That "The Church" exists in a local body of believers admits of no argument. Paul, in all his
epistles, wrote to specific churches, vis-à-vis, specific groups of christians. Jesus, when instructing about settling disagreements, said to finally "... tell unto the church."; of which the local
church is the only possible place for this injunction to be fulfilled. Indeed, the very existence of the word "churches" (28 times in the NT) proves the recognition of the "local church" by apostolic
That "The Church" does not exist as an aggregate of all true (regenerate) believers world-wide (past, present, and future), must explain the unified use of the word or concept in the
following passages (implied) :
MT 16:18 1
(I Cor 10:16-17)
I Cor 15:9
Gal 1: 13
Phil 3:6 2
Heb 2:12 3
In addition, one must seek to emend the concept of "The Bride of Christ" as being the church. 4
In addition, one must explain the continuity of most historical confessions of faith for including the phrase "the Holy Catholic Church" (or equal) within their structures. These will
include Pre-Nicene formulations, Nicea, most consular confessions (including the 4th Lateran, 1215 AD), the Augsburg, the 2nd Helvetic, the Westminister, the 39 Articles (in endorsing Nicea), and the
Barmen Declaration (by its phrasing). 5
I omit those passages that can be taken from both points of view, inasmuch as one may insist that only the visible church is meant. An unfortunate limitation of application.
1 - While it is correctly observed that this statement was made by Christ prior to His resurrection, and so cannot be referring to a specific church (viz. the Roman Catholic Church)(Tho some might
pose a prophetic element, which is open to interpretation), it remains that if He had meant the visible church only, that the use of the word "churches" for "church" would not have violated the
syntax, and crystallized His meaning. I posit that both meanings are present.
2 - A possible reply might be found in Acts 8:1, but one must ask themselves how Paul viewed it.
3 – Cp. LXX Ps 22:22 from which this is a quote. The LXX uses ‘ecclesia” as does Hebrews. Here the OT bears witness to both a “general” use of the word ‘church’ as well as a specific use. (Note:
Where in our English versions we see “assembly” and “congregation”, the LXX sometimes uses ecclesia, typically of qa^ha^l [???]. The word Ecclesia is NOT an invention of the NT church. The Church’s
adoption of it demonstrated their understanding of themselves as a continuation of God’s people.)
4 - One such emendation resolves into multiple brides (or polygamy), or maybe serial marriages. On a more serious note, one may assert that being the "Bride of Christ" is a future state, inasmuch as
the "Wedding" will not happen until after Christ's return. It in effect it says that we will be the Bride of Christ, but are not now.
This interpretation runs afoul of Ephesians (5:25-32)(and others) which speaks of us as presently being His Bride, and presently receiving His love and sanctification.
5 - Interestingly, the expression is conspicuously absent from the Ana-baptist, Baptist, and Methodist confessions. In these, only the visible church is defined. Even more interestingly, the
invisible or universal church is not mentioned or condemned in these either.
This discussion also begs the question, "If a christian is not a member of a local congregation, are they still a member of the Body of Christ? If they are not a member of the Body of
Christ, are they lost? If they are a member of the Body of Christ (albeit a disobedient member for not having joined a local congregation contrary to the Bible and tradition), then is not a larger
interpretation of "The Church" also appropriate?
It is not a question of whether the Body of Christ manifests itself best in a local congregation. It does. But rather the question is at what point does one become joined to Christ and
become a part of Him. At Salvation? At Baptism? At acceptance of membership in a local church?
Frankly, I am not offended by the use of the term "invisible", "universal", or even "catholic" (small 'c'). I find it theologically useful in expanding both OT and NT passages. And, I think
the exclusion of it can make some passages absolutely obscure.
But I also think it has been overly leaned upon by theologians (in all ages) to the detriment of the reality and practically of the visible church. I view the visible church as the first
appropriate interpretation of any passage containing the word church (or related concept), then the possibility of interpreting it to mean "the church at large" second.