Protestants have distinguished between the visible and the invisible church. The visible church is the group of people who are outwardly professing Christians, regardless of whether or not they are truly saved. The invisible church is the group of people who are truly saved, regardless of whether or not they are outwardly professing Christians. This distinction was made by the Protestant Reformers in order to emphasize the importance of personal faith in salvation and to reject the notion that one could be saved by belonging to a particular church or denomination.

Church invisible

This article is about a Christian concept of a church of the elect. It is not to be confused with invisible churches.

The church invisible, invisible church, mystical church or church mystical, is a theological concept of an “invisible” Christian Church of the elect who are known only to God, in contrast to the “visible church“—that is, the institutional body on earth which preaches the gospel and administers the sacraments. Every member of the invisible church is “saved”, while the visible church contains all individuals who are saved though also having some who are “unsaved”. According to this view, Bible passages such as Matthew 7:21–27, Matthew 13:24–30, and Matthew 24:29–51 speak about this distinction.

Overview on the relation with the visible church

Distinction between two churches

The first person in church history to introduce a view of an invisible and a visible church is Clement of Alexandria. Some have also argued that Jovinian and Vigilantius held an invisible church view.

The concept was advocated by St Augustine of Hippo as part of his refutation of the Donatist sect, though he, as other Church Fathers before him, saw the invisible Church and visible Church as one and the same thing, unlike the later Protestant reformers who did not identify the Catholic Church as the true church. He was strongly influenced by the Platonist belief that true reality is invisible and that, if the visible reflects the invisible, it does so only partially and imperfectly (see theory of forms). Others question whether Augustine really held to some form of an “invisible true Church” concept.

The concept was insisted upon during the Protestant reformation as a way of distinguishing between the “visible” Roman Catholic Church, which according to the Reformers was corrupt, and those within it who truly believe, as well as true believers within their own denominations. John Calvin described the church invisible as “that which is actually in God’s presence, into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit… [The invisible church] includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world.” He continues in contrasting this church with the church scattered throughout the world. “In this church there is a very large mixture of hypocrites, who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance…” (Institutes 4.1.7) Richard Hooker distinguished “between the mystical Church and the visible Church”, the former of which is “known only to God.”

John Wycliffe, who was a precursor to the reformation, also believed in an invisible church made of the predestinated elect. Another precursor of the reformation, Johann Ruchrat von Wesel believed in a distinction between the visible and invisible church.

Pietism later took this a step further, with its formulation of ecclesiolae in ecclesia (“little churches within the church”).


Roman Catholic theology, reacting against the protestant concept of an invisible Church, emphasized the visible aspect of the Church founded by Christ, but in the twentieth century placed more stress on the interior life of the Church as a supernatural organism, identifying the Church, as in the encyclical Mystici corporis Christi of Pope Pius XII, with the Mystical Body of Christ. In Catholic doctrine, the one true Church is the visible society founded by Christ, namely, the Catholic Church under the global jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome.

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This encyclical rejected two extreme views of the Church:

  • (1) A rationalistic or purely sociological understanding of the Church, according to which it is merely a human organization with structures and activities, is mistaken. The visible Church and its structures do exist but the Church is more, as it is guided by the Holy Spirit:

    Although the juridical principles, on which the Church rests and is established, derive from the divine constitution given to it by Christ and contribute to the attaining of its supernatural end, nevertheless that which lifts the Society of Christians far above the whole natural order is the Spirit of our Redeemer who penetrates and fills every part of the Church.

  • (2) An exclusively mystical understanding of the Church is mistaken as well, because a mystical “Christ in us” union would deify its members and mean that the acts of Christians are simultaneously the acts of Christ. The theological concept una mystica persona (one mystical person) refers not to an individual relation but to the unity of Christ with the Church and the unity of its members with him in her. This is where we can find direct contrast to Christian philosophy like the preachings of Rev.Jesse Lee Peterson, yet the personification is similar. There is another view, that contrasts these two school-of-thought, and that is from Albert Eduard Meier, as he includes Electric Theory in his teachings, similar to Creationism.

Eastern Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky too characterizes as a “Nestorian ecclesiology” that which would “divide the Church into distinct beings: on the one hand a heavenly and invisible Church, alone true and absolute; on the other, the earthly Church (or rather ‘the churches’), imperfect and relative”.

Novatian (200–258), who has been designated as an Antipope, says that the church is not for salvation, but that is a congregation of saints.

See also


External links

Wikiquote has quotations related to Church invisible.
Luther’s Small Catechism
Chief articles of faith
in the Augsburg Confession
Practices Movements

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