Is the Church Visible or Invisible

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					Is the Church Visible or Invisible?                         

By John J. Moran
The tea and cookies had been served, pleasantries exchanged, chairs repositioned, introductory remarks
concluded. Good words were spoken all around.
Now to the main event: dialogue. The opening question was from one of our guests, a Methodist pastor: "What
really divides us?" Before citing his own views, he solicited others'. From Catholics and Protestants in the
parish hall came the same few responses: "The Pope!" "Confession!" "The saints!" "Using wine in
communion!" "The Bible!"
At this first in a series of parish seminars with non-Catholic clergy, we - both sides - were about to be brought
face to face with the one overriding issue that stands like the Great Wall of China between Catholics and
Protestants. Our young assistant pastor brought it forth.
"It comes down to this," he said, trying not to appear confrontational. "Did Christ found a visible Church or an
invisible Church?"
His query, far-reaching though he obviously felt it to be, excited little comment at the time, almost as if he were
the only one who had ever thought of it. Most of the others didn't grasp its significance; they focused on what
were lesser differences. He got right to the pith.
But this is not to say others, particularly Protestants, are unaware of the key distinctives. Preparatory to a later
session we had with guests from the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, perhaps the most conservative of
all U.S. Lutheran bodies, the question came into central focus when we read this WELS declaration of principle:
"We believe that the holy Christian Church is a reality, although it is not an external, visible organization.
Because 'man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart' only the Lord knows 'them
that are his.' The members of the holy Christian Church are known only to God; we cannot distinguish between
true believers and hypocrites. The holy Christian Church is therefore invisible and cannot be identified with
anyone church body or the sum total of all church bodies."
This view is at one with the position, as traditional Protestantism (what we might call the "conservative" wing)
sees it, that the Church which Christ founded is without evident form or, therefore, historical authority (because
you can't turn to the Church as an authoritative decider of disputes if you can't locate the Church in the first
place). Loraine Boettner, a Protestant polemicist and noted anti-Catholic, in his book Roman Catholicism,
quotes Stephen L. Testa, a minister who is described as "a former Roman Catholic," as stating, "The true
Church of Christ is invisible, made up of truly converted people who are to be found in all the visible churches
and who names are written in heaven." Testa and Boettner and the people subscribing to the WELS declaration
say the Church is non-denominational in that it does not coincide with any of the historic churches, which are
only gatherings of convenience for true Christians and potential Christians.
This theory leads one to inquire how, here on earth, where Christ's commands to his faithful must be
implemented, are we to know such a will-o-the-wisp entity? Should we even attempt to know it?
"No," the Methodist clergyman at the meeting said. "No point in it at all. Paul's letters make it clear that there
were many churches in the apostolic period, not just one. The Church universal was the invisible fabric which
held them all together."
Yet, Paul did speak of "one faith," and the first great Church gathering, around the year 50 in Jerusalem, was
without doubt the manifestation of a visible Church. There the apostles, the quite visible leaders of the Church,
made one of the earliest universal decisions, exempting Christians from Judaic law.
Ignatius of Antioch speaks of a visible Church when he outlines its nature in 107, marking it, for the first time
of which we have record, as the "Catholic Church": "Where the bishop is found, there let the people be, even as
where Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church."
Most of Protestantism - at least traditional Protestantism - chokes on the idea that Christ established a visible
and consequently authoritative Church, no matter how clearly history seems to insist that he did. If Christ's
Church is truly visible, as Catholics maintain, then it follows that no Protestant body can be that Church, for no
Protestant church, quite obviously, can be dated back to the beginning - which is not to say that some of them
don't try. Some Baptists, for instance, argue theirs must be the original Church because their denomination
existed since the time of John the Baptist (how else would they come by the name?).
This is special pleading. We cannot date the start of an institution from the title it applies to itself or by mere
claims that it has existed from a certain time. Yet this approach is common: Think of how extreme feminists
claim to follow the primal religion, by which they mean "good" witchcraft; its antiquity is established for them
by the very name they give it, the "Old Religion," even though an objective examination would reveal that their
"Old Religion" is a product of recent fancies.
Pulling it up root and branch
At a discussion session we had with a member of an obscure Christian sect, a woman preacher sharply
challenged the message conveyed by a drawing in the parish hall. The drawing shows a large tree with
numerous branches, each branch labeled with the name of a denomination.
"No! No!" she exclaimed. "Not that, precisely not that!" pointing to the "Catholic Church" notation on the main
trunk. "The tree itself - the whole thing! There isn't any such tree. There never was! We aren't offshoots from
the Catholic Church!"
To acknowledge that Christ did establish a visible Church necessarily would demand that that Church be
identified, singled out from other claimants, and its authority accepted. Few Protestants relish such a task. They
don't want to examine the tree and its branches. Their argument for an invisible Church becomes an argument
made conclusion-end first.
In the "Spaceship Earth" exhibit at Walt Disney's EPCOT Center in Florida, one of the highlights interrupting
the "Cools" and "Awesomes" of youngsters is the figure of a monk hand-copying the Bible. Unfortunately, the
visitors' tracked conveyances don't hesitate before the figure long enough for its significance to be grasped.
So tedious was the task of producing Bibles before the printing press was invented that household Bibles were
unknown. Authority for Christian belief had to come through the teaching office of the Church. It was not
possible for the Bible to be the authority for the average Christian because the Bible simply was not accessible
