Theology Thursday - Clearwaters on Ecclesiology

In this excerpt from his work The Local Church of the New Testament, Richard Clearwaters discusses problems he sees in ecclesiology.1

Three common errors cause Christians to fail in having the proper regard for Christ’s earthly church and its officers and its organization.

Many Christians think that the universal church is entered by faith, and faith alone.

Babies dying in infancy never had saving faith, but the Bible teaches their salvation (Romans 5:12-21; 2 Samuel 12:22, 23). If nine-tenths of the babies die in infancy in some of our heathen lands, could they not be populating heaven more rapidly than so-called Christian America is today?

If infants had believed and should have been regenerated, it is still true that regeneration is not enough to give an individual entrance into the universal church. Their bodies would still await the resurrection (1 Thessalonians 4:16).

God’s children of all ages are awaiting the redemption of the body (Romans 8:23, 24). Every Christian will one day be sanctified to a complete conformity to the image of Christ (Hebrews 10:10; Romans 8:29). This has not yet happened (1 Thessalonians 5:23).

Thus, we see from Scripture that the general assembly (Hebrews 12:23) in glory referred to as the universal church required for membership justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification of the body (“the redemption of the body” Romans 8:23). Many individuals who will be members of the universal church body have never been born; other members of the universal church body are now asleep in Jesus while their bodies have never been resurrected or glorified. The universal church, therefore, has never been assembled or had a meeting. It is a prospective Church.

The second error is that the invisible church exists separate and apart from the visible church.

Apart from individual Christians and that series of local congregations or churches called the visible church, there is no Christian church upon the earth. Christ has no earthly church except those individuals and local congregations (1 Corinthians 12:12-31).

The local particular congregations known as churches are both visible and invisible, temporal and spiritual (1 Corinthians 12:27-31). The two New Testament church ordinances are both mediums of visible acts and conveyors of spiritual truth (1 Corinthians 11:23-34; Romans 6:1-23).

One need only glance at those sects or Christian communions that convert the ordinances into the spiritual magic of sacraments, that allow unregenerate sinners to enter Christ by water baptism, and allow Christ to enter unregenerate sinners by the communion wafer; they at once fill up the local churches with dead and unregenerate church members with more members in the local church that are “natural” than those that are “carnal” or “spiritual” (1 Corinthians 3:1-23).

Also notice those communions that deny, eliminate, neglect, or compromise the materials of both ordinances, converting them to the purely invisible spirit, and notice how they dissipate themselves and are utterly unable to fulfill Acts 2:42-47.

The two New Testament ordinances are material dramatizations of our spiritual salvation. The sign is never greater than the thing signified!

The third error in the minds of Christians is that the earthly bride of Christ and the universal church are coexistent.

There are some instances (Hebrews 12:23; Ephesians 5:25-27) where reference seems to be to the general assembly of Christ. But in every such case the ecclesia is prospective, not actual, which means there is not now but there will be a general assembly of Christ’s people. Many of its members, properly called out, are now in heaven (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:21-23). Many others of them, also called out, are here on earth (Colossians 1:20-24). Millions yet to be called out are yet unborn and therefore nonexistent.

The House that Moses built, the Tabernacle (Exodus 40), did not coexist with Solomon’s Temple; if it should have, all would have preferred Solomon’s Temple.

The House that Solomon built, the Temple (1 Kings 8:10), did not coexist with Jesus’ earthly Church (Matthew 16:16-18) or all would have preferred Christ’s Church.

The House that Jesus is building, the Church, His earthly Bride, does not coexist with the universal church that individually in all of its members and collectively as a body will have experienced justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification. If part of the membership is now in heaven, another part on earth, another part not yet born, there is as yet no assembly except in prospect.

If any of those coexisted, all would prefer the “better” (Hebrews 1:11), but that choice was never given and is not now given to God’s people.

Notes

1 Richard Clearwaters, The Local Church of the New Testament (Minneapolis, MN: Central Press, 1954), 8-10. The edition I have is a PDF reproduction, and I doubt the pagination is identical to the original text.  

