The Expository Files.


The Church In The New Testament

New Testament Church Series #6


The Universal Church---Mistaken Concepts Among Churches of Christ
As we documented in our last study, the most prevalent concept in the religious world of the church universal says that it is composed of the various religious denominations. While most of those associated with churches of Christ correctly recognize the error of such a idea, some turn right around and accept one that is not too different from it: the church universal is composed of the various local churches of Christ.

The Concept Stated
While probably not the first person to espouse such a notion, one individual who has greatly influenced the thinking of many among churches of Christ on this and other matters is Alexander Campbell. Concerning the church universal he said, "The Kingdom of Jesus Christ consists of numerous communities, separate and distinct from each other; and all these communities owe as much to each other as the individual members of any one of them owe to all the individual members of that single community of which they are members. Every individual disciple is a particular member of that body (or congregation) with which is united in Christian communion; and the whole of that community to which he belongs is but a member of that great body which is figuratively called 'the body of Christ'. He is head of the whole body, or Christian congregation; not member or specially of one community, but of all the separate communities as constituting one kingdom". The Millennial Harbinger, vol. 6, April, 1835, p. 168

Gaston Cogdell articulated this same idea in a written discussion with Robert Turner regarding various "church" issues, among which was the nature of the local and universal church. Brother Cogdell affirmed that, "The largest unit of the Church as set forth in the New Testament is the local congregation...the local congregation is a component and an extension of the universal church, though by no means being its totality, of course...When a person is baptized, he is baptized into both the local church and into the universal church...Christ purchased the Church as a body, a corpus, a corporate structure made of myriads of individuals. He purchased a congregation composed of many congregations, which in turn are composed of many individuals...The position that the local congregation is not a part of the church universal is a weird and novel contention, which has never been advanced by any Bible scholar, preacher, or commentator of any note in the two thousand year history of the church so far as I know." (The Cogdell-Turner Discussion, pp. 2,15,17,26,18.)

And we might add that when people talk of "the congregations of the church of Christ" they are using terminology which, whether they realize it or not, conveys this concept. If we don't believe that the universal church is composed of local churches we should not use phrases such as these which suggests that it is.

The Consequences
These ideas about the church universal are not just nebulous, academic concepts with no practical consequences attached to them. Robert Turner points out the error to which Campbell's faulty reasoning led: "Campbell thought the universal church was made up of congregations, a concept wholly without scriptural warrant. His second fallacious step was his assumption that 'the church' universal was assigned some collective function...With this simple 'off-beat' of logic, Campbell rejected the later half of the restoration slogan: 'Silent Where the Bible is Silent.' He had changed his course, and from that time forward gave his influence and effort to a denominational concept of general organization among churches." "The Restoration of Congregational Independence," The Restoration Heritage In America (Florida College Annual Lectures, 1976), p. 224. And Restoration Movement historian Earl West echoed the same sentiments when he said, "The study of church history reveals the fact that every time men thought in terms of the church universal, they ended up by forming organizations which in their work substituted themselves in the place of Christ...The only church organization known to the New Testament is that of a local church, not the church universal..." (The Search For The Ancient Order, vol. 2, p. 56.)

And in pointing out the danger of bro. Cogdell's position, brother Turner correctly observed, "When one begins to think of the u. (universal, D.S.) body of Christ as a 'churchhood' instead of a brotherhood; and assigns that u. body some collective function; the warnings of church history are ignored and the errors of institutionalism come piling upon us." The Cogdell-Turner Discussion, p. 20. This is one of the reasons churches of Christ have had problems for the last fifty years. Many, like bro. Cogdell, have viewed the church universal as an "institution" composed of local churches with a mission to carry out and, in the process, have denominationalized many churches by forming collectives of local congregations to engage in various activities. And it all began with a mistaken notion of the church universal.

Among the things wrong with the "universal church is composed of local churches of Christ" concept are the following:

As we'll see in our next study, the scriptural concept of the church universal is that it is composed of individual Christians, not individual local congregations. Every word in the New Testament that is used to describe the universal church ("kingdom", "vine", "family", "body", et al) makes it clear that the "units" of that church are individual Christians. We read of a "brotherhood" (1 Pet. 2:17) but never of a "churchhood", which
is what we would have if local churches made up the universal church. We need to think (and say) "blood-bought people" rather than "blood-bought institution" when speaking of the church Christ died for.

Such a concept as this denominationalizes the churches participating. The essence of denominationalism is the formation of collectives of various churches (Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, etc.) A collective of Lutheran churches makes up the Lutheran denomination and a collective of churches of Christ makes up a church of Christ denomination, whether that collective is temporary or permanent. As we demonstrated in a previous study ("Church" Is A Collective Noun), a collective of Christians can be, depending upon the context, either a local church (1 Cor. 1:2) or the universal church (Heb. 12:23). But a collective of churches, which is demanded by the "universal church is composed of local churches" view is, on the other hand, something for which no scripture can be found.

No provision has been made for the collective action of local churches, such as this concept of the universal church demands. In order to have collective action there must be some form of oversight and leadership. But all such supervision (elders) is on the "local" level (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Tit. 1:5-9; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:1-ff); nothing is said about "universal" leadership as would be required in this denominational view of the universal church. Brethren beware: when collectives of local churches of Christ are formed, there is little difference between that and the other denominations; and when we take the next logical step and set up oversight for the work of such a collective, there is little difference between that and Roman Catholicism.
(For a more exhaustive refutation of this concept of the church universal, you are encouraged to read the Cogdell-Turner Discussion, pp. 1-28.)

Christ didn't build an "institution" made up of other "institutions" (local churches) when he built His church. What He did build is clearly set forth in Eph. 2:11-22, which we encourage you to read in preparation for our next study: The "Universal Church"---The Scriptural Concept.

By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.6; June 1998