to the large majority of Christians.
Here's another way to look at things. Structuring Christian belief upon the Bible alone, Martin Luther's sola
scriptura principle, makes no sense if Christ founded a visible Church commissioned to act upon his behalf
until the end of time (Luke 10:16). But if the only Church with a sensible claim of going all the way back must
be ignored because not all its teachings can be accepted, one ends up embracing the hallmark of Protestantism,
the idea that the universal Church must be invisible.
If this is the thinking they come up against, Catholics will find little but frustration in trying to demonstrate that
"we were there first." After all, if the true Church is invisible, then none of us was there first. All the churches,
all the denominations, are late groupings of convenience for Christians, but not a one is the true Church.
The pairing of the invisible Church and Bible-alone concepts leads to the conclusion most Protestants avoid:
Christ failed to keep his promise (Matt. 28:20) that he would remain with his Church throughout history;
instead, he allowed it to become rudderless for the 1500 years it took to invent the printing press and to
disseminate the Bible widely.
Are we Romans or Catholics?
During another seminar we had with non-Catholics a point was raised that for a moment, at least to some of the
Catholics present, seemed to devastate the Catholic position that Christ's universal Church is both visible and
authoritative and is to be identified precisely with the Church they belonged to.
One of our guests, a layman, said, "Frankly, if Christ did found a visible Church, you wouldn't be it anyway!"
"Why not?" asked one of the Catholics.
The non-Catholic smiled a Cheshire cat smile, striving for a semblance of cordiality.
"The word 'Catholic' suggests universality. But you folks aren't 'Catholic.' You're 'Roman Catholic'! Many
churches have 'Catholic' in their name. The Roman Catholic Church is simply another denomination. Besides,
your church's name is contradictory. 'Catholic' means universal, but 'Roman' is territorially limited. You belong
to an oxymoron."
While many of us do not object to being called "Roman Catholic," possibly even using the term ourselves, to be
identified in this way makes it easy for detractors to picture us as less than universal. The term does seem to
contradict itself, the universality of "Catholic" apparently being denied by the particularity of "Roman."
"Roman Catholic" did not come into use until after the Reformation, and it has never been included among the
Church's official titles.
An invisible court of appeals?
Certainly it was to a visible, authoritative body that Christ declared, addressing its first earthly leader, "I will
entrust to you the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 16:19). What good would it have done to bestow the
keys upon a Church so formless as to defy any effort to identify it? Then, too, Christ speaks of a visible Church
when he recommends recourse to it for settling disputes among his followers: "Refer it to the Church" (Matt.
18:17). He tells his followers, who make us the Church on earth, that they are "the light of the world. A city set
on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a
lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house" (Matt. 5:14-15; see also Luke 8:16,11:33).
The visibility of the Church is no light matter. It underlies the ultimate source of Christian belief: Church or
Bible? Its importance surpasses that of other divisive issues, such as the veneration of saints or confession.
As was pointed out at every one of our seminars in which the question of Church visibility arose (often the
subject was deliberately introduced) Christ's Church does have an invisible quality in that it is his Mystical
Body on earth. But to understand the Church as having no visibility at all - and, as a consequence, no authority
at all - conjures up a Church as tenuous as feathers in the wind. It's almost as if Jesus, in setting up his Church,
didn't quite know what he was doing.
A point which Boettner and likeminded controversialists appear to overlook is that only a visible, authoritative
Church could have set in place the pillars that would support Christian belief and practice through the ages. To
those who cry "Prove it!" here are a few examples:
   1. Codification of the Bible. The Bible did not codify itself, did not specify which books, among many,
      were to be seen as inspired. A visible, authoritative body, comprised of bishops, decided the content of
      the canon.
   2. The worldwide councils. Christianity's doctrinal parameters have been charted by the ecumenical
      councils, now numbering 21, each conducted under the authority of the visible, universal Church. Not
      once in those 21 sessions did an "invisible" group of bishops meet and deliberate.
   3. The Lord's day. The Christian Sunday replaced the Saturday sabbath of the Old Testament. The visible
      Church made this change.
   4. Christmas and Easter. The Bible nowhere mentions the word "Christmas" or the date for Christmas. The
      celebration of Christmas on December 25 was a decision of the Church. (The feast didn't arise all by
      itself.) Much the same can be said for Easter as a feast separate from the other Sundays which
      commemorate the Resurrection. It was a visible Church, headed by a definitely locatable pope, that
      settled the dates of observance for the two key feasts.
   5. The calendar. It is Christ's visible Church, its reach extending into the secular realm, which has given us
      the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory XIII.
Avoiding papal authority
The Methodist pastor and others who followed him were unanimous in their contention that Peter was not the
foremost of the apostles, that he had no universal authority, and that he never stepped foot inside Rome. All this
meshes with their view of Church invisibility, since a visible Church would have visible and easily identifiable
leaders. This pooh-poohing of Peter's leadership is easy. Not so easy is the dismissal of our culture's Catholic
heritage. One of the guest clergy, relating an anecdote, suddenly stopped in mid-sentence on realizing that he
was portraying Peter as standing guard at the gates of heaven. For Catholic and Protestant alike, it is always
Peter who is there - never Paul, or John or James or any of the others. Always Peter.
Are we under Christ's Church visible or invisible? Is it a Church of authority or an amorphous "worldwide
community of believers"? Is it divinely appointed in time and place or lacking enough substance even to make
itself known? Any useful understanding of the locus of Christian authority must flow from questions such as
Church and Jesus Are Inseparable, Says Pope                        

