Christ Founded a Visible Church

by Bryan Cross

One of the most fundamental differences between the Protestant and Catholic ecclesial paradigms concerns the nature of the Church that Christ founded. According to the predominant Protestant paradigm, the Church itself is a spiritual, invisible entity, though some of its members, namely, all those believers still living in this present life, are visible, because they are embodied.

In the Protestant paradigm, anyone who has true faith in Christ is ipso facto a member of the one Church that Christ founded. This Protestant paradigm does not acknowledge that Christ founded a visible hierarchically organized Body.1 By contrast, the Catholic Church for 2,000 years has believed and taught that the incarnate Christ founded a visible, hierarchically organized Body. In the Catholic paradigm, faith in Christ is not sufficient by itself to make a person a member of this Body; a believer is incorporated into this Body by valid baptism, but is removed from this Body either by heresy, apostasy, schism, or excommunication.

The Reformed confessions affirm the visibility of the Church, so that raises a particular question: with respect to visibility, how is Reformed ecclesiology distinct both from the common Protestant ecclesial paradigm and from Catholic ecclesiology? In this article we first show that Christ founded His Church as a visible Body, and why He did so. Then we present the various positions and argue that the Reformed ecclesiology is equivalent in essence to the common Protestant ecclesial paradigm. Finally, we draw out some important implications following from the visibility of the Church.

I. The Body of Christ Is a Visible Unity

A. The Church Is the Body of Christ; He Is the Head of His Mystical Body

And I say to you, that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. (Matthew 16:18.)

One reason Christ came into the world is to build His Church, that through and in His Church men might ultimately come to eternal life, that is, to the beatific vision of the Triune God.2 In the New Testament we find different terms used to show distinct aspects of the Church. One such term is “the Body of Christ” [σώματος το Χριστο]. To distinguish the Body of Christ which is the Church, from the body of Christ that was born of the Virgin Mary 2,000 years ago and now sits at the right hand of God the Father, we refer to the former as the “Mystical Body of Christ” and the latter as the physical Body of Christ.3

Concerning the Mystical Body of Christ, St. Paul writes to the saints in the church at Rome:

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one Body in Christ, and individually members one of another. (Romans 12:4-5)

St. Paul writes to the church at Corinth:

For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the Body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the Body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the Body be? But now there are many members, but one Body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you”; or again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the Body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the Body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the Body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, so that there may be no division in the Body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. Now you are Christ’s Body, and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the Church, first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, administrations, various kinds of tongues. All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they? But earnestly desire the greater gifts. (1 Corinthians 12:12-31.)

To the saints at Colossae St. Paul writes:

He [Christ] is also Head of the Body, the Church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything. . . . Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I do my share on behalf of His Body, which is the Church, in filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. (Colossians 1:18,24.)

And to the saints at Ephesus St. Paul writes:

And He [God the Father] put all things in subjection under His [Christ's] feet, and gave Him as Head over all things to the Church, which is His Body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:22.)

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him, who is the Head, Christ, from whom the whole Body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, causes the growth of the Body for the building up of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:15-16.)

For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the Head of the Church, He Himself being the Savior of the Body. (Ephesians 5:23.)

In these passages St. Paul teaches that the Mystical Body of Christ is a unity; it is one Body. God has composed it so that there would be no division in it. Yet, in another sense, the Body is a plurality, because it has many members. And yet the members are joined together in one and the same Body. Each of the members of the Body has a different place and function in the Body. They do not all have the same function or role. Some are apostles, some are prophets, some are teachers, etc., each according to his gifts. And St. Paul teaches that some gifts are greater than others, even while each member is dependent on the others. This mutual dependency is true not only of the hands and feet, but even of the Head; the Head cannot say to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’4 In this way, the Body is hierarchically organized, each of the subordinate functions contributing to the unified activity of the whole Body.5 If the Body were not hierarchically organized, there would be many different activities, but not one unified activity. There would be many different individuals, and not one Body.

At the top of the hierarchy is Christ, the Head of the Body. The Head and members together form one Body, with one shared divine life. The life of a body is its soul, in which all the members of the body are made to be alive and to share in the same life of the body. So likewise, the Life of the Body of Christ is the Holy Spirit, who is the Soul of the Church.6 This is why St. Paul says that by one Spirit the Corinthian believers were baptized into one Body and all made to drink of that one Spirit. This incorporation into Christ’s Mystical Body is what is meant by union with Christ. When St. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” (Gal. 2:20) this should not be understood in an individualistic ‘me-and-Jesus’ sense, but as referring to our union with Christ in His Mystical Body, the Church. Our union with Christ is accomplished through our incorporation into His Mystical Body, the Church, which is composed of many members. Likewise, when St. Paul says in Galatians 3:27-28 that those who have been baptized into Christ are all one in Christ, he is referring to believers being incorporated into the unity of Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church. Concerning that union, St. Augustine wrote:

Let us rejoice and give thanks that we have become not only Christians, but Christ. Do you understand, brothers, the grace of Christ our Head? Wonder at it, rejoice: we have become Christ. For if He is the Head, we are the members; He and we form the whole man . . . the fullness of Christ, therefore; the head and the members. What is the head and the members? Christ and the Church.”7

Notice the strong language that St. Augustine uses. Because of our union with Christ the Head in His Mystical Body, we are not only Christians, but, in a true sense, Christ. How is that possible? Because the members and Head form one “whole man.” Of that “whole man” St. Thomas Aquinas wrote:

The Head and members are as one mystical person [quasi una persona mystica] and therefore Christ’s satisfaction belongs to all the faithful as being His members.8

St. Augustine and St. Thomas both maintained that through baptism we are incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body, and that this union is not extrinsic, but intrinsic.9 Through baptism we are incorporated into a unity greater than ourselves, and so become one with the Head and other members, yet without losing our individual identity.10 This unity of the Mystical Body is a visible unity, precisely because it is the unity of a Body. Bodies are visible and hierarchically organized, not invisible.11 Because the Church is a Body, the Church is essentially visible.12 The visibility of the Body is not reducible to the visibility of certain of its members; the Church per se is visible, just as your body per se is visible. Because the Church is a Body, “it must also be something definite and perceptible to the senses.”13 In order to understand how the Body is visible, we need to consider the ways in which a living body is unified.14

B. The Three Ways in Which a Body Is Unified

An organism is unified fundamentally in three ways. First, an organism is unified in its essence. Each of its parts shares the very same essence. All the cells of our human bodies are human cells. All the cells of a sunflower plant are sunflower cells. They all share the very same formal nature. And so, as St. Paul says in Ephesians 4:5, in the Church there is “one faith.” We all believe the same thing with respect to the faith of the Church. Throughout the history of the Church, when a catechumen is incorporated into the Mystical Body of Christ through baptism, he publicly affirms the Creed, which is the faith of the Church. We are formally unified in the Mystical Body of Christ because we all believe the same doctrine. If the Church has not pronounced any decision regarding some question of doctrine, we may have different opinions about such questions. But the members cannot be formally unified as a Body if they are divided on doctrines concerning which the Church has definitively ruled. This is why Pope Pius XII wrote:

Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely ‘pneumatological’ as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond.15

To be one in essence, all the members of the Body must believe and profess all that the Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God.

Second, an organism is unified in its activity. Each part of an organism is performing some specific task, but each of these specific tasks is part of a larger unified activity, the activity of the whole organism. Likewise, in the Mystical Body all the individual activities of the members must be coordinated to the overall activity of the living organism that is the Church. What is the overall activity of this Mystical Body? It is the activity of the Head; it is the life of Christ. We all, in union with Christ, offer ourselves up to God as living sacrifices. We do so most fully in the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, when we offer ourselves up to the Father in union with Christ’s sacrifice, and in return are nourished by His grace. The Mystical Body is one by its unified sacramental life: “Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread.” (1 Cor. 10:17.) The members of the Mystical Body are dynamically unified because, through their partaking of the same sacraments, they all are engaged in one and the same liturgical activity. The dynamic Life of Christ the Head comes to the members of His Body through the sacraments. St. Paul refers to this in Colossians 2:19, where he writes, “and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the entire Body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.” The sacraments are the channels or arteries Christ has established in His Body by which the members of His Body receive the grace of divine life that flows from the Head.16 This is precisely why those who do not participate in the sacraments or in all the same sacraments are “deprived of a constitutive element of the Church” and “cannot be called “Churches” in the proper sense”.17

Third, an organism is unified in its hierarchy. Not every part of the organism is the head. The parts of a body are ordered hierarchically, in systems, organs, tissues, and so on. We saw this above in 1 Corinthians 12 in St. Paul’s description of the Mystical Body of Christ. If there were no hierarchy, then the whole would not be a body; it would be like a pin-cushion, Christ being the cushion, and all believers the pins, each one individually, directly, and independently of the others, connected to Him. That is why the Church, since it is a Body, must be hierarchically ordered. Members serve the Head (and whole) by serving the part of the Body proximate to themselves, according to the gifts and capacities with which they have been equipped, and under the authority of the hierarchy according to their place within it. The hierarchy of a body must be unified in the sense that each member of the hierarchy must be ordered to the head. If there were two or more hierarchies–that is, if there were two or more ultimate ends toward which members were ordered–there would either be two distinct organisms present, or something equivalent to a cancer within an organism.18 Because the existence of a body requires hierarchical unity among its members, so likewise the existence of the Mystical Body of Christ requires hierarchical unity among its members.

