The Larger Catechism and the Invisible Church

Thomas Ridgely has the best discussion on the difference between the visible and invisible church, and how and when the elect belong to it. The relevant questions are 64-69, which, by the way, answer all by themselves the questions that have been raised. For instance, how can an elect-but-not-yet-regenerate person be said to enjoy the benefits described in LC 65-66? Question 67 really ices it, however: since question 66 connects in the closest way the union the elect have with Christ, on the one hand, with effectual calling, on the other. There is this step process from one question to the next: What is the invisible church? It is the elect. What are the benefits of the elect of the invisible church? Union and communion with Christ in grace and glory. What is that union? It is their joining to Christ, which happens at effectual calling. What is effectual calling? In His accepted time, inviting and drawing the elect to Jesus Christ. That is the train of thought of questions 64-67. If one reads these questions asking the question, “Do the elect join the invisible church at some point in history?” the answer has to be yes.

But here is some of what Thomas Ridgely says about it:

They are farther described as persons who have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head. Hence, there is a part of them that are not actually brought in to him. These our Saviour speaks of, under the metaphor of sheep who were ‘not of this fold,’ concerning whom He says, ‘Them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice.’ There is also another part of them who are triumphant in heaven; as well as those who are actually called by the grace of God, and are on their way to heaven, struggling at present with many difficulties, through the prevalence of corruption,- and conflicting with many temptations, and exposed to many evils…To that part of this description of the invisible church which includes those who shall be gathered unto Christ, it is objected that no one can be said to be a member of this church who is not actually brought in unto him; for to say this would be to suppose that uncoverted persons might be members of it, and consequently that Christ is their Head, Shepherd, and Saviour. yet they are characterized, in scripture, as children of wrath, running in all excess of riot, refusing to submit to him, and neglecting that great salvation which is offered in the gospel. How, then, it is asked, can such be members of Christ’s church, and that in the highest sense of the word ‘church?’ Moreover, it is objected, against the account given of the invisible church in this Answer, that a part of those who are said to be the members of it, are considered, at present, as not existing. It must, we are told, be a very improper, if not absurd, way of speaking, to say that such are members of Christ’s church.

Now, I am not inclined to extenuate those expressions of Scripture which represent unconverted persons as children of wrath, in open rebellion against God, and refusing to submit to him; nor would I say anything from which such might have the least ground to conclude that they have a right to any of the privileges of god’s elect or of christ’s invisible church, or that they are included in that number. To do this would be to expose the doctrine of election to one of the main objections which are brought against it, -that it leads to licentiousness. Yet let it be considered that this Answer treats of the invisible church; so that whatever privileges are reserved for those who, though elected, are in an unconverted state, are altogether unknown to them, and it would be an unwarrantable presumption for them to lay claim to them. We must not deny, however, that God knows who are his, who are redeemed by Christ, and what blessings, pursuant to their being so, shall be applied to them. He knows the time when they shall be made a willing people, in the day of his power; and what graces he designs to work in them. He considers the elect in general as given to Christ, and Chrsit as having undertaken to do all that is necessary to fit them for the heavenly blessedness…

The other branch of the objection, is that they who are not in being cannot be denominated members of Christ’s church in any sense. Now, though it be allowed that such cannot be, at present, the subjects of any privileges; yet we must consider that, since god seeth not as man seeth, they may, in his eternal purpose to save them, be considered as the objects of his grace, and therefore, in his account, be reckoned members of Christ’s church, that is, such as he designs to bring into being, and afterwards to make meet to partake of the inheritance of the saints in light.

The Church: Its Definition in Terms of “Visible” and “Invisible” Valid

As promised, here is the paper written by Rev. Wes White. He wrote this paper as part of his research for the study committee of the Siouxlands Presbytery, which dealt with the question of the theologies of NPP/NS/FV. These are his thoughts, not mine, though I agree with 99.9% of the paper. My only difference is on the interpretation of Matthew 13’s parable of the wheat and tares (although I haven’t decided yet what I think; so I may not actually disagree with him).  

Introduction – Sources of the Debate

For the Reformers, the central debate of the Reformation was justification by faith alone. From Rome’s perspective, the central debate was the Church. The Reformers contended that you needed to know first the true Gospel, and then you could find the Church based on who taught it. Rome said that you needed first to know the Church, and then you would know what the true faith is.

On the one side, Rome contended that “the Church is a union of men who are united by the profession of the same Christian faith, and by participation in the same sacraments under the direction of their lawful pastors, especially the one representative of Christ on earth, the Pope of Rome.”1 Thus, Rome defined the Church as the visible community that appears under the government of the Pope, and so the visible community that appears as the Church is the Church without any qualification.