Begins a New Cycle of Catecheses
VATICAN CITY, MARCH 15, 2006 – Benedict XVI has begun a new cycle of catecheses at the general
audiences, dedicated to explaining the "mystery of the relationship between Jesus and the Church."
"Between Christ and the Church there is no opposition: They are inseparable, despite the sins of the people who
make up the Church," the Pope told the 30,000 people gathered today for the audience in St. Peter's Square.
"Therefore, there is no way to reconcile Christ's intentions with the slogan that was fashionable a few years ago,
'Christ yes, the Church no,'" he continued.
The Holy Father based his meditation on the third chapter of the Gospel according to St. Mark in which he
presented Jesus' calling of the Twelve Apostles.
"The Church," Benedict XVI explained, "was initially established when some fishermen from Galilee met
Jesus; they allowed themselves to be won over by his gaze, his voice and his strong and warm invitation, 'Come
after me, and I will make you fishers of men.'"
After concluding on Feb. 15 the cycle of catecheses on the psalms and canticles used in the Liturgy of the
Hours, Benedict XVI announced that he now seeks to delve into the objective that Pope John Paul II had set
forth for the Church at the start of the millennium: "To contemplate the face of Christ."
A fantasy
"Moving in this direction, in the catechesis I begin today," Benedict XVI said, "I would like to show that
precisely the light of that Face is reflected in the face of the Church, despite the limitations and the shadows of
our fragile and sinful humanity."
"The individualist Jesus is a fantasy," the Pope insisted. "We cannot find Jesus without the reality that he
created and through which he communicates himself" -- the Church.
"Between the Son of God, made man and his Church, there is a profound, inseparable continuity, in virtue of
which Christ is present today in his people," the Holy Father stated.
For this reason, he acknowledged that Jesus "is always our contemporary -- our contemporary in the Church
built upon the foundation of the apostles. He is alive in the succession of the apostles."
"And his presence in the community, in which he himself always gives himself, is the reason for our joy,"
Benedict XVI added. "Yes, Christ is with us, the Kingdom of God is coming."

