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Is the Church Visible or Invisible?

The tea and cookies had been served, pleasantries exchanged, chairs repositioned, introductory remarks concluded. Good words were spoken all around.

Now to the main event: dialogue. The opening question was from one of our guests, a Methodist pastor: “What really divides us?” Before citing his own views, he solicited others’. From Catholics and Protestants in the parish hall came the same few responses: “The Pope!” “Confession!” “The saints!” “Using wine in communion!” “The Bible!”

At this first in a series of parish seminars with non-Catholic clergy, we—both sides—were about to be brought face to face with the one overriding issue that stands like the Great Wall of China between Catholics and Protestants. Our young assistant pastor brought it forth.

“It comes down to this,” he said, trying not to appear confrontational. “Did Christ found a visible Church or an invisible Church?”

His query, far-reaching though he obviously felt it to be, excited little comment at the time, almost as if he were the only one who had ever thought of it. Most of the others didn’t grasp its significance; they focused on what were lesser differences. He got right to the pith.

But this is not to say others, particularly Protestants, are unaware of the key distinctives. Preparatory to a later session we had with guests from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, perhaps the most conservative of all U.S. Lutheran bodies, the question came into central focus when we read this WELS declaration of principle:

“We believe that the holy Christian Church is a reality, although it is not an external, visible organization. Because ‘man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart’ only the Lord knows ‘them that are his.’ The members of the holy Christian Church are known only to God; we cannot distinguish between true believers and hypocrites. The holy Christian Church is therefore invisible and cannot be identified with anyone church body or the sum total of all church bodies. ”

This view is at one with the position, as traditional Protestantism (what we might call the “conservative” wing) sees it, that the Church which Christ founded is without evident form or, therefore, historical authority (because you can’t turn to the Church as an authoritative decider of disputes if you can’t locate the Church in the first place). Loraine Boettner, a Protestant polemicist and noted anti-Catholic, in his book Roman Catholicism, quotes Stephen L. Testa, a minister who is described as “a former Roman Catholic,” as stating, “The true Church of Christ is invisible, made up of truly converted people who are to be found in all the visible churches and who names are written in heaven.” Testa and Boettner and the people subscribing to the WELS declaration say the Church is non-denominational in that it does not coincide with any of the historic churches, which are only gatherings of convenience for true Christians and potential Christians.

This theory leads one to inquire how, here on earth, where Christ’s commands to his faithful must be implemented, are we to know such a will-o-the-wisp entity? Should we even attempt to know it?

“No,” the Methodist clergyman at the meeting said. “No point in it at all. Paul’s letters make it clear that there were many churches in the apostolic period, not just one. The Church universal was the invisible fabric which held them all together.”

Yet, Paul did speak of “one faith,” and the first great Church gathering, around the year 50 in Jerusalem, was without doubt the manifestation of a visible Church. There the apostles, the quite visible leaders of the Church, made one of the earliest universal decisions, exempting Christians from Judaic law.

Ignatius of Antioch speaks of a visible Church when he outlines its nature in 107, marking it, for the first time of which we have record, as the “Catholic Church”: “Where the bishop is found, there let the people be, even as where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”

Most of Protestantism – at least traditional Protestantism – chokes on the idea that Christ established a visible and consequently authoritative Church, no matter how clearly history seems to insist that he did. If Christ’s Church is truly visible, as Catholics maintain, then it follows that no Protestant body can be that Church, for no Protestant church, quite obviously, can be dated back to the beginning – which is not to say that some of them don’t try. Some Baptists, for instance, argue theirs must be the original Church because their denomination existed since the time of John the Baptist (how else would they come by the name?).

This is special pleading. We cannot date the start of an institution from the title it applies to itself or by mere claims that it has existed from a certain time. Yet this approach is common: Think of how extreme feminists claim to follow the primal religion, by which they mean “good” witchcraft; its antiquity is established for them by the very name they give it, the “Old Religion,” even though an objective examination would reveal that their “Old Religion” is a product of recent fancies.

Pulling It up Root and Branch

At a discussion session we had with a member of an obscure Christian sect, a woman preacher sharply challenged the message conveyed by a drawing in the parish hall. The drawing shows a large tree with numerous branches, each branch labeled with the name of a denomination.

“No! No!” she exclaimed. “Not that, precisely not that!” pointing to the “Catholic Church” notation on the main trunk. “The tree itself – the whole thing! There isn’t any such tree. There never was! We aren’t offshoots from the Catholic Church!”

To acknowledge that Christ did establish a visible Church necessarily would demand that that Church be identified, singled out from other claimants, and its authority accepted. Few Protestants relish such a task. They don’t want to examine the tree and its branches. Their argument for an invisible Church becomes an argument made conclusion-end first.

In the “Spaceship Earth” exhibit at Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center in Florida, one of the highlights interrupting the “Cools” and “Awesomes” of youngsters is the figure of a monk hand-copying the Bible. Unfortunately, the visitors’ tracked conveyances don’t hesitate before the figure long enough for its significance to be g.asped.

So tedious was the task of producing Bibles before the printing press was invented that household Bibles were unknown. Authority for Christian belief had to come through the teaching office of the Church. It was not possible for the Bible to be the authority for the average Christian because the Bible simply was not accessible to the large majority of Christians.

