The Mystery of the Church
A Necessary Distinction
Protestants have considered the church as an object of faith. We believe much that we cannot see. Theologians have therefore very naturally come to speak of the church as both visible and invisible. By this they did not intend to imply that there were really two churches, one visible and the other invisible. Rather the tangible aspect is one thing. The intangible aspect is quite another side of the church.
This distinction of visible-invisible is very important for a proper understanding of the Church of Jesus Christ. Understanding it is essential to our proper regard for the body of Christ. Misunderstandings and misapplications of this vital distinction have been the cause of many practical difficulties.
The Danger of Externalizing
Even where there might be the closest coordination between the visible body and the invisible side of the church, the distinction is still significant. In other words, the fact that one might consider the organized congregation as being made up of true believers, does not negate the relevance of the distinction. Particularly where such "ideal" conditions prevail, the danger of a kind of "externalism" may arise. How easily the members of such a "good" church might imagine that the relationship with the visible structure is the "real thing." The mystery is gradually replaced by a simplistic view which tends to reduce the church to a social institution. Even in worship, spiritual feelings give way to merely psychological experiences. Israel no doubt suffered greatly from the illusion that the external nation and its shrines were the chosen of the Lord. And by a rather simple logic, they convinced themselves that they were the people of God, even when their hearts were far from Him.
The Bible's Teaching
The Bible often deals with the contrast between the visible and the invisible. Many scriptural passages, however, seem to justify an uncritical identification of the people, the land and especially the temple with the truly "holy." The Psalms especially are filled with praise for Zion. "God is in the midst of her", Psalm 46:6. "He is our God and we are the sheep of his hand", Psalm 95:7. The same theme is repeated again and again in the history of the Jewish people. They are an elect nation. Jerusalem is a holy city and the temple is the place where God dwells.
Small wonder that the Psalmist in Psalm 80 is perplexed by the withdrawal of God's favor. Of God's "vine" he asks "Why hast thou broken down its walls so that all they that pass by the way do pluck it", vs. 12?
Israel's historians tell the tragic story of rebellion and apostasy. A good deal of their account seems to be written to show why the chosen people should be punished (Judges, 2 Chronicles 36:11, ff.). In both the historical books and in the prophets there are many instances of vain appeals to the holy people and holy objects. What a shock it must have been to Eli's sons to find the Ark in which they had trusted conquered by the Philistines. More than any other, Jeremiah exposes the false hopes of those who trust in the externals of worship. Isaiah, too, sees a deceived people vainly trusting that they are the "holy city", Isaiah 48:12. The hardness of Israel reaches its climax in the rejection of Christ.
The New Testament continues to warn against the danger of trust in an external church. Paul seems deeply disturbed by the rejection of Israel. Especially in Romans 9-11, but also in Galatians 3-4, he sheds light on this most difficult problem. If we may call Israel a kind of external church of the O.T. dispensation, then certainly it has not gone well with the external system! Neither for the present, nor the future (Galatians 4:30) do things seem good for the Old Testament people of God.
Some theologians have sought answers to the problems of that people in a bright future restoration of Israel. And it is true that the God who rejects has often proved to be the God who still accepts. Paul resorts to the idea of a remnant who are saved. They are not all Israel that are of Israel (Romans 9:6). Isaiah 1:9 and Jeremiah 23:3 had prophesied that a remnant would be saved.
Barth's Wrong Solution
Karl Barth has dealt very extensively with the rejection of Israel. He too speaks of the "seven thousand" in Israel. But his solution to the problem is not an election within Israel. Rather, for him all this reference to rejections is a rejection of the elect! Fond as he is of paradox, here too he resorts to a Paradoxical explanation. The church is for him the elected elect, i.e. the people who are elected and know their election in Christ. But Israel was and is even today the rejected elect. Their rejection of Christ means for them a kind of rejection. Nevertheless they are and remain the beloved elect of God. Thus they, like Esau, are all the rejected elect.
Barth here touches on some profound truths, especially when he applies the concepts "rejected" and "elected" to Christ. In a very real sense Christ was rejected, even though He was the elect of God. And in His rejection and election we who were rejected have been accepted. For the N.T. Church, as well as Israel, were rejecters. But does this mean that all "rejected rejecters" are ultimately saved? By no means. There is clearly an invisible election of a remnant within a visible church.
In both Romans and Hebrews we read of a rejection which is ultimate and final. Hebrews knows even a rejection of the external Israel when it says that we must go outside the camp. In both books, it is only the believers who are saved. Once more Barth and his followers are trying to preach peace to those for whom there is no peace.
Faith in the Invisible Church
God seems to have gone out of His way in the Bible to expose externalism. The outward church is not the essence of the church. There are basically invisible characteristics which mark the true saints. There is one people of God in many external institutions. If the whole church may in some sense be called a covenant people, there is still an election of grace within that body.
For various reasons and in different ways the Reformers, Calvin and Luther, stressed the invisible aspect of the church. This was for both a matter of deep personal faith. They had seen what could happen to an apostate structure. Like Jerusalem, Rome had ceased to be the holy city. It was not a church which was really "church." But as the Heidelberg Catechism confesses, the Son of God is gathering a church chosen to eternal life. And these are united in the true faith.
Our day has seen a good deal of deserved criticism of the external church. The rise of liberalism and the meaningless proliferation of denominationalism had contributed to this. Often this has led to radical efforts to purge the church and establish a pure church. Luther and Calvin had been concerned with the true external church. Hence the Reformation! But when both Lutheran and Reformed churches began to apostatize, many resorted to a visible–invisible dialectic. And well we may sympathize with members who were caught in the liberal churches. Was it not true that they, and all the true believers, were still members of the church of Christ which is in heaven?
Seeking a True Visible Church
It is one thing to resort to this dualism in a liberal context. It is quite another thing to do as some of the Seceders of 1834 in the Netherlands did. Having come from congregations which were a mass of unbelievers, they continued to project the same kind of censorious judgement upon their own congregations. It always seems rather pessimistic of Reverent Simon Van Velzen to call his congregation "nothing but a mass of hypocrites." In various denominations there are still ministers who consider only a very few of their large congregations as "true Christians." This creates a false antithesis in the concepts visible-invisible.
Around the 1930's, there was a wave of anti-external church fundamentalism. Having suffered from the liberalism of the mainline denominations and the dead orthodoxy of some conservative churches, men turned away from the church entirely. Some groups even argued that church membership as unscriptural. In my days at Calvin Seminary, I was given a ride by such a non-church Christian. Having learned that I was a member of the CRC he warned me against creeds and denominations. As for him, he only believed the Bible. When I asked him to what church he belonged, he assured me most confidently that he belonged to the church of Jesus Christ in heaven. Perhaps it was a bit irreverent, but I could not resist the temptation to ask: "And have you been attending there often lately?"
We may not neglect the external church. It was of some such outward congregations that Paul affirmed them to be the "temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 3:16) and the "pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Timothy 3:15). Ideally there is an integration of the characteristics which are invisible, with their visible manifestation. How closely the invisible and visible are in desired coordination can only be empirically determined from the life of the institution. The Scripture gives examples of all kinds of churches (Revelation 1-3). God forbid that without charity or common sense, a minister should class his congregation with a Laodicea when really it is like faithful Smyrna. Equally absurd, however, is the temptation to flatter a Corinth as though it were a Philippi. Neither optimism nor pessimism should here be our guide. We are called to be realists! Our day certainly seems to call for continued insistence on true conversion. While we strive to make the visible church what it ought to be, let us never succumb to the illusion that mere external membership or worship is the same as the unseen link that binds us in the Holy Spirit with Christ and one another.