by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, June 2, 2011 at 12:21pm

QUESTION: What can we say about the unity of the church as a whole? Can we call Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Roman Catholics, etc., our brothers and sisters in Christ?

ANSWER: Everyone who is presently in a saving relationship with Jesus Christ is my brother or sister in Christ. Everyone who has obeyed the gospel has entered into this saving relationship with Christ and is thus my brother or sister in Christ. Obedience to the gospel consists of FAITH (believing the basic facts about Jesus’ person and work, and surrendering one’s present life and future eternity to him in obedient trust), REPENTANCE (hatred of sin in general and one’s own sins in particular, and a commitment to forsake sin and walk in righteousness), CONFESSION (specifically naming Jesus as one’s Lord and Savior, and calling upon him for salvation), and BAPTISM (being immersed into a saving relationship with the Trinity and therein receiving the double cure of salvation). Thus everyone who has believed, repented, confessed, and been baptized is my brother or sister in Christ.

What does this have to do with the “unity of the church”? Here we must remember the distinction between the visible and the invisible church. (See my early FaceBook note on this subject, 9/24/09.) To properly answer this question, we must for the moment forget about denominational groups (Baptists, Methodists, Catholics, Disciples of Christ, etc.). These and other such groups are all attempts to “construct” or to “be” the visible church. At its deepest level, though, the unity of the church has nothing to do with membership within one of these visible bodies. It has to do only with who is and who is not in a saving relationship with Christ. Those who are in this relationship with Christ are all united together in his body, the universal church of Christ, the one and only invisible church. All those who are one WITH Christ (Gal. 3:28) and one IN Christ.

The following is a paragraph adapted from my 9/24/09 article on the visible/invisible church: “The distinction between visible and invisible church raises the question, ‘visible/invisible TO WHOM?’ The answer is, TO MAN, since nothing is invisible to God. We are talking here about the BORDERS of the church. There is such a thing as the church whose borders are invisible to us as human beings. It is simply the universal aggregate of those who are under the blood of Jesus Christ and whose citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). This is the universal body of Christ, of which Paul speaks in Eph. 5:22-33. ONLY GOD KNOWS who is truly a part of this body, since it includes all those who have obeyed the gospel no matter what church affiliation they may have, or whether they have any at all. (Many in these latter situations obviously have sanctification problems, and their relationship with Christ may be perilously tentative.) Also, only God knows which members of any local congregation were never truly converted or may have fallen from grace. Thus the ‘one true church’ is the ‘invisible’ body of Christ whose membership is invisible to finite human observers but infallibly known to God.”

But if the border (membership roll) of the true church is actually invisible to us human beings, how do we KNOW who IS a brother or sister in Christ? Theoretically and absolutely, we cannot know this. But from a practical standpoint, we CAN know this to the extent that we can know who has obeyed the gospel, as described above. But how can we know who has truly believed and repented? After all, these are internal acts. True, but one reason why “confession with the mouth” (Rom. 10:9-10) is a condition for salvation is that this is the initial way that the rest of us can know if a convert has faith and repentance in the heart. The confession is an objective act, as is the baptism that follows. Acting on the presumption of the convert’s sincerity, we accept the one who has thus obeyed the gospel as a sibling in Christ. All who have done so are united in the oneness of God’s family. This is the essence of church unity.

When we speak of the visible church, then, what do we mean? Usually we are referring to the external organization, practices, and teachings of Christian groups who wear the name of Christ. One presupposition of the Restoration Movement is that God’s Word shows us what the visible church is supposed to look like to human observers. Another presupposition is that the denominational groups individually and as a whole are NOT conforming to the visible church as revealed in the apostolic Word. That is why the Campbells, the Stones, the Scotts, and the Smiths tried to re-establish the true visible church (cf. “Christian Churches,” “churches of Christ”), and why they invited the brothers and sisters who had already obeyed the gospel in the existing but faulty groups to “come out from among them” and be a part of a faithful visible body that could be unified on an external level also.

This still leaves us asking if we can call Baptists, Presbyterians, Catholics, etc., our brothers and sisters in Christ. The first part of the answer is NO, if we are referring to these denominations as groups, since we know that they do not make converts through the God-appointed means of obedience to the gospel. The second part of the answer is YES, if we are speaking of individual Baptists, Catholics, etc., and if we know that they have indeed obeyed the gospel. But we cannot think of them as brothers or sisters in Christ JUST BECAUSE they are members of a Methodist church or Catholic church etc.

One final note: whether a specific individual is my brother or sister in Christ NOW, is not the same question as whether that individual will ultimately enter into heaven (i.e., will ultimately be saved). This all has to do with the issue of the salvation status of the “pious unimmersed,” which I will address in another note.

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