On The Visible/Invisible Church Distinction

One Reformational doctrine that has come under fire in recent years is the concept of the invisible church. There have been more criticisms than I could summarize briefly here, but one of the main arguments has come from Anabaptists, who contend that the doctrine undermines the distinct Christian identity (and the discipleship that goes along with it) of the church. If the real church is visible only to God, so the criticism goes, then the visible church no longer can provide a witness to a watching world.

Much could be written by way of response, but I have three thoughts for now.

(A) The doctrine of the invisible church is the only way one can preserve three important biblical facts: (1) being a part of the body of Christ seems to imply a state of heart that is positive towards God; (2) being a part of the body of Christ seems to imply performing visible practices (like Communion and Baptism, along with peacemaking, etc.); (3) only God can see the heart, and he does not judge by human standards, which can mistake participating in visible practices for possessing a humble and obedient heart toward God. That is, it is a reality of this life that people can go through the motions of (2) without the truth of (1) applying to them. This alone implies the validity of the invisible/visible church distinction.

(B) Affirming the distinction has some important benefits. On the ecclesiological side, it allows one to recognize that the church is a mixed community (see the parable of the wheat and tares), and thus requires one not to become perfectionistic with communal discipline, attempting to read hearts instead of just observed actions. It also takes any surprise out of the existence of apparently hypocritical Christians. On the political side, it can prevent justification for holy war and theocracy. Identifying the visible church with the invisible church has the danger of absorbing the authority of Christ over kings into the visible church itself, so that the church becomes an alternative polis bent on world conquest. The invisible/visible distinction also can remove a support in the overall case for pacifism (which, of course, is not seen as a benefit, but as a drawback, by Anabaptists). That is, if the visible church is not identical with the polis that is the kingdom of Christ, then all of its practices need not be taken as exemplary in every sense for the cities of the world. Rather, this perspective (affirming the distinction) recognizes that the visible church is something like a visible manifestation of an invisible city with an invisible king, and that in some respects it is not a city and not like a city. Instead, it is complementary with some aspect of the cities of the world, rather than being in intrinsic conflict with them. More specifically, its practices of peacemaking do not contradict role of judgment that cities have.

(C) Having said all this, I also want to argue that the distinction does not in fact undercut motive for discipleship. That is, the doctrine teaches that what is most essential is a humble and contrite heart toward God, and that God is not pleased with outward obedience absent inward love. It should be clear how this provides motivation for discipleship. And if it provides this motive, then participation in the visible community follows obviously: for being a lover of God implies doing what he wants, and in Christ he has revealed to us that that includes doing certain visible practices.

I think, sadly, the distinction is being rejected for facile or even misleading reasons, and that much will be lost if it is truly forgotten. Hopefully some of these thoughts might provide some cause to reconsider.