If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it countless times: “I’m not a member of any local congregation. I’m a member of the invisible church.” When one hears this, one is tempted to agree with John Murray that it would be better not to speak of the invisible church. As tempting as it is, in face of Bedside Baptists and Prostrate Presbyterians, to reject the distinction between the visible and invisible church, we should resist the temptation. The cost is too high. Further, the abuse of this distinction by the ignorant or the willful is insufficient reason to discard it. The idea that one can be a member of the church invisible without being a member of a particular congregation reveals a profound confusion about what we mean when we speak of the church visible and invisible.
The church has two aspects, visible and invisible, but they are two aspects of the same body. In other words, ordinarily, there are no members of the church invisible who are not also members of the church visible, i.e. an identifiable congregation of believers that bears the marks of a true church (the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of church discipline).
Yes, it’s possible for one, in extraordinary circumstances, to be a Christian apart from a congregation and the means of grace, but it’s the exception that tests the rule. Lying in bed on the Sabbath or shopping or whatever one does in place of attending to the means of grace is not the same thing as being on a desert island or being crucified alongside our Savior.
Claiming membership in the church invisible without membership in a congregation is like claiming membership in 24-Hour Fitness without belonging to any particular branch.
“Do you belong to a gym?”
“Yes, I do. 24-Hour Fitness.”
“Great, which branch did you join?”
“Well, I haven’t actually joined any branch, but I like the commercials on TV and I identify with their approach to fitness.”
That’s insane. If you’ve never walked into a particular branch of a gym and signed the papers and paid the fees, you’re not a member. To test this claim try to walk into your local 24-Hour Fitness gym on the basis of your claim to membership in “the invisible gym” or on the basis of your agreement with their approach.
By analogy, the church invisible is composed of those who are, have been, or shall be, members of a visible church. if you’ve never sworn membership vows and confessed a common faith with a congregation, you are not a member of the visible church and if you’re not a member of the church visible, by definition, you are not a member of the church invisible. The former is a prerequisite for the latter.
When we speak of the church invisible, we’re speaking of that great congregation of the elect considered across time and space. It’s a way of speaking of the holy catholic church, that church in all times and places. It’s a way of speaking of the church considered in the past (Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, the Cappadocians, Augustine, Boethius, Gregory, Gottschalk, Bede, Lombard, Thomas, Bradwardine, Wycliffe, Luther, etc.), the church presently scattered across the globe, hidden from the world, and the church as it shall be in the future, until Christ comes. It transcends congregations and denominations but is composed of elect who are members of congregations. It includes people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.
The visible church, on the other hand, is a particular collection of those who profess faith in Christ, who’ve been baptized in recognition of their status as covenant children or who have made profession of faith. The church visible is a mixed, disciplined assembly. This is an important difference from the church considered as invisible. The latter may be said to be composed only of the elect, but there have always been, as our older writers used to say, “hypocrites and reprobates” in the visible community. The visible church has always been made of Jacobs and Esaus. This is why Paul distinguished between Israel outwardly considered and Israel inwardly considered. Not everyone who is Israel outwardly considered is Israel inwardly considered (Rom. 2:28). This is why our theologians, churches, and confessions distinguished between the covenant of grace considered externally and the covenant of grace considered internally.
It’s easy to show the foolishness of speaking about the church invisible in the way that so many do, as if it’s possible to be an “invisible” Christian, as if it’s possible to be a part of the church catholic without being part of the church visible and militant.
To whom were the gospels written? They were written to local congregations in particular places. To whom were the epistles written? They were written to particular congregations in particular places. How does one write an epistle directly to the church of all times and places? They are God’s inspired, infallible, inerrant Word, but that Word was given by the Spirit, through human authors, in a particular time and place. The Word speaks to the church of all times and places but it does so from a particular time and place. The only way to hear that Word, in its original setting, was to be in a congregation.
When Jesus instituted the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16) he gave them to officers (apostles) to whom he gave spiritual authority to bind and loose. When he instituted church discipline he authorized particular congregations to confront sin, and to take steps to correct it (Matt. 18). It is not possible to “tell it to the church” if, in this instance, “church” means “the church” considered in its invisible aspect. The background to the word “church” there is the OT term for the visible covenant assembly gathered in formal session.
Further, the churches gathered occasionally to work together on common problems (Acts 15). That sort of action and the “decree” issued by the assembly would be impossible without the existence of particular, local congregations who sent delegates (including the Apostles!) to assemble together.
It was to visible congregations that our Lord entrusted the ministry of the Word (Matt. 28; Acts 2, 10; 1 Tim; 2 Tim; Titus) and sacraments. The church invisible does not, by definition, observe sacraments. They are observed in congregations, with duly ordained ministers and elders. Jesus commanded us to administer baptism. He commanded us to observe the Lord’s Supper. The apostolic church did that, in congregations (1 Cor. 11). They didn’t always get it right, but they did meet, they did worship, the Word was preached, the sacraments were administered, and discipline was observed (1 Cor. 5). Particularity is essential to these acts.
It has been widely held by liberals and evangelicals alike that the model by which to interpret the NT and the early church is the Kerygma to Dogma model. In this model, the early church (apostolic and early post-apostolic) was a Spirit-led community that was completely spontaneous, without structure, without form, without offices or officers. Only later was that Spirit-led spontaneity lost as the church gradually acceded to the idea that Jesus was not returning in their lifetime and that some formal structure would be necessary to the continuance of the church.
The evidence is overwhelming that the apostolic and early post-apostolic church was highly organized. For example, there is positive evidence of record keeping (membership lists) in the NT church. The problem in the daily distribution of bread in Acts 6:1 assumes some sort of record keeping of eligible widows. In 1 Timothy 5:9-16 Paul speaks explicitly about a list of names of Christian widows who were eligible for financial assistance from the church. He even lays out the qualifications to be on the list. If the church kept such lists for financial aid, can we reasonably assume that these widows were not on a membership roll? Moreover we cannot help but notice that again Paul’s instructions regarding widows presupposes some sort of organized visible body of Christ who administered this aid to its members.
The evidence is that, however vital their expectation of Jesus’ return, they were organized, structured, with offices, officers, sacraments, and discipline. Read on its own terms, without contemporary, evangelical, individualistic anachronism (reading our time and practices back into theirs), there is every evidence that the NT church was a structured, visible, organized (and not mere organism) institution.
We know where the early congregations were. We know what their circumstances were and we have some idea of what happened to them. For example, see Colin Hemer’s Letters to the Seven Churches or Greg Beale’s Commentary on the Revelation or Dennis Johnson’s, Triumph of the Lamb.
If today’s evangelicals would follow the Apostolic model, they should join themselves to a true church. Truly to be an “evangelical” one should be “gospeler” (as the Puritans sometimes put it). The gospel is good news preached by preachers (Rom. 10) who are ordained by Christ’s church to announce that message. It’s an authorized message with authorized messengers in and to a congregation that is united together by a common faith, by mutual submission to the Word and to the church. The faith is necessarily practiced in community, in congregation and not merely individually, separately, privately.
In part 3, one more way in which evangelicals may be called “churchless.”