The Church Visible and Invisible

Is Membership in a local church really necessary?

What shall we think of someone who refuses to join a church or is removed from the membership of the church without joining another congregation?

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey K. Boer, Pastor of Sharon OPC in Miami Lakes, Florida, addresses these questions in the following sermon.

Formal church membership is a covenantal obligation for the Christian, as Dr. Boer notes in the following message.

Today and next Sunday I want to speak about why it’s important to join the visible church of Jesus Christ.  Many people are confused as to how they should view the church of Jesus Christ.  Our creeds, the Westminster Confession of Faith and Westminster Larger Catechism, speak about a distinction between the visible and the invisible church.  This doctrine of the distinction between the visible and invisible church is a helpful doctrine if we understand what’s intended by those terms, “visible church” and “invisible church.”  Unfortunately, this doctrine has been so misunderstood and so abused that many ministers and theologians prefer not to even use those terms anymore.

You see, a lot of people think this way: “There are basically two ways of looking at the church.  There’s the visible church, which is denominations and congregations and having your name written down on the membership rolls of a congregation.  And then there’s the invisible church which is composed of all true believers who are really saved.  The visible church,” they reason, “is composed of some true believers and some hypocrites and people who are either purposely ‘faking’ belief in Christ, or who think they’re true believers but they’re not.”

Having those two definitions in mind, some of these same people then take the next logical step and say, “Now, what’s most important after all?  That I have my name on the membership rolls of a church, or that I really believe?  Why, the important thing is that I’m really a Christian, that I’m really a true believer.  So who cares about membership?”

Now, given that understanding of things, being a member of the visible church is then pretty much optional, isn’t it?  And so what’s happened is that there are many people today who say they’re believers, but who, for one reason or another, aren’t members of the visible church.  Either they’ve never joined the church in the first place, or they were members once, but they just let things slide so that they’re members no longer.  Or perhaps they’ve moved away and never joined another church in their new location.  Or maybe the church they joined did something they didn’t like, so they left and started attending another church and never joined that church.  Or possibly they no longer even attend church any more, thinking to themselves, “Well, as long as I’m a true believer, I’m a member of the invisible church and that’s what counts, after all.”

Well, I want to make sure that you understand: that’s not what the framers of our confession and catechisms had in mind when they talked about the visible and invisible church!  And that’s not the concept of the church that the Scriptures teach us!

Nowhere do the Scriptures give us the impression that membership in the visible church is optional, or that it’s unnecessary.  Nowhere do the Scriptures teach us that as long as a person believes the Gospel, he’s saved, regardless of whether or not he joins the visible church.  That may be what you’ve heard in a Billy Graham Crusade or in some other evangelistic ministry, but that’s not the Biblical view!

The only reason the distinction between the visible and the invisible church needs to be made is to teach people that visible church membership alone can’t save them.  That’s what the Roman Catholic Church was teaching during the time of the Reformation.  Many people believed that as long as they were members of the visible church and partook of the sacraments, they were automatically saved.

But the Scriptures clearly teach that being a member of a church and partaking of the sacraments, by themselves, saves no one.

You must also be a sincere believer.  You must also be one who has true faith in Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Scriptures.  Church membership alone can’t save you!

But never, anywhere in the Scriptures or in our creeds – never are we given the impression that the visible church is optional or unnecessary.  In fact, the Scriptures and our creeds teach us the exact opposite!

I want to take some time today and next Sunday to look at the Scriptures and at our creeds, as well as at some of the writings of our forefathers in the faith on this matter.  I want to show you how clearly God’s Word speaks regarding the importance of membership in Christ’s church.

Let’s start with the Scriptures so that you can see that those positions stated in our creeds and explained by our forefathers are Biblically derived.

I would direct your attention, specifically, to Acts 2:47 which I’ll quote first from the KJV: “And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”  (The NIV says And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”)  Either way, we see that those who are called, “saved,” were added to a visible, tangible body, the church.

The text says that “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.”  The Lord added to the church, His covenant body, those who should be saved, and that’s the way it’s always been.

