Christians confess that the church is “one” and “catholic.” As “catholic,” it is dispersed through time and space. As “one,” this temporally and geographically dispersed city is a unified communion of saints. Augustine and Anselm were members of the same church as Calvin and Barth. Anglicans, Baptists, non-denominational Christians are members of the same church as Catholics, Orthodox, and Presbyterians.

This essay presents the case that this catholic unity must be a visible unity. The reason is simple: The church is a visible reality, and so any unity it possesses must be visible.

Political Church

The book of Revelation has an odd ending. The third “in Spirit” vision (cf. Rev 1:9-10; 4:1-2) takes John into the wilderness, where he sees the harlot city Babylon riding on a scarlet beast while drinking the blood of the saints (Rev 17:1-6). As he watches, the horns of the beast turn on Babylon, strip, eat, and burn her (17:16). Two chapters later, the beast and the false prophet – introduced as the sea and land beasts in chapter 13 – are thrown into the lake of fire (19:19-21). Jesus chains Satan the dragon and sets the martyrs on thrones, where they reign for a thousand years (20:1-6). 

After the thousand years, the dragon is released, deceives the nations, and besieges the saints, but is consumed by fire from heaven and thrown into the lake of fire (20:7-10). A judgment scene follows (20:11-15), and John sees the new heaven and new earth descend as Jerusalem, the Bride who takes the place of the whore (21:1-8).

Jesus shows John the early church’s great enemies: the dragon (Rev 12), the sea and land beasts (Rev 13), and the harlot (Rev 17). Then he sees them eliminated in reverse order: the harlot (Rev 17), the beasts (Rev 19), and the dragon (Rev 20). Finally the city descends, the city Abraham sought, the future city whose builder and maker is God. 

Everything’s done. It’s all neat and tidy. Time for the credits to roll. What’s left to see or say after a final judgment that ushers in a new heavens and new earth? 

Here’s the oddity: There’s a fourth vision. One last time, John is caught up in Spirit, this time to a mountain (Rev 21:10). And – oddity on top of oddity – the vision is of “the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (21:10). We’d excuse John if he tapped the interpreting angel on the shoulder and said, “Um. I’ve seen this one already.”

Why does the city descend twice? Are there two cities?

No, there’s only one city of God. To understand the final vision of Revelation, we have to look at it from the angle of theOld Testament. John isn’t the first prophet to ascend a mountain and see a vision. Moses climbed Sinai to see the “pattern” of the tabernacle (Exod 25:9, 40), the blueprints that guided Israel as they built God’s house. Yahweh showed David the “pattern” of the temple and its furnishings (1 Chr 28:11-19), which he passed on to Solomon, the temple builder. Ezekiel saw a wondrous new temple, city, and land (Ezek 40-48), a set of plans that guided the exiles returning from Babylon.

Prophets are sacred architects. The Spirit gives them plans, and then the same Spirit equips others to build according to the pattern. That’s what John is doing on the mountain at the end of Revelation: In the Spirit, he sees the plan of heavenly Jerusalem and conveys the plans to generations of readers, to us, and to thousands of generations to come. That same Spirit makes us wise craftsmen to build that city on earth. John sees an ideal city, but it’s an ideal that we are called to realize. Revelation ends, in short, with an implied commission, echoing Cyrus’s commission that ends the Hebrew Bible: “Go, build.”

New Jerusalem is the people of God. We do long to enter the final city, but already now we’re part of that city. The heavenly city is church in the present, not the final city of the future (which is described in Rev 21:1-8). It’s the city we’re already part of, and the city God wants us to keep building on earth, so that it will be a light to the nations, a destination for their pilgrimage, the source of living water, life-giving fruit, and healing leaves (Rev 22:1-5).

The church is portrayed as a civic reality, a city among the nations and cities. It’s God’s city.

City of God

To call the church the “city of God” doesn’t merely mean that the church belongs to Him. It means that the church’s life in all its attributes, dimensions, and activities – its unity, its holiness, its catholicity, its witness and worship and mission – depends entirely on its unique relationship to the Triune God. The church is what it is, does what it does, only because it is more than a human city:

  • We are adopted children of our heavenly Father (1 John 3:1), and thus constitute a family of brothers and sisters (Matt 12:48-50). That family of the Father isn’t some inaccessible invisible family, but the real-world church. 
  • We are the body of Christ, each of us a member and organ of Christ as our eyes, ears, hands, and feet are members of our personal body (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4). 
  • As the body of Christ, the church is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit distributes gifts to each part (1 Cor 12), enables the body to build itself up into maturity (Eph 4), and sanctifies us as saints. The Spirit prays in and through our groans (Rom 8). The church is the temple of that Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). 

