Home > Systematic Theology > A Treatise on Church Order: The Church Universal- Chapter III- Section I- Membership

A Treatise on Church Order: The Church Universal- Chapter III- Section I- Membership




The Church Universal is the whole company of those who are saved by Christ.

Whether the term church is used in the Scriptures to denote the whole body of Christ’s disciples, is simply a question of fact. Were we to regard it as an etymological question, we might doubt whether a word, which always assures us of an assembly, could be used to denote a body that has never assembled on earth since the time of the first persecution, which scattered the disciples from Jerusalem. But some reason for such an application of the term may exist; and, if we ascertain the fact that it is so applied, the reason for this peculiar use will afterward become a proper subject of inquiry.

The following are examples in which the word is used with this wide signification: “Gave him to be the head over all things to the church.”[1] “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end.”[2] Let any one attempt to interpret these and similar passages, on the supposition that the term church always denotes a body of Christians assembling at one place–as the church at Rome, at Corinth, or at Ephesus– and he will become fully convinced, that the interpretation is inadmissible. In some of the passages the extension of the term to the whole body of believers, is perfectly apparent. In others, though it is not so apparent that the entire body is intended, yet this signification perfectly harmonizes with the use of the term, the context, and scope of the passage.

We shall hereafter investigate the question, whether the term church, in this wide signification, includes those who profess faith in Christ, but are not true Christians Such false profession has become very common in modern times; but we are inquiring into the use of the term in apostolic times, when fewer motives to false profession operated. Even in those ancient times, some intruded themselves into the brotherhood, who were false brethren, brought in unawares. But the intrusion of such persons was not authorized by the head of the church; and in our effort to ascertain what the church is, we should seek to know what it is as Christ instituted it, rather than what it is as man has misconceived or corrupted it.

After having ascertained the fact that the word is used in the extended sense, the next inquiry which presents itself respects the reason or propriety of this use.

Some have thought that this use of the word is not properly collective, but generic. When we say, gold is heavier than sand, the terms gold and sand are used generically. Were they used collectively to denote all the gold and all the sand in the world, the proposition would not be true; for there is a far greater weight of sand in the world, than of gold. But the comparison is made between the two kinds of matter, without regard to the quantities of them that exist. In the generic use of names to denote the various kinds of unorganized matter, the noun is not preceded by an article: thus–fire, air, earth, and water, as names of elements, are used without an article. So man is used generically without an article; and we do not say, the man, unless some particular man is meant. When the names of other organized bodies are used generically, the definite article the generally precedes them: thus we say, the horse is more tractable than the mule; the cedar is more durable than the oak. So the phrase, the church, is supposed by some to be used generically to denote the kind of organization existing in local churches.

It is an argument in favor of this opinion, that the idea of an assembly is thus fully retained in the signification of the word. Each local church is an assembly.

This generic theory is advocated by Mr. Courtney, a fictitious character in “Theodosia Ernest,” a popular work recently published, which maintains, in general, the true doctrine of Scripture on baptism and church organization. The arguments of Mr. Courtney, on the question now before us, are the best that I have met with; we shall, therefore, proceed to examine them.

The question is not, whether the phrase, the church, may be grammatically used in a generic sense; but whether the Scriptures do so employ it. This also is simply a question of fact. We must examine the passages in which the word extends its signification beyond a single local church, and endeavor to determine, whether in these cases it is generic or not.

“Upon this Rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”[3]

This is the first text which Mr. Courtney examines in relation to this question. He regards the church which was to be built, as a visible organization; and maintains that no visible organization more extensive than a local church, was instituted by Christ. He hence infers that a local church is the thing here intended; and that the term obtains an extended signification, by being used generically. To this argument, we oppose two objections: 1. There is no proof that the church referred to in the passage, is a visible organization in the sense of Mr. Courtney. The opposing force denoted by the phrase “the gates of hell,” is not such an organization; and the text contains no proof that the church differs from it in this particular. 2. The passage does not admit a consistent interpretation, on the supposition that the word “church” is to be taken generically.

It is agreed by all, that this text does not refer to any particular local church–as the church at Jerusalem, at Corinth, or at Rome. The promise of perpetuity was not designed to apply to any one of these churches. One of them may be totally scattered by persecution; another may waste away by gradual decay; and a third may be so overrun by corruption as to become a synagogue of Satan, and no longer a church of Christ. By the universal consent of interpreters, the proper application of this text extends beyond any one local church, and somehow embraces the followers of Christ throughout the world; but how the word church obtains the extended signification, is the question. Most interpreters have supposed that it is used as a collective name for the whole body of Christ’s people; but some, with Mr. Courtney, suppose it to be merely a generic use of the term–and our present inquiry is confined to this point: Is the word church, in this passage, a collective or a generic term?

