Gal 3:9 All men of faith share the blessing of Abraham who "believed God". (J.B. Phillips)

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Invisible church - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

 The invisible church or church invisible is a theological concept originally

taught by St. Augustine of Hippo as part of his refutation of the Donatist sect.[1] It refers to the "invisible" body of the elect who are known only to God, and contrasts with the "visible church"—that is, the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments. Every member of the invisible church is saved, while the visible church contains some individuals who are saved and others who are unsaved. (Compare Matthew 7:21-24.)
The concept was revived again at the Protestant reformation as a way of distinguishing between the "visible" Catholic church, which according to the Reformers was largely corrupt, and those within it who are truly believers. Later Pietism took this one step further with its ecclesiolae in ecclesia.

Roman Catholic theology of the current era favors a sacramental approach to the idea of the Invisible Church : the Invisible Church must have true sacraments and authentic apostolic succession. This allows contemporary interpreters of Vatican Council II (cf declaration subsistit in) to state that the Catholic and Orthodox are part of the Invisible Church, while Protestants are mere ecclesial communities which do not form a true Church.



  1. ^ Justo L. Gonzalez (1970-1975). A History of Christian Thought: Volume 2 (From Augustine to the eve of the Reformation). Abingdon Press.



Another view.

The Visible Vs. The Invisible Church

What do we mean when we make the distinction between the visible and invisible church? And what is the reason for this distinction? Starting around the 4th century - the expression "Visible Church" was refered to by theologians, not to a building, but to the members on the rolls of a local church. In other words, all persons who are members of a local church are considered to be a part of the visible church.

On the other hand, the invisible church refers to those persons who have actually been regenerated or quickened by the Holy Sprit, God's elect or true believers. Augustine referred to the church as a mixed body, a visible people, but this people has both tares and wheat, as described by Jesus. In other words, there is no such thing as a perfect church, and there will always people in the church there with bad motives or are there for the wrong reason. There will always be people who claim to love Christ but whose heart is far from Him. Many, Jesus says, will say on that day, did we not do this and that in your name? Jesus wil then say, "I never knew you". These are descriptions of some people now sitting in your local church and Jesus says of them that he "never knew them!!!" Some persons are in church for show, to be seen by men as pious, others perhaps for a social club or to show of their ability to wax eloquent when discussing theology. These persons hearts are completely invisible to us, but of course, they are not invisible to God and only He can know who is truly regenerate, so we must be generous in our judgements.

The following is a detailed description of the orthodox doctrine of the visible and invisible church as explained by Pastor Brian Schwertley. It is well worth reading and quite helpful:


Perhaps the most succinct and the best statement of the church as invisible and visible is found in the Westminster Standards. Chapter 25, "Of the Church," states: "The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of him that filleth all in all. The visible church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation" (sections 1, 2).

Reformed theologians emphasize that this distinction does not mean that God has two separate churches. Indeed, they assert that Jehovah has founded one church, that Jesus has only one bride, people, church, or body. Our Lord does not have two churches but only one. The terms "invisible" and "visible" are used to describe two distinct aspects of the one church; or, to put it another way, the church is considered from two different perspectives. It is not that there are two separate air tight categories with one group on heaven and another on earth. On the contrary, there is a great overlap between both categories. All genuine believers are members of the invisible church whether they are living in heaven or on earth, whether they are alive or dead (i.e., have died physically). Not all professing Christians, however, who are members of the visible church, are members of the invisible church. Some people who make a profession of faith and are baptized are hypocrites. Such people do not truly believe in Christ (thus are never truly united to Him by faith) and are not part of the invisible church. This reality will receive further elucidation below.

