Handling Aright the Word of Truth (XI)

By Morris W. R. Bailey

In this series of articles on handling aright the word of truth, I have laid considerable emphasis on the importance of recognizing distinctions that must be made in various areas. Those that have been discussed thus far are, for the most part, distinctions that have been either ignored or overlooked by the denominational world, and thus resulted in denominational doctrines and practices.

In this article, and in others to follow, I propose to point out some important distinctions that have been either overlooked or ignored by some who profess to speak where the Bible speaks, and to be silent where the Bible is silent. This failure is found chiefly among those who promote human institutions, and other forms of human organization to do the work that God ordained to be done by the church. The distinction to which attention is directed in this article is between

The Church-Universal And Local

In his monumental work on the restoration movement, and the controversies that preceded, attended, and followed the formation of that American Christian Missionary Society in 1849, Brother Earl West ascribed the introduction of the society to an effort on the part of its proponents to activate the universal church in the work of evangelism. In a later series of articles on the subject of congregational cooperation he pointed out that universal church action was the taproot of the sponsoring church concept of evangelism. This led him to make this timely observation, and, shall we say, challenge:

“Some day somebody will do the cause of Christ a real service by taking the concept of the church universal, and giving it a thorough analysis, based upon the scriptures and upon church history for the past two thousand years” (The Search For The Ancient Order, Vol. 2, page 55).

While I have no illusions that the thoughts that I shall present will measure up to, nor even approximate the scholarly treatment of this subject suggested by Brother West, they are nevertheless offered for what they are worth.

Definitions of Terms

The word, universal, is defined as, “General; existing everywhere; pertaining to, or characteristic of all” (Webster). As the word universal relates to the church, it has reference to the general sense in which the church is referred to in the New Testament as being composed of all baptized believer, throughout the world. As the kingdom of heaven, it is made up of all who have been born again (John 3:3).

It is in this universal sense that the word, church, is used in various passages. Following Peter’s confession of Christ’s Sonship, Jesus said, “Upon this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18). It is used in the universal sense by Paul when he declared that God “gave him (Christ) to be head over all things to the church, which is his body” (Eph. 1:22,23). And it is used in the same universal sense by Paul when he said that, “The church is subject to Christ” (Eph. 5:24).

In this universal sense the church is also spoken of under various descriptive names. It is called the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 16:19). This emphasizes its governmental feature. Christ is the king. We are his subjects. It is called the body of Christ (Col. 1:18). This emphasizes the headship of Christ, and the closely-knit relationship of members one to another (1 Cor. 12:1426). The church is called the household of God (Eph. 2:19; 1 Tim. 3:15). This emphasizes the family feature. God is the father. We are his children (Gal. 3:26). The church is called the temple of God (Eph. 2:21). This emphasizes the worship feature (Eph. 3:21).

The word, local, is defined as, “pertaining to place; restricted to a particular place” (Webster). As it relates to the church, it therefore has reference to God’s people in any given city or community. It is spoken of in this sense by Paul when he addressed his epistle to “The church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2). It is also used in the local sense when the writer of Acts wrote of “the church which was in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1). The writer of Acts also tells us of “the church that was at Antioch” (Acts 13:1). In fact we can say that out of the one hundred and some times that the word, church, or the plural, churches, occurs in the American Standard Version of the New Testament, eighty of these passages refer, without doubt, to a local congregation, the locality either stated or implied.

The plural form, churches, as used by Paul when he said, “The churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16), and by John when he wrote to “the seven churches of Asia” (Rev. 1:4), referred not to denominations of diverse origin; faith, and government, but to local congregations.

Other Points of Distinction

While the church, universal and local, is distinct in its scope, there are other important distinctions.

1. The church universal has no earthly government. There are no elders. It is ruled from heaven by Jesus Christ whom God “gave to be head over all things to the church” (Eph. 1:22,23).

2. The church universal has no earthly place of assembly. It is called by the writer of Hebrews, “the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb. 12:23).

3. The church, universal has no mission. It is not a functional body. It does not edify its members. It does not send out, nor pay preachers’ wages. It does not have a treasury. It does not operate in the field of benevolence: It does not discipline unruly members.

In short, we may say that the church in its universal sense is simply a relationship that Christians sustain to Christ, and in which all God’s people are joined to him by the common tie of obedient faith.

In contrast, the local church, or congregation has local organization. It is composed of saints with the bishops (elders) and deacons (Phil. 1:1). It has a local place of assembly (1 Cor. 11:18; Heb. 10:25). It has a treasury (1 Cor. 16:1,2). It is a functional body. It can edify its members (1 Cor. 14:26). It can discipline unruly members (1 Cor. 5:4,5). It can send out evangelists and pay preachers wages (Acts 11:22; 2 Cor. 10:8). It can relieve those of the afflicted who are its responsibility (1 Tim. 5:16).

The government of the local church is strictly congregational. God’s order is, “elders in every church” (Acts 14:23, Titus 1:5). Their jurisdiction is limited to “the flock in which the Holy Spirit hath made you bishops” (Acts 20:28). They are to “tend the flock of God which is among you” (1 Peter 5:2).

From the foregoing comparisons between the church universal and the church local, the conclusion emerges that God never intended for the church to function in the universal sense, and has set boundaries that forbid universal church action. All that God has ordained that the church should do is to be done through the local congregation under the oversight of its elders, who have no authority outside of the congregation where they have been appointed. That churches may cooperate is not denied. But cooperation must be such as recognizes and honors the autonomy of each congregation, which rules out the centralization of the resources of cooperating congregations under one governing head, whether it be the directors of an incorporated institution or the elders of another congregation.

Departures From God’s Order

While a proper handling, or correct division of the word of truth requires that we recognize the above distinction between the church in its universal sense and in its local sense, it is one of the sad facts of history that it is the failure to recognize and honor this distinction that has been of the prime causes that have eventually led to apostasy.

The mystery of iniquity, which was at work even in the days of Paul (2 Thess. 2:7), had its beginning in a corruption of church government. Concerning the elders of the church at Ephesus whom he was addressing, Paul said, “And from among your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30).

In the beginning, as already pointed out, God ordained that there be elders in every church, thus establishing congregational government. The terms, elder and bishop originally referred to the same office (Acts 20:17,28). But in the course of time a distinction grew up between bishops and elders with the former claiming precedence over the latter. The struggle for increasing power continued through many centuries and reached its culmination in the Roman Catholic hierarchy, with the pope claiming the title of universal bishop and the authority to rule all churches throughout the world.

While the Protestant reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther has shorn the pope of much of his power, most Protestant bodies today, though denying the claim of the pope, have some form of universal government in the form of synods; conferences and associations that determine the policies of their respective denominations, and to which local congregations are accountable.

In an article to follow I shall point out that the same concept of universal church action has been responsible for some modern departures from the New Testament pattern.

Truth Magazine XXI: 43, pp. 677-678
November 3, 1977