Is the Church visible or invisible?

I don’t really have an answer, just some questions…

Before I begin… There is an apparent tension between right belief and the heart of a believer. We are likely to go too far in one direction or the other. Some will argue for right belief, emphasizing doctrine and parsing the nuances to the very last, questionable particular, weaving systems, and planting their flag. Others will quickly tire of such wranglings. They will say “just believe” and “look to Jesus.” Both camps have their adherents and their qualities. The trouble is that they should be in the same camp, sitting around the same fire, living into the challenge and the promise which is the good news. Wrangling with love is good. Repentance is better. Looking to Jesus is powerful and good. Knowing which Jesus, and consequently which gospel, is also important. Trusting in God is required. And that trust will manifest itself, in part, sometimes in parsing the nuances and sometimes in just believing, but hopefully always in self-emptying love.

With this in mind, I am curious whether there is one, right church, one true church, one place where both planting the flag of doctrine and looking to Jesus flourish. In other words, when we say the creed, is it in fact true there is one, holy, catholic and apostolic church? (And many do not say the creed.) I ask this, and I wrangle a bit, for the purpose of just believing. To swim in muddy waters is less restful than in clear. To climb through mists is sometimes the path to the brilliant light above the clouds. And I wonder why I was placed in a tradition of disunity. Perhaps it is so I can struggle a bit as I desire to find the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

As tradition would have it, we tend to think there are two basic possibilities, two types of churches: the visible and the invisible. Which is it? Or which is it mostly?

The Church is invisible: The Church is made up of all believers regardless of where they are or what church they attend (or don’t attend). If this is true, then…

  • No visible “expression” of the Church is particularly important apart from personal tastes, though some visible expressions may provide a clearer picture of whether one is a true believer than others.
  • Any particular church that claims to be the “True Church” is necessarily too narrow minded, inherently wrong, and hasn’t got with the (modern Christian) spirit of the age.
  • This begs the question: Does it matter which visible expression of the Church one joins? Answer: No, as long as one remains a believer.
    • What is a “believer”? In Protestantism and modern Evangelicalism this is debatable and unresolved (in fact unresolvable and unknowable) in light of deep disunity of the Church. An honest believer must live with the tension that he cannot know if he has faith apart from his convictions and emotions, which are always suspect. Or one can deny that tension and “go with the flow” and be okay with a loosely defined, emotional faith.
  • One is left with:
    1. picking a particular church and hunkering down
    2. be a church “consumer” by picking different churches along the way as dictated by one’s momentary needs and whims (much like picking restaurants)
    3. shunning all churches and resolving to be a non-religious Christian (I just love Jesus and hate religion)
    4. and regardless of the above choices, there is no way of knowing if one is saved, of resolving doctrinal issues, or of really knowing who else is really a Christian. So avoid thinking about all that.
  • Also: It is inevitable that divisions will arise due to the desire/need to know who is “in” and who is “out”. In other words, though the Church is invisible (in this scenario) one looks at the outward to judge the inward. Thus, for some a Baptist is a true believer, a Methodist is of questionable faith, and Catholic is surely hellbound.

The Church is visible but fragmented:  Like the Corinthian church with all its divisions and disunity, the larger, universal Church is also visibly fragmented, but it is still the Church. If this is true, then…

  • No visible “expression” of the Church is particularly important apart from personal tastes, but being visibly a Christian is still important (arguably). Though, perhaps, some visible expressions of the Church are closer to the True Church than others.
  • One is left with:
    1. It probably does not matter which church one attends
    2. perhaps it is sad that the Church is fragmented, but maybe this is a blessing because one can choose which church suits one best, like flavors of ice cream
    3. perhaps what Jesus and the apostles said about the Church being “one” was a lie, and thus deeply problematic
  • This perspective is probably just a derivation of the invisible church idea above, only there is more emphasis placed on the visible expressions of what is invisible. Thus it comes with all the same issues as the invisible church.

