Loving the Real, Visible, Local Church

The Local Church

“The second factor [leading to a weak view of the church] is the mistaken emphasis on the “invisible” church. Pastors and theologians throughout the centuries have relied on the helpful categories of the visible and the invisible church in order to view churches in the present alongside the holy, universal (catholic) church throughout all time. Stated simply, the visible church is the church as we see it, and the invisible church is the church as God sees it. The distinction between the visible and the invisible church finds biblical grounding in Jesus’s prayer of dedication in John 17, a prayer heard by a local “gathering” and yet extended throughout all time and divisions. This prayer will be fully realized only when the chief Shepherd returns to finally “gather” his true and total church. This twofold category of the church was never an invitation for a Christian to affirm the church in its invisible sense alone (the church as God alone sees it) while ignoring the visible church (the church as we see it). Rather, its purpose was to help the Christian see the fullness of God’s people as told by the biblical story, even from the limited perspective of the local church in their own place and time.

“Even though this distinction goes back all the way to Augustine, the Protestant Reformers regularly utilized it for pastoral purposes. John Calvin provides a helpful example in book 4 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin invokes these categories to give his readers spectacles not only to see the whole church—the visible (“the saints presently living”) and the invisible (“all the elect from the beginning of the world”)—but also to see their own church, which alongside the true children of God may also be “mingled” with “many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance.”

“Pastorally, then, this category helps Christians deal with the hypocrisy they see in their own churches, without giving them warrant to reject or disregard the ​​church. Even more, the Reformers used the distinction to unite the Christian to the church, not to allow for disassociation of any sorts. Calvin’s pastoral exhortation is worthy of note: “Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called ‘church’ in respect to men.”2

“This practical application of the visible and invisible church needs to be heard among Christians today. Too many Christians speak of “the church” in abstraction, in its invisible, mystical, and metaphorical sense, and not in a way that matches the church that we can see, attend, and join. Whether driven by the cultural emphasis on a mystical “spiritual life” or by the imbalanced theological leaning toward the invisible church, Christians are in great need of the located and visible church— their local church.”

Part of an article drawn from the new book by Edward W. Klink III, The Local Church: What It Is and Why It Matters for Every Christian (Crossway, 2021).

Published in: on November 27, 2021 at 9:56 PM  Leave a Comment  

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