The New Issue
The Invisible Church Idea
By J. N. Hall
The foregoing pages of this book have no doubt impressed the reader as being expressive of very hard Baptist doctrine. But in my judgment the positions taken by Brothers Pendleton, Graves and Taylor, are Scriptural, logical and charitable. Consistency and truth are closely allied; and when either is made to suffer by compromises, or in the interests of a maudlin sentiment, it is ruinous to the real good of Christ's cause, and to the best standing of his truth.
These brethren have been contending against a fraternizing fellowship between preachers, in exchanging pulpits; and also a liberalizing tendency that counts all churches as on a par. Every careful and impartial reader will no doubt agree with Dr. Pendleton that Baptists cannot consistently co-operate with other denominations in their church work without a surrender of their own distinctive faith. Every careful reader will also agree with Brother Taylor that the spirit of modern liberalism would be the spirit of death to Baptists. For my part I see no consistently
logical course other than to "Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrines which ye have learned, and AVOID THEM.'' Romans 16:17. Inspiration speaks expressly to this effect: "If there come any unto you, and bring not his doctrine, (Christ's doctrine) receive him not into your house, neither bid him God-speed; for he that biddeth him God-speed is partaker of his evil deeds." II John, 10-11. In these Scriptures a distinct line is drawn between truth and error, between false and true teachers, and an emphatic prohibition against all affiliation is plainly expressed.
Baptists may be wrong in the distinctive doctrines they hold, but they cannot be wrong in standing consistently to them while they believe them to be truth. If they are wrong, they should be abandoned; but until discovered to be wrong they should be unflinchingly maintained. At the present time it seems to be conceded by everybody that in the main, the doctrines of the Baptists are Scriptural, and the world is willing to grant us reasonable toleration if we will be liberal and allow a mutual fraternity in church and pulpit with all others. But we cannot do this, without a contradiction of our own essential and fundamental doctrines, and, hence, cannot do it at all.
Our fathers were bitterly opposed in the consistent stand they took for strict Baptist practices, by those who believed in what was known as the "church-branch theory." It was contended that the "real church" was the "universal
church," composed of "all the saved," and that all visible churches were mere human conveniences, and that, all taken together, the Christians amongst them made the "true church," while the denominations were "branches of the church," and all on a par. On this plea it was argued that pulpit affiliation, union meetings, alien immersions, open communion, open baptism, open ordinations, and all else, should be regarded as perfectly proper. It was a hard fight our fathers had, to meet this seemingly large, brotherly, liberal spirit, and refuse to concede that all the different denominational churches were merely "branches of the one true church." But they fought the battle, and gained the victory, until now it is a rare thing we hear any one speak of the "branches of the church."
But we have fallen on a more deceptive and plausible religious strategy, if possible. The enemy, though defeated, has not been destroyed. Baptists have always had to contend for the faith, and this contention will not end until the Lord shall destroy the last enemy with the brightness of his coming. Nor is this contention confined to Pedobaptists and anti-Baptists. In our own ranks false teachers have arisen who are perverting the faith, and leading away some disciples after them. They join hands with the enemy on the outside, and seek to aid in breaking down the walls of the Baptist citadel, while they pose as the best of Baptists. The specious theory we now confront is close akin to the "branch-church" theory, and is an outgrowth from that theory.
It runs as follows: The conversion of a sinner introduces him into the spiritual, invisible, universal church of Christ. This invisible church is the only church that has a succession through past ages. All visible churches are necessarily human, and subject to the changing conditions of their environments, and are therefore sister churches, and should affiliate with each other on terms of perfect equality. This invisible church embraces all Christian people, of all classes and names.
Now, the reader can see how easy it is for one who believes such a theory to also believe that Baptists are chargeable with bigotry when we refuse to have perfect fraternity with all other sects. In fact, if it be true that the "real church" is the "invisible, universal church," and all "Christians are in it," it is clearly an inexcusable presumption on the part of the Baptists that they do not heartily co-operate with their "sister churches" in all Christian effort. If Methodists, Presbyterians, Campbellites, Catholics, and all others who are Christians, are in this big church, they are evidently as much in it as the Baptists are, and are entitled to its special privileges as truly as the Baptists can be. Why then should the Baptists assume to control the ordinances of this "true church," when others have membership in it as well, and on the same terms? If we accept the "big church" idea, let us also accept the open communion, open baptism, and open ordination ideas. If we have nothing distinctive for a plea, we should not assume to lord it over
others who are as much in the thing as we are. The charge is unhesitatingly made that those Baptists who accept the big, universal church idea, are inconsistent in contending for close communion, Baptist immersion only, and Baptist ordination. If all others are in this big church, then they have as much right to these ordinances as Baptists have.
