Can Someone Be A Believer Yet Not Be Committed to a Local Church? (On the misapplication of the doctrine of the invisible church)

Chris —  August 5, 2009

Do you know someone who professes to be a Christian, yet is not part of a local church? 

Those who profess some faith on some level, but don’t attend church might appeal to the idea of the visible and the invisible church.  Such a person would say, “Well, I am not part of a local church, I am a part of the universal church.”

For clarity, here are some basic definitions.

The Visible Church  – The church as Christians on earth see it.

The Invisible Church – The church as God sees it.

Those who profess faith in Christ, yet decline to be part of a local church, have a dangerous misunderstanding of doctrine and little or no reason to be confident that when God looks at the invisible church, He sees them as a part of it.  Such a mentality is the gospel of our individualistic, modernistic era – – not of biblical thought.

The Bible is clear.  Christians are called to be mortared into the life of a church where the Word is proclaimed, the sacraments are properly administered, and discipline is practiced.  Indeed, it is characteristic of the regenerate that they will be part of a local church.  Quacking doesn’t make you a duck. But, ducks do quack.  A commitment to a local church doesn’t make a Christian, but Christians are committed to a church.


More information:

Five hundred years ago, the Reformers defended the doctrine of the invisible church.  They stressed that not all who are a part of a local church are necessarily believers.  There may, in fact, be unbelievers in the pew (so Matt 13:24-43). Their point was to challenge Rome that just because someone was in the Catholic church, that did not mean that they were necessarily regenerate.

Both Martin Luther and John Calvin were eager to affirm this invisible aspect of the church church over against the Roman Catholic teaching that the church was the one visible organization that had descended from the apostles in an unbroken line of succession (through the bishops of the church). . . [Luther and Calvin] said that the Roman Catholic Church had the outward form, the organization, but it was just a shell. . .Calvin said, “This pretense of succession is vain unless their descendents conserve safe and uncorrupted the truth of Christ which they have received at their fathers hands, and abide in it . . .” (Grudem, Systematic Theology, 856)

What the Reformers never would have intended is that there would be a group of people who profess some sort of Christian faith yet are not part of a local assembly where the Word is proclaimed, the sacraments are administered, and discipline is practiced.  The idea that someone could be a Christian, yet not be mortared into a local church would fly in the face of biblical teaching which stresses that we not forsake the assembling together of ourselves (Hebrews 10:25), that God was calling out a people for His name (Titus 2:14), that we are to be built up together on the foundation of Christ (Eph 4:13).

David Wells summarized:

The original intent of making the distinction between the church visible and the church invisible was not to make what is visible unimportant.  It was simply to recognize that there are likely to be tares among the wheat (Matt. 13:24-43), that in a local church, side by side, may be seated as supposed fellow Christians the regenerate and unregenerate.  Outward patterns of churchgoing, and of Christian profession, may not be telling the full story.  Not all who are in the visible, local church are in the invisible and universal church.  David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, page 214.

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8 responses to Can Someone Be A Believer Yet Not Be Committed to a Local Church? (On the misapplication of the doctrine of the invisible church)

  1. First of all, I’d like to say a hearty “Amen” to this post!

    I read this post with great joy because it speaks to the very miracle that God has done in me. He has not only carried me through a long night season of the soul but He restored something I didn’t even know was stolen. And that is a love for His bride.
    While I do believe wholeheartedly that there are times when leaving your church is necessary, that should NEVER be interpreted as God having a plan that excludes community in a local church.

    For those who face the temptation to not be a part of a church, I would point them to Galatians. “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Have faith in God that He will supernaturally do for you what you cannot work up in your own flesh. In my case, I never thought I would enjoy the church, let alone love it like I do now. God really does do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine”!

    And, for those who would counsel others who are facing this temptation, I would tell them to be gentle and not to make light of that person’s experience. Many are leaving the church with deep, deep wounds and unspeakable pain. Pray for them and love them because the tempter stalks about like a lion looking for the slightest scent of blood and weakness. If that person is really a blood bought saint then they are worth fighting for!

    There has been much talk lately about the “coming evangelical collapse’ and the fact that Christianity is in decline. I believe that from the Old Testament to the New Testament scripture points towards an amazing plan for the church. The bride of Christ is NOT going down in defeat. She’s going up in a blaze of glory!

  2. Chris:
    What I’m hearing you say is that though there may be unbelievers in the pew, there cannot be believers not in pews. That is, a characteristic of every believer is that they are part of a local church. Those who are regenerate but not part of a local church are at least misunderstanding a Reformation doctrine or not truly regenerate. Is this correct?

    You say: “The idea that someone could be a Christian, yet not be mortared into a local church would fly in the face of biblical teaching…” What does this say about a person who comes to faith in Christ while in prison and no other believers are present? Is their faith not genuine because they’ve no opportunity to be part of the local church?

    Moreover, doesn’t the Hebrews passage (10:24-25) speak to the “habitual practice” rather than a season in life where one may be looking for a church? If, for instance, I and my family take several weeks or months before finding a local church, but are not presently involved in any local church, am I misunderstanding the Reformation teaching or, worse, not truly born from above?

    Unless I’m “misunderstanding” you, this post seems to require not a few caveats to be biblically balanced.

  3. Paul, I agree with you. This statement should be balanced in the kinds of ways you mentioned. In this post, I was pushing on one side of the issue.

  4. I don’t usually comment at blogs but this post has been troubling me for a couple of days. I along with several other Christian brothers and sisters I know work in law enforcement. Without going into great detail of how we are scheduled to work, I am assigned to work long hours every Sunday. It grieves me that I am not able to attend or participate in a local body. This bothered me so bad that I went to the elders of my church and asked them to start a service on Saturday evenings for those of us who could not attend Sunday mornings. They had no interest in starting a Saturday evening service.

    Most churches cater to those with a Monday – Friday (8-5) schedule and forget about the blue collar shift worker, those in the military, or those that serve their communities in law enforcement or fire department. Our schedules simply do not fit in the nice little neat schedule that churches now have, leaving those brothers and sisters forced to work “odd” hours without a body to fellowship with.

    I do not at all want to come across as rude but in communities where there are few biblical churches, this presents a hardship and has become somewhat irratating to me. This is one reason I love the approach of the Village Church in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas. (I do not live in Texas) They have services scheduled throughout the weekend to meet the needs of those within the body.

    This topic is a sensitive one for those of us who struggle to serve and protect almost 7 days a week. We work long hours and would love and desperately need the body of Christ and in no way desire to be disobedient for our lack of attendance at Sunday worship. I could go on and on but will stop here. When you raise a topic like this, please consider all possible situations and viewpoints from those that may be shut in or just cannot possibly attend their local church. Maybe it’s time for churches to reconsider the way they “do church” and start reaching out to those that may not be able to make it in.

  5. Thanks, Chris for your gracious and thoughtful response. Needless to say, this issue is close to my heart as I know many unchurched believers, myself included at present, who hold dearly to the core teachings of our faith yet struggle tremendously with “church as usual” in a variety of ways. Would to God that we love the Bride, nurture the Bride, and be the Bride in all her splendor. DeYoung and Kluck’s book had an enormous impact upon my thinking, which I’ve tried to document here and I pray that unchurched believers read and heed.

  6. Steve, thanks for your comment. And, I am thankful that you pointed out those kinds of situations. I very much believe that churches should be sensitive to those circumstances. It was good for me to hear, specifically, because I have people in those circumstances in my church. We are thinking about doing communion in an additional slot besides Sunday morning. This is helpful for me and our leadership here.

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