Where is the visible church founded by Christ?

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.”

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25 Responses to Where is the visible church founded by Christ?

  1. Phillip Winn says:

    Well said. The example of Elijah and the 7000 men who had not bowed the knee to Baal — unknown to the very visible Elijah — is always very helpful to me in defining what I believe about visible and invisibles churches.

  2. Alden says:

    Good post. I agree with you.

    I find it interesting that so many people end up with the RCC as the historic church. There’s probably a better argument that the Eastern Orthodox hold the “historic” claim, as the Roman branch essentially left the historic faith, falling into error in a number of areas.

    However, I agree- the church exists where the Gospel is preached.

  3. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Good post. I’ll subscribe to that. Now, permit me to spin it a little and draw out some implicit nuances πŸ˜‰

    Articles VII and VIII (I do think they need to be considered together to avoid misreading VII as some kind of articulation of the Church, considered concretely, or outwardly, as an empirical body of true believers only) intends to preserve the regula fidei as we have it, for instance, in Ephesians 4 and of course the ecumenical creed (one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church). It endures throughout time and into eternity and is thus of both the present age and the consummation of new aeon, the church militant and church triumphant. That this one true Church will endure to the end of time is an objective guarantee of Christ and he establishes this Church through the proclamation of the Word and the gift of the Sacraments given through the ministerium (AC V! – the purpose of which is not to remove from consideration the bearers of this office, but to define evangelically the true purpose of the office, but I digress). Therefore, Vilmar (heh, heh) rightly points out: “Articles VII and VIII of the CA prove conclusively that the Reformation neither intended to, nor actually did, found a new Church. The Reformation did not want to be viewed as a falling away from the existing Church. Indeed, the Reformation did not want it said of its members or want them to say of themselves that they had removed themselves from the old Church or that they had left the Church.”

    Just wanted to throw that out there. The AC is after all not a confession directed directly at the papal party but rather towards the emperor who (presumably) was mediating between the two parties. How the churches who are still in “perfect” rather than “imperfect” communion with the bishop of Rome (the pope’s words, not mine) want to define church today, establish their catholicity and how it is constituted and preserved is their business. But the churches of the Augsburg confession of 1530 would nor could not concede that they were anything other than Catholic churches. Presumably, their inheritors would not hesitate to confess the same today.

  4. Bryan Cross says:


    Thanks for your charitable handling of my post. When you point to local assemblies, you are only showing that there are local visible churches, not one catholic visible Church to which all these visible local churches belong. If there were only local assemblies, and denominations, but not one catholic visible Church to which all local assemblies and denominations belonged, what would be different? Nothing, right? Therefore, the “one visible catholic Church” is superfluous to your ecclesiology, and is therefore eliminated by the principle of parsimony, as I argued here.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  5. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Or to put it another way, I disagree strongly (but in a completely friendly and non-polemical manner πŸ™‚ ) with the assertions of the second comment.

  6. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » Visible but “distressed”

  7. Pingback: internetmonk.com » Blog Archive » Links To and Out of The “True Church” Vortex

  8. Pingback: links for 2009-01-25 | The 'K' is not silent

  9. Wolf Paul says:


    if that is how you want to apply the principle of parsimony, it applies equally to the Roman Catholic Church as the visible “one holy, catholic and apostolic church”.

    What we see is lots of congregations, most of them gathered into denominations, including the RCC. You say that the RCC constitutes the visible church that Jesus founded. But what if there is no such thing? What is that’s just a term, a concept, an idea? All we can see is a variety of denominations, and unless we accept the NT testimony that Jesus founded one visible church, it’s just a term you use to somehow make the RCC special.

    And if we accept that testimony, then in view of church history, and in view of the RCC’s recognition of some bodies as “particular churches” even where these are not under Rome’s jurisdiction, the assertion that the visible church exists wherever Christians meet under the preaching of the Word of God and the ministry of the sacraments is as simple (in terms of the principle of parsimony) as your assertion that the visible church is the Roman Catholic Church.

    Because we posit the reality of the visible church not because of what we see but because of what God has revealed through the words of the writers of the NT.

    The RCC as it exists in reality is as fractured as the protestant world, in anything but the single hierarchial structure; when Catholics can be sorted into those loyal to the magisterium and those less so, into liberals and conservatives, etc., etc., then in reality the RCC is no more the one visible church than any of the other denominations.