By Bryan Cross
πῶρ δὲ κηπύξυζιν ἐὰν μὴ ἀποζηαλῶζιν (And how shall they preach unless they are sent?) – Romans 10:15
In this verse, St. Paul says something that almost does not even make sense to our contemporary ears. We might
respond to St. Paul, "Why would a person need to be sent, in order to preach? Why couldn't he just start
preaching?" Not having the Apostle Paul around to answer our question, we might concede: "Fine, as long as
the person is sent by the Holy Spirit."
One contemporary form of gnosticism is the notion that the individual, his Bible, and the Holy Spirit form a
trinity sufficient for the governance of the Christian life. This error is not very different from that of Montanism,
the second century heresy I recently discussed.
But the apostles were called 'apostles' because they were sent by the incarnate Christ. (The word 'apostle' comes
from the Greek word ἀποζηoλoρ, which means 'sent one'.) The churches they founded were called apostolic
because these churches were founded by the apostles. The bishops in these churches were said to possess
apostolic succession because they had either received their ecclesial authority and commission directly from one
or more of the apostles, or from a bishop in a line of bishops whose first bishop had received his ecclesial
authority and commission from one or more of the apostles.
It is true that being an 'apostolic' church included in its meaning that that church held and preserved the teaching
of the apostles. But that was not the primary meaning of 'apostolicity' for the fathers; that was a meaning
derived from the primary meaning. The primary meaning of 'apostolicity' for the fathers was that the church was
founded by one or more apostles. It was because the church in question had been founded by an apostle that its
doctrine was known to be that of the apostles. Apostolicity was not identical to doctrinal fidelity; rather,
apostolicity guaranteed doctrinal fidelity, especially in what was called the Apostolic See, where the Apostles
Peter and Paul had deposited the faith and established the primacy of episcopal authority.
When we read the fathers on the 'apostolicity' of the Church, we see that they understood the Church to grow
organically. All the Catholic [particular] churches were 'apostolic' because they had a succession just as did the
bishops. Either they were founded directly by an apostle, or by a church founded by an apostle, or by a church
founded by a church founded by an apostle, etc.
The notion that one could send oneself, appealing directly to the Holy Spirit and bypassing the authority of the
Apostles or those whom the Apostles had appointed, is a form of Montanistic gnosticism; it is a gnostic revision
of 'apostolicity'. St. Francis De Sales, who came to Geneva at the end of the 16th century, and became its
bishop, began his response to the Protestants by saying the following:

           "First, then, your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to
           maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. ... The office they claimed was that of
           ambassadors of Jesus Christ our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce
           between Our Lord and the ancient Church his Spouse; to arrange and conclude by words of
           present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of
           better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. ... To be legates and ambassadors they
           should have been sent, they should have had letters of credit from him whom they boasted of
           being sent by. ... Tell me, what business had you to hear them and believe them without having
           any assurance of their commission and of the approval of Our Lord, whose legates they called
           themselves? In a word, you have no justification for having quitted that ancient Church in which
           you were baptized, on the faith of preachers who had no legitimate mission from the Master."1

    St. Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy, I.1.
Apostolicity is in this way a guard of ecclesial unity, because apostolicity is organic, not merely formal. The
Church is not a Book; the Church is a Body. Treating 'apostolicity' as essentially formal agreement with the
Apostle's doctrine treats the Church in essence as a Platonic form. But the fathers see apostolicity organically,
as ecclesial growth literally from the Apostles themselves, even from their physical bodies that physically
preached in those churches that they founded. Apostolicity understood organically (i.e. sacramentally) is a
guard to unity because growth (in location, in numbers, and in understanding of doctrine) must then always take
place in unity and agreement with the apostolic churches, especially the Apostolic See.
Jesus warns of gnostic revisions to apostolicity when He says, "yet if another comes in his own name, you will
accept him." (John 5:43) The fathers understood this passage to refer (in some eschatological sense) to the
Antichrist. But it also applies to the 'thieves' and 'robbers' Jesus describes in John 10:1-5:

           "Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever does not enter a sheepfold through the gate but climbs over
           elsewhere is a thief and a robber. But whoever enters through the gate is the shepherd of the
           sheep. The gatekeeper opens it for him, and the sheep hear his voice, as he calls his own sheep
           by name and leads them out. When he has driven out all his own, he walks ahead of them, and
           the sheep follow him, because they recognize his voice. But they will not follow a stranger; they
           will turn away from him, because they do not recognize the voice of a stranger."

Jesus goes on to say that He Himself is the gate (vs. 7) and the good shepherd (vs. 11). The Church, as the Body
of Christ, images Christ in this respect, especially the bishops and presbyters (cf. Acts 20:28; 1 Peter 5:2,4) and
most especially the successor of Peter (cf. John 21:15-17). They are not only the shepherds; they are also the
gate. The ministers must come with the authorization and commission and blessing of the Church.
St. Francis shows that the laity cannot be the source of authority for the Protestant ministers. He writes: []

           "We bring forward the express practice of the whole Church, which from all time has been to
           ordain the pastors by the imposition of the hands of the other pastors and bishops. Thus was
           Timothy ordained; and the seven deacons themselves, though proposed by the Christian people,
           were ordained by the imposition of the Apostles' hands. Thus have the Apostles appointed in
           their Constitutions; and the great Council of Nice (which methinks one will not despise) and that
           of Carthage – the second, and then immediately the third, and the fourth, at which S. Augustine
           assisted. If then they [the original Protestant ministers] have been sent by the laity, they are not
           sent in Apostolic fashion, nor legitimately, and their mission is null. ... How shall they [the laity]
           communicate the authority which they have not?"2