This is what theologians are pointing to with what John Webster calls the “gesture – rhetorical and theological – towards invisibility.” Without this gesture, Webster warns, ecclesiology may slip into “a lavishly over-realized eschatology, an eliding of the distinction between the gospel and its human representations, an atrophied sense of the church's fallibility, above all, perhaps, a routinization of the operations of the Spirit.” “Invisibility”reminds us of the reality of God’s action in the church, and the asymmetry between God’s action and ours: “Properly defined, the concept of the invisibility of the church is a standing denial of any easy identification of divine and human work.” [i]

The “gesture towards invisibility” has had other theological functions as well. As Herman Bavinck points out,[ii]the Reformers emphasized this distinction, inherited in part from themes in Augustine and from medieval thinkers like Wycliffe, in polemics against the Catholic church. In theory, the Roman church recognized the presence of unbelievers and hypocrites, but in practice Catholicism fostered “the idea that external membership, a historical faith, observance of the commandments of the church, and submission to the pope constitute the essence of the church.” 

The Reformers insisted that the essence of church lay elsewhere. What makes the church different from a merely human community is its union with Christ the Head and its animation by the Spirit. United to Christ by the Spirit, true believers “constitute the essential component” of the church. They are visible, of course, and they profess their faith verbally and live empirically open lives of obedience. Yet we can’t discern the sincerity of their profession of faith, and we cannot see their union with Christ. Applied to the militant church, Bavinck claims, “church . . . has a metaphorical sense.” Notwithstanding the presence of wolves, this communion of human beings is designated “church” because of the sheep.

Bavinck admits that the adjective “invisible” was used ambiguously, and isolates three uses in early Reformation theology. The invisible church is conceived of 

(1) as the universal church because a given individual cannot observe the church in other places and other times; (2) as the gathered company of the elect, which will not be completed and visible until Christ’s return; (3) as the gathered company of the elect and called, because in the church on earth we cannot distinguish the true believers. 

Some referred to the church as invisible because it “goes into hiding in times of persecution, or is sometimes deprived of the Word and sacraments.” 

Most of these uses, Bavinck claims, “do not come up for discussion in dogmatics.”[iii] The distinction of visible/invisible is applicable only to the “church militant” and “means that the church is invisible with respect to its spiritual dimension and its true members.” As such, the church is an object of faith, not sight.

Some theologians, Bavinck observes, conflate the visible/invisible distinction with another, the church as organism as opposed to the church as institution. This is a category mistake, since both “organic” and “institutional” apply to the visible church. Both as organism and as institution, the visible church has “an invisible spiritual background.” The love and communion of believers for one another is a gift of the Spirit, but so are “office and gift, the administration of the Word and the sacraments.” All operations of the church, no matter how mundane, are “grounded in the glorified head of the church through the Holy Spirit.”

Bavinck thinks that “no one can take exception to the distinction between the visible and invisible church” as he has explained it. I beg to differ.

Visible City

            For starters: What might it mean for true believers to be the “essence” of the church? It cannot mean that their faith itself is the essence of the church. The church is made up of human beings, not detached professions or beliefs. Perhaps it means something like this: Imagine a group of professing Christians, all of whom are convinced unbelievers. For aesthetic or nostalgic reasons, they continue to gather for worship, reading lectionary lessons and celebrating the Supper. The pastor wears his robes and goes through the motions; the people sing their hymns. But they consciously deny the reality of everything they do. That group of people, lacking a single believer among them, would look, sound, smell, and feel like a church. But it would not be the church, because it would lack genuine faith and genuinely faithful people. It wouldn’t be a church because it would lack the “essence,” the without-which-not, of the church.

I agree. Believers are the essence of the church in this obvious sense: Absent believers, no group of people professing to be a Christian church is in fact a Christian church. But this hypothetical limit case is purely hypothetical: Has there ever been a group of professing believers, doing church, without a single sincere believer among them? Were there not true Jews in the “synagogues of Satan” that Jesus condemns in His letters to the churches? And if two or three true believers remain in a company of hypocrites, is their presence not enough to ensure that Jesus is in their midst (albeit to judge)? Besides, by Bavinck’s analysis, every human community is “invisible” in its essence. Not all Americans truly fulfill the demands of citizenship or sincerely believe the American creed. Every human community includes traitors alongside patriots, with no infallible way to tell the difference. Invisibility was intended to mark the church off from other social groupings; but it seems to do the opposite.

The “gesture towards invisibility” rightly reminds us that the church comes to be through the hidden work of God. A missionary preaches in a virgin field. The Spirit works through His sermon to change the hearts of two listeners, who begin to meet with the missionary for worship and Bible study. Or, to press the invisibility further: Two Muslims in Algeria have secretly been reading Christian tracts and both have come to trust in Jesus. Providentially, they meet and begin regular furtive meetings. Jesus is in their midst. They constitute a “church,” or at least, something approaching one.

