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.
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.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He’s also an Investigations Program Manager with the State of Washington. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?