The Church: visible or invisible

It has been a while since I’ve posted anything so here is one hastily written.

One of the key disputes between Catholics and Protestants is the idea of the Church; what is it? Is it a visible, institutional Church? Or is it an invisible, non-institutional community of all Christians?

If there is only one institutional Church established by Christ Himself, then it means membership in that Church is necessary in order to be called “Christian” and membership is expected of us by Christ Himself. On the other hand, if the Church is not a specific church but rather an invisible entity, then simply by being a Christian one is a member of the Church and there is no need to be a member in a specific church. It hardly needs comment that Catholicism holds the former view while Protestantism holds the latter.

This is a serious issue and requires wrestling from anyone wishing to remain where they are or considering conversion. For my part, the view of the early church on this issue is very important and must be factored in. Here are two quotes from non-Catholic patristic scholars; a Lutheran and an Anglican respectively.

Jaroslav Pelikan from The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (100-600)

“For both Ignatius and Cyprian, moreover, the bishop was the key to authentic unity, and schism was identified as party spirit in opposition to him. Therefore the efforts to superimpose upon the second or third centuries the distinction made by Augustinism and especially the Reformation between the visible and invisible churches have proved quite ineffectual, even in interpreting the thought of Origen, whose dichotomy between the heavenly and the earthly churches might seem to have tended in that direction; but on earth there was only one church, and it was finally inseparable from the sacramental, hierarchical institution.”

J.N.D. Kelly from Early Christian Doctrines

“What these early fathers were envisaging was almost always the empirical, visible society; they had little or no inkling of the distinction which was later to become important between a visible and an invisible Church.”

It seems a visible unity was very important to the early Christians, and a visible unity seems to demand an institutional church. A visible unity seemed to be very dear to Jesus too, in His prayer for the Church.

“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” John 17:20-23

Within a couple verses, Jesus prays for Church unity three times and twice equates that unity with converting the world. Maybe the first step of evangelization is being part of a Church that is one, visible, and institutional.

“Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” Matthew 12:25


One thought on “The Church: visible or invisible

  1. “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid.” -Matt. 5:14

    Good post. Definitely a topic worthy of discussion.


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