  10. Bryan Cross says:

    Hello Paul,

    I address the tu quoque in this post. Also, as for liberal Catholics, there is a difference between a sick member and a non-member. But a sick member can become so bad that it excommunicates itself, or is removed by the rightful authority. And then the ex-member is in a very similar position viz-a-viz the Body to those who have never been members in full communion with the Body.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  11. Wolf Paul says:


    I don’t think your tu quoque explanation in your post applies. By recognizing particular churches (Eastern Orthodoxy) which are not under Rome’s jurisdiction, i.e. not part of the RCC’s single hierarchical institution, the RCC admits that the one holy, catholic and apostolic church need not be a single hierarchical institution. Then we can start arguing about criteria; Rome posits apostolic succession and a specific understanding of the Eucharist, while Alastair and the Reformers before him posited Word and Sacrament as the criteria of where the visible church is to be found. But parsimony no longer applies.

  12. Bryan Cross says:


    From the Catholic point of view, the Orthodox Churches are *particular* Churches in schism from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  13. Phillip Winn says:

    My wife and I are one whether we’re in the same room or not. My wife and I are one whether we’re in the same country or not. I am an American wherever I go. If I spend the rest of my life in Kenya or Australia, I will ever be an American.

    Oneness can be in spirit, unity in belief, unity in practice, or an arbitrary declaration and recognition by God. There is no reason to presuppose hierarchy as the single permissible display of unity.

    Claiming that the simplest explanation is the one that relies on the existence of a massive hierarchical organization is a clever bit of double-speak, but it’s irrelevant. Occam and Bentham provide guidelines for attempting to understand things, but they are not universally true. The simplest explanation that fits the facts is *preferred* but not always true. Also, one is rarely in supply of all of the facts informing any given decision.

    Determining the size and shape of the church hardly calls for the (mis-)application of philosophical hypotheses.

  14. Bryan Cross says:


    I agree with you that you and your wife are united by the bond of matrimony even when you are spatially separated. And I agree that, so long as you do not renounce your citizenship, you remain an American wherever in the world you might be. Those truths are compatible with the Catholic position. I also agree that there can be unity in spirit, unity in belief, and unity in practice. Nor did I claim that we should presuppose hierarchy as the single permissible display of unity.

    Regarding your claim:

    Claiming that the simplest explanation is the one that relies on the existence of a massive hierarchical organization is a clever bit of double-speak,

    The principle of parsimony contains a ceteris paribus clause. So the principle of parsimony does not apply across things that are incommensurable according to this metric. In other words, the simplicity of an explanation cannot be compared with the simplicity of an organization. But the simplicity of an explanation can be compared to the simplicity of another explanation, and the simplicity of an organization can be compared to that of another organization. Hence, my application of the principle of parsimony is not a matter of “double-speak”.

    I agree that the simplest explanation that fits the facts is *preferred* but not always true. But if the explanantia equally explain the facts, then it is not reasonable to believe the more complex explanans in the hope that it might be true. When we say that the simpler explanation is to be preferred, ceteris paribus, we mean that it is more likely to be *true*.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  15. When you point to local assemblies, you are only showing that there are local visible churches, not one catholic visible Church to which all these visible local churches belong.

    This is incorrect. There is only one Baptism, one Eucharist, and one Gospel.

  16. Bryan Cross says:


    Just because there is one true Baptism, and one true Eucharist, and one true Gospel, I don’t see how it follows that pointing to local assemblies shows that there there is one *catholic* (i.e. universal) visible Church to which those local visible churches belong. Those Protestants who deny that there is a catholic *visible* Church, and who affirm that the only catholic Church is invisible, also believe that there is one true Baptism, one true Eucharist, and one true Gospel.

    In the peace of Christ,

    – Bryan

  17. Pingback: Is There A One True Visible Church? « Unravel

  18. Fodder John says:

    But what happens if, as many Evangelicals claim, there are no such things as “Sacraments” just ordinances? This leaves them, by the criteria presented in this confession, with half of the definition of the Church.

    Questions like these are what led this former Baptist pastor to Orthodoxy.

  19. Wolf Paul says:


    When Evangelicals say “ordinances” they are talking about the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Table. They use the term ordinances rather than sacraments to indicate that they understand these differently from the way Roman Catholics understand them; but they are still talking about the same thing: what Christ told the church to do to initiate new believers into the church and to remember his sacrificial death and resurrection. And of course there were those among the reformers (whose definition of Church we are discussing here) who held very similar views.

    I am not saying that there are no problems with the way Evangelicals view, understand, and do things — but let’s not create straw men only to shoot them down.

  20. Fodder John says:

    Wolf Paul,

    If you understand them differently then they are not the same thing.

    The term sacrament implies something more then merely complying with a command as is the case with the term ordinance. When faced with a piece of bread in the Eucharist, for example, a Baptist sees a piece of bread that he takes to remember Jesus in his mind and an Orthodox Christian sees the body and blood of Christ with the grace to forgive sin.

