I introduced my readers to Edwin C. Dargan and his book Ecclesiology a few days ago in a post called “Dargan on Ecclesiology“. He was a professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary at the turn of the twentieth century and a three-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
As I mentioned on that post, I was encouraged to find that 100 years ago Dargan was coming to some of the same conclusions about the church that I’m coming to now. One of the most surprising of Dargan’s statements concerns the “local church” and “universal church” distinctions. This is a quote from the section of his book in which he discusses the meaning of the Greek term á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¯Î± (ecclÄ“sia), usually translated “church”:
By far the larger number of these passages describe the church as a local assembly of Christian believers. There is a smaller number, however, of very important places in which the word has a more general meaning. It is common to distinguish these two classes of meanings by the terms “local church” and “universal church.” It seems, however, in some few passages that, while the local sense of the word is not clearly retained, and a more general signification is intended, still the church universal in the broadest sense is not meant. Besides the “church universal” is not itself a New Testament term, and there is no binding reason why it should be employed otherwise than as a convenient designation. The better way is to distinguish between a local and a general meaning of the word church, rather than to press an unscriptural distinction between “church local” and “church universal,” as if entirely different things were meant.
In this instance, Dargan comes to the same conclusion that I’ve come to: “local church” and “universal church” are not scriptural distinctions. Instead, they are man-made categories that are then “pressed” into action “as if entirely different things were meant” in Scripture.
If Scripture can easily shift from a local sense of the meaning of church to a more general sense of the meaning of church within a few sentences, we should be able to do the same. However, our theological categories of “local church” and “universal church” are usually used with the opposite intentions: to make a distinction between the two “types” of church. Thus, we make statements such as “X is true of the ‘local church’ but not the ‘universal church’. Y is true of the ‘universal church’ but not the ‘local church’.” Yet, we do not see Scripture making these same distinctions, nor do we find Scripture making a contrast between a “local” meaning of church and a “universal” meaning of church.
Of course, if we started using the term “church” in the same way that Scripture uses the term á¼ÎºÎºÎ»Î·ÏƒÎ¯Î± (ecclÄ“sia) then much more than our vocabulary would have to change. It would change the way we think about the church completely. It would also change the way we act as the church. Perhaps that would not be a bad thing.