The term invisible as defined by the Reformed symbols and theologians does not mean that some Christians are invisible like ghosts floating around in the spirit realm. It refers to the fact that the invisible church cannot be fully discovered, distinguished or discerned by the eyes of men, by empirical means. There are a number of reasons why this statement cannot be denied. (a) No one has the ability to look into the human heart and see if a person is truly united to Christ and regenerated by the Holy Spirit. That reality is the reason that, historically, Presbyterian churches have admitted members upon a credible profession of faith. (b) The inward, effectual calling of the Spirit and the application of redemption to the human soul are all spiritual, unseen events. Further, the Holy Spirit gives genuine saving faith only to the elect. The counterfeit faith of unregenerate professors of religion often is indiscernible to mere mortals. We can only perceive outward signs, statements and actions. No person has the ability to determine or observe the whole body of God's elect irrespective of time (i.e., throughout human history prior to the last judgment) or place (i.e., there are many real believers in the world of which we are not aware). Williamson writes: "It is invisible to us because it has extension in both time and space. It reaches from one end of the earth to the other, and from the beginning to the end of the age. But it is invisible only to us. It is not invisible to God. He who infallibly discerns the hearts of men, knows them that are his. "The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal: 'the Lord knoweth them that are his' (II Tim. 2:19)."Jesus prayed for the invisible church—the elect present and not yet born in John 17. "Christ is speaking of a special company which had been given to Him. The reference, then, is to the sovereign election of God, whereby He chose a definite number to be His 'peculiar people'—His in a peculiar or special way. These are eternally His: 'chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world' (Eph. 1:4); and by the immutability of His purpose of grace (Rom. 11:29), they are always His."

The visible church is designated "visible" because it is discernable by the senses, by empirical means. It consists of everyone who professes the true religion along with their children. Because men do not have the ability to see into the minds of men and read the human heart, anyone who professes Jesus Christ in credible manner (i.e., he has a knowledge of the gospel, he is orthodox in doctrine, he professes faith in Christ and repentance toward God, he is not as far as anyone is aware committing habitual or scandalous sins) is allowed to join the church along with his children. In the visible church there are genuine believers who are truly united to Christ and false professors or hypocrites who only taste of heavenly gifts but do not really partake of the Savior. Their relationship to Him is only outward. "On this account the church is compared to a floor, in which there is not only wheat but also chaff (Matt. iii. 12); to a field, where tares as well as good seed are sown (Matt. xiii. 24, 25); to a net, which gathers bad fish together with the good (ver. 47); to a great house, in which are vessels of every kind some to honour and some to dishonor,—2 Tim. ii. 20."[5] People who are members of the visible church yet who never truly believe in Christ receive the outward privileges of membership (fellowship, the word, the sacraments and the guidance of church government), but are never regenerated, saved, forgiven, united to Christ and spiritually sanctified. The blood of Jesus never washes away their sins.

The visible church is set apart from the world by profession as well as its external government, discipline, and ordinances (e.g., the preached word and the sacraments). The members of the visible church have obeyed the outward call of the gospel, professing Christ, submitting to baptism and placing themselves under the preaching and authority of the local church. All such persons who obey the outward call of the gospel place themselves in covenant with God. They have separated themselves from the world and at least outwardly enjoy the privileges of being members of the visible church (e.g., the teaching of the word, godly guidance, the fellowship of the saints, etc.). While in a certain sense those who outwardly profess the truth participate in an external covenant with real responsibilities and privileges, it does not mean and theologically cannot mean that they truly participate in the saving merits of Christ. Such persons (for a time) are in the covenant but are never genuinely of the covenant. They participate in the covenant externally as professors of the true religion, but they never participate in the covenant of grace which flows from the eternal covenant of redemption...

It needs to be recognized that although God deals with the visible church as one church, as one people of God, the external administration of the church with the preaching of the word, the ordinances and discipline in the present and in the long run (e.g., after the final judgment, in the eternal state) only truly benefit the invisible church or the elect. While outward professors receive temporary benefits resulting from intellectual insights from the word, pressure to conform to God's law, the outward influence from a society of family-oriented, ethical people, etc., they receive greater damnation on the day of judgment for spurning the great light to which they were exposed under continual gospel preaching.

