The church as we see it is not the way that God sees it. What we see is a mixture of believers and nonbelievers, countless local churches, an equal number of denominations, and a variety of different practices and church government. What God sees is the one true and universal church.
Augustine of Hippo (AD 354–430) developed a concept to distinguish between the church we see and the one that God sees. He called it the visible and the invisible church.
In teaching on this concept, Jesus said that not everyone who is a member of the visible church on earth is truly a member of the invisible, historical church bound for heaven. Jesus distinguished between wheat and weeds and wolves and sheep in the church (Matt. 7:15; 13:24–30). Even Jesus himself had a non-Christian wolf among his little flock of 12, Judas Iscariot.
In contrast, the invisible church is the church as God perfectly sees it. The following are four characteristics of the invisible church. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it does provide a good, basic understanding of the invisible church.
1. The Invisible Church Comprises Only Believers
Though the membership of a local church is to comprise those in Christ, it cannot be this perfectly. Regardless of our prayerful efforts, there will be people in churches who have not been or may never be converted to Christ. This is not so with the invisible church.
The invisible church consists of those who have been regenerated. God is the only one at the end of the day who knows if someone is or is not a Christian (2 Tim. 2:19). Only Jesus permits access to this membership. Not the local church.
2. The Invisible Church Comprises Believers in Christ Both Dead and Living
The church we see is generally a local church whose membership is made up of people who are alive and well today. I say this lightly because some churches have members on their books who are long dead.
The invisible church, however, is made up of those in Christ both who have died and who are still alive. It even includes believers in the Old Testament who looked forward to the promise of the coming Messiah (Deut. 4:10; Acts 7:38; Heb. 2:12).
3. The Invisible Church Is Universal
The invisible church is universal. This means that the church is made up of believers from every denominational background.
Your membership in a local church does not determine your standing with Jesus. It’s Jesus who does that.
4. Jesus Is the Head of the Invisible Church
No pastor, priest, or bishop will rule alongside of him or have regional authority. Unfortunately, some local, visible churches today can’t make this claim.
Because we can only see the visible church, we can sometimes become discouraged by her actions and attitudes. It’s helpful to remember that God is sovereign and that Jesus is faithful to his church even she is not faithful to him. Although the visible, local church is not the way that God sees her, God still loves her. And so should we.
Like an adulterous woman that is unfaithful to her husband, we the church have and will continue to be unfaithful to Jesus. In spite of our sin, Jesus is gracious and merciful and will never divorce her. He lived for the church. He suffered for the church. He died for the church. He rose again for the church. He gave his all for the church (Eph. 5:25–27).
I encourage you by God’s grace to love the church in the same way that Jesus does.
This post is adapted from Vintage Church by Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears copyright © 2008. Used by permission of Crossway Books , a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, IL 60187.