I. The Catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.
II. The visible Church, which is also Catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the Law), 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.
What is a Christian?
Almost invariably, the answer to that question is answered in terms of a list of beliefs–a system or teachings or doctrines. A Christian is one who subscribes to the world view commonly labeled "Christianity."
This common view presents me with a problem.
To understand my problem, imagine driving up to Canada and stopping at restaurant to get a bite to eat. And while you’re sitting at the table, an enthusiastic young man comes over to you and says in an excited voice. "Are you an American?" You reply, "Yes, I am."
"Wonderful! I have so little fellowship up here with fellow Americans."
"Have you lived in Canada a long time?" you ask.
"Oh yes, all of my life. I was born here."
"Oh… So your parents were Americans."
"No, sadly my parents remained Canadian all their lives."
"Then how did you become an American?"
"Well, one day I found a tract that told me about American ideas. I was transfixed by their power and adopted them as my own. I was born again, you might say. From that day on I have believed in Americanism. I have memorized all of the Declaration of Independence and portions of the Constitution, and I subscribe to the Congressional Register."
My problem today in explaining the problem of defining Christians in terms of Christianity is similar to the one you would face in trying to explain to that Canadian the reality of his situation. You would have to tell him that there is no such thing as "Americanism." America is not an "ism" but an institution. To be an American one must be a citizen of the nation. There may be beliefs which one must hold to be a good American, but being an American is not a matter of holding certain beliefs.
And now I am telling you: Just as there is no such thing as Americanism, there is no such thing as Christianity. The Reformed theologian, Peter Leithart, put it well:
The Bible never mentions Christianity. It does not preach Christianity, nor does it encourage us to preach Christianity. Paul did not preach Christianity, nor did any of the other apostles. When the Church was strong and vibrant, it did not preach Christianity either. Christianity, like Judaism and "Yahwism," is an invention of biblical scholars, theologians, and politicians, and one of its effects is to keep Christians in their proper, marginal, place. It is the death knell of the life of faith and of the life of the body of Christ. The Bible speaks of Christians and of the Church, but to preach Christianity is gnostic, and the Church firmly rejected gnosticism from the earliest days.
Gnosticism was a heresy which taught salvation by knowledge. It is an attractive type of heresy for today. We live in an age of ideologies and ideological religions where people define themselves by virtue of certain ideas they believe. It is popular these days to talk about choosing a "world view" or a "belief system" of a "philosophy." One can consider Marxism, libertarianism, conservatism, liberalism, humanism, nihilism, Hinduism, Buddhism, spiritism, transcendentalism, existentialism, pragmatism, theism, atheism and so on. The list of "isms" is endless. But there is no "ism" found in God’s Word, the Bible. What is unfolded for us in Scripture is the history of the establishment, growth, and salvation of the Church, which is–as is stated in paragraph two of our Confession–"the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God." We should define a Christian not in terms of subscription to "Christianity" but in terms of incorporation in the Church.
You see, if man’s problem was simply a matter of mistaken beliefs, then all that would be needed for salvation is to correct those mistaken beliefs. But that is not man’s problem, at least not the primary part of it. Man’s problem is that he sinned against God and as a result was disinherited from God’s family and banished from His Kingdom. Adam, according to Luke 3.38 was God’s son. He was also a king under God over creation. He fell away from God’s family and Kingdom, becoming an orphan and an exile. It is impossible to speak of salvation without speaking of the restoration of man to his former standing in the God’s family and kingdom. In other words, it is impossible to speak of salvation without speaking about incorporation into God’s new family and kingdom, the Church.
You will realize this must be true if you think about it for a moment. If you send your child away from the table because he has done something wrong, it makes no sense to go back to him in a few minutes and tell your son that he is forgiven for what he did but that he is still not permitted back to the table. It would be like an emperor condemning his prime minister to exile on a far-away island and later pardoning him but leaving him stuck on the island and giving his office to someone else. It would be a false and useless pardon. Because salvation entails reconciliation and restoration, it entails membership in God’s kingdom and family, the Church.
As Ephesians 1.18-23 spells out, Christ has been given to the Church. If you want to have Christ, you need to be incorporated into the Church, which is Christ’s body (cf. 1 Cor 12.12-13).
Of course, some have tried to get around the Biblical doctrine of the Church by misusing the doctrine of the "invisible Church." But the invisible Church and the visible Church are not two different churches, but different aspects one and the same Church. What is the relationship between those two aspects of the Church? As the Confession puts it, the invisible Church is what will exist when all of the elect are gathered into One. This includes people who have not even been born yet.
The invisible Church then, is the future Church–the ideal or eschatological Church. The visible Church is the present Church–the actual or existing Church. Properly speaking, the invisible Church does not yet exist except as the result in the mind of God which He is planning to bring about as the culmination of history. The invisible Church is the meaning and goal of the visible Church.
