Most people are so immersed in New Evangelical teachings that they have never even been encountered with a reason to question whether the idea of a “universal” church is a biblically sound concept or not. For many people reading this, it will probably be their first exposure to the idea that the word church in the New Testament can only mean a local congregation; not a universal existence of Christians being scattered all over the face of the earth. The word “universal” is the definition of “catholic.” Often, terms such as “visible church” contrast to the “invisible church” are used to identify the difference of the local assembly and the alleged universal church. However, the term “invisible” or “universal” are complete oxymoron when yoked to the word “church” which simply means “assembly.” Who could possibly understand what a “universal assembly” is or what could be assembled together invisibly?

The word “church” is translated from the Greek word ἐκκλησία. Before the New Testament, every scholar is in agreement that the word only meant a local assembly. For example, Herodotus (5th century B.C.) mentioned Maeandrius, who held the government of Samos “assembled all the citizens, and spoke to them…” (Hdt. 3.142)1)Herodotus, The Histories (Trans. George Rawlinson), Alfred A. Knopf (New York, NY: 1997), p. 293 Joseph Henry Thayer states in his Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, that “among the Greeks from [Thucydides] down, an assembly of the people convened at a public place of council for the purpose of deliberating…”2)Joseph Henry Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, Harper and Brothers (Franklin Square, NY: 1896), p. 196 Thucydides was also a 5th century Greek historian. John Walvoord, from Dallas Seminary, who promotes the universal church view, writes: “Though the word church is found frequently in the Old Testament Septuagint, it there refers only to a local assembly that is geographically related rather than to a body of believers without respect to location.”3)John Walvoord, in Five Views of Sanctification (ed. Stanley N. Gundry), Zondervan Publishing House (Grand Rapids, MI: 1987), p. 212 He goes on to claim that in the New Testament the word takes on a new meaning for the first time. However, the logic behind this must be questioned. At some point and time, the word obviously began to be applied with no distinction to locality and totally released from its original meaning of an assembly, but is this use found in the New Testament or any first century document? D.A. Carson described one form of a “root fallacy” as a “Semantic anachronism,” which he defines as “when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature.”4)D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Bake Book House (Grand Rapids, MI: 1984, 1988), p. 32

The etymology of the word is often said to be derived from two root words meaning “called out.” Again, D. A. Carson presents a form of the root fallacy occurs by defining a word by the alleged combination of two words, warning that “the meaning of the word may reflect the meaning of its component parts.”5)D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Bake Book House (Grand Rapids, MI: 1984, 1988), p. 31 He provides examples from the English language of “butterfly” or “pineapple”6)D. A. Carson, Exegetical Fallacies, Bake Book House (Grand Rapids, MI: 1984, 1988), p. 28 which are obviously not understood by the component parts. So does εκκλησια (“church”) mean “called out” as understood by separating the components of the root words would suggest? This is questionable. Charles Ryrie states that it:

does not take on a supposed theological meaning (based on the breakup of the word into its two parts, “call” and “out of”) of a “called out people.” If the word is going to be translated on the basis of etymology, then it should be translated “called together,” not “called out.”7)Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books (Wheaton IL: 1986), p. 394

The first expression of the word “church” being defined as “called out,” is found in extracts from Methodius’ book On Things Created in which “he refutes Origen’s view of eternity of the world…”8)Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts, 1867, Fourth printing 2011) Vol. 2, p. 811-812 Methodius charges Origen with being the first to define church as “called out” stating, “He says that the Church is so called from being called out with respect to pleasure.”9)Methodius, Fragments, Extracts from the work On Things Created, 6; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 6, p. 381 Indeed, a “called out” people would be a definition that serves well to the idea of a universal church, but the word was used to describe a group assembled together, not called out. The Old Testament translated into Greek, which is our primary source to understand how the first century Christians would have understood the Greek usage of the word, always meant “the congregation of the Israelites, esp. when gathered for religious purposes…”10) A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (ed. Walter Bauer and trans. Wm. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. Danker, University of Chicago Press  (Chicago, IL: 1979), p. 240 The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament indicates this repeatedly (Deuteronomy 4:10; Deuteronomy 9:10; Deuteronomy 31:30; Judges 20:2; 1 Samuel 17:47; 1 Kings 8:14) In Stephen’s sermon in the New Testament is the only time the word is applied to the Israelites in which it shows the Jews during the wandering period were gathered together, but afterward they enter the promised land they were spread apart in their different regions as the tribes were separated (Acts 7:38).