But what's invisible here? The Spirit’s work is invisible to everyone. The secretive reading of the two Algerians is hidden, but it’s not inherently invisible. Secret police could be spying through the keyhole. The tracts aren’t invisible, nor the missionary’s sermons inaudible. A church comes into existence because two or three gather in Jesus’ name, and as soon as they meet they form a visible group. That visible two-or-three communion arises from a complex matrix of visible means through which the invisible Spirit works. 

In sum, the distinction between “visible” and “invisible” captures some important truths. It’s a way of saying that not everyone in the historical church will enjoy eternal life in the new creation, and that some who are presently outside the church will one day join with Christ’s Bride. The visible/invisible distinction emphasizes that some churches, because of their disbelief and disobedience, negate the word and signs that define the church. 

The Bible says these things, but the Bible doesn’t say them by talking about an invisible church. In the Bible, the church is a visible city among other communities of men and women – among nations, cities, families, social clubs, political parties, etc. All of the descriptions of the church – children of the Father, body of the incarnate Son, temple of the Spirit – are descriptions of the real-world, historical community of real men and women and children with real bodies and souls.

What about Paul? Paul tells us that “not all Israel is of Israel,” that not everyone who was a member of the visible nation of Israel was committed to the God of Israel. What makes a true Jew isn’t fleshly circumcision but the condition of his heart. 

Leave the exegetical complications to the side. What should we conclude? We might say that this implies that “church” in its most literal sense is the community of those who have this heart condition, and thus a communion known only to God.[iv] But the New Testament never makes this move.[v] “Church” always refers to the city of God, a communion of real men and women and children among the cities and nations. Paul brings up a boundary question, a question of who’s in and who’s out. It doesn’t change the fact that the true Israelite was a real man or woman or child with a real body and a member of a real historical people. The heart-reality that unites true Jews may be invisible, but that heart-reality isn’t a church. The church consists of people who possess that heart-reality and people who don’t. There isn’t an invisible people of God lurking behind Israel or the church, nor a pristine history of faithfulness hidden in, with, or under the checkered history of Israel and the new Israel. The Scriptural history and the church history that follows – with all its triumphs and failures, its heroes and villains, its ups and downs – that is the history of the people of God. 

Another objection: That was true of Israel, but the church is an altogether different thing. Israel was defined by flesh, but there is no fleshly link between members of the church. Israel was a visible physical people, but the church is an invisible spiritual community. That’s not, I submit, the vision of the New Testament. Jesus was a real man with a real body, and He spent His earthly life gathering real men and women to be His disciples and to carry on as His little flock after His resurrection and ascension. Once they received the Spirit, they didn’t cease being real men and women and children with real bodies and souls. Filled with the Spirit, they bore witness to Jesus, gathered to break bread and pray, used the gifts of the Spirit to build up the community called the body of Christ. 

We go awry when we forget the truths that the “gesture towards invisibility” is gesturing towards. But we can also go awry if the gesture colonizes our ecclesiology. 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.

The Bible doesn’t allow that option. There’s only the front door, the west door, which is the entry door to the church. If you want to commune with your Creator, you’re going to have to do it together with other real men and women and children, with real bodies, who also want to commune with their Creator.

There’s only the front door because the church – the visible, empirical communion of men and women and children – is more than a mere human society. It is a human society, but it’s an utterly unique human society. In all its visibility, its fluid boundaries, its checkered history, it is the people of the Triune God. It is a communion of real-life human beings because it is a communion of real-life human beings with the Creator.

Webster is quite aware of these dangers. He balances his insistence on the necessity for the invisibility gesture with a warning that it cannot be “allowed to become the only constitutive moment for ecclesiology.” If that happens, “other problems quickly emerge, and a picture of the church is promoted in which the human Christian community is unstable, liminal, and so incapable of sustaining a coherent historical and social trajectory.” There is a danger of “collapsing Spirit into structure,” but this “ought not to frighten us into the equal danger of a purely punctiliar or actualistic ecclesiology. Church order is the social shape of the converting power and activity of Christ present as Spirit.”[vi]

Given these dangers, though, it’s best to go without the gesture entirely, and train ourselves to make other, sounder gestures. We must speak of the invisible work of the Spirit of Jesus on which the church depends; we must insist that the qualities of the members that make them members of Christ’s body are not all visible; we must acknowledge that the Spirit blows where He wills, and cannot be captured and controlled. Yet the work of the Spirit is not the church, the hidden experiences of the members are not the church, and the Spirit Himself is not the church. “Invisible” is a necessary gesture in ecclesiology, but it’s an improper modifier of the noun “church.”

