Leslie Newbigin in his book The Household of God describes the Church as the visible community of God’s people and repeatedly emphasizes that the Church “is as visible as the Christian man.” This emphasis is a vital one for those of us who have been trained to think of the Church as primarily “invisible.” An “invisible” Church which consists exclusively of the “whole number of the elect” tends to become, over time, the only “real” Church (since only those who are counted in the invisible Church will be infallibly saved). This perfect “invisible” Church makes the imperfect, and sometimes deeply flawed, visible Church on the corner appear as a mere shadow of (if not an outright contradiction to) the real glorious body of Christ. Consequently, we come to view the visible Church is at best a secondary and non-essential element in our salvation (and many even think of the Church as a hindrance to their spirituality). But Newbigin tells us that this is a great mistake. In the Bible, the Church, the body of Christ, is the visible body of men and women who have been called out by God’s grace, marked by baptism, and gathered into worshiping and serving communities. Newbigin observes:
“The whole core of biblical history is the story of the calling of a visible community to be God’s own people. His royal priesthood on earth, the bearer of His light to the nations. . . . There is an actual, visible, earthly company which is addressed as ‘the people of God’, the ‘Body of Christ’. It is surely a fact of inexhaustible significance that what our Lord left behind him was not a book, nor a creed, nor a system of thought, nor a rule of life, but a visible community. . . . He committed the entire work of salvation to that community. It was not that a community gathered round an idea, so that the idea was primary and the community secondary. It was a community called together by the deliberate choice of the Lord Himself, and re-created in Him, gradually sought–and is seeking–to make explicit who He is and what He has done. . . . This actual visible community, a company of men and women with ascertainable names and addresses, is the Church of God.”
Apart from this all too visible body, the work of salvation cannot go forward in the world. There Christ Jesus may be found and is, in fact, present; there His voice heard, and His table shared; there the fullness of the Spirit and His gifts are enjoyed; there alone can one find communion with the saints. As crippled and weak as it often is; as troubled and stained as it is often found to be; this “visible” congregation is the Church, the household and family of God, the pillar and ground of the truth; the glorious Body of Christ; the place of life and peace.