James is most likely the earliest of the New Testament written, uses the word “church” as an obvious local gathering as it commands the sick man to call the elders of the church to pray over him (James 5:14). Notably, James also uses the word συναγωγὴν (transliterated as “synagogue”) in James 2:2 where it states “if there come unto your assembly…” These references are clearly local assemblies indicated in “general epistle” which has historically gone by the name of “catholic epistles,” meaning “universal epistles.” These terms have been applied to the seven epistles (James, 1 Peter, 2 Peter, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, Jude) because they are not written to a specific local church. One would expect that this new meaning of the word “church” should be found in these “general” or “catholic” epistles.

3 John uses the word “church” three times (3 John 1:6, 9, 10) but is written to “Gaius” (3 John 1) who is obviously one person able to be in one location at once; thus, this epistle is not so general/universal (see also Romans 16:23). 1 Peter speaks of the “church at Babylon” (1 Peter 5:13) where the letter was sent from. This obviously means a single assembly in one location. 1 Peter also uses the analogy of a house built up of lively stones (1 Peter 2:4-7). This analogy also is obviously meaning a local congregation as it presents “a spiritual house” (singular) which is made up of “lively stones,” identifying the members of the congregation make up the local church. Notice that Peter is writing “to the strangers scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1); expressing that each local church receiving his letter in these regions would understand themselves as “a spiritual house” in and of themselves; not accumulated as one brick structured together with another brick found in another region many miles away. Furthermore, the term “stranger” cannot mean Jews of the diaspora as is commonly claimed11)Kenneth S. Wuest, First Peter, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., (Grand Rapid, MI: 1942), p. 14 since “in time past [they] were not a people” (1 Peter 2:10) which could not be said of Jews dispersed among Gentile nations, but only of the various ethnic groups of the Gentiles gathering for the first time in unity in a local assembly becoming one in Christ (1 Corinthians 12:13; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11).

Other passages are simply obvious, such as “the church which is at Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1, 27); “the church that is in their house” (Romans 16:5); “the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:1); “the church of the Ephesians” (2 timothy 4:22); “the church of the Cretians” (Titus 3:15); “the church in thy house” (Philemon 1:2); “the church of Ephesus” (Revelation 2:1); “the church in Smyrna” (Revelation 2:8); “the church in Pergamos” (Revelation 2:12); “the church in Thyatira” (Revelation 2:18); “the church in Sardis” (Revelation 3:1); “the church in Philadelphia” (Revelation 3:7); “the church of the Laodiceans” (Revelation 3:14).

Paul mentioning “the brethren which are in Laodicea, and Nymphas, and the church which is in his house” (Colossians 4:15) is defined in the next verse as “the church of the Laodiceans” (Colossians 4:16). Paul’s earliest epistle defines “church” with these words: “the whole church be come together into one place” (1 Corinthians 14:23); that is an assembling together of people in one locality. This is how we should understand all of Paul’s usage of the word. In fact, we would question, if the word “church” (singular) could be or was being understood in a universal sense during the first century in the New Testament, then why do we find the word used in any plural form (Acts 9:31; 15:41; 16:5; 19:37; Romans 16:4; 16:16; 1 Corinthians 7:17; 11:16; 14:33; 14:34; 16:1; 16:19; 2 Corinthians 8:1; 8:18; 8:19; 8:23; 8:24; 11:28; 12:13; Galatians 1:2; 1:22; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; Revelation 1:4; Revelation 1:11; Revelation 1:20; Revelation 2:7; Revelation 2:11; Revelation 2:17; Revelation 2:22; Revelation 2:29; Revelation 3:6; Revelation 3:13; Revelation 3:22; Revelation 22:16)? John R. Rice expressed this same argument:

Not one time is the word “church” in the Bible used to represent any human organization larger than one local congregation.