If you look at Acts 2:37, Peter has just finished preaching his sermon at Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit has been poured out.  Tongues of fire have rested on the apostles, and now Peter is preaching a sermon.  And in summary, he says, “This Jesus Christ that you Jews crucified and put to death on the cross has been raised from the dead, according to the OT prophecies, just as He said, and now this same Jesus has been exalted, and is sitting on the highest throne in heaven, with all power!”

So in other words, you all are in big trouble!”

And the Jews were immediately convicted.  V. 37 says, “When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’”

Now I want you to take careful note as to Peter’s response to that question.  V. 38 tells us, “Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized.”

In other words, “Repent and join the visible church.”

He says, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven.  And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The promise is for you and your children [That’s the same covenant promise given in the OT to the Jews and their children, but now he says it’s even…] for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

That meant that now, even the Gentiles, who once were far off from those covenant promises – even those Gentiles are now given those same covenant promises, if they will repent and join Christ’s body, the church.

V. 40 continues, “With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.’”

And then v. 41 says, “Those who accepted his message…” raised their hands and said, “I’m a believer,” and they were saved?  No, that’s not what it says!

“Those who accepted his message…” walked down the aisle and knelt in front of the altar and they were saved?

No!  That’s not what it says either.

Here’s what the text says:

“Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”

And then a little later, v. 47, the verse we just read, says, “The Lord added to their number [meaning the number of those added to the membership rolls of the visible church”] daily those who were being saved.”

When these people believed, they were baptized.  And when they were baptized, they were added to the number of those who were members of Christ’s covenant body, the church.

A lot of people think being on the membership rolls of a church is not necessary.  A lot of churches don’t even have membership rolls.  But if that’s the case, then they don’t understand the Scriptures.

You find this same process all through the NT Scriptures.  Those who believed joined the visible body of Christ and became part of the “number” of that group.  If they had children, their children were also baptized into Christ’s body, the visible church.

This was nothing new.  In the NT, baptism replaced OT circumcision as the sign and seal of entrance into membership in God’s covenant.  This sign and seal of the covenant was given to the children of believing parents in the OT, in most cases, while they were still infants, only 8 days old.  Baptism, the sign of covenant membership in the NT, is also to be given, therefore, to all the children of believing parents.  If believers in the OT refused to circumcise their infant children, they weren’t allowed to be members of the covenant or to partake of the Passover.  It’s a great sin to refuse the covenant sign of baptism to the children of believers.

If those who are baptized into covenant membership later fail to live as God’s covenant people, once they become “of age” themselves – if they’re found to be living in unrepentant sin, or if they refuse to profess their own faith in Jesus Christ, they’re to be disciplined by the church and exhorted to repent.  And if they fail to repent, those members of the church are to be cut off from the covenant by being put out of the membership of the visible church.  That’s what the Bible teaches!

Duane Spencer, a minister in the OPC who is now dead, wrote a book entitled, Holy Baptism:  Word Keys Which Unlock the Covenant.  It’s one of the best books on the mode of baptism in print.

Spencer shows from the Scripture that sprinkling or pouring, from above, is the proper Biblical mode of baptism, even though we would recognize that those baptized by the improper mode of dunking or immersion have still been truly baptized.  But the mode of baptism that’s taught by Scripture is sprinkling or pouring “from above,” just as the Holy Spirit, Whose cleansing is represented in water baptism, comes down upon men “from above.”

But I want to quote from the introduction of Spencer’s book, since it deals with our topic for today: membership in the visible church (This introduction was written by James B. Jordan):

Holy Baptism is the sign and seal of the covenant.  It is not the sign and seal of eternal election, for God alone looks on the heart.  Man looks on the outward appearance, and we as Christians need to know whom we are to count as and treat as fellow Christians.  Do we count as Christians those who have a flaming testimony?  Or only those who speak in tongues?  Or only those who talk about spiritual things the same way we do, whom we feel at home with?  The answer of the Bible, and of the Church of all ages is this: We count as Christians those to whom God has given the visible sign of baptism, provided they have not been excommunicated from the visible church… Thus we always count our children as Christians and treat them as such…The sprinkling church thus does not presume to read the hearts, but treats only of the visible things, leaving the invisible to God.  [James B. Jordan in Duane E. Spencer, Holy Baptism:  Word Keys Which Unlock the Covenant (Tyler, TX: Geneva Ministries, 1984), pp. xi-xii.]