For our part we deny this whole "invisible, universal church" idea. There is but one sort of a church in the New Testament; and that is a local and visible church. A few passages are here cited to show the existence of local, visible churches: Acts 9:31, Then had the churches rest. Acts 15:41, Comforting the churches. Acts 16:5, Churches established. Acts 19:37, Neither robbers of churches. Rom. 16:4, Churches give thanks; vs. 16, Churches of Christ salute you, 1 Cor. 7:17, In all the churches. 1 Cor. 11-16, No such custom, neither the churches of God. 1 Cor. 14:22, As in all the churches; vs. 34, Keep silence in the churches. I Cor. 16:1, Given to all the churches; vs. 19, The churches of Asia. 2 Cor. 8:1, The churches of Macedonia; vs. 19, Chosen of the churches; vs. 23, Messengers of the churches. 2 Cor. 11:8, I robbed other churches; vs. 28, Care of all the churches, 2 Cor. 12:13, Inferior to other churches. Gal. 1:22, Unknown by face to the churches. 1 Thess. 2:14, Churches of God. 2 Thess. 1:4, In the churches. Rev. 1:4, Seven churches; vs. 20, Angels of the churches; the candlesticks are the seven churches. Rev. 2:7, What the Spirit saith
to the churches. Etc., etc. Any reader can see that the references above are to visible assemblies of people, and that these assemblies had a local meeting place as well as a visible multitude to make the congregation.
The word "church" means an assembly; most generally a small assembly that can conveniently meet together. But always an assembly considered as in convention. In a few passages in the Scriptures, like Heb. 12:23 — "The General Assembly and church of the First Born” — the aggregate of the saved is considered as being collected in one meeting, and they thus constitute a church. But there is not a passage in the Bible where the word "church" is so used as to embrace all the saved, in their divided, scattered, uncollected dispersion. When all the saved are included they are considered as assembled together. When they are scattered they are never spoken of as a church. There is, therefore, no such a thing known in the Bible as an "invisible, universal church." This fiction is of modern creation, and is designed to include all those who are supposed to be saved, so to allow them to have some sort of ecclesiastical fraternity in church matters. But Jesus Christ, the founder of New Testament churches, never gave us such an imaginary body, and no inspired writer ever makes mention of such a church. All the churches we read of in the Scriptures were local bodies, with local meeting places, for visible assemblies of men and women.
When we look at the New Testament
churches as visible assemblies we can see the meaning of several patent points:
1. It could be said to them, "Let your light so shine before men," etc. Matt. 5:16. Visible church members can do this. Invisible church members cannot.
2. It can be said ye are as "a city that is set on a hill that cannot be hid." Matt. 5:14. An "invisible church" must always be "hid," else it would not be "invisible;" but a visible church can be thus manifest, like a city.
3. A visible church can receive and execute the commission of Matt. 28:19-20. But an invisible church cannot. Because —
(1) If there are any preachers in the "invisible church" they could not deliver the gospel message to visible audiences for the reason that visible audiences would not quietly listen to the "invisible preacher" while he would talk.
(2) If there is any baptism in the "invisible church" it could not be administered by "invisible administrators" to visible subjects, for the reason that no sensible man or woman would allow the ghostly fingers of the "invisible preachers" to be fumbling around their necks or waists.
(3) They would have no ability to administer the Lord's Supper, because it is a memorial service to be seen by men, and an "invisible church" could not thus observe it.
(4) It could not formulate nor propagate the doctrines of the commission for the reason that this must be done in the use of visible means and
for the good of visible people, which could not be done by an "invisible church."
(5) It could never have the fellowship that is contemplated in the commission, because this fellowship is of the disciples who may be converted under the preaching of the gospel, and they are all visible people, and would not know how to be in fellowship with an "invisible church."