In contrast to this, the Reformers contended that the Church was made up of the elect and true believers. Thus, Martin Luther said, “He who does not truly believe…does not belong to the Christian Church.”2 Consequently, “If the Pope were not pious and holy, he could not be a member, much less the head of the holy Church.”3 Calvin speaks similarly, “To God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which His secret election forms the foundation.”4

This did not mean, of course, that the Reformers denied the existence of a visible Church. It simply meant that the Church in its essence was different than the Church that appears before our eyes. Thus, Calvin wrote:

I have observed that the Scriptures speak of the Church in two ways. Sometimes when they speak of the Church they mean the Church as it really is before God…Often, too by the name of Church is designated the whole body of mankind scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith.5

This definition describes exactly what the Reformers and their heirs meant by the distinction between the visible and invisible Church. The true Church consists of believers who are visible but yet not always visible as believers. Consequently, we may call the community of true and feigned professors of the faith “Church,” but in a more proper sense we call the true professors “Church.”

Thus, the primary issue between Rome and Protestantism was whether the word “Church” was used in Scripture with only one meaning or whether it had diverse senses. Rome affirmed the former; Protestantism the latter. Rome wanted to put all the emphasis on the visible communion under the Pope. This was true not only because of their view of the membership of the Church and of the sacraments, but, for them it was a powerful polemic against the Reformation. They argued as follows. First, the Church is always visible. Second, the Church of the Reformation was not seen before the Reformation. Consequently, the Church of the Reformation is not the true Church. So, we can see that a great deal of the argument over the Reformation turned around this point.

Curiously, in modern times, many Protestants have turned their back on the classic Protestant distinction of the visible and invisible Church. Thus, Karl Barth wrote:

By men assembling here and there in the Holy Spirit there arises here and there a visible Christian congregation. It is best not apply the idea of invisibility to the Church; we are all inclined to slip away with that in the direction of a civitas platonica or some sort of Cloud-cuckooland, in which the Christians are united inwardly and invisibly, while the visible Church is devalued.6

Barth and many other modern theologians saw this distinction of the visible and invisible Church as a flight from the world and an intrusion of Platonic ideas on Christian theology.

In addition, more recently, some more conservative and confessional theologians and pastors such as John Murray, Klaas Schilder, and the advocates of the so-called Federal Vision theology7 have expressed a desire to move away from distinguishing the Church in the way that the Protestant Reformers did. Thus, John Murray writes in his article “The Church: Its Distinction in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid”:

“Strictly speaking, it is not proper to speak of the ‘visible church.’ According to Scripture we should speak of ‘the church’ and conceive of it as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the institution of Christ as its Head.”8 All these theologians and pastors evidence a desire to go back to using the word “Church” with only one meaning.

In this paper, we will be focusing on a couple of these writers as we argue in favor of the classic distinction. It is important to note that though they all seem to want to define “Church” with only one meaning, they do not all desire the same meaning to be attached to that word. We shall deal first with the error of Rome, which is repeated in Douglas Wilson, Otto Weber, and others, that the word Church in the present time should only refer to what we call the visible Church. That is, those who are baptized and members of the Church are in the Church, and we cannot apply any other sense of Church to say that unbelieving baptized members who remain in the external communion are not in the Church at this point in history.9 On the other side, Murray desires to define the Church simply in terms of those who are effectually called and does not want to allow the term to be used to refer in any way to all those who profess true faith and their children. We shall deal first with Wilson’s error and then with Murray’s.

First Question: Should the Church be Defined Only in Terms of the Visible Communion of the Church? Defining the Question

First, we must be careful in discussing this issue to understand that we are not referring simply to visible and invisible aspects of the Church. Everyone agrees on this point. The Romanist theologian Ludwig Ott admits, “Side by side with the outward visible side, the Church, like her Divine-human Founder, has also an inner, invisible side.”10 We are not asking if there are visible and invisible sides of the Church, for this is a point on which everyone agrees. Rather, the issue is whether the membership of the Church that we see is different from that of the Church in its essence.

Second, we are not asking if the members of the Church today are the same as at the end of time. Thus, Doug Wilson desires that we make visible and invisible refer to historical and eschatological. The historical Church is the Church as it exists now “those throughout history who profess the true faith, together with their children.” The eschatological Church occurs at the end of time when “every true child of God will be there, not one missing, and every false professor will have been removed.”11 He argues on this basis that we have wrongly “tended to make an ontological distinction instead of an historical distinction.”12 In other words, the Church is not the same today as it will be in heaven. Every side would affirm this point. The question is rather whether true believers are members of the Church in a more proper and true sense than those who only profess the true faith.

Thirdly, this is not a question of whether there is a church of the elect “composing a church in hyper-space.”13 The Reformed did not call it a Church of the elect because it was a separate Church up in heaven or some ideal, Platonic form. Rather, as Ursinus noted, “It is called invisible, not that the men who are in it are invisible, but because of the faith and piety of those who belong to it can neither be seen, nor known, except by those who possess it; and also because we cannot with certainty distinguish the godly from those who are hypocrites in the visible church.”14 All sides admit that the Church has visible manifestations in the world, but the question is whether all those who are members of the Church as it appears are truly members of the Church.