When a group of local congregations are mentioned, they are called “churches” (plural, not singular),…12)John R. Rice, Some Serious, Popular False Doctrines Answered From the Scriptures, Sword of the Lord Publishers (Murfreesboro, TN: 1970), p. 61

Charles Ryrie claims the term is used in the singular form to mean more than one church congregation.

Yet the singular “church” is used to designate several churches in a region (Acts 9:31). Here “the church” included groups throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria.13)Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books (Wheaton IL: 1986), p. 395

In the Textus Receptus the word is ἐκκλησίαι, the plural form, which betrays the Critical Text being based on later manuscripts which misapplied the term to a universal sense.14)for other evidence that the Textus Receptus is the earliest text see; Heath Henning,The Textus Receptus in the Early Church Fathers, June 9, 2018; http://truthwatchers.com/textus-receptus-in-the-early-church-fathers/ This proves that the Bible version and the underlining Greek text used by the translators of the various versions make a big difference on how people understand theology. Big name theologians like Charles Ryrie are making and promoting doctrinal error based on the use of corrupted texts. However, even if it was singular (which it is not in the best manuscripts), the meaning of the verse would express the “church at Jerusalem, whose members were dispersed throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria…”15) Cleon Roger Jr. and Cleon Roger III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI: 1998), p. 250 This is a perfect example how people are eager to read their presuppositions into the text.

Ryrie explains elsewhere, “Universal serves well as a label for the body of Christ.”16)Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology, Victor Books (Wheaton IL: 1986), p. 395 Does the title “body of Christ” imply a universal church? How many people have ever seen a living body with its members, meaning body parts, scattered over many miles in separate locations? Paul’s purpose of the analogy of the “body” is to present a local church, which was the common use of the analogy in the first century. Josephus spoke of a “body” of individuals assembled together on many occasions. Two references will prove this point: “And now Herod accused the captains and Tero in an assembly of the people, and brought the people together in a body against them;…” (Jos. Wars. 1.27.6)17)Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book. 1, Chap. 27, Para 6; in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 462 Elsewhere, commenting on the various groups that arose in Israel, leading men into revolting, Josephus states: “There was another body of wicked men gotten together… it happened, as it does in a diseased body, that another part was subject to an inflammation… for they parted themselves into different bodies… And thus the flame was every day more and more blown up, till it came to a direct way. …so he spoiled whole cities, and ruined entire bodies of men at once…” (Jos. Wars. 2.13.4-14.2)18)Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 2, chapt. 13 para 4, 6, and chap. 14, para 2; in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 483-484 Prior to the New Testament period, the ancient near eastern cultures which the Jewish nation existed in identified with this terminology of a “body” being a local assembly. For example, in the Ugaritic myth “Poems about Baal and Anath” used the common expression of an “Assembled Body.”19)“Poems about Baal and Anath,” (trans. H. L. Ginsberg) in The Ancient Near East (Ed. James Pritchard) Princeton University Press (Princeton, New Jersy: 1958), Vol. 1, p. 94 Paul’s use of the analogy is also evident when not reading presuppositions into his writings. For example, the most elaborate use of the “body” analogy in found in 1 Corinthians, which was written to “church of God which is at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Hence, he is commending this local church to be united because of the many divisions and factions that had developed (1 Corinthians 1:10; 3:3; 11:18-19). Notice the first mention of division is to acknowledge the purpose of the epistle and the last mention of division is right in the context where the references of the phrase “body of Christ” is concentrated (1 Corinthians 10:16; 11:29; 12:12; 12:27). This first mention of “the body of Christ” is starting his comments of the Lord Table being part of the ancient practice that sharing a meal is a treaty of unity among people. In chapter 12, the topic of spiritual gifts is for edifying the local church. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Here reveals the accuracy of Robert Sargent’s definition: “A New Testament Church is an assembly of baptized believers organized to carry out the Lord’s work.”20)Robert J. Sargent, Landmarks of the Baptist Doctrine: A Comprehensive Study in Systematic Theology (Second Edition), Bible Baptist Church Publications (Oak Harbor, WA: 2006), Vol 4, p. 568 Obviously, a “body” can only function when all its part, or members are in one locality working in accord with one another.

