There are essentially three areas of study available to us in determining the answer to this question. We have the language and grammar of Scripture; next, the concept of the church as it is presented in Scripture; and last, the historical extra-biblical evidence. Each of these should present a uniformed portrayal of the church. In the areas where they all agree it may be accepted as authoritative evidence of the points of the church.
All who seek the truth must allow God's Word to speak to them and not search out the Scripture to gain support for a preconceived concept. For this is honesty. If one has a closed mind, then any discussion of biblical doctrine is a waste of time. The issue is to allow God to speak to us through His Word. We stand in jeopardy if we approach the Bible having the mind set of limiting it to say what we believe it should say according to our opinion, or personal moral values.
There are three prevalent currently taught views of the nature of the church. They are:
1. Universal and Invisible
2. Universal and Visible
3. Local and Visible
With each definition there exists conflicts of theology. That is, each contains its own theological system of interpreting the Bible. So the question of the nature of the New Testament church is important and not one of a simple disagreement over one New Testament doctrine.
As Viewed From History
I would like to open the discussion with an extra-biblical examination. Some may object that this is not valid point to the question, for history is not inspired; it is the record of man's uninspired past. It is readily agreed that the activities of man are not always in accordance with the Word of God. However, it can be made clear that a historical search on the subject is called for. A research of these three views with their appearance in history can lend weight to the evidence of their legitimacy. It must be admitted that those closest (in time) to the original penning of the New Testament Scripture would have the clearest understanding of the meaning of this writing. Unless, of course, it is assumed that almost immediately after the passing of Christ into heaven that the apostles and the first disciples went astray on the tenets of the church. But we have no good reason to make such an assumption, for that would destroy any sense of Divine Inspiration of the New Testament. What Jesus instituted during His life, confirmed by The Holy Spirit in His inspirational work, and practiced by the early churches doubtlessly would have been consistent.
The Protestant View
Was there a historical development of the definition of the church? Yes. History bears this to be true.
The view that the church is Universal and Invisible is documented with the appearance of the "Protestant" movement. It cannot be substantiated to have had a sustained history beyond that period. The purpose and "cause" of the "Protestants" was a breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church which included the redefining of the doctrine of the "church." Many major doctrines and the "sacraments" were then given new meanings. The priesthood, the Lord's Supper, Baptism, Salvation, etc., and the nature of the church were all redefined. Many, but not all, practices were also changed, such as the laity having access to the Scriptures, the removal of objects of worship, the hierarchy of the priesthood along with the "pope" concept, indulgences, baptism by affusion, and the order of the "mass."
The Catholic definition of the church HAD to change in order for the Protestants to maintain their legitimacy of the right of reformation. If they had kept the Catholic definition, then in all eyes they would have no basis to challenge the Catholic Church, which maintained that they, only, held the truth of the Scriptures. Through the theology developed by the Catholic definition of the church they only had the "keys to the Kingdom of Heaven," making them the unchallengeable authority over all spiritual matters. So if the Catholic definition was kept, then the Protestants had no right to denounce it. Hence, by necessity, the Invisible and Universal church doctrine was born. This was a very convenient solution since it excluded no one from the affiliation with the church and it granted authority to themselves to justify their actions. Hence the motive behind the initiation of this view. Further, this view cannot be established prior to the founding fathers (Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc.) of Protestantism. This would place the origin of this dogma in the fifteenth century.
The Catholic View
The history of the Universal and Visible church doctrine is purely Catholic. In the mid-third century came the birth of a major catastrophic division among the Christian Churches. It began in Rome. About this time came an elevation of church leaders with Bishops presiding over other orders. Bishops began to usurp more and more power and higher degrees of authority over people. To cover up for these usurpations they published new doctrines concerning the nature of the church and the dignity of the espiscole (priestly) authority. What was being sacrificed was the sovereignty of the local churches and believers individual religious freedom. The monopolizing church in Rome began to engulf more and more surrounding local churches, exercising domination over them. Just prior to this a split within the Rome church had occurred. Cornelius was elected pastor of the Church in Rome in 251 A. D. and Novatian separated himself and many followed him. All those churches which deemed the Roman Church Coalition as "unscriptural" rejected their baptism. Hence they "re-baptized" all who came to them from this group. Thus was born the title "anabaptist" who were sometimes called Separatists. It was not until the time of the Roman church, in 251 A. D., do we see the term "Catholic" used. It's name means "universal" and it eventually came to embrace the majority of the churches in its day. In order to condemn the "anabaptist" churches the Rome church declared for itself that it was the only true church. The nature of the Rome church was not that of an association or convention of many churches. It declared that all the churches must combined into one, and that one was the authoritative head, the Rome church. Hence, originated the Roman Catholic Church, which is to say, the one and solitary Universal Church. It was never conceived as being anything but visible. To this day the position of the Catholic church is that it is world wide and visible.
