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Dude, Where's My Church?

22 March 2012 by Tom Chantry

Q. 61. Are all they saved who hear the gospel, and live in the church?
A. All that hear the gospel, and live in the visible church, are not saved; but they only who are true members of the church invisible.

Q. 62. What is the visible church?
A. 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.

Q. 63. What are the special privileges of the visible church?
A. The visible church hath the privilege of being under God's special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding 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.

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.

We have come to the doctrine of the church, at which point it is inevitable that our baptistic blog on a Presbyterian catechism will become controversial. Questions 61 through 65 of the Larger Catechism address the subject of church in terms of a distinction between a “visible” and an “invisible” church. This is problematic not only because it is only rarely understood but also because it is a distinction which has been emphasized in order to allow for unbiblical practice, and as such it often leads to tragedy.

“Church” in its simplest translated form means “assembly.” In the New Testament it is the word used to identify the assembly of the people of God. The most basic lesson of the word “church” is that Christ did not save us to a life of lonely spiritual wonderings, but to a life in which we assemble with others to worship, to fellowship, and to work for the good of God’s kingdom. But what exactly is this assembly?

It is true that the New Testament speaks occasionally of the church in wide and universal terms. Sometimes “church” means the assembly of God’s people who will be gathered at the end of days. This church is “universal” in the sense that it includes every person who ever has or ever will call upon the name of the Lord. Of course this grand assembly has not yet been convened; the universal church has not yet churched together. Most often, therefore, the New Testament rather obviously uses the word “church” for local assemblies. These congregations come together as visible manifestations of the body of Christ on earth.

The Catechism uses the language of “visible” and “invisible” church as a way of addressing the evident fact that there are those who assemble visibly with God’s people who have not genuinely called upon the name of the Lord. They are those who will cry out in the last day, “Lord, Lord!” but He will say, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” Now as Baptists, we do not pretend that any congregation is free of such persons. The Second London Confession of the Baptists retains the language of the Westminster Confession: “The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error.” Until we reach the universal church in heaven, no church will be without the mixture of truth and error - or of true faith and hypocrisy.

But is the distinction between a visible and an invisible church really the best framework within which to define the church? Questions 62 and 63 of the Larger Catechism show us how the Westminster Divines employed the category of the visible church. First, they used it to account for the presence of hypocrisy in the church. Second, they used it to acknowledge the considerable advantages which accrue to even unconverted persons who become in some manner attached to the church. But thirdly (and we suspect most importantly) they used it to create an opening for the doctrine of the covenant child. The children of believers may be considered in the church so long as we say not only that the outward church does not consist exclusively of true believers, but further that it is not intended to be so limited. The visible church, we are told, is broad, while the invisible church is more narrowly defined.

Each of these uses is more or less problematic. We would agree that hypocrisy will always exist within the church, but wonder if we ought to encourage it. Does not the process of church discipline suggest to us that the visible church is at least intended to consist of those who make a credible profession of faith? We would further admit that there are great advantages to being around the church, and even that those advantages are particularly grand for those whose parents believe, but we doubt that the enjoyment of such advantages is the equivalent of being in the church. To eat at a table is not to be a member of a family, and to hear the gospel preached is not to be a member of the church. As for covenant children, we cannot see how unbelieving children are included in an assembly that is founded not on ethnicity, but on common faith. A true child of the covenant, we say with Paul, is one who has a faith like Abraham’s.

So while we share our Presbyterian brothers’ concern with the mixture that is in every church, we cannot agree to define the church primarily according to a visible/invisible distinction that we neither find in Scripture, nor (quite frankly) find simple to explain. The Westminster Confession is, we are afraid, rather baffling on the subject of the church. Chapter 25 begins with a statement of the universal church, which is invisible. Then we are introduced to the visible church, which is also universal. After a perplexing statement about the church being sometimes more and sometimes less visible (?), the confession suddenly introduces a plurality of churches. No explanation of what these “churches” are or where they came from is forthcoming. Are they local? Denominational? We are uncertain.

It strikes us as unsurprising that our infant-baptizing friends have regularly fallen into confusion about the boundaries of the church - whether in the Halfway Covenant of the New England Puritans or the ravages of the Federal Vision today.

The Second London Confession, in Chapter 26, clarifies much. Three citations should serve to exemplify the Bapitst approach to the visibility of the church:
The catholic or universal church, which (with respect to the internal work of the Spirit and truth of grace) may be called invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect… LCF 26:1
And thus ends all that we have to say about the invisibility of the church. It is true that the internal work of the Spirit cannot be seen, and that therefore we are never in this life entirely certain who is and who is not destined to join the great assembly in Heaven. But when that church is at last called together it will be quite visible.
All persons throughout the world, professing the faith of the gospel, and obedience unto God by Christ according unto it, not destroying their own profession by any errors everting the foundation, or unholiness of conversation, are and may be called visible saints; and of such ought all particular congregations to be constituted. LCF 26:2
Particular congregations (local churches we call them today) are to be made up of those who give visible evidence that they are God’s people. The evidence is never perfectly discerned, but it is a type of visibility which is far more helpful than a visibility which excludes evidence altogether. The same visibility is evidenced a few paragraphs later:
The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ… LCF 26:6
I said at the outset that part of our concern with the Westminster approach is that this distinction sometimes leads to tragedy. The danger is that when a visible church is not even expected to be made up of God’s true children, it is possible that too much emphasis may be put upon proper order and form, so much so that waning attention is given the hearts of lost souls within the church. The best of Presbyterians evangelize their children diligently and passionately, but of course there are others who do not. Is it possible that this failing is related to an emphasis on the outward form of the visible church?

Consider the following: both the Westminster and London confessions acknowledge that every church is “subject to mixture and error.” But they conclude that statement very differently. The Presbyterian statement ends in this manner:
Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to His will. WCF 25:5
Now that is indeed a comfort, and we salute our brethren for their concern that God be worshiped properly. But can this be our only concern? Is it enough that the visible church continue to exist in its outward form?

The Baptist statement is perhaps more complete:
nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name. LCF 26:3
God is worshiped, yes. Christ’s name is professed, but more than this: it is professed by those who believe in Him.



huh... I wonder if the Baptist completion is all that helpful. It seems, in practice at least, that the Baptists I hang with operate as though the FV guys have it right. That the distinction between the two (visible and invisible) is not really all that helpful. Unless of course you include the visible babies who are not part of the visible Church, yet get dedicated to Jesus with some regularity.

Blessings brother,

al sends

Tom Chantry


Far be it from me to suggest that the Baptists always practice these matters well. I think the question to ask, though, is this: If Baptists rest comfortably in the thought that their children are part of the church visible, are they acting out their theology or ignoring it?

Anyone can drift into erroneous practice through ignoring their doctrinal history. We should also be concerned with whether our doctrinal statements predispose us for certain errors.

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