Where can we find “the church that Christ founded”? Bryan Cross poses this question, and goes on to argue (correctly) that evangelical Christians tend to ignore this question most of the time, and (more contentiously, but not without reason) that evangelicalism has “no such thing (conceptually) as a visible catholic Church”.
Naturally, Cross’s answer to the question, “Which is the visible catholic Church that Christ founded?” is: the Roman Catholic Church. Many other former evangelicals, having started to frame the question in those terms, end up coming to the same conclusion. Others will challenge the terms of the question itself, and argue that the true church is invisible, consisting of all believers in Christ, regardless of the church or denomination to which they belong.
I think we can be grateful to Cross for highlighting the fact that Jesus and the apostles did intend “the church” to be a visible, identifiable entity. However, we do not need to conclude from this that the church must be a single hierarchical organisation.
Before we ask the question, “Which is the visible catholic church that Christ founded?”, first we need to ask the question, “How can we identify the visible catholic church that Christ founded?” We can’t start looking until we know what we are looking for. And if our unexamined assumption is that we are looking for a single organisation which constitutes that church, then we might as well sign up for the Roman Catholic Church now, because that’s the only game in town.
However, the Reformers answered that question in a very different way. Article VII of the Augsburg Confession can be seen as the Lutheran Reformers’ answer to the question of how we can identify the visible catholic church:
Likewise, they teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly.
What’s important here is that the church is defined here in entirely visible terms. There is not the slightest hint of an “invisible” church in this article (a point made forcefully by Dr Hermann Sasse in an essay summarised in an early series of posts on this blog: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4). Equally, however, there is no hint of a single hierarchical organisation within which that “assembly of saints” must be found.
So that is how we are to identify the visible catholic church that Christ founded. It exists wherever we find the gospel being preached and the sacraments administered to God’s people. As Luther puts it in the Smalcald Articles:
God be praised, a seven year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and “the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd”.
So we needn’t feel anxious or defensive when a Roman Catholic asks us how we can identify “the visible church that Christ founded”. We can point to our own congregations, where the saints gather every Sunday to hear the gospel proclaimed in word and sacrament, and say, “There it is.”