly will not be fully realized until a future date.
What practical difference does it make if the Universal Church has any relevance at the present?
- If the Universal Church is a real entity with relevance for today, then Christian unity is not solely an intra-congregational concern, but also an inter-congregational concern. So-called evangelical ecumenism is not an unbiblical distraction from the truly important work of the local church, but a very real part of what Jesus is doing today as He works to build His church.
- It also means there is such a thing as inter-congregational church discipline. Although procedures of church discipline are normally best undertaken at a local level, in which those directly responsible for the spiritual nurture of a fellow disciple and who have a personal relationship with him/her are charged with carrying out the steps of church discipline, it is important that wayward members not be permitted to wander indiscriminately from congregation to congregation without the safety net of a mutually recognized inter-congregational fellowship in which the disciplinary decisions of individual congregations are respected.
- The present-day relevance of the Universal Church also has important implications with regard to the practice of close, closed, open, or modified open communion in a local church setting, as well as the legitimacy of celebrating the Lord’s Supper in gatherings of believers transcending the confines of one local congregation.
- It also has important implications for the type of Christian fellowship or koinonia we are expected to share with fellow believers who are not members of our local congregation. Do the various “one another” exhortations of the New Testament only apply to fellow members of my local congregation, or do they apply also, to the degree practically possible, to believers in other congregations?
- Finally, it has some important implications for the manner in which we carry out missionary strategy, especially with regard to how we go about Building on Someone Else’s Foundation.
At the same time, I would point out the following “unnecessary implications” of the present-day relevance of the Universal Church:
- As I understand it, a belief in the present-day relevance of the Universal Church does not necessarily give credence to the Roman Catholic contention that the Universal Church is a visible institution, with a hierarchical system of trans-congregational government. In other words, it is possible to agree with early Christians in believing the Church is one, holy, catholic (small c), and apostolic, without saying this necessarily means Roman or Catholic (big c).
- Neither does it necessarily imply a state-controlled church.
- Neither does it require either an Episcopal or Presbyterian system of church government. Though Peter Lampe, as referenced above, contends that the Christian community in Rome in the first century-and-a-half AD operated with a “collegial presbyterian system of governance,” I do not believe this necessarily implies a formal connectionalism, in which leaders outside a local congregation have coercive authority over that congregation, as much as an informal dynamic of mutual respect, friendly cooperation, and interdependent solidarity among the leaders of the various congregations.
And last, but certainly not least, does all this render the local congregation itself largely irrelevant?
- No, not at all! As I see it, this is not a question of either/or, but both/and. Almost certainly, the original impetus which historically led to the devaluation of the Universal Church among certain strands of Baptists stemmed from a very legitimate concern to protect the vital role of the local congregation. Indeed, it is in the context of a local congregation where personal relationships are forged and accountability structures that facilitate effective discipleship are found. When practiced in a biblical manner, there is no reason that the recognition of the present-day relevance of the Universal Church should in any way undermine the vital ongoing ministry of local congregations as typically and traditionally practiced in healthy Baptist churches.