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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Universal Church Theory

E. L. Bynum

Pastor E. L. Bynum answers a reader’s question:

Dear Bro. _______________:

Thank you for your recent letter containing a commendation for the Plains Baptist Challenger. Your letter was an encouragement to me.

You said in your letter, "I would very much appreciate your thought regarding ‘The Universal Church vs. the Local Church’ doctrines. When did the New Testament Church begin? Do you believe that the Scriptures teach both a universal and a local church?"

My brother, I shall answer this as clearly as I can in a brief letter.

My conviction is that our Lord Jesus Christ established His Church during His earthly ministry. As to the exact time, I rather believe that it is found in Mark 3:13-21 when he chose the 12 apostles. In I Cor. 12:28 Paul wrote, "And God hath set some in the church, first apostles..." I cannot accept the teaching that says that the Church was founded at Pentecost. If it was, then it was founded by the Holy Spirit, and Jesus said "I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18).

The orders for Church discipline were given before Pentecost (Matt. 18:15-19). The two Church ordinances of the Church, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper were both given before Pentecost (Matt. 3:16; 26:26-29). The Great Commission was given to the Church before Pentecost (Matt. 28:16-20). The Church had a business meeting before Pentecost (Acts 1:15-26). They had a Church roll before Pentecost, with about 120 names on it (Acts 1:15). The 3,000 that were saved and baptized on the day of Pentecost were added unto them (Acts 2:41). There was nothing else for them to be added to except the Church. You cannot add something to nothing.

As for the so-called Universal Church, I have never been able to find such a doctrine in the Bible. All saved people are in the family of God by the New Birth. However, all saved people are not Church members, because all have not been Scripturally baptized and covenanted together into a local Church.

The Church is first mentioned in Matt. 16:18 and some say that it is not clear what kind of a Church this was, but surely this is answered in the very next mention of the Church, where our Lord said "tell it to the Church." You surely could not tell such a matter in Church discipline to a Universal Church.

As you know our word Church is translated from Ekklesia, which means a called out assembly. There is no way that this word could be used to describe a universal Church. Israel is called the Church (Ekklesia) in the wilderness (Acts 7:38). They were called out of Egypt and assembled in the Wilderness. The unlawful mob in Ephesus is called an "assembly" (Ekklesia). They were dismissed by the town-clerk, who told them that such matters would have to be decided in "a lawful assembly" (Ekklesia). This common usage of the word from which we get our word Church, could not be used of a universal assembly (Acts 19:39-41).

In the 115 times that the Church is mentioned in the New Testament, the overwhelming majority of the texts make it very clear that it is a local visible Church. In most instances it is very clear, such as "the Church of God which is at Corinth" (I Cor. 1:2), and many other instances. There are a few places where it is spoken of in a generic or institutional sense. I have heard it said that "the home is the backbone or our nation." Everyone would understand that the speaker is not talking about a universal home. If asked to identify a home, he would immediately specify some particular home.

Scofield, and others who teach the Universal church, constantly refer to I Cor. 12:13 as their proof text, but I believe that verse and chapter demolishes the Universal theory completely. I would not change one word in that verse as it is found in the KJV. There is no Spirit baptism in this verse, if there were, it would contradict Eph. 4:5 which reads, "One Lord, one faith, one baptism." If there is only one baptism, then it must either be water baptism or Spirit baptism, it cannot be both. It is by the leadership of the Holy Spirit that we follow our Lord in Scriptural water baptism.

The context of the chapter shows us the meaning of "by one Spirit" in this verse. "No man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed" (I Cor. 12:3). Of course a man can call Jesus accursed, but he cannot do it "by the Spirit of God." The Holy Spirit will never lead anyone to call Jesus accursed. "...No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost" (v.3). Now anyone can say that Jesus is the Lord, the charismatics and cults (unsaved) do it all the time, but no one can truthfully and honestly do it apart from the leadership of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit convicts and leads sinners to Christ as the Word is taught and preached. According to vs. 8-9, spiritual gifts were also "by the same Spirit."

Of course the entire context of I Cor.12 is devastating to the Universal Church theory. "Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular" (v. 27). This was spoken to "the church of God which is at Corinth" (I Cor. 1:2). So it is the Church of God which is at Corinth that Paul tells, "ye are the body of Christ" (v. 27). The local visible Scriptural Church is the body of Christ. This is the only kind of body that "whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it" (v. 26).

A Universal Body could not suffer when one member suffers, because they would never even know about it, but a local Church body could. Some ask how Christ could be the head of all the bodies, if each local Scriptural Church is the body of Christ? The answer is, in the same way that he is the "head of every man" (I Cor. 11:3).

The word that is translated body is of course the Greek "soma." It is found about 146 times in the New Testament, and most of the time it refers to a human body. It is used of Christ’s earthly body. When he came the first time, He needed a visible body to do the work that he came to do. Now that He is absent, He has left a local visible body to do His work, and I refer to the Church as the body of Christ. To use the English word body, or the Greek word "soma" to refer to an invisible universal something is the careless violation of the proper usage of these words.

A cow has a body, but if she is butchered, cut up in steaks, roasts, and ground into hamburger, there is no way to speak of those scattered pieces of meat as a body. The Scriptures speak of Christ being "...the head over all things to the church, which is his body" (Eph. 1:22-23). How could Paul be referring to an universal body, when he had told the Elders of the Church at Ephesus, "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock, over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God..." (Acts 20:28).

In fact, I am convinced that there is not one word in the New Testament that is used to describe a Church that could truthfully be used to describe a universal body or Church. The Church is spoken of as a building. "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" (Eph. 2:21-22).

This could never refer to a universal building or universal church. This building is "fitly framed," it "groweth," and it is "builded together." In the lumber yard are all the materials to build a house. However you would never call those materials a house until they are fitly framed and builded together. Even when the truck delivers them out to the lot and stacks them up, it is not a building until it is put together.

The Church is called "the flock of God" (I Pet. 5:2; Acts 20:28). In the latter passage it is clear that the flock and the church are one and the same thing. It has elders or pastors to feed it the Word of God. One sheep in Montana, another sheep in Colorado, another sheep in Florida, and one more sheep in Texas does not constitute a flock. Only if they are brought together are they a flock, according to the Bible and Webster’s definition of flock.

Churches are called "golden candlesticks" (Rev. 1:12,20). A study of Rev. 1-3 reveals that each golden candlestick represented a local visible Church located in a certain geographical place. And thus we could examine every word that is used of Church or Churches in the New Testament and we find the same thing. God is not careless in His usage of words. When He wanted to use a word to describe the Holy Spirit, who is invisible and yet everywhere, He used "pneuma" which denotes the wind or breath. He did not use a word which means something local and visible to describe the Holy Spirit who is everywhere. God is just not that careless, in fact He is always exact.

It should be evident that if the Church was universal and invisible, then God would have used such a word to describe the Church. However, we find that all of the words used refer to something that is local and visible.

When I started I meant to write only a brief letter, but it is so easy to be misunderstood, I soon realized that I must write a longer reply. I hope that you will understand my position. In the not too distant future I hope to get something in print on the subject and it will need to be longer than this letter.

May the blessings of the Lord remain upon you and your labors for Him.

Yours in His Name,

E. L. Bynum