That means that we do not treat a person as a Christian, the moment they say they believe in Jesus Christ.  We treat them as a Christian when they identify with Christ, by joining His covenant body, the church.

It was no small thing, in the NT, to be cut off from the visible church.  To be outside the church meant to be outside the covenant.  And the promises of the Gospel are made only to those within God’s covenant.  To be outside the body of Christ means to be outside of Christ.  We don’t want to be outside of Jesus Christ.  In the Bible, the only people who were considered to be in Christ, were those who were members, in good standing, in Christ’s body, the visible church.  And this is so plain on the face of the whole NT, it’s a wonder people have missed it!

Listen very carefully to what the WCF says in summarizing what the Bible teaches about this matter.  You can follow along in the back of your blue, Trinity Hymnals, if you wish, on p. 686.  Either many people don’t read their confession of faith or they’ve simply missed this point:

WCF XXV:II.  The visible Church [Here it gives a brief description of the visible church and then it continues, “The visible Church…”] …consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

There you have it: There is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the visible church!  That’s what the Westminster Assembly found that the Scriptures teach.  That’s what the brightest and most sanctified, theological minds in all of England and Scotland concluded from God’s Word.  And they weren’t alone.

The Belgic Confession, written prior to the WCF, is even more pointed on the matter.  Article XXVIII is entitled, “EVERY ONE IS BOUND TO JOIN HIMSELF TO THE TRUE CHURCH.”  The title kinda gives away the point, I realize!  But here’s what it says:

We believe, since this holy congregation [speaking of the visible church in general, not an individual congregation – JKB] is an assembly of those who are saved, and outside of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it…

And that this may be the more effectually observed, it is the duty of all believers, according to the Word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the Church, and to join themselves to this congregation [again, that’s not talking about a particular congregation, but the congregated body of Christ’s church in some location – JKB], wheresoever God has established it, even though the magistrates and edicts of princes were against it, yea, though they should suffer death or any other corporal punishment.  Therefore all those who separate themselves from the same or do not join themselves to it act contrary to the ordinance of God.

Did you feel the force of that statement?  It says you must join the visible church, even if that means you’ll have to suffer punishment at the hands of the civil government.  Even if it means you’ll be put to death by the magistrate, you must join the visible church of Jesus Christ!

Both of these creeds follow the Biblical teaching of John Calvin, that prince of exegetes, who taught the same thing in numerous places in his writings.  For example, here are two questions and answers from Calvin’s Genevan Catechism:

Master [That’s how Calvin addresses the student – sort of like “Mr.”  The student is asking a question here.].  Why do you subjoin forgiveness of sins to the Church?  [In other words, the student is asking, “Why is it that the forgiveness of sins can be received only in conjunction with the visible church?”]

Scholar.  Because no man obtains it without being previously united to the people of God, maintaining unity with the body of Christ perseveringly to the end, and thereby attesting that he is a true member of the Church.

Master.  In this way you conclude that out of the Church is nought but ruin and damnation?

Scholar.  Certainly.  Those who make a departure from the body of Christ, and rend its unity by faction, are cut off from all hope of salvation during the time they remain in this schism, be it however short.  [John Calvin, “The Genevan Catechism” in Tracts and Treatises vol. II (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book House, 1983.  [Vol. 2 is a reproduction of the Calvin Translation Society edition of 1849]), p. 52.]

John Calvin taught, and our creeds agree, that the Scriptures teach this truth: “Outside of the Church is nothing but ruin and damnation.”

I would not be doing my job as a minister of the Word of God if I didn’t point that out to you.  This is information that every person on the face of this earth needs to know!  “Outside of the Church is nothing but ruin and damnation.”

Now of course we know that God is able to save people that never join the church.  God sometimes does some rather extraordinary things that are beyond our comprehension.  That’s why I appreciate the way the WCF puts this truth.  It says that outside the visible church, there is no “ordinary” possibility of salvation.

The thief on the cross was saved, and we know that he wasn’t baptized into the visible church while he hung on the cross next to Jesus.  But that was certainly an extraordinary case.  After all, he couldn’t join the church, since he’d be dead in a few hours.  And when you think about it, he did make a public profession of his faith in Jesus Christ as he hung upon the cross next to Jesus.