When collective terms are used to denote the subject of any affirmation, what is affirmed may respect the entire body signified by the term, or it may respect the individuals composing that body. On this distinction, a well known rule of grammar is founded: “A noun of multitude, or signifying many, may have a verb or pronoun agreeing with it, either in the singular or plural number, yet not without regard to the import of the word, as conveying unity or plurality of idea.” When we say the crowd is large, because the verb is in the singular number, the largeness is predicated of the crowd as a whole; and the meaning is, that there are many persons in it: but when we say the crowd are large, the largeness is predicated of the individuals who compose the crowd; and the meaning is, that it consists of large men. On the same principle the pronouns which refer to collective nouns, may be either singular or plural according to the sense. We may say the crowd is large, but we fear not to meet it; or the crowd are large, but we fear not to meet them. The pronoun it refers to the crowd as a whole; and the pronoun them to the individuals who compose it.

With regard to generic nouns, our grammars do not give, and the usage of language does not authorize any such rule. In every well constructed sentence in which they are found, the verbs and pronouns which agree with them are always singular; and the things affirmed respecting them always relate to the individuals, and not to the genus or species as a whole. We say “the oak is large,” but never “the oak are large;” and the largeness which this sentence predicates of the oak, relates to the dimensions of each single tree, and not to the number of individuals contained in the species.

To illustrate the use of generic terms, appropriate reference is made in Theodosia to the passages in the book of Job, which speak of behemoth, leviathan, and the war horse. All these passages may serve also to exemplify the rule laid down in the preceding paragraph. The verbs and pronouns are all singular; and the things affirmed all relate to the individual animals, and not to their several species considered collectively.

Let us now apply this rule to the interpretation of the text under consideration. On the supposition that church is here a generic term, the rule determines the sense to be, that each individual church is built on the rock, and each individual church has the promise that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it. But this, as Mr. Courtney himself has admitted, cannot be the meaning of the passage.

But is the rule universal? May there not be exceptions, in which the affirmations that refer to generic terms, relate to the species as a whole, and not to the individuals? That there are exceptions, is admitted. A sentence may be so constructed that, if interpreted according to the rule, it makes no sense, or a sense known not to have been intended by the writer: we are, therefore, compelled to account it an exception. Such a sentence Mr. Courtney has given us: “The jury is ‘built‘ upon the ‘rock’ of the constitution, and the councils of tyrants can never ‘prevail against’ or overthrow it.” This sentence does not conform to the rule. It was constructed for the purpose of furnishing a parallel to the words of Christ: but we may well doubt whether Mr. Courtney himself would ever write such a sentence in the ordinary course of composition. Besides, it does not appear that the sentence expresses what is required by its supposed parallelism to the words of Christ. The promise of perpetuity to the church had not failed, when corruption overspread all the earth, except in the valleys of Piedmont, or the mountains of Wales. But if tyranny had banished the mode of trial by jury from all the earth except in a single obscure court, would any writer say, The jury is built, &c., and the councils of tyrants have not prevailed against it? Any one who should speak or write thus, would depart from all the usual forms of language.

Another difficulty still remains, arising from the use of the pronoun my: “I will build my church.” Although the phrase, the horse, may be used generically, the phrase, my horse, is never so used; and the presence of the pronoun is very unfavorable to the interpreting of “my church” as generic. Mr. C. thinks that the juries in the dominions of Queen Victoria, acting by her authority, may be generically called her jury but if her Majesty, in an address to Parliament, should say, “My jury is built on the rock of the constitution, and the councils of tyrants can never prevail against it,” we may well doubt whether her language would be understood.

In the interpretation of Scripture, unusual forms of expression are never to be supposed without necessity; and the most natural interpretation, that interpretation which most nearly conforms to the usus loquendi, is always to be preferred. The difficulties which attend the interpretation of the text under consideration, when the phrase, my church, is taken generically, vanish when it is understood to be a collective term, including the whole body of Christ’s people in every age and country.

The rule which has been given respecting generic nouns might be illustrated by innumerable examples. It is said of leviathan: “The arrow cannot make him flee.”[4] The intrepidity here attributed to him, is attributed to each individual animal of the species. It belongs to the whole species, yet not to the whole as an aggregate body, but to every individual. We may say, “The hyena is ferocious; and no human skill has ever tamed him.” The ferocity here attributed to the hyena belongs to each individual of the species; and the taming of any one hyena would falsify the assertion. On the same principle, the declaration of Christ, The gates of hell shall never prevail against it, cannot be true, if the pronoun “it” refer to church as a generic noun; for not only one, but many, very many, individuals of the genus have been prevailed against.