let us examine a few passages of Scripture that strongly support the traditional view of the church as visible and invisible:

a) 1 John 2:19-20: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things." In this passage John discusses certain persons who at one time had professed apostolic doctrine and were members of the church.
Note the Spirit-inspired analysis of the apostle John regarding this all too common situation. John says, "they were not of us." That is, they were never genuine members of the church. While it is true that they were baptized and professed the true religion, they were never united to Christ or saved. They were chaff on the same floor as wheat (Mt. 3:12), or tares among the wheat (Mt. 13:24-25). They were members of the visible church but never of the invisible church. In this context John uses the term "us" (emon) in the sense of true Christians.
The apostle makes two observations ...First, he says that true Christians or members of the invisible church cannot apostatize: "for if they were of us [i.e., true believers], they would have continued with us." The fact that these professing Christians departed from the church is empirical proof that they were never true Christians. "They went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us." "The meaning here is that secession proves a want of fundamental union from the rest."[9] Second, John says that true believers have received the Holy Spirit from Christ which secures them against apostasy or desertion: "But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know all things." True believers or members of the invisible church cannot fall away because they are baptized with the Holy Spirit and thus permanently abide in Christ (see 1 Jn. 2:27; 5:4). Our Lord concurs: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand" (Jn. 10:27-28).

1 Jn. 2:19-20 teaches: (1) the church is composed of true and false believers; and (2) the doctrine of perseverance. True Christians are united to Christ by the Holy Spirit and can never apostatize while those who are not baptized in the Spirit and not united to the Savior can. "Their presence in the visible church was temporary, for they failed in their perseverance. If they had been members of the invisible church, they would have remained with the body of believers."

b) Matthew 7:21-23: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, 'Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?' And then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!'" After warning His disciples of the danger of false prophets, Our Lord warns them of the consequences of a false profession of religion. He describes people who profess Christ; who acknowledge His Lordship; who are even engaged in some type of Christian service; yet who never had a saving relationship to Jesus. These people were obviously members of the visible church. But, they were never truly united to the Lord or saved; they were never members of the invisible church.

This section of Scripture contradicts Arminianism, which teaches that if people accept Jesus as Savior they are truly saved but can later reject the faith and fall away. It also explicitly contradicts the Auburn teaching that people who profess Christ and are baptized are really united to Him, loved by Him and forgiven by Him even if they are not among the elect (individually) and thus eventually fall away.[11] Note, Jesus says to all false professors of religion on the day of judgment, "I never knew you." Since God is omniscient, the word "knew" in this context does not refer to a mere intellectual knowledge (e.g., in John's gospel see: 1:47, 49; 2:24, 25; 21:17). Rather the term "knew" in this passage is used in the Hebraic sense of love, acknowledgment, friendship, intimate fellowship. Our Lord says that everyone in the visible church who is not really saved (i.e., they do not have true saving faith and the works that demonstrate the reality of that faith.) never, ever (i.e., for even a single moment) had a relationship or vital union with Him. There is no other way that the Savior's words can be interpreted without doing violence to the text of Scripture. Although Jesus' words are in complete harmony with the classic Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible church, they cannot be harmonized with the new Auburn theological innovations.

(c) Romans 9:6: "But it is not that the word of God has taken no effect. For they are not all Israel who are of Israel." In the epistle to the Romans, Paul explicitly recognized the two-fold aspect of the church when he explains why the majority of the old covenant people of God did not embrace their Messiah.

In order to properly understand Romans 9:6 we briefly need to consider the context. In Romans chapter 8 Paul elaborates on the major theme that all those who are in Christ shall never be condemned. Believers are delivered from the law by Jesus' death. They are freed from the pollution of sin by the indwelling power of the Spirit. The Spirit's power also guarantees a believer's resurrection and glorification. Christians have their assurance rooted in their union with Christ. There also is the comfort of the intercession of the Holy Spirit. Toward the end of the chapter the safety and assurance of believers is founded upon God's electing love from eternity. Here the apostle discusses the unbreakable chain of the order of salvation (ordo salutis) and the fact that "if God is for us, who can be against us?"

