DoctrineMinistryThe Vault

Visible and invisible

By J. I. Packer

The distinction between the Church visible and invisible was coined by Luther and Zwingli in the sixteenth century, and was much used by all the Reformers, our own included.

The wording of Article XIX (“The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men…”) implies this distinction, and it was in fact basic to all Anglican thinking about the church for more than a century after the Reformation.

Jeremy Taylor, in many ways a High Churchman, states it as clearly as anyone. It is fashionable these days to criticise the distinction as unsound. But its critics persistently misunderstand it. They take it to mean that there are in the world two distinct churches, one hidden within the other, like Chinese boxes. The larger church (the visible) is the aggregate of local congregations all over the world in which the Christian faith is professed and preached and the Christian sacraments are administered. The smaller church (the invisible) is the aggregate of those within these congregations who are savingly united to Christ by faith in him.

The critics further suppose that the reason why the latter church is called invisible is that it has no distinctive organisation of its own, but is merged into the organised life of the larger group.

Distinction made

The critics conclude that those who make this distinction think that the visible church, with its organised institutional life, exists merely to provide the means of grace (preaching and sacraments) through which God brings men into the invisible church, by drawing them to Christ.

From this it would follow that the only concern we need have about the visible church is to see that in each local congregation the New Testament gospel is faithfully preached and the sacraments interpreted in line with it. Certain standard strictures on this doctrine of the two churches are then made. It is first pointed out that such a distinction, if true, would justify unconcern about matters of church policy, and the outward reunion of visible churches.

Visible and invisible

But, in fact (it is said), the distinction is false. The New Testament knows only one church, not two, and the church of which it speaks is a society with its own public, organized life. The invisible church, as an unorganised, non-institutional fellowship, simply does not exist. Such observations are valid enough in themselves, but they are right off the target. It may be that there are people who have held this doctrine of two churches, but the Reformers certainly did not. When they spoke of the church invisible and visible (or, in Hooker’s phrase, mystical and visible), they were distinguishing, not between two churches, but between two distinct

standpoints from which the one church must be regarded. 

They were distinguishing the church as God sees it, i.e. the church as it really is, from the church as man sees it, i.e. the church as it looks to us. The Bible, they said, views the one church from both standpoints, and we must learn to keep them distinct in our minds. 

Bride of Christ

As God sees the church it is the body and bride of Christ, the company of those united to him by faith and indwelt by his Spirit. Necessarily, therefore, it is in its own essential nature invisible to man, for neither the ascended Christ, nor faith, nor the Holy Spirit, can be made an object of human sight. As man sees the church, it is the company of all those who profess faith in Christ and worship together. The church, though essentially invisible, thus becomes visible to men in its corporate life. All who make this profession, and share this life, should be regarded as belonging to the church of Christ, whatever local congregation they may be linked to; though it may be that among their number are some whom God does not recognise as members of Christ, because he sees that despite their profession, they are without faith in their hearts.

Biblical distinction

The value of this biblical distinction to the Reformers and their successors was at least threefold. First, it disposed of the Roman identification of the church of Christ with the Papal set-up, making it clear that Papal excommunication could not of itself exclude any believer from the church which Christ founded.

Second, it showed that local and national churches, professing the biblical faith, have a real unity in Christ even when they are organisationally separated. Thus it justified the Reformation against the charge of destroying the unity of Christ’s church. 

Thirdly, the distinction had pastoral value, as a reminder that mere orthodoxy and membership of the church visible will not of itself suffice to save the unconverted.

A distinction which clarifies these points still has value today. In particular, it is hard to see how the ecumenical movement can help losing its way, or playing into the hands of Rome, without it. One wishes that Anglican ecumenical theologians were making more of this Reformation insight, rather than so often misunderstanding and belittling it.

This article was first published on the ACR on 29 March 1962.