John H. Gerstner



THERE ARE FUNDAMENTALLY two views of the church. There are variations of these and mixtures of them, but fundamentally only two views. This division runs through the various denominations or “churches” as we shall see.

I. The Church Defined as Visible

The first conception of the church may be stated as follows: It is that body of persons who (1) profess faith in Christ, (2) are subordinate to properly appointed officers, and (3) associate with those of like profession and practice. We must consider these items separately.

First, they profess faith in Christ. This usually signifies more than saying they believe in someone whom they themselves call Christ. Their profession must recognize that Christ is a particular historic person who was none other than God incarnate. This is invariably considered as the minimum profession of Christianity. Insistence is on the fact that the Christ is no mere man — no mere reformer — but the very Son of God. Profession of faith in Christ may be all that is required, but this must be an orthodox profession. Usually Christ, being regarded as divine, is also recognized as a member of the Trinity. Furthermore, His divinity is seen as necessary to His work of redemption, the acknowledgement of which is usually regarded as essential. The person affirms faith in Christ — as God and Saviour.

Second, those who make this profession do so to certain men called church officers, who are thought to be appointed by Christ. After all, there must be someone, it is argued, to determine when men make satisfactory confessions. It is thought that these officers are indicated in the Bible. The Roman Catholic church finds the pope to be the recipient of the keys of the kingdom or church, and he indirectly appoints the necessary subordinates, or the priesthood. The Anglican church acknowledges no order, except administrative, higher than the bishop, who is thought to be in succession from Peter, to whom the keys were given and by whom they were transmitted to the bishopric. Those who defend the view under consideration are advocates of episcopal order, or government by bishops. Others, such as Presbyterians, believe that the officers are ministers (on one level and equal) associated with representatives of the congregation (elders); and still others, such as Congregationalists, regard the congregation itself as retaining and not delegating its authority.

Third, persons who profess faith in Christ to these duly appointed officers are received into the fellowship of like-minded persons. This fellowship constitutes the church. If a person professed Christ and acknowledged certain officers but was not recognized by them, he would not be admitted to this fellowship and therefore would not, in spite of all, be in the church. It is to be understood, furthermore, that membership in this society is not inalienable. A person may be excommunicated, that is, he may be cut off from the communion of the church and no longer be considered a member.

This is a very understandable and apparently sound view of the church. But is it true? Is a person who professes faith in Christ and is received by officers into a fellowship of like professors truly a member of the church in the biblical sense of the word? We admit that he may be, but this does not satisfy advocates of this doctrine who teach that there is no “maybe” here but only certainty. Such a person, they say, is undoubtedly a member of the church of Christ with all its benefits and privileges. They will say that if a person is a member of a certain local church or denomination he is truly a member of the church of Christ. So long as he is not cut off from the communion of this body (excommunicated) he is not cut off from Christ. So these advocates cannot accept our statement that members of their church may be members of the church of Christ. No, say they, they are members of Christ’s church.

This notion that members of some particular denomination are necessarily members of Christ’s church or body we cannot grant. We will not deny that a person who sincerely and truly makes a sound profession of faith in Christ is a member of His true church, but how do we (or they) know that all who make the profession sincerely believe it? How can they be sure that they are not receiving hypocrites? So long as officers cannot search the hearts of professing believers, they cannot know whether such professors are sincere, true believers or not; nor can they prevent the admittance of some nominal (in name only) believers.

Advocates of this view must assume the officers’ ability to know the hearts of professors. But while they assume this, they do not claim it and cannot admit that they even assume it. Even the church of Rome claims no such infallibility for individual priests or bishops who receive persons into their church. So there is a dilemma here: This view depends on the officers’ ability to know hearts, but the officers do not even claim such ability. Yet if they do not have this ability, they cannot be certain that the persons they admit are true members of the church of Christ.

Perhaps someone will say that we are overdoing the difficulty here. Can we not be reasonably certain that a person who says he believes in Christ and who is not living in any open or gross sin is a Christian? Yes, we can be reasonably sure — that is, we can be sure enough to allow his profession to be made a basis of admission to this fellowship. But it is unreasonable to say that such a person could not possibly be a hypocrite. After all, the Bible indicates that people may say and do many things that are Christian without themselves being Christian. The rich young ruler, for example, said that he kept the whole law from his youth up, but he rejected Christ actually, even while respecting and reverencing Him. Christ said that some would come in the last day and say: “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works?” (Matt. 7:22). Christ did not deny their ascription of Lordship to Him, nor their claim to have prophesied, cast out devils, and done many mighty works in His name. But He rejected them nonetheless, saying: “I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity” (Matt. 7:23). The Apostle Paul wrote: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing” (I Cor. 13:1-3). So it is possible for a person to be a great philanthropist and a martyr without having love (that is, Christ) in his heart, and all he does will therefore profit him nothing. If it is possible for a person to call Christ Lord, to cast out devils in His name and die a martyr to His cause without having Christ in his heart, then certainly no man can judge infallibly about the state of another man’s soul.

It is not only that men may err in their judgments about others’ profession, but they do err. Christ tells us that hypocrites are added to the professing members of His church. This is the teaching of the Parable of the Tares. An enemy plants the tares; that is, the devil establishes hypocrites in the field (or church) of Christ. Moreover, the parable could be construed as a warning to faithful church officers of their inability always to remove these “tares,” or hypocrites, even when they can detect them: “lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them” (Matt. 13:29). The separation of true and false believers will not, according to this and other parables (such as the net and fishes, Matt. 13:47 f.), take place in this world but at the final judgment and not by men but by angels. Christ, though He wants us to keep His church as pure as possible, wants us to know that some inevitable impurity must be accepted and borne with until the “harvest.”

