Invisible church


Does anyone have any clear idea when the Protestant notion of an invisible church became popularized? How? By whom?

(Anecdotally, as I remember growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, most protestants held pretty vociferously to their particular creeds. It seems in more recent times that, through efforts toward ecumenism, the invisible church idea has picked up much more acceptance - it helps justify their existence.)


As far as I know the concept of “invisible church” has two meanings.

The modern meaning deals with the fact that over the last few decateds protestants in general have concluded denominationalism is no big deal and its all a matter of taste which denomination you attend. With this in mind protestants say EVERY denomination is equally part of the Body of Christ, linked in an invisible bond or all under an “invisible” tent.

The more historical meaning I would say derived from Calvinism. It was the heretical notion that despite the fact, for example, there are ten people in a pew on Sunday in an protestant church, only a select few are “true Christians” (the rest are deceived) and hence despite being in the same church building or same denomination there are a select few who are part of the “real church” but this real church is purely spiritual (invisible).

Both definitions are totally absurd and leads to relativisim or confusion and contradict the fact Jesus established a visible Church with visible authorities that has been preserved all these years.


Totally absurd? So what about Catholic teachings that non-Catholics *Could be saved? *Most protestants I know, believe in BOTH a visible and an invisible church. Would not the non-Catholics admitted into heaven be part of the invisible church? They can’t be part of the visible church by Catholic teching because they aren’t Catholic, they obviously trully worshipped God or they wouldn’t get to heaven.

I’m confused by the adamant denial of the invisible chuch by Catholics in one thread and the adamant insistance in another that it’s possible for a non-Catholic to go to heaven.


Matthew 7:21
I Never Knew You ] “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.


The main distinction here is that the Catholic Church openly claims to be the one and only Church, while it alone has the fullness of Truth it recognizes other groups can have a lesser degree of that Truth.

No protestant denomination claims they are the one true Church which all others should seek to be in union with, rather each denomination is seen as more or less equal. That is an important distinction that needs to be made. The “invisible” church claim in the Protestant denominations case is a modern day excuse to keep from focusing on the serious divisions among denominations.


Jesus created ONE spiritual, physical, and supernatural church. All three in one church. Hence the COMMUNION OF SAINTS which is a fundemantal teaching of the catholic church.


Invisible Church for invisible people? :slight_smile:


No, non-Catholics admitted into heaven would at that point be part of the Catholic Church. All in heaven are part of the Catholic Church. All in heaven hold the Catholic faith, whether or not they held it on Earth.

And the reason non-Catholics can be saved is because they have valid baptism and because they have some elements of the Catholic faith. I believe this is called partial communion but I’m not sure.

Anyway, it’s not because of some invisible church that Catholics, Orthodox, Baptists, Methodists, Anglicans, etc. are all equally part of. That teaching is simply absurd and just another Protestant invention.


I was told by a Catholic that it’s possible(but unlikey) for muslems to be saved because the worship the same God?

I understand the importance for Catholics of the Authority of the Church, but I believe the reason for belief in the invisible church is not so say that all denominations are equally correct. They clearly cannot all be correct. It is a designation that says, “Yes, it’s possible those people will be in heaven with us since they do qualify as Christians.” There are groups that protestants exclude from being in the invisible church. Invisible Church is not the same as Unitarian Universalists who believe everyone is equally correct.


It all depends on how you define it. Some would claim that the roots of the idea go back to Augustine. Augustine made a sharp distinction between the body of the elect known to God alone (which might include people currently outside the Church and certainly didn’t include all the baptized) and the visible Church made up of the baptized. He did not use the term “invisible Church,” and people argue over whether his teaching can really be put in this category. It is fair to say, though, that later theories of the invisible Church built on Augustine, even though they went in directions he did not.

