The Visible and the Invisible Church

The Visible and the Invisible Church
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, September 24, 2009 at 7:49pm

HERE IS ANOTHER QUESTION recently received:

“In a lesson on the Protestant Reformation Roger Chambers makes the claim that the invisible church, as Calvin, Zwingli, and even Augustine viewed it, is a ‘myth.’ Chambers says that their view was that the ‘real’ church was the invisible church, mainly because they looked around and saw the visible church as being so corrupted. This is why, when Protestant literature speaks of the ‘real’ church, or invisible church, they use the words ‘Christian’ or ‘Church of Christ’; but then when they speak of the visible church, it doesn’t really matter what you call it—Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, etc.—because that’s not the real church. Chambers does say in a sense there is an invisible church but not as the Protestants view it. He says the genius of the Restoration Movement is that its leaders said the visible church was just as ‘real’ as the invisible church. If it is real in the abstract, why can’t it be physically real as well? Chambers’ argument from Scripture is that the church was always local in Scripture. The local church ‘is’ the church, and not some abstract idea. Do you agree with this view?”

MY REPLY: I will not try to comment on the Reformation or modern Protestant view, but I will state my view. In the Restoration Movement it is quite common to dismiss the idea of an invisible church, which is in a way the opposite of the “Protestant” view described above. I agree with Chambers, that there is a real invisible church and a real visible church.

The distinction between visible and invisible raises the question, “visible/invisible TO WHOM?” The answer is, TO MAN, since nothing is invisible to God. As applied to the church, this means that the BORDERS of the church are visible/invisible to human observers. There is such a thing as the church whose borders are invisible to us as human beings, i.e., 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 met the conditions for salvation no matter what church affiliation they may have, or whether they have any at all. (Many in these latter situations have sanctification problems, obviously.) Also, only God knows who may have membership in a local congregation but who is not truly converted. This is the “invisible” church only in the sense that such membership is invisible to finite human observers. (Thus I do not agree that the church is always “local” in Scripture.)

HOWEVER—the reality of the invisible church does not make the VISIBLE church unimportant or of no concern to God. The visible church is the church whose borders CAN be observed and identified by us human beings, insofar as it follows the NT instructions on such observable things as church organization, doctrine, membership, and worship. But here is where the Restoration Movement DOES differ from most Protestant groups: we regard the NT pattern for the (visible) church to be discernable, normative, and of a high priority to God. An example of the difference is this: when I attended Westminster Theological Seminary, their course on the church was listed under the practical department. When I set up the curriculum for the graduate program at Cincinnati Bible Seminary, I listed the course on the church under the theology department. The church’s structure etc. is a matter of SOUND DOCTRINE. Only one visible church form is the TRUE VISIBLE CHURCH. We may think of this as an ideal as revealed in the NT and for which we are only striving, but only one form is acceptable to God. I believe that the visible form of the traditional Restoration Movement is that form, or closer to that form than any other today.

The above understanding was actually the rationale for the Restoration Movement in the first place. Its founders accepted the reality of the invisible church (the true believers in all the “sects”), but their conviction was that the visible church was messed up and needed to be restored. If we lose sight of this latter need, we have lost the vision of the Movement.

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