“The Church: Visible and Invisible,” by Andrew J. Schatkin
In its beginnings after Jesus’s death, the church had something of a struggle to establish itself in the Roman and Greek world. In short, Christians, for their faith and beliefs, were tortured, put to death, and subject to periodic persecution by the authorities. These tortures and persecutions included crucifixions and putting Christians to death in the gladiatorial games and the gladiatorial arena. As time went on, however, Christianity triumphed and under the Roman Emperor Constantine the
Christian religion triumphed and was established as the state religion in the the Roman empire, east and west.
As time went on and the centuries passed, the Church unfortunately acted in a somewhat unchristian manner. One cannot account for this but the fact of the matter is that the church in the Inquisition tortured and killed, usually by burning at the stake, Jews and people perceived as heretics whether Muslims, or Protestants. Indeed, throughout the centuries, both the Protestant and Catholic churches have attacked, killed, persecuted, and tortured others.
One can explain this behavior, which is clearly contrary to the teaching and life of Christ, as a result of the church being connected to society, or, better put, a result of the fact that it was more fashionable to be a church member than it is now. So-called Christians made African slaves; so-called Christians in England let the Irish Peasantry die in the Potato Famine in the 19th century.
I think I would like to offer a better explanation as to why the Church, members of the Church and so-called Christians engaged in obviously great evil and wickedness. The church is composed of weak, fallible, and corrupt human beings. Thus, one must distinguish between the physical, or actual, church on earth, which I said consists of sinful human beings, from the invisible church, which consists of faithful and believing Christians who not only believe that Christ is the Son of God, rose from the dead, and died for their sins, but exhibit this belief in loving, humane and ethical behavior.
One might even say that many Christians might be found outside of the church walls. Those persons who do not attend the church or verbally profess the Christian faith may nevertheless be more authentic believing Christian than those who make verbal professions within the church institution. Thus the invisible church which consists of authentic, believing Christians, exhibiting Christian behavior, and living the Christian life is the real and actual church.
The visible church, which not only may and does consist of corrupt and sinful human beings, can also be infected by corrupt political thinking. One can only say that the invisible church exists, but who its members are, in some sense, we will never know, since only God and Christ, like an x-ray, will examine our souls and hearts and know who we really are. Of course, one cannot exclude and say that authentic Christians are not found in the visible church but ultimately the church will always consist of those persons who truly believe in Christ and follow Christ to their death.
When the City of Rome was under siege by so-called barbarians, who now may be found in Western Europe, St. Augustine wrote a great books called “The City of God” in which he distinguished between the visible and invisible church. That distinction which he made exists to this day. The church, like any other human institution, whether government, charitable institution or any other that human beings may erect, build, and create, will always be corrupted and blackened by a sinful human nature which seeks dominance, power, and importance within that institution. The church is not an exception to our frail and broken human nature which in any institution may ruin the greatness and vision of that institution.
The answer to the critics of the church who point out its defects is that those defects are the defects of everyone of us who fail as persons.The church does much good and has always done so. Throughout the world both the Protestants and Catholic churches have erected free schools and given free medical care. The church has always done so from its very beginnings and in the world seeks out the poorest and most unworthy and seeks to lift them up. The society, however anxious to do so, cannot deny this fact. The criticism leveled at the church means that whether it is the church or any other institution we should not point our fingers at others doing or not doing what they should, nor being what they should as persons, but rather we should and must unfortunately take a look at ourselves and whatever defects the church may have are our defects.
At the end of time, the invisible church will be known and those Christians who presented themselves as such for social, faddish, or other reasons will not be counted. I would end this essay with this note that perhaps it is good that it is no longer fashionable to belong to the church, since those who do so now do so at their own risk. In the end, the invisible church will be and is the true church.
This essay is modified and altered from Chapter 17 of my book “Essays on Faith, Politics, Culture, and Philosophy,” published by the University Press of America in 2016.