The Historical Anabaptist View
Prior to the birth of Catholicism and the Catholic church definition no evidence can be seen of the universal church doctrine, either visible or invisible. These doctrines of the universal/visible and universal/invisible church were born out of necessity and through the motives of man. While there had been heretical teachings and churches before 251 A. D. the church definition is never mentioned as being a part of these. When the anabaptist accepted ex-catholics into their churches two concerns existed; their personal salvation and previous baptism.. If they had viewed all the saved as being in the church then why rebaptize? What would be the sense of it if all were already in the church by the virtue of salvation? What was their reasoning? First of all, they viewed the authority to baptize was only held by churches which were indeed churches by the merit of their obedience to the commands of Christ. Many of these anabaptist churches were also known by the terms "Cathari" (the pure) and Puritans. They had concluded that the Roman Catholic church was not a church at all, and had no right to administer the ordinances of the church, baptism and the Lord's Supper. This corrupt group stood "anathemized" to them. No consideration was given to any other opinion than the church being a local and visible body. It must be appreciated that at that early time it is most likely most members in the Catholic church were saved. In addition, if the belief of all the saved are in the church (universal) was the standard then why the necessity of leaving the catholic church? After all it would have still been considered as a local assembly of baptized believers abiding together, howbeit with unorthodox practices.
Another point of importance is that of baptizing. If one entered the church at the point of salvation why baptize? What would be the significance of it? The Catholics baptized as an initiation into their union. The anabaptist baptized for the process of entering their union and the making of disciples. Baptizing was seen as essential to the union with the assembly, as well as to keeping the command to baptize. If it be proposed that there existed in these early centuries that a dual definition of the church existed it must be proven beyond doubt. There is no indication that both a physical local/visible and a spiritual universal/invisible church ever existed in their minds. Only one view was held by them according to all that can be learned of them. It is not that we cannot know what they believed, we do know, for that is historical record. So if the dual nature of the church was held and taught and practiced, it is certainly mysterious that the evidence of it cannot be found.
The First Church
Taking into consideration the ethnic composition (Jewish) of the first church in Judea, it would have been extraordinary for them to have conceived of any universal and/or invisible covenanted community pertaining to the Kingdom of God. All of their history spoke of the Local and Visible covenanted Israel, family of Abraham. This was deeply entrenched in their theology and with good reason: it was the basis of the Old Covenant. Certainly the Lord would have understood that this conclusion would have been drawn by them when considering the church institution. But at no time did Jesus make an effort to alter this view. If the view was in error then why His silence on it? Not only did they consider the church to be exclusively local and visible, but also exclusively Jewish. Both Paul and Peter were called on this question when they baptized Gentiles, the process of bringing them into the church and thus making them participants of the New Covenant.
As Viewed From the New Testament: The Term
Two aspects bear on the question in the New Testament; first is the word itself (church in English and ekklesia in the Greek), and second the functioning of the church.
For us to understand the term ekklesia it is imperative for us to understand it as those who first encountered it. We cannot in the twentieth century apply our terminology, culture, and literary style in interpreting the Scriptures. It is needful for us to bridge the gap between ourselves and those to whom it was originally addressed. While this may, at times, be difficult it is not beyond our capability (with God's help).
When Christ first used the term it was not unknown to those Jewish disciples. It was familiar to them from the usage of the word among the Greeks, and it was akin to the concept of the synagogue. The Septuagint was in common usage among the Jews in the days of Christ. The word ekklesia or some form of it is used upwards 100 times in this Greek version of the Hebrew Old Testament. In every instance it stands for an assembly in some form. It is translated from Hebrew words which carry the following meanings: congregation, those assembled, to assemble, a gathering, to gather, the company, to collect, to wrap oneself up, and even a choir.
In Ecclesiastics it is used in place for the preacher who speaks in an assembly. The word is also used in the verb form such as to gather together. In every case it carries the meaning of a local, visible assembly with the one possible exception in Psalm 26:5. But even in this poetic phrase the syntax is used as the figure of speech known as the Synecdoche. The synecdoche is the substituting of a part of something for the whole or the whole for the part. We mostly hear it expressed as a "generic" term where the singular stands in place for the many of the same class. As an example: (Jeremiah 17:9 KJV). "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it?" Here "the heart" is spoken of as every man's heart, the singular for the whole.
The meaning of the word can be found in every Greek Lexicon/dictionary. Some provide more details than others. Essentially it was a term initially used for a group of qualified citizens of a town to assemble for the purpose of transacting some civic duty or business. Only authorized ones could have a legal part in the assembly. When the business was concluded the assembly, ekklesia, disbanded and no longer continued. However, the persons who qualified to assemble, by their virtue of being a citizen, still retained that status. The elements of the ekklesia remained intack and continually existed in its essence as long as there were qualified members.