In chapter 9, as Paul turns his attention to the design of God in reference to Jews and Gentiles, he needs to answer the question: "What about Israel?" If election and perseverance are rooted in the eternal-unchanging love of God, how can the mass apostasy of the Jewish people be explained? They were God's people, the church, who received the word, the promises, the sacraments and ordinances. Does not God's rejection of the Jewish nation contradict the promises to Abraham and the perseverance promised in chapter 8? No, absolutely not! The apostle explains that it is to true Israel (i.e., the elect or the invisible church) that the promises are made. It is to these people only that God's eternal electing love is directed. There is national election—the nation of Israel or the visible church—and within Israel, the visible church, there is true Israel—the invisible church. The Jews who did not reject the Messiah are "a remnant according to the election of grace" (Rom. 11:5).
For Paul there is true Israel (the elect, the invisible church, the remnant) within national Israel (the visible church). In other words the elect or the invisible church is hidden in the visible church. Further, when describing why the church is composed of true Israel (i.e., real believers) and false Israel (i.e., hypocrites) the apostle turns our attention to the doctrine of election

Paul discusses the twin brothers Jacob and Esau. These twins were conceived at the same moment and were born only minutes apart. Both were covenant children born of the patriarch Isaac. Both received circumcision and were part of the visible church—the covenant people of God. Since Esau was circumcised does Paul argue that he was loved and forgiven by God? No. God hated Esau before he was even born (Rom. 9:11-13). Although Esau was a circumcised member of the visible church, he was never united to Christ, loved by God or forgiven. Instead, he was a vessel of wrath prepared for destruction (Rom. 9:22). Esau's circumcision was never efficacious because he was never regenerated and given the gift of saving faith. As Paul says, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation" (Gal. 6:15).

d) Another section of Scripture ... is 2 Peter 2. This chapter describes men who at one time were baptized, members in good standing and who had even become teachers. Peter, does not say that they were loved or forgiven but that they for a time "escaped the pollutions of the world" (2 Pet. 2:20). That is, they had an external reformation of behavior based on an intellectual knowledge of the word. Peter makes it crystal clear that these men were not united to Christ, regenerated, forgiven or saved because he says their natures were never, ever truly changed. He says, "But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: 'A dog returns to his own vomit,' and, 'a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire'" (2 Pet. 2:22). A dog and a pig act according to their own nature. One can wash a pig and make it clean, but a pig is a pig. It will return to wallowing in the mud—in disgusting filth—because that is what pigs do. The apostle is saying that people who apostatize, who return to their former lifestyle, never had an interior work of the Holy Spirit. They were never regenerated and united to Christ. Their natures were never changed. The apostle is, in fact, teaching that if we could look at the hearts of those who apostatized, "we would discover that at no time were they ever activated by a true love of God. They were all this while goats, and not sheep, ravening wolves, and not gentle lambs." In other words the visible church contains not only real believers but also unsaved hypocrites. 

Eastern Orthodox Church  Viewpoint

Is There An Invisible Church?

by Protopresbyter Michael Pomazansky


Western Protestantism, broken into a hundred sects and denominations, naturally had to come to the question: Where is the true church in the midst of all these divisions? And it has found no other way than to come to a teaching of an "invisible church" that mysteriously exists in the midst of all the differences and mistakes and sins of men—a church that is holy, whose membership is known only to God, and that consists only of those who are worthy of being in it.

However, it is not for nothing that our Divine Savior has left us parables: the parable of the net that brings to shore not only good fish, but also bad; the parable of the field in which the owner leaves the tares to grow together with the good wheat until the harvest. The apostles founded the Church through the visible Mystery of Baptism of all who declared to them their faith in Christ, and the Church was, as it remains, a net or field "for those who wish to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth," for those who seek eternal life but for the time being live "in hope," not yet having entered into heavenly repose.

The Apostles founded outwardly "visible" communities with a definite membership, one in soul even though outwardly separated, and all these communities were the single Church of Christ. Such will the Church remain forever. Its aim is to call and prepare men for eternal life in Christ.

Therefore, the Orthodox Apostolic Church, for its part, replies: Such an invisible Church which, in the midst of many confessional divisions or above them, would single out the worthy people from among them and would unit them all—does not exist.

But nevertheless, this does not in the least mean that we Orthodox Christians do not believe in an Invisible Church. If we did not, we would not pronounce daily, and even several times a day, both in Divine services and in prayer at home, the words "I believe" in the Creed with regard to the Church; faith, in the definition of the Apostle, is "the evidence of things not seen" (Heb. 11:1). To the three following and final subjects of the Creed we apply the words "I confess" and "I look for" ...This means that in our teaching on the Church we acknowledge also its invisible sphere. Where and what is it?

