The Visible and Invisible Church
There are churches, and there are churches. In this period of history, there is what we might call the democratization of the church. The church is seen to come into being when a bunch of Christians come together to form a community of believers. While not denying that the church is called by God, modern people understand the calling to refer to the invisible church, not the visible church. The visible church is seen as the community of believers. A person is thus called into the (invisible) church and then joins the visible church as a profession of faith.
Earlier, we talked about the thematic markers of a Reformed church, which are mentioned here again as follows:
- We hold to the unity of internal and external piety
- We hold to a historical progression of God's plan in the history of the church
- Therefore, we hold to the importance of consulting the wisdom and insights of our forebears.
- Therefore, we hold to the importance of the creeds and confessions of the historic Christian church.
Thematic marker one is what we want to focus on here as we discuss the nature of the church. We see that the unity of internal and external piety means that we should not create a false dichotomy between the internal and the external. When it comes to the church, we likewise should not make a false dichotomy between the internal and the external, between the invisible and the visible. Look at Scripture and you will not see such a dichotomy made. When the apostles speak about the church, they see it as a whole. The categories of invisible and visible are helpful heuristically, but we must understand that we should not so separate them such that there is no real relation between the invisible and the visible.
So what does that mean for us? It means that the democratization of the church is in error. Since there is no sharp separation between the visible and the invisible church, the church is not primarily a community of believers. Rather, the church is the institution ordained by God. One is called by God to join the church He has ordained and set in place.
The church is ordained by God, and is created by the Word and Spirit, as it is shown in the book of Acts. Thus, while the notion of "apostolic succession" is unbiblical, there is an organic continuity from the apostolic age to the church ordained by Christ in the present age. This rules out any and all independent churches where any Tom, Dick or Harry proclaims himself a pastor and goes out to plant a church. Rather, the organic continuity called for in the Scriptures is that of faithful men entrusting other men with the Gospel, who will do the same with the Gospel entrusted to them (2 Tim. 2:2). A Reformed church, following this biblical pattern, will share an organic continuity with other Reformed churches, and thus the pastor is not some maverick out there doing his own thing, but he is a person brought up and entrusted with the Gospel he received from other faithful men, being brought up under their leadership and guidance.
Marks of a true church
This alone does not of course resolve the question of what a Reformed church is, since there are many other established church bodies. Besides seeing the church as an institution with organic continuity, the Reformed church also see from Scripture that a true church must have three distinctive marks: the right preaching of the Gospel, the right administration of the sacraments, and the right practice of church discipline (c.f. Belgic Confession 29). Since the Gospel is the message of Christ unto salvation, then a church without the true Gospel cannot be a true church. As the sacraments are performed words of the Gospel, therefore to wrongly administer then is to be in error in an aspect of Gospel proclamation. Lastly, to not rightly practice church discipline means that false teachings and heresies and ungodly practices are tolerated within the church (contra Titus 3:10), and thus the preaching of the Gospel is brought into disrepute.
Since the church is created by the Word, it should be seen how important the three marks of the church are. The teaching of the marks of the church was borne in the Reformation so as to differentiate the true church from the false church which claimed to be the church, the Roman Catholic Church. The marks of course is applicable beyond Roman Catholicism, and we can use that to test the various church bodies. Besides the conservative Reformed, conservative Presbyterian, conservative Lutheran, some Anglican, some Methodist and some Baptist churches, most church bodies today do not match up to these three marks of a true church.
Some will ask what the point of such an exercise is. Are we trying to be unloving and be narrow-minded against other Christians? By no means! But Christ's Church must be the Church, and since Christ has instituted the Church, He is the one who must define who she is and what she is. It is not loving to pretend that a society of professing Christians constitute a church when the Scripture says otherwise. Christ will define His church, and we have no right to disagree with Him.
The Reformed church is a true church, but not all true churches are Reformed churches. Some Anglicans are Reformed, and some Methodists may be Reformed despite their heritage, and some Baptists might be Reformed despite their deficiency on the second mark (right administration of the sacraments). So the two main groups of the true church are the Reformed and the Lutheran. The Reformed and Lutheran, assuming where both are confessional, differ on a few matters primarily on the teaching on the Lord's Supper, which we shall mention again later. But we note here that the category of a true church, while to some extent it seems narrow, is actually a broad category flexible enough to accommodate some differences in understanding of baptism and the Lord's Supper. It only seems narrow to us because we have fallen so far in our understanding of the church in this modern era of the democratization of the church.