The Visible and Invisible Church by Jack Kettler
In this study, we will seek to understand the terminology, “Visible” and “Invisible Church.” Are these terms meaningless or essential to help understand the local and universal aspects of the church? As in previous studies, we will look at definitions, scriptures, commentary evidence and confessional support for the glorifying of God in how we live.
“Shew me thy ways, O LORD; teach me thy paths.” (Psalm 25:4)
“All those who profess faith in Christ and give evidence of their faith with their lives”; all those who profess faith in Christ, submit to baptism, and place themselves under the preaching and authority of a local church, along with their children. *
“The company of those who truly believe in Jesus Christ and are the recipients of salvation, both those who are currently alive and those who have died.” *
The Visible Church from Scripture:
“Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours.” (1 Corinthians 1:2)
Corinth is a visible city on a map with a church that has a physical location for worship.
The Invisible Church from Scripture:
“Nevertheless the foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal; The Lord knoweth them that are his. And, Let everyone that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” (2 Timothy 2:19)
In contrast, 2 Timothy, God speaks of believers that He knows in distinction from a church membership in a specific church like Corinth or Ephesus.
First, it is essential to answer the question; what is the Church?
The word church in the New Testament is the translation of the Greek word ecclesia and is synonymous with the Hebrew kahal in the Old Testament. Kahal is translated Ecclesia in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament. Both words mean an assembly in their most basic meaning and do not necessarily have anything to do with public worship. The context determines the meaning.
Ecclesia is used in the following ways in the New Testament:
Ecclesia is translated “assembly” in the primary way in Acts 19:32, 39,
and 41. In this case, Demetrius and fellow artisans assembled against
Paul with the town clerk pacifying the people and keeping order.
It is the whole body of the redeemed, or all those whom the Father has given to Christ, the invisible catholic or universal Church in Ephesians 5:23, 25, 27, 29 and Hebrews 12:23.
It can be used for a few Christians associated together, in Romans 16:5 and Colossians 4:15.
It can be used for Christians in a particular city, irrespective if they are assembled in one place or several places for worship, and are thus an ecclesia. The disciples in Antioch, forming several congregations, were one Church in Acts 13:1, in addition, we see the “Church of God at Corinth” 1 Corinthians 1:2, also the “Church at Jerusalem” in Acts 8:1 and the “Church of Ephesus” in Revelation 2:1.
Ecclesia can also be used for the whole body of confessing Christians throughout the world as seen in 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13, and Matthew 16:18 are the Church of Christ. **
The value of the visible invisible church distinction seen in the next two passages:
“Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn.” (Matthew 13:30)
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” (1 John 2:19)
In the visible church, there are fake believers and true believers. They both (tares and wheat) grow together until the end. The tares are part of the visible church. The wheat is part of the visible church plus the universal invisible church. Only God knows the true membership roll making up the invisible church. On a human level, we cannot read the hearts of professors of faith. That is why many are shocked when a seemingly strong member of the church departs and goes into unbelief as John explains in 1 John 2:19.
More evidence that Christ’s Church is both “visible” and “invisible:”
Chapter 25 Of the Church in the Westminster Confession explains how the Church “visible” is comprised of all those throughout the world that profess the true faith, together with their children. The church is called “visible” because its membership roll identifies its members and its assemblies are public in a physical location. In the visible Church, there is a mixture of “wheat and chaff,” or of saints and unconverted sinners. God has commanded His people to organize themselves into visible assemblies, with constitutions, officers, ordinances governing worship, and discipline for the purpose of making known the gospel of His kingdom, and of gathering in all of the elect from the uttermost parts of the earth, Mark 13:27.
Each one of these organized assemblies that pledges fidelity to Christ is part of the visible Church, and together with their children constitute the universal visible Church. A credible profession of faith involving membership vows is required for an adult to be a member of the visible Church. This Church is also called “the kingdom of heaven,” whose characteristics can be seen in the parables found in Matthew 13:24-52.
In comparison, the Church “invisible” consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one universal body under Christ, the head thereof. The Church is the body of Christ. It is called “invisible” because the greater part of those who are members in it are already in heaven or are yet unborn, and because its members still on earth cannot with certainly be distinguished this side of heaven because of the mixture of “wheat and chaff.”