It is common to hear, in our circles, that God sees the invisible Church but man sees the visible. This is a very dangerous idea because it causes people to denigrate the institutional Church. When Jesus wept for Jerusalem in Luke 13.34, He was weeping for members of the visible Church of the Old Covenant, who were not members of the invisible Church, because they were going to be excommunicated by God–Jerusalem was going to be destroyed. Jesus saw the visible Church and in his tears we see the face of the Father. God cares about the visible Church. So should we.
This means, incidentally, that we should all make sure that we ourselves and our children are members of the visible Church, "out of which," according to our Confession, "there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." When the Confession states in paragraph 2 that the Church "consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children," we need to not jump to the false conclusion that children are members of the Church by birth. The Confession is presupposing that Christian parents are going to baptize their children. According to Chapter 27 of the Confession, one is admitted into the institutional Church by baptism. Again the Church is not simply a collection of people who all believe the same ideology. The Church is an institution, like a family or nation, which is over and above the individual members of it. Baptism is the rite by which citizenship in the Kingdom is conferred upon both an adult or a child. If you are simply assuming, for yourself or your children, that baptism is simply an optional ritual, then I must warn you that you are on very dangerous ground. God does not impose empty symbols. If you take God’s family and kingdom seriously, you will look to the Church as the place where salvation is to be found for yourself and your children.
III. 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.
We see in paragraph three that God gave the institutional Church, "the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God for the gathering and perfecting of the saints." The Biblical case for this is ably set forth by Peter Leithart:
the Church is not a people united by common ideas, ideas which collectively might go under the title, "Christianity." When the Bible speaks of a people united by faith it means more than a people who have the same beliefs about reality; it means that, but the word "faith" stretches to include one’s entire "stance" in life, a stance that includes beliefs about the world but also includes unarticulated or inarticulable attitudes, hopes, and habits of thought or feeling. Besides, the church is united not only by one faith but also by one baptism (Ephesians 4.4-6), and manifests her unity in common participation in one loaf (1 Corinthians 10.17), and strives to live in imitation of Christ’s self-sacrificing love.
The Church, in other words, is an institution, with rulers, ceremonies, and laws–that is, pastors, sacraments by which one enters and continues in the organization, and the Bible.
This organization is not merely a legal fiction–a mechanical arrangement of rules and rituals and managers–but is the actual home of the Holy Spirit who indwells the Church and makes the ministry, oracles and ordinances effectual in gathering an perfecting the saints.
IV. This Catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more ore less purely in them.
The Church is for sinners and will never be perfect until it is brought to completion in the Final Day. Therefore, any view of the Church which demands perfection is simply at war with what Christ has instituted. Christ loves the Church and is willing to put up with many blemishes, patiently working with her. Anyone who loves Christ must emulate His attitude toward His bride and be patient as He is patient. Thus, paragraph four tells us that various churches are more or less pure. A corrupt Church is still a Church.
V. 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.
While it is possible for some churches to become so corrupt that they fall away from Christ and worship a different God than the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, there has never been nor will there ever be a time when the Church as a whole ceases to exist. Paragraph 5 reminds us of Christ’s promise in the Great Commission to be with the Church until the end of the age. In America, there are some Christians who pretend that faithfulness to the Gospel dictates that they assert that the Church apostatized from the True Faith soon after the Apostolic Age. This idea nullifies the promise of God. While it is true that the Church is continually reconstituted by the Holy Spirit who eternally proceeds from the Father, it is also true that Christ instituted a Church which grows progressively through history from the time of the Apostles until now and on to the Final Day. To claim there was a time when the Church ceased to exist, and then restarted, is to deny the uniqueness of Pentecost and the Apostolic age as the beginning of the Church.
VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ. Nor can the pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof.
Finally, paragraph 6, deals with the Roman Catholic claim that the Pope is the head of the Church. Roman Catholics believe that the continuing office of the papacy as the successor to Peter is necessary for the historical continuity of the institutional Church. Protestants often respond by virtually denying the existence of the institutional Church as being anything but an afterthought to a personal faith. Both positions demonstrate a lack of faith in the heavenly reality of Jesus Christ as the head of His Church. Both are unsatisfied with the visible means of the Church which the Bible establishes: the sacraments, the Word, and the government of the congregations by pastors. Roman Catholics despise these means by adding to them; Evangelicals despise them by reducing them to naked symbols for a voluntary society. If we truly believe God’s Word, then we know that Christ our head is in heaven who, by the Spirit, perpetuates the Church through history. That should be enough.
If I turn on the radio and listen to Evangelical programming, I will hear a great deal about the importance of the family. I will also hear a great deal about political reform. No doubt the family is important. And we do need to deal with the culture war waging around us. But what I find missing is any attempt to set forth the importance and centrality of the Church. Christ was not given to any family nor to any civil government. He was given to the Church. Let us then, if we value Christ above all, honor the Church as His bride above all other created things.