Scarcely any rule of language is without exception. Men consult convenience in speaking or writing; and, when they have no fear of being misunderstood, they allow themselves much liberty in the use of words and forms of speech. If any one choose to try his skill in inventing sentences which will not conform to the rule that we have stated, he may succeed; but he will find, on careful examination, that there is some peculiarity which allows the departure from rule. Mr. C. has very properly regarded the generic noun as “representative.” One individual is contemplated and spoken of, as representing every individual of the genus. If a noun, generic in its form, is so used as not to retain the “representative” character, but to denote the entire genus directly, and without representation, it becomes in fact a collective noun. It is possible to construct sentences of this kind, which will be apparent exceptions to the rule; and if the text under consideration be an exception of this kind, the word church, instead of being generic or representative, is collective. If the term “church” signifies a local church., considered as a representative of all local churches, the promise that the gates of hell shall never prevail against it, must belong to every local church. But this is not true; and, therefore, the generic interpretation of the passage is inadmissible.

“Because I persecuted the church of God.”[5] “Beyond measure I persecuted the church of God, and wasted it.”[6] “Concerning zeal persecuting the church.”[7]

These passages cannot be relied on for proof, that the signification of the word church ever extends beyond the limits of a local assembly. During the time of Saul’s persecution, the only church in existence, so far as we have information in the sacred history, was the church of Jerusalem. Of this church he made havoc, and to this church the three texts above quoted may be understood to refer. But when it has been ascertained from other Scriptures, that, in some manner, the word obtains a more extended signification, the possibility is suggested that it may have a wider signification in these texts. Paul does not say that he persecuted the church which was at Jerusalem. Although this was the only church in existence at the time of his persecution, many others had been planted before he wrote these words. Had his mind, in speaking of his persecutions, been fixed on the church at Jerusalem as a local assembly, it would have been natural to distinguish it from the numerous other local churches that had afterwards originated. When Paul wrote, the church at Jerusalem was no longer the church, but only one of the churches. It is, therefore, probable that he used the phrase, the church, in its wide signification; and the question again comes up, How does it obtain this extended signification? Is it as a collective or as a generic term?

When Christ met Saul on his way to Damascus, he said to him, “Why persecutest thou me? I am Jesus whom thou persecutest.” The meaning of this language may be learned from the words which, we are informed, he will use on the last day, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”[8] His charge was brought against Saul, because he persecuted his followers, the members of his mystical body. This persecution is explained elsewhere: “Many of the saints did I shut up in prison. And when they were put to death, I gave my voice against them. And I punished them oft in every synagogue, and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly mad against them, I persecuted them even to strange cities.”[9] The saints were the objects of Saul’s persecution, and not an institution of Christ called the church. It was not the institution that he put into prison, condemned to death, and compelled to blaspheme, but “men and women;” were the objects of his hatred and fury. He did not persecute the institution, either as the individual institution in Jerusalem, or as a genus, of which this individual institution served as a specimen and representative. But he persecuted the saints; and the term church denotes the saints in no other way than as a collective noun. As a generic term, the word church could not denote the object of the persecution.

As in the former case, so in this, Mr. C. constructs a sentence which he considers parallel to the words of Paul. “I am a cotton planter, and yet I am not worthy to be called a cotton planter, because, some twenty years ago, I was bitterly opposed to Whitney and the cotton-gin.” Here the name cotton-gin is clearly generic. The object of dislike is the machine or organ, and not the wood and iron which composed it. Just so, if the persecution of Saul was directed against the church generically understood, it was against the church as an organization, and not against the men and women who were members of it. But the exceeding madness of Saul was against the persons, not against their ecclesiastical organization.

In the sentence, “I persecuted the church and wasted it,” there is a peculiarity which deserves to be noticed. As the object of persecution, the term church conveys plurality of idea; for the persecution fell on the individual members, and not on the body as a unit: but as the object of the wasting, unity of idea is presented; for it was the body, and not each individual member, that was laid waste. This two-fold use precisely accords with what is known concerning collective nouns, and recognised in the rule of grammar before cited; but it ill accords with the usage respecting generic nouns. A cotton planter might hate and oppose the cotton gin as a genus; but how he could lay it waste generically or representatively is not clear. No good writer would say, he destroyed the snake and the tree in the island, using the terms snake and tree generically; but, to express the meaning in language which usage approves, he would say, “he destroyed the snakes and the trees in the island.” Other sentences may be constructed in which the uncouthness of such generic use of nouns may be less apparent, but it is never in accordance with prevalent usage. Common sense which Mr. Courtney very highly and very justly commends, seeks to interpret language according to common usage; and it will naturally and readily understand Paul to mean that he wasted the church by persecuting its members; and, therefore, conceived of the church as a collection of men, and used the name by which he designated it as a collective, and not as a generic noun.