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TylerR's picture

I was assigned this booklet as supplementary reading for ecclesiology in Seminary. I believe this excerpt reflects the lingering effects of a Landmark flavor of Baptist ecclesiology.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Larry Nelson's picture

TylerR wrote:

I was assigned this booklet as supplementary reading for ecclesiology in Seminary. I believe this excerpt reflects the lingering effects of a Landmark flavor of Baptist ecclesiology.

I think you may be right.  A couple of the paragraphs above have me shaking my head a little bit.

I may be one of few here who actually once sat under Dr. Clearwaters' preaching/teaching, and therefore had some (limited) opportunities to converse with him. 

It's been a long time ago though, and at the time I was most assuredly less attuned to noticing and/or deciphering theological details & nuances than I am now (not that I'd win any awards for such things now.....).

I last spoke with Dr. Clearwaters in 1986 (I think), and if that year is correct he would have been 86 and myself only 23.  He lived to age 96.

Fred Moritz's picture

Tyler - I had Richard Volley Clearwaters for twelve hours of practical theology at Central.  I don't know who assigned you to read The Local Church of the New Testament - it may have been me.

Not only was Clearwaters president of Central and one of my practical theology professors - he was a great personal influence on my life.  I lived in Rochester, MN and was pastor of a little American Sunday School Union work.  The people voted to become an independent Baptist church before they called me as pastor.  "Doc" (as many affectionately called him) knew more about Minnesota non-profit law than our lawyer did.  He had testified in several court cases when the Northern Baptist Convention sued Baptist churches who left the convention.  At my request he preached my ordination service in 1966.

All that to say that Clearwaters had a clear, biblical view of the church.  He actively opposed the Landmark position. 

So I'm prejudiced - he (along with Myron Cedarholm and Monroe Parker) is one of my heroes. You'll see pictures of Drs. Cedarholm, Parker, and Clearwaters on the wall in my office at Maranatha.  And as a note of interest - he was born on June 28, 1900.  He's past the realm of time and into eternity, but I always think of him on this day.

Larry Nelson's picture

 

Perhaps "shaking" my head was the wrong verbiage; "scratching" might have been a better choice.  Simply my misunderstanding of Dr. Clearwaters' intent, and evidence of my lack of a seminary degree.

Fred Moritz's picture

Larry,

"Doc" had an interesting view on the church.  He did believe there is a church made up of all believers from this age, but eschewed the "universal church" verbiage.  And he did repudiate the "Landmark" position as well. 

TylerR's picture

Fair enough. His reluctance to acknowledge the "universal church" sounded like what I've read from some flavors of Landmark folks. I know it was (still is?) common to not believe in the universal church in fundamental Baptist circles. I believe this position is becoming rarer these days. I had no idea where he stood on that issue. Thanks for the background.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Larry Nelson's picture

Fred Moritz wrote:

Larry,

"Doc" had an interesting view on the church.  He did believe there is a church made up of all believers from this age, but eschewed the "universal church" verbiage.  And he did repudiate the "Landmark" position as well. 

I still recall the last time I saw him, when upon spotting me, my younger sister, and her fiance he stopped in a hallway up at the old Fourth on Broadway to chat with us for a while.  It's a good memory.

Bert Perry's picture

Fred, which church did that mission become, if any?  I live in Rochester, just curious.

Regarding Clearwaters, I never knew him, but he certainly still casts a long shadow at 4th even now.  In my view, the church has spent a lot of time and effort coming to grips with the fact that the only man who could hold all those ministries together (Pillsbury, Camp Clearwaters, etc..) was Richard Clearwaters, and arguably he could only do so through the 1980s.  

Regarding the article, I think his points are phrased in a clumsy way.  For example, his first contention would be seen at first glance as an infringement on Sola Fide.  His third point claims an earthly "bride" of Christ; technically the Church and Christ are now betrothed, but not yet wed.  

I get what he's trying to do; he's trying to demonstrate to believers that they need to partner with an earthly church and not just trust in membership in the universal church.  It's a fight we fight often.  That noted, I don't know that he succeeds as he intends.  

