The Church Visible and Invisible

episode 30 the church visible and invisible

This time, we’re discussing the Church visible and invisible, a phrase that goes back to Augustine, but about which early Friends were certainly concerned too. This is section 6B in Traditional Quaker Christianity, and the reading is mostly taken from Barclay’s Apology.

The Church Invisible

In discussing the Church visible and invisible, we’re starting with the latter part: the Church invisible. Go figure. Now, let’s start at the very…end…a very good place to start. Robert Barclay defined the Church Invisible as:

the society, gathering, or company of such as God hath called out of the world and worldly spirit, to walk in his Light and Life.

This is where people like Quagans (Pagan-Quakers), Buddhist-Quakers, Jewish-Quakers, nontheist-Quakers, etc. come in.

He says that people who are not or do not consider themselves Christians who are still cleansed by obedience to the Light. It’s basically his answer to “is my non-Christian friend going to Hell even though he’s a good guy?”

Early Quakers (versus many other Christians) came to the same conclusion as the Apostle Paul that a personal experience of Christ was more important than saying the right words. So, what Barclay said wasn’t new, but it was a different emphasis. Early Quakers didn’t say every religion is the same (which, by the way, while a common sentiment by people trying to be nice is super insulting because it dismisses as inconsequential things that truly matter to the listener), but they also didn’t say everyone of a different faith is condemned. Rather, Christ can operate on anyone’s soul. Now, that can sound super condescending too. George Fox once famously asked some Native Americans whether there is that within them that rebukes them when they do wrong. Saying “what name do you give that? I call it Christ or the Light” would be more polite. Early Quakers were often rude, however.

Micah tweaks the noses of people who call themselves Fundamentalist Christians.

What about beliefs?

There’s a Barclay quote in TQC that saying that this possibility of universal redemption “does not do away with the absolute necessity for believing the outward testimony where God has afforded the opportunity for knowing it.” We talk about ways of interpreting that. Most Quakers are probably fine with this, but we suspect it’d be flatly rejected by most of the Liberal branch. They would disagree with Barclay because it still assumes there are people who need to have certain beliefs. Many Christians would disagree because it assumes there’s any excuse for not having those beliefs.

Discovery: Micah apparently believes in the universal reconciliation of all things at Judgement Day. (That is, a bunch of people will say “wow, yeah, so how about Jesus? Turns out I was wrong back when I was alive,” and Jesus will be cool with that.) That’s traditionally based on Acts 3:21. However, that interpretation was thrown out by the Catholic Church in the 6th century, possibly just because they didn’t like Origen’s other ideas. But hey, if we thought it was necessary to agree with the Catholic Church, wouldn’t we be Catholics?

The Church Visible

There are two parts to that phrase “the Church visible and invisible,” huh? We should look at the Church visible.

The Church that is visible not only to God but also to the suffering world is the local “fellowship” of those who have been “brought to a belief in the true principles and doctrines of the Christian faith.”

—Traditional Quaker Christianity

Whoa. Doctrines? Ok, now we’re talking about intellectual assent.

To be a member of this kind of fellowship, “not only is [the] inward work indispensably necessary, but also profession of belief in Jesus Christ and in the holy truths delivered by his Spirit in the Scriptures.”

—Traditional Quaker Christianity

Oh, ok, there’s the inward stuff.

So, the authors of this book and Barclay are both talking about a balancing act, just like the balancing act we talked about in the last episode, where we talked about what makes someone Christian.

Membership requirements

But, the point here, is that fellowships (such as meetings or churches) can have membership requirements. That’s really difficult. That can be really hurtful. Membership requirements (ie, should heterosexuality be one of them?) were a serious point of disagreement in Northwest Yearly Meeting’s division. Some points of doctrinal agreement are probably expected in a lot or most programmed meetings / Friends churches. That’s common in other churches. For instance, the Richmond Declaration may be used. So, when it comes to the Church visible and invisible, the visible one (or ones) might have membership rules.