Nor, argues St. Francis de Sales, did the original Protestant ministers have any authorization from the Catholic
bishops to teach and preach what they did. The only remaining appeal, for the original Protestant ministers, was
to the direct commissioning by the Holy Spirit, in other words, to a kind of Montanistic Gnosticism, which
manifested itself more explicitly with the rise of figures like Jakob Boehme (1557-1624) and George Fox
(1624-1691). Boehme wrote:

           "I have enough with the book that I am. If I have within me the Spirit of Christ, the entire Bible
           is in me. Why would I wish for more books? Why discuss what is outside, while not having
           learned what is within me?"3

    Ibid. I.2.
    Apology to Tilken, 2:298.
Sacramental Apostolic Succession and Ecumenical Unity

By Bryan Cross
One of the fundamental causes of the divisions between Christians is individualism. True unity is impossible
where each person thinks of himself as his own ultimate ecclesial authority. Moreover, any non-sacramental
grounding of ecclesial authority is intrinsically individualistic. Therefore true unity is impossible where
Christians believe that the essence of the grounding of ecclesial authority is non-sacramental. The reunion of all
Christians depends upon recognizing that sacramentality is the true grounding of ecclesial authority.
I have argued that the Montanist, Novatian and Donatist schisms erred precisely in failing to recognize
sacramentality as the true grounding of ecclesial authority. I have also argued that Protestantism does not have
sacramentally grounded ecclesial authority; Luther and Calvin redefined 'apostolic succession' as formal
agreement with the Apostles, rejecting the Catholic doctrine that Apostolic succession is essentially
I noticed that Sean Michael Lucas has recently stated that apostolic succession is essentially doctrinal, not
sacramental. He writes, "For Protestants, the means for unity is also apostolic succession, but it is a succession
of commitment to the apostolic message and mission."
Defining "apostolic succession" as fundamentally non-sacramental entails individualism. And individualism is
intrinsically opposed to unity. So Lucas has adopted as a means to unity a position that is intrinsically opposed
to unity. The question that those holding a doctrinally-grounded conception of ecclesial authority overlook is:
Whose determination of doctrinal apostolicity is authoritative? Without sacramentality, the answer is ultimately
either "My own" or "No one's" (which is functionally equivalent to "My own"). In other words, wherever
sacramentality is not recognized as the essence of apostolic succession, we are left with individualism.
Lucas adds: "As the authority of Word and Spirit continues to be observed in Protestant churches, we manifest
the unity of Christ's church even in the midst of our denominational groupings."
Lucas seems to think that the present state of denominational fragmentation in Protestantism manifests the sort
of unity Christ desires for His followers, simply because Protestants "observe the authority of Word and Spirit".
It would seem then that for Lucas, schism does not detract from the unity of the Church so long as the
schismatic parties continue to "observe the authority of Word and Spirit". But the claim to be "observing the
authority of Word and Spirit" would apply to all the early heresies, as St. Vincent of Lerins points out. If the
Protestant denominations are truly "observing the authority of Word and Spirit", then why are the Word and
Spirit saying so many incompatible things, that the various Protestant denominations cannot be united into one
denomination? Should we believe that the Word and Spirit are contradicting themselves, or should we believe
that some people are misinterpreting the Word and misunderstanding the Spirit?
The unity that Christ desires His followers to have is not merely the shared desire to follow the Word and the
Spirit. Even tritheists could affirm that sort of ecclesial unity. Christ desires that His followers be one, even as
He and the Father are one. And the Father and the Son are one in Being, not merely in desire, and not merely in
intention. Christ therefore desires that His followers be fully incorporated into one Body, as I have argued. If
God hates divorce, man separating what God has joined together, then how much more does God hate schism,
when men rend His Bride? We must not delude ourselves into calling evil "good", or division "unity". When we
start to allow ourselves to see the fragmented state of Protestantism for what it is, instead of pretending that it
manifests the unity of Christ's Church, then like Cindy Beck and Kristine Franklin, we start to see the necessity
of sacramentally grounded ecclesial authority, and the path to true unity, i.e. being fully incorporated into one
Apostolicity in Acts 15                