One important point to touch on here is why Sargent emphasized “baptized believers” in his definition of the word church. Craig Keener, who also hold universal church view, commenting on Acts 2:38, acknowledges the historical antecedent of Christian baptism is found in Jewish practices of immersion. “One Jewish use of baptism in antiquity was as an act of conversion (as part of the process of conversion), although Jewish people traditionally applied this function of immersion only to Gentiles. Peter here demands a conversion no less radical, but from members of his own people who must likewise turn to Israel’s God and the divinely appointed king, Jesus.”21) Craig S. Keener, Acts An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-2:47, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2013), Vol. 1, p. 972 He later states, “Baptism appears as the accepted initiatory rite in our earliest Christian sources (e.g. Rom 6:3-4; 1 Cor 1:13-17; 10:2; Gal 3:27)…”22) Craig S. Keener, Acts An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-2:47, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2013), Vol. 1, p. 976 Here, it is noted that baptism was an initiation into the new community of Christianity, that is the local church. If baptism was an initiation into the universal church, it would imply baptismal regeneration as an initiation into an invisible church; but initiation into the local visible church would be applied only after one professes salvation (Acts 8:36-38). One major cause of confusion is the practice of baptizing people after professions of faith and at a later time voting for them to join into the membership of the local assembly. This form of membership is nowhere in the Bible, but initiation into the membership of the local church at the time of baptism is what is taught (Acts 2:41).

The other commonly misunderstood phrase is the “bride of Christ.” This is presented most thoroughly in Ephesians 5; but this is presented in conjunction with the analogy of the “body” of Christ (Ephesians 5:23). So while Wayne Grudem (and so many others) will maintain, “And the church universal, the church made up of all true believers, is collectively united to Christ as a husband is united to his wife (Eph. 5:31-32; 1 Cor. 6:17).”23)Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Zondervan (Grand Rapids, MI: 2000), p. 844 He must be neglecting again that the epistle is written “to the saints which are at Ephesus” (Ephesians 1:1). Therefore, the references of the “bride of Christ” is synonymous with the “body of Christ,” which is used in Ephesians to identify their local assembly (Ephesians 3:6; 4:12). This identification of the local assembly goes even further to the book of Acts where the elders are gathered together for Paul’s final warning to them. Acts 20:28 is often cited as proof for universal church, as a popular lexicon expresses that the phrase “church of God” or “of Christ” is the “Christian coloring and thereby its special [meaning to apply universal church].”24) A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (ed. Walter Bauer and trans. Wm. Arndt, F. W. Gingrich, and F. Danker, University of Chicago Press  (Chicago, IL: 1979), p. 241 However, these are elders from Ephesus, and Paul charges them: “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, which he hath purchased with his own blood” (Acts 20:28). These elders are to watch over “the flock” (singular meaning their local church in Ephesus) and “to feed the church of God,” which is also singular and logically they could not be feeding the universal church of God when they are limited physically to one location—Ephesus. Furthermore, Ephesians 4:3-6 mentions that we are to “keep the unity” and expresses that there is “one body…” This passage is one of the most frequently referenced for ecumenical purposes; however, David Cloud correctly states:

It was not addressed to some worldwide body of believers. It is possible to practice biblical unity within the assembly because doctrine and righteousness can be legislated and preserved there. Outside of the assembly, there is no biblical discipline or authority, and when Christians attempt to practice interdenominational and parachurch unity, there is always compromise. I am not responsible to maintain a unity of spirit with every professing believer in the world, but with believers in my assembly…. This is only possible in the assembly, where believers can be united together in doctrine and spirit and purpose in a way that is impossible apart from the assembly.25)David Cloud, New Evangelicalism: Its History, Characteristics and Fruit, Way of Life Literature (Port Huron, MI: 2006, 2012), p. 95-96

Indeed, how could one interpret 1 Timothy 3:15 in any other way but as a local assembly? Paul writes, “but if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” How could Paul expect one to know how to behave in a universal church, or how could one be disciplined if they behaved wrong in a universal body? How could a universal church maintain the “pillar and ground of the truth” if the ecumenical gatherings are consistently guilty of diminishing doctrines in order to work alongside each other.