These three modes of unity correspond also to Christ’s three roles as prophet, priest, and king, respectively. Christ is the perfect prophet, and this entails that the members of His Mystical Body share one faith. Christ is the perfect high priest, and this entails that the members of His Mystical Body participate in the same liturgical activity, and thus in the same sacraments. And because Christ is the perfect king, this entails that the members of His Mystical Body share one visible hierarchy, and thus one visible magisterium. In this way, Christ’s perfect fulfillment of the roles of prophet, priest, and king entails the three “bonds of unity” in the Church.19 These are also the three ways in which the Church is visible. She is visibly united in her shared profession of faith, her shared celebration of the same sacraments, and in her shared ecclesial hierarchy, each of these three having been received and passed down by succession from the Apostles.20

C. Visibility and Unified Hierarchy of the Mystical Body

“Other sheep I have, that are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice, and there shall be one fold and one shepherd.” (John 10:16.)

When we are talking about the visibility of the Church in the context of an ecumenical discussion involving Catholics and Protestants, we are talking primarily about the third mode of unity, because in the ecumenical dialogue the relevant question concerning visibility is this: When Christ founded His Church, did He establish the Church with essential unity not only in doctrine, and in sacraments, but also in its visible hierarchical government? In other words, is visible hierarchical unity part of the essence of Christ’s Mystical Body? Protestants and Catholics, though disagreeing somewhat regarding the content of the one deposit of faith, at least agree that Christ established the Church with unity of doctrine, that is, with one deposit of faith. Likewise, though Protestants and Catholics do not agree about the number and nature of the sacraments, they do agree that Christ instituted one sacramental order and gave it to the Apostles as part of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church. Essential unity of faith and sacraments can be seen in Ephesians 4:5, where St. Paul says that there is “one faith, one baptism.”

But when we come to the question of unity of hierarchy, Protestants and Catholics do not agree. Protestants either claim that the visible hierarchical unity Christ initially provided to His Mystical Body was accidental (i.e., non-essential) and hence capable of being lost (and was in fact eventually lost), or they claim that Christ’s Mystical Body was never given visible hierarchical unity in the first place. The Catholic position, on the other hand, is that visible hierarchical unity belongs to the essence of Christ’s Mystical Body.21 For that reason, according to Catholic doctrine, hierarchical unity cannot be lost unless the Mystical Body ceases to exist. But since the Mystical Body cannot cease to exist, because it shares in the very life of the Son of God over whom death is powerless, therefore the visible hierarchical unity cannot be lost.22

For there to be a visible hierarchy, it is not enough for each member to be ordered to an invisible Head. Merely being ordered to an invisible Head is fully compatible with having no visible hierarchy. Yet for there to be a visible hierarchy, some visible human persons need to have an ecclesial authority that others do not. According to Catholic doctrine, the authority Christ gave to His Apostles and their successors is three-fold: the authority to teach, the authority to lead men to holiness by way of the sacraments, and the authority to govern the Church.23 These also correspond to Christ’s threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. Furthermore, for a visible hierarchy to be one, it must have a visible head. Only if each member of a visible hierarchy is ordered to one visible head can the visible hierarchy itself be one. And only if the visible head is essentially one can the visible hierarchy be essentially one. If the visible head of the hierarchy were plural, then the visible hierarchy would not be essentially unified, but at most only accidentally unified.

Since Christ, having ascended into Heaven, is no longer visible to us (”and a cloud received Him out of their sight,” Acts 1:9), therefore He appointed a visible steward (or ‘vicar’) before His ascension, to be the visible head of His visible Body. The single visible head of the visible hierarchy is implied when Jesus says, “there shall be one fold and one shepherd”. (John 10:16) Regarding Christ’s establishment of a visible head of His Body, Pope Pius XII wrote:

But we must not think that He rules only in a hidden or extraordinary manner. On the contrary, our Redeemer also governs His Mystical Body in a visible and normal way through His Vicar on earth. You know, Venerable Brethren, that after He had ruled the “little flock” Himself during His mortal pilgrimage, Christ our Lord, when about to leave this world and return to the Father, entrusted to the Chief of the Apostles the visible government of the entire community He had founded. He was all wise; and how could He leave without a visible head the body of the Church He had founded as a human society. Nor against this may one argue that the primacy of jurisdiction established in the Church gives such a Mystical Body two heads. For Peter in view of his primacy is only Christ’s Vicar; so that there is only one chief Head of this Body, namely Christ, who never ceases Himself to guide the Church invisibly, though at the same time He rules it visibly, through him who is His representative on earth. After His glorious Ascension into Heaven this Church rested not on Him alone, but on Peter, too, its visible foundation stone. That Christ and His Vicar constitute one only Head is the solemn teaching of Our predecessor of immortal memory Boniface VIII in the Apostolic Letter Unam Sanctam; and his successors have never ceased to repeat the same. 24

When Christ ascended, there would not have been visible hierarchical unity among the twelve Apostles had Christ not given unique authority to one of them to be the visible head. Before His ascension Christ gave to Peter the keys of the Kingdom, charged him to strengthen his brothers, and appointed him to feed Christ’s sheep until He returned.25  If Christ had not established an essentially unified visible head, any schism at the vertex of the visible hierarchy would separate His Mystical Body into two or more Bodies. Hence St. Jerome says:

But you say, the Church was founded upon Peter: although elsewhere the same is attributed to all the Apostles, and they all receive the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and the strength of the Church depends upon them all alike, yet one among the twelve is chosen so that when a head has been appointed, there may be no occasion for schism.26

And Pope Leo XIII, says,

Indeed no true and perfect human society can be conceived which is not governed by some supreme authority. Christ therefore must have given to His Church a supreme authority to which all Christians must render obedience. For this reason, as the unity of the faith is of necessity required for the unity of the church, inasmuch as it is the body of the faithful, so also for this same unity, inasmuch as the Church is a divinely constituted society, unity of government, which effects and involves unity of communion, is necessary jure divino. “The unity of the Church is manifested in the mutual connection or communication of its members, and likewise in the relation of all the members of the Church to one head”27.

We see here that grace does not destroy nature, but builds on it and perfects it. This is why villages and cities have mayors, and even why our country has a president. Just as in a natural society there needs to be a unified hierarchy and a visible head, so in the society of the faithful there must be a unified hierarchy and a visible head. For the same reason that virtually every Protestant congregation has a head pastor, the entire visible Church also requires a visible head. The Church as a visible organism preserves the visible head established by Christ, and thus retains all three marks of unity. Without a visible head, the Mystical Body would be reduced to the ontological equivalent of visible pins invisibly connected to an invisible pin-cushion. That is because without a visible head, a visible hierarchy is only accidentally one, because intrinsically it is potentially many separate hierarchies. Many separate hierarchies are not a visible unity; they are ontologically equivalent to many separate individuals.  They are a mere plurality, not an actual unity.

A ‘visible Church’ made up of separate visible hierarchies would be equivalent in its disunity to a merely invisible Church having some visible members.28 Therefore a visible head belongs to the essence of the Mystical Body, since a body cannot have mere accidental unity, but must have unity essentially. In other words, an ecclesiology that is analogous to visible pins invisibly connected to an invisible pin-cushion is equivalent to a denial of the visibility of Christ’s Mystical Body because  such an ecclesiology denies the essentially unified hierarchy necessary for a body to be a body. It makes no difference whether the pins are individual Christians or individual congregations. Without an essentially unified visible hierarchy, a composite whole cannot be a body, let alone a visible body. And when hierarchical unity is abandoned, nothing preserves unity of faith or unity of sacraments. In this way each one of the three “bonds of unity” depends on the other two.29

II. Why Visible Unity Is a Mark of the Church: Discipline & Schism

A. Discipline.

The Church must be one, because Christ is one, and God is one. Scripture repeatedly proscribes divisions, an imperative that makes no sense in an “invisible church” ecclesiology. Likewise if the Church per se were not visible, then our “call to communion” would be both impossible to achieve and already achieved, so not much of a “call” at all.  Here we can point to passages of Scripture that show the importance of church discipline, and obedience to ecclesial authority30:

And 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-gatherer.  (Matthew 18:17.)

Jesus had just said in Matthew 16 that He would build His Church, a singular thing. Now here, in Matthew 18:17, through what He says about Church discipline, He shows us that the Church has a visible hierarchy, something to which we can tell things, and (perhaps more importantly) to which we can listen. This verse shows that the Church can excommunicate those in sin.  (Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:1-5.) But since communication is a visible thing, only a visible hierarchy can excommunicate those in sin. For an “invisible church” to be able  to excommunicate, communion would also have to be invisible.

