Chapter III

the church in its twofold character as visible and invisible

In attempting, as has been already done, to ascertain the various meanings of the term Church in Scripture, I had occasion to speak of the distinction between the Church invisible and the Church visible. That distinction is so important in itself, and involves in it principles so fundamental in respect to our future discussions, that it may be desirable to inquire into the grounds and nature of it at somewhat greater length. To this subject the present chapter will more especially be devoted.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 29.

Now, at the outset, it is not unimportant to remark, that when we speak of the Church invisible and the Church visible, we are not to be understood as if we referred in these designations to two separate and distinct Churches, but rather to the same Church under two different characters. We do not assert that Christ has founded two Churches on earth, but only one; and we affirm that that one Church is to be regarded under two distinct aspects. As the Church invisible, it consists of the whole number of the elect, who are vitally united to Christ the Head, and of none other. As the Church visible, it consists of all those who profess the faith of Christ, together with their children. There are many things which can be affirmed of the Church of Christ under the one aspect, which cannot be affirmed of it under the other; and it is most important that the distinction be kept in view, in order to a right understanding of the declarations of Scripture in regard to the Church. There are two things, the statement of which may serve to exhibit and define the difference between the Church invisible and the Church visible.

1st. The Church invisible stands, with respect to its members, in an inward and spiritual relationship to Christ, whereas the Church visible stands to Him in an outward relationship only. In so far as the Church invisible is concerned, the truth of this statement will be readily admitted by all. There can be no difference of opinion on the point. The proper party with whom the covenant of grace is made, and to whom its promises and privileges belong, is the invisible Church of real believers. It is this Church for which Christ died. It is this Church that is espoused to Him as the Bride. It is the members of this Church that are each and all savingly united to Him as their Head. The bond of communion between them and the Saviour is an invisible and spiritual one, securing to all of them the enjoyment of saving blessings here, and the promise of everlasting redemption hereafter. None but Romanists deny or ignore this.

The case is altogether different with the visible Church. It stands not in an inward and saving relationship to Christ, but in an outward relationship only, involving no more than the promise and enjoyment of outward privileges. In that mysteriously mingled condition of being in which believers are found here, with souls in fellowship on the one side with the Spirit of God, and on the other side with the body, an outward provision has been judged suitable even for their spiritual edification and improvement, with a view to prepare them on earth for their destination in glory. There is an outward government established for the order and regulation of the society of the elect; there are outward ordinances adapted and blessed for their improvement; there is an outward discipline designed and fitted for their purification and protection. All this necessarily implies an outward and visible society, embracing and encompassing the invisible and spiritual one; in other words, an outward Church, within which the invisible Church of real believers is embosomed, protected, perfected. Admit that some external framework of privileges and ordinances has been erected by Christ around His own elect people in this world, and you are led directly to the idea of a visible society, distinguished from the invisible by the outward form which it bears, and the outward relation in which it stands to Christ. The form of the invisible Church cannot be distinguished by the eye of man, for the features and lineaments of it are known only to God; whereas the form of the visible Church is marked out and defined by its external government, ordinances, and arrangements. The members of the invisible Church cannot be discerned or detected by the eye of man, for their call is the inward call of the Spirit, and their relation to Christ a spiritual and unseen one; whereas the members of the visible Church stand revealed to the sight of all by the outward profession they make, and the external connection in which they stand to Christ, as they enjoy the privileges and ordinances of His appointment. The members of the Church invisible are joined in an inward relationship to Christ, in consequence of having listened to His inward call by the Spirit, and being vitally united to Him through faith. The members of the Church visible are joined in an outward connection with Christ, in consequence of having obeyed His outward call by the Word, and being now made partakers by Him in the external privileges and ordinances of a Church state.

This external relationship, in which the members of the visible Church stand to Christ, as having been brought into a Church state from out of the world, has been often spoken of by theologians under the name of an external covenant or federal relationship. Whatever name may be given to it, there is no doubt that there is a real and important relationship into which the members of the visible Church have entered, to be distinguished alike from the state of the world without, and from the state of the invisible Church within. It is to be distinguished from the condition of the world at large; for the members of the visible Church have received and obeyed, at least outwardly, the call of Christ, and have made a profession of their faith in Him, and in consequence have entered into the possession and enjoyment of certain privileges and ordinances that belong to a Church state. It is to be distinguished from the condition of the invisible Church of true believers; for although the members of the visible Church may have outwardly obeyed the call and entered into possession of the external privileges of the Church, yet the inward grace and vital union to the Saviour may be awanting, and theirs may be a relationship wholly of an outward kind. But although it be an outward relationship, and no more, it is nevertheless a real one, under whatsoever name it may be represented.