Here’s another way to look at things. Structuring Christian belief upon the Bible alone, Martin Luther’s sola scriptura principle, makes no sense if Christ founded a visible Church commissioned to act upon his behalf until the end of time (Luke 10:16). But if the only Church with a sensible claim of going all the way back must be ignored because not all its teachings can be accepted, one ends up embracing the hallmark of Protestantism, the idea that the universal Church must be invisible.

If this is the thinking they come up against, Catholics will find little but frustration in trying to demonstrate that “we were there first.” After all, if the true Church is invisible, then none of us was there first. All the churches, all the denominations, are late groupings of convenience for Christians, but not a one is the true Church.

The pairing of the invisible Church and Bible-alone concepts leads to the conclusion most Protestants avoid: Christ failed to keep his promise (Matt. 28:20) that he would remain with his Church throughout history; instead, he allowed it to become rudderless for the 1500 years it took to invent the printing press and to disseminate the Bible widely.

Are We Romans or Catholics?

During another seminar we had with non-Catholics a point was raised that for a moment, at least to some of the Catholics present, seemed to devastate the Catholic position that Christ’s universal Church is both visible and authoritative and is to be identified precisely with the Church they belonged to.

One of our guests, a layman, said, “Frankly, if Christ did found a visible Church, you wouldn’t be it anyway!”

“Why not?” asked one of the Catholics.

The non-Catholic smiled a Cheshire cat smile, striving for a semblance of cordiality.

“The word ‘Catholic’ suggests universality. But you folks aren’t ‘Catholic.’ You’re ‘Roman Catholic’! Many churches have ‘Catholic’ in their name. The Roman Catholic Church is simply another denomination. Besides, your church’s name is contradictory. ‘Catholic’ means universal, but ‘Roman’ is territorially limited. You belong to an oxymoron.”

While many of us do not object to being called “Roman Catholic,” possibly even using the term ourselves, to be identified in this way makes it easy for detractors to picture us as less than universal. The term does seem to contradict itself, the universality of “Catholic” apparently being denied by the particularity of “Roman.” “Roman Catholic” did not come into use until after the Reformation, and it has never been included among the Church’s official titles.

An Invisible Court of Appeals?

Certainly it was to a visible, authoritative body that Christ declared, addressing its first earthly leader, “I will entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 16:19). What good would it have done to bestow the keys upon a Church so formless as to defy any effort to identify it? Then, too, Christ speaks of a visible Church when he recommends recourse to it for settling disputes among his followers: “Refer it to the Church” (Matt. 18:17). He tells his followers, who make us the Church on earth, that they are “the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house” (Matt. 5:14-15; see also Luke 8:16,11:33).

The visibility of the Church is no light matter. It underlies the ultimate source of Christian belief: Church or Bible? Its importance surpasses that of other divisive issues, such as the veneration of saints or confession.

As was pointed out at every one of our seminars in which the question of Church visibility arose (often the subject was deliberately introduced) Christ’s Church does have an invisible quality in that it is his Mystical Body on earth. But to understand the Church as having no visibility at all – and, as a consequence, no authority at all—conjures up a Church as tenuous as feathers in the wind. It’s almost as if Jesus, in setting up his Church, didn’t quite know what he was doing.

A point which Boettner and likeminded controversialists appear to overlook is that only a visible, authoritative Church could have set in place the pillars that would support Christian belief and practice through the ages. To those who cry “Prove it!” here are a few examples:

1. Codification of the Bible. The Bible did not codify itself, did not specify which books, among many, were to be seen as inspired. A visible, authoritative body, comprised of bishops, decided the content of the canon.

2. The worldwide councils. Christianity’s doctrinal parameters have been charted by the ecumenical councils, now numbering 21, each conducted under the authority of the visible, universal Church. Not once in those 21 sessions did an “invisible” group of bishops meet and deliberate. 3. The Lord’s day. The Christian Sunday replaced the Saturday sabbath of the Old Testament. The visible Church made this change.

4. Christmas and Easter. The Bible nowhere mentions the word “Christmas” or the date for Christmas. The celebration of Christmas on December 25 was a decision of the Church. (The feast didn’t arise all by itself.) Much the same can be said for Easter as a feast separate from the other Sundays which commemorate the Resurrection. It was a visible Church, headed by a definitely locatable pope, that settled the dates of observance for the two key feasts.

5. The calendar. It is Christ’s visible Church, its reach extending into the secular realm, which has given us the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII.

Avoiding Papal Authority

The Methodist pastor and others who followed him were unanimous in their contention that Peter was not the foremost of the apostles, that he had no universal authority, and that he never stepped foot inside Rome. All this meshes with their view of Church invisibility, since a visible Church would have visible and easily identifiable leaders. This pooh-poohing of Peter’s leadership is easy. Not so easy is the dismissal of our culture’s Catholic heritage. One of the guest clergy, relating an anecdote, suddenly stopped in mid-sentence on realizing that he was portraying Peter as standing guard at the gates of heaven. For Catholic and Protestant alike, it is always Peter who is there – never Paul, or John or James or any of the others. Always Peter.

Are we under Christ’s Church visible or invisible? Is it a Church of authority or an amorphous “worldwide community of believers”? Is it divinely appointed in time and place or lacking enough substance even to make itself known? Any useful understanding of the locus of Christian authority must flow from questions such as these.

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