Furthermore, the imperative to excommunicate makes little sense in the denominations-are-mere-branches ecclesial view, since an  excommunicate can simply go down the street to the next church agreeing with or tolerating his doctrine or moral conduct.  This ability runs against the Church’s duty to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”31 The visible Church therefore must have one visible hierarchy. There is no small irony in the Protestant notion of discipline as a “mark of the Church”, when discipline requires precisely the hierarchical unity that Protestantism lacks.

B. Schism.

There is nothing more grievous than the sacrilege of schism . . . (St. Augustine, Contra Epistolam Parmeniani, lib. ii., cap. ii., n. 25.)

If Christ had founded the Church without a unified visible hierarchy, then schism could be at most only a deficiency in charity towards other believers. Schism would be the equivalent of one of the pins in the pin-cushion failing to be charitable to another pin. And that would be the case whether those pins represented individual Christians or local congregations or denominations. Schism per se would always be visibly symmetrical with respect to the boundaries of the Church, even if culpability were not. That is, neither party in the schism would ipso facto be visibly departing from the Church, unless it were also abandoning the faith or the sacraments. But abandoning the faith or the sacraments is heresy or apostasy. So the separation of parties per se would not be schism from the Church; the separation from the Church, if there were any separation from the Church, would be due only to heresy or apostasy. Perfect ecclesial unity would be fully compatible with remaining divided in many different visible hierarchies, denominations, etc.  So long as Christians shared the same faith and the same sacraments, and had charity toward one another, separation into distinct autonomous organizations would not detract from perfect ecclesial unity. When a congregation would split into autonomous bodies, this would not necessarily be a schism; it could be a mere branching, so long as the new congregations retained the same faith, sacraments, and charity toward each other.

One obvious problem here, however, is that visible separation is almost always predicated on (or rationalized by) disagreement in faith or sacrament. The unity of faith and sacraments cannot be preserved apart from the unity of ecclesial government, i.e., a shared visible hierarchy. Apart from visible hierarchical unity, fragmentation of faith is inevitable. But another problem is that this ecclesiology in effect eliminates the very possibility of schism understood as separation from shared visible ecclesial authority. And when an ecclesiology has no conceptual room for the possibility of schism, the many warnings about schism in Scripture raise a red flag that ecclesial unity has been defined down.

. . . that they may be one, even as We are . . . . that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee . . . that they may be one, just as We are one . . . that they may be perfected in unity, that the world may know that Thou didst send Me, and didst love them, even as Though didst love Me.  (John 17:11,21-23.)

I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions. (Romans 16:17.)

Now I exhort you brothers through the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that all of you confess the same thing, and there be no schisms among you, but you be united in the same mind and in the same purpose. (1 Corinthians 1:10.)

God has composed [the body of Christ] … that “there should be no schism in the body. (1 Corinthians 12:25.)

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: . . . disputes, dissensions, factions. (Galatians 5:19-20.)

Forbearing one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:3.)

In the last time there shall be mockers, following after their own ungodly lusts. These are the ones who cause divisions. (Jude 1:18-19.)

Given an essentially unified visible hierarchy, schism can never be visibly symmetrical. It will always consist of the Church and the party in schism from the Church. We know that separation from shared visible ecclesial authority never results in two Mystical Bodies. Obviously there cannot be two Mystical Bodies, since the clear answer to St. Paul’s question “Has Christ been divided?” is ‘No.’32 St. Cyprian writes:

God is one and Christ is one, and one is His Church, and the faith is one, and one His people welded together by the glue of concord into a solid unity of body. Unity cannot be rent asunder, nor can the one body of the Church, through the division of its structure, be divided into pieces.33

But what makes that to be so? There are only two possible answers: the invisible pin-cushion conception of the Church, since what is invisible cannot be divided, or a visible principium unitatis, i.e., a perpetual visible head of the visible ecclesial hierarchy. We have shown above why the pin-cushion conception of the Church is incompatible with the Church being a Body. Thus only if there is a principium unitatis can there be such a thing as “schism from,” which is not reducible to heresy or apostasy. This idea of “schism from” can be seen both in Scripture and in the Church fathers:

They went forth from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, surely they would have continued with us. (1 John 2:19.)

Does he think that he has Christ, who acts in opposition to Christ’s priests, who separates himself from the company of His clergy and people?  (St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, d. 258 AD, On the Unity of the Church, 17.)

We think that this difference exists between heresy and schism: heresy has no perfect dogmatic teaching, whereas schism, through some Episcopal dissent, also separates from the Church. (St. Jerome, Comment. in Epist. ad Titum, cap. iii., v. 10-11, emphasis added.)

See what you must beware of — see what you must avoid — see what you must dread. It happens that, as in the human body, some member may be cut off — a hand, a finger, a foot. Does the soul follow the amputated member? As long as it was in the body, it lived; separated, it forfeits its life. So the Christian is a Catholic as long as he lives in the body: cut off from it he becomes a heretic — the life of the spirit follows not the amputated member. (St. Augustine, Sermo cclxvii., n. 4.)

And this is how ’schism’ has been understood and defined in the Catholic Church: schism is defined as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”34 No other definition makes sense, in part because no other definition distinguishes schism from excommunication. Otherwise each party in the schism could with equal warrant say, “No, I excommunicated you.” No other definition shows  why schism is always wrong, even while excommunication is sometimes required. Thus we see that both discipline and schism do not fit into a conception of the Church in which there is lacking an essential visible hierarchical unity. A model of ‘church’ in which both discipline and schism are not possible does great violence to the imperatives of Scripture on both these matters, and is completely at odds with the first fifteen hundred years of Church tradition.

III. Denial of Visibility is Ecclesial Docetism

A. Ecclesial Docetism

In Catholic ecclesiology, the ground of the Church’s unity is Christ, who is both spirit and flesh. We are united to Christ by being united to His Mystical Body through the sacrament of baptism. We are more deeply united to Christ and the Church through the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist. An act of schism separates a person from the Church, and hence from Christ, because the Church is Christ’s own Mystical Body. Catholicism is sacramental, in that it looks for the spiritual through the material, just as we know Christ’s divine nature only through His human nature. We do not, as in gnosticism, attempt to bypass the material, and try here in this life to skirt the sacramental and see directly the divine nature or take the God’s-eye point of view, because that is presently beyond us as material creatures. If we want to know our status in heaven, we inquire concerning our status in His Mystical Body on earth. This earth-to-heaven direction of faith’s epistemology is seen in what Jesus says to the Apostles: “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven.”35 The visible and the invisible are bound together because of the incarnation, wherein what is done to the flesh of Christ is done to the Person of Christ. That is precisely why excommunication has teeth; it truly cuts a person off from Christ.

Consider one common Protestant position, according to which all Christians are equally united to Christ by faith alone, and therefore equally united to the Church. I have described this position above as the pin-cushion model. According to this notion of the Church, schism does not do anything to the unity of all Christians, only to the outward manifestation of our otherwise intact spiritual unity. This is a de-materialized (i.e., spiritualized) ecclesiology that in this respect is both gnostic and docetic. Since the incarnate Christ is both spirit and flesh, the visible unity of His Mystical Body is not merely an “outward expression” of the Church’s real spiritual and invisible unity, just as sexual union is not merely a physical expression of the inward/spiritual unity of husband and wife. Sexual union truly should be a bodily expression of a spiritual union. But sexual union is not merely an outward expression of spiritual unity; it is itself a real union of husband and wife. Likewise, the visible unity of the Church (including hierarchical unity) is a real unity of the Mystical Body, not merely an outward expression of the real unity which is spiritual and invisible.

The root problem here is a kind of dualism that treats the spiritual as the really real, and the material as a mere context for the expression of the spiritual. This reduces the Mystical Body to a spirit having some visible members, an invisible pin-cushion with some visible pins. Wherever schism is treated as not separating a person (to some degree) from Christ, there the Church is being treated as fundamentally and intrinsically invisible, with some visible members. Denying the essential unity of the visible hierarchy treats the Mystical Body of Christ as though it is not actually and essentially a Body, because visible hierarchical unity is essential and intrinsic to a body. If a body ceases to be visibly hierarchically one, it ceases to be. This is why a human being cannot survive disintegration of his body. So if visible unity is only accidental to something, that thing is not a living body; it is, at most, only the appearance of a body. Hence those who claim that the Mystical Body of Christ is invisibly one and visibly divided are treating the Body of Christ as though it were merely an apparent Body, not an actual Body. That is why this position is rightly described as ecclesial docetism,  because docetism is the heresy which claimed that Christ only appeared to be a man.

