The Church We Can See
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”- 1 John 2:19a
Getting the Bible’s teaching on the church correct requires walking a fine line between assuming that everyone in the church is a true believer in Christ and thinking that church members are not any better off than people outside the church unless they are regenerate. After all, the Bible teaches clearly that not everyone who professes faith in Christ and joins a church has actually trusted in Jesus (Matt. 13:24–30). But it also tells us that even those who falsely profess faith in Christ gain real benefits when they join a church. In the church, they are able to see the work of God’s Spirit among His people, experience the corporate blessings that the Lord gives to His church, and hear the Word of God preached (Heb. 6:4–5).
These truths hold together in the doctrine of the visible church. The visible church consists of those who profess faith in Christ and their covenant children. It is called the visible church because we evaluate membership in it based on what we can see, namely, things such as swearing vows to church authorities, water baptisms, and corporate professions of faith. We are not omniscient and cannot read others’ hearts, and a mere profession of faith is insufficient to save a person (Matt. 7:21–23). Thus, there may be professing Christians who do not have saving faith in Christ and yet are members of our local congregations. A profession of faith alone will not get us into heaven; it is not sufficient for membership in the invisible church, the body that consists of all those who rest in Christ alone for salvation. Nevertheless, all who are members of the visible church are set apart from the world, for they are part of the community that Christ established for the nurture of His people.
This setting apart brings with it privileges and responsibilities. In a rightly ordered visible church, people are privileged to hear the Word of God preached and to receive the sacraments, and through these means the Lord causes His elect to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 10:16–18; Heb. 5:14; 1 Peter 2:2; 2 Peter 3:18). Members of the visible church also benefit from the love of Christ for the corporate body and the love of members for one another. But those who join the visible church also have the responsibility to repent and believe the gospel. Being in the covenant community, they will incur a greater judgment if they never believe than those unbelievers who never join the visible church (Luke 12:35–48).
In our day, many people do not grasp the privilege and responsibility of being a part of the visible church. The visible church is the primary environment for Christian growth and discipleship, and believers are responsible to join a local visible church and participate in its worship. Except in extraordinarily rare circumstances, Scripture knows nothing of a Christian who is not part of the local, visible church.
Passages for Further Study
2 Corinthians 6:14–18