Fred Moritz's picture

Bert,  We organized the Golden Hill Baptist Church on the south end of the city.  Under David Earnhart's ministry it moved and became 37th Street Baptist Church on the north end of Rochester.  It has been through several iterations since then and I've pretty much lost contact. I was pastor to some of the leadership at what is now Victory Baptist Church as well.  Those men were teenagers when I was there.  I think of them fondly.

Tyler, I'm surprised you didn't know what Clearwaters' position was, since he states it in the book.

For clarity, please allow me a citation from The Local Church of the New Testament, page 8:

"Thus, we see from Scripture that the general assembly (Hebrews 12:23) in glory referred to as the universal church required for membership justification, regeneration, sanctification, and glorification of the body ("the redemption of the body" Romans 8:23).  Many individuals who will be members of the universal church body have never been born; other members of the universal church body are now asleep in Jesus while their bodies have never been resurrected or glorified. The universal church, therefore, has never been assembled or had a meeting.  It is a prospective Church" (emphasis mine.)

TylerR's picture

Yes, that citation is in the article (above). My point is that he was reluctant to acknowledge the universal church (or whatever you want to call it) exists as an entity right now. It's all prospective with him; it's all future. The focus is always local, local, local. I don't see that strict discontinuity between local and universal much anymore. At least, I haven't seen much written that advocates that strong discontinuity.

I think many fundamentalist pastors today would acknowledge the universal church does exist today in a way, but it's a moving target. They would likely define it as the entire body of Christ, since Pentecost, that is alive right now. It's almost (gasp) an already/net yet motif (oh, the horror!)

 I've never spoken to a pastor below age 50 who believes in a strong discontinuity between the local and universal church. I usually get eyerolls and chuckles when the subject comes up. My own anecdotal experience is that this is fast becoming a minority position.

On reason why I posted this excerpt is to get an idea of how widespread Clearwaters' position still is in fundamentalist circles. I'm very interested to see what folks say on this.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

G. N. Barkman's picture

Tyler,

I just wrote an article on church membership for our church paper.  Perhaps I will submit it to SI to see if its something you all might be interested in posting.  I think it would answer some of your questions, and probably also raise some interesting new ones.

G. N. Barkman

TylerR's picture

That would be lovely.

To clarify what I wrote earlier, I meant I've never met a pastor under age 50 who would argue the universal church is only in prospect and doesn't exist now. I think the hard distinctions of:

  1. local church only, and
  2. universal church = only in prospect

are becoming less and less common in many fundamentalist circles. The pastors I've mentioned it to were taught it, but dismiss this "artificial" distinction and don't hold to it in real practice. Most men my age seem to believe the universal church exists right now, in some form or fashion, even if the whole thing (past, present, future) is still in prospect.

Just my anecdotal experience.

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

Greg's article will post sometime next week, most likely.

FWIW, I'm not crazy about the term "universal," either but I understand what is usually meant by it and can't see much value in trying to reject the term. The Reformation creeds and confessions I've looked at (lately, at least) seem to prefer "invisible" but also do use the word "catholic" with a small "c." 

I think it's important to recognize the validity of non-baptist and other Christian groups as "the church," while remaining firm on distinctives. Reading Grudem's theology text recently on church government, I noticed that he wanted to emphasize that polity is not a make or break doctrine, but then argued that churches can be more or less pure biblically, and that purity is what we should strive for. Thought that was well put.

pvawter's picture

Well, Tyler, I guess you can count me as one of the few under 50 pastors who sees the universal church as a prospective body that only exists today as a theological construct. It has no meeting place and never assembles, so I'm hard-pressed to see much value in emphasizing it. I do think that the NT speaks of it, but rarely. The overwhelming majority of references are to local churches.

When people talk about "the church" needing to do something (become more diverse, pursue social justice, repent of past sins, etc.) I often think they are conflating the universal and local church. If a particular church has acted wrongly, then by all means they should repent, but I can't see how "the church" in any universal way can even respond to the charge. 

TylerR's picture

I did say my experience is anecdotal ...