To understand what we are debating, we define the Church on earth in the strict sense as Rijssen defines it: “The Church militant is the assembly of called men who believe the divine truth in the heart, confess it from the mouth, and promise to have communion with the saints (Acts 2:41-42).”15 This is similar to the definition of Johannes à Marck: “A multitude of fallen men who, according to eternal election, are called by God’s grace to its communion, are united with Christ and one another by the Holy Spirit, faith and love, and will afterwards be saved eternally.”16 In other words, Church, in the strict sense, consists of true believers.

Secondly, this Church has both visible and invisible aspects. Thus, Rijssen goes on to explain, “And since particular members gather publicly to worship God, there arises a twofold state of the Church. The first is internal and invisibly joined with Christ, and the second is external and visibly joined with one another (1 Cor. 12:12-13).”17 This is the same point that we found in the quote from Ursinus above. The elect believers have a faith that we cannot see, but they themselves are visible and join visibly with other believes.

Thirdly, “Reprobates and hypocrites imitate the external state and the works done in it, but they are not simply for that reason members of the true Church (Ga. 2:4).”18 This external confession of the mouth and worship can be imitated and, according to the Bible, often is. This assembly of people who confess the truth externally is generally what is meant by the term “visible Church.” As Edward Leigh noted: “The visible Church…consists of men professing the true faith and religion in any way, whether in truth or counterfeit and falsely, of good and evil, of elect and reprobate.”19

This last definition of the visible Church is often referred to in Scripture. In the parable of the wheat and the tares, the tares grow up with the wheat and are eventually separated from them (Mt. 13:36-43). The parable of the dragnet describes the preaching of the word taking in both good and bad (Mt. 13:47-52). Paul describes the great house of the Church as being on in which there are vessels for honor and dishonor (2 Tim. 2:20). Thus, in the visible Church, there are the righteous and unrighteous.

Note, then:

1. The Church refers to the effectually called elect.

2. This Church has both internal and external aspects.

3. Reprobates and the wicked can imitate that external state.

4. This worshipping community of elect and reprobate men may also be called “Church.”

5. This last use of “Church” is what the Reformed meant by “visible Church.”

The question we are debating, then, is this. Besides the meaning of the word Church in the sense of #4, does the Scripture use the word “Church” in the sense of #1? In other words, besides the visible Church in which are mixed many hypocrites and evil men with the true believers, does the Bible use the word “Church” in a way that refers only to the elect and the true believers not only at the end of time but also in the present? We affirm this definition against Rome and the many modern theologians who deny this distinction and confine the meaning of the word “Church” to the visibly gathered community.


1. The most important text is 1 Jn. 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be manifest, that none of them were of us.” Calvin sums up the argument this way: “He then confesses that they had gone out from the bosom of the Church; but he denies that they were ever of the Church.”20 Consequently, there is a meaning of “us” and “the Church” that does not refer to those who depart from the visible communion of the Church.

2. The way Paul describes the Israelites who had fallen away in Romans. He says, “He is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly” (Rom. 2:28-29). Thus, only the regenerate Jews are true “Jews” and part of the Church. He speaks similarly in Rom. 9:6: “For they are not all Israel who are of Israel.” In one sense, they belonged to Israel, but in another sense they did not. And note that they did not become “non-Israel” because of their unbelief. Rather, they do not believe because they are not of Israel.

3. Jesus’ definition of His sheep in John 10. First, He says negatively, “You do not believe because you are not of My sheep” (Jn. 10:26). It is not that they are not of His sheep because they do not believe; rather, they do not believe because they are not of His sheep. Secondly, He says positively: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me” (Jn. 10:27). Thus, we have a clear instance of Jesus defining His flock simply in terms of those who believe and hear His voice.

4. Titles and attributes are ascribed to the members of the Church that cannot refer to the reprobate or unregenerate such as election (Eph. 1:4, 1 Pet. 2:9); victory over Satan (Mt. 16:18); children of promise and born of the Spirit (Gal. 4:28-29); saved by Christ and beneficiaries of His death (Eph. 5:23); and life, being a spiritual house or a royal priesthood, holy, called out of darkness, and obtaining mercy (1 Pet. 2:5, 9-10). In all of these cases, these attributes and titles cannot apply to the reprobate and unregenerate either temporally or finally; therefore, the idea of Church in these passages includes only the elect and regenerate.

What is the Use of This Doctrine?

1. From the context of the passages above and others, we can see how this doctrine may be used. The first use is that we might avoid presumption. As we can see from the history of Israel and most of the rest of Church history, there is a great tendency of man to rely on participation in a few external rites for his salvation (Is. 1, Rom. 2:17, etc.). The Bible often uses this doctrine to warn against this tendency. Thus, Paul in Romans 2, warns the Jews not to rest on its external association with the Church as assurance that they really belong to it (Rom. 2:28-29). Jesus warns those who have experienced great blessings in the external association of the Church that if they do not obey Him, He will say to them, “Depart from me, you worker of lawlessness, I never knew you” (Mt. 7:23, cf. 1 Cor. 10:1-13, Heb. 3:12-13, Heb. 6:4-6, etc.).