But all this could be true of visible churches, with visible preachers, and visible ordinances. Hence Christ gave the commission to his visible churches.
4. There is no need for this "invisible church." (1). Christians don't need it because it can do them no good. (2). God doesn’t need it because it cannot manifest his glory. (3). The world doesn’t need it because it neither preaches the gospel by precept or example, and could be of no service.
5. This "invisible church" cannot perform any of the functions of a church. It cannot have a church meeting, nor a pastor, nor deacons, nor a church record, nor exercise discipline, nor receive members, nor exclude members, nor sing, nor pray, nor preach, nor do anything else a church is expected to do.
6. The members of the "invisible church" are entirely ignorant of their surroundings. There is nobody who can prove he is in such a church. If he is in it, he doesn’t know it, and no one else knows it. If any one else is in it his
neighbors, his brethren, nor any one else can ever know it. If it had an enemy no hurt could be done by him, because he could never find the thing he hates. Nobody could ever hate it, because it has neither form nor fashion, and is without form and void. No one knows who else is in it. No one knows that he is himself in it. Men get into it unconsciously, if at all. It seems to be accidental, and by birth. A man is no more responsible for being in the "invisible church" than for being in the world, for he was not consulted about it any more than about being born. He gets no good out of it to himself, and does no good in it for anybody else. It really has no fellowship, for no one knows to whom fellowship should be extended. Such a "church" never had Christ for its founder and head.
7. The "invisible church" is a medley of contradictions, if it is anything. It is said to have in it the saved of all denominations. These "saved" people at the same time that they are in the "invisible church" are also in their different denominational churches, and hold to all the peculiar doctrines of their several denominations. They have Mormons with their polygamy, Catholics with their water god, Episcopalians with their sacramental ritualism, Universalists with their no-hell doctrine, Presbyterians with their unconditional decrees, Methodists with their
apostasy, Campbellites with their baptismal salvation, Baptists, with their close communion, all mixed together in one "invisible body," cemented together by the conflicting doctrines of infant baptism vs. believer's baptism; salvation by grace vs. salvation by works; final perseverance vs. apostasy; open communion vs. close communion; episcopacy vs. congregationalism; affusion vs. immersion, and a hundred other conflicting doctrines! All these people, with all these doctrines, are supposed to be peacefully and unconsciously pillowing their heads upon the bosom of this "invisible church!!" Is it possible that such an outrage on common sense to say nothing of the outrage on the Bible, can have serious advocates amongst men?
8. It would be hard to draw a picture of an "invisible church," but it must have resemblance to a monstrous beast whose head is a lamb, whose neck is a lion, whose legs are a tiger, a hyena, a bear and a panther; whose body is made up of babies, fawns, birds, and bugs, whose tail is a stinging, vicious scorpion, and whose every part is feeding upon every other part, to its inevitable destruction. Such a beast would be no more monstrous than the modern fiction of an "invisible church" made up of devouring, conflicting, contradictory, absurd, irreconcilable doctrines and peoples of the religious world, so-called. There is no conception of Christ's church that is not outraged by this monstrous thing.
9. I most emphatically deny that I have any membership in such a thing as this "invisible
church." If I am a member I don't know it, and it is against my will. I have been kidnapped into it as clearly as any infant was ever kidnapped by a Romish priest into the Romish hierarchy; and if that is its plan of receiving members it is no better than the Romish superstition of infant baptism. If I am in it, I am determined to get out of it if possible. It is a Babel of confusion, and God is not its author. As it has no law of ingress, no stimulus to progress, and is only an occasion of distress, I must respectfully decline its duress, being disgusted with its process, and with the thing itself.
10. There are not two sorts of churches of Christ — one big, invisible church, and the other little, visible churches. If so, then a man would belong to two churches at once. He would get into the big church unconsciously, and unavoidably, and into the little church on purpose. In the big church he would do nothing but look wise, feel good, and be nobody; while in the little church he could suit his fancy in faith and practice, since all the little churches are human institutions! It is not possible for me to believe such absurd stuff.