    When a Baptist is immersed in water he is doing so because he already is saved and wishes to bear witness to it. An Orthodox Christian does this to be saved and begin the life of Faith.

    I don’t see a straw man here. The early reformers were sacramental and their followers became less so as they drifted away from the historic Faith so if you identify the visible Church with both word and sacrament perhaps it would be good to have both because ordinances are not the same thing.

  21. John H says:

    Fodder John: a few thoughts in response:

    1. The Lutheran church, at least, has retained a strong awareness of the sacraments as God’s means of working in our lives – uniting us to his Son in baptism, reconciling us through the word of absolution, forgiving and renewing us through his Son’s body and blood eaten and drunk in the Supper. From our POV, it’s not so much that Protestantism drifted from sacramentalism, as that non-Lutheran Protestantism got the sacraments wrong from the start.

    2. However, misunderstanding the sacraments is not the same as not having them. Plenty of churches “have the experience but miss the meaning”, certainly as regards baptism (the situation re the Supper is a little more complex). This is a serious problem, but is not the same as saying they do not have the gospel or baptism at all.

    3. As I said in one of the four Hermann Sasse-inspired posts linked from this post (I think the third or fourth), how I’d see it is that the church is present and can be seen in those congregations that get the sacraments wrong to a greater or lesser extent, but it may be obscured or hidden by those errors in teaching or practice. It gets progressively harder to see the church the further you move away from orthodoxy (with a small “o”!), but I’m loath to draw a line at which the church ceases altogether to be present and discernible. It would, of course, be better all round if the gospel were preached and the sacraments administered in full purity and clarity throughout the church.

  22. Julie says:

    in response to John H

    I agree that it would “be better all round if the gospel were preached and the sacraments administered in full purity and clarity throughout the church”. So I ask, why would you not want to come to the Roman Catholic Church and find fullness of the faith as revealed by Christ to His Apostles and as entrusted to Peter (and every successor of Peter) to safeguard and to spread throughout the world?

  23. Andrew says:

    In his book “Reformed Is Not Enough: Reclaiming the Objectivity of the Covenant,” Presbyterian pastor Douglas Wilson wrote what I find quite interesting: Let’s stop using “visible” and “invisible” in terms of the church. It’s quite misleading, as if true, regenerate, persevering Christians were somehow unseen. Instead, he suggests using the terms “historical” or “temporal” to describe the “visible” church, and “eschatological” or “permanent” to describe the true saints. I think this makes a lot of sense. Everyone who is baptized has entered the covenant community and therefore the church; but only the elect will remain into eternity and will not be threshed out.

    As for how to discover or find the visible church founded by and upon Christ Jesus (Matt. 16; 1 Cor. 3), I agree that true Gospel preaching in line with historic Christian orthodoxy and administration of the sacraments (Baptism, Eucharist), even with their varying sacramental or “ordinal” practices, is the right marks of the church. No one else eat’s Jesus’ body and blood except the church; everyone else thinks its ludicrous, sentimental, or cannibalism.

  24. Jon Parks says:

    Hi John,

    I came across your blog through iMonk and am very grateful that I did! I’ve been on the same path that so many evangelicals have been traveling in recent years: “The quest for the one true church”. Although I’ve been somewhat familiar with the Lutheran tradition, having participated in Lutheran liturgy and recently taken a course on the Reformation in university, I’d never really considered that my journey might culminate in “crossing the Rhine” as you’ve said. Just today I started reading Gene Veith’s “The Spirituality of the Cross” (on your promotion) and am looking forward to exploring Lutheran faith and practice in more depth. I just wanted to say thanks for your defense of the Lutheran tradition on your blog. I wonder if the Lutheran tradition is where I will ultimately find a spiritual home. I long for a church that is “catholic” yet “evangelical”, and it seems like the Lutheran church is able to hold these together.

  25. John H says:

    Jon: Thanks for your comment. I hope you enjoy the Veith book, and that it helps you find a “spiritual home” – whether that’s a Lutheran congregation or some other that lives out a catholic and evangelical expression of the faith.

    Because I’m convinced Christianity finds its fullest expression when it is both “catholic” and “evangelical”, and for me the Lutheran tradition is the place where I’ve found that balance most clearly expressed. Equally, I think there are areas where other church traditions still “fill in some of the gaps” for me (e.g. I pray using an Anglican form of daily office). A lot will depend on where you live and what the local congregations in different traditions are like.

    What I’m saying is: I would never want to be seen as seeking converts to Lutheranism, though I’m delighted when people do find the Lutheran church to be their spiritual home. It’s equally important for Lutheran insights to be known more widely in the church (and indeed for Lutherans to learn a thing or two more from our brothers and sisters in other traditions).

    Happy hunting, anyway. πŸ™‚

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