The following article was found here.
by John H. Gerstner
What, then, is the church of Christ? Although the previous definition is unsatisfactory, the addition of two words will make it quite satisfactory. Thus, the church consists of all who sincerely profess faith in Christ, who are normally subordinate to His officers, and who associate with those of like profession. This definition requires that the person’s profession correspond to his state of heart. Since no officer can tell whether this is so, God alone knows whether the person is sincere, and is therefore truly a church member. For that reason the true church is called “invisible.” This does not mean that true Christians are invisible, but that their “trueness” or genuineness is invisible to man.
For example, the true faith of the eleven apostles was no more visible than the false faith of Judas was (until the betrayal and suicide following Christ’s rejection of him revealed it). So long as a person makes a sound profession and does not belie it by gross sin, we “presume” that he has true faith. The Puritans used to say that we must exercise a “judgment of charity.” The one thing we must avoid is making a judgment of certainty.
Furthermore, I said that the church consists of all who sincerely profess faith in Christ, are normally subordinate to His officers, and are in fellowship with those who make a like profession. Normally, sincere believers in Christ will join the “visible” church because Christ wills it. He Himself attended the synagogue or church of His own day. The New Testament enjoins the assembling of ourselves together. Christ gave gifts to the church after His ascension, according to Ephesians 4, and these were ministers to build up the church.
Such statements indicate that the establishment of the visible church was His will, although He forbade any to join except those who deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. Hypocrites may, nonetheless, profess to do these things and be admitted; but that is no excuse for sincere persons not making the same profession. Christ also commanded His apostles to baptize in His name, thus receiving professing believers by a visible act into a visible organization. So converts to Christ, desiring to do the will of Christ, will receive baptism and join the local church. At least this is normally what they will do.
Is it conceivable that they will not do this? It is not conceivable that they will permanently delay uniting with the church if they realize that it is the will of Christ that they do join; but it is conceivable too that they may be wrongly instructed in their duty. Hearing that they should believe and be saved, they may wrongly conclude that merely exercising and expressing faith is sufficient without joining any organization. They may not realize that belief in Christ means belief to all His commands, including the one to join the church. This is not likely, of course, and a Christian person should not long remain in such a condition. But since it is a possibility, at least in rare cases, and for short intervals, we must agree with Augustine that there may be lambs outside the fold, just as there are wolves inside it.
What complicates the matter is that the Bible sometimes uses the word “church” in the sense of the visible church, and sometimes in the sense of the invisible church. For example, Stephen, in his sermon before the Sanhedrin, referred to all Israel in the wilderness as “the church.” Acts 7:38: “This is he that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers, who received the lively oracles to give unto us.” Now we know that not only were there some hypocrites in that body called “the church,” but almost all of the members were such. That was the generation of which God swore in His wrath that they should not enter into His rest (Psalm 95:11). Only the younger generation was spared; but the rest perished in the wilderness, a symbol of eternal perishing. Yet they were called “the church.”
In the apostolic church itself there were those who were not true believers, as indicated by the Apostle John in 1 John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us. But they went out that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”
On the other hand, the true church is mentioned too. Christ said, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The powers of hell not only stand against the visible church, but they often make conquests of it. It is only the invisiblechurch of which Christ’s description is true. Another instance is Ephesians 1:22-23: “And hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the Head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.” Surely nothing false or evil could be part of the body of Christ, in whom God was well pleased. In spite of this double usage of the word “church,” in and out of the Bible, we must remember that the true church, the saved church, the church in vital union with Christ, is the invisible church.
In addition to the description already given of the true, invisible church, we find other characteristics mentioned in Scripture. The invisible church is:
- Infallible: It knows its Masters voice and will not follow a stranger (John 10:5).
- Indestructible: Nothing shall separate it from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:39). And no one shall take it out of His hand (John 10:28).
- Indivisible: “That they may be one as we are one” (John 17:11). And “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:5).
- Invincible: “The gates [the defensive weapons] of hell shall not prevail [or stand] against it” (Matthew 16:18). And “the meek shall inherit the earth” (Psalm 37:11).
- Universal: “Out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9). “The field is the world” (Matthew 13:38). And “God so loved the world” (John 3:16).
Putting this together, we would have a definition of the church of Jesus Christ as this: The church is the invisible, infallible, indestructible, indivisible, invincible, and universal body consisting of all those who truly believe in and adhere to their Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the vast majority of cases, they are members of the invisible church.