The Visible and Invisible Church

The Visible and Invisible Church: A look at the purpose of Christian churches through the Nicene Creed

History is riddled with churches that have strayed from their purpose, from the church of the crusades to the contemporary Westboro Baptist Church. To evaluate such churches and their actions, one needs to understand the distinction between the invisible and visible church. This article articulates a Lutheran perspective of the two based on an explication of the Nicene Creed’s statement, “the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”[1] The visible church differs from the invisible church in nature and function, but not in purpose. While the visible church strives to represent the Christian message, it will by its nature always fail to do so completely and must be treated like any other imperfect human organization.

The invisible church is a term for all believers in Jesus Christ. Humans cannot fully discern belief, an internal feeling; only God can discern the invisible church’s membership. The invisible church is a purely spiritual organization, bound together by God, and described by Paul as “we, though many, are one body.”[2] The members of the invisible church believe in Jesus Christ. This belief is more than mere mental assent as we use it in contemporary language; it denotes trust, loyalty, and reliance. One who believes in Jesus Christ follows His teachings and lives in His stead.

A visible church is a human organization that supports Christians in their varied expressions of belief, trust, in Christ. Like other human organizations, the members of a visible church define the organization by external actions, such as attending worship services and sometimes by formal requirements. The members of a visible church meet, communicate, and work together to pursue common goals. A visible church is often instituted under secular law and establishes internal government. Typically, a visible church owns property like any other organization. The Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Southern Baptist Convention, Northfield’s St. John’s Lutheran Church, and Thursday Night Bible Study all exemplify visible churches. Visible churches support Christians in their belief in Christ in varying ways. Some baptize infants and others confirm members. Even though visible churches vary in how they support Christians, all visible churches can be discussed collectively as the visible church.

The visible church and the invisible church overlap, but are not coextensive. The Second Vatican Council described this relationship by declaring in 1964 that the invisible church “subsists in the [Roman] Catholic Church.”[3] Lutherans extend this to all visible churches. Subsist means to exist, persist, or continue,[4] and implies a complicated interrelation between the visible and the invisible church. Visible churches provide for the institutional needs of the invisible church, just as a house provides for those who live within. The invisible church also exists outside the visible church. Since the invisible church subsists in, not as, the visible church, nonbelievers may subsist in the visible church. Not all participants in the visible church are members of the invisible church. The weakness of the verb “to subsist” indicates that unbelievers may not only subsist in, but may rule and distort the visible church.

Although sometimes distorted, the visible church derives its purpose, belief in Jesus, from the invisible church. Christians have long wrestled with describing their belief. In the fourth century, the Second Ecumenical Council adopted the Nicene Creed, which is accepted today by the Roman Catholic, the Eastern Orthodox, and most Protestant churches. The creed presents a broad, helpful, and orthodox understanding of the invisible church. It describes the invisible church as “the one holy catholic and apostolic church.”[5] Explication of the Nicene Creed reveals that while the invisible church is truly unified, sanctified, apostolic, and universal, the visible church, a human organization, is none of those. The two churches share in purpose, but differ in nature. The invisible church, subsisting in the visible church, strives to hold the visible church true to its mission.

The descriptor apostolic means the invisible church is founded upon the tradition passed down from the twelve disciples. This term describes how “the household of God” is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets,” and they on Jesus.[6] The invisible church preaches the message of the apostles, those “sent out,” that has been recounted in scripture “from those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses.”[7]

The next defining term is catholic. The word catholic – Greek καθολικός – means general or universal.[8] The term catholic refers to the span of the invisible church across denominations, cultures, languages, and centuries. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, written by the sixteenth-century Lutheran reformer Phillip Melanchthon, describes the “Church Catholic” as “men scattered throughout the whole world, … whether they have the same human traditions or not.”[9] The contemporary Protestant theologian Douglas John Hall describes the defining belief of the invisible church as “pondered over by centuries of the faithful,” hinting at the unifying purpose provided by the invisible church.[10]

The term one indicates unity in God despite differences of time, place, and teaching. Given the span of the invisible church, this is neither a unity of tradition nor organization. For instance, Saint Paul met the other apostles after three years of ministry.[11] Yet, “there is one body and one Spirit, … one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”[12] In other words, the invisible church is unified under one Lord. The rule of this common Lord, as He and the one Spirit guide and direct the invisible church, provides unity of purpose and direction. Indeed, the creed begins with the subject we, which refers to the invisible church. The confession of belief in “God, the Father almighty,” “Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,” and “the Holy Spirit” reinforces the unified identity of the invisible church.

