Tri-County church of Christ, Watertown, NY, North Country

December 5, 2004,
Two new articles every two weeks. Bible Question? E-mail us.

THIS ISSUE: "The Universal Church" (see below)
and "
The Local Church"

The Universal Church

Keith Sharp

Those who espouse a "new hermeneutic" deny there is a New Testament pattern to which the church is to conform. Rubel Shelly and Randall Harris, professors at David Lipscomb University wrote:

For the individual believer, Christ’s perfect example remains the benchmark for his or her life. For the corporate body of Christ, there is no historical prototype of the church for duplication. The kingdom of God is yet to come in its ultimate form (Rubel Shelly and Randall J. Harris, The Second Incarnation. 6).

If there is no pattern "of the church for duplication," any organizational structure we desire is acceptable. Why not have a pope?

 The first world wide falling away from the faith resulted in the Roman Catholic Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East. Historians, even among denominations, universally agree that in the first few centuries after the beginning of the church, locally independent congregations, each ruled by a group of elders, gradually shifted rule upward and became consolidated in organization. Thus, this great apostasy began with a corruption of the organization of the church. In fact, this very centralization of rule is what enabled false doctrines and practices to rapidly spread.

The first nation wide apostasy among those who were striving to restore New Testament Christianity in America began with the attempt through the American Christian Missionary Society to consolidate the evangelistic work of all the congregations throughout the land.

As the author of Hebrews compared the priesthood of Christ and the New Covenant system to the tabernacle and levitical system of Moses, he wrote:

For if He were on earth, He would not be a priest, since there are priests who offer the gifts according to the law; who serve the copy and shadow of the heavenly things, as Moses was divinely instructed when he was about to make the tabernacle. For He said, "See that you make all things according to the pattern shown you on the mountain" (Hebrews 8:4-5).

Moses was required to meticulously follow a complex, divine pattern in erecting the tabernacle (Exodus 25:8-9,40). Moses followed the pattern exactly (Exodus 39:43), and, as the result, "the glory (i.e., holy presence) of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:34-35). We, likewise, have been given a divine pattern for the church, the tabernacle and temple of God (2 Timothy 1:13; Ephesians 2:19-22; Hebrews 8:1-2). When we follow the simple, divine pattern, God dwells among us (Ephesians 2:22).

What is the pattern for the organization of the universal church?

While on earth, Jesus promised to build His church (Matthew 16:18). That church, by definition, is composed of all saved people, both living and dead, throughout the whole world (Ephesians 5:23; 1:22-23; Hebrews 12:22-24). When the Lord saves people, He adds them to the body of the saved, the church (Acts 2:47). What organization, then, are all the people of God, Christians (Acts 11:25-26), upon this earth to have?

By "organization" I mean "an administrative and functional structure" (Webster. 1590). More specifically, I use the term "organization" to mean a group of people with pooled resources (1 Corinthians 16:1-2), common oversight (1 Peter 5:1-2), and a work all join in as a unit (1 Timothy 5:16). The Roman Catholic Church claims to be this very organization. In fact the word "Catholic" means "universal." The Mormons, who make the same claim, are similarly organized, and many denominations have a universal, earthly structure of organization.

Organization should not be confused with arrangements, methods or work. Organizations use arrangements and methods to do work. The Pope may arrange a meeting at which a speaker lectures on the deity of Christ. In this case an organization, the Catholic Church, uses an arrangement (meeting) and a method (lecture) to do a work (teach). A local congregation of Christians may arrange a meeting at which a speaker lectures on the deity of Christ. Two vastly different organizations would have used the same arrangement and method to do the same work.

What, then, is the earthly organization for all the people of Christ, His church? There is none whatsoever. The church of the New Testament has no earthly head or headquarters. Jesus Christ is its Head (Ephesians 1:22-23). It is a truism that the headquarters is wherever the Head is. The headquarters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) is in Salt Lake City, Utah, where the President of that denomination has his headquarters. Christ is in heaven (Hebrews 9:24), and that’s where the headquarters of His church is. Thus, there is no ruler or ruling body on this earth to direct the church. There is no universal treasury through which all Christians act. There is no work we do as a unit.

Further, there is no organizational scheme authorized by the Lord to tie all local congregations of God’s people together. And, even if there were, this would not really organize the church of Christ. How do we organize God’s saints who are perfected in paradise?

In fact, if some super promoter could get every local congregation on earth to function through a giant, organizational scheme, this would not even organize the universal church on earth, for the units which compose it are individual Christians, not congregations. As a body the church is figuratively the kingdom of Christ (Matthew 16:18-19; Hebrews 12:22-29), and the units which make it up are citizens (Ephesians 2:19). The church is a fold composed of sheep (John 10:16), a body made up of members (1 Corinthians 12:27), a temple built of stones (Ephesians 2:21; 1 Peter 2:5), and a family with children (Ephesians 3:14-15; Galatians 3:26). Christ is the vine, and disciples, not congregations or denominations, are the branches (John 15:5-6).

How are all Christians tied together? Only by spiritual ties of fellowship with the Father, the Son, the apostles, and each other, as we each walk in the light of Christ (1 John 1:3,7). Our only universal Head is the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:18), and we all must obey Him alone (Colossians 3:17). As each of us does so, we share in the work our Head directs us to do and share in the spiritual blessings that come from the Father through Him. I am often thrilled to learn of Christians in distant parts of the world whom I did not previously know about. Undoubtedly there are uncounted and uncountable numbers of people throughout the world who have by faith been baptized into Christ and are following His Word. No earthly organization ties us together, and we may never contribute money to a common treasury. We may never even know of each other’s existence in this life. Have you met my dear brother Sunday Ayandare in Ibadan, Nigeria? Now you know he exists. But as each of us lives for the Master, we are joined in bonds of fellowship in Christ with the common hope of an eternal home in heaven with all the redeemed of the ages.

The late Jimmy Lovell founded World Bible School following World War II with a call for "universal action for the universal church." This concept is the basis of both Roman Catholicism and the American Christian Missionary Society. It is both unscriptural and impossible.

The universal church is a spiritual relationship. Its only Head is Christ. Its only tie is spiritual fellowship of individual Christians in Christ by submission to the word of His apostles. It has no earthly organization. We must maintain this divine pattern (Hebrews 8:5).



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