The Visible and Invisible Church
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (First John 2:19, ESV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (Jesus Christ, in John 15:1-2, ESV)
One of the most important distinctions in biblical ecclesiology(1) is the distinction between the visible church and the invisible church. Our Confession of Faith offers a biblically-based definition of these two aspects of Christ’s universal church in Chapter 25:
- Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 25, Section 1 defines the “invisible” church as follows: “The catholic or universal church, which is 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 fullness of him that filter all in all.” Scripture Proofs: Ephesians 1:10, 22-23; 5:23, 27, 32; Colossians 1:18.
- Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter 25, Section 2 defines the “visible” church as follows: “The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.” Scripture Proofs: First Corinthians 1:2; 12:12-13; Psalm 2:8; Revelation 7:9; Romans 15:9-12; First Corinthians 7:14; Acts 2:39; Genesis 17:7-12; Ezekiel 16:20-21; Romans 11:16; Matthew 13:47; Isaiah 9:7; Ephesians 2:19; 3:15; Acts 2:47.
To summarize: The “invisible” church is the church as God sees it (namely, all of the elect, those who have been, are, and shall be saved by the redeeming work of Christ). It is “invisible” not in the sense that it is unreal or ghostly, or in the sense that it consists only of saved people who are deceased, but in the sense that we cannot know infallibly who belongs to this body. Only God infallibly “sees” and knows His elect ones; we can only know our own election (if we be true believers in Christ), but we cannot infallibly discern whether or not others belong to the elect, for we cannot see into their hearts, but can only observe the outward profession of faith and Christian lives of others. On the other hand, the “visible” church is the church as man sees it. It consists of all those who make a credible profession of faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, together with their covenant children(2), and it manifests itself by certain “marks” such as the faithful preaching and teaching of God’s Word, the right administration of the sacraments, the exercise of loving, biblical church discipline (i.e., it holds its members and ministers accountable to the Word of God); and it engages in certain visibly recognizable activities and ordinances, such as the conducting of Divine worship, evangelism and missions, the setting apart by ordination of church officers, official meetings for the conduct of the government of the church, etc.
One important clarification: While theologians distinguish between the visible church and the invisible church, it is important to understand that they are not talking about two completely different churches; rather, they are speaking of two distinct aspects of one and the same church! While the “invisible church” is known only to God, the invisible church becomes visible in this present age within the context of the visible church. In other words, in God’s ordinary dealings with fallen man He usually chooses to call His elect to saving faith in Jesus Christ within the context of the ministry of Word and Sacrament, a ministry which He has entrusted to His visible church. After all, faith ordinarily comes through hearing the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:17), and it is to the visible, organized church that our Lord Jesus Christ has entrusted the preaching of the gospel (Matthew 28:18-20). All of this is to say that if you want to find those who are members of the invisible church, you will ordinarily find them within the membership of local visible churches.
What are some of the practical benefits of understanding this important distinction between the visible and the invisible church? Many could be mentioned, but here are just a few:
(1) The visible / invisible distinction helps us to understand the sad reality of apostasy from the faith.
As Reformed Christians we believe that true believers in Christ cannot fully and finally fall away from the faith or lose their salvation, for Christ preserves His sheep unto the end. There are many biblical passages that clearly teach the absolute security and perseverance in faith to the end of true believers (for example, John 5:24; 10:28-30; Romans 8:1, 28-39; Hebrews 7:25; etc.). At the same time, I suspect that many of us can think of friends or acquaintances in our own lives who, at one time, gave all the outward marks of being true believers in Christ, including active involvement in the church and in forms of Christian service, but who subsequently ended up abandoning their professed Christian faith in order to go back to a sinful way of living or even to become aggressive atheists. In my own reading, and as I seek to keep up with the spiritual trends in our culture, it seems to me that there is a growing phenomenon in our culture of “former Christians” – that is to say, those who once professed and practiced an evangelical or traditional version of the Christian faith, only to abandon that faith for some form of skepticism or to join the “I’m spiritual but not religious” crowd. If we believe that true believers in Christ cannot and will not fall away and lose their salvation, then how do we explain this growing phenomenon of “former Christians”?
I believe the distinction of the visible and the invisible church is most helpful in this matter. Such apostates(3) had been professing members of the visible church, but by their abandonment of the Faith they demonstrate that they are not (so far as can be humanly discerned) members of the invisible church. As the Apostle John wrote of such individuals: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us.” (First John 2:19, ESV) They fell away from a profession of faith, but they never enjoyed the possession of true faith (for if they had, they would have remained in the membership of the visible church).
(2) The visible / invisible distinction can help us to avoid the divisive practice of trying to judge the hearts of others.
