Catholics claim Christ constituted his church as a visible society with a hierarchical structure. And as Dominus Iesus teaches, this society “subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” (16). Catholics also claim membership in this visible and hierarchical society is necessary.
And yet Jesus’ teaching in Luke 9:49-50 seems to contradict this belief. Jesus commands the apostles to not forbid a person from casting out demons in his name just because that person is not numbered among their group: “Do not forbid him; for he that is not against you is for you” (9:50). If Jesus forbids hindering someone outside the visible body of the Twelve from performing miracles, then wouldn’t it follow that belonging to a visible body of believers is not necessary? Perhaps believing in the name of Jesus is all that matters, and the true church is merely invisible.
Here’s why that isn’t true.
Jesus established a visible and hierarchical church
We know from elsewhere in Scripture Jesus clearly intends his church to be visible with a hierarchical structure. Take for example Matthew 16:18-19: Jesus promises to make Peter the rock upon which he will build his church, which indicates Jesus’ intention for Peter to be the visible foundation for the Church of Christ on Earth—a visible marker that identifies Jesus’ true church. Wherever the foundation is, there is the true church.
Jesus also gives Peter the keys of the kingdom (Matt. 16:19). In the Jewish tradition, the image of the keys signifies a governing role in the Davidic kingdom known as the royal steward (see Isa. 22:15-22). If Peter is a governor, then there must be a society to govern. Sounds like a visible and hierarchical church to me.
In another passage in Matthew, Jesus makes it clear the church, and not the individual, is the final court of appeal when it comes to settling disputes among Christians:
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 18:15-18).
If Jesus doesn’t intend for there to be a visible and hierarchical governing body of officials, and the church were merely an invisible community of believers, then what sense can be made of him saying, “Take it to the church”? Furthermore, since Gentiles and tax collectors were considered outcasts, Jesus’ use of these terms for those that disobey the church signifies visible boundaries for church membership.
The language of “binding and losing” in Matthew 18:18 also signifies Jesus’ intention to constitute his church as a visible and hierarchical society. This language is familiar terminology in the Jewish tradition. It signifies both doctrinal and juridical authority. Biblical scholar Edward Sri writes:
Binding and loosing sometimes denotes teaching authority. Rabbis, for instance, were said to bind and loose when they made authoritative rulings on what was lawful and unlawful behavior and what was acceptable and unacceptable doctrine. The expression can also refer to juridical authority. By this is meant the power to accept or forbid a person’s fellowship in the community of faith, which includes the authority to excommunicate and the authority to restore to membership (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: The Gospel of Matthew, 210).
Notice embedded in the meaning of “binding and losing” is the idea of hierarchy and the idea of a community of believers with distinct boundaries of membership. Since Christ uses this language with reference to his apostles, it follows that Christ intends his church to be a visible society with a hierarchical structure.
So, if Jesus is not teaching in Luke 9:49-50 the invisible church doctrine common among Protestants, then what is he teaching?
The boundless God
Jesus is merely pointing out that God is capable of performing miracles and giving grace outside the visible boundaries of the institutional structure of the Church. This is nothing new under the sun for Catholics. Dominus Iesus states:
With the expression subsistit in, the Second Vatican Council sought to harmonize two doctrinal statements: on the one hand, that the Church of Christ, despite the divisions which exist among Christians, continues to exist fully only in the Catholic Church, and on the other hand, that “outside of her structure, many elements can be found of sanctification and truth,” that is, in those Churches and ecclesial communities which are not yet in full communion with the Catholic Church. But with respect to these, it needs to be stated that “they derive their efficacy from the very fullness of grace and truth entrusted to the Catholic Church” (16; emphasis added).
Just because Catholics believe the fullness of grace and truth subsists in the Catholic Church it doesn’t follow that no grace and truth can exist outside her visible boundaries. While we are bound to the visible confines of the Church, God is not.
No evangelistic exemption
Now, many think this exempts Catholics from evangelizing. If God can give non-Catholics grace and truth, then why should they become Catholic—aren’t they fine where they are? This way of thinking is far from Catholic. We are always called to put forth effort in bringing others into the fold of the Catholic Church. If, as Pope St. John Paul II wrote, “[E]very person has a right to hear the Good News of God . . . so that each one can live out in its fullness his or her proper calling” (Redemptoris Missio 46), and that good news exists in full in the Catholic Church, then there can be no question as to whether Catholics should seek to evangelize and persuade people to become Catholic.
Jesus established one church, the Catholic Church, and constituted it as visible and hierarchical. And because he desires all men to become members of that church, he works in the lives of those outside the Church’s visible boundaries in order to draw them into the unity his Church possesses.