Let us begin here by making a few statements. In the New Testament, we see nothing of a universal church. It does not exist as an entity along side of local churches. It is not in competition with the local churches of the New Testament. Now that is not to say that there are not verses in the Scriptures that talk of the church in a general aspect, in a generic way.
1 Corinthians 10:32 Give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, nor to the church of God:
Philippians 3:6 Concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless.
These are just two examples of places where the Scriptures speak of the church in a single universal way, grouping all churches together in a single “church” concept. But let us be as close to the biblical language as we can.
The Bible never uses the term “universal” nor the term “local” with the word “church”. Both terms are non-biblical.
What we find is that the Bible always uses the term church as a group of redeemed people. At times the reference is clearly to a group of redeemed people at a specific locality, and at other times the Bible refers in general to a larger concept of all the redeemed in the whole world or perhaps in a time span of from the New Testament until the rapture if we want to be really picky.
“Isn’t that the universal church then?“ No it is not the same.
The universal church exists only as an expression of local churches. Let that one sink in for a while.
Let’s use another example to explain this. Is the concept of marriage limited only to local marriages of only two people who commit to each other or is there a “universal marriage”? Can we ever talk of marriage going outside of a single local two person actual marriage? I don’t think so. We can refer to marriage in general terms, but there is never a marriage without a particular incidence of it. The Bible speaks of marriage many times, but if the Bible refers to “the husband”, “the wife”, or “the marriage”, does that create an independent thing apart from a single husband-wife relationship? NO. It is an illegitimate use of the concept to talk of marriage as something that is not under the definition of what it is.
We can talk of marriage in a universal way, but there is no marriage if there are not two people committed to each other under vows. This is how speech is used to talk about something in the common experience of us all.
Is there a universal church that exists independent of all local churches? No. Every single Christian is the member of a some local church somewhere. This is our rule. We see the repeated New Testament example of local churches everywhere. Perhaps somebody like the thief on the cross is an exception, but the rule of thumb is that every Christian has to relate to his Christian brethren in the context of a local church, and he has to congregate. A Christian that rejects this is very unlikely that he is a real Christian (Matthew 25:31-46).
Our concept of a Christian is somebody who professes or confesses Christ as an on going basis, and this is always with other Christians in his locality and when they get together to identify with Christ, this takes the form and structure of a local church. This is always, there are never “other things” that are Christians associating but not looking like a local church.
We must be clear here, the Bible uses language that gives us the idea of “the church” as if all the redeemed in all time can be grouped into one “church” that is “universal”, but to be a member of this “universal church” is not an alternative to being a member of a local church.
Now we need to introduce here two things: (1) Where did this come from? (2) Where do people want to take this to?
(1) Where did this come from?
Very simply, the roots of the Roman Catholic Church began in the first centuries after the apostles died off, and pastors and ministers (clearly following the path of false prophets instead of men of God) wanted increase their own esteem among the Christian community as well as increase their power, influence and control. This is where the Roman Catholic Church began.
From this, the control of one pastor over more than one local church began, and they took the concept of “bishop” from the Bible to justify this. “Bishop” means supervisor, and it is only applied to a single man over a single local church in the Scriptures, and is never used otherwise in Scriptures.
As the Roman Catholic Church began to seek justification they turned to twisting Scriptures making Peter the first Pope over the “Catholic” or Universal Church. Part of their assertion hinged on expanding on the concept of “church” making it a universal body.
As we conceded above, the Bible DOES SPEAK in a generic way of “church” referring to all churches. We cannot separate the idea of real true Christians from a local church, because the two are bonded together permanently in the Scriptures. Never do we see Christians independent of a local church that is in an exemplary or ordinary situation in the New Testament. Everything that is said and done is in a context of a local church.
Why is it important for the concept of “church” to be universal?
For the Catholics there is only one really important reason, for control. They assert that the church can function piecemeal, one group in one area doing evangelism, another group in another area is doing discipleship, and another group in another area is dedicated to missions, another to edification through Bible study, and the list is infinite. By doing this, they take the position of Rome and the Pope as the “head” of the church, the “vicar” (authorized substitute) of Christ. This is where this doctrine has been broadened and expanded beyond the figure of speech as it is used in the Bible. Indeed in Catholicism, the Jesuits are the missionaries, and various other orders take on various tasks or “ministries”. Keep in mind that their system works for them because all have to do allegiance to Rome and the Pope. Any Catholic or monastery or Catholic religious organization that breaks from Rome and the Pope is cursed by them.
Protestants have found this very useful in following the very road that Catholicism has taken in fracturing the work of Christ into thousands of pieces. Here we see the multiplication of Christian religious organizations “serving” various needs of the Universal Church.
But is this what God has given us? Has God left it up to each man to decide how to serve and invent and fabricate whatever he deems worthy? Has not God left us THE example of how to minister, serve and complete the work of God in the New Testament in the example of the local church?
We see no warrant for fracturing the work of God into hundreds of different ministries. All of this should be under a single local church, for the people there in that local church (locality). When we begin inventing in the religious realm, we need to go back to the Bible and see how God severely chastised the children of Israel when they did that in their religious experience.
(2) Where do people want to take this to?
The whole point this is that people do not want to submit to the Bible authority and example which God has given us. They want to minister, and they want to do it “their way” instead of God’s way.
As I have traveled over the United States visiting churches and seeing ministries of all types, I have noted that all of these ministries have problems that are structural in nature and are impossible to fix.
For example, we as Fundamentalists attack the compromise of the liberals and neo-evangelicals. They claim to be Fundamentalists too in doctrine and practice, but they bend very easily to fellowship with people in a religious context who are not.
A man decides that God has called him to start a ministry of some type. He goes to his pastor, and tells him about it. Usually that lasts very little if at. Pastors today usually do not come out strong against Christian religious organizations because they do not see these issues. So the pastor is “on the board” or just “praying for the ministry”. Since the man got no financial backing there, he goes out as a missionary. He goes from church to church presenting his ministry and asking for monthly support. Time goes on and he amasses capital, buys buildings, property, and starts his ministry.
But suppose he begins to shift in his stand doctrinally or in his practice of things. Who corrects the leader of a Christian organization? Nobody. Who cuts off his financial backing? Nobody. Who takes to him about the problems his shift is causing? Nobody. Some may say the board of directors, but anyone on the board that disagrees gets booted off the board summarily. “I have to have directors that will work with me.” Translated into honest words, that means anybody that disagrees with me gets cut off from my organization.
Now let’s look at a local church that has problems. The people that are members are the ones who bring the problems to the pastor’s attention. If he does not respond, the people either ask him to leave (kick him out) or they leave the church and the structure falls apart by itself. Who rebukes? The men of God in that local church that are sacrificing every week financially to pay the bills. Who cuts the financial backing when the doctrine or practice is unbiblical? The people in the pew. This situation works, the other does not.
The idea of a universal church among protestants is promoted so that these Christian ministries can have validation for their existence.
All of these Christian religious organizations have to duplicate the physical property of a local church. Yet they cannot operate under a local church as a ministry of that local church because they cannot submit to a pastor or the men of God of that local church. It can and it does work in some cases. I know of a local church in Kentucky that supports me that has their own radio station, and another in South Carolina that has their own Bible institute, seminary, and children’s home (for orphans). As far as I know, both are principally supported by those local churches even though they may receive help from others outside their church. The point is that these ministries give service but they are “in house” in a local church. They are not mavericks that are refusing to be submissive to a local church authority.