Not to be confused with Universalism, the concept where everyone is saved in the end an understanding of the universal church is often relegated to the dark corners of theology in Orthodox circles because of the focus on the local church.
Don’t misunderstand, this is not to reduce or deflect from the local church. It is the pillar and ground of the truth locally and universally. People must attend a local church, and I agree almost entirely they should be members of a local church. I think there is a time and place when that is not always possible for some time.
What I love about the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith is the clarity it applies to the church. It heavily focuses on the local church but does not fail to address the universal or “catholic” church.
Chapter 26: paragraph 1: The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that fills all in all.1
These writers used tremendous wisdom in how they articulated the truth about the church. Yes, it is visible, yes it is local, yes it consists of certain assemblies and gatherings of people, but the church consists of the “whole” number of the elect.
“That has been,” that means they are no longer with us, they have passed into eternity. “Are.” This group is currently alive. They are with us today but may not be in the same church as you or me. This is important and the crux of my argument. Lastly, “they shall be,” in short they haven’t been saved just yet. But they will be someday.
Why am I concerned about a universal church that exists around the globe (yes, I’m a round-earther) and meets in different buildings? I’ve encountered groups that don’t believe you can ever leave a church once you are a member or committed to it. It is here we need to be careful. I think this can be abused. There are church-hoppers, and zero commitment Christians out there. That is probably a more significant problem but pinning people to a church where they can only get out if they die is not healthy either.
There are legitimate reasons for leaving that are not sinful, there are other churches that are capable of preaching a gospel message that saves. There are controlling churches that believe they are the center of this universe but they are not and in effect it causes them to be isolationists. They exist only inside their bubble.
Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment. Proverbs 18:1
“This man seeks selfish gratification and accepts advice from no one.” – John MacArthur
While most will apply this passage to individuals, it also applies corporately. Insert the church or the leaders into this verse and do you see the problem? A church that isolates itself seeks its own desire. It breaks out against all sound judgment.
When churches believe they are the only game in town and nobody does it the way they do it they create an attitude of spiritual elitism. They won’t allow people to leave which is a product of control-oriented leadership and then leadership becomes everyone else’s conscience. They determine what is best for an individual. Not the individual. They reject the personal element of faith, and it produces a group-think attitude.
These churches are dangerous indeed because they dismiss the individual priest-hood of the believer. They reject the church universal and assume families and fathers are incapable of making sound decisions for themselves and for their loved ones. They reject the teaching of conscience as a viable source of the Holy Spirit working individually in the life of a Christian.
The way to best love this church is to leave. Tell them the truth in love and trust the Spirit of God to deal with them in time, rather than trying to be like them, reject their thinking and believe that the counsel of many will eventually break through.
Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. Proverbs 15:22