Another false dichotomy we have created is the local church versus a universal church. You can find these terms in most theological textbooks, documenting their statements with verses from the New Testament, thus assuming biblical authority. But in reality these words are not used in the Bible in this way.
Church is both universal and local, hence the labels, but I have to wonder if Jesus sees his church through this same broken lens. Or does he just see the church? Are we all members of one another at both the local level and the universal level, even throughout history? Yes, I think we are, and while this false viewpoint may not be as harmful as the previous two (secular vs sacred and clergy vs laity), it does excuse a whole lot of foolish polarization in the church.
When we allow for a “local” church, we give credence to separation and noncooperation among the members of Jesus’s body. We have defined church as a local group of people who are committed to an organization and usually to some property in a neighborhood. We do not see “church” as all of Christ’s church in that locale, just the one group with whom we happen to associate. And we think this is biblical, because we are convinced that the idea of a “local” church is in the New Testament.
But when the authors of the many New Testament letters wrote to local churches, they were writing to all the Christians in a given geographical region.
Today we are separated by minor differences over doctrines that were not even a passing thought in New Testament times. The Thessalonians had two competing views of eschatology. They didn’t have some dispensational churches in Thessalonica and some who were not. Rather than forming separate local churches they were still one family. The Corinthian church was divided over spiritual gifts and especially speaking in tongues but were still one church. They didn’t become two local churches, one that was charismatic and one that was not. The church in Thyatira had some who followed one leader’s attempt to contextualize, which led to some serious compromise. Others, who did not follow them into worldliness, were still part of the same church according to Jesus. They didn’t have some who were the liberal church and others who were not.
We use the theological justification of a “local church” doctrine to maintain space between family members. This division keeps us weaker and is a poor witness to the community around us. We cannot really change the situation we find ourselves in now, but justifying it with false distinctions doesn’t help our cause and will lead us down an even more dysfunctional path.
To maintain this false distinction, we have instituted something called “church membership” and then established hoops for people to jump through to be called “members.” In a church you can have some Christians who are “members” and others who are not. This is a secondary dichotomy that is built on the first, but both are unbiblical viewpoints. There is no distinction in the New Testament between the disciples who were “members” of a specific "local" church and those who were not “members.”
The idea of a new members class is foreign to the New Testament. The idea of dividing God’s people according to those who are “members” and those who are not, and having such membership based upon who took a class or was baptized in a certain manner is absolutely foreign to the Bible. Having part of Christ’s body able to voice an opinion and cast a vote, and others remain silent because they are not “members” is foolishness. This sort of distinction is not the kingdom of God; it sounds a lot more like a country club, with certain rites and card-carrying members. All this is built on a false view of the church.