Author: Ron Graham
The Visible Church
—Refuting the idea of an invisible church
In other lessons we briefly address the notion that the true church is invisible. Now we take up this subject in more detail.
1 The Invisible Head?
Let us begin with three things we all know...
- Christ is the head of the church (Colossians 2:13-18).
- He has risen from the dead and ascended to the throne of Heaven (Acts 2:29-33).
- We do not see Jesus now but he will be revealed to us in the last time (1Peter 1:3-9).
So we know that the Head of the true church is in heaven and his church is a spiritual kingdom. In the minds of many people this makes Christ the invisible head of an invisible church.
That is the main idea we are discussing in this lesson. We will talk about the "invisible church" in a moment, but since that idea rests on the point that Christ the Head is invisible, let us think first about that.
Although Peter said in the above reading, "You do not see him now" (1Peter 1:8), this is hardly a claim that Christ is invisible. The scriptures nowhere call Christ "invisible". On the contrary, Paul said in the above reading, "He is the image of the invisible God" (Colossians 2:15).
By definition an image cannot be invisible. Paul himself could not believe that Christ is invisible, because he claimed, "Last of all he was seen of me..." (1Corinthians 13:1-8). Paul saw Christ after Christ had ascended to heaven.
We remember also that the heavens were opened up for Stephen who "gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God" (Acts 7:55).
When I put a sock on my foot, I cannot see my foot anymore, but that is hardly to say I have an invisible foot, is it? Indeed, if I notice a hole in my sock, I can see my foot through the hole, and know that I do not have an invisible foot.
When my wife goes out the back door, I cannot see her. But that hardly means I have an invisible wife, does it? Indeed, if I go and look through the window, I can see her and prove that she is perfectly visible.
In the same way, if we had a window into heaven, we would see that Jesus is not invisible. We cannot see Jesus because our eyes cannot see into heaven. That's hardly a surprise because our eyes cannot even see through a sock or a back door.
Now I know that I have done a bit of hair splitting, but that does not mean what I have said is wrong or silly. Normally I would not make such a fine point, but in this case we have an entire false concept of the church supported by nothing better than the loose assertion that the Head of the true church is "invisible".
2 The Invisible Church?
Once people begin to speak of the church's Head as "invisible" it is all too easy to speak of the church itself as "the invisible church". In fact, the church is never described in the Bible as "the invisible church" and it is simply not true that the church is invisible.
The Bible does speak of the church as "the kingdom of Heaven... not of this world" (Matthew 16:18-19, John 18:36).
The church is certainly a spiritual body, and we tend to think of what is spiritual as invisible.
The Church is People
However, it is also true that the church is people, and people are not invisible.You might reasonably say that people's bodies are visible, but their spirits are not. However, if you mean that their spirits are in the church but their bodies are not, then that is a dangerous and unscriptural idea.
Our whole being, body and soul, is dedicated to Christ, and all of our being, both visible and invisible, is in the church (Romans 12:1-2, 1Corinthians 6:29-20). We are sanctified "wholly... spirit and soul and body..." (1Thessalonians 5:23)
The church is people who are the "living stones... built up as a spiritual house..." by Jesus Christ. If the church is people, and people are visible, then the church is visible, and it is incorrect and misleading to speak of an "invisible church".
There is One Church
In the minds of many people, a Christian belongs to two churches. On one hand the Christian belongs to the universal church established and headed by Christ.
On the other hand, people think that Christians attach themselves to a local church of their choice that has been established and headed by men other than Christ.
Thus they think of the first church as "the invisible church" and the second as the visible church. Of course not everyone who thinks this way thinks clearly about it, and not everyone has thought the matter through.
The opposite idea to this is that there is only one church, "...one body..." (Ephesians 4:4), and every local church in the world should be a manifestation of that one church established and headed by Christ, not a church established and headed by others.
This is the principle held by undenominational churches of Christ and actually put into practice by them.
Example: The Church at the Beginning
The church founded in Jerusalem circa AD33 was a visible and local church. It was established and headed by Christ. God was adding to this church those who were being saved (Acts 2:47 kjv).