This sphere is the Heavenly Church.

When we talk about the Church, and in our written discussions of it, we often, as it were, forget about this sphere, and by this very fact we lessen the spiritual power; we lose the grace-giving seed which is contained in the Orthodox understanding of the being and essence of the Church. And therefore our talk about the Church, the earthly Church, in the present period which is so difficult for faith, often evokes sorrow rather than giving consolation. Restricting our ideas about faith to the earthly sphere alone, we thereby impoverish ourselves. This can be felt especially now when, on the one hand, the local Orthodox Churches are becoming isolated (from each other) in their earthly relations, and possibly deeper divisions lie ahead; and on the other hand, attempts are being made to form "one church" on earth on principles totally foreign to the Orthodox consciousness. It is not a cold, abstract recognition of the invisible Heavenly Church that we need; rather, with all our soul we must think and feel ourselves to be members of the "Church of the called" in living and active communion with the "Church of the chosen." For in this also is to be found in part our chosenness—not our personal, individual chosenness, but the chosenness of Orthodoxy among the Christian confessions.

When, in the last century, the Protestant spirit began to penetrate into Russian society, and in some places also into the simple people, our church writers had set before them the aim of opposing to the above-mentioned alien view of the Church the Orthodox teaching that in the midst of all the divisions in Christianity the Church on earth is one and unique. It was explained that the essential, logically clear, and natural attributes of the Church had to be, and were, the uninterruptedness of the hierarchy, coming from the Holy Apostles, and the teaching of faith, confessed and kept without change. Such are the outward signs that are understandable for everyone: such is the Orthodox Eastern Church. Thus the question was limited and answered by the teaching about the Church on earth.

The question of the Church has become a real one in our days also, but now it has a broader scope. Although the "ecumenical movement" of recent times is occupied not with the question of the unity of faith, but with the aim of participating in the proposed plan of an epochal reconstruction of human society—still, sooner or later, the question of the foundations and scope of Christian faith in this attempt at union will have to arise. It is our obligation to show why this movement cannot be justified. But we ourselves will not be completely justified if we descend from the breadth of the Orthodox world-view, with all its fullness, to a narrow platform of conceptions and, most importantly, to Western conceptions of the Church.

At one time it was permissible and harmless for the representatives of our church history and theology when entering dialogue with Protestantism, to descend to its narrow platform: but in present circumstances this is no longer justified.

Even if a reply were not demanded of us to a movement that is passing us by, that is off to the side of us—still, it is always more consoling for us to acknowledge that we are under the protection of a great heavenly choir of saints, than it is to forget about this...

"Today shalt thou be with Me in paradise" (Luke 23:43)—the holy words pronounced on Golgotha. Paradise! Is this not a forgotten word? After the third chapter of Genesis it is not heard in the Old Testament Scripture. A cherubim with a bared sword was placed to guard the entrance into Paradise. But on the day of Golgotha its gates were opened: "The Cherubim steps away from the tree of life, and the flaming weapon turns to flight." The Old Testament righteous ones, the departed first Christian martyrs entered into the Kingdom of Christ in the heavens. With the course of decades and centuries, the granary of the Lord began to be filled, after the Apostles, with the ranks of martyrs and confessors, hierarchs, ascetics and righteous ones. The Church of the saints lives a life of blessedness in God, with prayers of praise and thanksgiving: and since "love never faileth" (I Cor. 13:8), these are joined by prayers for the brethren on earth. And we also ask their prayers for us and for our close ones who are departed. These prayers, as an expression of spiritual closeness, are intertwined in all directions, drawing heaven near to earth. Indeed, how can we not feel the closeness of heavenly and earthly things, when we so desire the blessed life for our close departed ones and entreat the Savior in prayer for them?

Furthermore, the Orthodox Christian, if he has a living bond with his Church, constantly sees and hears in church and at home reminders of the Invisible Church of the saints, and his soul is in constant contact with thoughts about it. He received in infancy, at his baptism, a Christian name, the name of a saint, and he feels himself especially close to this saint and his personal prayer entreats the saint to pray to God for him. He looks into his usual calendar, and before his eyes is a monthly list, filled with the names of the saints of all periods of Christianity. He enters the church, and before his eyes there appears another world, the heavenly world fixed in images in the icons, on the iconostasis, on the walls, often in the very peak of the dome.

