Making the Visible Church More Visible!
All the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the LORD,
and all the families of the nations shall worship before You…
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you;
and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Amen.
Psalm 22:27 NKJV; Matthew 28:19-20 NKJV
Question 62 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “What is the visible church?” It gives the answer, “The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.” Last week we examined the difference between the visible and invisible church. This week we consider more closely the nature of the visible church.
The word translated “church” is the Greek word ecclesia, which means literally “called out ones.” Biblically speaking, the church is not the building where the people of the Lord gather to worship; the church is the people! You became a member of this called-out people when God “called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” (1 Peter 2:9). Just like Israel was called out of Egypt to the promised land, so Christians are called out of this world, the spiritual Egypt and house of bondage, into the glorious liberty of the sons of God (Rom. 8:21). Accordingly, the Greek word ecclesia, translated “church,” appears often in the Old Testament (about 100 times translated as “assembly” or “congregation”), to refer to the corporate people of God.
Thus, as the Catechism teaches, the “visible church” has existed “in all ages.” Those mostly Jewish people who came out of Egypt with Moses and who professed the true religion, together with their children were the ecclesia, the church. Likewise, those mostly Gentile people we begin to read about in the New Testament epistles, who professed the true religion, together with their children were (and are) the ecclesia, the church. So also, before the time of Moses, God’s people assembled as families under such leaders as Adam, Seth, Enoch, Lamech, Noah, Shem, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. They were too small then to be referred to as an assembly or congregation, but as families or tribes they called upon the Lord, professed the true religion, and together with their children constituted the people of God. By His grace this extended family would grow to be called and constituted as “the church.”
What are the marks of the visible church? How do we distinguish between a church and a synagogue, or more challengingly, a Christian church and a Mormon church, or a Bible-believing church and a liberal church? In other words, what do we identify as the visibility of this visible church? The Puritans spoke of the difference between the “being” (esse) and “well-being” (bene esse) of the church. The being of the church is found wherever the gospel is preached, the sacraments are administered, and corporate worship is performed “more or less purely,” (WCF 25.4). Wherever a congregation has these basic marks, so that the leadership leads with them and the congregation believes by them, there a church exists and can be seen. Other things like Presbyterian church government, the regulative principle of worship, expository preaching etc., are enjoined by Scripture and therefore contribute to the “well-being” of the church, but their absence is not so catastrophic that without them the church no longer exists. However, without the gospel, without the signs and seals of that gospel, and without corporate worship, the church no longer exists. Thus, the church is more or less “visible” depending upon how well it conforms to the model prescribed in Scripture.
The same is true for us individually. Our witness is more or less clear, our light is brighter, our salt saltier, depending upon how closely we image our savior, the Lord Jesus. May God grant that the visibility of Providence Presbyterian Church would be that which “shines ever brighter unto the perfect day” (Pro. 4:18).