Who’s afraid of the visible church?

By Jim Sayers

Gospel Christians love the idea of the invisible, universal church. We see the work of the Holy Spirit across the world, especially in the Global South, growing and extending the church, and we rejoice that we are part of this great worldwide movement. In Britain, where evangelicalism has fallen on hard times, we are just grateful for every thriving church, and of course we want to support and encourage each other as fellow workers in the UK gospel movement. We rejoice together in every situation where the church is growing in many different varieties and expressions. We believe in the church and want local churches to grow and flourish everywhere.

So why are Christians in our generation so reluctant to identify and mark the visible, local church? A post-modern age struggles with any strong identification of a group, and much prefers a strong centre with fuzzy edges to a defined, bounded set. Having defined boundaries puts some people outside, and all sorts of things are then implied, even though they were not always intended, by those who built the boundaries. (One only has to think about the reaction to walls and borders in the political sphere to realise that boundaries are out of fashion.)

As Christians, surely we want to major on the invisible, universal church, defined by the words ‘all one in Christ Jesus’, don’t we? That is much easier to do, and requires few of those difficult things called boundaries and demarcating. The problem with this is that the New Testament won’t help us hold to such a view. It does speak powerfully of our spiritual union with Christ, and unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and in discussing marriage it identifies every Christian as collectively the one ‘bride’ of Christ. Yet when it talks of ‘the church’, the majority of references are to the local, visible church. The local church as formed by the apostles was defined and visible.

In Acts, when Luke describes local churches being planted, the language he uses is strong. They are not vague ‘fellowships’, but rather ‘the church in Jerusalem/Antioch/Ephesus’ etc. In the early chapters, ‘the church’ probably refers to the church in Jerusalem, as that is where the action takes place, and this was the church which in turn both Paul (8:3) and Herod (12:1) were intent on destroying. Granted Acts 9:31 applies to the churches in a region – Judea and Samaria – but that is unusual in Acts. In Antioch, Saul (as he was then known) and Barnabas ‘met with the church and taught a great many people.’ It was a local, identifiable church. As Paul and Barnabas travelled back through Galatia they appointed elders in every church (14:23) suggesting both that there was a defined body of people and that the elders knew whom they ruled over. Likewise, in Acts 15:4, the Council of Jerusalem includes not only the apostles and elders but ‘the church’, and 15:22 they act ‘with the whole church’. The members of the church were part of the gathering and the decision. Representatives of other churches had gathered with a local church, the church in Jerusalem, and all who were counted as part of that local church were involved. This dispute was resolved through the processes of a visible, local church.

The other significant NT data is in 1 Corinthians. Paul writes ‘To the church of God that is in Corinth’ (1 Cor. 1:2), one particular and defined church. He also speaks of ‘all the churches’ (14:33) as local churches which can be separately identified from each other. He uses Old Testament imagery to describe, not a vaguer universal church, but the church in Corinth as a body of Christians. As a local church they are ‘God’s field, God’s building’ (3:9), and ‘God’s temple’ (3:18). When they gather, they are ‘in church’ (14:35) which suggests gathering in some formal way to worship God. They ‘come together’ (5:4-5) in such a way that everyone knows who belongs to this local body of Christ, and who does not, and this gathering is in order to exercise discipline by putting someone out of a defined membership as an act of church discipline. While in some places in 1 Corinthians Paul does speak of the invisible or universal Church (e.g. 10:32; 15:9), for most of the letter he is addressing a local church, a church with boundaries and definition, a church which can be marked out, and where certain members were in need of discipline.

In his long argument in chapter 12 about the church as the body of Christ, we might expect him to apply this to the universal church (which is what we usually do in current debates), along the lines of ‘Now you are part of this wider body of Christ that everywhere is growing and spreading’, but instead he applies it specifically to the divided church at Corinth. ‘Now you [the church in Corinth] are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers….’ (12:27). The concept of the body of Christ finds its strongest expression in the local church. That unity as the local body of Christ is first signified in baptism. ‘For in one Spirit we were all baptised into one body – Jews or Greeks, slaves or free – and all were made to drink of one Spirit’ (12:13). This could be Paul referring to the universal church, but the context of his argument is to relate this to a specific local church, an argument that culminates in the surprising statement ‘Now you are the body of Christ…’ The invisible church must find its visible, local manifestation as a defined group of people, all of whom belong by new birth, which is then identified by that church through the sign of baptism.

It is also expressed in the sign of the Lord’s Supper. 1 Cor. 10:16-17 is very important here. The sign of the Lord’s Supper indicates that we participate in the body and blood of Christ. But it is made visible in the Lord’s Supper not as a random gathering of Christians, but as a local church who are defined and united by the sign of the Lord’s Supper. ‘Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (10:17). It is not possible for the invisible church to ‘partake of the one bread’. We do not have one special brand of bread to market around the world. This verse finds its true expression in the visible local church, gathered around the Lord’s table, breaking bread together, to identify who those are who truly participate in the benefits that are found in Christ himself. When a church gathers for the Lord’s Supper, we are not just individuals coming each to do our individual act of remembrance. We are enacting the local body of Christ. I think this is what Paul is referring to in 1 Cor. 11:29 when he writes of ‘discerning the body of Christ.’ It is not that the bread becomes the body of Christ, according to the transubstantiation view, but that believers coming together and taking this sign together express their true nature – they are the local, visible body of Christ at that table. This body of people, brought to life by the gospel, gathered to proclaim the same gospel by the public proclamation of the word of God, and marked out by the public signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, is the living local reality of what it means to be united together in Christ.

This is not to say that Catholicity is unimportant. In my next blog post I will explore the importance of first-order unity, and the ways that a visible local church expresses that. But that should never replace or detract from the centrality of the local church. The local church is where the unsaved find good news, and where the spiritually new-born are rejoiced over as the church baptises them. The local church is where the young are nurtured and all continue to be discipled together in Christ. The local church as a gathered body of sinners are continually reminded, as often as they celebrate the Lord’s Supper, of why they need him and what he has made them together as a visible body in him. Let’s hear it for the visible church!