The Vespers service, beginning with the glorification of the Most Holy Trinity, immediately directs his thoughts to the Kingdom of Christ by the call to come together and worship its Head, "Christ Himself, our King and God," and further, the whole service is penetrated with the remembrance of the saints, and especially of the Most Holy Theotokos. In the shortest litany, "Again and again"—which is said nearly ten times in a feast-day Vigil—we are reminded to "call to remembrance the Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed, glorious Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, with all the saints," and in such an awareness to commit ourselves and one another to Christ God.

When giving a prosphora for commemoration in the Altar at the Proskomedia before the Liturgy, the Christian who has ever heard an explanation of the Liturgy knows that the particles taken out of the prosphora will be placed on the sacred paten amidst the particles "for the living and the dead" below the set of particles which symbolically represent the whole Church of Christ: in the center the Lamb of God, and on the sides one particle in honor of the Theotokos, and other particles in memory of all the saints in their nine ranks. So close to us is the Heavenly Church that we confide to it all our sorrows, weaknesses, falls, griefs, and joys: we express love for it: we ask its prayers and its help for us.

Such is the spiritual world which is accessible to us even if we live in the usual church parish. Multiply this possibility for those who live in a monastery, and especially for priests or deacons who frequently serve in the Altar, or for those who are assigned to the cliros. It turns out that in the Orthodox Church communion with the saints, with the Invisible Church, can be more intimate than with, the world that surrounds us outside the church building; for many it is indeed such.

But is a really earthly communion with the whole earthly Church, dispersed in various nations and states, possible for us? Indeed, within one and the same church parish, does any religious, spiritual communion occur outside the church building? In vain do people lullaby themselves, dreaming of a "fullness" of communion and unity of the whole Christian world on earth.

In our Orthodox Church, however, communion of soul and mind, all our striving, everything is directed to the Heavenly Church, so that it, being invisible, becomes almost visible, and from the distance of the heavenly heights becomes the closest thing to us.

Earth and heaven are a single Church of Christ. This is a Church more complete than any other one that might be organized, even though one might call together and bind with a single name all the varieties of present-day societies and churches which belong to historical Christianity outside the Church, outside of Orthodoxy.

But isn't our communion with the Heavenly Church one sided? Does it give benefit to the soul? The saints hear us in the same way one soul hears another. And more than this: on earth the contact between people through the bodily organs of sense somewhat impedes and hinders the immediate communion of souls, but in the heavenly-earthly sphere this communion is free. In this sphere our voice, our words, reading and singing in the work of prayer are necessary for ourselves, for our sake, so as to unite two or three of us or a whole church into a single common soul, "That with a single heart we may hymn" God and His saints.

It is said of earthly relationships: "Tell me who your friends are, and I'll tell you who you are." "A man learns from the company he keeps"—whether for good or ill. Is it not so also in the purely spiritual sphere? The Apostle John the Theologian instructs in his catholic epistle, which is for all Christians, including ourselves: "I write (the Gospel, the Epistles, the Apocalypse) that ye also may have fellowship with us, and truly, our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ" (I John 1:3). He writes this, being in great old age, giving us his testament that men live in common love. The chief of the Apostles writes: "I will not be negligent to put you always in remembrance (to prepare yourselves for a free entrance into the eternal Kingdom of our Lord) ... knowing that shortly I must put off this my tabernacle, even as our Lord Jesus Christ hath shown me. Moreover I will endeavor that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance" (II Peter 1:13, 15).

However, in speaking of a single heavenly earthly Church, do we not confuse two distinct spheres?

We do not confuse them, but only confess their union*: "Having accomplished for us Thy mission and united things on earth with things in heaven, Thou didst ascend into glory, O Christ our God, being nowhere separated from those who love thee, but remaining ever-present with us and calling: I am with you and no one is against you" (Kontakion of the Ascension). The Canonical epistle of the Eastern Patriarchs in the 17th century expresses the truth of the unity of the Church in the words: "Two flocks of a single Pastor." And so do we believe...

