The Invisibility of the Church

Dr Leithart, in his recent article, ‘The One City of God’, presents a case for reconsidering the doctrine of the invisible Church. Within this response, I want to bring Dr Leithart’s case into dialogue with the Westminster Confession. I will argue that the Confession avoids most of his criticisms and concerns and that the doctrine of the invisible Church has a worthy theological role to play and should not be abandoned so quickly.

In Chapter XXV of the Confession, which addresses the subject of the Church, it distinguishes between the invisible and the visible Church. It should be noted that it does not require us to distinguish between the visible and invisible churches, as if we were dealing with two unrelated entities, but allows—and, I would venture, encourages—us to think in terms of a single Church viewed from two different perspectives.

Of the invisible Church it declares: ‘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 fulness of Him that fills all in all’ (WCF, XXV.i). One feature of this definition that merits attention is the way it relates the invisibility of the Church to the comprehensive and completed realization of the Church’s existence. It concerns the whole number of the elect and includes people that have yet to be gathered into one under Christ. It would seem that the invisible Church is eschatological and has yet to be unveiled.

Relating this with the statements concerning the visible Church that follow, there is an immediate contrast to be observed. Whereas the invisible Church is the elect completely gathered and perfected in one, the visible Church is the Church on the way, the Church which has been given Christ’s presence and Spirit whereby its ministry, oracles, and ordinances will be effectual ‘for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world’ (WCF, XXV.iii). If the invisible Church is the Church that has been completely gathered, the visible Church is the Church while it is still in the process of gathering.

Perhaps we could think of the visible Church as the building site, and the invisible Church as the completed building. There are various things on any building site which do not belong to the building that is being formed, which must be removed before the project is concluded. There are various other materials that still need to be brought in to complete the building and several currently detached areas of construction that remain to be integrated.

The building is both visible and invisible in the building site. There is probably much that is obscured by scaffolding and hoardings, much that remains to be added to the edifice, some things to be demolished, and a lot of debris and refuse that need to be removed. Nonetheless, we ought to be able to see the building gradually taking shape, recognizing that, while it may be distinct from it temporally and otherwise, the building site is not detached from the completed building.

Dr Leithart began his article with a reference to the plans for the Church revealed to John at the end of Revelation, a vision of a holy city that we both are and are called to build. He rightly observes that this is not merely a future city that has yet to arrive, but is a city that is already present, albeit yet to be fully realized. We are called to labour to build the city, but also to see its current manifestations in terms of its future fulfilment. The builder and maker of the city is God, but we are workers together with him, and our work will one day be tested by his judgment.

The Westminster Confession can readily be interpreted as exploring the sort of distinctions that Dr Leithart’s own analogy invites: distinctions between human construction and divine construction and between the chaos that often characterizes the building site and the beauty of the planned and/or completed edifice. Dr Leithart’s criticisms also seem to depend upon an account of what invisibility must mean that is quite open to contestation. While there are undoubtedly people who hold misguided and misleading beliefs concerning the invisible Church that he is challenging, I do not believe that he offers any compelling reason to abandon the visible/invisible Church distinction itself. Indeed, there are many good reasons to retain it.

At a number of points, Dr Leithart’s criticisms often seem to rest heavily upon the assumption that the invisible Church refers to a reality apart from and deflationary of the visible Church and utterly removed from our sight. He writes:

If we think the church is an invisible community of true believers, then we might be tempted to avoid the mess of membership in a real community. If we pound a wedge between the “church-as-she-appears” and the “church-as-she-truly-is,” we mistake the very nature of redemption. We might be tempted to think that being a Christian – being saved – means escaping from the real world with all its trials, temptations, and challenges, to search for a back door to communion with God.

Yet the statements concerning the visible Church in the Westminster Confession should unsettle the assumptions that seem to drive such criticisms. For the Confession, the visible Church is ‘the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation’ (WCF, XXV.ii). And when it proceeds to speak of the communion of the saints in the chapter that follows, it closely connects union with Christ our Head in the Spirit by faith with our communion with one another in the visible Church (WCF, XXVI.i-ii).

Such communion is for our mutual good and edification, towards the end of our gathering and perfecting in the unity of Christ. It is not simply equated with that union in the fulness of Christ, but it cannot be separated from it: there is, after all, no ordinary hope of salvation outside of that visible union.

The invisibility of the Church does not condemn the visible Church to the realm of mere appearances. The point of invisibility is not that the true Church is completely beyond our sight, emptying all our visible communion of significance. Rather, it is that the true Church has yet to be made clearly manifest. We see both the wheat and the tares, but we cannot yet tell which is which. We can see many features of the completed Temple, but we do not yet know what that final building will look like, what will be added, and what might be removed. The invisible Church is seen, but it has not yet been fully disclosed.