Visible Unity

Once we have drawn that conclusion, the aim of this essay follows with some ease. If the church is a visible reality, its unity must be visible. I repeat what I have just said: The church’s visible unity arises from the invisible reality of the members union with Christ, and our participation with one another, by the Spirit. But the unity is as visible as the disciples who are united.

In His “high priestly” prayer (John 17), Jesus prays that the disciples would be one as He is one with the Father. In context, that unity is a unity of mutual indwelling: The Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son. Jesus prays that His disciples would form a communion so deeply one that it resembles this divine unity of mutual indwelling. Beyond that, Jesus prays that the disciples would be incorporated into the mutual indwelling of the Father and Son: “they in Us . . I in them and Thou in Me” (vv. 21, 23). Just as the Father indwells the Son who indwells Him, so the disciples of Jesus are indwelt by the God whom they also simultaneously indwell. God makes the disciples His home, even as He is the disciples’ home. 

This communion of mutual indwelling among disciples – this church– is a visible communion of disciples. It’s not that Jesus’ disciples enjoy communion with God by elevating up and out of their bodies to join in invisible spiritual bliss. It’s not a communion visible only to the “eyes of faith.” It’s a communion visible to the world, with a unity visible to the world (17:21). The church’s unity of mutual indwelling should be visible enough to convince the world that the Father sent the Son.

Insisting on the visibility of the church and its unity allows us to do two necessary things. On the one hand, the present unity of the church is a visible unity, though it is (to repeat) a fruit of the invisible Spirit’s invisible work. It allows us to say what I said in the opening paragraph – that Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Mennonites, etc., etc. are all members of one catholic communion. Christians are members of millions of different local congregations, and these congregations cluster into thousands of denominational or non-denominational entities. Yet all of these individuals and groups have certain things in common. What makes them all Christian congregations is common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, shared baptism, a common listening to and teaching of the Word, a rhythm of Eucharistic gathering and missional dispersal. More or less faithfully, all the members seek to love one another; more or less faithfully, all of these groups follow Jesus; more or less faithfully, all these groups discipline one another in discipleship. These unities are all visible unities. The church’s present unity is visible, or it isn’t ecclesiastical unity.

On the other hand, insisting that church unity is irreducibly visible enables us to pinpoint those places where the church remains disunited. Despite our common baptism, some Christians won’t accept other Christians as brothers; despite our common confession, there are major unresolved disputes among different branches of the church; we all hear the same Bible, but we have developed our distinct traditions for reading it, and often refuse to listen to “outsiders”; though all churches gather to the Lord’s table, not all accept one another at that table; the moral consensus of the church is fraying, along with any semblance of coherent discipline. Whatever its virtues and accomplishments, denominationalism permits groups of Christians to ignore other groups of Christians, even though both occupy the same geographic territory. Churches are divided by racial, socio-economic, ethnic differences that Paul describes as “flesh.”

Not all diversity in the church is bad. Cultural, linguistic, geographic variations are not merely unfortunate necessities, but positive goods. Some of the diversity of the church is a function of our sub-eschatological condition, the fact that the city of God is still under construction. These are important truths, but they shouldn’t be permitted to make us complacent about the tragedy of our unhappy divisions. They shouldn’t become salve to ease our discomfort with divisions that are manifestly contrary to Christ.

Conclusion

The church is more than a social reality. It has invisible dimensions and depths, deep as the depths of God Himself. But these invisible dimensions don’t overwhelm or cancel the real-world character of the church. “Visible” applied to “church” is, biblically speaking, a redundancy. As a real-world people, made of up real men and women and children with real bodies and souls, the church is called to manifest on earth the eternal communion of Father and Son. The real-world, historical church simply is the community of men, women, and children adopted by the Father, united as the body of the incarnate Son, indwelt by the Spirit, so that the world will see and believe the Father sent the Son.

Peter Leithart is President of The Theopolis Institute.


[i]Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics(London: T&T Clark, 2016), 197.

[ii]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4: Holy Spirit, Church, New Creation(ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

[iii]One wonders why not; shouldn’t the fact that the church is sometimes forced to hidebe a matter of dogmatic reflection? Shouldn’t church history be fodder for dogmatics?

[iv]For some theologians, the church is invisible precisely because it is visible only to God. See Stuart R. Jones, “The Invisible Church of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” The Westminster Theological Journal59:1 (1997), 71-85.

[v]I agree with John Murray, “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” in Murray, Collected Writings, 2: Lectures in Systematic Theology(Banner of Truth, 1991), 231-36. Murray later expressed himself more cautiously. I prefer un-cautious Murray.

[vi]Webster, Word and Church, 197.

