Christians confess a belief in one Church in the Nicene Creed. By this, it is believed that Christ founded a single, visible, historical community that is his Church, and he fervently prayed that the Church be one (John 17).
If this is the case, why are there many different Christian churches, with a trend towards greater and more varied dissolution as time goes on? Is one of those churches the Church, or is ‘the Church’ really invisible or even unknowable?
In a recent piece at Christianity Today, Sarah Hinlickey Wilson articulates a vision that attempts to find a sort of compromise between the two seemingly incompatible ecclesiologies of the visible and invisible church. In the end, though, this approach can’t help but result in a modified defense of the doctrine of the invisible church—over and against that of the visible church. And how could it do otherwise?
Wilson believes that the problems with the doctrine of a single, visible Church are two-fold: the existence of “genuine faith, piety, and good works” in people of various churches, and that it “ignores the Holy Spirit’s capacity to move beyond boundaries and structures created by humans.” It would be extraordinary if these two basic facts could, of themselves, demolish two millennia of apostolic, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox ecclesiology—but of course they don’t. To the extent these two ideas are true—when properly understood and qualified—the churches that proclaim a visible Church acknowledge them without difficulty. So why does Wilson believe this presents a challenge to the doctrine of a visible Church?
One possible answer is that she conflates ecclesiology with soteriology. Though intimately related, they aren’t exactly same thing. While salvation in this life occurs through union with Christ, by the Holy Spirit, and in the Church, this doesn’t preclude the possibility that someone outside of the Church can be saved—that is, joined to Christ and His Body—in the age to come. Such judgment belongs to God alone. Her piece characterizes the doctrine of the visible church as necessitating the teaching that those outside the Church in this life are necessarily damned, but it doesn’t.
Beyond her thin critiques of apostolic ecclesiology, her defense of the doctrine of an invisible church is likewise lacking. She cites dissensions in the early Church, the apostolic call to love and unity, and the baptism of the Gentiles as significant touchpoints for our own approach to unity, but it isn’t clear why these events are thought to be incompatible with the doctrine of a visible church.
She cites the conflict between Peter and Paul, along with the insistent calls to both love and unity, as demonstrating that unity in the early Church didn’t “happen naturally and automatically.” Indeed, but no proponent of a visible Church would claim otherwise, nor would they claim that it happens in such a manner today.
Unity is indeed a labor of love, but Wilson seems to fundamentally disbelieve what the Church has always taught regarding heresy: that it is precisely a unilateral failure of love—a choice, made by the heretic, to be separated from the Church. No heretic is ever condemned without gentle correction, loving rebuke, and calls for repentance. And even when excommunicated, that itself is a loving act, serving as a sober warning that hopefully will arouse them from a sinful stubbornness or divisive spirit. If all of this fails, the heretic has sealed their own fate; indeed, the word ‘heretic’ means ‘to pick or choose.’
Further, the resolution of the conflict between Peter and Paul was settled by a Church council, which is precisely the model for both addressing discord and preserving the unity of the Church. The synodal or conciliar model is at the heart of a ‘visible Church’ ecclesiology.
But what happens once the synod rules on what “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15:28), when a Judaizer continues in this error? When they persist in a divisive spirit, even after several attempts at correction and calls for repentance? As it happens, we know exactly what St. Paul would do:
Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned.
This is a far cry from the ‘infinite tolerance’ of pseudo-ecumenism, and especially as exemplified by Wilson’s piece. God is infinite mercy, forgiveness, and love, but this is not the same thing as modern conceptions of ‘tolerance.’ A bottomless tolerance of both evil and heresy is an enemy of true love.
Wilson sees the oneness of the Church as a “paradox”. The Church is indeed a paradox—or better, a Divine-human mystery—but this paradox is not found in a distinction between visible and invisible. The distinction is rather between God and man; created and uncreated; finite and infinite. The same mystery of the Incarnation as recapitulated in the Church: a theanthropic, organic union of God and man. As the Body of Christ, the Church retains the nature of her Head, Jesus Christ, who is God-become-visible for our salvation.