The Church Within the Church (Church Membership, Part 2)
The Westminster Confession of Faith defines the church in two different categories - the invisible church and the visible church. The invisible, or universal, church is "consists of all the elect who have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ its head" (WCF 25.1). In other words, the church is everyone who is, ever was, or someday will be, truly saved. The visible church, on the other hand, "consists of all those throughout the world who profess the true religion, together with their children" (WCF 25.2). Basically, the church is everyone who professes faith in Christ. If you compare those definitions, what quickly becomes clear is that they are either two terms for the same thing (they are not) OR there are those who profess the true faith but who ultimately are not truly saved. At some point in their journey they will turn from their commitment (1 John 2:19) or their works will be inconsistent with their words and prove that they are not truly God's children (Matthew 7:21-23).
This is not strictly a New Testament phenomenon, either. Look over those definitions again. There is nothing in them that excludes people who lived in the generations before Jesus was born. Throughout the history of God's people, this distinction has been made. There was Israel - God's chosen people. But within Israel, there was "true Israel," sometimes called the remnant. There were those who made claim to a covenant relationship with God, but the life they lived rejected his Lordship. And so Paul explains in Romans that "not all Israel was Israel" (Romans 9:6, but see also Romans 2:28 and 4:12). Within the visible covenant community existed a community that faithfully practiced what they confess. And it continues to be that way today. We can rightly say, “Not everyone in the church is in the church.”
But let us be clear- these are not merely overlapping circles, so that it is possible to be a part of the invisible church without being a part of the visible church. The smaller circle (invisible church, true Israel) is fully contained within the larger one (the visible church). The larger, more visible body seeks to be a faithful expression of the smaller one. Of course we would like for there to be no false believers in the church. But the reality is that there will always be weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), goats among the sheep (Matthew 25:31-46). Jesus has warned us that it will be that way until the day of judgment.
Why does this matter? Because we don't want anyone to make the mistake of thinking that being a member of a church is that same as being saved. There are people in the church – members, even leaders (Acts 20:29-30) – who do not belong there. Perhaps they deceive others, perhaps they even deceive themselves, but they do not deceive the Lord. So church membership does not equal salvation, and membership is not a stamp of approval or guarantee of salvation.
So what is the point of membership, then? We'll discuss that in our next entry.