I've been thinking over the last few years about the differences between the "visible" church and the "invisible" church, as well as between the "universal" church and the "local" church. These distinctions have been made numerous times in various systems of theology for a long time. And these distinctions have some problems when we try to apply them to real life. Let me explain.
The word "church" (ekklesia in the Greek) has or has been given a number of meanings. Whether or not the use of each meaning has support from the bible, we try to reconcile the various meanings in our theology. For example, we know from the bible that not all church attenders/professing Christians will be true Christians. Most of us are also willing to concede that there will be those who are true believers that we never thought so! Man can only see the outside, while only God can see the heart. Thus the distinction between the "visible" and "invisible" church. The "visible" church is the visible assembly of people who claim to be believers. We can see them. The "invisible" church is the group of people who only God can see are His and who will be finally gathered together in the eternal kingdom.
But because we are man and only God is God, we must leave this point of theology as just that: theology. Trying to make an application of this distinction can only result in problems. If we try to determine who are God's true believers using the only means available to us - outward expressions and appearances - then we open up the door to abuse of those who don't fit our ideas of correct outward expressions. I will try to say more about this in an upcoming post.
Similarly, the distinction between the "local" and "universal" church can cause problems when we try to apply it. The "local" church is the gathering of believers in one location, say Corinth or First Baptist Church in Houston. The "universal" church is, in one sense, all the believers in the entire world, and in another sense, all beleivers in the entire world who have ever lived. But we being men, we can be tempted to, say, apply a rigid distinction and decide that a local church is made up of only those who regularly attend that local church and doesn't include other believers who happen to be in town and attend only once. I will try to say more about this in an upcoming post.
Then, there can be problems when all four distinctions - visible, invisible, local and universal - are mixed together and applied. An example would be a church that decides that its members (visible church, local church) are only those who meet certain man-made requirements and sign on a dotted line for membership, and those who don't but attend anyway, cannot be part of either the universal or invisible church distinctions either. They, according to this church, aren't true believers because of it. I will try to say more about this, too, in an upcoming post.
Hopefully I will try to make sense of the artificial, theological constructs in future posts. I also have an idea on how to deal in reality with the scope of the church.