Next Conversation

Christians confess that the church is “one” and “catholic.” As “catholic,” it is dispersed through time and space. As “one,” this temporally and geographically dispersed city is a unified communion of saints. Augustine and Anselm were members of the same church as Calvin and Barth. Anglicans, Baptists, non-denominational Christians are members of the same church as Catholics, Orthodox, and Presbyterians.

This essay presents the case that this catholic unity must be a visible unity. The reason is simple: The church is a visible reality, and so any unity it possesses must be visible.

Political Church

The book of Revelation has an odd ending. The third “in Spirit” vision (cf. Rev 1:9-10; 4:1-2) takes John into the wilderness, where he sees the harlot city Babylon riding on a scarlet beast while drinking the blood of the saints (Rev 17:1-6). As he watches, the horns of the beast turn on Babylon, strip, eat, and burn her (17:16). Two chapters later, the beast and the false prophet – introduced as the sea and land beasts in chapter 13 – are thrown into the lake of fire (19:19-21). Jesus chains Satan the dragon and sets the martyrs on thrones, where they reign for a thousand years (20:1-6). 

After the thousand years, the dragon is released, deceives the nations, and besieges the saints, but is consumed by fire from heaven and thrown into the lake of fire (20:7-10). A judgment scene follows (20:11-15), and John sees the new heaven and new earth descend as Jerusalem, the Bride who takes the place of the whore (21:1-8).

Jesus shows John the early church’s great enemies: the dragon (Rev 12), the sea and land beasts (Rev 13), and the harlot (Rev 17). Then he sees them eliminated in reverse order: the harlot (Rev 17), the beasts (Rev 19), and the dragon (Rev 20). Finally the city descends, the city Abraham sought, the future city whose builder and maker is God. 

Everything’s done. It’s all neat and tidy. Time for the credits to roll. What’s left to see or say after a final judgment that ushers in a new heavens and new earth? 

Here’s the oddity: There’s a fourth vision. One last time, John is caught up in Spirit, this time to a mountain (Rev 21:10). And – oddity on top of oddity – the vision is of “the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (21:10). We’d excuse John if he tapped the interpreting angel on the shoulder and said, “Um. I’ve seen this one already.”

Why does the city descend twice? Are there two cities?

No, there’s only one city of God. To understand the final vision of Revelation, we have to look at it from the angle of theOld Testament. John isn’t the first prophet to ascend a mountain and see a vision. Moses climbed Sinai to see the “pattern” of the tabernacle (Exod 25:9, 40), the blueprints that guided Israel as they built God’s house. Yahweh showed David the “pattern” of the temple and its furnishings (1 Chr 28:11-19), which he passed on to Solomon, the temple builder. Ezekiel saw a wondrous new temple, city, and land (Ezek 40-48), a set of plans that guided the exiles returning from Babylon.

Prophets are sacred architects. The Spirit gives them plans, and then the same Spirit equips others to build according to the pattern. That’s what John is doing on the mountain at the end of Revelation: In the Spirit, he sees the plan of heavenly Jerusalem and conveys the plans to generations of readers, to us, and to thousands of generations to come. That same Spirit makes us wise craftsmen to build that city on earth. John sees an ideal city, but it’s an ideal that we are called to realize. Revelation ends, in short, with an implied commission, echoing Cyrus’s commission that ends the Hebrew Bible: “Go, build.”

New Jerusalem is the people of God. We do long to enter the final city, but already now we’re part of that city. The heavenly city is church in the present, not the final city of the future (which is described in Rev 21:1-8). It’s the city we’re already part of, and the city God wants us to keep building on earth, so that it will be a light to the nations, a destination for their pilgrimage, the source of living water, life-giving fruit, and healing leaves (Rev 22:1-5).

The church is portrayed as a civic reality, a city among the nations and cities. It’s God’s city.

City of God

To call the church the “city of God” doesn’t merely mean that the church belongs to Him. It means that the church’s life in all its attributes, dimensions, and activities – its unity, its holiness, its catholicity, its witness and worship and mission – depends entirely on its unique relationship to the Triune God. The church is what it is, does what it does, only because it is more than a human city:

  • We are adopted children of our heavenly Father (1 John 3:1), and thus constitute a family of brothers and sisters (Matt 12:48-50). That family of the Father isn’t some inaccessible invisible family, but the real-world church. 
  • We are the body of Christ, each of us a member and organ of Christ as our eyes, ears, hands, and feet are members of our personal body (Rom 12; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4). 
  • As the body of Christ, the church is animated by the Spirit of Jesus. The Spirit distributes gifts to each part (1 Cor 12), enables the body to build itself up into maturity (Eph 4), and sanctifies us as saints. The Spirit prays in and through our groans (Rom 8). The church is the temple of that Spirit (1 Cor 3:16). 