By Bryan Cross
Ἐπειδὴ ἠκούζαμεν ὅηι ηινὲρ ἐξ ἡμῶν [ἐξελθόνηερ] ἐηάπαξαν ὑμᾶρ λόγοιρ ἀναζκεςάζονηερ ηὰρ τςσὰρ ὑμῶν οἷρ
οὐ διεζηειλάμεθα (Acts 15:24)
Literal translation: "Since we have heard that some out of us having gone out disturbed you with words,
unsettling your souls, to whom we gave no mandate/order/command."
NAB: "Since we have heard that some of our number who went out without any mandate from us have upset
you with their teachings and disturbed your peace of mind."
Recently I discussed the significance of St. Paul's statement: "And how shall they preach unless they are sent?"
(Romans 10:15) for understanding apostolicity. Here I wish to discuss a statement written by the Apostles and
elders at the council of Jerusalem around 50 AD, and recorded by St. Luke in Acts 15:24.
If apostolic succession were merely doctrinal, then why did these disturbers need a mandate from the Apostles?
Why is their lack of an Apostolic mandate even mentioned? The Apostles and elders should simply have said
only that the doctrine of the disturbers was not the Apostles' doctrine. But the Apostles and elders do not say
that. Instead they provide a mandate to Paul and Barnabas, Silas and Judas called Barsabbas. The "letter"
mentioned in verse 23 is the authentication or proof that these men have the necessary mandate from the
Apostles to teach and preach in their name, as official legates / ambassadors of the Apostles.
But if Paul and Barnabas needed an Apostolic mandate, and if the Apostles and elders show that because the
disturbers mentioned in Acts 15:24 do not have an Apostolic mandate they [i.e. those disturbers] should not be
listened to, then from whom did Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin receive a mandate? Or should we believe that the
need for a Church mandate in order to preach and teach in the name of the Church ceased with the death of the
last apostle?
The Incarnation and Church Unity

By Bryan Cross
In a statement about the unity of the Church, Jonathan Bonomo recently wrote:
       All Christians are members of one another because of their union with Jesus Christ, their
       common Head. There is therefore but one Church: holy, catholic, and apostolic. Accordingly,
       striving to bring into a fuller outward expression this unity which we already share in Christ is
       the duty of every Christian, commensurate with the command of the Apostle (Ephesians 4:3).
Notice the phrase "fuller outward expression". According to Jonathan's position, the ground of the unity of the
Church is inward and spiritual; it is each believer's internal/spiritual union with the invisible Christ. That
internal/spiritual unity is already fully there, and so ecumenicism is merely an effort to further manifest
outwardly what is already fully there inwardly.
I want to contrast Jonathan's position with the Catholic position. (Let me say in advance that I respect Jonathan,
and agree with him on many points, and I have had some profitable and friendly discussions with him. So my
criticism of his position on Church unity is no way meant to be a personal criticism of him.) The Catholic
position on Church unity is not that the Church's unity is fundamentally internal and spiritual. For the Catholic,
the ground of the Church's unity is Christ, who is both spirit and flesh. We are united to Christ by being united
to His Body (i.e. the visible Church) through the sacrament of baptism ("water and the Spirit"). We are more
deeply united to Christ and the Church through the sacraments of Confirmation and the Eucharist. From the
Catholic point of view, those communities lacking valid orders lack these two sacraments, and therefore are less
united to the Church (the Body of Christ), and hence less united to Christ. Moreover, in the Catholic view an act
of schism separates a person (to some degree) from the Church, and hence from Christ. Jonathan's view, by
contrast, treats all Christians as equally united to Christ and therefore equally united to the Church. For that
reason, on Jonathan's view, schism does not do anything to the internal unity of all Christians, only to the
outward manifestation of that internal unity. But the Catholic view looks at it the other way around, in the earth-
to-heaven direction ("whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven"). From the Catholic point of view, to
separate to some degree from the Church by way of schism is to separate to that degree from Christ. The visible
and the invisible are bound together, because of the incarnation, wherein what is done to the flesh of Christ is
done to the Person of Christ. That is precisely why excommunication has teeth; it means something. It really
cuts us off from Christ. If it did not cut us off from Christ, then it would have no teeth.
Jonathan's view of the ground of the unity of the Church is de-materialized (i.e. spiritualized). It is in that way
both gnostic and Docetic. In actuality, Christ is both spirit and flesh. Visible unity is not merely an "outward
expression" of the real unity, just as sexual union is not merely a physical expression of inward/spiritual unity.
Sexual union is part of the true union of husband and wife. Likewise, visible unity is part of the real unity of the
Church, not merely an outward expression of the real unity which is spiritual and invisible. From the Catholic
point of view, ecumenicism is not in effort to bring an outward expressions of a unity that is already complete in
the invisible / spiritual realm. Rather, ecumenicism is the work of bringing those only in partial communion
with the Church (and thus only in partial communion with Christ) into full communion with the Church (and
thus into full communion with Christ). Jonathan's view essentially denies the actuality (and possibility) of real
divisions in the Body of Christ; his position essentially denies that any believers are not fully united to the
Church. According to his position all the various denominations are not *really* divided; we are divided only in
outward expressions.
It is no wonder there is so little concern about Church unity in these communities, if our disunity is viewed in
this gnostic manner as merely a matter of outward expressions. The root problem here is an implicit dualism
that treats the spiritual as the really real, and the material as a mere context for the expression of the spiritual.
Likewise, and for the same reason, Jonathan's position treats the Body of Christ as fundamentally invisible, but
having some visible members, whose activities are often visible, and thus are "outward expressions" of the
fundamentally invisible Church. Wherever being in schism is treated as not separating a person (to some
degree) from Christ, there the Church is being treated as fundamentally invisible. (If the unity of the Church is
fundamentally invisible, then the being of the Church is fundamentally invisible, because of the metaphysical
relation of being and unity.) This dualism (or 'angelism' as Maritain calls it) in Jonathan's position can be traced
back to Descartes. In actuality, we are neither angels nor heaps of atoms. We are rational animals, both spirit
and flesh. To be fully united as one Church, it is not enough for us all to believe in Jesus, just as the gnostics
were wrong that salvation is through knowledge (something intentional, immaterial and invisible). We must be
one family, one community, one visible body, and that requires that we be under one visible head. Hence the
incarnation was essential for Church unity. In order for the Church to remain truly unified when Christ ascended
into heaven, Christ had to give primacy to one of the Apostles, and to his episcopal successors. And this is why
Christ made Peter the steward of His Church until His return.
And the Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and sensible steward, whom his master will put in charge of his
servants, to give them their rations at the proper time?" (Luke 12:42)
Thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, "Come, go to this steward .... I will entrust him with your authority, And he
will become a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. Then I will set the key of the
house of David on his shoulder, When he opens no one will shut, When he shuts no one will open. (Isaiah
I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not
overpower it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been
bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:18-19)
Church and Jesus Are Inseparable, Says Pope

