Visible vs. Invisible Church

Catholics say the Church is inseparably visible and invisible.

Vatican's statements about Protestant communities not being "churches"

For five years I successfully avoided the question of a visible vs. invisible Church. I felt it would not help unity. However, as usual, whenever I try to stay away from a thorny subject, eventually God gives me a nudge. There was an explosion in the Evangelical press after the Vatican said Protestant communities are not churches, in the Catholic doctrinal sense of the word. I guess God is saying to me that we can never achieve the "complete unity" that Jesus was praying for in John 17:23 until we explore this.

I think we need to begin ecumenical dialogue honestly. Every denomination, non-denomination, and cell group thinks they are the most accurate manifestation of Christ's Body on earth. (Note: If you don't think your community is the best then perhaps you should change!) Denominations have been splitting off for 500 years since the original Reformation split. By the time of Martin Luther's death there were already 280 denominations that had split off of his original split with the Church. So disagreements are common. All that is needed for a new denomination is a resentment and a coffee pot :-)

It's not necessary to agree with each other before we pray together and prayer is an important step toward unity. We are all Christians.

There have been tons of commentaries in the Evangelical press about the Vatican's statements. We got an email that said:

In clear, non-negotiable and jaw-dropping terms, the pontiff stated that ... only Catholics are true Christians ...

This quote is very wrong. The Vatican document talks about the "divisions among Christians" which means the Vatican is saying Evangelicals are Christian.

"[Evangelicals] have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church." (Catechism 818)

Another Evangelical article said:

“Those churches that deny or fail to recognize the papacy are "ecclesial communities," not churches.
(Vatican document misquote)

The Vatican document uses the word "Church" to describe the Orthodox Church which denies the primacy of the Pope. So this good Evangelical minister is in error. What the document does say about Protestant communities is:

[there are] numerous elements of sanctification and of truth which are found outside her [Catholic] structure ...Christ has not refrained from using them [Protestant communities] as instruments of salvation ...the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church. ... because of the division between Christians, the fullness of universality, which is proper to the Church ... is not fully realised in history (full text here)

What they are saying here is that the Catholic Church is not complete because of the split. It's like a divorce. The marriage is broken. The Church is broken. We need you guys! We pray for the day when we will all be one. (Jn 17:21) We have been a seriously broken Church since the Reformation and we are all to blame. It was a messy divorce. There are a lot of hard feelings on all sides. But God is a great healer.

A personal experience with the invisible and the visible Church

I understand the Evangelical idea of an invisible church. I had an encounter with Christ long before I became Catholic. I had been baptised as a baby in a non-practicing Presbyterian home but the Grace of baptism was extinguished by my sin. In 1988, I had a profound encounter with Christ and I have never been the same since. Evangelicals would say it was a "born again" experience. At that moment, I was a Christian (a follower of Christ) who was separated from the Church. I remember saying to myself, "I know that other people in the world must have had this experience" and in that sense I felt a unity with others who had met Christ, even though I did not know them. I was experiencing the invisible Church, the mystical body of believers.

I asked God to lead me to others who have had this experience. Soon after, I accidentally locked myself out of my apartment. I wandered the neighborhood and knocked on a church door. A priest named Fr. Bob Bedard invited me in where I met others who knew Jesus personally. I eventually became Catholic and through the mystery of the Eucharist, I came into a deep unity with the apostles and all who had come before me. I was in full communion with Christ and with his bride, the Church. I was experiencing the invisible Church and the visible Church. My full testimony is here.

Catholics say Church is "visible" AND "invisible"

"The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men. The Church is at the same time:

- a society structured with hierarchical organs and the mystical body of Christ;

- the visible society and the spiritual community;

- the earthly Church and the Church endowed with heavenly riches.

These dimensions together constitute one complex reality which comes together from a human and a divine element."

- Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 771

Let us look at the difference between the Evangelical and the Catholic definition of church:

Evangelical definition of Church Catholic Definition of Church

The Body of Christ

  • People who have been "born again"
  • Scattered throughout the world
  • In many denominations
  • Made up of anyone who believes in Jesus and who has had an encounter with Christ.
  • The Church is invisible, not tied to any one authority

The Body of Christ

  • People with an interior relationship to Jesus (Cat 1428)
  • United to Christ through the Grace of baptism
  • Sustained through his Eucharist, which was given to the apostles at the last supper and passed down to us through the uninterrupted succession of priests
  • The Church is inseparably visible and invisible just as Christ is inseparably human and divine
  • A pilgrim Church striving toward wholeness but not yet whole

Catholics agree with Evangelicals who say the Church is invisible, however we don't stop there. I believe that the Church is inseparably visible and invisible because Jesus was inseparably human and divine.

  • "He is the [visible] image of the invisible God (Col 1:15)
  • "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9)
  • The Church which Jesus Christ founded is His Body, and He is the Head (Eph 1:22-23.
  • Is He not divinity who came to earth in a highly visible human Body? (Lk 2:7, Phil 2:5-8)

At the last supper Jesus said "This is my Body" and gave us the Eucharist. (1 Co 10:16, 11:24) The Church is the Body of Christ (Rm 7:4, 12:5). Therefore, Catholics believe that the Eucharist (Communion) is the glue that makes us the "Body of Christ." Through the succession of priests we are joined to that special night in a visible and physical way.

The Church is the Body of Christ (Rm 7:4, 12:5),
The Eucharist is the Body of Christ (1 Co 10:16).
Therefore, the Church and the Eucharist are inseparable

Jesus' humanity and divinity could not be separated, nor can Jesus' Church separate the invisible divine element from the physical human elements. And yes, sometimes in history it's been messy. That's humanity. That's what Jesus came to save. The 11th century monk St. Bernard said it this way

"O humility! O sublimity! Both tabernacle of cedar and sanctuary of God; earthly dwelling and celestial palace; house of clay and royal hall; body of death and temple of light; and at last both object of scorn to the proud and bride of Christ! She is black but beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, for even if the labor and pain of her long exile may have discolored her, yet heaven's beauty has adorned her."

- St. Bernard de Clairvaux (1090 A.D.)

The invisible aspect of the Church is faith and abandonment to Christ (being "Born Again"). The visible aspects of the Church are the succession of priests and bishops and physical presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, which physically becomes part of Christians during communion, and which unites us with all the faithful around the world and with all Christians who came before us and with all who will follow us. That is why the Eucharist is such a big deal for us! It is the source and summit of our faith. Since the dawn of Christianity, the Eucharist has been our unity. I believe it is clear from Scripture and the early Christians. That is why the Catholic Church stops short of giving the name "Church" to communities of believers that don't share that. Orthodox communities have succession to the apostles and they have the Eucharist and that's why we call them Church. I pray for the day when all Christians can share the Eucharist together. May the Lord return to a shining bride. In the Catholic Mass the priest says a powerful line:

"In mercy and love unite all your children wherever they may be."

This is the unity that Catholicism seeks. Jesus' prayer for unity "that they may all be one, as you Father, are in me and I am in you." (Jn 17:21).

Even though Mass can be held anywhere, Catholics believe Jesus has a passion for the Holy Temple. Catholics believe the only reason the early Church met in peoples' homes and catacombs was because they were under persecution. Any time there were reprisals in the persecution during the first centuries, they would build Churches.

The visible Church is not a building

St Frances ChurchWhen Catholics talk about the visible Church they are not talking about a church building, although we think God is pleased with beautiful churches. He had Solomon build a beautiful temple (1 Kg 6:1). When Jesus saw money changers in the Temple he didn't say "hey guys, it's only a building, we can worship anywhere, let's go down the street to the community centre." No, He chased them out. (Lk 19:45)

But the visible Church is not the building. St. Francis of Assisi made this mistake in the 13th century. In prayer he heard Jesus say "rebuild my church," so he went out and built a church.

Photo right: St. Francis of Assisi church in Italy

When Francis was finished building the church he realized that God had much bigger plans. God was talking to Francis about rebuilding the community of believers under the structure of authority passed down from Peter. Francis went on to become one of the greatest saints. He most certainly did rebuild the Church.

