(See Westminster Confession of Faith chapter 25 paras 1-3)
As children growing up in Scotland we learned many rhymes on the school playground. One of them was about a church. The rhyme was said while using the hands and fingers to illustrate: This is the church / And this is the steeple / Open the door / And see all the wee people. Now, I suppose one might get the impression from that children’s rhyme that the church itself was a building.
Indeed when people talk about ‘church-goers’ today they are usually talking about people who go to church, i.e., the building. But be that as it may, Christ’s church is not about brick and mortar buildings. Which is to say that the bricks and mortar of the Lord’s church are real flesh and blood people. For the Apostle Peter says that Christians “…as living stones, are being build up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 1 Peter 2:5.
The imagery Peter uses is taken from the Older Testament Temple. The Temple was the ‘House of God’ in which the priesthood ministered. But now the ‘House of God’ is the people who are also the priesthood. In other words, the Temple or House of God is wherever the saints of God are ministering. And are the saints not ministering throughout all the earth? And are the saints not also ministering before the Lord in glory? As the LORD says in Isaiah 66:1, “Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool.”
So, the Newer Testament ‘holy priesthood’ ministers under God’s heavenly throne and upon His earthly footstool. We see then that the church is made up of people who serve God in heaven and on earth. Therefore the Lord’s church is truly universal, even cosmic.
The Church Invisible
The Church of Jesus Christ is universal, which is another way of saying that it is catholic. In the so-called Apostles’ Creed the following statement is made: I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholick church; the communion of the saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. Amen.
By ‘catholic’ we simply mean what the word catholic means, i.e., universal. It is a shame that so many people confuse the holy catholic church and the Roman Catholic church. But, be that as it may, when we speak of the church being catholic, we are not talking about the church of Rome, but rather the Lord’s church throughout the whole world. The head of the Roman Catholic Church sits on his throne in Rome. But the Head of the Holy Catholic Church sits on His throne which is Heaven. Whatever you do, don’t get these two churches confused!
Now, another place where people confuse things is regarding the invisible aspect of the Lord’s church. This invisible aspect also has to do with the catholicity or universality of the Lord’s church. Not only is the Lord’s church geographically universal, but it is also universal as regards time. The Lord’s church consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ who alone is its Head.
Did you get that? God has been gathering into one His elect down through the ages. And He will continue doing so until the last of His elect has been added to the Church. Therefore, there is a section of the Lord’s holy catholic church that is invisible to us. For example, Jesus did battle with the Sadducees who denied what the Apostles’ Creed calls the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. In the course of the dispute Jesus said in Luke 20:37&38: “But even Moses showed in the burning bush passage that the dead are raised, when he called the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ For He is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to Him.”
So, the fact that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all suffered physical death does not mean that they have left the Lord’s church. God is not the God of the dead but of the living. Therefore there is an invisible aspect to the Lord’s church in the sense that there are saints whose bodies lie in their graves, (as in their beds!) but they are also present with the Lord. These are among all those body-less souls who are in now glory and surround the throne of the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. We can see with our eyes soul-less bodies, but we cannot see body-less souls!
And there is, of course, another sense in which the church is invisible. This has to do with the fact that His church comprises of ‘living stones’ being ‘built up a spiritual house’ – as Peter puts it. This is to say that the Lord’s church is spiritual by nature. This, of course doesn’t mean that there is no physical aspect to it. For that would be to deny the resurrection of the body. But it does mean that gathering of the elect is a principle work of the Holy Spirit.
For Jesus says in John 3:5-8: “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” As the wind is invisible, so there is an invisible aspect to the universal church.
And, as well as crossing geographical borders, the invisible church crosses the borders of time. Invisibly the kingdom of God, i.e., the invisible church, is the sum total of all the elect of God placed under the headship of Christ. The Apostle Paul says to the Ephesians that God has made known to us the mystery of His will, which is: “…that in the dispensation of the fullness of the times He might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven and which are on earth – in Him.” Ephesians 1:10.
We live in that period, i.e., ‘the dispensation of the fullness of the times.’ So, the catholicity or the universality of Christ’s church is in the fact that God is gathering together in one, all things from all places, including heaven. And the Apostle goes on to say in Ephesians 1: 22&23: “And He [God] put all things under His [Christ’s] feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”
So, we see that God is in the process of gathering all things together. And we see that Christ is head over all things. And we see that all this gathering in one is being done for Christ and His church. For Christ is to be “head over all things to the church.” Ephesians 1:23. This is simply another way of saying what Paul says in Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.”
And in Colossians we see why God is working all things together, and gathering the elect, and all things together under Christ. For the Apostle says of Christ in Colossians 1:17&18: “And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have pre-eminence.”
Jesus Christ is Head of the Church. He is pre-eminent, i.e., supreme in all things. And, if Christ is the Head, the Church is His body. And just as a body cannot function when it has no head, so the Church cannot function as the church without Christ. So Christ then is the One who holds together the whole body with all its members, in all places, throughout all the ages, past, present, and future.
The elect of God then are/is the spouse or bride of Christ. (Revelation 21:2). And we’ve seen that Christ looks after His bride. As the Apostle says in Ephesians 5:23: “For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church; and He is Saviour of the body.” And then in Ephesians 5:27: “[T]hat He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” So that’s what’s happening at the moment in our own era.
Two thousand years ago Christ lived a perfect life on behalf of His invisible church. And He laid down His perfect life on a cross to pay for the sins of His invisible church. And at this very moment Christ through His Spirit is progressively sanctifying or making holy His Bride, i.e., His church, which is part invisible and part visible. He is therefore gradually removing the spots and wrinkles and blemishes. In other words, He is preparing His bride (Revelation 21:2).
And His church, i.e., all the elect, will one day be gathered in one and will be perfect as He is perfect. It’s as the Apostle John says, “…we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”
The Church Visible
The Lord’s church as akin to an iceberg at the moment. Like an iceberg only a small portion of His church is visible. But I’m sure you’ll all agree that the visible portion has grown extensively since Older Testament times.
Think about it, the church in Older Testament times was restricted to the single nation of Israel. Before his stoning, Stephen, in the book of Acts, spoke of the church or congregation or assembly in the wilderness. Stephen, speaking of Moses, says in Acts 7:38: “This is he [i.e., Moses] who was in the [church or] congregation in the wilderness with the Angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai…”
The word Stephen uses for church or congregation in Acts 7:38 is ekklesia. The word ekklesia is derived from two Newer Testament Greek words meaning ‘to call out of.’ We use the word ecclesiastical to speak of things that pertain to the church.
Now, we know that when Stephen spoke of the church in the wilderness he definitely wasn’t talking about a bricks and mortar building. He was indeed talking about those who had been called out of the captivity in Egypt. God had called Israel out of Egypt to serve Him – i.e., to minister to Him.
Now, we need to note that the church or congregation in the wilderness, to which Stephen refers, includes infants and children. Moses records of the exodus from Egypt in Exodus 12:37: “Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children.” Take note then that infants and little children are counted as belonging to the Older Testament church. (Genesis 17).
Now, since the coming of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the church is no longer confined to the single nation of Israel. Rather it has been spreading to all nations on account of the Gospel. The cords are being lengthened. (Isaiah 54:2). Therefore the catholic or universal church today consists of all those in all places who profess the true religion, together with their children.
Now, we need to remind ourselves that Christ’s church on earth is the holy catholic church. Therefore those who belong to His church are holy. The Apostle Paul says that the children of at least one believing parent are holy. Therefore the children of believers also belong to the visible holy catholic church. 1 Corinthians 7:14: “For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy.”
And we know that the promise of God also applies to the children of believers. For Peter says in Acts 2:39: “For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” So we note then that the visible church is the house and family of God on earth. And it consists of all those throughout the world, of Jew and Gentile, who profess the true religion; and includes the young children belonging to these true professors.
Outside of this house and family of God there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. This is not to say that the church itself saves, but rather that the Lord ordinarily saves through His church on earth. For He has granted His church on earth, – i.e., the visible aspect of the church – the means of salvation. For He has given the visible aspect of His universal church the ministry, the message to be proclaimed, and the ordinances of God to be observed. The ministry, the message and the ordinances are for the gathering and perfecting of the saints.
The ministry of the church has to do with the work of elders and deacons, which is not to suggest that the other church members are not workers or servants of God too. And the message proclaimed is the Gospel, which is the Good News of the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. And the ordinances are the two Sacraments, viz., Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These three things are fundamental to the gathering and perfecting the saints in this life. For the so-called three marks of the church, are: 1. The true preaching of the Word. 2. The proper administration of the Sacraments. And 3. Church discipline.
Church Discipline is an extension of the administration of the ordinances, i.e., the two Sacraments. The organized ministry has the task of determining who is qualified and who is disqualified from receiving them. But the Word of God is to be proclaimed to all indiscriminately. For the preached Word is the means by which the Lord calls sinners to repentance. And it is the means by which the Lord matures or perfects these forgiven sinners when called.
Therefore the church on earth is to be about the business of preaching the Gospel until the Lord’s bodily return to earth. The visible aspect of the Lord’s universal or catholic church is in the means therefore by which the Lord makes His presence known throughout the world.