In the late Middle Ages certain unorthodox reformers such as Wycliffe and Hus took Augustine’s idea of predestination as the basis for the “true Church.” They argued that the elect were the Church in the sense that counted most, and that if the Pope (in particular) was a wicked person and hence evidently not elect that meant that he was not truly the leader of the Church. (This is the best way I can simplify their views–it’s a complex issue and I don’t think I’m doing it justice.) Both were condemned as heretics, Wycliffe after his death; Hus was not so lucky and was burned at the stake (not only for this, but ecclesiology was probably the biggest issue at stake–yes, I know that’s a grim pun:eek: )

The Protestant Reformers picked up on this idea and worked it out more systematically. Calvin is perhaps the best example of the classic Protestant position (Luther if anything stressed the invisible Church more and had less regard for councils, tradition, etc.). Calvin believed that the invisible Church was the body of elect known to God alone, while the visible Church was made up of all those local churches where the Word of God was preached and the Sacraments were duly administered. But there’s a catch–obviously the purity of doctrine and correctness of sacramental practice admits of more and less. You could have a church that was basically correct but had some errors (Calvin thought this was true of the Lutherans, and might even have admitted that in principle it was quite possibly true of his own church), or on the other hand you could have a church that had so corrupted the Word and Sacraments that it was barely a Church at all (Calvin thought this was true of the Catholic Church–IMHO he played a double game by this kind of language, treating Catholicism as apostate to justify complete separation, but granting some Catholic churches some kind of validity in order to avoid the charge that he was creating a brand new church). Insofar as this latter was the case, the Church was “less visible.” In other words, in a sense the visible Church was a manifestation of the invisible Church through the outwad ministry of Word and Sacraments.

*However, *Calvin also taught that the *visible *Church was our Mother and that out of her there was no salvation. What he meant by this was that if you deliberately turn your back on a church where the Word and Sacraments are found, you are separating yourself from the Body of Christ.

For all the ambiguities in this theology, it did give a rationale for the existence of Protestantism while closing the door against schism based on minor matters. It’s easy to scoff at Protestant divisions, but bear in mind that Continental Protestantism has relatively few–the Lutherans and Reformed have given rise to only a few split-off groups over the years, and have maintained a basically solid front (in fact in Germany they have reached a federation). Most of the divisions in Protestantism come from the English-speaking Puritan tradition, which exalted Calvin’s polity and specific theological beliefs above his ecclesiological stress on unity (in all fairness, this happened largely in response to Anglicanism’s “slide” away from the Reformed tradition and back toward Catholicism–the two trends exacerbated each other). Particularly in America, the heirs of the Puritans soon split into an almost infinite number of denominations and independent churches.


This both arose from and led to a more radical doctrine of the Invisible Church. The originators of this more radical view were (IMHO) the Pietists–17-18th-century Protestants who thought that mainstream Protestantism had come to emphasize doctrine too much and inner piety too little. Some of the Pietists insisted on working within the state Church, but they generally saw this as pragmatic and a matter of charity rather than a matter of ecclesiological principle. That meant that when the more radical Pietists decided that the state Church was hindering rather than helping their work, they felt free to separate (indeed, most of the splits in Continental Protestantism, leaving the Anabaptists out of the picture, can be traced to Pietism or its later evangelical offshoots–many of these groups were persecuted at home and wound up in the U.S.). In the English-speaking world the pragmatism of the Pietists interacted with the intransigence of the Puritans to create a relative indifference to the evils of schism. On the one end you had people who thought they were the only true Church even if their church was made up of a few hundred faithful souls, and on the other you had people who thought that what church you belonged to didn’t really matter. The former attitude exacerbated the former, because when you have several dozen tiny groups all claiming to be the true Church it becomes harder and harder to believe that there is any true Church at all. And conversely, the less importance was given to church membership in general, the fewer obstacles had to be overcome by people who really thought that their particular concern was absolutely vital to true Christianity. So a peculiar religious culture developed, in which people felt free to act as if their own tiny group was the only one that mattered while giving lip service to the Invisible Church and the unity of all believers.