Christians of the first centuries said, "The world was created for the sake of the Church." God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the "convocation" of men in Christ, and this "convocation" is the Church. The Church is the goal of all things, and God permitted such painful upheavals as the angels' fall and man's sin only as occasions and means for displaying all the power of his arm and the whole measure of the love he wanted to give the world: Just as God's will is creation and is called "the world," so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called "the Church."

- Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 760.

A Church can only grow as big as its infrastructure

I (David) was spending time with two leaders in the Evangelical Church in Canada after a prolife conference where we were all speaking. They were discussing how to grow a Church plant, and shared some of their ups and downs in ministry. Then they discussed something that amazed me. They were talking about the infrastructure necessary to expand and take new spiritual territory. Then one said:

A Church cannot grow beyond its infrastructure. Zeal can take you a little beyond it temporarily, but ultimately it is like a glass of water that is limited by the size of the glass.

They both agreed. If it is limited by the physical infrastructure then, to me that is saying that every Church body has a visible dimension which has a profound impact on the extent of its growth as a Spiritual entity. This makes sense to me, and explains why the Catholic Church has such an organized infrastructure. We think Jesus wanted it that way. If we are called to unity then there must also be unity in the structures.

What about spiritually dead Catholic and Protestant communities?

Rock the MountWe've all experienced it. You walk into a some churches and they are lifeless. Nobody talks about Jesus as a friend, it's as if He's off on a distant planet. The priest or preacher is talking as if he doesn't want to be there, and he rattles through the service in a wooden mechanical way.

Catholics totally agree with Evangelicals that without faith in Christ, members of a community cannot be a church. There are some "dead" communities out there, some Catholic some Evangelical. They are a black eye on Christianity. But even the apostles were shaky at times. All of them, except John, deserted Jesus. One doubted him, one denied him, and one betrayed him. All but one came back. So let's pray for our "dead" churches and our Christian friends who need to go deeper with Christ. Thankfully, many Catholic churches and other communities are full of the Holy Spirit.
To the right is a Catholic youth festival I played at.

Structure of authority in the Bible

Catholics believe the Bible is clear that there was a physical structure of authority and that successors of the apostles were given that authority. We call this the priesthood and it was foreshadowed by the Levites of the Old Testament. Catholics believe Jesus gave Peter the authority to lead the apostles.

"...you are Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in Heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven". (Mat 16:18) More about this here

And then Jesus gave authority power to the apostles.

Jesus said..."As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and said to them, "Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained." (John 20:21-23)

"He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me..." Luke 10:16

The Bible shows that Angels only activate under authority, when they are told what to do by their superior. (Job, 38:7, Gen 3:24, 19, 21:17, 22:11, Acts 7:53, Ex 23:20-23, Judg 13, 6:11-24, Isa 6:5, 1 Kgs 19:5, Jude 1:9, Rev 12:7 etc.)

Paul's relationship to the physical structure of the Church was very tangible. The early Church had central direction evidenced by the way it handled the crisis of faith over circumcision. (Acts 15-16) Paul and Barnabus went to Jerusalem to settle the circumcision issue.

"As they (Paul and Timothy) went through the towns they delivered to the believers the rules decided upon by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem, and they told them to obey those rules." (Acts 16:3)

When Jesus saw money changers in the Temple. He didn't say "hey guys, it's only a building, we can worship anywhere, let's go down the street to the community centre." No, He chased them out. (Lk 19:45)

Wounds to unity

Here's what the Catholic Catechism has to say about unity.

817 In fact, "in this one and only Church of God from its very beginnings there arose certain rifts, which the Apostle strongly censures as damnable. But in subsequent centuries much more serious dissensions appeared and large communities became separated from full communion with the Catholic Church - for which, often enough, men of both sides were to blame." ...

818 "However, one cannot charge with the sin of the separation those who at present are born into these communities [that resulted from such separation] and in them are brought up in the faith of Christ, and the Catholic Church accepts them with respect and affection as brothers . . . . All who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord by the children of the Catholic Church."

Toward Unity - is all that matters is "Jesus is Lord"?

