Roman Catholicism

Is the True Church Visible or Invisible?

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
Authentic Christianity recognizes that the true church of Jesus Christ is the invisible church.
From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

In this series we're exploring five key distinctions between Roman Catholicism and authentic Biblical Christianity:

  1. Doctrine: Tradition vs. Scripture (read here)
  2. Authority: Church vs. Christ (read here)
  3. Salvation: Works vs. Faith (read here)
  4. Mediators: Many vs. One (read here)
  5. The True Church: Visible vs. Invisible (read here)

Today we come to the final point: Is the true Church of Jesus Christ visible, or invisible? We are quoting approved Vatican sources (which bear its claim of infallibility) versus the Word of God.

5. The True Church: Visible vs. Invisible

Roman Catholicism puts membership in the visible church first, says that the Roman Catholic church is the only true church, and denies the doctrine of the invisible church as a "Protestant invention." Rome says that salvation and membership in the visible church both begin with baptism, and makes no distinction between salvation and visible church membership:

"Holy Baptism holds the first place among the sacraments, because it is the door of the spiritual life; for by it we are made members of Christ and incorporated with the Church....

"...the Council of Trent...teaches that justification can not be obtained, since the promulgation of the Gospel, without the washing of regeneration [baptism] or the desire thereof.

"This sacrament is the door of the Church of Christ and the entrance into a new life. We are reborn from the state of slaves of sin into the freedom of the Sons of God. Baptism incorporates us with Christ's mystical body and makes us partakers of all the privileges flowing from the redemptive act of the Church's Divine Founder.

"...Baptism not only washes away sin, it also remits the punishment of sin.

"Baptism and Penance are called 'sacraments of the dead', because they give life, through sanctifying grace then called 'first grace', to those who are spiritually dead by reason of original or actual sin."1 Rome says that membership in the visible church continues through the sacraments, especially the Mass:

"The [Roman] Church honors the Eucharist as one of her most exalted mysteries, since for sublimity and incomprehensibility it yields in nothing to the allied mysteries of the Trinity and Incarnation. These three mysteries constitute a wonderful triad, which causes the essential characteristic of Christianity, as a religion of mysteries far transcending the capabilities of reason, to shine forth in all its brilliance and splendor, and elevates Catholicism, the most faithful guardian and keeper of our Christian heritage, far above all pagan and non-Christian religions....

"The Reformers found themselves compelled to reject entirely the Sacrifice of the Mass....The chief source of our doctrine, however, is tradition...

"It is first of all necessary to make clear that in every sacrifice of the Mass four distinct categories of persons really participate:

"At the head of all stands of course the High Priest, Christ Himself; to make the Sacrifice of the Cross fruitful for us and to secure its application, He offers Himself as a sacrifice, which is quite independent of the merits or demerits of the Church, the celebrant or the faithful present at the sacrifice, and is for these an opus operatum [the work wrought].

"Next after Christ and in the second place comes the Church as a juridical person, who, according to the express teaching of the Council of Trent (Sess. XXII, cap. i), has received from the hands of her Divine Founder the institution of the Mass and also the commission to ordain constantly priests and to have celebrated by these the most venerable Sacrifice....

"With Christ and His Church is associated in third place the celebrating priest, since he is the representative through whom the real and the mystical Christ offer up the sacrifice....

"Finally, in the fourth place, must be mentioned those who participate actively in the Sacrifice of the Mass, e.g., the servers, sacristan, organist, singers, and the whole congregation joining in the sacrifice. The priest, therefore, prays also in their name: Offerimus (i.e. 'we offer'). That the effect resulting from this (metaphorical) sacrificial activity is entirely dependent on the worthiness and piety of those taking part therein and thus results exclusively ex opere operantis ['from the action of the doer'] is evident without further demonstration. The more fervent the prayer, the richer the fruit. Most intimate is the active participation in the Sacrifice of those who receive Holy Communion during the Mass since in their case the special fruits of the Communion are added to those of the Mass. Should sacramental Communion be impossible, the Council of Trent...advises the faithful to make at least a 'spiritual communion' (spirituali effectu communicare), which consists in the ardent desire to receive the Eucharist."2 Rome says there is no distinction between the visible and invisible church:

"Indeed for this distinction between a visible and an invisible Church there is no Scriptural warrant. Even though many of her children prove unfaithful, yet all that Christ said in regard to the Church is realized in her as a corporate body. Nor does the unfaithfulness of these professing Catholics cut them off altogether from membership in Christ. They are His in virtue of their baptism. The character then received still stamps them as His. Though dry and withered branches they are not altogether broken off from the true Vine."3

Biblical Christianity recognizes that the only true church of Jesus Christ is the invisible church, and recognizes the visible/invisible church distinction. Scripture says there is a distinction between the visible church and the invisible church:

"For false christs and false prophets will rise and show great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect" (Matthew 24:24).

"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15)

"For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves. Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears" (Acts 20:29-31).

"This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme" (1 Timothy 1:18-20).

"Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ....

"These are spots in your love feasts, while they feast with you without fear, serving only themselves. They are clouds without water, carried about by the winds; late autumn trees without fruit, twice dead, pulled up by the roots; raging waves of the sea, foaming up their own shame; wandering stars for whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever" (Jude 3-4, 12-13).

"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us; but they went out that they might be made manifest, that none of them were of us" (1 John 2:19).

"And I urge you also, true companion, help these women who labored with me in the gospel, with Clement also, and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the Book of Life" (Philippians 4:3).

"And all the world marveled and followed the beast. So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, "Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?" And he was given a mouth speaking great things and blasphemies, and he was given authority to continue for forty-two months. Then he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme His name, His tabernacle, and those who dwell in heaven. It was granted to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them. And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world" (Revelation 13:3-8).

"And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works. Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (Revelation 20:12-15). Scripture says that the invisible church is the true church:

" the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect..." (Hebrews 12:23).

"And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross. And you, who once were alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now He has reconciled in the body of His flesh through death, to present you holy, and blameless, and above reproach in His sight - if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the Gospel which you heard, which was preached to every creature under heaven, of which I, Paul, became a minister" (Colossians 1:18-23). Scripture says that membership in the invisible church is based on faith in Christ alone:

"In Him you also trusted, after you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation; in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory" (Ephesians 1:13-14).

"To the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (1 Corinthians 1:2).

"Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are in Colosse: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. We give thanks to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus..." (Colossians 1:1-4).




1. The Catholic Encyclopedia, entry on "Baptism" as viewed on December 10, 2009 at

2. The Catholic Encyclopedia, entry on "Eucharist" as viewed on December 10, 2009 at

3. The Catholic Encyclopedia, entry on "The Church" as viewed on December 10, 2009 at


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