2. It assures us of God’s power and grace. This is the heart of the issue in Romans 9-11. “It is not as though the Word of God has taken no effect” (Rom. 9:6). In other words, the Word of God has accomplished exactly what God wanted it to do. It gave mercy to those whom God had elected. It is not as if God had intended to save Israel but was unable to save them. Rather, those who rejected the word were not “Israel” (Rom. 9:6). Thus, this doctrine teaches us the security and stability of grace.

3. Consequently, it is also very assuring for the individual believer. We can understand that however the Church may falter, yet God preserves a Church for Himself, a remnant according to grace (Rom. 11:4-5). The gates of hell will not prevail against the Church (Mt. 16:18), and they will not prevail against me because I, as a member of the Church, am in Christ’s hand (Jn. 10:28-30).

4. It demolishes the claims of Rome. Their definition of the Church cannot stand against the Scriptures. Their argument that the Church must always be visible in the eyes of the world must fall. The Pope is not the head of the Church because he is not a member of the Church. The question of the Papists, “Where was your Church before the Reformation?” is easily answered. Thus, Turretin wrote, “The importance of this question is such that on its decision many questions and all of those concerning the Church that exist between us and the Papists depend on it.”21


We first note that the opponents of this view rarely deal with the texts that we have cited. Thus, the Lutheran theologian Quenstedt noted in his discussion of this question, “Bellarmine does not attack our stronger arguments, with which we prove that in a certain sense and respect the church is invisible; he cites some weaker [arguments] and tries to reply to them.”22 Nevertheless, we do reply to several objections.

1. The visible church is compared to a field in which there are tares, a house in which are ignoble vessels, a net in which are bad fish, a tree with unfruitful branches, etc.23

Reply. This is the most common argument, but none of these are to the point. These refer to the external state of the Church, which we admit is one way the Bible speaks of “Church.” The question is rather whether there is also another sense in which the Bible speaks of Church, namely, to refer only to the elect and effectually called. Thus, Du Moulin replies to Cardinal Perron, “They bring also texts that speak of a visible Church, intending thereby to prove that there is no invisible Church, with as much reason, as I would prove that there is no reasonable creature, because there are some unreasonable.”24 This is similar to the objection that the Papists often bring up, namely, that we deny that there is a visible Church.25

2. It creates a Church of the elect in hyperspace and neglects the importance of history.26

Reply. This results from a misunderstanding of the doctrine. It is not one Church in hyperspace that is real and another on earth that is not. The true Church is known perfectly to God and imperfectly to men, even though the men are visible. What makes it invisible is the faith and piety of the men who compose it and the fact that reprobates can imitate the external state.27

3. “This leads to a disparagement of the visible Church, and eventually necessitates, I believe, a baptistic understanding of the Church.”28

Reply. First, the abuse of a thing does not determine the truth of a thing. On the other hand, the truth is in accord with godliness (Tit. 1:1). We can surely admit that there are those who have emphasized being a believer at the expense of being a part of the visible Church. But it is important to note that this problem is not new. In the 17th century, the Socinians denied that it was necessary for believers (in their sense) to join the visible Church or that it was something that should be carefully sought out. They also downplayed the ministry. The Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th century argued vehemently against this view. Thus, they had to deal with Rome who said too much and the Socinians who said too little.29 Rome erred in excess by making joining the visible Church absolutely necessary. The Socinians argued in defect that it need not be anxiously sought out or joined. Hoornbeeck insisted that while it was not necessary to join the Church for salvation, it was most necessary for knowing Christ properly, living a godly life, and confessing His truth, just as, it is not necessary to make many prayers to be saved, but it is certainly necessary for the Christian life.

Thus, we contend that the solution to the problems that are often brought up were adequately dealt with by the Reformed theologians of the 17th century who fought against the errors in defect of the Remonstrants and Socinians. The answer to these problems is not a denial of the invisible/visible church distinction but rather a proper emphasis and teaching of the visible church. Moreover, we contend that a denial of the invisible/visible church distinction as we define it here also has very bad consequences: presumption, calling into question God’s sovereign grace, removing the comfort of the believer, and weakening our defenses against Rome and its theology.

4. Those who turned away from the faith were branches that were a part of the tree (Jn. 15:2); therefore, not only the elect are a part of the Church.

Reply. First, we freely admit that not only the elect belong to the visible and external society of the Church. But we deny that they are for that reason part of the Church in the more proper sense or in every sense. We assert that the Scripture speaks about the Church in two senses, as it truly is before God, and as it appears before men.

