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Dargan on the local/universal church distinction

Posted by on Jun 6, 2008 in books, definition | 2 comments

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 ἐκκλησία (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 ἐκκλησία (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.


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  1. 6-6-2008


    This is a topic that holds a great deal of interest for me. Although I must admit that I’ve not spent a whole lot of time specifically studying it. However, going back to my youngest days as a christian, I remember one of my ministry mentors using the word Ecclesia alot and he would also define it as meaning “The Called Out Ones”.

    Scripture makes it clear that we are called out for a reason. Jesus Himself said that we are to be a light in a dark place. Which basically means that we are called to be an example to the lost. For the most part the Church does not live this way today. So just as you said, if we are to live as the church the same way that scripture applies it, then it will totally change the way we think and behave.

    Unfortunately the church has become more of a turn off to this present generation than an attraction. I believe it is because of the fact that the church (as you said) has come to think of itself in man-made terms rather than in biblical terms. It has basically become an institution that has in many ways become like the world. The church is not walking in its called out status at this time. The church has become too professional and too much like a business and not like a family as it was intended.

    I don’t believe that the church was ever to be associated with big buildings that look like palaces. I think that we who are the church are suppose to be associated with smaller groups of people who behave and care about one another just as families do. This is the kind of atmosphere where people can encourage one another and where everyone would have an opportunity to use their gifts and where the Holy Spirit can move as He pleases to.

    I know that I have rambled on for a while and I apologize for that. But, it is also an area that I have been thinking about for some time now. i must admit that I am very dissatisfied with where the church is at this present time.


  2. 6-7-2008


    In the words of Led Zeppelin: “Ramble on”. I am also dissatisfied with much of what is called “church” today. But, I have also seen a glimpse of what the people of God can be. I am very hopeful.