Tyler Robbins is a pastor at Sleater-Kinney Road Baptist, in Olympia, WA, and an Investigations Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Aaron Blumer's picture

To what pvawter said, there are definitely practical barriers to getting "the church" to do anything as a singular entity. It's like getting "America" to do something, only even harder, because "the church" doesn't have an earthly process for collective decision-making. 

On the other hand, dispersed entities can be said to have done something when enough of the constituent parts choose to act in a similar way. So most of us would say "the church" reformed in the 16th and 17th centuries, for example.

(Admittedly, it might be more precise to say "many churches" reformed.) 

Bert Perry's picture

Step one would be to envision ourselves as unified, no?  Now the doctrine of the universal, small c catholic church is not the only thing that is important in achieving this, but if we overemphasize the independence of local congregations, we are simultaneously going to downplay the universal church and its significance.  

And in that light, it's important to remember that Jesus spoke of the kingdom, singular, of God, and of His Church, singular.  As such, I can't quite go along with the notion that it's in the future.  Sure, that's a consummation of history at the marriage supper of the Lamb, but as The Church's one Foundation notes, there is yet a mystic sweet communion,  no?

The error is when we view that communion, or koinonia, as being fulfilled through human political structures.  

Aaron Blumer's picture

Per Matt. 13, the kingdom is incomplete, mixed, awaits revealing.

Meanwhile, the structures Christ has ordained for His churches are not human or political. 

pvawter's picture

I think it is an error to think that there is some conflict between the independence (dare I say, autonomy) of the local church and the universality of the church as it will one day be constituted in heaven.

Here and now, the local church is where it's at. The local church is where the great commission is carried out. The local church is where discipline and discipleship alone are possible. The local church is where true Christian fellowship takes place.

Then and there (after Christ returns for his bride), the church will be gathered as one and enjoy the complete and ultimate fellowship that today we can only glimpse in bits and imperfect pieces.

Recognizing the difference between the two isn't downplaying the universal church but keeping it in perspective.

Bert Perry's picture

We need to balance the notion of the universal church being incomplete with the reality that Christ says that the Kingdom of God is.  He does not use the future tense, but the present.  In the same way, Hebrews notes that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses--so while we are glimpsing it "in bits and pieces" today, it nonetheless remains an incredible reality for us to appreciate. 

For that matter, the local church is exactly the same--it is not complete, nor is it in its final form, but it is.  

Aaron Blumer's picture

I don't think anyone denies that it is.

The difficulty begins when we ask "So what?" (or "What kind of behavior does that call for?")

Joel Tetreau's picture

No question that the bulk of reference in the NT in connection to the church is a local context. There is also evidence linking churches together (like Jerusalem and Antioch). It would be fun to list out the various passages that speak to the presence of a body of believers outside a single congregation. It seems like in the past I did that - Ill have to dig it up... although I'm occupied with other projects now. 

It is interesting to ponder evidence of the Holy Spirit's move in the Universal Church. Consider revivals. The Great Awakenings and the notable Revivals impacted large groups of congregations.... different denominations. I don't think you can say those were the results of God's working solely or even primarily in the local church.

I'm happy to hear your views. This is a great thread by the way.... 

Straight Ahead! 

Joel Tetreau

 

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

pvawter's picture

Joel Tetreau wrote:

It is interesting to ponder evidence of the Holy Spirit's move in the Universal Church. Consider revivals. The Great Awakenings and the notable Revivals impacted large groups of congregations.... different denominations. I don't think you can say those were the results of God's working solely or even primarily in the local church.

I think that's a great question, and how we evaluate something like the GAs is going to reflect our view of the church. I would say that our only means of evaluating the fruit of such a revival is through the lifelong commitment of those who responded, not through the numbers of converts or even their impact on greater society. Just because crowds heard the gospel and cried out for mercy doesn't mean they persevered in faith.

To be truly successful, I would think we would expect that those who trusted Christ would go on in obedience by joining a local church and being discipled. Only by their continued walk of obedience can we be assured of the genuineness of their conversion. 

This is what I try to impress on people I minister to today who claim to be Christians. I can't see their heart to know their faith, but they ought to join the church and follow through as disciples. This will show the success of the gospel in their heart.

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