That does not mean that we must fall into some kind of ecclesial Eutychianism. Eutychianism, which is also called Monophysitism (meaning “one nature”), was condemned at the Fourth General Council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. According to the Monophysites, Jesus’ humanity was absorbed into His divine nature such that He no longer has a human nature, having only His divine nature (hence “Monophysitism”). Docetism and Eutychianism both deny that Christ has a human nature. For that reason, both docetic and Eutychian notions of the Mystical Body of Christ treat the Church as in itself invisible, spiritual, and immaterial, only visible in the sense that it makes use of embodied human believers in much the same way that the Logos (i.e. the Second Person of the Trinity), according to a docetic conception, perhaps made use of material elements in order to appear as though having a physical body, but was not actually made up of those material elements, nor were they parts of Him. Chalcedonian Christology, with its affirmation of two distinct natures united without mixture in one hypostatic union, entails that the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ is in itself visible and hierarchically organized as one corporate entity.36

The charge that Catholic ecclesiology is Eutychian asserts that the Catholic claim [that the visible Body of Christ is essentially one] mistakenly attributes to the visible aspect of the Church what is only true of the invisible aspect of the Church, and in that way falsely attributes what is only true of the divine nature of Christ to His human nature, as Eutychianism does. But this charge is based on the mistaken notion that visible hierarchical unity is not intrinsically essential to a living human body. The real distinction between Christ’s divine nature and His human nature does not imply that the Mystical Body of Christ is not necessarily visibly one any more than it would imply that Christ’s physical body could continue to exist even if all its parts were separated. Rather, because Christ truly possesses human nature, His Mystical Body is necessarily visibly one in its hierarchy, just as his physical body is necessarily visibly one its hierarchy. A living human body is essentially visibly one. If it ceases to be visibly one, it ceases to be. Hence, its visible hierarchical unity is essential to its being. That is why the Catholic doctrine that the Mystical Body of Christ is essentially visibly one in its hierarchy is not Eutychian.

B. What Does Ecclesial Docetism Look Like in Practice?

The spirituality and visibility of the Church are no more opposed to each other than the soul and body of a man, or, better, than the divinity and humanity in Christ. . . . It is because it ignores this inseparable twofold character of the Church that Protestantism, Lutheran and Reformed, has never succeeded in resisting the temptation to distinguish, by opposing them, an invisible and sole evangelical Church, on the one hand, and, on the other, visible, human, and sinful Churches.37

In practice, ecclesial docetism entails ecclesial consumerism, because it eliminates the notion of finding and submitting to the Church that Christ founded. In the mindset of ecclesial docetism, what one looks for, insofar as one looks, is a community of persons who share one’s own interpretation of Scripture. In ecclesial docetism the identity of the Church is not determined by form and matter, but by form alone. Which form? The form of one’s own interpretation of Scripture. This reveals why there are so many different Protestant denominations, worship centers, and ecclesial communities, none of them sharing the three bonds of unity with any of the others. Just as the practical effect of docetism is a Christ of our own making, disconnected from the historical flesh-and-blood Christ, so the practical effect of ecclesial docetism is a Church made in the image of our own interpretation, disconnected from the historical Church.

This is expressed doctrinally as a denial of the materiality or sacramentality of apostolic succession. Ecclesial docetism redefines ‘apostolic succession’ as preservation of form, i.e., preservation of the doctrine of the Apostles. But without the material component of apostolic succession, the individual becomes the final interpretive arbiter of what the apostolic doctrine is. And so the ‘church-shopping’ commences. And where there is a great variation of demand, a great variation of supply arises. ‘Church’ is reduced to a consumer-driven enterprise, based on each person’s own internal perception of his own spiritual needs and how the competing organizations, institutions, or communities meet those needs. This turns ‘church’ into something egocentric rather than God-centered.

Another necessary effect of ecclesial docetism is apathy regarding visible divisions between Christians, communities, and denominations. If the unity of the Church is spiritual, insofar as each believer is invisibly united to Christ by faith alone, then pursuing visible unity is superfluous, even presumptuous in its attempt to outdo Christ.38 If there is no essentially unified visible hierarchy, then while there may be certain pragmatic reasons for ecumenical cooperation, as there are within political parties, there can be no divine mandate that there be no schisms among us. Ecclesial docetism redefines the term ‘Church’ to refer to an invisible entity into which all believers are perfectly joined no matter to which visible institution (if any) they presently belong.

Herein lies a noteworthy point.  Ecclesial docetism conceptually eliminates the very possibility of schism. It does so not by reconciling separated parties, but by defining unity down, as something merely spiritual, and so de-materializing schism as something invisible, and spiritual, i.e., merely a deficiency in charity. Ecclesial docetism treats visible divisions of separated hierarchies as branches. Ecclesial docetism denies the sinfulness of schism, not openly or explicitly, but definitionally and thus surreptitiously. It calls what is actually evil (i.e., schisms) innocuous, if not good. It hides from schismatics their state of not being in full communion with the Mystical Body of Christ, depriving them of the fullness of grace they would receive in full communion with Christ’s Church.

IV. What the Catholic Church Teaches About the Visibility of the Church

A. Church Hierarchy and Unity

From the first century, the Catholic Church has always taught that schism is sinful, and that it is not merely a deficiency of charity, but a separation from the visible hierarchy of the Church. This is evident in the letter of St. Clement of Rome to the Corinthians at the end of the first century, just a few years after the death of the last surviving apostle. We can see it also from St. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch (d. 107 AD), who wrote:

Where the bishop is, there is the community, even as where Christ is there is the Catholic Church.39


As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavour that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled. There is one Jesus Christ, than whom nothing is more excellent. Therefore run together as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ, who came forth from one Father, and is with and has gone to one.40

We can see it too in St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage (d. 258 AD):

It must be understood that the bishop is in the Church and the Church in the bishop and he is not in the Church who is not with the bishop.41

St. Jerome writes most plainly:

Between heresy and schism there is this difference, that heresy perverts dogma, while schism, by rebellion against the bishop, separates from the Church. Nevertheless there is no schism which does not trump up a heresy to justify its departure from the Church.42

Pope Leo XIII, in unambiguous language, teaches that the notion that the Church is “hidden and invisible” is a “pernicious error”:

[T]hose who arbitrarily conjure up and picture to themselves a hidden and invisible Church are in grievous and pernicious error: as also are those who regard the Church as a human institution which claims a certain obedience in discipline and external duties, but which is without the perennial communication of the gifts of divine grace, and without all that which testifies by constant and undoubted signs to the existence of that life which is drawn from God. It is assuredly as impossible that the Church of Jesus Christ can be the one or the other, as that man should be a body alone or a soul alone. The connection and union of both elements is as absolutely necessary to the true Church as the intimate union of the soul and body is to human nature.43

Pope Pius XII says something quite similar about the notion of the Church’s being invisible:

Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely “pneumatological” as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are untied by an invisible bond.44

From what We have thus far written, and explained, Venerable Brethren, it is clear, We think, how grievously they err who arbitrarily claim that the Church is something hidden and invisible, as they also do who look upon her as a mere human institution possession a certain disciplinary code and external ritual, but lacking power to communicate supernatural life. On the contrary, as Christ, Head and Exemplar of the Church “is not complete, if only His visible human nature is considered…, or if only His divine, invisible nature…, but He is one through the union of both and one in both … so is it with His Mystical Body” since the Word of God took unto Himself a human nature liable to sufferings, so that He might consecrate in His blood the visible Society founded by Him and “lead man back to things invisible under a visible rule.45

For this reason We deplore and condemn the pernicious error of those who dream of an imaginary Church, a kind of society that finds its origin and growth in charity, to which, somewhat contemptuously, they oppose another, which they call juridical. But this distinction which they introduce is false: for they fail to understand that the reason which led our Divine Redeemer to give to the community of man He founded the constitution of a Society, perfect of its kind and containing all the juridical and social elements – namely, that He might perpetuate on earth the saving work of Redemption, – was also the reason why He willed it to be enriched with the heavenly gifts of the Paraclete. The Eternal Father indeed willed it to be the “kingdom of the Son of his predilection;” but it was to be a real kingdom in which all believers should make Him the entire offering of their intellect and will, and humbly and obediently model themselves on Him, Who for our sake “was made obedient unto death.” There can, then, be no real opposition or conflict between the invisible mission of the Holy spirit and the juridical commission of Ruler and Teacher received from Christ, since they mutually complement and perfect each other – as do the body and soul in man – and proceed from our one Redeemer who not only said as He breathed on the Apostles “Receive ye the Holy Spirit,” but also clearly commanded: “As the Father hath sent me, I also send you;” and again: “He that heareth you, heareth me.46

The constant teaching of the Catholic Church is that Christ founded a visible Church with an essentially unified visible hierarchy. Some people incorrectly think that Vatican II denied the essential unity of the visible hierarchy of the Church. Vatican II did not deny the essential unity of the visible hierarchy of the Church. The issue here is not whether grace and the work of the Holy Spirit can extend beyond the visible boundaries of the Mystical Body of Christ. Of course it can, otherwise no one would ever enter the Church. The issue has nothing to do with invincible ignorance and salvation.47 God could have given grace directly, but He wished to give men also the gift of collaborating with Him in dispensing the graces of Redemption, and so He founded His visible Church.48

