Not everyone who visibly appears in the church actually belongs to God’s redeemed people. Today, Barry Cooper helps us make the crucial distinction between the visible and invisible church.
What do people mean when they talk about the visible and the invisible church?
I hope I’m not getting anyone into trouble here, but I have a—well, let’s call him a close relative—who has a gift for getting into places he really shouldn’t be. He once took me to an airshow when I was a child, breezily ushering me into an area that was intended exclusively for members of the media. When challenged by an official, he nonchalantly flashed a laminated badge—it might have been his library card, for all I know—and the door was duly opened for us. It was like that bit in Star Wars where Alec Guinness waves his hand mysteriously in front of the stormtroopers and says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” except without a library card, obviously.
Not everyone who identifies as a member of the media is actually a member of the media. And in the same way, not everyone who seems to be a member of God’s church is actually a member of God’s church. That’s what we mean by the visible and invisible church. The visible church comprises all those who claim to be or identify as followers of Christ. The invisible church comprises all those who really are followers of Christ.
Jesus tells a story about this in Matthew chapter 13. A man sows good seed in his field, and his servants are perplexed when the field turns out to have weeds in it as well as wheat. “We thought you only sowed wheat—what’s with all the weeds?” The master says rather ominously, “An enemy has done this.”
“So, what would you like us to do?” say the servants. “Shall we go and root up all the weeds?”
“No,” says the master, “if you do that, you might accidentally root up the good stuff. Let them both grow together. I’ll separate them once and for all when the time comes for the harvest.”
The thing about wheat and weeds—as I discovered in the mid-1980s during a short-lived stint as a gardener—is that it isn’t always easy to spot the difference between a weed and a prize-winning flower. Some of the most destructive weeds look beautiful. And some plants which look very unprepossessing in their early stages grow up to be the most stunning orchids. You really need an expert gardener to know the difference.
That’s why it’s called the invisible church. That person sitting in front of me on Sunday? I can’t tell for sure what she’ll grow up to be, spiritually speaking. It’s invisible to me. If she tells me, “I’m a Christian,” I’m delighted to take that claim at face value, but naturally I can’t see into her heart to see if she truly belongs to Christ. That’s invisible to all except the Master.
Now, why talk about the visible and invisible church at all? Why is this a useful distinction to make? Well, it’s a sobering reminder that, as Jesus Himself said, not everyone who calls Jesus Lord will, in the final analysis, be counted as one of His people.
Matthew chapter 7 verses 22 and 23 are, I think, two of the most frightening verses in all of Scripture. In them, Jesus looks ahead to the day of judgment: “On that day [says Jesus] many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’”
Not everyone in the visible church—those who go to church, take part in the worship, even preach from the pulpit—is a Christian. According to Jesus, there are many people in the church who believe they are Christians and are quite wrong.
We should examine ourselves, as the Apostle Paul says, to see whether we are in the faith. And as Jesus Himself says, the fact that we call Him Lord doesn’t necessarily prove that. One of the signs that we are in the faith is that we are hearing His words and obeying them. Not that any of us are able to obey Christ perfectly, of course, but are we sincerely looking to obey Him and repenting when we fall short?
There’s plenty of overlap between the invisible and visible church. Ordinarily, a member of the invisible church will also make it a priority to be a member of the visible church. But being a part of the visible church doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re part of the invisible church.
In John Bunyan’s book The Pilgrim’s Progress, we meet a cheery character called Talkative. There’s nothing Talkative loves more than to talk about the glorious truths of the gospel. He talks about the need for repentance and faith, the necessity of new birth, and the fact that our good works cannot save us. He knows how to refute false opinions and instruct others. He has full assurance that he is heading for heaven.
But he is mistaken.
What makes Talkative so frightening as a character is that he is absolutely convinced of his own salvation. Talkative has talked such a good talk for so long that he has managed to deceive himself. He has no idea that he is in terrible danger.
So, we should tread carefully. There is a way of talking about trusting and obeying Christ that can come to be a substitute for actually trusting and obeying Christ.