1. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph. 1:10, 22–23; 5:23, 27, 32; Col. 1:18).
The invisible catholic Church is defined here as the elect, all the chosen of God from the beginning of the world to the end of it. As the elect, they constitute the body of Christ, His bride. He is the Head of the Church, and the Church (in this sense) is the fullness of Christ, who is in turn the fullness of everything. Thus defined, there is no immediate problem with affirming that the elect are the invisible Church. There are some downstream problems (depending on application) which will be addressed in the following section.
2. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion (1 Cor. 1:2; 12:12–13; Ps. 2:8; Rev. 7:9; Rom. 15:9–12); and of their children (1 Cor. 7:14; Acts 2:39; Ezek. 16:20–21; Rom. 11:16; Gen. 3:15; 17:7): and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 13:47; Isa. 9:7), the house and family of God (Eph. 2:19; 3:15), out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation (Acts 2:47).
The visible Church is also catholic in an earthly sense, meaning that it is no longer confined to one nation, as it was before under the law. This visible Church is composed of anyone in the world who professes (biblically) to believe the Christian faith. When they make this profession, their children are included with them. This visible Church is to be understood as the kingdom of the Lord Jesus. This Church is the household of God, and outside of this Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. Speaking of the invisible Church (in the sense defined above), there is no possibility of salvation whatsoever.
But here is another of those rare places where we must differ with the Confession of Faith, although it is not a difference of substance, but rather a difference in how a metaphor is to be applied. A problem is created when you affirm a belief in two Churches, one visible and the other invisible. Are they the same Church or not? If they are, then why are “membership rosters” different? If they are not the same, then which one is the true Church? We know that Christ has only one bride. The natural supposition is that the invisible Church, because it is made up of the elect, must be the true Church. But this leads to a disparagement of the visible Church, and eventually necessitates, I believe, a baptistic understanding of the visible Church. Because time is not taken into account, we have two Churches, on different ontological levels.
It would be less problematic to consider the one Church under a different set of terms, and which preserve the necessary distinction made by visible and invisible. Those replacement terms would be historical and eschatological. Because time and history are taken into account, we preserve the understanding of just one Church, and at the same time preserve the necessary distinction between those church members who are saved and those who are finally lost. The historical Church is the counterpart to the visible Church, and consists of those throughout history who profess the true faith, together with their children. The eschatological Church is the elect, but when it is revealed, it is not invisible. At the last day, every true child of God will be there, not one missing, and every false professor will have been removed.
A second problem with the Confession here is the assumption that the Jews of the Old Covenant constituted the historical Church, outside of which there was no ordinary possibility of salvation. But the nation of Israel was established to be a priestly nation among the nations. Many thousands outside of Israel were saved in the time of the law. What about Melchizedek, Job, Lot, Jethro, Namaan, the inhabitants of Ninevah who repented under the preaching of Jonah, and those Gentile worshippers for whom Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple?
3. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and doth, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto (1 Cor. 12:28; Eph. 4:11–13; Matt. 28:19–20; Isa. 59:21).
Within the visible Church, Christ ministers by various means of His appointment. He has granted the ministry of God to the Church, the oracles of God to the Church, and the ordinances of God to the Church. The reason He has done so is so that the saints could be gathered and perfected in the context of His household throughout the course of their lives. This Church will remain unto the end of the world, doing this essential work. Christ, through His covenantal presence, and through His Spirit, makes all these gifts effectual to their appointed end. The Lord’s Supper is effectual because Christ makes it so. The preaching of the Word is effectual because Christ makes it so.
4. This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less visible (Rom. 11:3–4; Rev. 12:6, 14). And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them (Rev. 2; 3; 1 Cor. 5:6–7).
A perfectionistic approach to the visible or historical Church is not biblical. The catholic, visible Church does not always present the same degree of visibility or purity. And particular Churches, members of the catholic Church, exhibit this same tendency. They are more or less pure, depending on how the Gospel is taught and embraced, depending on how the ordinances are practiced, and depending on the purity of worship in their service of God. The visible, historic Church is on a dimmer switch, not an on/off switch.
5. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error (1 Cor. 13:12; Rev. 2; 3; Matt. 13:24–30, 47); and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan (Rev. 18:2; Rom. 11:18–22). Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will (Matt. 16:18; Ps. 72:17; 102:28; Matt. 28:19–20).
No perfect Church exists in this fallen world. All Churches are fallible, and prone to error and compromise. This does not necessarily alter their status as Churches of Christ. Left unchecked, however, the mixture and error does threaten their status as Churches of Christ eventually because it is possible for a particular Church to degenerate to the point where apostasy occurs. In Romans 11, the apostle Paul warns the Gentile churches that they may fall through covenantal presumption in just the same way that the Jews fell. Particular Churches can be removed from the olive tree. However the olive tree itself will always stand.
This is why we can say that there will always be a Church on earth to worship God according to His will. The olive tree will never be chopped down, and one day will fill the earth with her fruit. But this does not mean that particular branches cannot be pruned from the tree. This is why we insist that the catholic Church was given a promise that she would never fall. The Church at Rome was given no such promise, and in fact, the dire covenantal warnings mentioned above (with regard to severance from the olive tree) were delivered expressly to the Church at Rome. They are found, after all, in the letter to the Romans.
6. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ (Col. 1:18; Eph. 1:22). Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof: but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalteth himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God (Matt. 23:8–10; 2 Thess. 2:3–4, 8–9; Rev. 13:6).
The Church cannot have an earthly Head, but only the Lord Jesus Christ. This excludes any earthly head, but particularly the bishop of Rome. The section in bold, indentifying the pope as the Antichrist, has been deleted from the American version of the Confession. This improvement involves more than rejecting just an interesting doctrinal understanding of the papacy. This removal opens the way for a preterist understanding of New Testament prophecy, over against this particular historicist understanding.