II. The Church Defined as Invisible

Thus the foregoing definition of the church will not do. The church of Christ is not simply those who profess Christ, are subordinate to his officers, and associate with those of like profession. The devil’s children are members of this company. The enemies of Christ profess to love Him. This is the church of the anti-Christ as well as of Christ.

What, then, is the church of Christ? Although the foregoing definition is unsatisfactory, the addition of two words will make it quite satisfactory. Thus: The church consists of all who sincerely profess faith in Christ, and are normally subordinate to his officers and associate with those of like profession. This definition requires that the person’s profession correspond to his state of heart. Since no officer can tell whether this is so, God alone knows whether the person is sincere and, therefore, truly a member of the church. For that reason the true church is called “invisible.” This does not mean that true Christians are invisible but that their “trueness” or genuineness is invisible to man. For example, the true faith of the eleven apostles was not visible any more than the false faith of Judas was visible (until the betrayal and suicide following Christ’s rejection of him revealed it). So long as a person makes a sound profession and does not belie it by gross sin, we “presume” that he has true faith. The Puritans used to say that we exercise a “judgment of charity.” Only one thing we must avoid — namely, making a judgment of certainty.

Furthermore, we said that the church consists of all who sincerely profess faith in Christ and are normally subordinate to his officers and in fellowship with those who make a like profession. Normally, sincere believers in Christ will join the “visible” church because Christ wills it. He himself attended the synagogue or church of His own day. The New Testament enjoins the assembling of ourselves together. Christ gave gifts to the church after His ascension, according to Ephesians 4:11 f., and these were ministers to build up the church. Such statements indicate that the establishment of the visible church was His will, although He forbade any to join except those who deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him. Hypocrites may nonetheless profess to do these things and be admitted, but that is no excuse for sincere persons not making the same profession. Christ also commanded His apostles to baptize in His name, thus receiving professors by a visible act into a visible organization. So converts to Christ desiring to do the will of Christ will receive baptism and join the visible church. At least, normally they will do all this.

Is it conceivable that they will not do this? It is not conceivable that they will permanently delay uniting with the church if they realize that it is the will of Christ that they do join. But it is conceivable, too, that they may be wrongly instructed in their duty. Hearing that they should believe and be saved, they may wrongly conclude that merely exercising and expressing faith is sufficient without joining any organization. They may not realize that belief in Christ means belief in all His commands, including the one to join the church. This is not likely, of course, and a Christian person should not long remain in such a condition. But since it is a possibility, at least in rare cases, for short intervals, we must agree with Augustine that there may be lambs outside the fold (just as there are wolves inside).

III. Biblical Use of Term “Church”

What complicates the matter is that the Bible sometimes uses the word “church” in the sense of the visible church and sometimes in the sense of the invisible church. For example, Stephen in his sermon before the Sanhedrin referred to all Israel in the wilderness as “the church.” “This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sinai, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us” (Acts 7:38). Now we know that not only were there some hypocrites in that body called the “church” but almost all of the members were such. That was the generation of which God swore in his wrath that they should not enter into his rest (Ps. 95:11). Only the younger generation were spared, but the rest perished in the wilderness — a symbol of eternal perishing. Yet they were called “the church.” In the apostolic church itself there were those who were not true believers, as indicated by the Apostle John in I John 2:19: “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”

On the other hand, the true church is mentioned, too. Christ said: “I will build my church; and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16: 18). The powers of Hell not only stand against but they often make conquests of the visible church. It is only the invisible church of which Christ’s description is true. Another instance is Eph. 1:22-23: “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.” Surely nothing false or evil could be part of the body of Christ, in whom God is well pleased. In spite of this double usage of the word “church,” in and out of the Bible, we must remember that the true church, the saved church, the church in vital union with Christ, is the invisible church.

IV. Other Qualities of the Church

In addition to the description already given of the true, invisible church we find other characteristics mentioned in Scripture. The invisible church is:

  1. Infallible (it knows its Master’s voice and will not follow a stranger, John 10:5).
  2. Indestructible (nothing shall separate it from “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus,” Rom. 8:39; no one shall take it out of His hand, John 10:28).
  3. Indivisible (“that they may be one, as we are,” John 17:11; “I am the vine, ye are the branches,” John 15:5).
  4. Invincible (“the gates [defensive weapons] of hell shall not prevail [or stand] against it,” Matt. 16: 18; “the meek shall inherit the earth,” Ps. 37:11).
  5. Universal (“out of every kindred, and tongue, and people, and nation,” Rev. 5:9; “the field is the world,” Matt. 13:38; “God so loved the world,” John 3:16).

Putting everything together, we would have some such definition of the church of Jesus Christ as this: It is the invisible, infallible, indestructible, indivisible, invincible, and universal body consisting of all those who truly believe in and adhere to their Head, the Lord Jesus Christ. In the vast majority of cases, they are members of the visible church.


Dr. John H. Gerstner was born in Tampa, Florida, and raised in Pennsylvania. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University. Dr. Gerstner pastored several churches before accepting a professorship at Pittsburgh-Xenia Theological Seminary, where he taught church history for over 30 years. He served as a visiting professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and adjunct professor at Knox Theological Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Dr. Gerstner was also professor-at-large for Ligonier Ministries for many years, and recorded numerous lectures on audio and video for that organization.

Dr. Gerstner was a stalwart champion of the cause of reformed theology and, in particular, the teachings of Jonathan Edwards. This article is taken from his book, Theology for Everyman.

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