As an Evangelical Christian I understood the “Body of Christ” or “the Church” (capital C) to be an invisible collection of believers.
The idea was beautiful, really, because it meant that somehow all Christians across the whole world no matter how important or obscure were connected by Christ into one universal Church.
But this isn’t how it was understood by Early Christians and when I found that out I was a little alarmed, disappointed, and completely unprepared for what came next.
My journey towards understanding the ancient Christian Church began when an Evangelical pastor, and good friend of mine, asked me which was more important the Bible or Tradition (capital T).
It wasn’t an idea I’d considered before but it prompted me to take a deeper look at what I believed, why, and where it came from.
And the invisible Christian Church was one of those beliefs.
See as an Evangelical I had no problem with the ever-increasing number of churches which seemed to be springing up around my neighbourhood because all of these Christians, I asserted, were connected up into one and the same Church.
Denominations weren’t a problem. We’re all Christians after all.
I’d argue, at that time, that we were just like an ancient, early Christian Church meeting in people’s homes. In the Upper Room. Or underground Christians in China who still meet in secret.
It’s one and the same.
But as I dug into Church history, prompted by that pastor’s question, I found out that I was wrong.
I was wrong, first of all, about the Early Christians.
Early Christians and the Invisible Church
Contrary to what I’d heard over and over again in my Evangelical youth the Early Church looked nothing like the scattered churches, denominations, and meeting houses of today’s Christian landscape.
Nothing alike at all.
Even the most cursory of examinations into the history of the Christian Church reveals that the Early Churches—while certainly meeting inside the homes of believers in some cases—were strictly under the teaching authority of a class of appointed Christians known as Bishops.
We see these sorts of authoritative teachings in the letters of Paul, Peter, and John in the New Testament. And this sort of authoritative guidance continues to permeate the letters of the successors of these apostles like Ignatius of Antioch and Clement of Rome.
There’s a clear authoritative structure to the Early Church.
A structure which claims its authority from the charge of Jesus to his apostles and then from the apostles who passed on their authority to their successors in turn—and on and on.I learned, then, that from the very beginning the idea of a purely invisible collection of believers was not what the Early Church understood itself to be. We see, as they did, a certain component to this belief but, just as important, the Church was clearly understood to have a physical, tangible element as well.
Nicene Creed at the Invisible Church
Our next clue comes in 381AD at the Council Constantinople.
In the face of a growing mountain of heresies sweeping through the Christian Church in the 4th century, the Church’s Bishops called a series of ecumenical councils to address their concerns and to spell out, authoritatively, what Christians believed.
Again, the authority these Bishops claim to derive from their apostolic succession is important.
At the Council of Constantinople, then, in 381 the Bishops settled on the Nicene Creed. A formula which spelled out in no under certain terms what the Christian faithful believed—and were bound to believe.
Important, for our purposes here, is the final section which affirms what the Christian Church looked like.
The ancient text affirms a belief in, “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”
A Church, in other words that is one as Jesus suggested it would be.
Catholic, which means universal. In other words, the same across the whole universe.
And, importantly, apostolic which means it derives its leadership in succession with the apostles.
It cannot be said, fairly, that an invisible, universal Church fulfills these requirements; these parameters which were set as a barometer to measure what the Church was by the Early Christians.
The Church is Physical, Too
When I truly began to dig into the history of the Church and investigate what was meant by the term I was surprised, and disappointed, to learn that I’d misunderstood it all along.
And I’m not the only one.
The way I had used “Church” to describe an invisible collection of believers all around the world wasn’t how it was used for the majority of Christianity.
To be sure, up until the Reformation in the 16th century, the word “Church” was used to describe the Church which claimed apostolic succession and a visible, physical unity.
Remarkably, St. Francis de Sales, writing to the Early Reformers from his position as Bishop of Geneva, made a very similar charge against those breaking off from the Catholic Church. Where did they derive their authority, he asked. From which apostle?
Even the notion of the invisible Church was challenged as he asked them how they could fracture themselves off from the physical Church mentioned in the Creeds.
Many Catholics who initially followed the Reformers out of the Church returned once they read St. Francis’s persuasive missives.
In the end, I followed too.
I couldn’t justify my understanding of a Christian Church as being a merely invisible collection of believers with what the Early Church so clearly understood it to be. Instead, I decided to align myself with what Christians believed for 1,500 years rather than think myself better, smarter, or more sophisticated to believe otherwise.
And that is, ultimately, what it came down to. Humbling myself, as hard as that may be, to the sheer weight of Christian history and trusting in the Church—visible, physical, and apostolic—which Christ himself said would never be overcome.