And then, Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, personally and publicly, received him into membership in His body when He said to him, in Luke 23:43, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I’m sure the same would be true of a person today who truly believes in Jesus Christ, and who fully intends to join the church as soon as possible, but who perhaps dies suddenly before that happens.  Or consider a child of believing parents who dies shortly after he’s born, or even before he’s born, and so isn’t baptized.

We would consider such individuals to be saved, nonetheless.  But those are “extraordinary” situations.

And even if we were to allow for the possibility that God, in His sovereign power, could decide, immediately and supernaturally, and apart from any of those outward means of preaching, and church membership, and the sacraments, to zap someone with salvation, we’d still have no basis on which to expect such things.

We have no promise, no revelation on which to hope for such things.  When God lays out before us the only way of salvation in the Scriptures, then that way is the only basis for our sure hope of salvation.  Any other way of salvation is merely wishful thinking on men’s part.

So let’s be perfectly clear.  According to the Scriptures, as understood in the WCF, and as understood in the Belgic Confession, and as understood by John Calvin, (and many, many others could be added), there is no ordinary possibility of salvation for you, if you refuse to join the visible church!  If you refuse to join yourself to the body of Jesus Christ, you don’t have any Scriptural basis on which to hope for salvation.

And it should, of course, go without saying, that that means you must be a member of a true church and not an apostate one.  A person could be a member of the Mormon Church, for instance (if you want to even call that heretical group a church), and still not be a member of Christ’s true body.  The Scriptures command us to join with a church that preaches and teaches the whole counsel of God.  That means that we should join a Reformed and Presbyterian church, because that’s the only kind of church that seeks to proclaim God’s Word in all its fullness.

Now we know that there are no perfect churches, of course, but it’s our duty to join with the most faithful church we can find.  If we would have the true God as our God, then we must have God’s true Word as our guide.

The very first Commandment, in Exodus 20: 3, says, “You shall have no other gods before me.”

Now what does it mean to “have” a God?  And how do we “have” a God?  Well, think about it, how do you “have” a husband or a wife?  How do you “have” a spouse?  Do you “have” a spouse the moment you say, “I love you?”

“I love you.  There, now you’re my spouse.”

No.  It doesn’t work that way.

Even if you’re really, truly in love with this other person, does that mean you “have” them as your spouse?  No.

What about if you’re living together?  If you’re living with them and you see them every day and every week, does that make them your spouse?  No.

You “have” them as your spouse only when you enter into covenant with them, that is, when you marry them.  Only then are they your spouse, by covenant, not before!

Well in the same way, God says, “Don’t ‘have’ any other gods before me, and that implies the opposite: you must have Him as your God.  And you get Him as your God by entering into covenant with Him.  Apart from that covenant, you see, you have no claims on God.

In fact, John Calvin makes an interesting statement in this regard in his comments on Psalm 24:7.  He says, “…for what is the purpose of the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, of religious gatherings and of the whole external order of the church except to unite us to God?”  [John Calvin, Commentaries, vol. IV, pp. 409-410.  Comment on Psalm 24:7.]

The outward preaching and hearing of the Word of God and the outward visible signs and seals of baptism and the Lord’s Supper – all of these have the purpose of uniting us to God, by joining us to Jesus Christ.  These are the ways and means which God has ordained to bring us into union with Jesus Christ.  Apart from these outward means of the visible church, we’re not joined to Christ.

Therefore, we must let nothing stop us from identifying with Jesus Christ through His body the visible church.  In order to be saved, we must be in covenant with Jesus Christ.  We must be members of His body, the visible church.

This is not simply one man’s opinion.  We’ve seen that this is the consensus of many orthodox teachers throughout church history.  We’ll see even more evidence for this next Sunday, since there’s so much more evidence to present.

The Scriptures teach us this.  Our confessions interpret the Scriptures as teaching this.  Our forefathers in the faith interpret the Scriptures as teaching this.  Our Orthodox Presbyterian leaders interpret the Scriptures as teaching this.  And all of these witnesses agree: Membership in the visible church is not optional.  It is necessary for us to join the church if we are to have any sure hope of salvation.  Because, as our confession says that the visible church is that body, “outside of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”