Rome and the Visible Church

Thus far in our series on “What is the Church?”, we’ve been enlightened and encouraged in our study of the visible church (those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and their children) and the invisible church (the whole number of Christ’s elect). These two aspects of the church are important to know and keep in proper perspective. For we’ve seen many in the church err over the centuries in placing over emphasis on one over the other, thus distorting their understanding of and living according to the truth.

We’ve considered the error and dangers with over individualizing faith, in over emphasizing the invisible church. From this perspective, the church exists solely for the benefit of the individual Christian and his walk with God. Yet, when the pendulum swings to the other side and the visible church is over emphasized, that likewise is riddled with problems and danger.

In fact, as we look back in church history, we find one of the errors the Reformers identified and stood against was the error of Roman Catholicism where too much emphasis was being placed on the visible church to the point in which they in essence denied the invisible church. All that really mattered was one’s belonging to the visible church, specifically the Roman Catholic Church. The details of what its members truly believed no longer mattered.

As a result of the rise of heresies towards the end of the 2nd Century, discussion of the true Church led many to focus their attention upon certain characteristics of the church as an external institution. Louis Berkhof, in his discussion of the Roman Catholic conception of the essence of the church states, “From the days of Cyprian down to the Reformation the essence of the Church was sought ever increasingly in its external visible organization…There was an ever growing emphasis on the hierarchical organization of it, and the capstone was added with the institution of the Papacy. Roman Catholics now define the Church as: “The congregation of all the Faithful, who, being baptized, profess the same faith, partake of the same sacraments, and are governed by their lawful pastors, under one visible head on earth.” (Systematic Theology, II. The Nature of the Church, A. The Essence of the Church)

Herein lies a huge problem- the visible church was promoted, and grew to be broadly accepted as the end all, be all under the Pope. When the Roman Catholic Church claims to be founded on a rock of such a kind that it has neither erred, nor can err, when the pope claims to be “head” of the church able to speak infallibly, when the church claims to have the power to forgive sin, when those promoting such and other unbiblical doctrines are persuasive, what is the effect? The doctrine of the visible church (among others) became twisted and departed from the teaching of Scripture. Those who listened learned to open wide their minds and mouths, digest and live according to what the church fed them without question. For the pope, cardinals, bishops, and priests knew the truth, and they didn’t (or so they were told). Therefore, life wasn’t grounded in Christ, the true Gospel, and the Word, but on the dictates of the church. Life wasn’t about learning and growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ, but rather seeking to earn favor with God through works the church prescribes. With tradition trumping Scripture, the diet dished was deadly.

We’re thankful for God’s grace and direction in openly the eyes and understanding of godly men to reform the church and take it back to Christ, back to the Bible, and the truths therein. What a monster the Roman Catholic Church became, and still is! Nothing has changed. Praise God that many through the centuries have had our eyes opened to such errors, and there are congregations where the pure Gospel of Christ is proclaimed and the true doctrines of Scripture regarding the church are taught to all.

So, what do we know to be true? As God’s people feed and stand on His Word, we know:

  • Jesus Christ is King and the only head of the church. There is none other. (WCF 25.6; Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:22)
  • “All saints, that are united to Jesus Christ their Head, by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as do conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.” (WCF 26.1; 1 John 1:3, Eph. 3:16-18)
  • “The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated, as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth, to worship God according to his will.” (WCF 25.5; 1 Cor. 13:12, Matt. 13:24-30)

Though there is over emphasis in Roman Catholicism, the visible church, understood and maintained in proper perspective with the invisible church, has important ministry and commission from our Lord. We are to be serious and busy about the work He has given us for His glory and kingdom building. The Westminster Confession of Faith is once again helpful in teaching us here:

  • “Unto this catholic visible church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.” (WCF 25.3; 1 Cor. 12:28, Matt. 28:19-20)

May we never press forward as the church under the constructs or dictates of men, but always under the command and direction of Christ our King in accordance with His Word.