There are two things plainly implied in it. First of all, there is an external provision of ordinances made by Christ in His Church, ensuring both outward privilege and blessing, not of a saving kind, to those who use them aright; and with this there is the invitation addressed to all men to enter in and to partake of them; and secondly, there is a compliance with this invitation on the part of those who profess their faith in Christ and join themselves to His Church, and the actual enjoyment and experience of the privileges so promised,—in so far, at least, as they are of an external or temporal kind. All this, the mere profession of faith in Christ, and the act of joining himself in external observance to the visible Church, will secure to the formal professor. He may not possess that faith unfeigned and that vital union to the Saviour which will obtain for him the internal and saving blessing which the real believer will find in the ordinances; but there are external privileges which he may and does obtain in consequence of his mere outward profession and observance; and although he falls short of the saving benefit which the spiritual Christian finds in Christ’s Church, yet the benefits he actually enjoys are both real and important. This relation of the mere formal professor and member of the visible Church to Christ may be called an external covenant and outward federal union, or not. But under whatever name, it is important to bear in mind that there is such a relationship, involving both real responsibilities and real privileges; and that it is this relationship, as contradistinguished from an inward and saving one, that makes the difference between the members of the visible and the members of the invisible Church of Christ.

2d. The Church invisible is made up of true believers, and of none else; whereas the Church visible is composed of those who outwardly profess their faith in Christ, and may include not only true believers, but also hypocrites.

This follows, as a necessary consequence, from what has already been stated. If the members of the Church invisible stand in an inward and spiritual relationship to Christ, they must be, all of them, His true disciples, and in the number of the elect; and if, on the other hand, the members of the visible Church stand in an external relation, and no more, to the Saviour, they may at least include in their number those who are in reality strangers to Him. If indeed the edification and perfecting of the body of believers were to be secured in their journey through this world by the help and use of outward ordinances and an outward administration, then the admission of formal professors as well as true Christians to the enjoyment of those external privileges, would seem to be a matter unavoidable. If a visible Church, with its outward means of grace, is to be established for the edifying of the body of Christ, it were impossible, without the help of some inspired and infallible judge, qualified to detect the formal and feigned profession, to shut out from such a Church the hypocrite and the formalist. An outward Church, administered by human and fallible instruments, must necessarily share its benefits of a mere external kind with the feigned believer, as well as with the true. Up to a certain point, the formalist and the spiritual man will partake in common of the outward privileges which it bestows on all within its pale. Those privileges were indeed provided and intended, in the first instance, for the spiritual advantage of the true believer. It is for his sake that a visible Church, with its outward administration of word and ordinance, is established and kept up in the world. But side by side with the real Christian will be found the formal Christian also,—both alike sharing in external ordinances, and brought under a certain external relationship to Christ; but one of them contented with the name, while the other only enjoys the reality of the saving privilege in addition. Such has been the condition of the Church in all ages, and such was it always intended to be. Under a former economy there were Church ordinances of an outward kind shared in by Israel after the flesh, no less than by Israel after the spirit,—by the natural as well as by the spiritual seed of Abraham. There was a Church visible standing in an external relation to God, and embracing in it many who belonged to God only after the flesh; and within the bosom of that external Church there was another, the invisible, standing in a spiritual relation to God, and embracing in it none but His spiritual people. That former dispensation has passed away, and another has succeeded to it, of wider range and more elevated character. Yet the principle of God’s dealings with His people is still one and the same,—God still provides for the benefit of His own believing people an outward framework, so to speak, of ordinances and external administration, within which His invisible Church is hid. To the external privileges of that visible society even sinners are invited,—not that they may rest there, but that they may go on to the invisible and spiritual society within. And even formalists are permitted to mingle in outward fellowship with true believers, in order that, if possible, they may be brought to seek for something higher and more blessed. Like the field in which there sprang up the mingled crop of tares and wheat, the visible Church will ever reveal a mixed communion of real and merely nominal believers. It is not until the end of the world, when the harvest comes, that the invisible Church of Christ will stand disclosed in contradistinction to the visible, as a communion of the elect only.

The difference, then, between the Church invisible and the Church visible, may be exhibited and defined under these two heads: 1st, The one stands in an inward and saving relationship to Christ, whereas the other stands in an external relationship only; and, 2d, the one is made up of the elect solely, while the other embraces in its communion nominal as well as real believers. The principles now illustrated, in regard to the real distinction and yet the real connection between the Church invisible and the Church visible, bear with them very important consequences. It may be well to indicate, without illustrating in detail, their bearings in four different directions.

