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.
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.