The distinction between an organization, and the individuals composing it, is very strongly drawn by Mr. C. when he inveighs against various ecclesiastical organizations of the present day, and charges them with being rebels against Christ; but, at the same time, explains, that he does not make this charge against the individual members. If common sense will keep this distinction steadily in view, when interpreting the texts under consideration, it will clearly perceive, that the object of Paul’s hatred and persecution was not the organization, but the men and women, whom he regarded as worthy of death; not because of the organization, but because of their being Christians.

“To the intent that now unto the principalities and powers in heavenly places, might be known by the church the manifold wisdom of God.”[10]

“Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”[11]

Mr. Courtney thinks the term church used generically in both these passages. According to his custom, he constructs sentences which he regards as parallel. The first is: “In order that unto kings and princes, in their palaces and on their thrones, might be made known through the engine [steam-engine] the manifold skill of the inventor.” As the skill of the mechanic is exhibited in the construction of the steam-engine, so the wisdom of God is exhibited to the admiration of angels in the institution of the church; that is, of local churches as a genus. This he understands to be the import of the first passage.

Paul’s mind, when he penned this chapter, was filled with grand subjects–the unsearchable riches of Christ, the love of Christ which passeth knowledge, and the manifold wisdom of God. In the beginning of the epistle, he had spoken of the great scheme of salvation, in which God “has abounded toward us in all wisdom and prudence.” This wonderful scheme, in which Christ is exhibited as the wisdom of God, and into which the angels, those bright intelligences that have long contemplated the wisdom of God in creation and providence, desire to look, that they may learn the higher wisdom displayed in redemption; this wonderful scheme, in all its glorious provisions, was still before the mind of Paul when he wrote the third chapter of the epistle. The whole context proves this. It was the wisdom of God in the redemption and salvation of the universal church, that, in his view, engaged the attention of angels. How does the sublimity of the thought vanish, in Mr. Courtney’s interpretation of the passage! It represents the angels as learning the manifold wisdom of God, from the institution of local churches, and their adaptedness to the purposes for which they were designed. These bright spirits leave their celestial abodes, and come down to contemplate a local church of the right order, and admire the manifold wisdom of God in the contrivance of such a machinery; and its superiority to the ecclesiastical organizations of human contrivance. Lest my reader may suspect that I misrepresent Mr. Courtney’s interpretation of the text, I will quote his words:–

“The idea in the first of these two passages is, that the angels of God, who are elsewhere called principalities and powers, might look at this wonderful contrivance of Jesus Christ for the execution of his laws, and the promotion of the comfort and piety of his people, and see in it evidences of the wisdom of God. It was a divine contrivance, and characterized by infinite wisdom. Nothing else could possibly have done so well. Men have not believed this. Men have all the time been tinkering at God’s plan and trying to mend it. Men have set it aside, and substituted others in its place; but to the angels it appears the very perfection of wisdom. And it was one object of God in having the church established, that his wisdom might, through it, be known to those heavenly powers and principalities. But now, what was this plan? What was this church? It was, as we have seen, a local assembly, in which each member was the equal of every other, and by whom, in the name of Christ, and by authority from him, his ordinances were to be administered, and his laws enforced.”

The sentence constructed as a parallel to the other text, is as follows: “Let the poetry of Shakespeare be honored in the theatre by managers and actors, even to the end of time.” We make no objection to this sentence, but its parallelism to the text fails in an important particular. Paul did not say, “Be glory in the church to the end of time.” Local churches, like theatres, exist only in the present world; and when the end of time arrives, they will cease to exist. It is therefore impossible that this text should refer to local churches, either as a genus, or as individuals; for it speaks of glory in the church, world without end.

Several passages in the New Testament speak of the church as identical with the body of Christ. It, therefore, becomes important in our present inquiry, to investigate the meaning of this last phrase. Mr. Courtney commences this investigation, by citing Romans xii. 4, 5: “As we have many members in one body, and all members have not the same office, so we being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another.”