In the first place, the doctrine in regard to the visible and invisible Church which we have laid down, if it be a correct and scriptural one, has a most important and decisive bearing upon the principles of Independents in reference to Church communion. I do not intend at present to enter at length upon this question, as it may be necessary to advert to it more largely when treating of the members of the Church. But it may be well at present to indicate the conclusions to which the principles already laid down, in regard to the Church in its twofold character of visible and invisible, seem to lead on the subject of its membership. Independents in general have rejected this distinction, and denied that there is ground in Scripture for asserting the existence of an outward society of professing Christians standing in an outward relation to Christ, and made up of nominal as well as actual believers. In his work on Congregational Independency Dr. Wardlaw has ranked, under the title of “Unauthorized Uses of the word Church,” the employment of it in the sense of the invisible and visible Church; and he restricts the meanings of the word to these two,—either “the whole body of the faithful, the entire spiritual Israel of God,” or “a society of believers in any place.” In Dr. Samuel Davidson’s work on the Ecclesiastical Polity of the New Testament we have the very same statement, and almost in the same words. Hence, in rejecting the doctrine of a visible Church, and denying any use of the term Church, except in the sense of the whole body of believers or a society of believers in one place, Independents are forced to take up the position that none but true believers can be members of the Church. And in order to carry out this principle, they are constrained to demand, as the only ground of admission to Church fellowship, positive and distinct evidence of grace and regeneration on the part of the candidate. This principle of “pure communion,” as it is called, besides the inextricable difficulties of a practical kind, in which it is involved, seems to be directly opposed to the views already deduced from Scripture as to the nature of the Church itself. It is to the Church as a visible society that the ordinance of discipline has been entrusted; and it is in conformity with its character as the Church visible, that the administration of discipline in the admission or rejection of members must be conducted. If the Church visible stands in an external relationship to Christ, and is made up not merely of real but of professing believers, then there can be required for admission into that society no qualification beyond an outward profession of faith in Christ, such as in itself, and in the circumstances connected with it, may be fairly regarded as a credible one. To demand more than this, is to demand more than Scripture warrants or requires. It is to confound two things which are essentially distinct from each other,—the qualification and character necessary to constitute a man a member of the invisible, with the qualification and character necessary to constitute him a member of the visible, Church. If the principles in regard to the Church already enunciated be correct, the evidence on which a candidate for admission may be rightly received into the communion of the Church is not a positive proof of regeneration—which no man can give to or receive from another,—but the evidence of a credible profession of faith in Christ, and a corresponding conduct.

In the second place, the principles in regard to the visible and invisible Church already indicated have a very important bearing on the question of the lawfulness or unlawfulness of Infant Baptism. It will be sufficient to point out this, without entering into the general question, which will more naturally fall to be considered at a subsequent stage in our discussions. But I may remark, that the doctrine of the visible Church and its external covenant relationship to Christ, lays the foundation for those views of Church membership which justify us in regarding the infants of professing Christians as entitled to share the communion and privileges of the Church. According to that doctrine, a saving faith on the part of a man is the ground on which he is admitted a member of the invisible Church of Christ, not the condition demanded for his reception of Church privileges within the visible Church. It is on the ground, not of a faith, which an unconscious infant cannot have, but of that external relationship to Christ, which the child may share with the believing parent, that we are warranted in holding that the infants of such as belong to the visible Church are themselves members also, and therefore entitled to the enjoyment of its privileges and its ordinances along with the parent. The Independent view, which insists on the possession of a saving faith in Christ as the only footing on which Church membership can be conceded, and the only title to the enjoyment of Church ordinances, tends very directly, if consistently carried out, to deprive the infants of professing Christians of their right to be regarded as members of the Church, or to claim the benefit of its ordinances. The tendency of these views to lead to such a conclusion—notwithstanding of many exceptions to the contrary—seems to be evinced in the fact of the large number of the Independent body who actually hold opinions hostile to Infant Baptism; and it seems to be further evinced by the progress, among the same religious denomination, of views like those of Dr. Halley, in his work on the Sacraments, in which he advocates the opinion that they are no more than signs; and justifies the practice of administering Baptism to infants on that very ground. There cannot, I think, be any doubt that right and intelligent views regarding the scriptural distinction between the Church visible and invisible goes far to prepare the way for a sound decision on the question of Infant Baptism.

