Updated: Jan 5
The Bible only teaches local church. Universal church doctrine is not taught in the Bible. There isn't such a thing — church isn't universal. The universal church as a teaching or belief eisegetes scripture (which is bad), distorting the plain meaning of the text and is dangerous. This is what we hear in evangelicals. Red flags are lingual such as “the church” or “the body of Christ” and the person is not referring to one local church with actual visible membership but to believers in general, or to more than one church. You cannot defend it from the Bible. And there is a ton of disobedience that comes out of this doctrine.
The generic, singular usages of "church" seem to give people the most trouble. None of those prove a universal church. Since they don't prove anything, they should be interpreted in the light of what is proven, what is plain. But universal church people take the non-existent, at best fuzzy, and conform the plain to that. Some will say that some verse "obviously" teaches it, but then give no grammatical or syntactical evidence. Their “evidence” when asked for it is typically quoting a well-known “theologian” (speaking as one doesn’t have authority), and even mockery.
There is plenty of grammatical proof for the local church, which is the visible assembly of baptized believers in a local body of membership (those who have a true testimony of salvation, immersed and further evidence of salvation as found in 1 John, and agree to the comprehensive sound church doctrinal statement and constitution). There is none for the universal. I actually see "universal" and "church" as mutually exclusive, absolutely contradictory to each other.
The universal church doctrine is unbiblical and even heresy for a number of reasons. Consider some:
1. It supports allegorical interpretation of the Bible. When allegorization becomes the norm, then infant sprinkling becomes a way to join the church, which is the equivalent of salvation, which is what we see with Reformed Theology and Calvinism. That has perverted the gospel, and is damnable heresy. Now you can read in denominations, apostolic succession, a human priesthood, and transubstantiation. Allegoricalism is not of God. People that interpret in this fashion almost guaranteed do not have the indwelling Spirit of God. It is essentially the interpretation methodology of the unsaved, who are absent of the indwelling Spirit and Teacher of truth.
2. It causes men to see all sorts of other interpretations, doctrines and practices in a different way, the wrong way. It will necessarily twist other doctrines. Instead of the gifts being used in a church (if they are actually being used), now they are used outside of a church, and someone feels justified having done so, because their gift is being used in “the church." It also causes scripture to contradict itself. Scripture won't contradict itself, even as God won't deny Himself, but unity and separation contradict with a universal church belief. It becomes impossible not to contradict. That doctrine cannot be true.
3. It destroys other Biblical truth. The fastest way for the truth to be destroyed is to get it outside of what God built to protect it. A universal church cannot protect the truth. It doesn't have congregational and pastoral authority, doesn't practice the ordinances, and doesn't practice church discipline and keep out false teachers (Ac 20:27-31), all ways that the truth is protected and preserved. It is a container with holes all over it and it results in exponentially fast distortion of the truth. The truth can only be protected at a local level. Some of the other reasons here relate directly to this one.
4. It disables biblical unity and destroys biblical separation. While the Bible commands biblical unity and separation everywhere (Rom 16:17-18; Eph 5:11; 1 Tim 6:3-5; 2 Jn 1:9-11; 2 Th 3:6; 2 Cor 6:14-18). This, of course, is related to the truth, the destruction of other beliefs as mentioned, including the gospel. The unity and separation of the Bible can never be practiced consistently by a universal church practice. The reason there are about twenty interpretations of Jn 17 is because of the universal church. There is little agreement on what the unity is that Jesus is praying for or what or whom to separate from. True unity (e.g. Rom 15:6; I Cor 1:10; Ac 2:42, 45; 4:32-33; Eph 4:1-16; Phil 1:27; 2:1-4; 3:15-19; 4:1-2) is impossible under this doctrine.
When the Bible speaks of unity, it refers to unity within the local church. Since a universal church can't get the unity the Bible describes, the advocates of this false idea force it in many different places. They sacrifice the truth, the belief and practice of the Bible, for this idea. They go for unity between all believers, never get it, but in the attempt at it, they give up the truth and actual unity. Nothing is gained and all is lost. This error also leads to the popular but exceedingly false and unscriptural teaching of ‘in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty,’ which justifies doctrinal and practical error and rejection of separation for the sake of keeping together coalitions, since all are part of “the church.”
5. It allows for para-church organizations/ activities, which is unscriptural. For instance unscriptural ministries such as Gospel for Asia, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), World Vision, and singing ministries (many amongst the Mennonites), Christian publishers, etc. These are typically affected by whatever it is that will help them meet their payroll and budget, and terrible amounts of compromise occurs. True believers worship God in spirit and in truth (Jn 4:23-24). There are thousands that work in "ministries" that are not worshippers of God, but an ox-cart of their own invention. They are wasting their time and life.
6. It destroys church purity. It happens because of compromise, toleration of and capitulation to error and evil and worldliness, and not practicing Biblical separation. I believe many times it actually exposes heretics (1 Cor 11:29; Ti 3.10-11) so there is that benefit. But its still unBiblical. Most obviously wouldn’t see it like that, because they embrace fake unity that stems from the universal church heresy.
7. It brings the following major errors. Ecumenism and inclusion of all sorts of heinous and apostate groups into the broad umbrella of "the church” such as Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Methodism, Presbyterian (Calvinism), etc, and thus justification of a state church; disrespect of the church (which is local only); unfaithfulness to church (they're attending the big one); validates hierarchical leadership that is everywhere today; discipleship is destroyed because men think they are making disciples outside of the actual Great Commission (when they're not); missionaries giving an account to boards and groups ahead of churches; etc.