The Church is universal or worldwide. Christ’s Church is pictured as the stone in Daniel 2:35. This stone becomes a mountain and fills the whole earth. This kingdom can never be destroyed and is Christ’s Church, Daniel 2:44. In the parable of the mustard seed, we see the Church and how it will become a great tree is seen in (Matthew 13:31-32). Christ’s Church will advance in History and the “Gates of Hell” shall never prevail against Her, Matthew 16:17. **
The distinction between the Visible and Invisible Church by John Calvin:
4. THE VISIBLE CHURCH AS MOTHER OF BELIEVERS
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” [Footnote 10] how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah [Isaiah 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32] testify. Ezekiel agrees with them when he declares that those whom God rejects from heavenly life will not be enrolled among God’s people [Ezekiel 13:9]. On the other hand, those who turn to the cultivation of true godliness are said to inscribe their names among the citizens of Jerusalem [cf. Isaiah 56:5; Psalm 87:6]. For this reason, it is said in another psalm: “Remember me, O Jehovah, with favor toward thy people; visit me with salvation: that I may see the well-doing of thy chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the joy of thy nation, that I may be glad with thine inheritance” [Psalm 106:4-5 p.; cf. Psalm 105:4, Vg., etc.]. By these words God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.
(The visible church: its membership and the marks by which it is recognized, 7-9)
7. INVISIBLE AND VISIBLE CHURCH
“How we are to judge the church visible, which falls within our knowledge, is, I believe, already evident from the above discussion. For we have said that Holy Scripture speaks of the church in two ways. Sometimes by the term “church” it means that which is actually in God’s presence, into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Then, indeed, the church includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world. Often, however, the name “church” designates the whole multitude of men spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ. By baptism we are initiated into faith in him; by partaking in the Lord’s Supper we attest our unity in true doctrine and love; in the Word of the Lord we have agreement, and for the preaching of the Word the ministry instituted by Christ is preserved. In this church are mingled many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance. There are very many ambitious, greedy, envious persons, evil speakers, and some of quite unclean life. Such are tolerated for a time either because they cannot be convicted by a competent tribunal or because a vigorous discipline does not always flourish as it ought. Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, [Footnote 14] is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called “church” in respect to men.
8. THE LIMITATION OF OUR JUDGMENT
Accordingly, the Lord by certain marks and tokens has pointed out to us what we should know about the church. As we have cited above from Paul, to know who are His is a prerogative belonging solely to God [2 Timothy 2:19]. [Footnote 15] Steps were indeed thus taken to restrain men’s undue rashness; and daily events themselves remind us how far his secret judgments surpass our comprehension. For those who seemed utterly lost and quite beyond hope are by his goodness called back to the way; while those who more than others seemed to stand firm often fall. ‘Therefore, according to God’s secret predestination (as Augustine says), “many sheep are without, and many wolves are within.” [Footnote 16] For he knows and has marked those who know neither him nor themselves. Of those who openly wear his badge, his eyes alone see the ones who are unfeignedly holy and will persevere to the very end [Matthew 24:13]—the ultimate point of salvation.
But on the other hand, because he foresaw it to be of some value for us to know who were to be counted as his children, he has in this regard accommodated himself to our capacity. And, since assurance of faith was not necessary, he substituted for it a certain charitable judgment whereby we recognize as members of the church those who, by confession of faith, by example of life, and by partaking of the sacraments, profess the same God and Christ with us. [Footnote 17] He has, moreover, set off by plainer marks the knowledge of his very body to us, knowing how necessary it is to our salvation.
9. THE MARKS OF THE CHURCH AND OUR APPLICATION OF THEM TO JUDGMENT
From this the face of the church comes forth and becomes visible to our eyes. 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 [cf. Ephesians 2:20]. [Footnote 18] For his promise cannot fail: “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” [Matthew 18:20]. But that we may clearly grasp the sum of this matter, we must proceed by the following steps: the church universal is a multitude gathered from all nations; it is divided and dispersed in separate places, but agrees on the one truth of divine doctrine, and is bound by the bond of the same religion. Under it are thus included individual churches, disposed in towns and villages according to human need, so that each rightly has the name and authority of the church. Individual men who, by their profession of religion, are reckoned within such churches, even though they may actually be strangers to the church, still in a sense belong to it until they have been rejected by public judgment.