By Bryan Cross
Recently I had a conversation with a Protestant about Catholicism and the unity of the Church. She said, "I am
not a member of any church. I have Jesus, and that's all that matters." I asked her why she attended church
weekly. She replied, "Because we are not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together", referring to Hebrews
10:25. Notice the voluntaristic (i.e. stipulative) conception of that verse in relation to the rest of Scripture and
theology. For her, if that verse were not in the Bible, we would not need to "go to church" at all. When I pointed
out that Christ said "I will build my Church", she replied that Christ's Church is simply all those who have
Jesus. She told me that she knows (by an internal witness in her spirit) that she has Jesus, and therefore that she
is in Christ's Church. In her view, any institution is a man-made thing; God looks at the heart, not at whether we
are a member of some institution.
This person means well, and is believing according to the best that she knows. But hers is a gnostic conception
of the Church. It conceptually de-materializes the Church per se and treats the unity of the Church as something
entirely formal, spiritual and immaterial. Conceiving of the Church in this gnostic way is similar to conceiving
of marriage as an entirely spiritual union, whereas in fact marriage involves both spiritual and material union,
because we are beings consisting both of matter and spirit.
In dialoguing with a person who holds a gnostic conception of the Church, we have to show that Christ founded
a visible Church. We can do this by showing that schism is impossible if the Church is not visible, and yet
schism is clearly forbidden in Scripture -- cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10. Scripture also enjoins unity among Christians;
that would be nonsensical if ecclesial unity were complete merely by all Christians being Christian. (Those
holding a gnostic conception of the Church typically have no conception of schism, or any way of showing
whether they are or are not in schism.) We can also point to Scripture passages that show the importance of
church discipline (e.g. St. Matthew 18:15ff), and obedience to ecclesial authority (e.g. Hebrews 13:17). Those
two things do not fit into the gnostic conception of the Church. We can also show that the Church is a living
body, and that bodies are material, not invisible. In addition, I think it is helpful to contrast Christianity with
gnosticism in general.
Once we have shown that Christ founded a visible Church, then it follows that this visible Church exists today,
for Christ has promised to be with her always, even to the end of time, and that the gates of hell will not prevail
against her. There must therefore be material continuity between the visible Church today and the Apostles –
this is one of the four marks of the Church: 'apostolic', as in "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic
Church". The gnostic (de-materialized) conception of apostolicity reduces apostolicity to something entirely
formal, i.e. agreement with [one's own best judgment of] the Apostles' doctrine, as I have argued. But the same
reasons we used to refute gnosticism's de-materializing of the Church also show that apostolicity is through a
material succession, that is, through a passing on of authority through the laying on of hands (notice the
*matter* involved in that act). Because we are material beings, we need the material component of sacramental
succession in order to be one Body. Otherwise, we could be united only around doctrines and practices, and
wherever there were disagreements concerning doctrine or practice, nothing would hold the Body together.
People would separate and follow whomever they thought was teaching the doctrine and practice that they
believed to be best. And such fragmentation is precisely what we see in the historical outworking of
Protestantism, where since the sixteenth century apostolicity has been conceptualized in this gnostic (de-
materialized) manner.
There is only one institution that was founded by the incarnate Christ through His Apostles. None of the
Protestant institutions is even a candidate, because they were all founded at least 1500 years later. Lutheranism
was founded by Martin Luther in 1520. Presbyterianism was founded by John Knox in 1560; the Presbyterian
Church in America was founded in 1973. The Baptists were founded by John Smyth around 1600. The
Assemblies of God was founded early in the 20th century. These institutions were all indeed founded by mere
