“Visible or Invisible?”
Terry L. Johnson
This is the eleventh of 18 articles in a series entitled “Who Needs the Church?”
Another factor behind the diminished understanding of the church that has become commonplace today is an overblown doctrine of the invisibility of the church. Quite often, quite unwittingly the word “church” itself has been defined differently by its users depending upon context. We may identify three such uses.
1. “We are going to church tomorrow,” means we are going to the church building for a church service.
2. “The true church is not limited to a denomination,” means true believers are found across all denominational lines.
3. “We are joining Redeemer church,” means we are uniting with a particular congregation.
Hence, there is confusion. When the Bible speaks of the church, what does it have in mind? The theologians have discerned two proper uses of the term “church.” Use #1 above is probably most frequently utilized today, but nowhere to be found in the Bible. Uses 2 and 3 are biblical, leading to the distinction between the church “invisible” (#2) and the church “visible” (#3). This distinction on the one hand is vital, and on the other hand is misleading.
Understanding that the true church is invisible and cannot be limited to a particular time or a particular place guards us from a destructive factionalism. I spent some of my childhood and youth in a denomination that believed that it alone was the bride of Christ and it alone would participate in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-10). Other Christians would be in heaven, we were assured; they just wouldn’t be a part of the Supper. Silly as that sounds, it has not been uncommon for ecclesiastical institutions to claim that they alone are the true church and all others are illegitimate or apostate. Rather, the truth is that the true church may be found wherever 1) the gospel is preached; 2) the sacraments are rightly administered; and 3) ecclesiastical discipline is exercised. These are the three marks that were identified at the time of the Reformation and found in various confessional documents (e.g. Scots Confession of 1560). The true church transcends denominational borders.
The doctrine of the church’s invisibility also guards us from spiritual presumption. What spiritual presumption? The spiritual presumption of those who are still unconverted, but because they are members of the visible church, think they are saved. Corrie Ten Boon of The Hiding Place fame cited her father’s wisdom in saying, “Just because a mouse is in the cookie jar doesn’t make it a cookie.” Better yet is the Apostle Paul’s warning, “Not all Israel is Israel” (Rom 9:6). There is an Israel within Israel, a true church within the visible church (see Rom 9:4-11; 2:25-29). A true believer is a believer “inwardly,” not merely by outward association, “a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom 2:29). The church in this world contains both wheat and tares, as Jesus warned, both believer and unbeliever (Mt 13:24-30). Membership in the visible church guarantees nothing. One must also be a member of the church within the church, the church that is invisible in this world.
Important as the doctrine of the invisibility of the church is, it can be misleading. How so? Because nearly every reference to the “church” in the New Testament is to actual congregations. In the book of Acts the word ecclesia appears 19 times, all of which are references to the visible church. The church fears (Acts 5:11), is persecuted (Acts 8:1, 3; 12:1), prays (Acts 12:5), gathers (Acts 14:27), sends missionaries (Acts 15:3), welcomes guests (Acts 15:4), chooses messengers (Acts 15:22), is strengthened (Acts 15:41; 16:5), greets (Acts 18:22), and has elders (Acts 14:23; 20:17) who oversee and care for it (Acts 20:28). It has specific locations such as Jerusalem (Acts 8:1; 11:22); Judea, Galilee, Samaria (Acts 9:31), and Antioch (Acts 11:26; 13:1).
The Apostle Paul addresses his epistles to “the church in Corinth” (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1). He refers to “the church at Cenchreae” and “the church that is in their house” (Rom 16:1, 5; cf Col 4:15; Philemon 2), “the churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), “the church of the Laodiceans (Col 4:16) and the churches of Galatia (1 Cor 16:1), Asia (Acts 16:19), and Macedonia (2 Cor 8:1). He refers to what is taught in “every church” (1 Cor 4:17; cf 5:4; 7:17; 14:33, 34) and to “the churches of God” (1 Cor 11:16; cf 11:22), and even what is done “in church” (1 Cor 14:35). The ascended Christ (as we have seen) speaks to the “church in Ephesus” and “in Smyrna,” and “in Pergamum,” and “in Thyatira,” and “in Sardis” and “in Philadelphia,” and “in Laodicea” (Rev 2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7, 14). Churches are said to gather (1 Cor 14:23) and may be “built up” (1 Cor 14:4, 5, 12, 19). 1 Get the point? The “church” is actual congregations made up of actual people in actual places.
It is easy to be committed to an invisible church made up of invisible people. This invisible commitment exposes the flaw in the claim to be committed to the big “C” Church, the universal and invisible church, while being unattached to any local and visible church. We are meant to express our commitment to the universal through the particular. A commitment to the “Church” in a general sense is a commitment to an abstraction, an idea. It requires nothing in particular of me. It allows me in the name of the “Church” to form my own fellowship group made up of people who look and think remarkably like me, or avoid fellowship with any group at all. In the meantime, I avoid all the headache, all the heartache, all the trials and challenges of an actual congregation made up of a diversity of people, from a diversity of backgrounds and experiences, and having a diversity of ages. This surely is not what Jesus had in mind.
Terry L. Johnson is the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
TAGS: visible church; invisible church; church within a church; definition of “church”; Romans 9:6; Matthew 13:24-30
See also Romans 16:16, 23; 1 Corinthians 7:17, 10:32, 11:18, 22; 12:28; 14:28; 15:9: 16:1; 2 Corinthians 2:18, 19.