The Invisible Church: A Doctrine That Has Come of Age by Fr. Stephen Powley
Have you been around people who proclaim a faith in Christ, yet totally reject the idea of Church? It seems to be a growing belief among folks in our country. It really has its beginnings with a doctrine that came out of the Reformation: “The Invisible Body of Believers.” The Reformation began with some noble ideas to get the Roman Catholic Church back on the right track with some beliefs the Reformers thought had gone astray. What began as a desire to correct led to a full scale “protest” and a breaking away from the Roman Catholic Church.
Alas, the Reformers couldn’t agree on what doctrines were correct and so the “protest” carried on against each other. As group after group began to separate themselves from other groups, the divisions began to take on the look of a shattered mirror. As these groups (which became known as denominations) multiplied, they also called themselves by the name: “church”. The shattered mirror sadly continued to grow as more and more splinters took place. Each splinter group believed differently than the one the left behind. So it was that the number of differing “churches” grew enormous with people having friends and family in differing belief systems. Each group proclaimed loudly that they used only the Bible to prove their beliefs. But, in fact it was their interpretation of the Bible that was really at the core of their differences. Each group believed they were the ones that held to the “Truth” and that the other groups were in error. Some of them simply condemned others and said those who didn’t hold to their beliefs would wind up in hell. Whew…that was a pretty serious belief!
The majority, though differing in beliefs, sought to find a belief that would unite the various groups. Thus was born the doctrine of the “Invisible Body of Believers.” Anyone who believed that Jesus is Lord would be a member. Differences in doctrine were given second place to this wonderful belief. People in differing groups could now be close friends and joint services could be held where doctrinal proclamations would be limited to just “Jesus is Lord.” This became the most important belief that anyone could hold and it was thought to be the doctrine that united all believers together.
Thus was born the concept of the “Invisible Body of Believers” where it was irrelevant which church one attended. The Lordship of Jesus was the key to belonging to the Invisible Church. Over time, most folks continued to attend their own church, but some began to drop out. As the “shattered mirror” continued to splinter, some people either became confused or discouraged. When there are 30,000 to 60,000 groups (hard to pin down the number) proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” but holding to much different doctrines (all supposedly proven by the Bible), confusion or discouragement are certainly possibilities.
People who made the decision to not attend any Church were often asked why this was so. Many folks found this answer seemed to work well and defuse any arguments: “I am spiritual, not religious!” That phrase spread like wildfire as no one seemed to have a good response to it. It grew to the point that many people could confidently say: “I choose not to attend a church, but I am a Christian and Jesus is my Lord! I worship Him when I am outdoors, in fact, up on a mountain is best!” Because membership in the true church of Jesus, that invisible church, requires only belief in the Lordship of Jesus, then all of these people must be “saved” too. More and more people are seeing the advantages of “being saved” without need of a church: extra sleep, golf, football on television, freedom to do as one pleases… The doctrine of the “Invisible Church” may be reaching the pinnacle of its evolution with an unbelievable growing membership.
But here are some thoughts for reflection:
Why would the Bible talk about ordaining bishops, priests, and deacons for an invisible church?
Why would the Bible mention that we should never forsake the assembling of ourselves together?
Why would the “doctrine” of the invisible church never be mentioned for over 1600 years after Jesus established His Church if He intended it to be invisible?
Is there any authority except “self” for proclaiming “I am spiritual, not religious?” Did Jesus desire a “do-it-yourself” belief in Him?
For those who prefer to worship the Lord up on a mountain, when was the last time this honestly took place in your life? This cannot mean simply being in awe of God’s creation, but real, true worship of the Lord.
This article is not merely an issue about how someone may spend their Sundays. What is at issue here is the matter of salvation and how people will spend eternity.
Jesus did in fact establish a Church on this earth. It was never meant to be invisible, but it is meant to be a visible witness to the entire world. This Church has been passed on to each and every generation without fail. Christ passed it on to His Apostles, they passed it on to their disciples, and each generation of disciples passed it on to the next.
It is a place where each and every person is meant to be an important part of an overall Body, with each part playing a role. A thumb by itself, not connected to one’s body, is simply dead flesh. Jesus is the Head of a Body, not of individual parts scattered about by their own desire. “I did it my way” should never be the theme song for how we live our lives.
The Church is the very place where all the aspects of salvation are found. All of the Sacraments of the Lord are found within the Church. It begins with Holy Baptism and Chrismation. Confession of our sins takes place within the Church. It is the place where members receive the very Body and Blood of Christ, which then nourishes every cell within a person. Prayers for healing and being anointed with Holy Unction come from the Church. Marriages are blessed by God within the Church; it is something God does, not we through our vows. Ordinations of clergy are done within the Church. And at the end of our earthly life, prayers are said at our funeral which takes place in the Church. Our whole life is meant to be lived as a member of the Church, not as a self-ruled, individualistic journey. The Church is the place where people come to offer corporate worship. The earliest documented service of the Church comes from the hand of an Apostle of Christ: The Liturgy of Saint James the Apostle. This service and all of the services after him reflect the corporate sense of worship and not some individualistic endeavor. The Church in the Book of Acts also reflects this same corporate sense of worship.
The Church is here today for each and every person. Salvation is truly found within the Church. This we affirm and proclaim to the world today. And with God’s help we will pass this Faith on to the next generation.
St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church Pueblo, Colorado