The rest of Acts chapter 2 shows clearly that this local and visible church was established by none other than Christ in fulfilment of his promise to build his church, the kingdom that he had said would come (Matthew 16:18-19).
This first church is proof that a local and visible church can be the true church. The first one was.
Later, other churches were established in Judea, Samaria, Galilee, and Syria (Acts 9:31, 13:1). Later still, churches were established in other places still further away.
The New Testament consists mostly of letters written to these various churches. Except that they were in different localities, these churches were like the church at Jerusalem.
Christ was their founder and head and they manifested his one true church in whatever place they were. These churches are proof that what could be done in Jerusalem at first, could be done anywhere else at any later date. Churches could be established by the word of Christ which manifested his true church in that place.
The idea of an "invisible church" does not match the picture the New Testament provides of the church at the beginning. Christ's church, as we have seen above, was a visible church. You could see it in Jerusalem, in Antioch, in Ephesus, in Rome, and in dozens of other places across the world.
There is no evidence whatsoever that this was a temporary thing. The church of Christ would go on being visible wherever it was established by the preaching of his word.
Ephesus as Another Example
When Paul worked for three years at Ephesus, he believed he could see the true church of Christ. He told the elders at Ephesus to "shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood" (Acts 20:28).
They shepherded the local church at Ephesus. That, in Paul's view, was the blood-bought church of Christ, not something else. This clear proof that Paul believed the local and visible church to be Christ's true church.
Seeing Only a Part of the Whole
Now it is true that one cannot see all the church at once. One can only see a local part of the church in any given place. This fact is hardly a mystery or a problem, since no visible object can be seen all at once. Looking at any visible object, you will not see it in its entirety, yet it is nevertheless a visible object.
Suppose you look through a door into a room. You will not see the room as it was in the past, or as it might be in years to come. Nor will you see all that exists of the room at present. You will see a particular part of the room at a particular moment of its existence. Nevertheless you see the real room, not something else. And the room is visible not invisible.
In the same way, looking at a local church, you will not see the whole church of Christ gathered from every time and place, the "general assembly and church of the firstborn" (Hebrews 12:22-23).
You can see that only with the eye of faith. Nevertheless, although you see only a part of the whole, what you see is the true church, not something else, and because you see it, it is not invisible.
3 The Invisible Saints?
We said earlier, that the church is people, and since people are visible the church is visible. Yet many people believe that saints, the truly sanctified believers, who make up the membership of the true church, are not visible.
The idea is that we mortals are so limited in our knowledge and perceptions that we cannot possibly recognise the true saints and distinguish them from pretenders. After all, we cannot look into people's hearts, can we? To be able to recognise the people of the true church, we would have to have the sight and mind of God.
Since in any given local church there may be people who are pretenders, and nobody but God can distinguish these from true believers, then the true church cannot be manifested by a local church, and thus the true church of Christ is invisible.
There are three things we can say about this...
Firstly, a worm hidden in an apple, does not make the apple invisible or turn it into something else. So even if a pretender or an imposter should creep into a local church, that does not make the local church any less true or any less visible. It is only the impostor or pretender who is false.
There were, in the first churches, "false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ" (2Corinthians 11:13). This did not mean that the churches of Christ ceased to be true churches just because some impostors had come in among them.
Secondly, we can recognise hypocrites and pretenders. God is not the only one who can do that. The old saying is true, that you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. By way of example, take Paul's advice to Timothy about impostors (2Timothy 3:1-9).
He says that "their folly will be obvious to all". We recall that Jesus said of the false, "By their fruits you will know them (Matthew 7:15-20). We are told often enough to beware of them. How could we do that if we cannot know who they are?.
Thirdly, we can recognise genuine Christian folk who show "the fruits of the Spirit" (Galatians 5:22-24) and do not show the "deeds of the flesh" (Galatians 5:19-21), Is it not foolishness to regard such people as possible pretenders?
This notion undermines respect for the local church as the genuine and true church of Christ!