The Church is not the visible church?

[Despite the length of this post, I left out some thing I met to say.  I completed my thoughts about Gerstner’s essay here.]

When the Westminster Confession writes “Of the Church” it defines it as both visible and invisible (chapter 25, first two paragraphs: invisible and visible respectively).

But when John Gerstner writes of the Church, he says it is not the visible Church but only the invisible. In fact, he manages to avoid ever using terms which the Confession uses for the visible church like “kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and “house and family of God”). Nor does he ever deal with the Scriptural underpinnings of these labels as used in the Westminster Confession or give any hint of the issues involved.

His use of Scripture is quite interesting. He quotes 1 Corinthians 13.1-3 to make a rather distant inference when there are direct statements that contradict his thesis in the previous chapter identifying to whom the warning of 13.1-3 was directed.

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit…. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.

Now, it was these people whom Paul warned about lacking in love–which is precisely why he could use himself as an example of what would happen if he did not show love.

I’m not saying that all the passages are bad: for demonstrating the doctrines of election and reprobation, for example. But there is no explanation why he insists on shoving soteriology and decretal theology into ecclesiology.

By some strange argument, Gerstner maintains his position while admitting that the Scripture actually contradicts his position: “What complicates the matter is that the Bible sometimes uses the word “church” in the sense of the visible church and sometimes in the sense of the invisible church.” Yeah, so does the Westminster Standards. Go thou and do likewise. But no. Within a paragraph Gerstner begs the question by equating “invisible Church” with “true church.”

And then, it all comes down to eschatology. Gestner’s whole case rests on amillennialism and obsession with power (also causing his hyper-calvinism) that means any visible defeat requires us to move God’s work in to the invisible where it cannot be tainted by sacrifice:

On the other hand, the true church is mentioned, too. Christ said: “I will build my church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16: 18). The powers of Hell not only stand against but they often make conquests of the visible church. It is only the invisible church of which Christ’s description is true. Another instance is Eph. 1:22-23: “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” Surely nothing false or evil could be part of the body of Christ, in whom God is well pleased.

On the contrary, Christ’s word is true. In history the Gates of Hell will not withstand the imperialist onslaught of the Church. Jesus said this to people who didn’t believe that he could die because he was God’s son. Jesus said this in a culture where people mocked him and said he could not possibly be God’s son or King because he was still on the cross. “Come down and we will believe in you.”

And now we find teachers saying that we cannot be the church unless we are always triumphing. No. The Church is perpetually defeated and yet outlast all Her enemies (I think I’m paraphrasing a distant memory of Hillaire Belloc, but I’m not sure). The Church limps through history like Jacob and is given all the kingdoms of the world. The defeats and trials we see mark us out as true sons and daughters (Hebrews 12). Romans 8 is really true: “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (v. 37). The defeat of a congregation or many in one era in history does not give us reason to come up with an undefeated invisible realm, but to trust that Christ’s word will come true no matter what. The proper response to the crucifixion of Jesus was not to say that, in some invisible realm, he actually triumphed (though that comes pretty close to what some theologians misuse the impassibility doctrine to do) but to confess the resurrection three days later as God’s visible verdict.

Jesus made his claim to a small band of men who were on the outs in their society. They were scattered the night he was betrayed. They were scattered all over the world a few months later when Stephen was martyred. Does Luke tell us that there was some invisible realm where they remained ever triumphant and never conquered. No. He tells us that God conquered through the defeat: “Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8.4). And these who were scattered continued to suffer. As Paul preaches, the road to the kingdom of heaven is paved with hell: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God” (Acts 14.22). Rather than trying to explain it away they glory in it as a sign that they are especially close to God. Paul again:

Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure on me of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I am not lying.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.

So what does this prove? That there are invisible Apostles who are the true apostles who never are contaminated with defeat at the hands of the world? Or that, like her master, the Church storms the gates of Hell by following Jesus and carrying their crosses?

Finally, Gerstner uses his ultimate trump card by clearly revealing that “body of Christ” must only and ever be used to refer to the “invisible Church” because the reprobate must never be members of Christ’s body. That is completely unpresbyterian, and more importantly (yes really!) it is unbiblical. Gerstner is proof that hypercalvinism hurts more than one’s evangelism. It undercuts the motives of the pastorate as God sets them out in the Bible. According to the Bible, officers are the Spirit’s gift to the visible Church, the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12). According to Gerstner, their association with the visible church is a matter of probability and has nothing to do with the body of Christ.

It is significant that there have been controversies about whether or not we “presume” the children of believers are believers. But for Gerstner, we presume for all “Christians” at all ages. “So long as a person makes a sound profession and does not belie it by gross sin, we ‘presume’ that he has true faith.” Actually, we presume for all ages except young children. Gerstner taugh that it was wrong to raise your children praying the Lord’s prayer because that would lead them to presume they were adopted and had the right to address God as father. Oddly, one doesn’t have to be a paedobaptist to know better.

5 thoughts on “The Church is not the visible church?

  1. al

    Oddly, one doesn’t have to be a paedobaptist to know better.

    This same discussion occurred over at Frank Turk’s blog. There were a couple of paedobaptists defending the “invisible body” concept at least implicitly and that really bothered me. Baptists sure, but paedobaptists? Come on…

    al sends

  2. pentamom

    Did you reverse “visible” and “invisible” in paragraph 2, sentence 1?

    If not, I guess I have to reread your whole post more carefully because I’m missing something.

  3. pentamom

    Okay, now you’ve corrected it (just to avoid confusion to future readers.) It’s mildly satisfying to know I wasn’t missing the point THAT badly. 😉

  4. David

    Hey Mark,

    I liked this post. The root problem is the way in which we have been trained to read Scripture at a fundamental level. How many of us read all the first person plural pronouns as reference to the elect? It was Calvin who taught me to stop doing that.

    For example, 2 Pet 3:9, the “us” etc. We could put some distance between the text and that simple assumption that every critical “us” or “we” or even third person reference refers to the elect and not to the body of Christ, even the body in vital living union, we would see things differently.

    Take care,


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