Liberal meetings often don’t impose any particular belief requirement (but you can probably get someone onto a rant about de facto cultural requirements if you tried). Mackenzie didn’t apply for membership until she was comfortable calling herself a Christian. That was a matter of personal integrity for her. However, her meeting doesn’t require that people claim a label like Christian, Christ-follower, Jesus-follower, or Christ-centered. Micah wasn’t a Christian when he became a member of a Christ-centered Liberal meeting. When he said he wasn’t Christian, they said he just needed to understand that they were.



Speaker 1: Welcome to Quaker Faith and podcast where we will explore traditional Quaker beliefs and the variety of Quaker beliefs found today.

Mackenzie: Welcome back to Quaker Faith and podcast. We are your hosts Mackenzie and Micah. Today we are looking in the traditional Quaker Christianity, at a section they called the church visible and invisible. In here the citation on this is Robert Barclay’s Apology for True Christian Divinity. He’s talking about a thing that I find it’s common to bring up when the question of how do we have hyphenated Quakers, comes up.
We’ve got people who are pagan Quakers or Buddhist Quakers et cetera, at least in the liberal branch, not so much in the others. Robert Barclay talks about the invisible church, and he says, “This is the company of those whom God has called out of the world and the worldly spirit, to walk in his light and life. It includes both those who are still in this inferior world, and those who, having already laid down the earthly tabernacle, have passed into their heavenly mansions.” He means dead people.
“Although some may be outwardly unknown to you and distant from those who profess Christian and Christianity in words and have the benefit of the scripture …” So he’s saying not Christians, “Yet they have become sanctified by their obedience and cleansed from the evil of their ways. There may be members of this catholic,” little c, meaning universal, church, “Not only among all several sorts of Christians but also among pagans, Turks and Jews. They may be blind in their understanding of some things, and perhaps burdened with the superstitions and ceremonies of their sects, but they are upright in their hearts before the Lord, aiming and endeavoring to be delivered from iniquity and loving to follow righteousness.”

Micah: This is Barclay, and the early Quakers’ way of answering the question, what about my righteous Jewish or Muslim or atheist neighbor? How do I make sense of the fact that from everything I can tell, this person is filled with the Holy Spirit, even though they say they don’t believe in it in the same way that I do.

Mackenzie: Right, and I know that’s, that’s a question that … There’s the sort of universalism or pluralism type of thing where it’s like, it’s fine, they cool. Then you have things like Southern Baptist, who are like, oh no, they’re going to hell, no matter how good they seem. I can see when you are a Southern Baptist, there being a comfort in saying I know that I’m going to heaven because I have, because I believe this specific thing. I’m good. I’m good to go even though I still screw up. But at the same time, if you are Southern Baptist or other sort of evangelicals that have that very head-focused belief, or that have that very …

Micah: Exclusive.

Mackenzie: Yeah, exclusive belief, that if you were a convert to that, then you’re going, oh no, my mother is going to hell.

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: That’s a very scary thought.

Micah: Right. It makes it difficult to have genuine relationship with people who are outside of your religious boundaries. What does it even mean to be good friends with a Jew, when you think that they’re definitely going to hell unless you can convince them to say the right words and join your community.

Mackenzie: Let’s face it. If you’re constantly like, “Hey, hey convert to my religion, say the thing. Come on, do it.” They’re not going to want to hang out with you.

Micah: The early Quakers were so focused on the power of the Holy Spirit, and the ability of the Holy Spirit to speak to people regardless of their circumstance, they came to the conclusion as Paul did, the Apostle Paul, that the key thing in people’s salvation and relationship with God wasn’t strictly a belief or adherence to a particular set of doctrines, but instead a relationship with the living Jesus. Paul says in the second chapter of his letter to the Romans that pagans, meaning ancient people who are not a part of the Christian community, or Jews as a matter of fact …

Mackenzie: I found it. Want me to read it?