There is, however, a slightly different basis for judgment concerning individual men and churches. For it may happen that we ought to treat like brothers and count as believers those whom we think unworthy of the fellowship of the godly, because of the common agreement of the church by which they are borne and tolerated in the body of Christ. We do not by our vote approve such persons as members of the church, but we leave to them such place as they occupy among the people of God until it is lawfully taken from them.
But we must think otherwise of the whole multitude itself. If it has the ministry of the Word and honors it, if it has the administration of the sacraments, it deserves without doubt to be held and considered a church. For it is certain that such things are not without fruit. In this way we preserve for the universal church its unity, which devilish spirits have always tried to sunder; and we do not defraud of their authority those lawful assemblies which have been set up in accordance with local needs. (1)
From The Westminster Larger Catechism on the Visible Church:
Q62: What is the visible church?
A62: The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.
Q63: What are the special privileges of the visible church?
A63: The visible church has the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, not withstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying, that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.
From The Westminster Larger Catechism on the Invisible Church:
Q. 64. What is the invisible church?
A. The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.
Q. 65. What special benefits do the members of the invisible church enjoy by Christ?
A. The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.
In closing, are you only a member of the visible church?
Are you wheat or a tare? There is an earthly roll and heavenly roll. The Jewish people kept extensive genealogies. These were membership records or rolls. They were earthly membership rolls. Likewise, the early church had membership records as the elders kept records on the numbers of new disciples see Acts 2:41, 47; 4:4; 6:1, 7; 16:5. There is nothing wrong with having your name in the earthly roll, in fact, it is essential. However, being in a Jewish genealogy or being numbered in a church membership roll is not the same as being in the book of life.
“Yet now, if thou wilt forgive their sin; and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.” (Exodus 32:32)
“Like them, the one who is victorious will be dressed in white. And I will never blot out his name from the book of life, but I will confess his name before My Father and His angels.” (Revelation 3:5) This is the heavenly roll of life.
These two passages point to the heavenly membership roll that your name must be in to have eternal life. Are you listed in this book? Usually, you must first be listed in the church’s earthly membership roll.
Church Membership: Is it Biblical? By Phillip G. Kayser:
The Biblical pattern is to be “numbered” or “added to” the rolls of a local church (Acts 2:41,47; 4:4; 6:1,7; 16:5; 1 Tim. 5:9), to be committed to that local body (1 Cor. 12:12-28; Rom. 12:4,5; Eph. 4:25) and under the rule and oversight of shepherds who know each sheep (Heb. 13:7,17-18; 1 Cor. 16:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:11-14). The Old Testament prophesied that in the New Covenant time “the LORD will record, when He registers the peoples” (Psalm 87:6). When moves or transfers were necessary, the Biblical method was to use a letter of transfer or commendation (Acts 18:27; Rom. 16:1-2; 2 Cor. 3:1; 8:23-24; Philemon; 3 John 6-9,12). Indeed, any inter-church business was conducted by people with reference letters (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:16-24). Also, it is logically impossible to reconcile the doctrine of discipline with a belief that membership is not necessary. How can an excommunicated person be “taken away from among you” (1 Cor. 5:2) if there is no roll from which the person can be removed? It is not sufficient to say that he is physically barred from the church since even unbelievers could be present (1 Cor. 14:23). Furthermore, if people simply circulated from church to church it would be impossible for the eldership to recognize and bar from the building all who were under discipline. Membership rolls are both Biblically and logically necessary for the maintenance of a holy church. (2)
“Church membership was so important that Paul and Silas baptized the Philippian jailer into the membership of Christ’s church at midnight with Paul’s back still bloody from a beating! He did not even wait till morning! Identification with Christ’s church is important; without it, one must be treated ‘as a heathen and publican.’” – Jay Adams
“We must re-grasp the idea of church membership as being the membership of the body of Christ and as the biggest honour which can come man’s way in this world.” – Martyn Lloyd-Jones
“When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder,” where will you be? If you are in the heavenly roll, you will be called up yonder.
1. Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, XX-XXI, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) Book IV, Chapter 1, pp. 1016, 1021-1024.
2. Phillip G. Kayser, Kayser Commentary, kaysercommentary .com
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of the book defending the Reformed Faith against attacks, titled: The Religion That Started in a Hat. Available at: http://www.thereligionthatstartedinahat.com/
For more study:
** Taken from a devotional given at a RPCNA congregational meeting in 2016
The Kayser Commentary is a great online resource at https://kaysercommentary.com/