This is what theologians are pointing to with what John Webster calls the “gesture – rhetorical and theological – towards invisibility.” Without this gesture, Webster warns, ecclesiology may slip into “a lavishly over-realized eschatology, an eliding of the distinction between the gospel and its human representations, an atrophied sense of the church's fallibility, above all, perhaps, a routinization of the operations of the Spirit.” “Invisibility”reminds us of the reality of God’s action in the church, and the asymmetry between God’s action and ours: “Properly defined, the concept of the invisibility of the church is a standing denial of any easy identification of divine and human work.” [i]

The “gesture towards invisibility” has had other theological functions as well. As Herman Bavinck points out,[ii]the Reformers emphasized this distinction, inherited in part from themes in Augustine and from medieval thinkers like Wycliffe, in polemics against the Catholic church. In theory, the Roman church recognized the presence of unbelievers and hypocrites, but in practice Catholicism fostered “the idea that external membership, a historical faith, observance of the commandments of the church, and submission to the pope constitute the essence of the church.” 

The Reformers insisted that the essence of church lay elsewhere. What makes the church different from a merely human community is its union with Christ the Head and its animation by the Spirit. United to Christ by the Spirit, true believers “constitute the essential component” of the church. They are visible, of course, and they profess their faith verbally and live empirically open lives of obedience. Yet we can’t discern the sincerity of their profession of faith, and we cannot see their union with Christ. Applied to the militant church, Bavinck claims, “church . . . has a metaphorical sense.” Notwithstanding the presence of wolves, this communion of human beings is designated “church” because of the sheep.

Bavinck admits that the adjective “invisible” was used ambiguously, and isolates three uses in early Reformation theology. The invisible church is conceived of 

(1) as the universal church because a given individual cannot observe the church in other places and other times; (2) as the gathered company of the elect, which will not be completed and visible until Christ’s return; (3) as the gathered company of the elect and called, because in the church on earth we cannot distinguish the true believers. 

Some referred to the church as invisible because it “goes into hiding in times of persecution, or is sometimes deprived of the Word and sacraments.” 

Most of these uses, Bavinck claims, “do not come up for discussion in dogmatics.”[iii] The distinction of visible/invisible is applicable only to the “church militant” and “means that the church is invisible with respect to its spiritual dimension and its true members.” As such, the church is an object of faith, not sight.

Some theologians, Bavinck observes, conflate the visible/invisible distinction with another, the church as organism as opposed to the church as institution. This is a category mistake, since both “organic” and “institutional” apply to the visible church. Both as organism and as institution, the visible church has “an invisible spiritual background.” The love and communion of believers for one another is a gift of the Spirit, but so are “office and gift, the administration of the Word and the sacraments.” All operations of the church, no matter how mundane, are “grounded in the glorified head of the church through the Holy Spirit.”

Bavinck thinks that “no one can take exception to the distinction between the visible and invisible church” as he has explained it. I beg to differ.

Visible City

            For starters: What might it mean for true believers to be the “essence” of the church? It cannot mean that their faith itself is the essence of the church. The church is made up of human beings, not detached professions or beliefs. Perhaps it means something like this: Imagine a group of professing Christians, all of whom are convinced unbelievers. For aesthetic or nostalgic reasons, they continue to gather for worship, reading lectionary lessons and celebrating the Supper. The pastor wears his robes and goes through the motions; the people sing their hymns. But they consciously deny the reality of everything they do. That group of people, lacking a single believer among them, would look, sound, smell, and feel like a church. But it would not be the church, because it would lack genuine faith and genuinely faithful people. It wouldn’t be a church because it would lack the “essence,” the without-which-not, of the church.

I agree. Believers are the essence of the church in this obvious sense: Absent believers, no group of people professing to be a Christian church is in fact a Christian church. But this hypothetical limit case is purely hypothetical: Has there ever been a group of professing believers, doing church, without a single sincere believer among them? Were there not true Jews in the “synagogues of Satan” that Jesus condemns in His letters to the churches? And if two or three true believers remain in a company of hypocrites, is their presence not enough to ensure that Jesus is in their midst (albeit to judge)? Besides, by Bavinck’s analysis, every human community is “invisible” in its essence. Not all Americans truly fulfill the demands of citizenship or sincerely believe the American creed. Every human community includes traitors alongside patriots, with no infallible way to tell the difference. Invisibility was intended to mark the church off from other social groupings; but it seems to do the opposite.

The “gesture towards invisibility” rightly reminds us that the church comes to be through the hidden work of God. A missionary preaches in a virgin field. The Spirit works through His sermon to change the hearts of two listeners, who begin to meet with the missionary for worship and Bible study. Or, to press the invisibility further: Two Muslims in Algeria have secretly been reading Christian tracts and both have come to trust in Jesus. Providentially, they meet and begin regular furtive meetings. Jesus is in their midst. They constitute a “church,” or at least, something approaching one.