Second, the parable does not teach that the branches are the same. The branches of the tree that are cut off are those that do not bear fruit. Thus, there is a distinction between fruitful branches that remain and unfruitful branches that are cut off. This is how the famous exegete, Andrew Willet replied:

Is a dead bow or a branch, I pray you, any part of the tree? I think not: the tree cannot conveniently spare any one of the parts thereof, but the dead parts are hurtful and cumbersome, and it doth the tree good to cut them off…For as what is in the body receiving no life nor power from the body is not properly a part of the body, however it seems to be joined to the body; so the wicked although they be in the outward face of the Church, yet because they are not partakers of the spiritual life thereof by Christ, are not truly to be judged members of it.30

Third, this is not the only parable that teaches us about those who appear to be part of the Church but are not. In Mt. 7:15-20, Jesus speaks of false prophets as wolves in sheep’s clothing. They appear to be sheep, but only have sheepskin. In the parable of the sower (Mt. 13), there are a variety of responses to the word. Those who remain for a time and then fall away are either on rocky or thorny soil. They are not seeds planted on good seed that then fall away. In the wheat and tares, the tares are removed, but they are never wheat (Mt. 13:24-30 & 36-43). In the parable of the dragnet, the bad fish are gathered in the net but then cast out, but they are never good fish. Consequently, we conclude that they were never really a part of the Church, though they outwardly appeared to be a part of the Church.

5. Then we cannot know where the true Church is.

Reply: First, Marck responds, “It is sufficient for the individual members of the Church to be known probably by a judgment of charity, since God alone knows the heart” (277). Second, the true Church is marked out by the true preaching of the Word, and this can be known by an examination of the Scriptures.

6. The Westminster Confession in XXV.1 teaches that the invisible Church is an eschatological Church.31

Reply. The Confession does define the invisible Church as consisting of all the elect. However, the members of the visible Church are never members of the invisible Church, and the elect are not always a member of the invisible Church in the same way. We can see this from the Westminster Larger Catechism. First, the privileges of the visible Church do not include union and communion with Christ in grace and glory (Q. 63-65). Only those who are members of the invisible Church have this benefit (Q. 65, 68). Moreover, this union with Christ occurs at the time of their effectual calling (Q. 66), which only happens to the elect (Q. 68).


We have seen that the visible and invisible Church distinction is not a matter of visible and invisible aspects of the Church, a Church in hyperspace or some Platonic ideal, or an historical and eschatological Church. Rather, the distinction refers to the fact that the Church that appears before our eyes is not the Church as it truly is. Some are members of the external communion who are not members of the body of Christ.

To define the Church simply in terms of the visible communion is to make a grievous error. It encourages presumption, tends to overemphasize the external communion, leads to a questioning of sovereign grace, and weakens the Protestant polemic against Rome. We can only consider such a definition of the Church as a departure from Protestant orthodoxy.

Second Question: May the Church be defined as consisting only of believers in such a way that the visible/invisible Church distinction is denied?

Defining the Question

John Murray and other conservative theologians raise this question and also feel uncomfortable speaking of an “invisible” Church. John Murray considers that this distinction is invalid.32

We must note at the outset that his approach is quite different from many modern theologians, Wilson, and Rome. Murray states rather adamantly: “Our definition of the church must not be framed in terms of an accommodation by which we make provision, within our definition, for the inclusion of hypocrites, that is to say, of those who profess to be Christ’s but are not really his.”33 In other words, the members of the Church must be defined only and always as those who are regenerate. Hypocrites are not to be included in the definition at all. Consequently, it is illegitimate for Wilson and others to appeal to Murray as if he were saying exactly what they do.34 Both Wilson and Murray agree that the Church is only to be defined in one way, but Murray says the Church only includes believers, while Wilson says that it includes all members of the visible Church, even hypocrites.

Nevertheless, Murray does go on to declare that the distinction between the “visible” and “invisible” Church is invalid. Moreover, we should not think that Murray reaffirms the old distinction when he says, “It may not be improper to speak of the church as characterized by attributes that are invisible or, in other words, to say that the church has invisible aspects.”35 Certainly everyone could agree that there are some aspects of the Church that are invisible. Even Rome would admit that not everything about the Church is visible!36 Murray simply means by this that the same people that have faith that is unseen manifest it in coming together as Church. This is not what the classic Protestant definition refers to, though, of course, all the older Protestant theologians would gladly admit that what Murray says is true.37

We would also add that there is no reason why Murray should deny this classic distinction since he affirms that the Church is defined in terms of faith, which is not visible, and though the men who believe are visible, they are not always visible as believers. This is so because they walk inconsistently with their belief and others imitate the fruit of faith. Thus, Bellarmine even admits on this question, “If they who are destitute of internal faith are not and cannot be in the church, there will be no further question concerning the invisibility of the church between us and the heretics.” He adds his reason for that statement, “No one can certainly know who are truly righteous and pious among so many, who externally profess righteousness and piety.”38 Consequently, Murray ought to admit that the “appellation ‘visible,’ extends more widely than that of ‘invisible’ because many are called, few are chosen (Mt. 20:16).”39

Weighty Reasons for Calling the Church “Invisible”

Murray opposes this distinction for two reasons. First, he believes that it is unscriptural. Second, he believes that it is liable to abuses that can be removed by the use of other terms.40 We consider first, then, whether Scripture provide warrant for using this distinction. This first question can also be divided into two questions. First, does the Scripture refer to the essence of the Church both as to internal faith and its true members as invisible? Second, does it call all those who externally unite themselves to the Church “Church” but in a different sense?

