Author: Ron Graham
Jesus told Peter, "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18). Soon after he died and arose from the dead, he did exactly that —He built his church. But did he build something we can see, or did he build an invisible church?
A common idea is that the one true church of Christ is invisible. Everybody knows that there is a "universal church". This is the "general assembly" (Hebrews 12:22-23), the "kingdom" and "body" of saints (Colossians 1:13-18). This transcendant church is real, but at the same time it is ideal. We cannot see this perfect church in its entirety and full glory. God can see it, and maybe the angels, but we cannot, at least not all at once. That is a long way from saying, however, that the church is "invisible". Expressions like "the church invisible and indivisible" are high sounding gobbledegook to try to justify the fact that the church that is visible is an embarrassment.
Many times I have walked on the golden sandy shores of the great Pacific ocean. I have seen the Pacific ocean from places in Australia two thousand kilometres apart. I have seen the Pacific ocean from small islands of the South Pacific. I have seen the Pacific ocean from high up in the air. I have seen it below the surface. But I've never seen it all, and certainly not all at once with the naked eye. Because I can only see the ocean locally, does that mean that the Pacific ocean is invisible? It may be that some parts of that ocean are so deep or so remote that no human I will see them. However that does not make the ocean invisible, does it?
Occasionally I have seen rubbish polluting the portion of the ocean I am looking at. Imagine you were there and I said to you that it was a shame to see that mess. Now suppose you told me that I was looking only at the visible Pacific and I should understand that the "invisible Pacific" —the true Pacific— is pure and perfect and cannot be polluted. I would have to laugh at you, wouldn't I? When Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, or Rome, these ancient local churches were each visibly Christ's one true church in a particular place. This was true even though these were not perfect churches.
Our sight, as far as the church is concerned, is to be sure presently limited to the locality. Nevertheless, what we are looking at is the church. When you look at my body, would you say to me that I am an invisible man because you cannot see all parts of my body? In the same way, the body of Christ, his church, cannot be properly called invisible. Now we may see something wrong with the part of the church we are looking at. It does not help to babble about an "invisible" church —and babble is not too strong a word because such talk is quite unscriptural and unhelpful. It's a way of explaining away the problems instead of solving them by helping to clean up the pollution.
So thoroughly has the idea of an "invisible church" permeated our thinking, that some even believe that we must have denominational or sectarian organizations in order to provide a local and visible church. The idea goes like this:
That's how some people think. But they are wrong.
The Bible narrative tells us that in the beginning, when Jesus built his one true church, it was quite visible and the congregations were quite undenominational. The first church of Christ in Jerusalem was visible. As the gospel spread, similar churches were set up in other cities around the world (Acts 1:8) and they too were visible. But in that early church there was not a denomination to be seen anywhere. When Paul wrote to the church at Ephesus, Philippi, Corinth, or Rome, not one of today's many denominations yet existed. These ancient local churches were each visibly Christ's one true church in a particular place. This was true even though these were not perfect churches. When Paul said, "The churches of Christ greet you" (Romans 16:16), he had in mind visible local gatherings of the world-wide church. Nothing has changed. The church of Christ is no less visible today than it was in New Testament times. It is possible to have such undenominational churches today. Indeed all congregations of Christians ought to be undenominational.
Here is something for you to think about. Read it several times until it sinks in. The "different churches" of Bible times were the same church in different towns —not different churches in the same town.
People will argue for the existence of their own sectarian organization, whilst recognizing that other believers, even a congregation of them, can be true Christians, in the true church, without belonging to that sectarian organization. So why have denominations at all? Why indeed? There is no good reason. Yet there seems to be opposition to forming churches that are actually undenominational. Churches of one denomination will often fellowship, and have respect for, churches of another denomination more readily than they will the churches of no denomination. It's ok to have an undenominational look and feel. It's not ok to be genuinely undenominational and to be against denominationalism.