The Christian Church consists not alone in fellowship of outward signs, but it consists especially in inward communion of eternal blessings in the heart, as of the Holy Ghost, of faith, of the fear and love of God; which fellowship nevertheless has outward marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and the administration of the Sacraments in accordance with the Gospel of Christ.
The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, “Of the Church”
I believe, that neither by man’s strength power or wisdom, neither by man’s own endeavor, nor compass of man’s own reason, I am able to believe in Jesus Christ, or to come unto him. But the Holy Ghost did call me by the word of the gospel, and with the gifts of his grace, he hath hitherto endowed me, and hallowed me, and in the true faith, he hath hitherto preserved and confirmed me, and this he hath not done only to me, but also he calleth and gathereth together in the unity of one faith and one baptism, all the universal church, that is here in earth, and he halloweth, keepth and preserveth the same, in the true knowledge of Christ, and faith in his promises. And in this churche he giveth free and general pardon, to me and to all that believe in him, of all our sins, offences, and trespasses…
Recapitulating the Invisible or Spiritual Church
I have mentioned before about a common confusion with regards to the character of the invisible Church in Anglophone Protestantism, a confusion due to the conflation of the Westminster “sum of the elect” conception with the older Magisterial Protestant understanding of the invisible Church as a communion and fellowship of faith and charity in the heart discerned only by God.
Therefore as a precursor to an exposition on the character of the visible Church, it would be good to tighten and clarify our definition of the invisible Church. Here is my tentative or operational definition:
The invisible or spiritual Church is the spiritual fellowship of the true believers who, from their hearts, believe in the one Lord Jesus Christ through the Holy Ghost speaking in Scripture and are united with each by an immediate communion with the one Lord and one God and one Word in faith, love and hope. This is an essentially spiritual communion of faith and love towards God as well as a living fellowship in charity with each other in obedience to the will of God; this faith and charity which constitutes this communion is engendered and sustained by God’s Spirit and Word alone. Though this fellowship bears certain outward signs in good works and the partaking of the same rites and outward profession, it can ultimately be discerned only by God alone who alone knows the hearts of man.
To summarise, therefore the invisible Church is simply nothing more than the Apostle’s Creed “communion of saints”. However, it is important to note that the clause concerning the “communion of saints” is preceded by the clause, “I believe in the Holy Ghost; the Holy Catholic Church…” Therefore to this “visible Holy Catholic Church” we now turn.
The Word as the Visible Catholic Church
The communion of saints or the invisible Church does not simply pop up in our historical space-time universe out of nowhere, before there can be such a communion of faith, something must have appeared in our space-time universe to generate that faith. Now what could that be? Melanchthon puts it in his exposition on the Church in his Apology,
…where God’s Word is pure, and the Sacraments are administered in conformity with the same, there certainly is the Church, and there are Christians. And this Church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews Christ is its Head, and sanctifies and governs by His Spirit.
Thus as my definition already suggests, the event preceding the creation and sustenance of faith in believers is the preaching of the Word. As St Paul puts it rhetorically in Romans 10:14, “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” Before there can be faith, there must be the Word upon which the believers place their faith. Thus the preaching and reading of the Scriptures necessarily precede the creation of the communion of saints.
Therefore, based upon this conception, the visible Church is simply nothing more than the presence in our historic spatio-temporal world of the Word rightly and visibly preached. Sacraments can be subsumed as part of the Word as they are nothing more than “visible Word” or rites ordained by God’s Word. As the Bethel Confession of 1933 puts it,
Wherever on earth the gospel is proclaimed in its purity and the sacraments are administered according to their institution, there God gives faith by the Holy Spirit; there the holy, catholic church is a reality in the world.
Thus the correct order is Word -> Faith -> (Invisible) Church, all having its source in the workings of the Holy Spirit.
The Hidden Character of the Visible Church; the Distinction between Visible Church and the Institutional Church
The thing is that churches don’t seem to only preach the Word and administer the sacraments. Churches also own buildings and properties; they register their corporation with the government, possess a constitution, are governed by by-laws and office holders; they hire employees, set up budgets, treasuries, and some even have canon laws.
Now there is nothing intrinsically wrong with these “institutional” aspects of the Church. As St Paul says, it is good for things to be done in an orderly fashion and to arrange the affairs of the Church via such institutional instruments of legal and civic incorporation whereby a church can collectively own and purchase property, pool common funds into a treasury and be collectively governed by office holders and rules. This is nothing more than good pragmatics.
However it is important to emphasise that the “visible Church” is properly simply the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. As the Bethel Confession puts it,
Only faith knows the true church in the visible institutions and forms in which the church enters into history. Its only marks are the purity of the proclamation of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments
Therefore every particular congregation is free to exercise its prudence and good sense in the management of its “civic” affairs and in its decision concerning which varieties and possible institutional forms to adopt. The congregation can choose to be legally incorporated and have a centralised management and treasury, or the congregation can choose to simply appoint someone within their midst by common consent to manage the alms, someone to perform certain ministerial functions, or get someone to volunteer their homes to gather. The possible methods of arranging the affairs of the Church are many and various, to be decided by judgements of prudence and good sense, aimed towards the orderly functioning of the true work of the Church, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments. This freedom is fundamentally rooted upon the fact that apart from some broad principles concerning the management of the church officers given in the New Testament, the Scriptures are essentially silent about the actual details of the organisation of the Church and therefore every church is free to organise itself according to its need and circumstance in wisdom and charity.
But strictly speaking, the visible Church or congregation does not consist in these outward organisations. The visible Church is simply where the preaching and the sacraments is, no matter how it is institutionally organised. From the humblest Bible study cell group to the grandest Cathedral governed by the most rigorous of canon laws, wherever the Word is preached and taught, there is the visible Church as the common saying goes, where two or three are gathered in Christ’s name, etc.
Conclusion: On Communing with the Communion of Saints
In some paradoxical sense, the visible Church is somewhat “invisible”, not to be identified with various institutional or empirical forms, but it is simply wherever and whenever the preaching and sacraments are correctly performed on earth. And wherever and whenever this occurs, whether in a cell group or in a cathedral, there is the Holy Ghost which works through the Word and Sacrament to grant faith, and there is the communion of saints. The Word alone is the bridge between the visible and invisible Church, and the preaching and sacraments alone constitutes the entirety of the visible church, not any institutional forms or canon laws or special ministerial officials endowed with any priestly powers pretending to usurp the Holy Ghost and Word sole power and authority to incorporate and sanctify believers unto Christ.
To participate in the communion of saints is not simply to have one’s name registered on the parish rolls, this participation is a living communion which consists of the actual fellowship with other Christians, engaging in the communal reading of the Scriptures, discourse upon the Apostle’s doctrine, mutual encouragement with God’s word, deeds of charity in aid of each other’s needs, and prayer and praise and thanksgiving unto Christ. All these can occur under many various institutional forms or even without it, but what we must never do is to identify the institutional forms whereby the Church lives in this world, with the actual communion of saints itself, nor must we confuse the institutional activities of the Church (budgets, official appointments, sale and purchase of church buildings, etc) with the true acts of the visible Church, the preaching of the Word, the administration of the sacraments, and the eucharistic sacrifice in response to the reception of the benefits of the One Sacrifice which redeems us all.