Article XIX Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacrament be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hash erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.
It is worth noting that the definition here embodied is limited strictly to the Visible Church. The Language is very carefully chosen. The Article does not say “The Church of Christ is visible,” but “The Visible Church of Christ is a congregation, etc.”
In these days precision of this kind is often regarded as pettifogging. In the days when the Article was first composed (1552) more attention was paid to the precise form of definition. The article makes no assertion concerning any other church than the Visible Church. On the other hand, it very specifically limits its terms to the Visible Church of Christ. The Article remained unchanged either in 1562 or in 1571.
Students of the period will recall that no subject was more earnestly discussed than the relation of the Visible Church, or, as Cranmer once described it, “The Open Church”, and “the Church of the Elect.” It is not by accident, therefore, that the word “Visible” is prefixed to the word “‘Church.” Not that the reformed divines held that there were two distinct Churches—a “Visible” and an “Invisible.”
That is an error which must be avoided. The true concept is that the Church of God assumes by the providence of God an external character.
It can be distinguished by certain marks. But this external character, important as it is, does not determine with precision the bounds and limits of the Church.
The real impulse which brings the Church into being, is the call of God in the hearts of His people. We read in Acts 11:47: “And the Lord added to them day by day those that were being saved” (R.V.).
These people continued in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, but attracted others who were not equally impressed. Hence St. Paul is compelled to warn the elders of Ephesus, “And from among your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things.” Therefore, it becomes important to apply some test whereby the real character of the Church may be determined.
The Article provides two criteria; the pure word of God is preached; the Sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance. It is the duty of members of a church to test its bona-fides in these two particulars. Here we strike a difficulty. The individuals in a church may depart from these necessary requirements, and yet the church as a body may be faithful to its obligations. In every church there are individual expressions of opinion which do not bind its members. It is the expressed will of the congregation of faithful men to which attention must be directed, and not the peculiar caprice of any member, or even collection of members. The expressed confessions of faith, where they may be had, afford a suitable standard by which we can judge the church.
That body which imposes as articles of faith that which cannot be established by God’s Word, or that body which fails to observe the necessary requirements in the Administration of the Sacraments, is shown to have departed from the character of a Visible Church. The word employed in the Latin for “duly” is “recte,” which includes a due appreciation of the purpose of the Sacramental Act as well as correct ritual observance. The teaching of the Church, as well as the observance of the outward ritual is of serious importance.
It seems probable that the churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch are specially mentioned because they could claim to be founded either by Apostles or by men in close association with the Apostles. Alexandria claimed St. Mark as its founder though the evidence is not convincing. Antioch opposed a rival claim to Rome in later times and traced its origin to Peter.
The important point to notice is that Rome is charged with error in doctrine as well as in morals and ceremonial observances.
From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, 14 May, 1959. This article is part of our Articulate series, listening to T.C. Hammond unpack the 39 Articles one by one.