Debunking the Myth of the Invisible Church

Debunking the Myth of the Invisible Church
By Dave Armstong

Our Protestant friends often tell us that “the Church is the invisible sum total of all true believers.” Many Protestants (including myself in my evangelical years in the 80s) are taught that institutions are “bad” and that “religion” (another bad word) is infested with the “barnacles” of man-made traditions. This sort of thinking, I submit, has more of “the 60s” in it than of 60 A.D.

The Bible teaches us that the Church is a visible, identifiable institution, which has a verifiable history of continuous true apostolic teaching.

It is true, however, that Catholics believe in a “mystical” Body of Christ in some sense. We hold that all Christians who have been baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are part of the Church, albeit imperfectly. But from this it doesn’t follow that there is no institutional (or “one true”) Church. Here are two biblical passages about the visible Church:

Matthew 5:14-16
You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid. Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (cf. Matt 18:15-17)

1 Timothy 3:15
the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth. (cf. Matt. 16:18)

Some Christians seem to think that the Apostle Paul was a kind of “lone ranger,” as if he were on his own. The Bible contradicts this notion in several passages. Paul was subject to the direction and sanction of the institutional Church. He, too was under authority:

Acts 15:2-3, 22-23, 30
And when Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. So, being sent on their way by the church, they passed through both Phoeni’cia and Sama’ria, . . . . Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church, to choose men from among them and send them to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas. They sent Judas called Barsab’bas, and Silas, leading men among the brethren, with the following letter: . . . So when they were sent off, they went down to Antioch; and having gathered the congregation together, they delivered the letter. (cf. Acts 13:1-4; Acts 14:26-28)

Galatians 1:18-19
I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

Galatians 2:9
and when they perceived the grace that was given to me, James and Cephas (Peter) and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised;

Our Protestant friends also argue for an invisible church by noting that Jesus used the analogy of the sheep and the shepherd (Jn. 10:1-16; cf. 2 Tim. 2:19; 1 Jn. 2:19), who know each other (Jn. 10:14). They say that this shows that the Church is merely or exclusively a mystical body consisting of the elect and truly saved only.

The problem with this line of thinking is that Scripture also describes the unsaved reprobate as “sheep” (Ps. 74:1), refers to “sheep” that have “gone astray” (Ps. 119:176), and applies the description to the nation of Israel (Ezek. 34:2-3, 13, 23, 30), and indeed, all men (Isa. 53:6).

It is far better for Protestants to heed the advice of one of their own founders: John Calvin:

But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels (Matt. 22:30). Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation, as Isaiah (Isa. 37:32) and Joel (Joel 2:32) testify…

This “invisible church” is nothing, but weeds while the real church is a single rose among the garden of weeds.

I have a hard time with making hard lines about the invisible church.

Yes there is a visible church, a single entity founded by Christ that is the Church on earth from which we should learn and participate in our salvific process.

But here is my issue,

Doesn’t the Church teach that the Orthodox are possibly saved, part of “the church” What about Protestants, our “separated brothers”

Doesn’t the Church teach that salvation is a possibility for those outside the visible confines of the church?

How do validly baptized Christians that are not within the bounds of the church fit in?

It seems that in these senses there is indeed an “invisible church” . It is just that there should be also a Visible Church. It is this latter point that protestants miss.


Nothing but weeds? That’s a bit harsh. What ever happened to “through no fault of their own”?

Even roses have thorns and even the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church possessing the fullness of truth has its imperfections.

I try to remember that there are individual human beings behind the labels we put on groups of people.


God gathers them in… Lets look to the scriptures… We see the Good Shepherd Jesus will be gathering his flock in His arms and carrying them in… It’s a beautiful picture… But when there are so many who don’t know what it means to be part of a flock one must wonder how the the ones who are lost because they have strayed from the flock will be gathered in… And that goes for Catholics also…;)There is no invisible Church but there is a Kingdom of God…So I believe those who will be saved will be saved through the Church (people) built to gather people in… And I think of that song… Oh when the Saints, go marching in… Oh when the Saints go marching in… Oh how I want to be in that number…Oh when the Saints go marching in… :slight_smile:

The last shall be first and the first shall be last…And we must be like a little child to enter heaven, John 6:54 Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. (and we know there are many who havent…)

There’s a lot to this so we have to wonder what it will be like… But Jesus did give the key of the Kingdom of heaven to Peter (the first Pope)… which is passed down through the Popes who were given the authority to act on Jesus behalf so I believe Jesus does have an order to things and does it through the sacraments created for people to be reconciled to God… Many are invited but few will be chosen…God is a God of order… I believe Gods mercy is more than anyone can imagine but read the scriptures and Jesus has set pretty clear instructions for people to follow to enter the Kingdom of heaven…

I’m sorry if my opinion on the manner is too extreme. I’m going after the labels not the individual.

Thus, in my original post I said “this invisible church” as in the concept, not the individuals who believe in such a concept.

Yes, those outside the Church, or in imperfect union with the Church can be saved. IT is through the Church that they are saved, whether they realize it or not.

This section of the catechism will address your concerns directly.

Of particular interest:

Wounds to 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."269 The ruptures that wound the unity of Christ’s Body - here we must distinguish heresy, apostasy, and schism270 - do not occur without human sin:

Where there are sins, there are also divisions, schisms, heresies, and disputes. Where there is virtue, however, there also are harmony and unity, from which arise the one heart and one soul of all believers.271

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."272

819 "Furthermore, many elements of sanctification and of truth"273 are found outside the visible confines of the Catholic Church: "the written Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and charity, with the other interior gifts of the Holy Spirit, as well as visible elements."274 Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and ecclesial communities as means of salvation, whose power derives from the fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these blessings come from Christ and lead to him,275 and are in themselves calls to "Catholic unity."276

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