But why did the Fathers of the Church at the Councils not raise the question of the Heavenly Church, but by the word "Church" always had in mind its existence on earth? And why in their works does one have to "search out" the passages where they ascend to the thoughts of the heavenly sphere, giving it the name of "Church"?

This is because they were entrusted with shepherding the earthly flock of Christ: all their thoughts, all their effort and care, concern the ordering and service of what had been entrusted to them—the preservation of the faith and the ordering of the earthly sphere of the Church. But their service was illuminated and received power by the constant awareness of being in the single ecumenical heavenly-earthly Kingdom or Body of Christ.

* * *

*Webmaster note: This is to be expected, for the Church is the Body of Christ (Ephesians 1:22-23). Recall what the Fourth Œcumenical Synod decreed in 451 concerning the Person of Christ (The Chalcedonian Oros):

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer [Theotokos] as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

Thus, ecclesiology flows from Christology, a theological pedagogy lost on Protestants. Their reasoning on this matter is inconsistent and un-Christian, not being grounded in a proper understanding of Christ’s Person as taught by the Holy Fathers and expressed in the very same Œcumenical Synods which Protestants claim to uphold (usually just the first four: Nicea, 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; and Chalcedon, 451).


Lutheran Church view

Invisible Church


Q. Where does the doctrine/understanding of an "invisible church"--the belief that all Christians, regardless of differences, are members of this "church"--originate?  Scripture clearly is in opposition to this (Romans 16) and the early church fathers talk only about an invisible part of the Church that has gone on before us. Did not Christ say he would build His Church, not churches? 

A. The word "church" (ecclesia) in the New Testament is used to refer both to the church in the strict sense of all believers in Christ of all times and places, and to the church in the broader sense of visible assemblies gathered around Word and sacraments.  St. Paul refers to the church in the stricter sense in 1 Cor. 1:2 as "all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ--their Lord and ours... . This is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12), whose membership is known only to God, for He alone can see into the human heart and know whether true faith in Christ is present (thus it is "invisible" to the human eye and is an article of faith). In the Apostles Creed we confess that we believe in "the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints." 

At the same time, the New Testament uses the term "church" to refer to the external ("visible" to the human eye) communities (assemblies) of those who profess to be Christians and gather around the means of grace, Word and sacraments. For example, Paul addresses his epistle "to the churches in Galatia." This broader sense of the term refers to the various congregations in the Roman province of Galatia. These external communities included both true Christians (with true faith in the heart) and unbelievers and hypocrites who were members in name only. 

Our Lutheran Confessions and LCMS fathers have historically and consistently made a distinction between the church "invisible" and "visible." For instance, Dr. C. F. W. Walther, the first President of our church, in his 1851 Theses on Church and Ministry writes: "The church in the proper sense of the word is invisible." At the same time, Walther also writes: "In an improper sense Scripture calls also those visible communions 'churches' which, though consisting not only of believers or such as are sanctified by faith, but having also hypocrites and wicked persons, nevertheless teach the Gospel in its purity and administer the holy sacraments according to the Gospel." (emphases added) 

In response to the question "What is the holy Christian church?" our synodical catechism states, "The holy Christian church is the communion of saints, the total number of those who believe in Christ. All believers in Christ, but only believers, are members of the church (invisible church)" (1986 edition, pp. 153-54).



This from J.I. Packer’s brief but treasure-packed Concise Theology,

There is a distinction to be drawn between the church as we humans see it and as God alone can see it. This is the historic distinction between the “visible church” and the “invisible church.”

Invisible means, not that we can see no sign of its presence, but that we cannot know (as God, the heart-reader, knows, 2 Timothy 2:19) which of those baptized, professing members of the church as an organized institution are inwardly regenerate and thus belong to the church as a spiritual fellowship of sinners loving their Savior.

Jesus taught that in the organized church there would always be people who thought they were Christians and passed as Christians, some indeed becoming ministers, but who were not renewed in heart and would therefore be exposed and rejected at the Judgment (Matthew 7:15-27; 13:24-30, 35-43, 47-50; 25:1-46)



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