The Expository Files.


Universal Church -- Mistaken Concepts In The Religious World

New Testament Church Series #5  

As we have established in a previous study, the word "church" is used in a very broad, all-inclusive sense---what is commonly referred to as the "universal church" or "church in the aggregate." Christ promised to build this church (Matt. 16:18) and Paul spoke of it as the "one body" (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:4) into which we are baptized (1 Cor. 12:13). Such statements as these indicate that this church is important and thus our understanding of what this "church"/"body is must be a correct one.

While most people in the religious world at large, as well as those in churches of Christ, acknowledge such a "universal" usage of the word "church," there is not universal agreement about its nature. As is true with many biblical concepts, erroneous notions have arisen due to a reliance on human wisdom, theological tradition, and a failure to rely solely upon information gathered from scripture. In a future study we will give, from the scriptures, a clear explanation of what this "universal church" is. But in this study and the one to follow we want to look at two concepts of "church" in this universal sense that are contrary to what the scriptures teach and thus dangerous for us to accept.

1-One Church, Many Denominations
By far the most popular concept of the universal church is that it is composed of all the religious denominations in the world. Notice:

"The local church is a connectional society of persons who have professed their faith in Christ, have been baptized, have assumed the vows of membership in the Methodist church, and are associated in fellowship as a local Methodist church in order that they may hear the word of God, receive the Sacraments, and carry forward the work which Christ has committed to his Church. Such a society of believers, being within the Methodist Church and subject to its Discipline, is also an inherent part of the Church Universal, which is composed of all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, and which in the Apostles' Creed we declare to be the holy catholic church." Doctrine And Discipline Of The Methodist Church, 1960, p. 41.

"One Church: Many Denominations. The word 'church' is commonly used to designate the various divisions in the communion of saints. We speak of the Roman Catholic Church, the Methodist Church, the Lutheran Church and a host of others. In a book entitled, 'The Religious Forces of the United States', an official of our government has listed forty-two general independent bodies. Yet, strictly speaking, there is not that number of Christian churches. These figures indicate rather the denominational groups into which the one Christian Church is divided." What Lutherans Believe, p. 114.

"It is according to Scriptural example that the church should be divided into many individual churches." The Book Of Church Order (Presbyterian), p. 21.

"This catholic church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof......." The Confession Of Faith Of The Presbyterian Church, pp. 146-147.

This "one church/many denominations" concept of the universal church is oftentimes based upon a misunderstanding of Jo. 15:1-ff where Jesus declared, "I am the vine, ye are the branches...." (vs. 5). Appeal is made to this statement in an attempt to make the various denominations "the branches" which are connected to Jesus, "the vine." But several things are wrong with this idea. For one thing, whoever the branches are they must "bear fruit" and they are later identified as "disciples" (vs. 8). The "branches" on the "vine", then, are individual Christians, not local churches or denominations composed of local churches. And then there is the fact that no religious denominations existed at the time Jesus spoke, making His point meaningless. Why would he have talked of His church being composed of things which didn't exist? Something else that makes this view scripturally insupportable is that it would make Christ head over a plurality of bodies (a body composed of bodies) rather than head over just one body (Eph. 1:22-23). Further, since the various bodies which allegedly make up the one body are hopelessly divided regarding doctrines and practices, it would make Jesus the head over confusion and division rather than the unity for which He prayed (Jo. 17). Nothing in the context of Jo. 15 nor the entire New Testament lends support to the idea that various denominations make up the church in its universal sense.

Another thing wrong with this concept is that it places all honestly professing believers in Christ, regardless of doctrine or practice, into the universal church in spite of the fact that Jesus said, "Not everyone that saith unto me, Lord, Lord shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father who is in heaven." (Matt. 7:21; read carefully the context, vss. 15-27). While honesty and sincerity are essential to being in this church, they alone do not make one a part of it. Cornelius was characterized by both (Acts 10:2,22) but was still unsaved (Acts 11:14). Keeping His commands is just as vital (1 Jo. 2:3-4; Jo. 4:24) and is a truth we must never forget.

2-The Catholic Concept
"What is the church? The Church is the congregation of all baptized persons united in the same true faith, the same sacrifice, and the same sacraments, under the authority of the Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops in communion with him...those who through their own grave fault do not know that the Catholic Church is the true Church, or knowing it, refuse to join it, cannot be saved." The Baltimore Catechism, pp. 78, 93.

Constraints of space won't allow a detailed rebuttal of the above assertions, but suffice it to say that no "Sovereign Pontiff and the bishops in communion with him" existed until centuries after Jesus built His church. The New Testament knows nothing of the corrupt church concept presented to the world for centuries by the Catholic hierarchy, thus it cannot be the one catholic (universal) church spoken of in the New Testament.

Those in the various religious denominations are not the only ones with an unscriptural view of the church universal. There are those in, and associated with, churches of Christ who have had, and continue to hold, a view of the universal church that is similar to, and just as erroneous as, what we have discussed here. Our next study will be a review and refutation of this concept.

By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.5; May 1998