Micah: You just want to read the passage?

Mackenzie: Yeah.

Micah: Sure. This is a passage from Romans 2, what are the verses here?

Mackenzie: Starting at verse 12, I’m not sure how far I’m going. “Those who have sinned outside the pale of the law of Moses will perish outside the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged under it. None will be justified before God by hearing the law, but by doing it. When Gentiles who do not possess the law, carry out its precepts by the light of nature, then although they have no law, they are their own law. They’ve shown that what the law requires is inscribed on their heart, and to this their conscience gives supporting witness, since their own thoughts are given case, sometimes against them, sometimes even for them. So it will be, on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of human hearts through Christ Jesus.” Okay so it was 12 through 16.

Micah: Cool. This is not a new Quaker idea. This actually goes back to the New Testament. It goes back to Paul’s teaching in Romans, that those who … For example, when, in fact in many places today, many, many people today still, amazingly enough, don’t have access to the bible. Either they’re illiterate or it’s not written, it’s not translated into their language, but for a variety of reasons, many people today, as amazing as it seems, given the pervasiveness of the bible …

Mackenzie: Especially those Gideon bibles that are in every nightstand in every hotel in America.

Micah: Right. Amazingly, there are still a lot of people who don’t have access to the bible, and there are many, many, many more who effectively don’t have access to the scriptures in the sense that they for one reason or another have been so blocked from it. For example they may be Muslims, who I’ve in a country where it’s very, very difficult and the punishment might be death for converting to Christianity.

Mackenzie: Bibles are illegal to import into China.

Micah: Right. They might be Jews who they have been brought up with an understanding that to convert to Christianity, to start following Jesus is to betray their entire family and dishonor their family members who died in the Holocaust. There are all sorts of reasons that people who really do have an active relationship with the Holy Spirit and are being transformed and saved by Christ’s life, would find a lot of roadblocks to actually embracing that outwardly. I think it’s a complex situation.

Mackenzie: Also if you ever say that to somebody who is a non-Christian, it sounds super patronizing.

Micah: It does sound super patronizing, so it’s a difficult conversation to have, but yet the early Quakers weren’t afraid to have that conversation, which is the interesting part.

Mackenzie: Yes, well they were often very rude.

Micah: But in any case, this is sort of, I won’t say distinctive in the sense that like only the Quakers had it because obviously it’s deeply rooted in the bible, and in the Christian tradition, but the Quakers really emphasized this in a way that most Christian groups in their time and in ours, didn’t, which is to say that, they did not say that all religions are the same, and that all roads lead up the mountain.

Mackenzie: They did not say every religion preaches the same thing anyway.

Micah: Right. That was not the message, but also it was not the message that well, is he a Muslim? Well then he’s definitely going to hell. That was absolutely not the message either. The message was that Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit can redeem anyone, can speak to anyone, can work in the lives of anyone, regardless of their religion, and for the person who is yielded to the Holy Spirit, for the person who is in a relationship with Jesus through his Spirit, when they encounter the scriptures, when they encounter the church, they will recognize the Spirit working in the scripture and in the church as well. There will be a recognition.
If the Holy Spirit … You know, you look at someone like Gandhi for example. Gandhi’s like a typical example of like, could Gandhi possibly be going to hell because he wasn’t a Christian? So what’s the deal here? Well you think about Gandhi, Gandhi drew immense strength and resources and inspiration from the New Testament and from Jesus. He never formally converted to Christianity, but he clearly found immense resonance in the teachings of Jesus.

