Practically all church historians relate the development of the Papal system (Universal Bishop) with a much earlier "metropolitan system" and the diocesan concept of church government. Pragmatically, it is an enlarged concept of structure that demands an enlarged government -- harness to fit the team. If no effort was made to work churches as a "team," then there would be no need for an oversight larger than that of the local church. This lesson is badly needed today.
But there is something back of the enlarged structure to which little attention has been given. WHY would early churches (beginning of second century) enlarge structure or oversight? Was it pride or hunger for power, as is often suggested? Perhaps we have allowed a certain prejudice to color our thinking. It is highly probable that early Christian had as much or more zeal for doing the work of the Lord as brethren today, and thought they could "do more" with an enlarged organization. And, while we are granting good intentions, let us ask ourselves on what basis any one could justify that which changed the organizational structure and government of the church? Could they have had a concept of the nature of church that encouraged it?
I know that today's organizers justify their action on a misconception of the nature of the universal church. Bro. Woods, in his debate with bro. Cogdill, argued: 1. The Great Commission obligated "the church" to go to the whole world; 2. Without cooperation (collective action) it is impossible for this commission to be carried out; 3. Since the apostolic "church" did preach to every creature (Colossians 1:23) it follows that there was cooperative effort (again, he uses "cooperative" in the limited sense of collective action, RFT). (See Cogdill-Woods Debate, pp.195,196,233,236). There is no need to re-argue this debate, nor do I attempt it. But I want you to note the concept of "church" here. It treats all saints (the universal body) as some sort of functional unit; and slides into the concept of a universal body of churches. THIS "church" must go into the world. To say it is the "church" distributively, as each member works, or even as each congregation carries out its independent obligations, would destroy bro. Woods' argument. Clearly, he conceives of "the church" as some sort of universal teaching society -- as a universal functional institution.
This is the "Catholic" concept of "church -- though I certainly do not charge Woods with the whole consequence. They say the church is "the society founded by Our Lord Jesus Christ" and "it is to the Church that Christ has committed those means of grace through which the gifts he earned for men are communicated to them. The church alone dispenses the sacraments. It alone makes known the light of revealed truth" (Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol.III, pp.744,752). The society must "administer" grace, sanction the teaching, and must therefore be perpetuated as a viable institution so that it may perform these functions.
This concept caused Augustine to say, "I should not believe the Gospel except the authority of the Catholic Church moved me" (Contra Manichoei). It led Savonarola, in speaking of a pope who commanded something contrary to the Gospel, to say, "Not the Roman Church but thou errest." It kept Martin Luther, and the English parliament, and the majority of the Reformers, from the true concept of restoration. They refused to reject the necessity for linkage with the historic "visible church." The concept insidiously permeates the thinking of brethren today who hold that "the great middle section" of the church just could not be wrong. Somehow, the "church" becomes a thing apart from the people who make it up. The people can err, but not "the church."
After centuries of Roman institutionalism, John Wyclif struck at the core of Catholicism when he redefined the nature of the church. Schaff says, "Scarcely a writing has come down to us from Wyclif's pen in which he does not treat the subject, and in his special treatise on the Church, written probably in 1378, it is defined more briefly as the body of all the elect. "Of this body, Christ alone is the head" (Vol. 6,, p.331). We would differ with Wyclif's concept of "the elect," but he did make the church a spiritual body, not dependent upon ties with an historic visible society. God's people are "visible," and function in the flesh to serve Him; but an acceptable association with a certain local church is not prima facie evidence that we please the Lord.
The Swiss Anabaptists understood this point. Schaff says they "organized on the voluntary principle select congregations of baptized believers, separated from the world and from the State." "The demand of rebaptism virtually unbaptized and unchristianized the entire Christian world, and completed the rupture with the historic Church" (Vol. 8, pp.71-77). Schaff, a "historic" church man, did not agree with the Anabaptists, but he recognized the vital role these differing concepts had in history.
What did Christ buy when he bought "the church"? Was it not individual men and women, lost in sin? What did he build when he built "the church"? Is not this a figurative representation of individuals as "lively stones . . . a spiritual house" resting upon Christ, the foundation? He cleanses the church much as a rancher dips a "flock" of sheep -- neither church nor flock are cleansed apart from what is done to the individual people or sheep, but in the identical process. When humble, faithful individuals are made free from sin "with the washing of water by the word" (Ephesians 5:25-27) the Lord is cleansing His church.
The group of men and women who covenant together, build a place of meeting, and worship and serve God for a time, may leave their first love (Revelation 2:4,5). They may continue to occupy the physical property, and wear the same name, but the Lord's church does not consist, per se, of such things. Its nature is different! It is begun, propagated, and continues only as the Christ is enthroned in our hearts.
Deprecating "the church"? NOT AT ALL. We seek to define its nature, that Christ may be thereby glorified.
Robert F. Turner - Plain Talk (March 1979)