On the first question, Murray writes, “‘The Church’ in the New Testament never appears as an invisible entity and therefore may never be defined in terms of invisibility.”41 Of course, the Church is always visible in some sense, such as that those who have true faith are visible as humans, but this is not pertinent to the question. The question is whether the Church in the strict sense, as the company of believers, is ever visible to the eyes as such a body. This is precisely what the classic distinction denies while admitting visibility in other senses.

When the question is framed in such a way, the Scriptural evidence for such a definition easily appears. Turretin provides seven arguments for this distinction. First, he argues that all the arguments listed in the first section of this paper (among others) prove this point. Second, he refers to those passages that explicitly contrast the external appearance with the internal reality (Rom. 9:6, Gal. 6:16, Rom. 2:28-29) and concludes that the internal form is not visible at all nor the true members as such. Third, election, effectual calling, and union with Christ are all internal realities that cannot be seen by the eyes. Fourth, “the head of the Church is invisible; therefore, His body also is invisible.” Fifth, it is an object of faith; therefore, it is not seen (Heb. 11:1). Sixth, the kingdom of God does not come with observation and is within you (Lk. 17:20-21). Seventh, the true worshippers are those who “worship in spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:23).42 We might add the parables that speak of the wheat that is indiscernible from the tares (Mt. 13) and the wolves that look like sheep because of sheep’s clothing (Mt. 7:15). All of these arguments indicate that the term “invisible” is not only advisable but also necessary.

Based on these observations, we conclude that Murray is incorrect to question “the advisability of the use of the actual term ‘invisible,’” and to call it a “precarious foundation.”43 Rather, we say that though many “are accustomed to traduce the invisible church as a Platonic idea and a mere figment or chimera of the Protestants…[W]e affirm it, influenced by the most weighty reasons.”44

Reasons for Calling All Those in the Visible Communion “The Visible Church”

But Murray not only has problems with the way that Church has been defined as invisible, he also has problems with the way the Westminster Confession of Faith (as one example) defines the visible Church as those who profess the true faith together with their children. He claims that our definition of the church should not be framed in such a way that includes “those who profess to be Christ’s but are not really his.”45 Of course, we can grant that this is true in regard to the invisible Church, but this is not helpful in regard to the external communion. What actually defines or limits the visible Church? It cannot be true and saving faith because all do not have it. Rather, it is admission into the Church through baptism along with the profession of saving faith. This is how we must answer the question of what constitutes the external communion. What makes one a Jew or church member externally must obviously be defined in terms of external marks.

Murray objects that we should not make this accommodation in our definition of the Church because the Bible applies to the local congregation attributes that can only apply to true believers within her (1 Cor. 1:1-2). We answer that, of course, the local Church is denominated from her better part, but when Paul writers to a local congregation, he refers to all those who are actually gathered there. Thus, some are called members of the Church univocally and others equivocally, but even those who are called so equivocally are still called members of the Church.46 This collection of members who are truly so called and members who are called such only equivocally is what we call the visible Church.

Moreover, the Bible does plainly call this visible gathered body “Church.” We find that Solomon blessed the whole assembly47 while they were standing (1 Kings 8:14). Jesus tells us, “Tell it to the Church” (Mt. 18:17). Those who gladly received the word and were baptized were added to their number (Acts 2:41). Paul greeted the Church at Caesarea (1 Cor. 18:22). Even a passage like “they are not all Israel who are of Israel” (Rom. 9:6) illustrates that those who are only a part of the external communion are “Israel” in some sense and possess some benefits as Paul states in Rom. 9:4-5. This is why the Westminster Larger Catechism refers to the benefits that belong to all who are in the visible church.48

Why, then, if the Bible calls this visible community “Church,” should we not do so? When we look at all the data of Scripture we find that the Bible uses the word and concept Church in two ways (at least!). It refers sometimes to true believers and at other times to the visible communion that includes both believers and unbelievers who profess the true faith. This is what Protestants from Luther to Calvin to the Westminster Assembly to Turretin to Marck have most aptly defined as the invisible and visible Church respectively.

Murray’s Practical Objections to the Protestant Definition

One reason that Murray might give for not calling the external members “church” is that this distinction is open to abuses that other distinctions eliminate.49 He mentions the fact that some were too hesitant to leave apostate denominations in which they had no godly fellowship because they took comfort in the communion of the invisible Church.50 Consequently, they made no effort to leave apostate denominations. We respond, first, that we certainly admit that wrong conclusions may and sometimes are drawn from Biblical doctrines. Some conclude from the doctrine of justification that we nullify the law (Rom. 3:31). Some conclude from our teaching on predestination that God is responsible for evil (Rom. 9:19). In each case, however, we should not abandon the doctrine but clarify our teaching concerning it. We must teach sanctification as well as justification. We must teach human responsibility as well as divine election. We must teach the importance of the visible Church as well as the invisible.

