“When we look upon the church, we can only see the outward appearance (those who profess faith and their children); however, when God looks at that same church, He can see not only the outward appearance, but also the true nature of His church – not only those who outwardly profess the true religion and their children, but those whom He has chosen and called.”
Evangelical Christians have, especially of late, been quite outspoken in the defense of the institution of marriage. We want the civil government and our society to recognize and maintain the biblical definition of marriage as being a contract or covenant bond between one man and one woman. Personally, I find it sadly ironic, however, that view of many Christians about the institution of the church are not nearly as well thought out, or passionately held.
Do we believe that as long as two people love each other and live together that that should rightfully be called a marriage? Do we believe that when two people privately profess their undying love to one another that that constitutes a marriage? Barring the ‘what if two people are stranded alone on a desert island’ scenario, I don’t know of any Bible-believing Christian who believes this way. The reason is because we believe that there is such a thing as a formal institution called ‘marriage’ in which two people recognize the authority of the church and/or the state to say who is married and who is not. Christians have been defending this formal institution of marriage for some time now, but it seems that we may have already lost the battle for the institution of the church. Fewer and fewer Christians believe that the institution of the church is important or relevant at all anymore.
That’s where the chapter 25 (“Of the Church”) of the Westminster Confession of Faith is helpful. This past Sunday, we studied this chapter by way of a summarizing what the Bible teaches concerning ecclesiology, the study of the doctrine of the church.
WCF 25.1 – The Invisible Church
The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the invisible church as “the whole number of the elect.” Thus, the invisible church includes all those who will be gathered together at Christ’s second coming at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Mark 13:26-27; Revelation 19:7-9).
WCF 25.1 – The Visible Church
The visible church consists of all those that “profess the true religion; and of their children.” This biblical definition of the visible church as described in this paragraph may be summarized under five headings:
(1) The Scope of the Visible Church (where it is): like the invisible church, the visible church is also catholic (or universal); it’s not confined to one nation as it was in the old covenant, but in the new covenant includes people from throughout the world (Galatians 3:28-29).
(2) The Sphere of the Visible Church (who it is): the visible church includes all of those who outwardly profess the true religion, or faith in Christ and their children (Acts 2:37-39; 1 Corinthians 7:14).
(3) The Sovereignty of the Visible Church (what power it has): this visible gathering together of God’s people is called “the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ” over which Christ is the King and Sovereign (Isaiah 9:6-7; Matthew 13:40-46).
(5) The Salvation of the Visible Church (the ordinary place of salvation): In the Bible, whenever someone turned to Christ for salvation, they were immediately “added to the number” (Acts 2:41-47). A “lone-ranger Christian” or a “hermit Christian” is an oxymoron.
The distinction between the invisible church and the visible church is an important one, but we must also remember that we are not speaking of two separate churches, but one church viewed from two different perspectives. We might describe these two different perspectives by way of an illustration. When you and I look at a building with the naked eye, we can only see the outward appearance; however, when Superman looks at that same building using his x-ray vision, he can see not only the outward appearance, but also the infrastructure and the true nature of the building.
In a similar way, the distinction between the invisible and the visible church is one of perspective. When we look upon the church, we can only see the outward appearance (those who profess faith and their children); however, when God looks at that same church, He can see not only the outward appearance, but also the true nature of His church – not only those who outwardly profess the true religion and their children, but those whom He has chosen and called.
WCF 25.3 – The Mission and Gifts of the Visible Church
The mission (or purpose) of the visible church is simple: to gather and perfect the saints in this life to the end of the world. This mission is succinctly summarized and stated in what is often referred to as Jesus’ ‘great commission’ to make disciples of all the nations (Matthew 28:19-20).
The gifts that God has given to the visible church for the accomplishment of this mission are of three kinds:
(1) Ministry: evangelists, pastors, teachers, elders, deacons (Ephesians 4:11-13; 1 Timothy 3).
(2) Oracles: the Word of God (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
God ordains and blesses these gifts to effectually gather and perfect His saints by His own presence and Spirit (John 15:26-27).
WCF 25.4 – The Purity of the Visible Church
In the letters to the seven churches in the last book of the Bible (Revelation 2-3), we have detailed instructions and exhortations regarding what Christ desires for His church, what He defines as that which is pure and that which is impure. In summarizing and leaning heavily on these chapters from the book of Revelation, the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches that there are three biblical criteria by which we may evaluate the purity of particular (or individual) churches:
(1) The doctrine of the Gospel that is taught and embraced in it.
(2) The purity of the administration of ordinances (the sacraments).
(3) The purity of the performance of public worship.
WCF 25.5 – The Mixture of the Visible Church
The invisible church, because it is comprised of God’s elect, is pure; however, until Christ’s return, the visible church will always be subject to mixture and error (Matthew 13:24-30). There are no perfect churches, but all are on a continuum of being more or less pure. And, some churches have become so corrupt and degenerated such that they cease to be true churches at all; the Bible calls such churches “synagogues of Satan” (Revelation 2:9; 3:9). Yet, there will always be a church on earth, a remnant (Matthew 16:18; 24:21-22).
WCF 25.6 – The Head of the Church
This doctrine of the church – and its importance in Scripture and in the life of the believer – has fallen on hard times in our age of individualism and anti-institutionalism. For further reading on this important, but much neglected topic, I recommend this online article by Michael Glodo: Sola Ecclesia: The Lost Reformation Doctrine.
And, here are several books that I highly recommend, as well: The Enduring Community: Embracing the Priority of the Church by Brian Habig and Les Newsom; What Is the Mission of the Church? Making Sense of Social Justice, Shalom, and the Great Commission by Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert; and The Church of God as an Essential Element of the Gospel by Stuart Robinson (a helpful review of this last book may be found online here).
Peter M. Dietsch is pastor of Providence PCA in Midland, Texas. This article first appeared on his church website and is used with permission.
[Editor’s note: One or more original URLs (links) referenced in this article are no longer valid; those links have been removed.]