But no individual member of the ekklesia was legally authorized to conduct any business or affairs apart from the whole. Naturally this root, primary meaning cannot be anything but a local/visible assembly. No invisible assembly could ever conduct any business. Nor could anything but a local, gathered, assembly exist. When the members of the ekklesia were dispersed then it could be thought of them (as a whole but not individually) being universal and invisible, but never of the ekklesia proper.
The fact that Jesus and later the Holy Spirit consistently used ekklesia should not be overlooked. The One did not contradict the Other in word selection, or application, or intrinsic meaning. Jesus did not take a word which would have been clearly understood by the disciples and use it in such a way in which a new unexplained meaning was attached. This would have been double-talk and only result in confusion among the hearers Christ spoke to them in the terms in which they understood. When new concepts, usages, or corrections (to old ones) were forthcoming they were made clear to the audience, to those who had the ears to hear.
So from the word itself can it be justified to change it into something which is diametrically different - local, visible to universal, invisible? The concept of something being universal and invisible is not unknown in the Scriptures. The Kingdom of God being one such instance and the reality of evil and good as another. But this concept was not applied to ekklesia.
There are many references to the church which can only be interpreted as it being a local assembly. Could a member of the church ever bring his grievances before a universal, never-assembled, invisible church? Also, how could such a church ever remove from itself any person who is living improperly to the commands of Christ? If all saved were in the church this would be tantamount to the removal of one's salvation. In what way would it be possible to submit to the authority to the church to hear the church if the church is incapable of speaking? At best it would only amount to a very minuscule segment of the church universal. Who would be willing to entrust that small fragment for correction and instruction in righteousness?
If the church is the ground and pillar of the truth, what is that truth in the universal church? It would be no less than a miracle for all the saved people on earth at any given time to be in complete agreement on any doctrine of the Bible. Proclaiming the truth of doctrine is not the basis of salvation. (Would we off-handedly condemn all Catholics and Church of Christ people to hell?) In the universal church there is no set doctrine, set practice, or ordinances.
As a whole saved folks pretty much do and believe as they please. The Universal/ Invisible church doctrine encourages this freelancing. There is no possible consistency in a universal church, but truth is always consistent. An invisible church is never assembled, a key point of ekklesia. It could never conduct any business which has been designated and authorized to the church. At best it would only be a handful of saved acting according to whatever their own theology may be, i.e., sprinkling, soda pop, snake handling, paedobaptism, etc. . . .
Having presented these arguments (and there are others) for a local, visible church what of the Scriptures which may apply to a Universal Invisible church? To be sure, just because a possibility exists for something to be true doesn't mean that it is true. If Scriptures are used as a proof of the Universal Church it must also be a necessity to prove that those same Scriptures cannot apply to the Local Church. For to say that Ephesians chapter five applies to the Universal Invisible (all the saved) church may be hotly debated. But it cannot be refuted that these same Scriptures can also apply to the Local Visible church. So if a change in the definition of the church is put forth it must be soundly justified. If Ephesians five is insisted on as applicable to a Universal church (all the saved) then it must be proven that it cannot be applied in any other way.
The precedent of the Local, Visible church definition was established in the New Testament. So, in order to justify any other definition, it has to be forced to the point that the first established definition is not possible in any or all Scriptural reference. Where is the precedent of another church definition?
It matters not what we may think of the redemptive work of Christ and His involvement, work, in the life of every saved person. We must allow the Scriptures to speak for themselves. Never is it demanded in Scripture that a Universal church be defined. But it is repeatedly demonstrated that the local visible church be defined in order to satisfy the contextual requirements of a church.
The logic that since (a) Christ died to save men and that (b) He died for His church therefore (c) the two are the same is faulty logic because of the confusing of the terms. Both the logic and argument is faulty and irrelevant. If it had been written that Christ died only for His church then the logic would hold. What is presented in Scripture is that Christ died for both (a) individuals and (b) His Church.
So by 1) definition, 2) Scriptural context, and 3) historical evidence the church as seen in the New Testament cannot be anything other than Local and Visible. Why the big fight over this issue? Because of the implications involved. Some believe that it is unthinkable that Christ would make such a distinction between saved people. Others, realizing that if the local visible church is true then by their own denominational ties they are excluded from all that belongs, or will belong, to the church. (Who wants to be of the ancient Anabaptist?) These are not satisfying alternatives to their position. So it must be asked if the adamant defense of the universal church is not a matter of prejudice? And, it must be asked, if the question of the church was addressed solely on the merit of the Word of God is this the exegesis required? Or has humanistic reasoning concluded this position. Historically the answer is that this view is a reactionary stopgap against criticism of theological departures. Any pride on either side of the question is wrong, it is carnal!
I do not presume that this presentation will be conclusive evidence to sway strong opinions. Some might be convinced and that is good. But as the debate, the arguments, and the persuasions continue let it never be forgotten we will all stand before Christ and give an account for our conduct and our beliefs.