men, and it is not by joining such an institution that one is incorporated into the visible Church. Only one
institution was founded by the God-man. It is that institution to which we must be joined in order to be
incorporated into the Church which Christ founded. When someone asks you to join their Protestant
denomination, ask them if it is the one the incarnate Christ founded through His Apostles. Either they must
embrace gnosticism (i.e. Christ founded an invisible Church), or they must reject all those institutions founded
by mere men at least 1500 years after Christ.
Those persons who agree that Christ founded a visible Church, but deny that any present institution is it, are by
that denial saying that the Church which Christ founded ceased to exist, and that Christ's promise regarding the
indefectibility of the Church was false. Those persons who agree that Christ founded a visible Church, but deny
that apostolicity is through sacramental succession from the Apostles, have not fully removed the gnosticism of
early Protestantism from their theology.
If Christ did not found a visible Church, then it is trivially true that Christ and the Church are inseparable, for in
that case what it means to be in the Church is simply to have Christ. So of course Christ and the Church are
inseparable. When we come to understand that Christ founded a visible Church, and that to be joined to that
Church is to have Christ, and to be cast out of that Church is to be cast away from Christ (cf. Matt 16:19, 18:18,
John 20:23), then we see that the gnostic conception of the Church is not only false, it is deadly. It is no trivial
or insignificant matter to be outside the ark when the floods come, and the ark, as we know, is a type of the
Church. It is not enough to "know Jesus in one's heart", to think of Him as one's "Lord", to prophesy in His
name, to drive out demons and perform many miracles. (cf. Matthew 7:22)
Jesus condemns gnosticism's de-materialized conception of salvation when He says, "Truly, truly I say to you,
unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." (John 3:5), and "He who
has believed and has been baptized shall be saved." (Mark 16:16) "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man
and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves." (John 6:53) St. Peter likewise crushes gnosticism when he
says, "Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins" (Acts
2:38), and again, "baptism now saves you" (1 Peter 3:21). St. Paul likewise crushes gnosticism when he tells us
that Christ cleansed the Church "by the washing of water with the word" (Eph 5:25) And Ananias speaks the
same when he says, "Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His
name." (Acts 22:16)
In each case, salvation is tied directly to matter. Where do we get this saving matter? From the Church, in the
sacraments. There we find the water of life (i.e. baptism) and the Bread of life (i.e. Eucharist). This is what the
Church fathers meant when they taught that "He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church
for his Mother". And a mere invisible Church was not what they had in mind in those words; the notion that
Christ founded an invisible Church was for them an expression of the gnostic heresy. And gnosticism to this
day remains the principle heresy.
The gnosticism that denies that Christ founded a visible Church is a heresy. So is the gnosticism that denies that
any existing institution is the Church which Christ founded, and claims rather that the visible Church is merely
the plurality of believers and their children. Avoiding heresy is not as easy as using the right terms. Conceiving
of the Church as invisible and non-institutional, while referring to it as visible, is simply gnosticism conjoined
with semantic and conceptual confusion. Those who explicitly deny that Christ founded a visible Church are in
a much better position to discover their gnosticism than are those who wrap up their gnosticism in sacramental
(non-gnostic) language. May Christ, in this Epiphanytide, lead us to understand the full implications of His
incarnation, His taking into His very being flesh from the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. That is the
antidote to gnosticism's rejection of matter's salvific role, and gnosticism's intrinsic incompatibility with full
visible ecclesial unity.

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Lingjuan Ma Lingjuan Ma MS
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