Mackenzie: There was a quote from him that says, “I like your Christ but I do not like your Christians. Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

Micah: Right. I think Gandhi is actually a really good example of sort of the pagan who had God’s law written on his heart, and who was a law unto himself. He never formally became a Christian and for some Christians, that would mean they have to conclude that Gandhi was not a friend of God and was not saved, whatever that means. But, I think for those of us who have a more fundamental understanding, and look back to Romans, where Paul says, anyone can be enlightened in their consciences and can come to know God in that way, even without, even if there are blockages from them knowing God through the scriptures, or professing in a certain way.
As the early Quakers preached, that just because someone doesn’t say the right things, does not necessarily make them an outsider in the family of God. And vice versa, that many of those who profess the right words and do apparently the right actions are in fact not in a relationship with God. It sort of turns …

Mackenzie: And by right actions, in that case we mean things like baptism?

Micah: It sort of turned everything on its head where what human religion wants to do is to set up a series of rules and procedures, that if you follow them, you get guaranteed outcomes. You want to mechanize your relationship with God and make it predictable.

Mackenzie: But that’s not how relationships work.

Micah: That’s not how relationships work, and that’s not how New Testament faith works. That’s not how Quaker faith works. It is a … If we go back to the early movements of the Christian church and of Quakerism, it’s always about finding that living relationship and realizing that God is way more powerful than our human institutions and God can even act outside of them when God needs to.

Mackenzie: Now, looking into the book again, I know we did an episode some while ago, maybe episode, somewhere between five and ten, I thought, aha, hedging my bets. Not that Quakers are supposed to gamble or anything. The answer was that the scriptures aren’t essential for salvation. We talked to Ben about how, about the law written on the hearts, but I did not know this quote at the time, and it’s in here in the book. It’s from Barclay.
It says, “Barclay is clear that the universal possibility of reconciliation with God, “does not do away with the absolute necessity of believing the outward testimony, where God has afforded the opportunity for knowing it.”” I think that would be extremely, not just controversial for liberal Quakers, but just flat out rejected from liberal Quakers.

Micah: Yeah, and I think this is the part where I think it’s really important to have the caveat that there are, in my mind at least, there are real barriers that are presented, for people who have received the scripture in the sense of like, they have a copy of the bible or they’ve heard of Jesus and they know about what Jesus did or things like that, or they have a Christian friend and they’ve talked about Christ with them. There are real barriers that prevent many people in such situations from going further in that relationship or from going deeper with the scriptures or Christian tradition. It’s not simply as clear cut as like, if you read the bible, you’ll believe it. There are other barriers to be overcome.

Mackenzie: There’s a lot of people who have been spiritually abused, in past churches. There’s so many people who have left churches because of the way religion and the bible were wielded as weapons to control, to manipulate. I mean, we have a friend who grew up in a cult.

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: When you’ve experienced that, then that is itself going to prevent, in a lot of situations, the possibility of, or the willingness to commit to a particular faith expression, faith community, or to anything that has more solid lines, because solid lines have been used as a weapon against you.

Micah: Right. I think another thing to consider too is there is a tendency, again, with human religion, in our need for control, there’s a tendency to look at things in terms of an on/off switch. This person said these things and did these rituals and therefore they are okay. This other person did not say the things and did not do the rituals, therefore they are not okay. We’ve just sort of got this binary mentality, but I think it’s much more helpful to think in terms of continuums. I think this helps not only in terms of understanding, how like understanding how the life of faith works, but I think it also helps us with our humility, and somewhat paradoxically, in our ability to speak truth boldly.
Mackenzie was saying earlier that it’s a pretty difficult thing, and maybe a presumptuous and rude thing, to say some of the things we’re saying on this podcast to someone who isn’t a Christian, in terms of like, oh yeah. To say to someone, I believe you have a relationship with God. I just think you don’t have all the facts yet. Right? That sounds incredibly presumptuous, but I think if we understand this journey as a continuum and as ongoing growth or as a direction, a direction that we’re moving, I think it becomes easier to talk about these kind of things with humility, when we understand that … You know, I think about my faith a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago, how many things I was just, how arrogant I was, how wrong I was, how short-sighted I was, and to just think about how like, how arrogant I must be now, and how short-sighted I must be now, and how little I must be now that later I will discover.
To keep it all in that perspective, if I say to someone, or if I even think about someone, well, they may not identify as a Christian but I can see the Spirit working in their life, and they just have a few things to figure out. If I’m in the right mindset, I can say that or think that and that be true, without me thinking I’m better than this person, because I am also, I am also … Like there’s so many things that I need to learn.
This person I’m thinking these things about, they may have already learned some of the things that I still need to learn. It’s sort of this asymmetrical, asynchronous continuum that we’re all on, and we’re not all in the same places on the continuum and some of us have things that the others don’t have and vice versa. It’s not clear that anyone’s ahead. We’re just traveling on different routes in some way, but towards the same faith in Christ. I guess it helped …

