At the denominational level, nearly every evangelical tradition has contented itself with the notion that while the church is visibly divided, it is united in some spiritual and invisible sense.1 There is an element of truth to this, just as there is an element of truth to the confidence in one’s justification despite one’s ongoing battle with sin. Where the notion of the invisible unity is damning is in its cozy complacency with division.
The attempt to brush away the church’s corporate guilt through an appeal to a faultless invisible church shares more in common with platonic philosophy or German idealism than it does than with the message of the scriptures. We cannot dismiss the sin of our divisions. If justification is in fact the root reality of the tree, then sanctification must follow in the fruit of that tree (John 15:8). If the body of Christ is corporately justified through union with Christ, then she must pursue corporate sanctification through obedience to the Spirit.
The visibility of the church is not located in the possession of right rulers, creeds, or ethical standards but in the ongoing response of repentance and faith in the gospel among her members.2
The Failure of the Ecumenical Movement
Too much of the quest for unity in the church has been an ecumenism of glory which pursues unity through mutual doctrinal agreement conceived of as either a theological harmony of the lowest or highest common denominator. This is by no means meant to dismiss the achievements of the ecumenical movement in clearing away the cobwebs of mutual misunderstanding. However, it is to say that while such an approach can accomplish much, it cannot finally produce visible unity. This is not to dismiss the importance of doctrine in Christian unity. Doctrine is vital, if it were not Jesus would not have promised to send the Helper saying, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth” (John 16:13).
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|1.||↑||Karl Barth and Emil Brunner both launched devastating attacks on the Reformers’ doctrine of the invisibility of the church. See Karl Barth, The Church and the Churches (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005); and Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, Harold Knight trans. (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1951).|
|2.||↑||This point of the churches visibility located in her repentance is wonderfully argued by William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 141-169.|