B. The Church and the Kingdom

Many Christians do not realize that the Catholic Church is and claims to be the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, in the Kingdom’s nascent stage. They mistakenly think of the Kingdom as either entirely invisible, entirely spiritual, or entirely future. Lumen Gentium specifically affirms that the Church is Christ’s Kingdom:

The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world.49

By “present in mystery” the Council meant that the Catholic Church is the Kingdom of Heaven in its beginning or seminal stage, i.e. the stage prior to the return of Christ. We do not now see the fullness of the Kingdom. But the Catholic Church is the present rule of Christ on the earth. Jesus did not say to Peter, “I give you the keys of the Church, but I retain the keys of the Kingdom.” Rather, Jesus said to Peter, “I will give to you [singular] the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven.”50 The keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are the apostolic authority over the Church. That is why the Catechism says,

The Church is the seed and beginning of this kingdom. Her keys are entrusted to Peter.51

To fulfill the Father’s will, Christ ushered in the Kingdom of heaven on earth. The Church is the Reign of Christ already present in mystery.52

The Church is ultimately one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in her deepest and ultimate identity, because it is in her that the Kingdom of heaven, the Reign of God, already exists and will be fulfilled at the end of time.53

In the Gospels Jesus refers to the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) over eighty times. He compares the Kingdom to a mustard seed that grows into a tree, and to leaven that comes to leaven a whole lump.54 Those examples do not fit with a merely eschatological conception of the Kingdom. Nor does Christ’s teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand. (Matthew 4:17) Nor does His claim that the Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence at the hands of violent men. (Matthew 11:12, Luke 16:16) Nor does His claim that the Kingdom of Heaven may be compared to the parable of the wheat and tares, (Matthew 13:24ff) or to the laborers in the vineyard. (Matthew 20:1ff) Christ’s teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a dragnet that gathers fish of every kind is paralleled in the account in John 21 where the disciples catch 153 fish and draw the net upon the land. That account clearly refers to the Apostles, as fishers of men, bringing all the nations into the Church, and in this way we again see that the Church is the Kingdom in its present stage.  That is why Jesus says, “I say to you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28), because John was martyred before Jesus inaugurated the Kingdom, i.e. the Church.

A number of “Kingdom” passages in the Gospels refer to the Kingdom in its final state, but some interpreters mistakenly conclude from that fact that all Gospel references to the Kingdom are eschatological. One Protestant reading of Jesus’ statement, “For behold, the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:21), interprets the Kingdom as something in itself internal, spiritual, and invisible, in our hearts. But the notion that the Kingdom must be either internal or external is a false dilemma. Christ now governs His people through His Church, through the Apostles and the bishops they appointed.

The New Testament authors understand the Church as the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant.55 The angel Gabriel tells Mary that the Lord God will give her Son the “throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”56 God had promised to David that his throne would be established forever, and that he would not lack a man on his throne.57 This promise was fulfilled when Christ the King, the Son of David, conceived by the Holy Spirit, established the Kingdom that will never end. Likewise, God had promised David that his son would sit on his throne in his place, and build the house for God’s name.58 But Solomon was a type of Christ, because Christ is building the Church, which is the true and everlasting temple of God. That is why St. Paul, quoting Isaiah, refers to Christ as the “root of Jesse” who “arises to rule over the Gentiles.”59 This ruling over the Gentiles is taking place now, through the Church. And at the Jerusalem Council, St. James, the bishop of Jerusalem, quotes the prophet Amos regarding the Church age as “that day” when God raises up the fallen tabernacle of David, so that “the rest of mankind may seek the Lord.”60 We have come, says the author of Hebrews, not to Mount Sinai, but to Mount Zion, the city of David, the heavenly Jerusalem. That city is the Church, the house of God, a kingdom that cannot be shaken.61

The prophet Isaiah had written of Christ’s Kingdom:

“Of the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”62

His kingdom will continue to increase, will never be overturned, because it is divinely established. The prophet Daniel also wrote of Christ’s Kingdom. Speaking to Nebuchadnezzar, Daniel says:

“As you looked, a stone was cut out by no human hand, and it struck the image on its feet of iron and clay, and broke them in pieces … But the stone that struck the image became a great mountain and filled the whole earth. … And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which shall never be destroyed, nor shall its sovereignty be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.”63

When would God set up this Kingdom that will never be destroyed? At the time of the fourth kingdom of men, namely the kingdom of Rome. This was fulfilled at the time of Christ. A Protestant who conceives of Christ’s Kingdom as something invisible or spiritual may agree that Christ introduced His Kingdom two-thousand years ago, but not see that this Kingdom is the Catholic Church. But Jesus said the following:

“As My Father appointed a kingdom for Me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.”64

Christ shows His Apostles that they will eat and drink in His Kingdom and sit on twelve thrones. Eating at His table refers in the present age to the Eucharistic table. Sitting on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel refers to their governance of the Church, because the Church is the New Israel, the universal (i.e. catholic) reign of the Messiah. This term for throne (θρνος) is where we get the word cathedral, which derives from the Latin cathedra, meaning ‘chair of the bishop.’ From this passage in Luke we also see that Christ prays especially for Peter, and charges him to strengthen his brothers. In Matthew 16:18-19, Christ, the Chief Cornerstone, designates Simon to be Peter, the rock upon whom Christ will build His Church. This is the Kingdom that will never be defeated, but will prevail to the end of time.

“And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”65

What are these “keys of the Kingdom”? They are the keys of the house of David, which Isaiah prophecies about as being entrusted to the King’s steward.66 Christ has given the keys of the Kingdom to Peter, His steward. This is the Petrine office, the chair of St. Peter the Apostle. Jesus refers to this role in a parable, when He says,

“Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time?”67

Christ rules the Church through the men He has entrusted with the keys of His Kingdom, and given the authority to speak in His name. The Church has always understood herself to be the present stage of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.  Christ does not have two Brides: His Church and His Kingdom. He has one Bride, which is His Church and His Kingdom. He and His Bride are “one flesh”, that is, one Mystical Body. For this reason, the Catholic understanding of “advancing the Kingdom of God” is to bring people into the reign of Christ, that is, into the Catholic Church. The Lord’s Prayer does not ignore the Church; when we pray “Thy Kingdom come”, we are praying for the growth of the Catholic Church, the increase of Christ’s reign within her, and the final glorious return of the King. Understanding that the Church is the present form of Christ’s Kingdom helps us understand why the Church must have a unified visible hierarchy; it also helps make sense of the way St. Ignatius of Antioch exhorts Christians to follow their bishops, as a general might urge his troops to follow their commanders. When the centurion said, “I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me” (Matthew 8:9, Luke 7:8), his words applied not only to the Roman army, but to the enduring Kingdom Daniel saw in his vision, that is, to the Catholic Church.

V. Reformed positions, and critique

A. Positions

Here we will consider two Reformed positions on the visibility and invisibility of the church.

1. Position: The Visible Church Is the Church as People See It

One Reformed perspective maintains that by “church” a distinction must be drawn between that which people see and that which God alone sees. This distinction has historically been coined in the two terms “visible church” and “invisible church.” In this use, the “invisible church” is not completely without parts that can be seen; rather, its exact boundary is not perceivable or knowable to us. That is because in this ecclesiology, “invisible church” refers to the set of all persons elected to glory. Only God knows which members of the earthly congregations are elect and inwardly born again,68 and thus belong to the eternal and spiritual fellowship of the Church. Contrariwise, we can perceive, and thus know who is a part of the “visible church,” that is, who is a member of an Evangelical body, whether that be a denomination or a local congregation unaffiliated with any denomination. But this affiliation provides no guarantee about the affiliant’s inward conversion. Jesus taught that in this organized church there would always be members, not excluding its leaders, who seemed to be Christians but were nevertheless not renewed in their heart and would be rejected at the Last Judgment.69

These terms do not mean that there are two churches, one visible and another hidden in heaven. Rather, in Reformed ecclesiology there is only one church, and it is known perfectly to God and known imperfectly on earth.70 This church on earth is one in Christ despite the great number of local congregations and denominations.71 It is holy because it is corporately consecrated to God,72 just as each Christian is individually. It is catholic, meaning “universal,” because it exists worldwide. Finally, it is apostolic because it is founded upon apostolic teaching.73 All four qualities may be seen in Ephesians 2:19-22.74

2. Position: Christ Founded a Mere Plurality of Believers Without a Shared Hierarchy

Luther, Calvin, and the other Reformers taught that the visible church was merely the “multitude” of believers spread over the earth. Martin Luther described the visible church as “the holy Christian people.” He wrote:

If the words, “I believe that there is a holy Christian people,” had been used in the Children’s Creed, all the misery connected with this meaningless and obscure word (”church”) might easily have been avoided…. Ecclesia … should mean the holy Christian people, not only of the days of the apostles, who are long since dead, but to the end of the world….75

John Calvin wrote:

How we are to judge the church visible, which falls within our knowledge, is, I believe, already evident from the above discussion. For we have said that Holy Scripture speaks of the church in two ways. Sometimes by the term “church” it means that which is actually in God’s presence, into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Then indeed, the church includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world. Often, however, the name “church” designates the whole multitude of men spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ.76

The church universal is a multitude gathered from all nations; it is divided and dispersed in separate places, but agrees on the one truth of divine doctrine, and is bound by the bond of the same religion. Under it are thus included individual churches, disposed in towns and villages according to human need, so that each rightly has the name and authority of the church.77

Finally, and helpfully explicit, the Westminster Confession of Faith says of the Church visible:

The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof… The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal…consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.78

Instructing on this section, PCA Pastor TM Moore explains that “the most important institution that God has ordained for His people is, in fact, no institution at all. Rather, it is His own Body – the Church.”79

In sum, this visible church is the non-hierarchical collection or plurality of all professing Christians, some of whom are elect and others of whom are not; there are no elect outside of this visible church.80

B. Evaluations

These two Reformed ecclesial positions are essentially equivalent because there is no principled difference between them.  For both, what is called “the visible Church” is a mere plurality of visible things. In the first description, the members are individual congregations not hierarchically united under a single visible hierarchy. In the second description the members are individual believers not hierarchically united under a single visible hierarchy. Therefore under both descriptions what is absent is a unified visible hierarchy, and that is why the result can be nothing more than a mere plurality of visible things, united at most by their invisible union to the invisible Christ.

To understand why it cannot be that Christ founded a “visible church” consisting merely of a multitude of believers spread across the world, we need to consider the difference between a mere plurality and an actual composite whole. A mere plurality is not an actual entity, but only a conceptual entity, i.e. an abstraction of some sort. Imagine the set of all the objects on my desk. The members of that set include books, a printer, some photos, some coins, pens, prayer cards, a toy space shuttle, a piece of hard candy, a lamp, etc. I can refer to these things with a singular term: “set” (as in, “The set of all the things on my desk”). But on my desk there is no single thing consisting of the books, the printer, the photos, the coins, pens, etc. There is no set-of-things on my desk, only individual things that can be referred to collectively as belonging to a set. Though the members of the set are actual, the set itself is only a mental construct, not an actual entity.

Contrast that with the parts of my body. The parts of my body are not a mere plurality, or a mere set. They compose an actual whole, namely, me. In that respect, the parts of my body are not like the objects on my desk. The parts of my body are a plurality, but they are not a mere plurality like the objects on my desk. The parts of my body compose an actual whole.

So when a person claims that the visible Church is the set of all embodied believers, he is reducing the visible Church to a mental construct. He seems to be affirming the existence of the visible Church, but he has adopted an ecclesiological position in which there is no such thing as the visible Church — there are only embodied believers, just as in actuality there are only objects on my desk, and not, in addition to the objects on my desk, one more item, namely, the set of objects on my desk. That is why those who claim that the visible Church is the set of all embodied believers hold a position in which there is no visible Church per se; there are only visible believers, invisibly connected to the invisible Christ. And that is why those who claim that the visible Church is the set of all embodied believers hold a position that is equivalent in principle to that of those who deny that the Church is visible, and who affirm that the Church per se is invisible. For this reason, the claim in the Westminster Confession of Faith that “the visible Church … consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion,” is equivalent in principle to the claim of those who deny that the Church is visible .81 In other words, even though the Reformed confessions refer to a “visible Church”, this is only semantically different from those Protestant ecclesiologies that explicitly deny the visibility of the Church. But neither the pin-cushion ecclesial model nor the mere plurality ecclesial model are compatible with St. Paul’s teaching that the Church is the Body of Christ.

Catholic ecclesiology is not subject to this problem precisely because the Catholic Church is hierarchically unified. Reductionism treats actual composite wholes as though they were mere pluralities of smaller simples, and in this way fails to account fully for the being, unity and activity of actual composite wholes.82 Because the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church is analogous to that of an organism, it is for this same reason not subject to eliminative reductionism. The visible hierarchical unity of the Catholic Church unites all its dioceses, parishes and members not in a mere plurality or in a pin-cushion model, but in an actual composite whole, i.e. a visible unity.

VI. Implications

A. The Identity of the Church

Given that the Church Christ founded is visible, and has an essentially united visible hierarchy, it follows that the identity and extent of the Church can be known, by tracing its visible hierarchy through history. When the early Church fathers write about the Catholic Church, they are referring to a definite Body. They are not referring to a mere plurality of persons or congregations, without an essentially unified visible hierarchy. They are referring to the visible Body picked out precisely by the essential unity of its visible hierarchy, and especially the visible head of that visible hierarchy. This involves two of the four marks of the Church as specified by the Nicene Creed: unity and apostolicity. “We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” This Church referred to in the Creed (as an article of the Christian faith) is the Catholic Church. We saw above the visible hierarchy of the Church treated as the locus of the Church’s identification in St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote, “Where the bishop is, there is the community, even as where Christ is there is the Catholic Church.”83 St. Irenaeus (d. ~200 AD) likewise speaks of this Church:

The Catholic Church, having received the apostolic teaching and faith, though spread over the whole world, guards it sedulously, as though dwelling in one house; and these truths she uniformly teaches, as having but one soul and one heart; these truths she proclaims, teaches, and hands down as though she had but one mouth.84

St. Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD) speaks of her:

But the brightness of the Catholic Church proceeded to increase in greatness, for it ever held to the same points in the same way, and radiated forth to all the race of Greeks and barbarians the reverent, sincere, and free nature, and the sobriety and purity of the divine teaching as to conduct and thought.85

St. Augustine (354-430 AD) writes:

The Catholic Church is the work of Divine Providence, achieved through the prophecies of the prophets, through the Incarnation and the teaching of Christ, through the journeys of the Apostles, through the suffering, the crosses, the blood and death of the martyrs, through the admirable lives of the saints, and in all these, at opportune times, through miracles worthy of such great deeds and virtues. When, then, we see so much help on God’s part, so much progress and so much fruit, shall we hesitate to bury ourselves in the bosom of that Church? For starting from the apostolic chair down through succession of bishops, even unto the open confession of all mankind, it has possessed the crown of teaching authority.86

Perhaps St. Ambrose (340-397), bishop of Milan, sums it up best, when he writes:

“It is to Peter himself that He says, “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” Where Peter is, there is the Church. And where the Church, no death is there, but life eternal.”87

In short, given this analysis of the essential unity of a visible ecclesial hierarchy, the only plausible candidate for the Church Christ founded, identified by an essentially unified visible hierarchy tracing its succession back to the Apostles, is the Catholic Church. Given that the Church Christ founded is visible, and so has an essentially unified visible hierarchy, it  thus follows that the Church Christ founded is the Catholic Church, i.e. that society of faith in full communion with the episcopal successor of St. Peter.

B. The Promises to the Church Are to the Visible Church

If the Catholic Church is the Church Christ founded, then the promises Christ makes to the Church are not promises to a merely invisible entity having visible members, but are promises to the Catholic Church. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the Catholic Church.88 Christ has promised to be with the Catholic Church to the end of the age.89 Christ has promised that the Holy Spirit will guide the Catholic Church into all truth.90 Whatever the Catholic Church binds on earth will be bound in heaven.91 The Catholic Church is the pillar and ground of truth.92 All these promises would be superfluous and unhelpful if intended only for the set of all the elect. Only if they refer to a Body with a visible hierarchy do they even make sense. Once we see what it means for the Church to be visible, then we see precisely why we can trust Christ by trusting the Catholic Church. Grasping the visibility of the Church, and thus the identity of the Church, and thus the divine guarantees concerning the Church, we can then understand how it follows that the Catholic Church is indefectible.

Christ’s promise to the Church that the Holy Spirit will guide her into all truth grounds the possibility for the development of doctrine. “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.”93 The possibility of development of doctrine depends on an essentially unified visible hierarchy. Otherwise there is no definitive determination of the canon, or of orthodoxy and heresy. No mere association of denominations or congregations has the authority to bind the conscience of followers of Christ. Every decision of every synod or session or council or assembly would remain ‘up-for-grabs’, subject to subsequent refutation. Development requires the definitive resolution of disputes, so that the Church as a whole can recognize a question as definitively settled, and then build upon the Magisterial answer. Without an essentially unified visible hierarchy, we are left with biblicism. And that is why Protestantism, lacking an essentially unified visible hierarchy, must trace a path of decay through one of two paths: liberalism or a biblicism that fades into what Michael Spencer calls “the post-Evangelical wilderness.” Christ’s promises to the Catholic Church built on Christ the Cornerstone, and the rock of Peter, insure that ecclesial deism is false; they ensure that when the Magisterium speaks definitively, it is the Holy Spirit speaking.

The essentially unified visible hierarchy of the Church allows her to be not only Magistra (i.e. teacher) but also Mater (mother). This is the meaning of the phrase “Mater et Magistra.” John Calvin maintained that the  holy Catholic Church is our mother.94 He writes,

But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness fo sins or any salvation, as Isaiah [Isaiah 37:32] and Joel [Joel 2:32] testify. … By these words God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church.95

Calvin was not intending to speak of the Catholic Church in union with the successor of St. Peter. However, without an essentially unified visible hierarchy, what Calvin says here about the Church as our mother, makes no sense. That is because without an essentially unified visible hierarchy, there is no visible catholic (i.e. universal) Church; there are only visible Christians, and visible congregations and provincial denominations. None of these is our mother. Nor are they, without being under the essentially unified visible hierarchy, part of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. They may be invisibly joined to Christ, but they do not form a unified visible entity; they remain only a visible plurality indistinguishable from a plenitude of schisms. Without an essentially visible hierarchy, there is no visible Church, and thus there is no Church as Mater.

C. Ecumenicism

If Christ founded a visible Church, and His promises refer to this visible Church, then the goal of ecumenicism is not only agreement on doctrine and agreement on sacraments, but full communion under the same visible hierarchy, the one authorized by the Apostles and their successors. Christ’s prayer in John 17 concerning our unity, “that the world may know” entails that we are called to full visible unity. Yet these three bonds of unity are so related that each depends upon the other two. Just as we cannot maintain unity of faith and sacraments without visible hierarchical unity, so we cannot determine or discover precisely what faith it is that we are to hold, apart from this unified visible hierarchy. Insofar as the ‘mere Christianity’ form of ecumenicism seeks to determine some set of essential doctrines, apart from the essentially unified visible hierarchy, this form of ecumenicism is intrinsically incapable of attaining its goal.96 For this reason the success of ecumenicism depends not on first finding doctrinal agreement, but on locating the ground and basis of magisterial authority. As Fr. Jeffrey Steel recently said, “on whose terms does this reunion take place?”97 This metalevel question lies at the very center of the ecumenical endeavor.

Without reference to the unified visible hierarchy, the “mere Christianity” form of ecumenicism is indistinguishable from a call to settle for common ground between the Church, heresies and schisms. And that is what makes the Catholic Church’s approach to ecumenicism almost intrinsically offensive to all other Christians. It makes the Catholic Church stick out among all the Protestant demoninations, because none of them claim to be the Church that Christ founded. For example, when the Holy See released Responsa ad Quaestiones in July of 2007, the World Council of Churches expressed its disagreement, claiming that “Each church is the Church catholic and not simply a part of it. Each church is the Church catholic, but not the whole of it.” To the “World Council of Churches” (of which the Catholic Church is not a member), the very notion that one visible Body individuated by one visible hierarchy is the one true Church that Christ founded, is offensive. But the exclusivity of the claims of Christ’s Church should be no more surprising than the exclusivity of the claims of Christ Himself, who said, “No man comes to the Father, but by Me.”98

VII. Conclusion

We have provided evidence and argumentation here that Christ founded a visible Church, and that this Church is visible not merely because some of its members are embodied, and not because local congregations and denominations exist. The Church Christ founded is visible because, as His Mystical Body, it necessarily has an essentially united visible hierarchy; this is the hierarchy of bishops and priests united under the episcopal successor of St. Peter, the visible head appointed by Christ. Without an essentially united visible hierarchy, Church discipline would not be possible. That is because only Catholic ecclesiology is sacramental, i.e. non-gnostic. Any ecclesiology in which members, whether these be individual Christians or congregations, are said to be fully united to Christ’s Church through an internal invisible connection, nullifies the spiritual consequences of visible excommunication. Yet every ecclesiology denying that Christ founded an essentially united visible hierarchy must posit an invisible connection between the members and Christ. Likewise, denying that Christ founded an essentially unified visible hierarchy reduces schisms to branches, and treats them as innocuous or even desirable, falsely construing them as much-needed diversity. If that seems inconceivable, ask yourself this question: If these were not branches, but schisms, what would be different about them? Treating schisms as mere branches calls ‘good’ what is evil, so it is essential that we be able to distinguish a branch from a schism, and yet nothing short of Catholic ecclesiology makes sense of the distinction. Every ecclesiology short of Catholic ecclesiology falls into some form of ecclesial docetism, since it treats the universal Church per se as though it were not visible, not having an essentially unified hierarchy, and thus not as a Body. The bodily nature of the Church allows the Church to be both Mater et Magistra. It makes sense of Scripture’s teaching regarding the locus and universal nature of the Kingdom of Heaven presently on earth. This Kingdom is not invisible, but visible, present in the mystery of the Catholic Church. Though the Kingdom (i.e. the Church) will achieve its fullness only when Christ returns, even now the thrones of its stewards are visible, not invisible, and its law is canon law. Reformed ecclesiology attempts to avoid denying the visibility of the Church, but without a unified visible catholic hierarchy, what Reformed ecclesiology refers to as “the visible Church” cannot be a Body, only a mere plurality of members (whether individual persons or congregations) each invisibly connected to Christ. The ‘visible Church’ terminology in Reformed ecclesiology is for that reason merely semantical, not substantive. A mere plurality of congregations is no more of a unified Body than is a mere plurality of persons. That is why Reformed ecclesiolgy in essence is indistinguishable from the ecclesiology of those who deny the visibility of the Church per se. The visibility of the Mystical Body of Christ implies that it is a definite Body that can be traced through history, that the promises Christ made concerning the Church apply to it, and that the key to the ecumenical endeavor centers not around some shared minimum of doctrinal common ground, but around the identification of the Church’s unified visible hierarchy in succession from the Apostles.

May God grant all Christians the joy of being in full communion with His Mystical Body. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Bryan Cross and Thomas Brown, Octave of Pentecost, 2009.

  1. Some Protestants grant that Christ founded a visible, hierarchically organized Body, but believe that at some point in history it ceased to exist.
  2. ”This is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.”  (John 17:3.) See also Matthew 5:8; 1 John 3:2; 1 Corinthians 13:12; Revelation 22:4. “[T]he divine essence immediately manifests itself to [the souls in heaven], plainly, clearly and openly, and in this vision they enjoy the divine essence. Moreover, by this vision [i.e. the Beatific Vision of the divine essence] and enjoyment the souls of those who have already died are truly blessed and have eternal life and rest.” (Benedictus Deus, from 1336 AD.)
  3. Cf. Mystici Corporis Christi, 60.
  4. Pope Pius XII wrote:

It is manifestly clear that the faithful need the help of the Divine Redeemer, for He has said: “Without me you can do nothing,” and according to the teaching of the Apostle every advance of this Mystical Body towards its perfection derives from Christ the Head. Yet this, also, must be held, marvelous though it may seem: Christ has need of His members. First, because the person of Jesus Christ is represented by the Supreme Pontiff, who in turn must call on others to share much of his solicitude lest he be overwhelmed by the burden of his pastoral office, and must be helped daily by the prayers of the Church. Moreover as our Savior does not rule the Church directly in a visible manner, He wills to be helped by the members of His Body in carrying out the work of redemption. That is not because He is indigent and weak, but rather because He has so willed it for the greater glory of His spotless Spouse. Dying on the Cross He left to His Church the immense treasury of the Redemption, towards which she contributed nothing. But when those graces come to be distributed, not only does He share this work of sanctification with His Church, but He wills that in some way it be due to her action. (Mystici Corporis Christi, 44.)

5.      Again, as in nature a body is not formed by any haphazard grouping of members but must be constituted of organs, that is of members, that have not the same function and are arranged in due order; so for this reason above all the Church is called a body, that it is constituted by the coalescence of structurally untied parts, and that it has a variety of members reciprocally dependent.” (Mystici Corporis Christi, 16.)

  1. ”What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church.” CCC 797. Similarly, Pope Leo XIII wrote, “Let it suffice to say that, as Christ is the Head of the Church, so is the Holy Spirit her soul.” Divinum Illud Munus, 6.
  2. In Ioan. 21.8.
  3. Summa Theologica III Q.48 a.2 ad 1.
  4. An extrinsic union is one in which, for example, a mere plurality is conceived in the mind as if it were an actual unity, though it remains in actuality a mere plurality. An intrinsic union, by contrast, is one in which individuals, in their very being, become parts of something else.
  5. ”In a natural body the principle of unity so unites the parts, that each lacks its own individual subsistence; on the contrary in the Mystical Body that mutual union, though intrinsic, links the members by a bond which leaves to each intact his own personality.” Mystici Corporis Christi, 61.
  6. Even Christ’s resurrected physical body was hierarchically organized. Jesus said “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Luke 24:39.
  7. ”[P]recisely because it is a body is the Church visible.” Satis Cognitum, 3.
  8. Satis Cognitum, 3.
  9. If we were to have touched Christ’s physical Body, we would truly have touched God, because His physical Body is truly united to Him through what is called the hypostatic union. Likewise, when we touch His Mystical Body, we also touch God, because by the union of members and Head, the Body of Christ is Christ. This is how we understand Christ’s own identification with us in verses such as Matthew 25:35 and Acts 9:4. We are members of His Mystical Body, and this union of members and Head is so intimate that we form one Mystic Person, just as the cells in a body form one organism.
  10. Mystici Corporis Christi, 14.
  11. See also here.
  12. Responsa ad quaestiones.
  13. This is why Jesus says, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.” (Matt. 6:24.) We cannot be oriented fundamentally toward two (or more) distinct ends, unless one end is ordered to the other.
  14. Catechism of the Catholic Church 815.
  15. Ludwig Ott writes: “A threefold sensible bond binds the members of the Church to one another, and makes them known as such: the profession of the same Faith, the use of the same means of grace, and the subordination to the same authority.” Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma 301 (1952).

