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The Invisible and Visible Church

The mission of Mars Hill Church is to make disciples and plant churches to the glory of God. Earlier this week, we looked at eight defining characteristics of a church, as Pastor Mark outlined in his book, Vintage Church. Today, we continue by distinguishing between the visible church and the invisible Church, and four things the church is not. The following is excerpted from pp. 45-47, 51-52, and 57-58 of the same book. Augustine became the bishop of Hippo in AD 396 and saw the churches under his jurisdiction divided by heresy and many church members and leaders living unregenerate lives as "the covetous, the defrauders, the robbers, the usurers, and the drunkards." (p. 190) As a result, he developed a concept that distinguished between the visible and the invisible church, which later featured very prominently in the Protestant definition of the church during the Reformation. This distinction is biblical and comes from Jesus Christ himself, who said that not everyone who is a member of the visible church on earth is truly a member of the invisible, historical church bound for heaven. Jesus distinguished between wheat and weeds, and wolves and sheep in the church. Even Jesus himself had a non-Christian wolf among his little flock of 12, Judas Iscariot.

The Invisible Church

The invisible church is the church as God perfectly sees it. The invisible church is the community of all Christians throughout history who have been or will be loved and saved by Jesus Christ, including the believing people of the Old Testament. While it is possible for us to know others who profess faith in Christ (e.g., the Bible often references people as Christian brothers and sisters), ultimately only the Lord knows exactly who is and is not a Christian. In this sense, "invisible church" refers to every person of any age, race, and culture whose sins are forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Visible Church

The visible church is the church as we imperfectly see it. The various congregations of the universal church that regularly meet together in a particular place at a set time for things such as teaching, fellowship, and worship are commonly called the "local church" or the "visible church." Many of the letters in the New Testament were written to help inform and direct the visible, local churches of such cities as Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, Colossae, and Thessalonica. The local church is visible in that the community sees people who belong to the Lord Jesus gathering as the church for regular meetings, often called church services. Outsiders also see those in the visible church living the life of Jesus as they disperse into the community. (Cf. pp 1030-3.) The differences between the visible and invisible church, after the jump:

Visible vs. Invisible church

Membership: saved and lost Membership: saved only
Only currently living people Both dead and living in Christ
Many local churches Only one universal church
Differing denominations No single denomination
Part of the body of Christ The entire body of Christ
Differing types of government Christ is the only head
Ministering of ordinances (or sacraments) Ordinances fulfilled
In local churches there are invariably people who love Jesus out of regenerated hearts (Christians) and people who do not (non-Christians). Therefore, while members of the invisible church do participate in the visible church, the Reformers rightly stressed that not everyone who is a member of the visible church is a member of the invisible church and that many are wrongly assured that they are saved because they are in the church, even though they are not in Christ. As a result, the Reformers defined the church in terms of the presence of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps the most famous Protestant definition of the church is from John Calvin, who said, "Wherever we see the Word of God purely preached and heard, and the sacraments administered according to Christ's institution, there, it is not to be doubted, a church of God exists." (p. 1023) …

The Sin of Christians Not Loving Each Other

The emphasis of Scripture is that while we are individuals insofar as there is distinction between us, through the reconciling work of Jesus there should not be division but loving relational community as the church. The Bible is clear that every Christian is a part of the larger church body and is expected to participate in the life of a local church with the gift(s) God has given him or her. This is so God may be glorified and so his people may be built up through their service to one another. It is therefore a sin for someone who claims to be a Christian not to be actively loving his or her Christian brothers and sisters and seeking to build up the church as faithful members of a church. Yet, here we see one of the tragic effects of modernism on church life. Many people who claim to be Christians adopted by God the Father have nothing to do with their brothers and sisters in God's family, the church. Such people will excuse themselves by decrying the hypocrisy, or even claiming that all they need is Jesus. In refutation of this modern false teaching, 1 John 1:1-3 says:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life–the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us–that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
John's point is that believers stay in relation with other Christians. He goes on to speak of false believers in 2:19: "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us."

Love the Father, Love Your Brother

Why is it important that believers stay together in the church? Because that is where we love other believers, the mark of the Christian according to Jesus. John teaches what he learned from Jesus, saying, "By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother." He also says, "He who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother."

4 Things the Church Is Not

1. The church is not a building.

That's the first definition in any dictionary: "A building for public, especially Christian, worship." Some churches meet in a building and many times that is a home or a multipurpose building. Some churches around the world also gather under a tree or in a field.

2. The church is not any one denomination.

The universal church consists of all people who are connected to the living Lord Jesus Christ by the Holy Spirit and have been justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. There are true Christians in the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and in Anglican, Baptist, Pentecostal, Reformed, and Lutheran churches, to mention only a few. The church is a collection of people from literally hundreds of denominations, networks, and independent churches. There are even occasionally true Christians in heretical groups that falsely claim the name Christian. Conversely, there are people who belong to biblical churches who do not have a relationship with Jesus. Only Jesus knows exactly which people are truly his.

3. The church is not a eucharistic society.

Or a vending machine whereby God hands out grace to those who show up to Mass and partake of the sacraments.

4. The church is not a business.

While the church must do business, be organized, and handle money, its mission is quite different from a business. A business exists to deliver goods and services in order to turn a profit. It is driven by the bottom line. In many instances the church is a legal entity recognized by the government but not always, as in the case of the underground church in China and others like it. The church must account for its resources by stewarding them even better than a business does. Laziness in finance or organization is a sin. The church does not exist for profit but for God's glory, which includes good stewardship of its resources.
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