The distinction between the visible and the invisible church helps to remind us that none of us can infallibly judge the spiritual condition of others. In the Anabaptistic and revivalist mindset that dominates contemporary evangelicalism, with all of its mysticism and hyper-individualism, there is an unhealthy and divisive tendency among professed believers to try to judge whether or not another person is “saved” or “unsaved.” Of course, please don’t misunderstand me: We biblical Presbyterians do indeed believe (as the Scriptures teach) that everyone who trusts in Christ alone for salvation as He is offered in the gospel is in a saved (that is to say, a “justified”) condition. But the visible / invisible church distinction helps to remind us that none of us can peer into the soul of another human being or infallibly discern whether another is in a “saved” or an “unsaved” condition. Instead, we can only judge others based upon their own outward profession of faith (or lack thereof) and whether or not they are living an outwardly Christian life. Yet, in my own experience, many evangelicals tend to make a habit out of judging even other professing Christians to be “unsaved” simply because they don’t speak proper “evangelicalese” or because they haven’t had some deeply-emotional crisis conversion experience.(4) (True confession: I myself have often been guilty of this form of judgmentalism.)
The visible / invisible church distinction instructs us to exercise the judgment of charity when it comes to how we view and treat other professing Christians. If another person professes true faith in Jesus Christ as his/her Lord and Savior, and if that person’s profession of faith has been accepted as credible by a faithful, Bible-believing local church where they are members in good standing, then love of the Christian brotherhood requires us to accept that person as a genuine brother or sister in Christ, rather than engaging in speculation about whether or not they are “truly” saved. Only if such an individual falls into unrepentant apostasy or is exposed as living a lifestyle incompatible with a credible profession of faith do we have the right to question the validity of their profession of Christian faith. Otherwise, “love believes all things” – love believes the best about the state of their souls, and treats them as fellow members of the family of God.
(3) The visible / invisible church distinction humbles us before God and reminds us that some things will be ambiguous in this present evil age.
This distinction humbles us before God because it reminds us that, unlike God, we are not omniscient. We must limit ourselves to that which is outward, open and visible, and not try to probe into the secret counsel of God. It reminds us that “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29, ESV) It also reminds us that things are not always as they seem. Sometimes the zealous, active professing believer who seemed to radiate love for God and neighbor ends up ditching the faith and falling into worldliness, thereby showing that she was never a member of the invisible church to begin with; while the sluggish, self-absorbed, immature professing believer who once seemed to just barely hang on to the faith and who often neglected the means of grace ends up in long run becoming a faithful, stable disciple of Christ and pillar in His church, thereby showing that she was a true member of the invisible church even while her relationship to the visible church was often tenuous and shallow. This present evil age is full of such surprises, such ambiguities. This distinction can help us as professed disciples of Jesus to live with the ambiguities of this present age, even as we await the glorious return of Christ our Lord at the end of this age, at which time all that is hidden will be revealed and all that is ambiguous will be made plain.
For a helpful discussion on this important distinction between the visible and invisible church, listen to this podcast on “The Visibly Invisible Church” over at “Mortification of Spin”: http://www.mortificationofspin.org/mos/podcast/38585
(1) “Ecclesiology” is that branch of theological science which has to do with the doctrine of the church. A “biblical ecclesiology” is a biblical doctrine of the church.
(2) When we in Reformed circles refer to “covenant children” we are speaking of the children born in households where at least one parent is a professing Christian. Such children are regarded in Scripture as covenantally holy (see First Corinthians 7:14). By virtue of God’s covenant promises in Scripture to be God to us and to our children after us, and to continue His covenant of grace in the line of successive generations, we in the Reformed and Presbyterian churches believe that covenant children have a birthright to membership in the visible church, and thus ought to receive the outward sign of membership in the church, which under the new covenant is the sign of holy baptism. In other words, we believe that our covenant children are members (though non-communicant ones) in the visible church, and thus are to receive the covenant sign and seal of holy baptism.
(3) I realize that the term “apostate” is a strong term with a lot of emotional baggage. But let the reader understand that I am not using this term in an emotional-laden manner as an insult directed toward former Christians. Rather, I am using the term in a matter-of-fact, descriptive sense. After all, one who is a professing and practicing Christian who subsequently abandons his/her profession of the orthodox Christian faith and thereby rejects Christ as Son of God and Savior has, in fact, committed apostasy from the historic Christian Faith; and thus such a person can rightly be described as an “apostate.”
(4) Or they will doubt your salvation if you haven’t prayed some kind of “sinner’s prayer” or responded to an “altar call” – neither of which can be found in the Bible!