From this passage, we learn that the body of Christ is not a conglomeration of all the local churches. They who hold this opinion, may defend it from the arguments of Mr. Courtney, as best they can. The members of Christ’s body are individual Christians, and not churches: but the question remains, whether it includes all Christians, or only some of them. Mr. C. thinks it perfectly clear that, in this passage, it signifies only the saints who were members of the church at Rome, to whom this epistle was addressed; and he quotes, as decisive on this point, the words, “I say to every man that is among you,”[12] putting the pronoun “you” in small capitals. But this is not the only pronoun which might be so distinguished in the passage. Paul says, “We, being many, are one body in Christ,”[13] including himself among the members of Christ’s body, to which the saints at Rome belonged. But Paul was not a member of the local church at Rome. When he wrote this epistle, he had never seen that church; but expected to see them for the first time, when he should make his contemplated journey into Spain.[14] It is hence clear, that the body of Christ included more than the members of that local church. The same may be inferred from ver. 13, “distributing to the necessities of saints.” The kind affections, which Paul enjoined on them to exercise, were not to be confined to the saints at Rome, as if they only were members of this body; but all saints were to be accounted co-members with them, and entitled to their sympathies. This appears also in the words, “given to hospitality.” Rome was the centre of the Roman empire, the great city of the world, to which men flocked from all nations; and the hospitality here enjoined, must be understood to have for its objects, not the members of that local church only, but all the disciples of Christ who might visit the metropolis.

Mr. Courtney’s exposition of the phrase “the body of Christ,” is liable to a serious and fatal objection. It converts the beautiful figure which the Holy Spirit employs to represent the union between Christ and his people, into a monster, having one head and many bodies. Every local church is considered a body of Christ; and he is therefore the head of as many bodies, as there are local churches in the world. In Paul’s view, Christ’s body is one, and not many, though consisting of many members. “We, being many, are one body.” His doctrine contemplates one God, one Lord, one Spirit, one faith, one hope, one baptism, and also one body;[15] but the doctrine of Mr. C. destroys the last of these seven unities, and makes it, not one, but thousands.

The doctrine of Mr. C. cannot be relieved from this objection, by the consideration that the churches, though many, are generically one. The members of the church at Rome, were members of a particular, and not of a generic church. A generic church cannot have actual existence, any more than a generic horse, which is neither black, white, bay, nor speckled; but exists only as a mental conception. Mr. C. objects strongly to the opinion, that the term church denotes the church universal, because, he alleges, that this universal body exists only in the imagination; but this misapplied objection falls with crushing weight on his own ideal church generic.

“Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” As the other body of Christ means, according to Mr. C., the church at Rome, this body of Christ means the church at Corinth. The same difficulty as before, recurs here. Paul considered himself a member of the church here intended: “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body.” And it appears,[16] that he was not the only apostle whose membership was in this church: “God hath set some in the church; first, apostles.” Peter had a party in this church, who said, “We are of Cephas;” but no one has hence inferred, that Peter’s church-membership was at Corinth–and there is as little proof that Paul and Apollos, though made heads of factions there, had membership in that particular locality. Paul does indeed say to the Corinthians, “Ye are the body of Christ;” but he says also, “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body.” Paul contemplated the saints at Corinth, as members with himself and all the apostles, of that one body in which the one Spirit operated; and by whose operation, all, whether Jews or Gentiles, are brought into one body. So it is said in another place “He hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us [Jews and Gentiles], to make in himself of twain one new man, and that he might reconcile both unto God in one body.”[17] This one body, this one new man, was not the local church at Corinth, or any other local church, or the church generic; but the universal church, the body of which Christ is the head, and all his people are members.

“And gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.”[18] This passage declares the church, and the body of Christ, to be identical; and what is affirmed, by no means agrees with the supposition that the body intended, is a local church, the church at Ephesus. Christ was not made head over all things, for the special benefit of this church; and this church was not the fulness of him that filleth all in all. Nor can this passage refer to the church generic. The nouns in apposition, “body and fulness,” forbid this interpretation. The word body is generic in the phrase “the body without the Spirit is dead,” and the generic use of it in this case, is apparent to common sense; but common sense cannot comprehend how the body of Christ can be generic. His literal body was not a genus; and to suppose his mystic body to be a genus, perplexes common sense, and obscures plain Scripture. The word “fulness” is abstract; and to take it generically, requires a generalization of abstractions which confounds common sense. Besides, if “the church” signifies the church at Ephesus, or any other local church, as a representative of the genus, it follows that each particular church, however small, is the fulness of him that filleth all in all. This notion, therefore, multiplies not only the body of Christ, but also the divine fulnesses, to an extent equal to the number of local churches; but the context leads to the true interpretation of the passage–an interpretation simple, clear, and free from all obscurity. The grand scheme of redemption and salvation by Christ, filled the expanded mind of Paul. The gathering together of all things in Christ, the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and the admission of the Gentiles to be fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God, are subjects which engaged his thoughts, and burst forth from his full soul, in the sublime language in which he here writes. And who are the saints that constitute Christ’s inheritance, among whom the Ephesians had been admitted as fellow-citizens? Unquestionably not the church at Ephesus. They can be no other than the whole redeemed people of Christ, the whole household of faith. Jews and Gentiles were united under the gospel; constituted one fold, under Christ, the one shepherd; one body, of which he is the head; one family, gathered together in him; one house, over which he, the Son, presides. This body was not a local church. The epistle to the Hebrews was not addressed to a local church; and Paul says of all the Hebrew Christians, “Whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence; and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end.” Amongst these Hebrew Christians, believing Gentiles had been received into the same family as members of the same household. To this united family, the entire household, the whole context alludes; and any interpretation which turns the thought from this great body, to a local church, is wholly unsuited to the subject of the apostle’s discourse.