Finally, holy means set apart by God’s choosing. The Nicene Creed describes the invisible church as a worldwide body of people, set apart from the ways of the world and of sin by Jesus Christ.[13] The visible church is set apart from other human organizations to the extent that it represents God and follows the purpose of the invisible church.

Unlike the invisible church, the visible church is not unified, sanctified, apostolic, or universal. It is divided amongst many visible churches that fight each other. Unlike the invisible church, unified and coordinated by Jesus, visible churches rarely act together. This disharmony stems from their human nature. Visible churches consist of people who, in their nature, act sinfully and proclaim themselves rather than God. Although visible churches seek to teach the apostolic message, they teach much derived from traditional and contemporary human culture. Thus, while the visible church seeks to support the invisible church, it can never do so perfectly as a collection of limited human organizations.

The Nicene Creed continues to describe the church’s purpose with its final statement that “we look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”[14] Paul not only expects, but seeks, to “attain the resurrection from the dead.”[15] The church cries, with the German poet F. G. Klopstock, “Auferstehn, ja, auferstehn,” meaning, “we will rise again, yes, we will rise again.”[16] The invisible church lives in confident expectation of the future resurrection and looks for “the life of the world to come.” This life, while of the world to come, is not found exclusively in the world to come. Across time the invisible church remembers “He [the Holy Spirit] will [and does] … grant eternal life to me and to all who believe in Christ.”[17]

This raises a final stark contrast. The invisible church looks for its preservation into “the world to come,” while the visible church is fleeting by nature. In heaven, there will be no need for the government or property that is currently needed by the visible church. When not following Jesus, the visible church may pursue its own preservation and turn away from its mission as a house for the eternal invisible church. Hope binds all the members of the invisible church together and, if remembered, can do the same for the visible church despite its forgetful nature.

One might wonder now whether the visible church has the same purpose as the invisible church, given the many differences from the invisible church. False teachers, from the Donatists against whom St. Augustine argued to those who cited the Bible in support of racial discrimination, have plagued the visible church. In the course of college education, students become painfully aware of the visible church’s faults. Despite this flawed human nature, the visible church retains the purpose of the invisible church across the broad sweep of history.

Jesus assures that the invisible church will survive when He states that “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”[18] The invisible church will always subsist in visible churches since Christians, as humans, require social structure to support their faith. The visible human organization in which the invisible church is housed will always be flawed – lacking perfect unity and holiness, straying from its purpose of supporting Christian belief. For the visible church to maintain its purpose, the invisible church must indwell and guide the visible church.


1 “The Nicene Creed,” The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007) 358-359. Web. <>.

2 1 Corinthians 12:12. All scripture quotations come from the New Revised Standard Version.

3 Pope Paul VI. “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.” Lumen Gentium. Documents of the Vatican II Council, 21 Nov. 1965. Paragraph 22. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.

4 “Subsist.” Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 21 Dec. 2013.

5 The Book of Common Prayer (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2007) 327.

6 Ephesians 2:20.

7 Luke 1:2.

8 Liddell, Henry George and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon. Ed. Gregory R. Crane. (Medford, Massachusetts: Tufts University, 1999) Web. 24 Dec. 2013.

9 Melanchthon, Phillip. “The Apology of the Augsburg Confession.” The Book of Concord. Ed. Theodore G. Tappert. Trans. Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959) 170.

10 Hall, Douglas John. Thinking the Faith. (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Augsburg, 1989) 14.

11 Galatians 1:18.

12 Ephesians 4:4, 6.

13 Ephesians 1:5; 1 Peter 2:9.

14 Book of Common Prayer 374.

15 Philippians 3:11.

16 Mitchell, Donald. Gustav Mahler: The Wunderhorn Years. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1975) 416.

17 Luther, Martin. “The Small Catechism.” The Book of Concord. Ed. and trans. Theodore G. Tappert. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959) 345.

18 Matthew 16:18.


Stephen N. Lee ’14 is from Delran, New Jersey. He studies com­puter science and music, plays violin in the St. Olaf Orchestra, and works for the computer science program.

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