11. Separate particles cannot form organizations except by being collected together. There are many Masons in the world. Any number of them can be organized into local lodges, but all of them taken together would not make a lodge out of which there are no Masons. Amid the governments of the world there are many Republicans, and these could be formed into a Republican party, or parties; but all the Republicans in the world do not make a great big Republican
party out of which there are no Republicans. Stones can be built together and thus make houses; but all the houses do not make one great big, universal house, out of which there are no stones, or houses. So God has a family of children, and these can be organized into churches; but all the children of God do not make one great, big universal church, out of which there are no children of God. The very idea of such a big church is absurd from every standpoint.
12. The believers in the universal church are not agreed as to how one gets into it. Baptists are supposed to be put in by conversion; Methodists are supposed to be born members of it; Presbyterians baptize their babies into it; Campbellites baptize sinners into it; Episcopalians enter by confirmation; the Hardshells have been in from the foundation of the world; Mormons are immersed into it; Catholics are sprinkled into it, and the Universalists get into it without doing anything! If there is such a church, it should have some uniformity about it, and it would have. But the dreamy fiction has neither form nor fashion, in either its membership, its laws, its terms, or anything else. It is all a dream.
13. How different from all this is the New Testament idea of a church. A visible company of disciples, with a pastor, deacons, a place of worship, gospel, ordinances, songs, prayer, worship and a visible influence and existence in the
world. Such a church can honor God, bless the world, have fellowship one with another, stand for the truth, be persecuted, be loved, be hated, and be known in the world. That is a New Testament church — a Baptist church. It has no conflict of doctrines, no antagonism of faiths, no self-destroying inconsistencies. Such churches were in existence in the Apostolic day. They were Baptist churches. They were on the Baptist model, had the Baptist mould, preached the Baptist faith, observed the Baptist ordinances, and had the Baptist promises of perpetuity to the end of the ages. There has not been an hour of time since the Son of Man walked on the earth in his ascent to the mountain summit to preach his inaugural sermon to his kingdom, that there have not been Baptist churches, after their scriptural model, witnessing to men the gospel of Jesus Christ, and administering to believers the ordinances of his house. Here on this solid rock Baptists stand. They refuse to affiliate with man-made churches because they are man-made. We don't have to affiliate because we are not man-made. The Baptists keep open their doors for the reception of all believers who desire their fellowship. All believers can get in on the same terms Baptists had to comply with, and all who are in have one common fellowship. But they form no entangling alliances. Our principles are scriptural, consistent, reasonable.
1. No "invisible church."
2. Visible churches administer the ordinances.
3. Visible churches authorize the preaching.
4. Visible churches were entrusted with the entire work of the commission.
5. Visible churches are New Testament churches.
6. Visible churches are Baptist churches.
7. Therefore Baptist churches are authorized to do all the work committed to New Testament churches.
How, then, can we affiliate with other churches without a surrender of these patent truths?
Baptists very cheerfully consent to the doctrine that there are Christians outside of Baptist churches; but they are outside of New Testament churches whenever that is the case. It is their duty to come into New Testament churches, and not the duty of New Testament churches to go out to them. Everybody admits Baptist churches to be as true churches as any others can be. Hence, if everybody should become Baptists they would be as truly in a New Testament church as it would be possible for them to be in any other, even allowing others to judge the case. That shows that Baptists have the essentials of a New Testament church, others being judge. If that be true, then all others must fall short of these essentials, since they differ from the Baptists; and that leaves the Baptists occupying the ground. It is plainly the duty of the Baptists to stand consistently on their safe ground, to decline all compromising affiliations with other churches, to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to them, to preach "all the words of this life," to
reprove, rebuke, exhort, with all long suffering and doctrine, and to walk by the "Landmarks" of the faith as our fathers did. Then wise men will respect us for our consistency, admire our logic, and be convinced by our gospel; God will be honored, the churches of Christ will prove faithful to their trust, and man-made institutions, and false churches, will receive their well deserved rebukes. Thus Baptists will be able to do what no other people under heaven can do, that is, do the work of New Testament churches.
Most sincerely do I trust the plain truths of this book will cause all who love Christ to duly consider the absurd things they are now, possibly, accepting; and also enable all to see how consistent, and reasonable, and Scriptural are the positions occupied by the Baptists.
[W. B. Barker, Memoirs of Elder J. N. Hall, 1907, pp. 98-112. This book was provided by Steve Lecrone, Burton, OH. — jrd]
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