Church Is Not Just a Means to an End
For many Christians, “the church” is tossed around like the things of legend—a beautiful image that sounds more like a story of castles and Camelot than like any local church they have attended. The church is spoken of in theoretical language, as some spiritual ideal that exists in vague or mystical ways. That is, too often the way Christians speak of the church is really a metaphorical way of speaking of something else: community relationships between brothers and sisters in Christ or practices that help people grow in Christ. As much as a church does facilitate and organize relationships and practices, the church is more than a means to an end, a utilitarian resource for an individual Christian’s needs. To say it another way: the church is not a metaphor.
Two factors may have contributed to the dilution of “church” into a mystical metaphor. The first factor is the growing dominance of “spiritual” language. Over the last century “spirituality” has exploded across the globe. The term “spiritual” or “spirituality” began to arise in the fifth century but did not become normalized until the Middle Ages. The term began to morph in meaning around the eleventh century to describe the mental aspect of life (theoretical), in contrast to the material (physical). It even narrowed to refer to the realm of the inner life: motives, affections, inner dispositions, feelings, and a “spiritual life.” While the term is clearly biblical, most commonly utilized by the apostle Paul, it is never used in the Bible to separate the spiritual from the natural or physical, as it is now commonly used. The term “spiritual” in the Bible refers to a life (a person)—both body and soul—infused with and empowered by the Spirit of God.
In today’s hyperindividualized culture, Edward Klink III not only demonstrates why it’s vital for individuals to connect to a local church, but also reveals why it’s vital to God’s work in the world.
The danger of a “spiritual life,” when defined in opposition to the physical world, is that such language can divorce Christian faith and practices from the real world. In a hyper-individualized culture, it is no wonder that so many Christians have lost sight of the ways their “spiritual lives” connect to real life, or more specifically, how their “spiritual lives” connect to the life of a local church. The error of a spiritual life disconnected from the physical world is that it fails to account for the full story the Bible tells and does not deal with the full person who eats, works, loves, and, if biblical, is intimately connected to a real, concrete local (located) church. The danger of a “spiritual life” is that it distorts both the spiritual and physical aspects of life.
The Invisible Church
The second factor is the mistaken emphasis on the “invisible” church. Pastors and theologians throughout the centuries have relied on the helpful categories of the visible and the invisible church in order to view churches in the present alongside the holy, universal (catholic) church throughout all time. Stated simply, the visible church is the church as we see it, and the invisible church is the church as God sees it. The distinction between the visible and the invisible church finds biblical grounding in Jesus’s prayer of dedication in John 17, a prayer heard by a local “gathering” and yet extended throughout all time and divisions. This prayer will be fully realized only when the chief Shepherd returns to finally “gather” his true and total church. This twofold category of the church was never an invitation for a Christian to affirm the church in its invisible sense alone (the church as God alone sees it) while ignoring the visible church (the church as we see it). Rather, its purpose was to help the Christian see the fullness of God’s people as told by the biblical story, even from the limited perspective of the local church in their own place and time.
Even though this distinction goes back all the way to Augustine, the Protestant Reformers regularly utilized it for pastoral purposes. John Calvin provides a helpful example in book 4 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin invokes these categories to give his readers spectacles not only to see the whole church—the visible (“the saints presently living”) and the invisible (“all the elect from the beginning of the world”)—but also to see their own church, which alongside the true children of God may also be “mingled” with “many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance.”1
The visible church is the church as we see it, and the invisible church is the church as God sees it.
Pastorally, then, this category helps Christians deal with the hypocrisy they see in their own churches, without giving them warrant to reject or disregard the church. Even more, the Reformers used the distinction to unite the Christian to the church, not to allow for disassociation of any sorts. Calvin’s pastoral exhortation is worthy of note: “Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called ‘church’ in respect to men.”2
This practical application of the visible and invisible church needs to be heard among Christians today. Too many Christians speak of “the church” in abstraction, in its invisible, mystical, and metaphorical sense, and not in a way that matches the church that we can see, attend, and join. Whether driven by the cultural emphasis on a mystical “spiritual life” or by the imbalanced theological leaning toward the invisible church, Christians are in great need of the located and visible church— their local church.
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.1.7.
- Calvin, Institutes, 4.1.7
This article is adapted from The Local Church: What It Is and Why It Matters for Every Christian by Edward W. Klink III.