In the third place, the principles already laid down in regard to the Church invisible and the Church visible have a very wide and important bearing on the differences found between the Church system of Romanists and the Church system of Protestants. The existence of an invisible Church, and the relation it bears to the visible Church, lie at the very foundation of the controversy between them. The strong desire and tendency with Popish controversialists is to deny the existence of the invisible Church; or, when they are not bold enough to do that, at least to give the decided precedence to the Church visible. I had already occasion to remark that Bossuet, in his celebrated work on the Variations of Protestantism, charges upon the Reformers the invention of the theory of an invisible Church to meet the so often repeated objection, couched sometimes in the form of the question, “Where was your Church before Luther?” The late Dr. Milner, in his work entitled End of Controversy, repeats the charge previously made by Bossuet. But even when less extreme views are entertained, and the reality of a Church invisible is not denied, yet the doctrinal system of Roman Catholics requires that it should be made entirely subordinate to the visible. In the very able and interesting work by Möhler, late Professor of Theology at Munich, entitled Symbolism, or Exposition of the Doctrinal Differences between Catholics and Protestants, we have the following statement in regard to this point: “The Catholics teach: the visible Church is first,—then comes the invisible: the former gives birth to the latter. On the other hand, the Lutherans say the reverse: from the invisible emerges the visible Church; and the former is the groundwork of the latter. In this apparently very unimportant opposition, a prodigious difference is avowed.” This statement by Möhler, taken with some little qualification, may be regarded as not unfairly setting forth the general doctrinal difference between Romanists and Protestants on the subject of the Church.

The doctrine of the Church of Rome starts with the idea of an outward Church, to which an invisible and spiritual one is completely subordinate, and before which it must give place. The spiritual character of the gospel in all its relations to man is superseded by the relations to him of an outward Church; and on this foundation many of the worst and most characteristic errors of Popery are reared. Instead of the inward working of the Word upon the soul, Popery substitutes the outward authority of an infallible Church; instead of an inward faith uniting a man to his Saviour, Popery substitutes an outward union with a visible society; instead of the internal operation of the Spirit upon the heart, renewing and sanctifying the inner man, Popery substitutes the outward cleansing by penance and absolution, appointed by the Church; instead of the unseen Priest in heaven, with His unseen intercession and His one ever-sufficient sacrifice, there is the visible priest and the material sacrifice to be found in the outward Church on earth. To repeat the words of Möhler: “The Catholics teach: the visible Church is first,—then comes the invisible;” or, rather, “the visible Church is first, and the invisible comes not at all.” If the principles already laid down are correct, the reverse, very nearly, of all this is true. The primary and leading idea of the Church is unquestionably the Church invisible, comprising the whole body of the elect, for whose sake a visible Church has been established on this earth at all. In the spiritual union of believers to Christ, and in the privileges resulting from that union, we recognise the foundation of all the privileges that belong to the visible society. The Church, in its character as invisible, and spiritually united to Christ through all its members, is a fact not to be set aside or superseded by the outward communion of a visible Church. Right views as to the existence of, and relations between, the two will go far to prepare the way for an intelligent understanding and discernment of Popish errors.

In the fourth place, the principles already laid down in regard to the Church, as invisible and visible, are necessary to enable us to interpret the different statements of Scripture in connection with the Church. On the one hand, there are averments made in Scripture in regard to the invisible Church which are true of it, but not of the visible Church; and, on the other hand, there are assertions made in regard to the visible Church which are true of it, but not of the Church invisible. And there is not a more frequent source of perplexity and error in Theology than the confounding or identifying the character and properties belonging to the one with the character and properties belonging to the other. To apply thus interchangeably, and as if properly convertible, what is spoken in Scripture of the invisible Church to the visible, and vice versa, is a frequent and favourite resource of Romanist controversialists, when called upon to illustrate their theory of Church principles, or to defend their pretensions to Church power. There are statements, for example, in Scripture, in regard to the oneness of the body of Christ, which attribute to the whole collective number of the elect a unity of faith and hope and character of the most perfect kind,—statements which apply mainly or only to the invisible Church, but which, once transferred by Romanists to the visible Church, have been developed into that system of outward and formal unity characteristic of the Papacy, and beyond which there is no possibility of salvation. In like manner, there are intimations not a few in the New Testament, giving promise of the continued presence of the Spirit with the body of believers, and affording an assurance that they shall be led into and kept in the truth,—a security, indeed, without which they would soon cease to be believers at all. And these intimations, applicable as they are to the invisible Church, have been misapplied by Romanists to the visible, and have been interpreted into a promise of infallibility to be bestowed on the Church at Rome. It is thus that the language of our Lord or His inspired disciples, in regard to that Church which He purchased with His own blood, and which is one with Him, has been outraged and misapplied from age to age in justification of the claims and pretensions of the Romish Church. Such a system of interpretation or misinterpretation of Scripture language in regard to the Church, has led to some of the worst errors in Theology; and nothing but a clear discernment of the principles that connect and yet distinguish the Church invisible and the Church visible, and a right application of these to explain the statements of the Word of God on the point, will save us from mistakes fraught with the most ruinous consequences both in doctrine and practice.

James Bannerman, The Church of Christ: A Treatise on the Nature, Powers, Ordinances, Discipline, and Government of the Christian Church, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1868), 29–40.