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Excerpts from

Redefining the Church

By Pastor Bob DeWaay

Please read the entire article at

(Emphasis added throughout)

“He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead; so that He Himself might come to have first place in everything.” Colossians 1:18

Several months ago a friend of mine, who puts on seminars, publicly pointed out the errors of several well known teachers who promote mystical practices.  Shortly thereafter he invited me to attend a meeting with some leaders of his church to clarify his relationship with the church and determine whether his ministry was welcome there. ...

The leadership told him that his teaching did not comply with their practices.  They do not practice correcting false teachers.  In the course of the conversation, the leaders cited the basic mission of that church.  It was a good mission and had to do with bringing people to Christ; but it did not include correcting error or false teachers.  Thus my friend’s seminar is not compatible with their purposes.

As a result of the meeting I found myself pondering that situation in light of the many emails I have received from people around the country.  These people often are unwelcome in churches in which they had been members for many years.  What seems so strange is that the unwelcome members were not accused of sin or heresy; they were accused of not supporting the church’s mission or program.  In some cases the mission and program had recently been changed and the long standing members had resisted the change.  Ultimately most of these people left willingly, but with sadness of heart.  Some who decided to stay and fight were eventually removed from fellowship.

What has happened that evangelical churches are willing to lose solid Christian members who have not fallen into sin or heresy? In this article I will propose that evangelical churches have changed the way they view themselves and their organizations; and that this change has lead to practices and emphases that build large visible churches, but neglect and abuse Christ’s “little flock” (Luke 12:32) -- the true body of Christ.

The Invisible Church

At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers made a distinction between the visible and invisible church..... Louis Berkof describes the reason for the terminology:

"It [the distinction between the visible and invisible church now on earth] stresses the fact that the Church as it exists on earth is both visible and invisible.  This Church is said to be invisible, because she is essentially spiritual and in her spiritual essence cannot be discerned by the physical eye; and because it is impossible to determine infallibly who do and do not belong to her.  The union of believers with Christ is a mystical union; the Spirit that unites them constitutes an invisible tie; and the blessing of salvation, such as regeneration, genuine conversion, true faith, and spiritual communion with Christ, are all invisible to the natural eye; -- and yet these things constitute the real forma (ideal character) of the Church."2

Before the Reformation, the Roman church saw its ecclesiastical system as the Church.  As the Roman church gained influence over nations and kingdoms, she believed that thereby the Church was growing.  Berkof describes the issues at the time of the Reformation that led to this terminology:

"The Bible ascribes certain glorious attributes to the Church and represents her as a medium of saving and eternal blessings.  Rome applied this to the Church as an external institution, more particularly to the... hierarchy as the distributor of the blessing of salvation, and thus ignored and virtually denied the immediate and direct communion of God with His children, by placing a human mediatorial priesthood between them.  This is the error which the Reformers sought to eradicate by stressing the fact that the Church of which the Bible says such glorious things is not the church as an external institution, but the Church as the spiritual body of Jesus Christ, which is essentially invisible at present, though it has a relative and imperfect embodiment in the visible Church and is destined to have a perfect visible embodiment at the end of the ages."3

Various scriptures show that this distinction is valid.  In the following passage from Ephesians, Paul is not speaking of a visible congregation, but those who are cleansed by Christ whoever they are:

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her; that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she should be holy and blameless." (Ephesians 5:25-27).

This “church” cannot be seen now, nor can this one: “to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven” (Hebrews 12:23a).  The church is a spiritual building: “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1Peter 2:5).  As such it is invisible.

We cannot be certain who make up the invisible church but the Lord knows: “Nevertheless, the firm foundation of God stands, having this seal, ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of the Lord abstain from wickedness’” (2Timothy 2:19).  ...

Not everyone who “names the name of the Lord” is truly regenerate.  Some will say, “Lord, Lord” and He will answer, “I never knew you” (see Matthew 7:22, 23).  We cannot have absolute knowledge of who truly knows the Lord, but God does.  No matter how strict a local church’s membership requirements may be, there is no certainty that someone who has all the external evidences of being a Christian may join who may not truly know the Lord.  Thus the invisible church is hidden in the visible one

John says this: “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, in order that it might be shown that they all are not of us” (1John 2:19).  Before they went out, they were part of the church and it was not clear then that they were not truly Christian.

How Christ Builds His Church

God puts people into His invisible church, man does not.  Paul said the following to the Ephesian elders: “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28)....

Paul did not stop with preaching the gospel in Ephesus and seeing God add people to the church.  He told the Ephesian elders: “... I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole purpose of God” (Acts 20:25-27).  Having preached the gospel and taught the whole counsel of God, Paul had discharged his duty.  He was turning the church over to the guidance of these elders.  It was their duty to nurture and preserve this flock through being “on guard” and caring for them as pastors (the word “shepherd” in verse 28 is the verb form of the noun translated “pastor”). 

Paul explained why their solemn duty was so important: “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them” (Acts 20:29, 30).  False teachers were sure to arise and those who have the duty of shepherding the flock must protect the blood bought church from them.

Christ builds His church through gospel preaching that God uses to graciously grant repentance and faith in those He has chosen (see Acts 11:18; Philippians 1:29; 2Timothy 2:25).  The invisible church grows through conversions: “And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were saved” (Acts 2:47b). 

Paul wrote this: “For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1Corinthians 1:21).  Every time a person is regenerated by the grace and power of God, the invisible church grows.

Therefore, those who are concerned with the growth of the invisible church, which is the one that ultimately will be assembled for the marriage supper of the Lamb, will preach the gospel clearly and boldly.  They will declare the terms of entrance into the kingdom of God.  This includes the message of the cross: “but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1Corinthians 1:23, 24).  The message is universally unpopular to the unregenerate mind, but Christ uses it to build His church.  We cannot know who “the called” are.  We must faithfully preach the gospel knowing that the called, whoever they are, will respond to it.  They respond because of God’s supernatural grace, not because of human wisdom....

The Visible Church

The visible church consists of people who have professed faith in Christ and have agreed to live accordingly.  Berkof makes some important clarifications:

"It is possible that some who belong to the invisible Church never become members of the visible organization, as missionary subjects who are converted on their deathbeds, and that others are temporarily excluded from it, as erring believers who are for a time shut out from the communion of the visible Church.  On the other hand there may be unregenerate children and adults who, while professing Christ, have no true faith in Him, in the Church as an external institution; and these, as long as they are in that condition, do not belong to the invisible Church.5

Since humans cannot infallibly know who the elect are, churches must receive those who profess Christ, confess belief in true Biblical doctrines, and are willing to live lives in accordance with the teachings of the Bible.  This is good and proper.  However, we cannot be sure that every member of the external organization is also a member of the invisible church, the true body of Christ.  Anyone can see who belongs to the visible church....

...a visible “church” must corporately confess the essential truths of the gospel to be a church and not merely a religious institution.  This is necessary because at this point in history there are Mormon “churches,” New Age “churches,” Universalist “churches,” and other such groups that deny the Biblical doctrine of Christ.  Such groups should not be considered visible churches nor should it be expected that the invisible church is within them.

Visible churches that at least superficially confess the key doctrines of the Bible are massively diverse.  Every major Christian denomination confesses these doctrines in their official documents.  Even when the modernist movement swept through most of the main line Protestant church during the late 19th century and early 20th century, not one of those denominations officially denied their historical creeds.  I grew up in a liberal denomination and was required to confess the truth about the person and work of Christ in order to join the church at age 12.  Later I found out that many pastors in that denomination did not believe in the resurrection of Christ, though every one of them had to swear he or she did to be ordained.

This means that visible churches exist that in some regard have the light of the gospel, if not in their pulpits, in their hymnals and creedal confessions.  Inasmuch as some light is there, these churches likely contain a few of the invisible church.  However, inasmuch as the Word is not purely taught and the gospel not clearly preached, people are much less likely to be converted.  They have to find the gospel hidden within an organization that no longer has it on its agenda....

Yes one can be saved in a visible church that is mostly gone astray; but it does not follow that such a person should stay and support false teaching.

End Notes

  1. Louis Berkof, Systematic Theology, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938, 1996 edition) 565.
  2. Ibid. 565, 566.
  3. Ibid. 566.
  4. See the previous Issue of CIC about this:
  5. Berkof, 566.

Copyright © 1992-2005 Twin City Fellowship

Part 2 will be posted next week. Meanwhile, you can read Pastor DeWaay's complete message at

Other articles by Bob DeWaay: Faulty Premises of the Church Growth Movement

 “Church Health Award” from Rick Warren or Jesus Christ?

Bob DeWaay is the Pastor of Twin City Fellowship, a non-denominational evangelical Church in Minneapolis, MN:  "We are a body of believers who attempt to live our Christian faith according to Acts 2:42 by devoting ourselves to prayer, fellowship, searching the Scriptures, and the Lord’s Supper. Our mission is to equip the saints for the work of ministry and to reach the lost with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We do this through expository preaching, study of the Scriptures, publications, our website and neighborhood outreaches."

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