There are perhaps many different visions of unity, but the two most common are:

  1. The non-denominational model which says, "the only thing that is important is Jesus is Lord, all the rest is fluff."
  2. The one Church model which is visible and invisible founded by Jesus and held together by the Holy Spirit working through its leaders who are in unbroken succession to the apostles. (Catholic model)

1) Non-denominational unity

There was a huge event in Toronto called "Heaven's Rehearsal" which gathered many denominations in unity for the healing of our world. This unity of the event is based on "the only thing that is important is that we agree that Jesus is Lord." It is fantastic for an evening of praise and worship, but cannot bring long term unity. An event is not "complete unity." (Jn 17:23) We can't achieve deep unity by putting our hands in the air and saying, "the only thing that is important is that you are the Lord, all the rest is fluff."

Ironically, many Bible believing denominations try to have unity by avoiding Bible passages where they disagree

To me this is a superficial unity, not the "complete unity" that we are called to in John 17:29. If avoiding theology and saying "Jesus is Lord" was enough, then Evangelical pastors would not have to go to school for three years.

Jesus could have just showed up on earth for a day saying, "I'm Lord" and did a big miracle and split, but He didn't. For 3000 years before his birth, Jesus was developing Scripture through the history of the Jewish people. When He began his ministry, He taught his apostles for three years, and they were the Church. After his death the apostles wrote down his words and formed a structure of authority just as Jesus asked.

In the last century, since Protestant communities embraced contraception, many "Bible believing" denominations have ruled that gay marriage and abortion are OK, even while saying "Jesus is Lord." (Lutherans, Methodists, the United Church, Anglicans, Episcopalians, etc.) Evangelical radio shows are saying that the future of the Evangelical Church will be in the homes of Christians, each becoming a tiny non-denominational community. Today's house churches are very different from the worship in houses of the first centuries in several important ways:

  • In early days of the Church people worshipped in homes was because they'd get killed if they went to the temple. Every time persecution slowed in the first centuries, they quickly built Churches. They knew it was not the Lord's will to stay in their homes. Jesus chased the money changers out of the temple which he called "my father's house." (Lk 19:45) The early Christians were trying to get out of their homes
  • Early Christians had bishops, priests and a structure of authority. For instance after Peter died in 67 A.D., Linus became the bishop of Rome.
  • Early Christians celebrated the Eucharist which was administered by a priest who had been given that role by a bishop.
  • Early Christians prayed for the dead and had many other Catholics practices, not found in nondenominational settings.

In the last few years since the "non-denominational" movement began, it has splintered doctrinally with little uniformity in beliefs or practices. The modern non-denominational communities are unlike the first Christians who were uniform and connected to each other through the bishops and the Eucharist. Today's non-denominational house churches are perhaps the ultimate in separation. They are outcome of the Reformation which began with one split, and continues to splinter into thousands of pieces.

2) Holy and Apostolic Church

Nowhere in Scripture does it say the Church is exclusively invisible residing only in peoples hearts, but in many places the Bible clearly lays out the visible structure and authority of the Church. (Mat 16:18-19, 18:18, 28:20; Jn 14:16, 25, 16:13). We most certainly have a great respect for many faithful Christians who have grown up in Evangelical communities. However, Christianity is like a marriage where one partner has walked out. It is a tragedy. It's true that the human side of the Church was pretty messed up in the 1500's but we will try to improve, and I believe we are incomplete without you. We are saying "please come back."

May they be brought to complete unity (Jn 17:23)

The time of our Lord's return is near, let's restore the marriage that broke up 500 years ago. Let him return to a shining bride. Until the day that we are reunited, I hope we will love one another as He has loved us. (Jn 13:34). "Let us not give up meeting together... but let us encourage one another." (Heb 10:25)

"I have a dream...when we let freedom ring... all of God's children... Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands..."

- Martin Luther King, "I have a dream" speech, Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C. August 28, 1963

Related Articles

  1. The Pope
  2. Priests
  3. The Eucharist
  4. Extended examination of Peter as "the Rock"
  5. Full text of the Vatican document
Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen