The church is a visible reality. Sort of.
Evangelicals frequently forget, neglect or disdain the notion of the church’s visibility. This is more often than not a function of an ecclesiological minimalism. We get antsy around institutions and formalities, and we rejoice in the simplicity of the gospel. Do you trust in and love Jesus? Yes? Well, that’s good enough for us. Thus, an inner orientation to Jesus significantly shapes evangelical understandings of the church. Every thing else is secondary, and decidedly so. There is a purity of heart to this, and I think it is right in what it says, even if it could often say much more.
That said, the church of Jesus Christ, by its very proclamation of Jesus as Lord — a proclamation which laughs in the face of all the little would-be lords running around — is profoundly visible. It is conspicuous, a city set upon a hill. Its nature of witness demands this, and so, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, ‘To flee into invisibility is to deny the call’ of Jesus.
Often enough, the need to speak of the visibility of the church will be grounded in the incarnation. The conversation goes something like this:
God took on flesh and became visible in Christ.
The church takes its cues from and is called to imitate Christ.
Therefore, the church should ‘take on flesh’ in the world and be visible.
Now, in one sense, this is patent (of course we should imitate Jesus) and inevitable (despite my own ambitions to superhero status, invisibility remains decidedly beyond my reach), and thus uncontroversial. As far as I know, there is not an invisible church sitting next to my house. I’ve never stubbed my toe on its invisible walls or unintentionally bumped into invisible Christians.
But the call for visibility is getting at more than this. On its good days, it is a way of taking seriously the public character of the church, a church of those whose Lord is Jesus and not my country, my party affiliation, my ethnic background, my gender, my family, etc. Further, the call for visibility seeks to stay the excesses of an overly-interior and individualistic spirituality: it is not content that each of us believes in the privacy of her own heart. In speaking of the visible church, we move from the realm of inner thoughts, convictions and affections to the realm of corporate practices. Piety, we come to realize, has to do with more than just ‘me and Jesus.’
On its bad days, the call for visibility can be a foolhardy and premature attempt to foreclose on the questions that only God is fit to judge, questions of who’s in and out, of which denominations or communions are the real deal, an attempt in which ecclesial realities are pinned down like a dead insect on a taxidermist’s board. It can reflect or lead to the reduction of a spiritual reality to a sociological one, with worship and obedience reduced to mere community-formation and social programming.
Back to the incarnational analogy in speaking of the visible church. Thomas Aquinas says this at one point in the Summa: ‘Thomas “saw one thing and believed another.” When he said: “my Lord and my God,” he saw a man. But by faith he confessed God.’ (ST II-II.1.4) I don’t know that I’m entirely comfortable with the bluntness of the contrast in Aquinas’ statement about seeing one thing and believing another, but he rightly suggests that even in Christ we do not simply see God without remainder. Indeed, as Colossians has it, Christ is ‘the image of the invisible God’ (1.15). I take that to mean that God remains invisible, even as he is seen in his Son, who is ‘the exact imprint’ of the Father’s nature (Hebrews 1.3). Were you or I to be walking around Palestine with Jesus, we could simply read off his divinity from his humanity. No, we would have to believe that he is the Christ, the son of the living God. ‘By faith’ Thomas confessed God.
So the Nicene Creed reminds us that we must ‘believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.’ Even in its visibility, the church must be believed in. And, faith is not sight. Or, echoing Aquinas, we see one thing and believe in another.
Of course, on the one hand, we do see the church. It’s really no different from any other organization in a number of ways. There are patterns of organization, structures of participation, designated leaders, regular practices and rituals that help build community, even things like budgets and buildings, potlucks and toy drives. Nothing overly mysterious about these things, all of which we can (to an extent) understand readily enough.
She does do some things differently, of course. In the church, the Word is preached and the sacraments are administered. Other, idiosyncratic things occur, too: praying, singing, evangelism, study of sacred texts, caring for the poor, widows and orphans.
At the end of the day, though, it’s not enough to articulate the church’s difference from other groups of people with reference to her unique practices. Sure, the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments mark her and help us locate her in space and time. That is, they render her visible. But to say that alone would be insufficient. Lots of groups are preachy and ritualistic. Rather, it is that the church preaches the Word of God and administers sacraments instituted by his Son and constituted by their Spirit that gives the church her sui generis character. In short, God makes his home in the church.
At this, caveats are called for. Surely, God is at home everywhere and anywhere in his creation. It is his creation after all. The Spirit blows where he will, thank you very much. I suspect we will be at once delighted in and ashamed by the extent and depth of God’s work outside the church at the last day.
That God makes his home amongst his people in the church ought never lead to the smug self-complacency that it sometimes does. (Have you read or seen Pride and Prejudice? Remember Mr. Collins’ sycophantic pride at leaving in the shadow of Lady Catherine?) Actually, God’s dwelling amongst us should make us nervous. Ours is not a God who plays the role of underwriter very well. More often, he assumes the part of underminer — all for the gospel’s sake, of course, and all for our good. But undermine our plans, our projects, our pretense he does, time and again.
Calvin writes somewhere that, in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is ‘of a manner present, of a manner absent.’ Similarly, it seems to me we ought to speak of the church as ‘of a manner visible, of a manner invisible’. As long as the Lord of the church remains ‘in a manner absent’ (such that we cry, ‘Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus’), as long, too, as only a fraction of the communion of saints walks the earth at any given time, as long, finally, as our lives remain ‘hidden with Christ in God,’ we must speak of the invisibility of the church. Invisibility, then, is a metric by which we remind ourselves of the church’s provisional and derivative character. That is, there’s always more than meets the eye. More in the future, more to the church. More, precisely because it is the Father, through his Son and Spirit, who is the main actor in and on the church (as Reinhard Hütter writes, the church is fundamentally receptive, that company who ‘suffers divine things’); and none can see him and live. Invisibility reminds us that even the church is more about God than it is about us.
Or, and this may amount to the same thing, we can take John Webster’s route and speak of a spiritual visibility. This is far from a cop-out from Webster, one in which to corral all supposed visibility within invisibility. It is, though, to underscore that, while the church can be seen, the vision of her fullness belongs only to the eyes of faith. The world will see services and Bible studies, to be sure; but it will not see her.
I think a sort of postscript is in order. I began by speaking of evangelicals’ neglect of the church’s visibility. That’s only partly true. The very public, missional character of evangelical Christianity proves a functional understanding of the church as visible. It seems to me that the question is more one of what sort of visibility accords with and announces the gospel. But that’s for another post.