But what's invisible here? The Spirit’s work is invisible to everyone. The secretive reading of the two Algerians is hidden, but it’s not inherently invisible. Secret police could be spying through the keyhole. The tracts aren’t invisible, nor the missionary’s sermons inaudible. A church comes into existence because two or three gather in Jesus’ name, and as soon as they meet they form a visible group. That visible two-or-three communion arises from a complex matrix of visible means through which the invisible Spirit works. 

In sum, the distinction between “visible” and “invisible” captures some important truths. It’s a way of saying that not everyone in the historical church will enjoy eternal life in the new creation, and that some who are presently outside the church will one day join with Christ’s Bride. The visible/invisible distinction emphasizes that some churches, because of their disbelief and disobedience, negate the word and signs that define the church. 

The Bible says these things, but the Bible doesn’t say them by talking about an invisible church. In the Bible, the church is a visible city among other communities of men and women – among nations, cities, families, social clubs, political parties, etc. All of the descriptions of the church – children of the Father, body of the incarnate Son, temple of the Spirit – are descriptions of the real-world, historical community of real men and women and children with real bodies and souls.

What about Paul? Paul tells us that “not all Israel is of Israel,” that not everyone who was a member of the visible nation of Israel was committed to the God of Israel. What makes a true Jew isn’t fleshly circumcision but the condition of his heart. 

Leave the exegetical complications to the side. What should we conclude? We might say that this implies that “church” in its most literal sense is the community of those who have this heart condition, and thus a communion known only to God.[iv] But the New Testament never makes this move.[v] “Church” always refers to the city of God, a communion of real men and women and children among the cities and nations. Paul brings up a boundary question, a question of who’s in and who’s out. It doesn’t change the fact that the true Israelite was a real man or woman or child with a real body and a member of a real historical people. The heart-reality that unites true Jews may be invisible, but that heart-reality isn’t a church. The church consists of people who possess that heart-reality and people who don’t. There isn’t an invisible people of God lurking behind Israel or the church, nor a pristine history of faithfulness hidden in, with, or under the checkered history of Israel and the new Israel. The Scriptural history and the church history that follows – with all its triumphs and failures, its heroes and villains, its ups and downs – that is the history of the people of God. 

Another objection: That was true of Israel, but the church is an altogether different thing. Israel was defined by flesh, but there is no fleshly link between members of the church. Israel was a visible physical people, but the church is an invisible spiritual community. That’s not, I submit, the vision of the New Testament. Jesus was a real man with a real body, and He spent His earthly life gathering real men and women to be His disciples and to carry on as His little flock after His resurrection and ascension. Once they received the Spirit, they didn’t cease being real men and women and children with real bodies and souls. Filled with the Spirit, they bore witness to Jesus, gathered to break bread and pray, used the gifts of the Spirit to build up the community called the body of Christ. 

We go awry when we forget the truths that the “gesture towards invisibility” is gesturing towards. But we can also go awry if the gesture colonizes our ecclesiology. 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.

The Bible doesn’t allow that option. There’s only the front door, the west door, which is the entry door to the church. If you want to commune with your Creator, you’re going to have to do it together with other real men and women and children, with real bodies, who also want to commune with their Creator.

There’s only the front door because the church – the visible, empirical communion of men and women and children – is more than a mere human society. It is a human society, but it’s an utterly unique human society. In all its visibility, its fluid boundaries, its checkered history, it is the people of the Triune God. It is a communion of real-life human beings because it is a communion of real-life human beings with the Creator.

Webster is quite aware of these dangers. He balances his insistence on the necessity for the invisibility gesture with a warning that it cannot be “allowed to become the only constitutive moment for ecclesiology.” If that happens, “other problems quickly emerge, and a picture of the church is promoted in which the human Christian community is unstable, liminal, and so incapable of sustaining a coherent historical and social trajectory.” There is a danger of “collapsing Spirit into structure,” but this “ought not to frighten us into the equal danger of a purely punctiliar or actualistic ecclesiology. Church order is the social shape of the converting power and activity of Christ present as Spirit.”[vi]

Given these dangers, though, it’s best to go without the gesture entirely, and train ourselves to make other, sounder gestures. We must speak of the invisible work of the Spirit of Jesus on which the church depends; we must insist that the qualities of the members that make them members of Christ’s body are not all visible; we must acknowledge that the Spirit blows where He wills, and cannot be captured and controlled. Yet the work of the Spirit is not the church, the hidden experiences of the members are not the church, and the Spirit Himself is not the church. “Invisible” is a necessary gesture in ecclesiology, but it’s an improper modifier of the noun “church.”

