The Invisible Church
I enjoy scouring the internet looking for interesting news and opinion articles. I particularly enjoy reading news articles that reflect the reality of Scripture, even if the authors themselves are oblivious to the connection. For example, I recently read an article on the Fox News website.
The article reported a dramatic decrease in the percentage of American men and women professing to be Christians. In 2009, only 75% of the adult population describes themselves as Christians, which is the lowest point ever recorded (down 12% since 1990). The drop coincides with a slide in the number of Americans who attend church regularly, and it mirrors membership declines already experienced in most mainline Christian denominations.
Curiously, the decrease in professing Christians within the American population was not met with a corresponding rise in those professing belief in other world religions – or even with a rise in atheism. Instead, the "missing" Christians continue to profess a belief in God, yet they no longer view themselves as members of any organized religious tradition.
I'm sure we could posit several theories to explain this trend, including the possibility that many Christians are simply abandoning traditional denominational churches in favor of home churches or other nontraditional means of worship (some might say returning to traditional means of worship, but I digress).
Nevertheless, I don't think the decline is entirely explained by disaffected Christians hiding in their homes. Instead, we're witnessing a basic Biblical truth at work: not all who claim to follow Christ are Christians.
In my teaching I often take opportunity to point out the important distinction Scripture makes between the "visible" Church and the "invisible" Church. The New Testament uses the term "church" (Gr.: ekklesia, "of the invited") to describe the Body of Christ, the true, born-again followers of Jesus. All who believe the Gospel are part of this group.
Paul takes the definition of a Christian one step further in Romans 8:14 by declaring that the true Christian is anyone who is indwelt by the Spirit of God:
Rom. 8:14: For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.
Therefore, we refer to all true believers within the Body of Christ as the invisible Church, because we can't see the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. The process of becoming "born again" is one of Spirit (John 3:6-8), consequently there is no universal, visible sign to distinguish the true Christian from the rest of humanity.
We have approximate measures of faith, but they aren't sufficient to settle the issue. For example, water baptism was given by Jesus to the Church as our outward sign of faith, but little prevents unbelievers from making a false profession and entering the water, so baptism can't be considered an absolute proof of faith.
Likewise, the the Bible teaches we should expect to see some evidence of salvation as we walk in faith (called the fruit of the Spirit by Paul in Gal 5:22), but these outward conequences of faith aren't equally apparent among all Christians. Given the limits of human discernment, we simply can't use spirtual fruit as a reliable measure to distinguish believer from nonbeliever.
So on any given Sunday, many church buildings are host to a mixture of true believers and would-be pretenders masquerading as true Christians, who do not have the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. These unbelievers attend church for the same reason they attend other functions like the Rotary Club: church is simply another group association they find useful in some way.
Together, we call this union of believer and unbeliever the "visible" Church, because we can "see" these two groups congregate together in the name of Christ. Though we use the term "church," we don't mean that all who enter the building are believers; no more than everything that enters into a garage is a car. The visible Church includes believers and at least a few unbelievers.
When unbelievers attach themselves to a Christian congregation and participate in church functions, we naturally assume they are Christian, but during a time of testing or temptation, these counterfeits can fall away. The unbeliever will turn his back on his Christian association, because there is no true spiritual bond holding them to Christ. As they depart, they betray their true nature and reveal themselves to be lost.
In His parable of the Sower and the Seed found in Luke 8, Jesus taught the inevitability of false converts joining to the Church, who would later fall away under times of stress. Similarly, the writer to the Hebrews defines truth Christian faith as the kind of faith that perseveres until the end:
Heb. 3:14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end...
Seeing the news through Biblical eyes
As the article reported, fewer American's profess to be Christian today than in the past, but the article makes no distinction between true believers and nominal Christians (Christians in name only, i.e., unbelievers).
More importantly, the article claimed that 76% of American adults are yet still Christians. Is it reasonable to assume that that fully three-quarters of Americans today are truly Christians? I find this highly unlikely. This statistic refers (at best) to the visible Church, which includes both believers and unbelievers. So, as this number declines, which group is actually leaving the Church: believers or unbelievers?
In reality, the number of true Christians in America has never been at risk. Regardless of whether the number of true believers rises or falls, the Lord remains in control of His Church, and He will manage it as He wishes. On the other hand, the number of false believers congregating within the visible Church is declining...just as Scripture predicted.
We can find a clear explanation of this trend in Scripture. Paul teaches in his second letter to Thesselonica that the Lord's return must be preceeded by two notable events:
2Th. 2:1 Now we request you, brethren, with regard to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to Him
2Th. 2:2 that you not be quickly shaken from your composure or be disturbed either by a spirit or a message or a letter as if from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.
2Th. 2:3 Let no one in any way deceive you, for it will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of lawlessness is revealed, the son of destruction.
2Th. 2:4 who opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, displaying himself as being God.
The first event that must occur prior to the Lord's return is the "apostasy," Paul says in verse 3. The word apostasy means a forsaking or defecting from something previously held. For example, when a politician leaves a political party and joins another party, he has become an apostate to his original political party. Similarly, if a college football fan decides to begin cheering for the visiting team, the fan has committed apostasy to his home team.
The Apostle Paul says that our Lord's return comes only after an apostasy of some kind, but what is this apostasy? The apostasy Paul describes is a falling away that takes place within the Church itself. Paul also makes mention of this coming apostasy in 1Timothy 4:1:
1Tim. 4:1 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons...
I believe this falling away is already underway within the Church, and not only in the U.S. Church. Western Europe has already become a continent of empty churches, the result of Europeans drifting away to secularlism and other "doctrines of demons."
How can we be sure that true believers aren't the ones falling away? First, a true believer may "fall away" from certain Christian behaviors. He may cease attending church or fall back into patterns of sin, but this isn't the kind of "falling away" that Paul is describing. He describes a falling away that results in people worshipping doctrines of demons instead of Christ.
We know from Scripture that a true child of God (i.e., a member of the invisible Church) can never fall away from a relationship with Christ, because Christ's Spirit dwells within the believer and Christ will never leave us nor foresake us (Heb 13:5). Therefore, the apostasy Paul describes must refer to the defection of the unbelievers from among the visible Church.
As the Fox News story describes, we are witnessing the departure of many unbelievers from within the Church, who are leaving to pursue other beliefs or no belief at all. This departure (i.e., the apostasy) will inevitably lead to a smaller visible Church, but it will also yield a higher concentration of true believers. The Apostle John described a similar experience in his day in 1John 2:
1John 2:18 Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.
1John 2:19 They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.
1John 2:20 But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth.
John describes the departure of men who "did not really belong to us." These apostates were men who pretended to be Christians for a time, but at some later point departed, and when they left, they demonstrated they were not true believers. This is why John says that his readers were unlike these men in that they had the anointing of the Holy Spirit and knew the truth.
Knowing the Scriptures indepth allows us to read articles like the one on Fox News with a different appreciation. While some Christians may be discouraged at the news of a shrinking Church, we can find comfort in recognizing our Lord's return is that much closer. Likewise, we need not lament the departure of those who never belonged to Christ in the first place, though we obviously hope they may one day know the Lord truly.
As someone once said:
"Everyday I read the newspaper and the Bible, because I want to know what both sides are up to!"