Though we cannot touch on every passage the word church appears to prove it can only mean a “local assembly,” one more passage must be touched on briefly. The first mention of the word is in Matthew 16:18, where Christ says: “I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This is commonly assumed to mean universal church; but that would go completely against the line of thought that the disciples would have understood the use of Christ’s words. They would have no idea of the word “church” could be used in a universal sense since there is not historical antecedent for such a meaning and there is no indication from Christ’s words in the context that He meant to give the word a brand new definition that had never been asserted previously. The only other time we see Christ use the term “church” is in Matthew 18:17 of which we can check how He used the word. It states: “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.” It is important to note that Tatian’s Diatessaron translated the word “church” in this verse as the Syriac word he usually used for “synagogue.”26)Diatessaron, in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 9, p. 85 This would be similar to how James used synagogue (James 2:2) as commented on above. Nobody argues the word synagogue could carry a universal sense of meaning. Josephus spoke of a synagogue in Antioch that “made proselytes of a great number of the Greeks, perpetually, and thereby, after a sort, brought them to be a portion of their own body.” (Jos. Wars. 7.3.3)27)Josephus, Wars of the Jews, book 7, chapt. 3 para 3; in The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus the Jewish Historian (trans. William Whiston), Kregel Publications (Grand Rapids, MI: 1960, 1981), p. 591 Here again, we see the usage of the term “body” focused on the local assembly of a synagogue, which a century later Tatian’s Syriac translation of Christ’s words expressed this same sense. Furthermore, Christ’s discussion in Matthew 18:15-20 is in context about church discipline. This context states that Christ is in the midst of the disciplinary council (Matthew 18:20), therefore implying that membership of a local congregation is existing otherwise there could not be disciplinary actions taken against some random attender of a church service. Nor could a universal church have disciplinary actions on an individual. Also, Peter seems to have been expounding on this reference of Christ building His church when he mentioned a house built up of lively stones (1 Peter 2:4-7), which passage also was commented above. This shows us that Peter did not interpret Christ’s words to indicate a universal church.

Clement of Rome used the term in the local sense. “The church of God which sojourns at Rome, to the Church of God sojourning as Corinth” (1 Cl. 1:1)28)Clement of Rome, 1 Clement to the Corinthians; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 5 And with this context Clement himself is writing as the representative for the church at Rome to the one in Corinth, he later warns them for having removed some of those men that were appointed by the apostles or men immediately preceding them, “with the consent of the whole church…”(1 Cl. 44:3)29) Clement of Rome, 1 Clement to the Corinthians; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 17 Obviously, this is not the church universal giving consent of certain men to be appointed over the church at Corinth. Elsewhere he specifically use the phrase, “ancient church of the Corinthians…” (1 Cl. 47:6)30) Clement of Rome, 1 Clement to the Corinthians; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 18 It is hard to imagine that a man who knew both Paul and Peter missed the use of the universal sense for this word, especially since Catholics claim he was one of their popes. But to think that the word “church” eventually evolved a meaning that was adapted as “catholic,” that is “universal,” putting people under authority of a hierarchy which never existed in the first century is not hard to imagine happening. Thus church hierarchy is structured on the interpretation of the word “church,” which, if meaning universal, we should have such hierarchies controlling regions with a highest authority on the top somewhere.

It is possible that Ignatius was the first author to use “church” in a universal sense. “The language he uses concerning the Church is quite extravagant. Many of the epithets are dogmatic and typical, many are pragmatic and individual. Some refer only to the congregation concerned; others transcend these limits.”31)K. L. Schmidt, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (ed. Gerhard Kittel; trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley) WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids, MI: 1964-1976), Vol. 3, p. 533 He first used the phrase “catholic church” in his letter to the Smyrnaeans: “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”32)Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans, chap 8; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 90 Even this text seems hard to be understood to actually mean a universal church. He is obviously applying a typological expression comparing the bishop of a local congregation and Christ to this “catholic church.” It could be intended that the “catholic church” that is before Christ is the assembly of those in heaven with Christ as is indicated by the longer recension of this text which does not use the word “catholic.” It states in this longer recension, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of people] also be; even as where Christ is, there does all the heavenly host stand by, waiting upon Him as the Chief Captain of the Lord’s might, and the Governor of every intelligent nature.”33) Ignatius, Epistle of Ignatius to the Smyrnaeans (Longer Version), chap 8; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 89-90 Whatever Ignatius meant by this word, and whichever version of this text is the original cannot be certain, but history does confirm that many of the errors adopted dogmatically by Catholicism came from Ignatius, or perhaps it was the forged versions of his writings that presented so many theological errors.

