One of the more confusing debates about the church is how we define it in terms of its catholicity, or universality. During the Reformation Protestants wanted to make a distinction about the church as God saw it and the church as we saw it. I think this was both necessary and biblical but the result has been a major misunderstanding about the church, especially among evangelical Protestants who are not rooted deeply enough in incarnation in their ecclesiology.

I once heard a friend say that no one could gather an invisible church so the idea must have very little meaning in terms of how the New Testament speaks about the church. This is true. When New Testament writers talk about the church they are almost always (but not entirely) speaking about a congregation in a locally gathered context; e.g. the church in Ephesus, the church in Rome, etc. Paul wrote letters to these churches, not for a group of invisible people that no one could recognize.

Some evangelicals so react to what they think the Catholic Church teaches about the universal church that they deny the whole notion of physicality, sacraments and visibly shared life in the Spirit. This is an unfortunate and unbiblical excess that I address in my book Your Church Is Too Small. On this week’s book video I discuss this in a simple, easy-to-follow way.

Related Posts


  1. Bryan Cross August 2, 2010 at 7:33 am

    Do you think the Church referred to in the Creed is the “invisible” Church? I ask that because in the video you seem to treat the “universal” Church as the invisible Church. If the Church referred to in the Creed is the visible Church, then what is the difference between a “branch within” the universal visible Church, and a “schism from” the universal visible Church?
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  2. Chris Criminger August 2, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    Hi John and all,
    What distinguishes the church from all other entities is that it is a “pneumatic community.”
    I wonder if pneumatic is a better term than the terms invisible and invisible?
    And how one deals with the church being “institutional” and “mystical” will say a lot of where people end up in this discussion (I like how Avery Dulles treats these issues here).
    Institutional and mystical are at tension or different at times despite their organic relationship to one another.
    Therefore the church is both incarnational and missional. When either of these are missing so is the effectiveness of its witness in the world at large.
    Lastly, I don’t agree with the classical branch theory that Bryan points out concerning Protestantism but I will say that there is the biblical idea of the tree and branches (in the Scriptures) as the full number of Gentiles are being grafted into the olive tree (Israel).
    Somehow this sounds at times, BOTH by Catholics or Protestants, as if they are the true church or as if everything is to be grafted into the church. But this is not what Romans 11 actually teaches. It says we all supposed to be grafted into Israel (Jews and Gentiles together as “one new man in Christ” as Ephesians ch.1-3 seems to suggests).

Comments are closed.

My Latest Book!

Use Promo code UNITY for 40% discount!

Recent Articles