Furthermore, the visible union of the Church is founded upon a prior united reality—beyond our sight—established by the unity of God’s being and of his action. The fundamental unity of the Church is the unity established by the Holy Spirit and the one foundation of Christ, not the visible unity that is established upon that foundation—and, in many cases, beyond that foundation—and which preserves and manifests the Spirit’s bond of love. Our confession of the oneness of the Church remains true despite the visible divisions of the Church, divisions which make clear that we are still the building site, rather than the completed edifice. That confession refers to the fundamental reality of the Temple that God is building, a reality that is not yet fully visibly manifest.

It is also a confession that the builder of the Temple is ultimately God himself. We build, but as fellow-workers under God, whose work is empowered by his Spirit and tested on the Day of Judgment. The distinction between the invisible and visible Church is a distinction, but not separation, between divine and human work in the formation of the Church.

The doctrine of the invisibility of the Church cautions us against arrogating to ourselves a role in coordinating the construction project that belongs to God alone. God can divide in order to establish a greater or truer union at some point in the future. Much as God did with the kingdom of Israel, God can separate churches, multiply denominations, destroy congregations, and excite divisions, all as part of his larger construction work. As the providential course of God’s construction of his Church is unknown to us—another aspect of the invisibility of the Church is how God will fashion the current building site into the completed edifice—we must recognize that the final building is God’s work and responsibility, trust him with that, and be faithful and patient workers in our small corner of it.

In 1 Corinthians 3:9-17, the Apostle Paul explores some of the meaning of this. We are participating in a building project, but the building has yet to be disclosed, along with the place our handiwork has or does not have within it. The Church is invisible because the true character of the work of the visible Church remains to be declared, to be made manifest. We see much that belongs to the completed Temple, but cannot yet distinguish it from what will be burned up.

The importance of maintaining a robust distinction between divine and human work should become clearer when we discuss issues such as excommunication. If we do not have some sort of distinction such as that between the invisible and the visible Church, we risk validating every act of excommunication as an act which cuts off the excommunicated party from Christ. The visible/invisible distinction enables us to recognize that, while ordinarily such a sanction should faithfully testify to God’s own work, it cannot straightforwardly be identified with it.

In reminding us of the primacy of God’s building work, the doctrine of the invisibility of the Church also has implications for our construction efforts. Dr Leithart’s discussion of Christ’s ‘high priestly’ prayer does not place enough emphasis upon the Father’s agency in forming the united body of the Church. Rather, Christ’s petition that the Church be one is treated as if it were primarily a command to his disciples.

Christ does command his disciples to love one another and to keep his commandments, but he does not command them to establish the oneness of the Church. That is God’s own work; our construction work is far more focused and immediate. It is not our calling to immanentize the eschaton, but to be faithful in our time and place. And, in the context of the greater work of building the Church, loving and obedient labour will often not yield greater visible unity. Indeed, sometimes the result will seem to be quite the opposite. Sometimes we need to precipitate division out of love for Christ’s flock. Of course, the tendency and intent of love is towards unity and, even if it does not immediately yield visible unity, following Christ’s instruction and example will tend towards the fuller manifestation of the deeper and truer union at the Church’s heart. Keeping the invisibility of the Church in mind can help to keep us faithful at such times. However, misplacing the responsibility for establishing the unity of the Church in our hands risks treating all division in the visible Church as negative or contrary to Christ’s wishes, when it might be a necessary means by which Christ establishes his Church against error.

Before concluding, I think we also need to think more carefully about both the nature of the factors dividing the Church and the character of its union. Discussions of the union of the Church can focus rather too narrowly upon institutional unity, while downplaying such things as the unity of love and faith that evangelicals often foreground, despite the multiplicity of their Church bodies.

On the other hand, when speaking of the divisions of the Church we can focus overmuch upon theological differences between congregations and denominations, the sorts of differences that principally factor into the behaviour of and relations among theologians and pastors. Yet the actual divisions that characterize Christianity in the West probably owe a great deal more to such things as the invention of the automobile, the transformation of our musical culture, the rise of modern print, digital, and social media, the societal impact of industrialization and post-industrialization, the uprooting and migration of populations within and between countries, the loss of custom and tradition, the demise of the extended family and local community, urban planning, etc. In particular, such forces have attenuated the givenness, belonging, and commonness that were far more prominent and unavoidable features of our lives in the past, replacing them with a culture of choice and self-identification. They save us from the need to affiliate with people unlike us or from the scary prospect of truly belonging to other Christians.

And, faced with the reality of choice, most people would sooner drive past a dozen churches to get to the church where they most appreciate the teaching, where the worship style is most to their liking, where they can most get on with and relate to their fellow congregants, and where the theological posture is most congruent with their instincts and beliefs. In such a situation, the most immediate steps towards rendering the catholicity of the Church more visible may be rather less theological and much more concrete, requiring a practical rediscovery and pursuit of Christian communities characterized by the virtues of real neighbourhood.

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham) is adjunct Senior Fellow at Theopolis and is one of the participants in the Mere Fidelity podcast.  He is also the contributing editor of the Politics of Scripture series on the Political Theology Today blog. He blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria and tweets using @zugzwanged