Visible Unity

Once we have drawn that conclusion, the aim of this essay follows with some ease. If the church is a visible reality, its unity must be visible. I repeat what I have just said: The church’s visible unity arises from the invisible reality of the members union with Christ, and our participation with one another, by the Spirit. But the unity is as visible as the disciples who are united.

In His “high priestly” prayer (John 17), Jesus prays that the disciples would be one as He is one with the Father. In context, that unity is a unity of mutual indwelling: The Son is in the Father, and the Father is in the Son. Jesus prays that His disciples would form a communion so deeply one that it resembles this divine unity of mutual indwelling. Beyond that, Jesus prays that the disciples would be incorporated into the mutual indwelling of the Father and Son: “they in Us . . I in them and Thou in Me” (vv. 21, 23). Just as the Father indwells the Son who indwells Him, so the disciples of Jesus are indwelt by the God whom they also simultaneously indwell. God makes the disciples His home, even as He is the disciples’ home. 

This communion of mutual indwelling among disciples – this church– is a visible communion of disciples. It’s not that Jesus’ disciples enjoy communion with God by elevating up and out of their bodies to join in invisible spiritual bliss. It’s not a communion visible only to the “eyes of faith.” It’s a communion visible to the world, with a unity visible to the world (17:21). The church’s unity of mutual indwelling should be visible enough to convince the world that the Father sent the Son.

Insisting on the visibility of the church and its unity allows us to do two necessary things. On the one hand, the present unity of the church is a visible unity, though it is (to repeat) a fruit of the invisible Spirit’s invisible work. It allows us to say what I said in the opening paragraph – that Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Mennonites, etc., etc. are all members of one catholic communion. Christians are members of millions of different local congregations, and these congregations cluster into thousands of denominational or non-denominational entities. Yet all of these individuals and groups have certain things in common. What makes them all Christian congregations is common confession of Jesus Christ as Lord, shared baptism, a common listening to and teaching of the Word, a rhythm of Eucharistic gathering and missional dispersal. More or less faithfully, all the members seek to love one another; more or less faithfully, all of these groups follow Jesus; more or less faithfully, all these groups discipline one another in discipleship. These unities are all visible unities. The church’s present unity is visible, or it isn’t ecclesiastical unity.

On the other hand, insisting that church unity is irreducibly visible enables us to pinpoint those places where the church remains disunited. Despite our common baptism, some Christians won’t accept other Christians as brothers; despite our common confession, there are major unresolved disputes among different branches of the church; we all hear the same Bible, but we have developed our distinct traditions for reading it, and often refuse to listen to “outsiders”; though all churches gather to the Lord’s table, not all accept one another at that table; the moral consensus of the church is fraying, along with any semblance of coherent discipline. Whatever its virtues and accomplishments, denominationalism permits groups of Christians to ignore other groups of Christians, even though both occupy the same geographic territory. Churches are divided by racial, socio-economic, ethnic differences that Paul describes as “flesh.”

Not all diversity in the church is bad. Cultural, linguistic, geographic variations are not merely unfortunate necessities, but positive goods. Some of the diversity of the church is a function of our sub-eschatological condition, the fact that the city of God is still under construction. These are important truths, but they shouldn’t be permitted to make us complacent about the tragedy of our unhappy divisions. They shouldn’t become salve to ease our discomfort with divisions that are manifestly contrary to Christ.

Conclusion

The church is more than a social reality. It has invisible dimensions and depths, deep as the depths of God Himself. But these invisible dimensions don’t overwhelm or cancel the real-world character of the church. “Visible” applied to “church” is, biblically speaking, a redundancy. As a real-world people, made of up real men and women and children with real bodies and souls, the church is called to manifest on earth the eternal communion of Father and Son. The real-world, historical church simply is the community of men, women, and children adopted by the Father, united as the body of the incarnate Son, indwelt by the Spirit, so that the world will see and believe the Father sent the Son.

Peter Leithart is President of The Theopolis Institute.


[i]Webster, Word and Church: Essays in Christian Dogmatics(London: T&T Clark, 2016), 197.

[ii]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4: Holy Spirit, Church, New Creation(ed. John Bolt; trans. John Vriend; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008).

[iii]One wonders why not; shouldn’t the fact that the church is sometimes forced to hidebe a matter of dogmatic reflection? Shouldn’t church history be fodder for dogmatics?

[iv]For some theologians, the church is invisible precisely because it is visible only to God. See Stuart R. Jones, “The Invisible Church of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” The Westminster Theological Journal59:1 (1997), 71-85.

[v]I agree with John Murray, “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” in Murray, Collected Writings, 2: Lectures in Systematic Theology(Banner of Truth, 1991), 231-36. Murray later expressed himself more cautiously. I prefer un-cautious Murray.

[vi]Webster, Word and Church, 197.

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