If you were to ask a dozen persons to define the Church, chances are you would get a dozen answers. These answers would probably vary from a description that was entirely human, to a description entirely Godly. The truth is that there are different beliefs concerning the church among the churches as well as among individuals. Our topics have been on the subject of what the church believes about various doctrines, and this post is what the church believes about itself.
First, we might consider the three main branches of the Christian church and see how they conceive of the Christian Church.
The first of these will be the Roman Catholic Church.
As you know, for many hundreds of years there was only one Christian church and its earthly heads were in various great cities of the world, until the power was finally concentrated in Rome. During these early centuries, the church was increasingly thought of as an external organization. At the same time, greater emphasis was given to the hierarchical organization of the church. Both of these trends were capped off with the establishment of the Papal system of church government. The Roman Catholic Church defines the Church as “The Congregation of all the Faithful, who being baptized, profess the same faith, partake of the same sacraments, and are governed by their lawful pastors, under one visible head on earth.” You will notice that this definition separates those who teach and rule from those who are taught and ruled.
The second of these churches will be the Greek Orthodox Church. The Greek Orthodox Church’s belief is closely related to the Roman church. The Greek church, however, does not believe that the Roman church is the true church, holding that title for itself. The Greek church does acknowledge that there is a difference between the visible and invisible church, but yet places its emphasis on the visible. The Greeks believe in the infallibility of the visible church, but this infallibility resides in the bishops and therefore, in the church councils rather than in the Pope.
And now we have the protestant conception of the church.
The Reformation was a reaction against the externalism of the Roman church, both as to its conception of the externalism in general, and to its external conception of the church in particular. For both Luther and Calvin, the Church was simply the community of the saints; those who believe and are sanctified in Christ, and who are joined to him as their Head. The Reformed Churches voice this idea in all their doctrines. The Westminster Confession says, “The 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; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.”
The church universal as it exists in the plan of God was conceived of as consisting of the whole body of the elect, who in course of time are called into life eternal. But the church as it exists on earth was regarded as the community of saints. There are not two churches, one invisible and the other visible, but the two churches are one. Both essentially are the communion of saints, but the invisible church contains only believers, while the visible church is the church as man sees it, and it may contain some who are not regenerated. There may be some chaff among the wheat in the visible church. The visible church contains not only the believers, but the children of the believers as well. Paul wrote to the churches of his day, addressing them as saints, but at the same time he insisted that they put away the wicked, and those who gave offense among them.