In the last post I contended that the church isn’t a voluntary society like the Rotary Club. I also introduced the taxonomy of “invisible church” and “the visible church”. Here I want to offer biblical support for these categories.
Before that though, a short definition of ‘church’ may be helpful. The word church (or Kirk or Kirche) come from the Greek word κυριακός (kuriakos) meaning “belonging to the Lord”. The word only shows up twice in Scripture: once in 1 Cor. 11:20 where it refers to the Lord’s Supper and once in Rev. 1:10 where it refers to the Lord’s Day. The word became the customary word to designate the place where Christians worshiped as they conceived of themselves as the spiritual house belonging to the Lord. This word church eventually became the translators preference when translating the Greek word ἐκκλησία (ekklessia), which literally means ‘gathering’ and need not carry religious overtones. Robert Reymond asserts, “Because of this, English translations have lost a rich nuance of Scripture regarding the people of God.” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 805).
What does he mean? The best, simplest definition of ‘the church’ is the community of God’s people through all time. This includes the OT people of God who were redeemed by grace through faith. It includes the living and the dead who have been saved by the cross work of Christ. This fact is obscured somewhat by the [necessary] translation process.
The word ekklessia is used in several places in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT) to refer to “the assembly of the Lord” in the OT. For example, Deuteronomy 23:1-3 lists people who shall not enter “the assembly of the Lord”. In the Septuagint, the Hebrew is translated ekklesia, the same word we now translate church (similarly, see Deut 4:10, Josh 8:35, 1 Chron 29:10, etc.). In Acts 7:38 Stephen uses the word ekklessia to refer to the assembly of Israel in the wilderness.
The point of this word study is to emphasize the unity of the covenant people of God, the church, through the ages. (See also James’ defense of the mission to the Gentiles in Acts 15 where he connects the building of the church & the incorporation of Gentiles with the promise recorded by Amos that God would “rebuild the tents of David that have fallen”).
But what of the distinction between the visible and the invisible church? First a clarification. The visible and invisible churches are not two separate churches, but the same church considered differently – one from God’s perspective, the other from our earthly one.
References to the visible church are everywhere in the NT.Many uses demand to be taken in reference to the visible church. I think Matthew 18:17 is certainly one – you tell the visible church of your brothers sin against you. Virtually all the uses in Acts refer to the visible church (Acts 8:1, 11:22, 14:23,27, etc). Its obvious that references throughout the NT to the ‘church that meets in’ so-and-so’s house is the visible church (Rom 16:5, Philemon 2, Col 4:15). Moreover, the passages that speak of sin not being tolerated or church discipline in the church must be references tot he visible church (1 Cor 5:12, 6:4, etc.). I’m sure there’s more. But, I think its clear that in these visible communities there were unbelievers as well as believers. Both make up the visible church, only the true believers comprise the invisible church.
Does Scripture make this distinction?
Yes, I think it does, often within the context of apostasy (which we’ll consider in depth later). So, for example, Jesus can warn or wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15-16, see also Matt 7:21-23, 1 John 2:19-20, 2 Peter 2:20-22). They come into the church, are a part of the visible church, but seek to destroy it, proving they aren’t a part of the invisible church (as God sees it). Likewise, Paul warns that there will be those who swerve from the faith, but reminds Timothy that while he may not be able to tell in advance who those will be, “The Lord knows those who are his” (2 Tim 2:19).
More positively, you can look to John 17. Here Jesus is praying for the invisible church – the elect who are presently in the world and those elect yet to be born. Also, when the author of Hebrews speaks of “the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven” he is speaking of the invisible church (Hebrews 13:23).
So which matters most? Both! Both are essential. The visible church, not just the invisible 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” (Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.2).
We’ll explore that more in the next post.