On Bodies Visible and Invisible
It has become apparent after the post addressing the Reformed dilemma regarding Infant Baptism and the New Covenant that another closely-linked Protestant issue needs to be addressed. That issue is the widespread (even universal) belief among Protestants that there is a “Visible Church” and an “Invisible Church.”
According to the Westminster Confession, the Invisible Church “consists of the whole number of the elect,” while the Visible Church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion” (Chapter 25.1-2). In making this distinction, Protestants don’t intend to say there are two Churches, but rather two ‘expressions’ of one Church. A popular way of understanding this distinction is to look at how modern Evangelicalism distinguishes between all those who have accepted Jesus as their Savior (members of the Invisible Church), regardless of what particular denomination each of these believers happens to attend (members of the Visible Church). This distinction was “devised” by men such as John Calvin as a way of explaining how there could be sin and error in the Church, while still recognizing the numerous Biblical references to Church members being “elect,” “holy,” etc. This is particularly how the Reformed are able to hold to the doctrine of Eternal Security and also explain why so many once-professing Christians can “fall away.” The Reformed say that it’s possible to be a member of a professing Christian community (i.e. in the Visible Church) but if that member “falls away” then they were never saved in the first place (i.e. never in the Invisible Church).
The most extreme version of this Visible/Invisible distinction is seen today among those who say, “I don’t need the Church, I just need Jesus.” While historical Protestantism would have cringed to hear such talk, that “extreme” is unfortunately the logical outworking of the distinction. In fact, even among the Reformed there are many prominent individuals who will classify most doctrines other than “essentials” like Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura as “non-essential” doctrines (which itself is an unbiblical distinction). Such “non-essential” doctrines today can include everything from sacraments to morals to church governance. But that’s another issue for another time.
The primary source of evidence Protestants will consult is obviously the Bible, so the question is: What are the Biblical proof texts that Protestants use? The Westminster Confession’s proof texts for the Invisible Church are Eph 1:10, 22-23; 5:23,27,32, and Col 1:18. But the problem is that these texts simply speak of Christ as head of the Church, His body, without any modifying terms to suggest a visible/invisible distinction. As noted above, the Protestant claim is almost purely an inference, stemming mostly from their assumption that no one denomination is completely pure in its teachings and lived examples.
If you look at the 112 verses which use the Greek term “Church,” it is plain in nearly every case that a visible group of people is understood. When Paul writes a letter to a specific group, e.g. “to the Church at Corinth,” he is obviously talking about visible congregations. And even when Paul isn’t addressing a specific congregation, he is still clearly talking about the visible institution. For example, when Paul laments that in his former life that he “persecuted the Church of God” (Gal 1:13), even though he is speaking of the Church as a whole, he clearly refers to persecuting visible assembly of Christians. (See also Mat 18:17; 1 Tim 3:5) In key texts like 1 Corinthians 12, Paul even describes the Church as Christ’s Body, which drives home the visibility of the Church, because a Body is typically realized as the visible part of a being, as opposed to their naturally invisible soul (cf 1 Cor 5:3). In other words, this forces Protestants to speak not just of an “invisible church,” but now they must speak of an “invisible body,” which is not only a major assumption to make, it would force one to embrace a problematic Christology (e.g. Christ’s flesh was a visible reality). The point of this Body-Church connection is plain: the visible body of Christians on earth is carrying out Christ’s work on earth each day.
One final key text to consider is Ephesians 5:23-32, briefly:
“For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. . . . Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word . . . For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Taking this text at face value, the default assumption should be “Visible Church,” especially since no good case for Invisible Church can be found in any other texts. Also consider the language and examples Paul uses: “wife” is paralleled to “church,” and we know a wife is a visible being; the “saving” that Christ did pertained to our whole humanity, not just our soul; the “cleansing by water with the word” sounds strikingly like baptism and not invisible features; the term “flesh” is used in parallel to “body”; and finally, the “becoming one flesh” refers sacramentally to “Christ and the Church,” namely the Incarnation.
The most common text I’ve seen Protestants use to prove a visible/invisible distinction is 1 John 2:19, which says: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.” Protestants read this as saying “some left our visible fellowship, but they were not really of our invisible fellowship, for if they had been of our invisible fellowship, they would have maintained visible fellowship.” In other words, those “Christians” who once were in the Visible Church by later leave proves that they were never truly Christian in the first place. But this reading assumes too much. For one, this reading does not suggest that it doesn’t matter what denomination you go to, but just the opposite: that there is one true visible body, and you must be in it to be saved. Next, contextually, the “they” refers to “antichrists,” who specifically deny the Incarnation, not simply sinful behavior in the Church (which is what Church discipline is all about: Mt 18:17; 1 Cor 5:5). This would suggest that these individuals never intended to be Christian but snuck in to subvert orthodoxy. In fact, the phrase “went out from us” most likely means the antichrists went out from the Apostles, acting as if the Apostles sent them, but their preaching of false doctrines shows they were never sent by the Apostles. This matches with Acts 15:24 at the Council of Jerusalem, when the Apostles said false teachers “went out from us” (identical language) in the sense of pretending to be sent by the Apostles. And 1 John 4:1 speaks of false prophets who “went out” (same term) into the world, clearly referring to pretending to be sent to preach (cf 2 Jn 1:7; 3 Jn 1:7). So John’s point is to warn the flock of deceivers, not to layout some abstract theological principle of invisible vs visible Church.
In conclusion, I would point out that for a distinction so crucial to Christian life and theology, Protestants should stop and ask why the concept of “Invisible Church” was never clearly spelled out in Scripture. The Catholic position doesn’t suffer from this dilemma, because both Scripture and Tradition show that the Magisterium is indefectible, as well as affirming the fact it is possible for a Christian to lose their salvation.