On the whole, though, the “we are the true Church” attitude has come to seem more and more ridiculous, so that the belief in the invisible Church has become more and more real and central. You are undoubtedly right that this has become more the case even in the past few decades–it’s been a fairly constant trend ever since the eighteenth century IMHO.

From a Catholic perspective, this attitude is good insofar as it tends to reduce anti-Catholicism (though some people, such as my family when I was growing up, see Catholicism as evil precisely because it’s the antithesis of the “Invisible Church”), but obviously it leads to a complete indifference to ecclesiology that is hardly compatible with Catholicism. However, many evangelical Protestants are becoming more and more fed up with the almost complete absence of a coherent ecclesiology among evangelicals. Some, such as Miroslav Volf, have tried to articulate such an ecclesiology in contrast to Catholicism and Orthodoxy. More of us have turned back toward the Catholic tradition (broadly defined) for what our own background lacks. In many cases that leads to conversions to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, or in my case and that of many others to the half-measure of Anglicanism (which allows us to retain a place within the broad evangelical tradition while also adhering to a communion that for all its faults at least takes ecclesiology and church structure seriously).

In Christ,



Wow! That was a good read and thanks for the analysis.:clapping:


You’re right, you are confused. The Church has always taught that the normative means to salvation is only through communion with God’s Church. However, she also teaches that there are non-normative means of salvation available to those who, through no fault of their own, have never known of the Gospel of Christ and His Church.


I am an ex-Catholic. In arguing here on these threads I have been twice told that by virtue of changing from being Catholic I could not have known properly the Catholic faith (else I’d still be Catholic)

Is this Catholic opinion? Because if it is, then likely almost everyone will be saved, from having never known the Catholic Church (though I do note you say through no fault of their own one could argue that my poor faculties are not my fault


Edwin, that was a great post. You hit the nail on the head and clarified the OP quite well. Thanks for another insightful post.:thumbsup:


Sterryfamily, I do not say I’m confused when I’m not. Montalban is correct-Catholics DO say that. The Catholic opinion on this varies wildly everything from “non-Catholics don’t properly understand Catholic faith and therefore are probably not ‘lost’.” to “99.9999 % of non-Catholics will go to hell.” I have seen the official statement on it before, I guess Catholics still have ‘interpretation’ problems like us protestants.:rolleyes: What constitutes “no fault of their own”?

The concept of the invisible church I was taught, as Edwin said, “the body of elect known to God alone, while the visible Church was made up of all those local churches where the Word of God was preached and the Sacraments were duly administered.” Naturally, Catholics and protestants are going to disagree on what churches teach the correct Word of God and what churches properly administer the Sacraments. But We do agree that it’s *possible *for those outside of our own church to be saved even if that possibility is remote, it is still there. On top of that, (“All who say to me Lord, Lord…”) Some who are in proper churches (ones who teachs properly and administer sacraments properly) will NOT enter heaven. This would mean that the “elect” or those who actually enter heaven are not the same group as the visible church. Many Protestants refer to this group as the “invisible church.” I can understand you may disagree, but I still object to Catholic Dude’s assessment that it is “totally absurd.”



Do you believe in a visible church too?

I think that the ‘invisible church’ goes more to what Orthodox believe.
We believe that each church headed by a bishop under Jesus Christ is fully Catholic (this means ‘complete’ as opposed to the Romanish concept of ‘universal’).

Whilst each church is fully Catholic all churches together in communion with each other are the Catholic Chirch as well… this is a type of invisible unity.


Yes I do. The visible, physical church is very important!


Romanish–pertaining to Romanism
Ro·man·ism*–noun-- *Often Disparaging and Offensive.

Your language reveals your prejudice. :frowning:



You do understand that the Eastern Fathers of the Church, prior to Photius’ time, all recognized Rome as the place of primacy and always appealed to the Bishop of Rome in contested matters?

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