21.  Hence as the Apostles and Disciples were bound to obey Christ, so also those whom the Apostles taught were, by God’s command, bound to obey them. And, therefore, it was no more allowable to repudiate one iota of the Apostles’ teaching than it was to reject any point of the doctrine of Christ Himself. . . . But . . . the Apostolic mission was not destined to die with the Apostles themselves, or to come to an end in the course of time, since it was intended for the people at large and instituted for the salvation of the human race. For Christ commanded His Apostles to preach the “Gospel to every creature, to carry His name to nations and kings, and to be witnesses to him to the ends of the earth.” He further promised to assist them in the fulfillment of their high mission, and that, not for a few years or centuries only, but for all time – “even to the consummation of the world.” Upon which St. Jerome says: “He who promises to remain with His Disciples to the end of the world declares that they will be for ever victorious, and that He will never depart from those who believe in Him” (In Matt., lib. iv., cap. 28, v. 20). But how could all this be realized in the Apostles alone, placed as they were under the universal law of dissolution by death? It was consequently provided by God that the Magisterium instituted by Jesus Christ should not end with the life of the Apostles, but that it should be perpetuated. We see it in truth propagated, and, as it were, delivered from hand to hand. For the Apostles consecrated bishops, and each one appointed those who were to succeed them immediately “in the ministry of the word.” Nay more: they likewise required their successors to choose fitting men, to endow them with like authority, and to confide to them the office and mission of teaching. “Thou, therefore, my son, be strong in the grace which is in Christ Jesus: and the things which thou hast heard of me by many witnesses, the same command to faithful men, who shall be fit to teach others also” (2 Tim. ii., I-2). Wherefore, as Christ was sent by God and the Apostles by Christ, so the Bishops and those who succeeded them were sent by the Apostles. “The Apostles were appointed by Christ to preach the Gospel to us. Jesus Christ was sent by God. Christ is therefore from God, and the Apostles from Christ, and both according to the will of God. . . . Preaching therefore the word through the countries and cities, when they had proved in the Spirit the first-fruits of their teaching they appointed bishops and deacons for the faithful . . . . They appointed them and then ordained them, so that when they themselves had passed away other tried men should carry on their ministry” (S. Clemens Rom. Epist. I ad Corinth. capp. 42, 44). On the one hand, therefore, it is necessary that the mission of teaching whatever Christ had taught should remain perpetual and immutable, and on the other that the duty of accepting and professing all their doctrine should likewise be perpetual and immutable. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, when in His Gospel He testifies that those who not are with Him are His enemies, does not designate any special form of heresy, but declares that all heretics who are not with Him and do not gather with Him, scatter His flock and are His adversaries: He that is not with Me is against Me, and he that gathereth not with Me scattereth” (S. Cyprianus, Ep. lxix., ad Magnum, n. I).

Satis Cognitum, 8.

  1. St. Paul, speaking of Christ, writes in Romans 6:9 that Christ, “having been raised from the dead, is never to die again; death no longer is master over Him.”
  2. Mystici Corporis Christi, 38.
  3. Mystici Corporis Christi, 40.
  4. Matthew 16:19Luke 22:32, John 21:15-17.
  5. St. Jerome, Contra Jovinianus I.26.
  6. Satis Cognitum, 10. The last sentence is a quotation from St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II Q.39 a. 1
  7. Not only that, but if the Church were the accidental unity of separate hierarchies, the only remaining essential unity would be that of each individual. The separate hierarchies would each be reduced to accidental unities when not either themselves essential or part of another hierarchy that is essentially unified.
  8. ”The bishop of the diocese is the only official teacher, guardian, and interpreter of the Catholic tradition (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 888, 894, 895, 1560; Code of Canon Law 375.1, 392.1, 393, 394.1, 394.2) While the bishop may appoint others, i.e. priests, deacons, lay people, to work and act on behalf of the Church, the task of authentically transmitting the deposit of Faith belongs to the bishops of the Church.” Source
  9. e.g. Hebrews 13:17
  10. 1 Corinthians 5:5.
  11. 1 Corinthians 1:13
  12. St. Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, d. 258 AD, On the Unity of the Church, 23.
  13. Catechism of the Catholic Church 2089.
  14. Mathew 18:18
  15. Cf. Mystici Corporis Christi, 16.
  16. Charles Journet, Theology of the Church, 13.
  17. Cf. “Institutional Unity and Outdoing Christ.”
  18. Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 8.2.
  19. Epistle to the Magnesians, 7.
  20. Epist., lxvi, 8.
  21. In Ep. ad Tit., iii, 10, emphasis added.
  22. Satis Cognitum, 3.
  23. Mystici Corporis Christi, 14.
  24. Mystici Corporis Christi, 64.
  25. Mystici Corporis Christi, 65.
  26. For a more detailed explanation, see Baptism, Schism, Full Communion, Salvation.  See also Thomas Storck’s very clear answer to the Vatican II charge, What is the Church of Jesus Christ? Finally, Responsa ad Quaestiones gives the Church’s own recent clarification.
  27. Mystici Corporis Christi, 13.
  28. Lumen Gentium, 3
  29. Matthew 16:19
  30. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 567
  31. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 763
  32. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 865
  33. Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 13
  34. I wrote about this earlier this year; see “Feast of the Chair of St. Peter the Apostle.”
  35. St. Luke 1:32-33
  36. 1 Kings 9:5
  37. 1 Kings 5:5
  38. Romans 15:12
  39. Acts 15:16-17
  40. Hebrews 3:4-6, 12:22-28
  41. Isaiah 9:7
  42. Daniel 2:34,35,44
  43. Luke 22:29-32
  44. Matthew 16:18-19
  45. Isaiah 22:15-23
  46. Luke 12:42
  47. 2 Timothy 2:19
  48. Matthew 7:15-23; 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 25:1-46.
  49. See The Reformation Study Bible, “The Church.” Cf. Belgic Confession, art. 27 (“We believe and confess one single catholic or universal church—a holy congregation and gathering of true Christian believers.”).
  50. Ephesians 4:3-6. See also PCA BOCO ch. 2-2 (“This visible unity of the body of Christ, though obscured, is not destroyed by its division into different denominations of professing Christians; but all of these which maintain the Word and Sacraments in their fundamental integrity are to be recognized as true branches of the Church of Jesus Christ”).
  51. Ephesians 2:21.
  52. Ephesians 2:20.
  53. The Reformation Study Bible, “The Church.”
  54. Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church – Part III (1539).
  55. Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.7.
  56. Institutes of the Christian Religion IV.1.9.
  57. Westminster Confession of Faith XXV 1-2. The Book of Church Order for the Presbyterian Church in America defines the “Visible Church” as consisting of “all those who make profession of their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, together with their children.” Ch. 2-2.
  58. T.M. Moore, A Foundation of Truth: Studies in the Westminster Confession of Faith, 50 (1993).  Notice that the invisible church transcends time, which can be considered as vertically universal, and the visible church transcends place or nation, so can be thought of as horizontally universal.
  59. Scott Clark, a professor of Church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary, refers to ‘connectionalism’ in his article on ecclesiology. There he writes:

Closely related to the Biblical understanding of the relationship of the Church Universal to the Church individually considered is the question of connectionalism in the New Covenant. It is often assumed in the American Church that the New Testament Churches were independent of one another and autonomous, that is, subject to no one’s authority but their own. In fact this is less a New Covenant picture than an amalgam of the historic Anabaptist view of the Church with traditional American self reliance. Connectionalism is sometimes portrayed by its opponents as a Roman Catholic corruption of the true Church. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

This thesis would require its adherents to treat the visible Church as either their own denomination or the group of denominations having some minimal level of formal relations with one another. In Prof. Clark’s case, the implication would seem to be that the visible Church Christ founded is NAPARC.

  1. Cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, XXV.2
  2. See Leon Kass’s “The Permanent Limitations of Biology.”
  3. Epistle to the Smyrnæans, 8.2.
  4. Adv. Haer., 1.x.2
  5. Ecclesiastical History, 4.7.13
  6. De Utilitate Credendi
  7. Commentary on Twelve Psalms of David 40.30
  8. Matthew 16:18
  9. Matthew 28:20
  10. John 16:13
  11. Matt 16:19, 18:19
  12. 1 Timothy 3:15
  13. John 16:13
  14. Institutes IV.1.1-4
  15. Institutes IV.1.4
  16. Cf. Here and here.
  17. Journey Home to the Catholic Church: I Have Jumped into the Tiber to Swim Across
  18. John 14:6