8. It fosters the one-world church of the Antichrist, who will lead a universal church into the Tribulation. That “church” will feel justified by the same arguments we see today. It's easy to see how a universal church belief is going there, even if you oppose THAT universal church. It will have the ecclesiology of Roman Catholicism, something the reformers (Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, etc) never gave up, only one of their many heresies. But Jesus will destroy the “universal church,” as we see in Rev. 17 and 18. It is a modern tower of Babel. Babylon is the final religion, the universal church, that will be destroyed, and it’s occurring right now.
9. The universal church doctrine doesn’t require membership, another casualty of this heresy. Local church does though, and that’s what we see throughout scripture. Churches require membership. It is unscriptural to have a “church” without actual membership; it wouldn’t and can’t be a true church in accordance to Scripture, which is to be the pillar and ground of the truth.
The following are some reasons why church membership is a critical necessity and requirement: (a) Scripture reveals principles and pattern of church membership, although not specifically mentioned by word (Matt 18:15-20; Ac 5:11-13; Rom 12:4-6; 1 Cor 14:23-24, 31; 1 Jn 2:19); (b) Each true Biblical church is a body and family (1 Cor 12:24-27; (c) Fellowship (1 Jn 1:1-3; 2 Tim 2:19-21); (d) Pastoral authority (Ac 20:28; Heb 13:17); (e) Congregational authority (1 Cor 5:1–6:5; Matt 18:15-20); (f) Cooperative accountability (Ac 15:1-2, 30-31, 40; 1 Cor 5), including ecclesiastical and personal separation (Ac 15; 2 Cor 6:14-18; Eph 5:6-11; 2 Th 3:6; Am 3:3; 2 Jn 1:9-11); (g) Church discipline (Matt 18:15-17); (h) Keeping the church ordinances: baptism and communion (Ac 2:38-42; 1 Cor 11:20-34); (i) True Biblical unity and purity (Rom 15:6; 1 Cor 1:10; Ac 2:42; 4:31-32; Eph 4:1-16; Phil 1:27; 2:1-4; 1 Pet 3:8-9); and (j) Protection and order (Ac 20:26-31; 1 Cor 14:40; Eph 4:11-16).
Where does the “universal church” doctrine come from? Roman Catholicism mostly. Platonic philosophy as well. From all the heretical protestant denominations that allegedly came out of Rome but didn’t actually (Calvinism-Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodist, etc). Eisegesis of Scripture. It comes about by reading in amillennialism, by allegorizing, by spiritualizing, by philosophizing, and by covenant theology. It explains, backs up and buttresses a state church, denominations, when Scripture rejects this. When you want a state church or denomination and it isn't in the Bible, you've got to find it somehow. This is how it gets "found." Do these people actually believe the Bible when they replace God’s Word with man’s words?
Why is church doctrine so serious? Why should we separate over it? If you compromise on the church, you compromise and give in on a lot of other doctrine. Practicing universal church leads to perversion of many other doctrines, as noted above and seen in practically all “evangelical” churches. Could true doctrine cause all of that? No way. However, the bigger problem in all the “evangelical” churches (even most Baptist, since they’re no different in doctrine/practice) including those among Mennonites (e.g. EMC, EBMC, Reformed-Calvinist), is that of false professing “Christians.” People playing church, a major cause of this false doctrine, and on its own all the reason one needs to separate.
A true Biblical church, “the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15) which is made up of truly regenerated immersed obedient believers should be completely separate from these churches, and not in fellowship with or attending or preaching there. We are commanded to “hate every false way” (Ps 119:128), and for those who are truly saved, they will, because they “love thy commandments above gold; yea, above fine gold.” (Ps 119:127). It is rebellion against God and rejection of His commandments that cause professing believers to embrace heretical denominations and not separate from them. They certainly aren’t loving them by disobeying Gods Word (1 Jn 5:2-3).
The false universal church distorts the simplicity that is in scripture. The gospel, the worship, and the church are all simple to saved people. People that defend this heresy claim that one has to read the local only position into scripture. They claim it came from a reaction to Campbellism. That is shoddy “proof.” They assume that local only ecclesiology started with James R. Graves and that Graves lived when Campbellism started. That’s their deep work but it’s sheer speculation. Some claim that it came to defend a particular view of history, separate from Catholicism. One can't even find that spider web. These are just desperate measures. The truth of that matter is, universal church is taught by privately interpreting and wresting the Scriptures.
But when Peter said no scripture is of any private interpretation (1 Pet 1:16-21), he didn’t simply mean my opinion over yours. The word private carries the idea to take away from, or apart from, the rest. To take a verse alone. But Scripture must interpret Scripture, and doctrine (singular) is all one, one interpretation, there is no contradiction in it. It harmonizes perfectly. God could not teach local visible and universal invisible church at the same time. He is not the author of confusion. Scripture interpreting Scripture is the public method, meaning it is done inclusively with all the other witnesses in scripture, and they all come together to make one unified point. There is no discord in doctrine.
If a person isn’t taught the universal church doctrine, it won’t occur to them since they do not get that from the Bible. It reminds me of Calvinism in that way. Paul wrote in 1 Th 5:21: "Prove all things; hold fast that which is good." In another place he said: “I speak as to wise men; judge ye what I say.” (1 Cor 10:15). Jesus commanded judging (Lk 12:57). Teaching should be proven, tested, which is also a loving thing to do, because if it's wrong, it's not helping the person who believes it or the people listening to it. And false doctrine is always dangerous, some just more dangerous than others and the "universal church" doctrine is deadly dangerous like the death adder.