The next earliest reference to the Church being universal is from the Martyrdom of Polycarp. Polycarp himself, being the disciple of the apostle John, used the word “church” only with a local assembly in view: “Polycarp, and the presbyters with him, to the Church of God sojourning at Philippi…” (Poly. Phil 1:1)34)Polycarp, The epistle of Polycarp to the Philippians, 1:1; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 33 However, whoever wrote the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom seems to have suddenly changed the meaning of the word “church.” “The Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium, and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place: Mercy, peace, and love from God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, be multiplied.” (Mart. Pol. 1:1)35)The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, chapt. 1; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 39 Here we see the local church expression, “Church of God which sojourns at Smyrna, to the Church of God sojourning in Philomelium,” joined with the universal church evident in the phrase describing the “Catholic Church in every place.” This is the first unambiguous mention of a “universal church.” Polycarp was martyred “between 155 and 167.”36) David Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament & Early Christian Literature & Rhetoric, Westminster John Know Press (Louisville, Kentucky: 2003), p. 295 However, even this is not as clear as one would hope for a historical proof-text for the universal church doctrine. First, another passage of this same text states: “this most admirable Polycarp was one, having in our own times been an apostolic and prophetic teacher, and bishop of the Catholic Church which is in Smyrna.” (Mart. Pol. 16)37) The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, chapt. 1; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 42 Notice that the term “Catholic Church” is identifying a local assembly in Smyrna. Secondly, the textual history reveals that the text we have is a number of generations late being a copy of a copy of a copy, etc., which allows the possibility that the opening reference to the Catholic church is a late interpolation added by a late copyist. It ends with the copyists signing off:

These things Caius transcribed from the copy of Irenæus (who was a disciple of Polycarp), having himself been intimate with Irenæus. And I Socrates transcribed them at Corinth from the copy of Caius. Grace be with you all.

And I again, Pionius, wrote them from the previously written copy, having carefully searched into them, and the blessed Polycarp having manifested them to me through a revelation, even as I shall show in what follows. (Mart. Pol. 22)38) The Encyclical Epistle of the Church at Smyrna concerning the Martyrdom of the Holy Polycarp, chapt. 1; in The Ante-Nicene Father, (ed. Alexander Roberts & James Donaldson) Hendrickson Publishers (Peabody, Massachusetts: 1896, Fifth Printing, 2012) Vol. 1, p. 43-44

David Aune reports, “The conclusion of the text is obviously a latter addition, but provides a fascinating glimpse of the subsequent history of the transmission of the text.”39) David Aune, The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament & Early Christian Literature & Rhetoric, Westminster John Know Press (Louisville, Kentucky: 2003), p. 295 It also reveals some ridiculous theological presuppositions held by the copyists that allows other such theological blunders to be inserted within the text. Polycarp was long since dead and could not have manifested revelations to this copyist so it implies the abomination of necromancy (Deuteronomy 18:9-12) allegedly communicating with the dead (or praying to dead saints). Other parts of the text seem legendary expansions though mainly structured on an accurate historical event. For example, chapter 15 seems less reliable historically, yet claims to be from an eyewitness account, is likely a legendary development interpolated by a latter copyist.

In closing, it would be useful to note the great words of Chester E. Tulga:

The independence of the local church is not an arbitrary concept of church government, nor an incidental development in the progress of the church, but is fundamental to the position and the witness of the New Testament church. New Testament polity is rooted deeply in the great verities of the Christian faith, and they suffer when this independence is surrendered or lost.40)Chester E. Tulga, The Independence of the Local Church, The Challenge Press (Emmaus, PA: 1983, 2004), p. 16

In reality, it was the corruption of this great truth of the church meaning only a local assembly, which gave rise to the multiple errors and abuses in the Catholic church, and when the Protestant Reformers separated from the Catholic hierarchy, they simply retained the error of a supposed universal invisible church.

print

References   [ + ]