The Church

The Church – Part 4


We don’t have to look at all the passages that use the word ecclesia because all will agree that most of them refer to local assemblies. Since C.I. Scofield’s Bible notes have done more than any other study Bibles to spread universal church doctrine among Baptists, we will start by looking at the twelve passages of Scripture which, taken together, supposedly teach the doctrine of the universal or “true” church. It is doubtful that, if these passages do not support a universal church, we will find other passages that do.


This is the first verse in Scofield’s chain of proof-texts that supposedly prove the existence of a universal church, or what he calls “the true church.” It reads:

And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

Before we look at this verse, let us look at Scofield’s conclusion concerning the “true church.” In his comment on Hebrews 12:23, he says:

“Church (true), Summary: The true church, composed of the whole number of regenerate persons from Pentecost to the first resurrection 1Co 15:52 united together and to Christ by the baptism with the Holy Spirit 1Co 12:12-13 is the body of Christ of which He is the Head Eph 1:22-23. As such, it is a holy temple for the habitation of God through the Spirit Eph 2:21-22, is ‘one flesh’ with Christ Eph 5:30-31 and espoused to Him as a chaste virgin to one husband 2Co 11:2-4.”

Now that we understand what he believed, let us examine this verse. In his notes on this verse, he admits that the word ecclesia does not naturally contain the concept of universality. Here is what he said in his notes:

“Church – Gr. ecclesia (ek = ‘out of,’ kaleo = ‘to call’), an assembly of called-out ones. The word is used of any assembly; the word itself implies no more, as, e.g., the town-meeting at Ephesus (Act. 19:39), and Israel, called out of Egypt and assembled in the wilderness (Acts 7:38).”

Since there is nothing in the immediate context to modify the normal meaning of the word ecclesia, Christ’s meaning of the word in this verse must be found in the context of all of Christ’s other uses of the word ecclesia. The next time Jesus used the word was in Matthew 18:15-18 which says:

Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 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. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Is there any doubt that Jesus is referring to a local church here? There is no way any grievance among church brethren could be taken before a universal church. In this passage we also see that what the church binds on earth is bound in Heaven. The binding and loosing here have to do with church discipline, which cannot be done in a universal church.

All of Christ’s other usages of the word ecclesia are found in Revelation Chapters Two and Three. Since these usages are in the letters sent to local churches in Asia, we must conclude that the word is used to mean local churches, not a mystical universal church.

The reason so many think Matthew 16:18 refers to a universal church is because the word church is singular. Their conclusion is that this must be something other than a local church because Jesus did not say which specific local church He was referring to.

This shows a lack of understanding of the meaning of words in what is called the institutional usage. Words are often used in the singular to represent all of a type. Some people seem to have difficulty understanding this usage of words even though they use words this way all the time. The following examples should help clarify what is meant by the institutional usage of words.

The word man is often used to mean all of mankind. The Scriptures tell us that God made man (singular) in His own image. Does this mean that only Adam was made in the image of God? I doubt that anyone would seriously try to hold that position.

Genesis 9:6 says:

Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

Here it is obvious that by using the word man, all of mankind is meant.

Most people have no problem understanding that Henry Ford made the automobile available to the common man, do they? They don’t think that he only made one car and that only one common man had access to it, do they? No! they understand from this statement that automobiles, plural, were made available to common men, plural. Because of Henry Ford, ordinary people, not just those who were rich, could afford to have automobiles.

In Matthew 16:18 Jesus is saying that there will be an institution called a church, which He will build. This institution will be concrete local assemblies (ecclesia), with Him as the head of each local body.

As we have seen, just two chapters later Jesus gives instructions concerning church discipline. Jesus does not explain to His disciples that He is referring to a different kind of church in Matthew 18. Since He doesn’t, we must conclude that He is talking about the same thing. Since the church in Matthew 18 is local, the one in Matthew 16 must also be local. Any other interpretation violates the principles of sound interpretation, especially since every other time Jesus used the word ecclesia, He was speaking of a local church.

If the church of Mathew 16:18 was universal, why didn’t Jesus ever mention a universal church again? Doing so would have avoided any confusion about the existence of a universal church. Those who believe in a universal church do not all agree on who makes up this universal body. Some say it is all the saved of all ages. Some say it is all of those saved from Pentecost until the Rapture. Jesus could have eliminated a lot of confusion by telling us He was talking about something different in this verse if He meant something other than the normal meaning of the word ecclesia.

Another reason some object to Matthew 16:18 referring to a local church is that we are told “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Since local churches come and go, since the churches mentioned in the New Testament no longer exist, it is assumed that it must be the universal church which the gates of hell will not prevail agaist. Again, Jesus is talking about the church as an institution, not a specific individual church. He does not say that the gates of hell shall not prevail against a specific local church. What he does say is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church as an institution.

The promise here is not that a particular church will not fail, but that institution, which is a local church, will not fail. Many churches have come and gone over the centuries, yet we still find institutions, local churches, of the type instituted by Christ. It is not my purpose in this work to prove that there have always been local churches after the biblical model, but there are many books which you can read that give ample evidence in great detail proving this point. I would recommend the following: “The History of the Baptists” by Thomas Armitage, “Baptist Church Perpetuity” by W.A. Jarrel, and “A History of the Baptists” by John Christian.

If you were one of Christ’s disciples who heard Jesus say “I will build my church” you probably would have seen yourself as part of what He would build. Six chapters earlier, in Matthew 10, Jesus formed His disciples into a called out group of believers united into an ecclesia, a called out assembly, complete with a membership role, a pastor (Jesus), and a mission to reach the world for His kingdom. You would have understood that the church, as an institution, would stand against the gates of hell. It has done just that until this day and it will until the Rapture of the saints.

Since I used the term “Rapture of the saints,” let me digress a little. The Scriptures say nothing of a “rapture of the church,” they speak only of a catching away of those who are in Christ. In those passages which deal with the rapture, there is no specific mention of a church. Granted these statements are in letters written to churches, but we know that these were churches in a given locality, They were not one “universal” church including all Christians from Pentecost to the Rapture.

Again, if Matthew 16:18 is speaking of a universal church, why didn’t Jesus ever mention it again? If we are true to the rules of interpretation, we cannot force a universal church into this passage.