In commenting on the last verse of the third chapter, we argued that the church there referred to cannot be local, either particular or generic, because it is to endure world without end. The same argument applies to the interpretation of the phrase, the body of Christ. If it signifies a local church, or the genus of local churches, it is not immortal and indivisible. If the church at Rome was the body of Christ referred to in Rom. xii., that body saw corruption. Every local church, and the genus of local churches, will cease to exist; and the mystical body of Christ, according to this interpretation, will cease to exist, having yielded to dissolution. The promise that the Lord would not suffer his Holy One to see corruption, was fulfilled in respect of his flesh; much more may we expect it to be fulfilled, in respect of his spiritual body.

In the context, Paul refers to the church under other figures: “a building;” “the whole building;” “a holy temple.” These figures do not present to our view an edifice, or genus of edifices, temporary as local churches; but a structure that, with the foundation on which it is built, will endure for ever. It is no objection to this view, that the indefinite article is used in the phrases, “a holy temple,” “a habitation of God.” Mr. C. notices this last phrase, and seems to infer from it that God has many such habitations. But the inference is unauthorized. He who says that God is an infinite being, does not authorize the inference that there are many infinite beings.

The fourth chapter of the epistle abounds with the same subject, and exhibits it clearly and impressively. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to keep the unity of the Spirit. This one Spirit was not confined to the local church at Ephesus; but actuated the saints everywhere. He adds “For there is one body, and one Spirit; even as ye are called in one hope of your calling.”[19] The oneness of the body, like that of the Spirit which vitalized and actuated it, was not confined to this local church, but included all who were called with “the one calling.” The church at Ephesus does not appear to have included any of the apostles among its members; but the one body of which Paul speaks had apostles in it, with other ministers, who were designed by the head of the church for the perfecting of the saints, the edifying of the body of Christ. All the saints are included in this body; and the design was, that “all should come in the unity of the faith, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.” Christ’s body is to be perfect and complete; and all the ministry, appointed and given by the ascended Saviour, was designed to effect this: but all the labor of these is not expended on any one local church. The conception of one head with many bodies never entered Paul’s mind; but, in his view, as the head is one, so the whole body is one.

In the fifth chapter, we meet again with the same subject: “The husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church; and he is the Saviour of the body.”[20] Here the church is again presented to view as the one body, of which Christ is the one head and Saviour; and there is no intimation that the church is more than one. Everything which follows in the chapter respecting the church, agrees with its unity: “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word; that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing. …No man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”[21]

Mr. Courtney thinks he finds a key to the interpretation of all this in the words first quoted: “the husband is the head of the wife.”[22] As the wife here referred to is not any one wife in particular, but is to be understood generically, so, he thinks, the church is to be understood generically throughout the passage. But at verse 28, the generic form of speech is dropped, with respect to the wife, and the plural substituted: “so ought men to love their wives as their own bodies.” Yet the plural churches is nowhere found in the passage. When the husband is singular, the wife is singular; and when husbands are spoken of in the plural, wives also are mentioned in the plural. This accords with what is said elsewhere: “Let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband.”[23] When one of these correlative terms is used generically, the other is also used generically. When Christ and the church are named together, Christ is not generic, and yet the church is supposed to be. Christ, as the husband of the church, is one; but the church, as the wife of Christ, is, according to the interpretation, not one, but a genus–a whole family of wives! This polygamy, introduced into the interpretation of Paul’s words, is wholly discountenanced by the scope of the discourse, and particularly by the clause, “and present it to himself a glorious church”–one glorious church, and not a family of churches.

But Mr. C.’s interpretation represents the object of Christ’s conjugal love as the institution. Though the churches are many, the institution is but one; and in this view, the notion of polygamy is excluded. But the institution, apart from the churches instituted, is a mere abstraction: and is the bride of Christ a mere abstraction? Is it an abstraction that Christ loved and gave himself for, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word? It was not an abstraction that he designed to perfect and present to himself. He did not expend his love and sufferings to perfect the ecclesiastical institution. Nor was it his design to perfect the instituted churches, and present them to himself as a glorious family of churches. The object to be presented is a church. The bride, the Lamb’s wife, is but one. Another consideration effectually excludes Mr. C.’s interpretation of this passage. The presentation of Christ’s bride to him is reserved for the future world, when the marriage supper of the Lamb will be celebrated. But then, according to Mr. C.’s interpretation, Christ will have no bride; for local churches, as individuals and as a genus, will not then exist.