Second, Murray cannot remove the potential for abuse of doctrine. It is not too hard to see how defining Church in one way can lead to someone affirming the opposite of what he says about the members of the Church and falling into the problems we mentioned above.51 Are we to abandon Murray’s doctrine for the simple reason that some have taken it in directions that he would not want to?

Third, even though some misuse the doctrine of the visible/invisible Church distinction in order to downplay ecclesiastical responsibilities, is there not some ground for taking comfort from this distinction? Thus, when Elijah saw the whole visible Church fall into apostasy, did not God Himself comfort Elijah with the fact that He reserved a true Church for Himself of 7,000 that had not bowed the knee to Baal? This is also the same point that Martin Luther made when Erasmus challenged him that it was incredible that the Church had been apostate for so long and been deserted by God. Luther responded, “That is not the Church of Christ which is commonly so called, i.e., the pope and the bishops; but the church is the certain few pious persons whom he preserves as remnants.” Thus, he concluded, “God had never deserted his church.”52 Should we not take the same comfort today when we labor hard for Church unity but find that the visible unity is fractured in spite of all efforts? Can we not take comfort that in spite of our sad visible differences true believers are all one in Christ Jesus?

Confusion from Murray’s Way of Conceiving the Church

As a final point on Murray’s views, we wish to point out the confusion that can arise from the adaptation of his viewpoint. Murray says that we should think of the Church this way:

According to Scripture we should speak of ‘the church’ and conceive of it as that visible entity that exists and functions in accord with the institution of Christ as its Head, the church that is the body of Christ indwelt and directed by the Holy Spirit, consisting of those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be saints, manifested in the congregations of the faithful, and finally the church glorious, holy and without blemish.53

But here Murray treats of diverse things that do not have the same mode of existence. “The visible entity…[that] functions in accord with the institution of Christ” can be conceived apart from those who are “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” In other words, believers can exist apart from that visible entity and in a visible entity that does not function in accord with the institution of Christ.

Furthermore, consider the following questions that arise from always conceiving of the Church in the way that Murray suggests. If there are believers, such as in the time of Elijah, when the visible entity does not function in accord with Christ’s institution, does that mean they are not “Church”? Are those who truly believe but are not part of the visible entity that functions in accord with the institution of Christ truly a part of “the Church”? Are those who are excommunicated but true believers a part of the Church? Could Erasmus have answered Martin Luther, “But the Church was the visible entity!”? We are not claiming that we know how Murray would answer any of these questions, but we do believe that these and similar questions can and should be raised and that his definition does not adequately account for them.


While Murray’s error is not as severe as those who seek to define the Church simply as those who are baptized members of it, nevertheless, it is a view that creates confusion and is open to many of the pitfalls of the previous view. Moreover, Murray does not deal adequately with the tradition on this matter. Murray does not take into account the Scriptures that are used to prove the doctrine. He interacts only in a cursory way with the exegetical, theological, and historical background of the doctrine, and yet calls into question a classic Protestant distinction given in answer to what Turretin calls “one of the most important questions.”54 In addition, his viewpoint contradicts the confession that he professed to hold to, the Westminster Confession, and has left open the door to more serious errors. Consequently, his views should be rejected, and we should affirm the classic way of distinguishing the invisible and visible Church.


We have seen from this article that this Protestant doctrine has fallen on hard times in this modern era, but not at the hands of Romanists but of Protestants. This situation should be examined. When we carefully examine the sources of Reformed doctrine we find unanimity on the substance of this doctrine and that for the older Protestants it is fundamental to the dispute with Rome. This situation requires more care than has often been given to it and less eagerness to dismiss with this distinction. We also must be careful that we do not replace the classic distinction with one that is contrary to its substance, such as the historical and eschatological Church. We must also be on our guard against such replacement distinctions because they are sometimes presented as in consonance with or the same as the classic distinction.

Most importantly, this doctrine is deeply Scriptural. The distinction between members who are truly and internally members of the Church and those that are such only externally is not only a doctrine that is properly deduced from Scripture but also one that is actually explicitly stated in Scripture. Consequently, we who desire to affirm the old way should feel no hesitation in making the valid distinction between the visible and invisible Church. However much the Roman communion and modern Protestants “are accustomed to traduce the invisible church as a Platonic idea and a mere figment or chimera of the Protestants…we affirm it, influenced by the most weighty reasons.”55

1. Robert Bellarmine, cited in Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, tr. by Patrick Lynch, ed. by Jams Canon Bastible (Rockford, Illinois: Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1960), p. 271.

2. Cited in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III (Saint Louis: Concordia, 1953), p. 401.

3. Ibid.

4. John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. by Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989), IV:i.2.

