This is the second post on the Church in my ongoing series, theology in bullet points. The first unit in this series had to do with God and Creation (book here), and the second unit was on Christology and Atonement.
We are now in the third and final unit: The Holy Spirit and the Church. The first set of posts in this final unit on the Spirit and the Church was on the Holy Spirit.
The true Church is both visible and invisible.
1. The Church is invisible in the sense that it cannot be identified with any earthly organization or membership. Similarly, it cannot be identified with those who visibly or publicly profess faith in Jesus Christ and are baptized. The visible churches of the world include both those who are in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit as well as individuals who are followers of Christ only in name.
Paul's description of a true child of Israel is in fact his description of who is in the Church. It is not the Christian "who is one outwardly, nor is true circumcision something external and physical. Rather... [the true Christian is someone] who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart—it is spiritual and not literal" (Rom. 2:28-29).
The visible church thus includes within its walls both wheat and weeds (Matt. 13:24-30), but we as humans will never be able to distinguish between them fully. It is true, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:16). And yet there are individuals who look to have the right fruit, who "honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me" (Isa. 29:13).
Similarly, there are no doubt individuals whose actions do not match our expectations but whose hearts and motives are true. This is why we are not to judge, because we cannot see the heart with confidence. "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged" (Matt. 7:1). "The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart" (1 Sam. 16:7).
2. With the Nicene Creed of 381, we affirm that the Church is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church."
The Church is one in that, no matter how many individual Christian organizations and denominations may exist, the true Church is only one church. We may disagree with our heads and on ideas, but we all have the same heart. We may disagree on various matters of Christian practice, but we all have the same heart. We all have faith in God, and we are all saved through the blood of Christ.
"There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. " (Eph. 4:4-6).
3. This true Church exists in all places and it has existed in all of history since the resurrection of Christ and the Day of Pentecost. It is thus a catholic church. We can say with the Apostle's Creed that we believe "in the holy, catholic Church," by which we do not mean the Roman Catholic Church or those churches that consider themselves catholic in a way that excludes certain Protestants. The Church is catholic in that it exists wherever in the universe there are those who are in Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit. It is the communion of saints, past, present, and future.
4. It is a holy Church because it belongs to God. The Holy Spirit has sanctified the Church and made it God's possession. Woe to those who would harm the true Church or persecute those in Christ. They are touching God's anointed. They are fighting against God himself.
The true Church is thus not typified by sin, but by righteousness. To the extent that visible collections of individuals calling themselves Christians wrong each other or wrong others, those churches are not the Church. The true Church loves God and is an instrument of God's love in the world. "Whoever does not love abides in death. All who hate a brother or sister are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them" (1 John 3:14-15).
5. The Church is apostolic in that it is sent into the world to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, that Jesus has risen from the dead and has been enthroned by God as king of the cosmos. The Church is not an instrument of force in the world. It does not conquer militarily in the name of Christ. Rather, it is an instrument of God's love in the world.
The Church demonstrates God's love as an instrument of redemption in the world. It is most concerned with the eternal destiny of the people in this world. It thus is key in God's mission to reconcile the world to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-20).
But God is also interested in people being fed and having clothing and in all those dimensions of human wholeness that pertain to our lives in this world. Indeed, God loves his creation beyond humanity. He loves the animals and plants he has created. He takes joy in the sun and the moon. The Church, as God's people, will be mindful of God's love of his creation and participate in his redemption of the world written large.
The true Church is an invisible church. But it is one, catholic Church, potentially existing in all times and places. It is a holy and apostolic Church, called both to be righteous and to be an instrument of righteousness in the world.
Next Sunday: E3. The true Church always results in visible churches.