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What is the Church and Why is it Necessary?

Many people today act as though the church is optional. If we have been “burned” too many times in the church, then so much the worse for the church. We think that we can simply read our Bibles at home and listen to sermons on the internet. Or we can start our own home “churches” by leading family worship and inviting friends to join us. The picture presented in Scripture is vastly different. Christ came to save a church and individuals are saved only as they belong to the church. The church is not merely an invisible reality in our hearts. It finds outward expression in worship and fellowship, in which we share in one another’s gifts (Rom. 12) and obey God’s law in relation to fellow believers (Eph. 4-5). Ordinarily the church is the first place where we heard the Word, even if it came to us through the witness of one of its members.

Westminster Larger Catechism, questions 52-65, tell us where we hear the Word, while subsequent questions teach us how to do so well. We learn here that the visible church is the means through which we must hear of and believe in Christ, so that we can become members of the invisible church. As we examine this subject, we must remember that visible and invisible are two aspects of a single church, rather than two distinct churches (Eph. 2:11-13, 19-22).

What is the Visible Church? [1]

The visible church is a society, called out of the world by God that, consists of believers and their children. The covenant of grace is the charter for the church and the church reflects the covenant. The essence of the covenant of grace is the salvation of the elect in Christ. However, the covenant is administered through the church. This means that the visible church exists to call the members of the invisible church. The visible church is the means through which we must hear of and believe in Christ, so that we can become members of the invisible church. Click To Tweet

Unlike human societies, God designed the church to be a special society through which he brings the elect to saving faith in Christ. This church has visible aspects because we can see it with our eyes. Related to this idea are the marks of the church, which teach us how to identify the church (WCF 25.4). We will see below that the doctrine of the gospel is the church’s primary mark.

The visible church is also a catholic society. It “is made up of all such as in all ages and places of world do profess the true religion.” Christ commanded his Apostles to make disciples of all nations by teaching and baptizing them into the name of the Triune God (Matt. 28:19-20). The church is catholic (universal) in that it spans the ages, encompassing the Old and New Testaments, remaining until Christ’s return, and in that it includes people from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9). Contrary to the claims of the so-called Roman Catholic Church, this is why we confess in the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe the holy catholic church.” “Catholic” means universal. This means that racial, social, economic, and other distinctions have neither meaning nor place in the church (Gal. 3:28). We are all gathered into one in Christ and we should act accordingly in how we receive and treat one another (Eph. 4:1-6).

The truth as it is in Jesus constitutes the being of the church (Eph. 4:21). The church is founded on divine revelation through the Apostles and prophets, Jesus being its chief corner stone (Eph. 2:20). Christ is the foundation of the church (1 Cor. 3:11). The “church of the living God” is “a pillar and buttress of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15) because the church declares the truth that Christ revealed and established. This is why the gates of hell cannot prevail against the church (Matt. 16:18). When a church departs from the truth of the gospel, it loses its being and becomes a “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). Jesus may remove the candlestick from particular churches (Rev. 2:5), but the visible church catholic will continue until he returns to receive his own to himself (Jn. 14:3).

Why is the Visible Church Important?[2]

Why does the Larger Catechism introduce the visible church before then invisible, when the Confession of Faith (25.1) begins with the invisible? The Confession begins with the invisible because it draws upon the Father’s plan of election in Christ. The Catechism starts with the visible church because this is where God calls his elect to faith as the Spirit blesses the preaching of the gospel. We must hear the gospel to be saved, but we must hear the gospel through the church. Faith not only comes by hearing Christ in preaching (Rom. 10:14), but preaching comes through “those who are sent” (v. 15). Christ gives gifts to “shepherds and teachers” (Eph. 4:11) so that he might give them as gifts to his church (v. 7-10). Ordinarily, people come to faith in Christ through a combination of hearing the Word preached and searching the Scriptures to see whether these are so (Acts 17:11).

The visible church enjoys special privileges, both in relation to God and to us. In relation to God, the church is the object of his “special care and government” (Is. 4:4-5). This is why he protects and preserves her “in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies” (Zech. 12:2-9; Matt. 16:18). In relation to us, in the visible church we enjoy “the communion of the saints,” we receive “the ordinary means of salvation,” and God offers grace to us in Christ.

Even though not all who are in the church are of the church, God offers grace to everyone who hears the gospel. Whoever calls on Christ will be saved (Acts 22:16), and Christ will not cast out those who come to him (Matt. 11:29-29; Jn. 6:37). While only those appointed to eternal life will believe (Acts 13:48), and the Spirit must open their hearts in order to believe (Acts 16:14; 1 Cor. 12:3), God calls all sinners to “repent and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). God does not call men to Christ because they are elect, but because they are sinners. Only sinners believing in Christ know that they are elect. What greater assurance could we have of God’s sincerity in offering Christ to us as Savior?

What is the Invisible Church?[3]

The church is not peripheral to the gospel. The church is the place in which we hear and receive Christ for salvation. Click To Tweet The invisible church consists of the elect alone (Eph. 1:3-6; 5:23, 27, 32). This church is also catholic, including all ages, nations, and kinds of people. It includes the “whole number of the elect” considered ideally, past, present, and future. Election invariably leads to regeneration and calling to faith in Christ. True believers who are presently members of the church “militant” on earth are members of the invisible church really in fact, and not ideally in plan only. The church militant consists of elect and non-elect people, but, except in rare cases (Lk. 23:39-43), the members of the invisible church are found within the visible church (1 Thess. 1:4; 1 Cor. 1:2).

Some people treat the invisible church as though it means nothing more than individual salvation. This leads some to denigrate the visible church as long as they have true faith in Christ. Yet if the invisible church referred to individuals only, then it would no longer be a church. We have fellowship with members of the invisible church through the visible church. Believers are “gathered into one under Christ the head.” Though the church militant on earth has visible and invisible aspects, in the church triumphant in heaven they will coincide perfectly.

Why is the Invisible Church Important?[4]

This question introduces and summarizes questions 66-90. Membership in the invisible church brings union with Christ’s person and communion in his benefits. We receive these things through and by means of the church, in grace in this life, and in glory in the next life.


The church is not peripheral to the gospel. The church is the place in which we hear and receive Christ for salvation. Membership in invisible church is always necessary for salvation, while membership in the visible church is ordinarily so (WCF 25.2). In either case, Christ came to lay down his life for his church, which is his body and bride. The church is the Father’s family and the Spirit’s temple (Eph. 2:19-22). We can distinguish the visible and invisible aspects of the church, but we cannot separate them. Do we love and value the church as the Triune God does? How else do we expect to hear his voice?



[1] “The visible church is a society made up of all such as in all ages and places of the world do profess the true religion, and of their children.” WLC 62.

[2] “The visible church hath the privilege of being under God’s special care and government; of being protected and preserved in all ages, notwithstanding the opposition of all enemies; and of enjoying the communion of saints, the ordinary means of salvation, and offers of grace by Christ to all the members of it in the ministry of the gospel, testifying that whosoever believes in him shall be saved, and excluding none that will come unto him.” WLC 63.

[3] “The invisible church is the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one under Christ the head.” WCL 64.

[4] “The members of the invisible church by Christ enjoy union and communion with him in grace and glory.” WLC 65.

Ryan McGraw

Ryan McGraw is the Morton H. Smith Professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Taylors, SC. He is the author of numerous books including By Good and Necessary Consequence, The Day of Worship: Reassessing the Christian Life in Light of the Sabbath, and Christ’s Glory, Your Good: Salvation Planned, Promised, Accomplished, and Applied.

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