5. Ibid., IV:i.7.

6. Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (St. Louis: Harper Torchbooks, 1959), p. 142. See also Otto Weber, Foundations of Dogmatics, Vol. II, tr. by Darrell L. Guder (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1983), pp. 540-7.

7. See The Federal Vision, ed. by Duane Garner & Steve Wilkins (Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004); and The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision, ed. by E. Calvin Beisner (Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004).

8. In John Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 1 (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1976), pp. 231-236.

9. Wilson does make a distinction between the historical and eschatological Church, which we will deal with below.

10. Ott, p. 302.

11. Douglas Wilson, “Reformed” is Not Enough, (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2002), p. 72.

12. Doug Wilson, “The Church: Visible or Invisible,” in The Federal Vision, p. 266.

13. Ibid., p. 268.

14. Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1956), p. 287.

15. Leonardus Rijssenius, Summa Elencticae Theologiae (Edinburgh: George Mosman, 1692), p. 280.

16. Johannes Marckius, Christianae Theologiae Medulla (Amsterdam: Gerard Borstius, 1690), XXXII.5.

17. Rijssenius, p. 280.

18. Ibid.

19. Edward Leigh, Systematic Theology (London: 1662), p 624.

20. John Calvin, Commentary on the First Epistle of John in Calvin’s Commentaries XXII (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999), p. 191.

21. Francis Turretin, Compendium Theologiae Didactico-Elencitcae ex Theologorum Nostrum Institutionibus Theologicis Auctum et Illustratum, ed. by Leonardus Rijssenius (Amsterdam: George Gallet, 1695), p. 196.

22. Johann Andreas Quenstedt, The Church, edited, abridged, and translated by Luther Poellot (Malone, TX: Repristination Press, 1999), p. 58.

23. See Wilson, “The Church: Visible or Invisible?” pp. 268-69.

24. Pierre Du Moulin, The Novelty of Popery Opposed to the Antiquity of True Christianity Against the Book of Cardinal Perron (London: Robert White, 1662), p. 8.

25. See Ludwig Ott, p. 301.

26. Wilson, “The Church: Visible or Invisible?” p. 268.

27. See above on what the question is not and the quote from Ursinus in the same place.

28. Wilson, “Reformed” is not Enough, p. 75.

29. Johannes Hoornbeeck, Socinianismi Confutati Compendium (Lugdunum Batavia: Felicem Lopez, 1690), p. 857.

30. Andrew Willet, Synopsis Papismi (London: Thomas Orwin, 1592), p. 43.

31. Wilson, “Reformed” is not Enough, p. 73.

32. John Murray, “The Church: Its Distinction Into ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid.”

33. John Murray, Christian Baptism (Philadelphia: The Committee on Christian Education, The Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1952), p. 42.

34. Doug Wilson, “The Church: Visible or Invisible,” p. 266.

35. Murray “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” p. 231.

36. See Ott, p. 302.

37. See the quotes from Ursinus, Commentary, p. 287 and Rijssenius, Summa, p. 280.

38. Robert Bellarmine, “De Ecclesia Militante,” 3.10 Opera [1857], 2:91 cited in Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, tr. by William M. Geiger, ed. by James T. Dennison (Philipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1997), XVIII:vii.3.

39. Turretin, Institutes, XVIII:vii.4.

40. Murray, “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” p. 232.

41. Ibid., p. 234.

42. See Turretin, Institutes, XVIII:vii.7-13. Turretin provides much fuller argumentation in the sections cited here.

43. Murray, “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” pp. 234 and 235.

44. Turretin, Institutes, XVIII:vii.6.

45. Murray, Christian Baptism, p. 42.

46. On the idea of members univocally and equivocally, see Samuel Maresius, Collegium Theologicum sive Systema Breve Universae Theologiae (Groningen: Johannes Collenus, 1659) XV.11.

47. The Hebrew word qahal is a parallel to the Greek word ekklēsia.

48. See Question 63.

49. Murray, “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” p. 235.

50. Ibid.

51. As Wilson takes Murray’s doctrine in a completely different direction.

52. Cited in Turretin, Institutes, XVIII:vii.2.

53. Murray, “The Church: Its Definition in Terms of ‘Visible’ and ‘Invisible’ Invalid,” p. 236.

54. Turretin, Institutes, XVIII:vii.3.

55. Turretin, Institutes, XVIII:vii.6.

Bibliography/Works Cited

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Beisner, Cal, ed. The Auburn Avenue Theology Pros & Cons: Debating the Federal Vision. Ft. Lauderdale: Knox Theological Seminary, 2004.

Calvin, John. Commentary on the First Epistle of John in Calvin’s Commentaries XXII. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1999.

________. The Institutes of the Christian Religion, tr. by Henry Beveridge. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.

Du Moulin, Pierre. The Novelty of Popery Opposed to the Antiquity of True Christianity Against the Book of Cardinal Perron. London: Robert White, 1662.

Garner, Duane & Wilkins, Steve, eds. The Federal Vision. Monroe, LA: Athanasius Press, 2004.

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