“And fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the church.” [24]

This passage agrees with Eph. i. 22, 23, in declaring that the church and the body of Christ are identical. What was said on the other text, is applicable to this.

“I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.”[25]

“But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant.”[26]

These two passages present much difficulty to the advocates of the generic theory. The first of them contains two parallel clauses, in which “my brethren” and “the church” are corresponding phrases, and signify the same persons. The brethren of Christ are the “many sons” whom he, as the captain of their salvation, is conducting to glory.[27] He declares God’s name to the brethren, and in the midst of the church, the assembly of these brethren, he celebrates the praise of God. This is the church universal; for he says, concerning them, in presenting them to the Father, “Behold, I and the children which God hath given me.”[28] This cannot be consistently interpreted of a local church, either single or generic.

The other text describes the same company, not on their way to glory, but already arrived in the heavenly city. To them all, as the brethren of Christ, and sharers of the glory which the Father had given him, and joint heirs with him of the inheritance, belong all the dignity and rights of first-born sons. Their names are enrolled as citizens of the New Jerusalem. Believers on earth are citizens of the same city: “The Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”[29] Our citizenship is above. We are made “fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God.”[30] Paul says, concerning the saints yet on earth: “Ye are come to the church of the first-born.” All make one household, one church. Some having already arrived, and others on the way. The river Jordan separated two and a half tribes of ancient Israel, on the one side, from the remaining tribes who were on the other side; but they constituted one nation, and they united as one, in their festal assemblies, in the earthly Jerusalem. So death separates the saints below from the saints above; but they are one–one company, one church; and the heavenly Jerusalem is the place of their joyful meeting in one glorious and happy assembly. This is the church in which there will be glory to God by Jesus Christ, throughout all ages, world without end.[31]

The text last considered shows clearly the propriety of applying the term ecclesia to the entire body of the saints. Though they do not meet in one assembly on earth, they belong to the assembly above, and are on their way to join it. They have been called out of the world, with the heavenly calling which is the summons to meet in the assembly. In obedience to this summons, they quit the world, count themselves no more of it, and are on their march to the city of which they claim to be citizens, and to the company with which they are to be eternally united. As the church at Corinth were an ecclesia, considered as bound to assemble in one place, though not actually assembled; so believers in Christ, considered as bound for heaven and on their way thither, are one ecclesia with the saints who have already arrived at the place of final meeting.

Some have thought that the extended sense of the word is metaphorical; like body, flock, fold, house, temple, applied to the same subject. They suppose it to mean the whole body of Christ’s disciples, not literally assembled, but bearing a relation to each other, similar to that which the members of a local church bear to each other. But, on the general principle of interpretation, the literal meaning is to be preferred whenever the subject admits it. The other terms cannot be taken literally; but a literal assembly of Christ’s disciples is not only possible, but is expected by all of them, and is in part the hope of their calling. Besides, if we have not mistaken the sense of the passage last considered, this literal assembly is presented to view in it, and the relation which the saints on earth bear to the church above. To this may be added, that the term church is used as explanatory of the metaphorical phrase the body of Christ, a use to which it would be less adapted if the terms are alike figurative. But the question concerning the reason of applying the term to denote the universal church, is wholly distinct from the question whether a universal church exists. The first question may remain undecided, without affecting in the least the doctrine concerning the existence and nature of the universal church.

In the first use of the term ecclesia that occurs in the New Testament, it denotes the church universal. No local church at that time existed; and it is, therefore, improbable that the application of the term to the universal church, should be a metaphor derived from its local signification. When the first church at Jerusalem was formed, it included, for a considerable time, all the disciples of Christ, and was the universal church, as far as it was practicable for that body to be assembled on earth. The distinction of local churches never existed until the church at Jerusalem was scattered: it is, therefore, improbable that the name of the universal body was derived from that of the particular associations subsequently formed. Even the term, as contained in Christ’s directions,[32] was first applicable to the one church at Jerusalem, and was not applicable to the separate local churches until the first church had become dispersed.