The Church is visible and unified: Christ established a Church for the world to see, and the Holy Spirit has maintained it through the ages, and it is both one and visible; a church which is the True Church and which is the measure of all the others. If this is true, then…

  • This begs the question, in light of all the disunity of visible Christianity, which church is the True Church?
  • Historically, the most likely candidate (in my opinion) is the Catholic Church as the True Church. The second most likely candidate is the Orthodox Church. By implication and definition it cannot be Protestant.
  • Is it true, then, that if one calls on the name of Christ, and yet is not a member of the one visible Church, are still not truly Christian and, perhaps, is damned to hell?
    • This would seem too harsh
    • but perhaps such a Christian is “missing out” on something
  • The stakes may be high. Our modern American culture takes a very light view of faith, leaving it to one’s whims. And more, encourages one to consider inconsequential which church one attends. But, perhaps, it matters. Perhaps one’s life is in the balance. Perhaps a personal relationship with Jesus is more than the intersection of one’s emotions and imagination.

Protestant theologian R. C. Sproul says: “Before we attend a church, we should know that it is a legitimate church.” I would agree, but what is a legitimate church? Sproul goes on to say:

Some religious bodies claim to be Christian that, in my judgment and in the judgment of many Christians, are not Christian churches or are apostate bodies. Even attending their services may be a sin. We can’t expect a church to be perfect. But does it hold to the essentials of the faith? Does it practice a basic, sound belief in the deity of Christ and aspects of Christ that we find outlined in the New Testament?

This may be true, but we still have the nagging issue of Sproul’s personal judgement, or yours and mine, and questions of what are the essentials of the faith, what is right practice, what is sound belief? Sproul has spent most of his life answering these questions, and he says he is in standing with the judgement of many Christians, but many Christians don’t prove one way or the other that a particular church is legitimate. If that were true then Sproul would have to concede the Catholics got him beat (for there are many more of them than those in Sproul’s neck of the woods), and I doubt he’s going there. This is the dilemma with which I’ve been struggling.

Of course I agree with Sproul wholeheartedly that we must make wise judgements about the churches we attend and join. My concern is that the great disunity of the visible church, especially among Protestants, calls into question the Protestant position assumed by Sproul above. We still don’t have a clear answer, and the clarity needed around doctrine and practice is constantly debatable. That is probably why most Christians end up being largely unconcerned about doctrine or practice, but cling to a vague, warm and fuzzy faith, and seek churches filled with people like themselves. Sproul seeks to solve this issue by placing an emphasis on the “invisible” church. I think this is a rabbit hole, and a necessary position if one insists on remaining Protestant.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, claims that it is the true Church of Christ. In July 2007 the Vatican released a short article titled: Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church. In that article was this question/answer:


What is the meaning of the affirmation that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church?


Christ “established here on earth” only one Church and instituted it as a “visible and spiritual community”, that from its beginning and throughout the centuries has always existed and will always exist, and in which alone are found all the elements that Christ himself instituted. “This one Church of Christ, which we confess in the Creed as one, holy, catholic and apostolic […]. This Church, constituted and organised in this world as a society, subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and the Bishops in communion with him”.

In number 8 of the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen gentium ‘subsistence’ means this perduring, historical continuity and the permanence of all the elements instituted by Christ in the Catholic Church, in which the Church of Christ is concretely found on this earth.

It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them. Nevertheless, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church.

Protestants would disagree with the above Catholic position. But are Protestants right? The witness of disunity within the mess we call Protestantism—a problematic name since it almost implies coherence—seems to say no. Perhaps Protestantism, with all that is good about it, is still more like a spiritual disease (dis-ease) looking for a cure. As long as it is insistent in remaining where it is, Protestantism must inevitably slide into blasé emotionalism, depthless ecumenism, and justifying a landscape dotted with little flags of doctrine and practice. This has been my world for more than 45 years.

But what ought a Protestant to do if, when putting Protestant and Catholic side-by-side, concludes that the Catholic church (with all is obvious flaws) is the visible Church established by Christ? Is not the proper action to become Catholic? Or, at least, to search for a way to enter that unity?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s