When Protestants speak of the distinction between the visible and the invisible church, it is not without good reason. We make this distinction because we recognize Scripture's clear portrayal of the church as both the elect people of God, whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life (Rev. 21:27), and the visible community of faith established on earth (Matt. 28:18-20). Yet, as Scripture also shows us, these two are not always one and the same. There is the church as we see it and the church as God sees it. Thus, Protestants have included specific language in their confessions to uphold this important distinction as part of their ecclesiology. In the Reformed churches, for example, we confess in Article 29 of the Belgic Confession that there are "hypocrites, who are mixed in the church along with the good and yet are not part of the church, although they are outwardly in it." Likewise, Chapter 25 of the Westminster Confession of Faith points out that "the catholic or universal Church which is invisible consists of the whole number of the elect" and that "the visible Church… consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion and of their children."
But we also speak of this distinction because it guards us against two unbiblical and spiritually dangerous extremes: a superstitious formalism and a radical individualism. Perhaps the nineteenth-century Scottish theologian John MacPherson put it best when he said, "Protestantism sought to find the proper mean between the magical and supernatural externalism of the Romish idea and the extravagant depreciation of all outward rites, characteristic of fanatical and sectarian spiritualism." These are the two perilous errors that the visible-invisible distinction helps us avoid.
Avoiding "Magical and Supernatural Externalism"
Many professing Christians have grown up in churches in which they have been taught-either by formal doctrine or a cultural tradition-that their salvation depends more on their baptism and church membership than on the righteousness of Christ received by faith alone. While this sort of teaching comes in a multiplicity of forms and is present in a wide variety of churches (everything from Rome to certain cults), it can also exist in certain Protestant groups that have played rather fast and loose with their confessions. There is even a trend in some Reformed circles to speak of every baptized person in the church-"head for head"-as being truly elect and united to Christ. It is also possible to hear some conservative Reformed people, steeped in the confession all their life, speak of the church and baptism in magical ways, rather than as the means of binding us to Christ and his benefits.
But it must be understood that membership in God's visible covenant community does not guarantee membership in God's elect people. This is Paul's point in Romans 9, defending the fidelity of God's promise to Abraham: "But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel" (Rom. 9:6). In other words, not all in the visible church belong to the invisible church. While the visible church is no longer identified with a national, geo-political Israel, it still contains a mixture of both Jacobs and Esaus, that is to say, true believers and hypocrites. Like Esau, it is still possible for one to be in the covenant externally but not actually united to Christ through faith.
This is why the writer to the Hebrews includes many warnings in his letter about the necessity of true faith; he doesn't want his readers to rely solely upon their membership in the visible church. In 3:7-4:11, he reminds them of the Israelites who fell dead in the wilderness; although they belonged to the visible covenant community and heard the gospel, they did not respond to it in true faith. Consequently, they did not enter the Promised Land. The writer deliberately uses this as a warning to the New Testament heirs of the same covenant of grace: "Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God" (3:12).
Being baptized into the visible church is very important, but every baptized member still has the responsibility of embracing with true faith the promise made to him in his baptism, apart from which he will not enter the eternal Sabbath rest.
Avoiding "Extravagant Depreciation of All Outward Rites"
Yet, as treacherous as this first error is, the second is no less deadly and unquestionably more common in American Evangelicalism. How many times have you met a professing Christian who does not attend church regularly, let alone possess membership in a particular congregation? The reasoning of such people usually goes something like this: I don't need to worship God in a formal setting or belong to a particular congregation; I have a personal relationship with Jesus and worship God in my own way.
Such reasoning, however, is not based on Scripture, but on the pagan concept that "organized religion" should be set against "spirituality": the former is disparaged as pass at best and hatefully intolerant at worst, while the latter is readily embraced as chic and healthy. Organized religion is viewed as something very particular that manifests itself in narrow doctrines, liturgical customs, and exclusive tradition. Spirituality, on the other hand, is seen as something universal that can express itself in a wide variety of personal faiths and individual practices that generally seek one common goal, namely, self-improvement. Influenced by this mode of thinking, many professing Christians believe they can have membership in the invisible church while opting out of membership in the visible church.
But such a concept is foreign to Scripture. The New Testament reveals to us a church established by Christ that is not purely invisible, but an observable society made up of real flesh-and-blood members and real organization and structure. It is a kingdom described as a "chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession" (1 Pet. 2:9a; cf. Exod. 19:6). The King of this kingdom, the Lord Jesus, rules his citizens by his Word and Spirit through the officers he has appointed at the local congregation. He has furnished his kingdom with ministers of the Word so that his people will grow from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity (Eph. 4:7-16). He has ordained the offices of pastor and elder as guardians to watch over the souls of his flock and ensure that everything is done decently and in good order (Acts 14:23; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:1-7; 5:17; Titus 1:5-9; Heb. 13:17; 1 Pet. 5:1-4). He has provided the office of deacon in order that the poor and needy in the church would be cared for (Acts 6:1-7; Phil. 1:1; 1 Tim. 3:8-13; 5:3-15). He has commanded that discipline be exercised to maintain the purity and peace of his church (Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15; Titus 1:10-14; 3:9-11). He has supplied his church with the tangible elements of ordinary bread, wine, and water, with which the Holy Spirit nourishes our faith (1 Cor. 10:16; 11:17-34; cf. John 6:41-58).
All of this Christ has provided to his church in his infinite wisdom. Nevertheless, some professing Christians try to be wiser than Christ. The person who abandons the church or does not see his need to be under the spiritual care of ministers and elders in a local congregation, seems to think that he knows what is best for his spiritual well-being and sanctification, even if it is contrary to what God has revealed. Being turned off by life in the visible church, he opts for a life of "Lone Ranger Christianity"-acting as pastor, elder, and deacon to himself and abstaining from the means of grace in the preached gospel and the sacraments to the injury of his own soul (Heb. 10:24-25).
For this reason, we confess in Article 28 of the Belgic Confession: "We believe, since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be." The fact that in this life the visible church is imperfect and mixed with hypocrites gives no Christian the right to depart from it. As the third-century church leader Cyprian put it, "You cannot have God for your father unless you have the Church for your mother. If you could escape outside Noah's ark, you could escape outside the Church." Except in otherwise extraordinary cases, a person cannot belong to the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church without also belonging to a visible manifestation of the same, which, according to the New Testament, is the local congregation that preaches the gospel, administers the sacraments, and exercises church discipline.
As we seek to avoid these two dangerous extremes, let us recognize the value in distinguishing between the visible and invisible church, even as we long for the day when the King returns and publicly reveals the one catholic body of his elect as the visible church.