The most remarkable use of ecclesia as a classical word, is its application to the democratic assemblies of the Grecian cities. It is not to be supposed that the name given to those assemblies, implied in itself the powers of the assemblies or the qualifications to membership in them. It would be useless, therefore, to look to the mere word for information respecting the qualifications of church members, or the nature and design of ecclesiastical organizations. It denoted, in the political use of it, the assembly of all those who had the full rights of citizenship; and the place of assembling was in the city to which they belonged. These particulars agree well with the application of the term to the church universal, which includes all the citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, whose place of meeting is in the glorious city.

In the Septuagint, the word is applied to the body called in the Hebrew Scriptures the Congregation of the Lord. This use of it corresponds better with the Christian use in application to the universal church, than to local churches. The Hebrew ecclesia was the assembly of all in the whole nation, who could lawfully unite in the worship of Jehovah according to the forms prescribed in the ceremonial law. The place of this general meeting was in the city Jerusalem. In this city the first Christian ecclesia assembled. It consisted of Jews, who were attached to their holy city, their temple, and the forms of worship to which they had been accustomed. At first they had no conception that gentiles were to be admitted to equal privileges in the Christian dispensation; and they probably expected that Jerusalem was to be the great centre of Christian worship, as it had been for the people of Israel; but persecution soon taught them their mistake. Driven from the city of their affections, and scattered abroad through the earth, they learned to look to another city in which they were to unite in the worship of God, beyond the reach of persecution. They regarded themselves as strangers and pilgrims in the earth, travelling to the city prepared for them by God. As the Israelites, members of the Congregation of the Lord, had been accustomed to travel from all parts of the land which they inhabited, to appear before the Lord in Jerusalem, and to keep their sacred feasts in his presence; so the spiritual Israel are on their pilgrimage to the heavenly Jerusalem, to unite in the great congregation, and enjoy the bliss which God has prepared for them. The pious Hebrews, when journeying to their holy city, longed to appear before God in the great congregation; and often directed their prayers towards his holy temple. In this distant worship, little companies of them would naturally unite in the exercise of like affections, and for mutual encouragement and benefit. So the Christian pilgrims to the heavenly Jerusalem unite in temporary associations, for the worship of God and their spiritual good. Such are the local churches in which they unite on earth.

Although the term church occurs much more frequently in the New Testament in its application to local churches, than to the church universal; yet it is apparent on the face of the sacred pages, that membership in this was far more important than in those. Little is anywhere said of membership in a local church; but the common recognition of Christians is as members of the church universal, the great brotherhood: “Of this way,”[33] “the sect everywhere spoken against,”[34] “having their names in the book of life.”[35] Phebe is mentioned as “a servant of the church at Cenchrea,” but she is also recognised as “our sister,”[36] and this relation to the great fraternity, the universal family, has everywhere the chief prominence.

Thus far we have had no occasion for the distinction which theologians have made between the church visible and the church invisible. We have supposed all who profess Christ to be true believers. In apostolic times, the exceptions were comparatively few; and, moreover, in those days, true believers did not delay to receive baptism, the appointed ordinance of profession. In this state of things, there was no practical necessity for the distinction referred to; and the apostle addressed the professors of religion who composed the churches, as true saints, members of the universal ecclesia, citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, heirs of the incorruptible inheritance.

In this state of things which we have contemplated, the church universal includes all the local churches; but yet it does not include them as organizations. We have before noticed, that the members of the universal church are individual Christians, and not local churches. Moreover, all the local churches taken together do not make up the church universal; for it includes the saints in heaven as well as those on earth. Besides, there may be saints on earth, as the Ethiopian eunuch, who belong to the family of saints, and have not yet been received into any local church.

[1] Eph. i. 22.

[2] Eph. iii. 21.

[3] Matt. xvi. 18.

[4] Job xli. 28.

[5] 1 Cor. xv. 9.

[6] Gal. i. 13.

[7] Phil. iii. 6.

[8] Matt. xxv. 40.

[9] Acts xxvi. 10, 11.

[10] Eph. iii. 10.

[11] Eph. iii. 21.

[12] V. 3.

[13] V. 5.

[14] Rom. xv. 24.

[15] Eph. iv. 4-6.

[16] V. 13.

[17] Eph. ii. 14, 16.

[18] Eph. i. 22, 23.

[19] V. 4.

[20] V. 23.

[21] Eph. v. 25-32.

[22] V. 23.

[23] 1 Cor. vii. 2.

[24] Col. i. 24.

[25] Heb. ii. 12.

[26] Heb. xii. 22-24.

[27] V. 10.

[28] V. 13.

[29] Gal. iv. 26.

[30] Eph. ii. 19.

[31] Eph. iii. 21.

[32] Matt. xviii. 17.

[33] Acts xi. 2.

[34] Acts xxviii. 22.

[35] Phil. iv. 3.

[36] Rom. xvi. 1.

John L. Dagg- Manual of Theology- Volume 2

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