The Lord gifts His visible church with preachers and teachers, men who are anointed by the Holy Spirit, for the gathering and maturing or perfecting of the saints. This is why we see the Apostles in the book of Acts ordained a plurality of elders in every church. Acts 14:23: “So when they had appointed elders [plural] in every church…”
Let’s consider this for a moment. The word for elders is the word from which we get Presbyterian. An elder is a presbyter and he is also at the same time a bishop. For the words elders and bishops are used synonymously of the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 and of the elders in Titus 1:5-9. Whereas the word elder speaks of the office, the word bishop or overseer speaks of its function.
In Titus 1:5 Paul commands the same thing commanded in Acts 14:23. For he says to Titus in Titus 1:5: “For this reason I left you in Crete, that you set in order the things that are lacking, and appoint elders in every city as I commanded you…” Paul then goes on to describe the qualities an elder needs for the work of a bishop.
Now, we already noted the command to ordain a plurality of elders in the churches. Therefore the command is not to ordain one elder only per church or congregation, but to ordain at least two, but probably three. The reason we say three is on account of the principle laid in out in Scripture that “…in the multitude of counsellors there is safety.” Proverbs 11:14b.
In the Presbyterian Church today this usually works out to be three or more elders of whom at least one is set apart to labour in the Word and doctrine. For Paul says in 1 Timothy 5:17: “Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially those who labour in the word and doctrine.”
So, having noted that the Biblical practice is for there to be a plurality of ordained elders in each of the churches, let’s take note of another plurality. Notice that Acts 14:23 is speaking of “churches” plural. Up till now we have been speaking of the one holy catholic church. We have been speaking of the universal church of believers found in cities and towns throughout the planet earth today. And indeed the term “church” is applied to the entire body of Christ, of all nations and all ages conceived of as a unit. (Colossians 1:18). But sometimes the Bible uses it to speak of the church of an entire province, such as “the church of the Thessalonians” in 2 Thessalonians 1:1. Or the “the church of Ephesus” in Revelation 2:1.
Indeed Revelation chapter 2 deals with seven provincial churches. But the point being made is that the one universal church comprises of a plurality of churches. None of which are, as the term catholic suggests, independent. (Acts 15). Like the triune God, indeed as a reflection of God’s triune nature, the church is one and yet many. For in the Godhead there is a multitude of counsellors, the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.
Now, the gathering and maturing the saints in this life is a work that the triune God does through the means of the visible church. The Father has elected in eternity past those who will be effectively called, i.e., those who will in time become part of the ekklesia – the called out ones. And the Son some two thousand years ago has redeemed those who have been elected by the Father. And the Holy Spirit effectually calls by the Word of God those who have been elected by the Father and redeemed by the Son, at some point in their lives on earth. Thus the Lord adds to His church daily people from all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues. (Revelation 7:9).
The ordinary means of these additions to the ‘multitude innumerable’ is through the visible church’s ministry on earth. The church then, which is made up of believers and their children in all places throughout the earth, is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. To be sure, the visible church will include also a certain amount of people who do not profess Christ truly, but only seem to. This is attested to by the very nature of the kingdom of heaven on earth, i.e., the visible church.
The Lord describes it thus in parabolic form in Matthew 13:47&48: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a dragnet that was cast into the sea and gathered some of every kind, which, when it was full, they drew to shore; and they sat down and gathered the good into vessels, but threw the bad away.”
We’ve seen that the church on earth is to be about the business of gathering and maturing the saints in this life. We’ve seen that the church is a spiritual entity with a physical function. As the body without the spirit is dead, so is the church on earth without the Spirit of Christ.
Therefore the church is that kingdom of heaven that is spreading throughout all creation. It is like the mustard seed in the Lord’s parable. (Matthew 13:31&32). It is the leaven that will in time leaven the whole batch. (Matthew 13:33). The gates of Hades will not prevail against the Lord’s church on earth. (Matthew 16:18).
Think about it, the church began with one man, Adam. It became a family in Abraham. It became a whole nation in Jacob, even Israel. It became international, catholic or universal, even cosmic in Jesus Christ. Does this sound like the incredibly shrinking church spoken of by some?
Always remember that what you see of the church on earth is only the tip of the iceberg. The invisible aspect of the church is massive; it includes the entire cosmos! The Father said to the Son, Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, “Ask of Me, and I will give you the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession.” Psalm 2:8. And Isaiah says of Him, “Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end…”
So, the church then, is more than bricks and mortar. It is a living organism that will continue to grow and grow. For it is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God.