Mackenzie: I think that just kind of turns into the multiple roads up the mountain nexus. It’s just that you’re saying that Christ is at the top of the mountain.

Micah: It does sort of start sounding like that. I guess what I mean is that the road is the same. The road is the same. But for example, I think of a Jewish friend of mine, who, I believe that this person went, on that day, on that day, as the tradition says, I believe that this person is going to … Mackenzie doesn’t know what on that day means. On that day in scripture refers to the end of time or judgment day.

Mackenzie: Okay. Thank you.

Micah: But on that day, right, like when …

Mackenzie: I was kind of guessing that, but I was trying to like mime and ask if I was guessing right.

Micah: Yeah. On that day, when things are made right, when on that day, when things are made right, when all becomes clear, on that day, I really believe that this person is going to confess Jesus Christ as Lord. I think this person’s going to know who they are in a relationship with, but, that being said … I would like to think I already know that fact, but that being said, this person’s much kinder than me. This person’s much gentler than me and sweeter than me. This person cares about people a lot more than I do, and I have so much to learn from this person. We’re on the same path. We’re on the same path. We each have different things that we still need, if that makes sense.

Mackenzie: I have this friend Michael, who’s Jewish, and talking to him, I’m often like, you guys seem to generally have this figured out a lot better than we do. As we’ve been talking about this, I’ve been thinking about there’s a bit in the bible, which I think is a thing Jesus says and is not something in the epistles, but you’re going to know better than I will, because I’ve only read the New Testament once. That no good tree can bear bad fruit, and not bad tree can bear good fruit.

Micah: Yeah.

Mackenzie: So by their fruits ye shall know them.

Micah: That’s Jesus.

Mackenzie: Okay cool. I remembered right. Yeah. I don’t know how … I don’t know where in the gospels it is, but it’s in there somewhere.

Micah: Yeah. Yeah. I think the only caveat I would put on that, on the good fruit, bad fruit, is that we’re really good at deceiving ourselves and so we don’t always know what good fruit is. We don’t always know what good fruit is.

Mackenzie: Well the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, patience …

Micah: The bible teaches us this, right?

Mackenzie: Right.

Micah: Right. So we don’t always know what good fruits are. In fact, like a big part of the reason that the prosperity gospel is so powerful is because these false prophets can go to groups of people and say, “Look, I have wealth. I drive my nice car.”

Mackenzie: Look, a fruit.

Micah: Yeah, look at this fruit of wealth. This is a fruit of my faith. And people will look and say, hey. I would like to not be scraping by too. I would like to have wealth. I would like for my family not to have to worry about where rent is coming from, right? If a fruit of this person’s faith is that they don’t have to worry about how to make rent, and in fact, not only that. They have a nice gold watch and are driving a nice car, then that seems pretty great to me. It is easy to be deceived by false teachers who have fruit that we want, but it’s not the fruit of the Spirit. So that’s where the tradition comes in. We learn what the fruit of the Spirit is and how to seek after it.

Mackenzie: We’ve basically been talking about the church invisible this whole time. We should probably talk about the visible part.

Micah: Okay. Church invisible is so much more fun.

Mackenzie: Yes, you need, you get there using Wonder Woman’s invisible airplane. It talked about the true church visible. It says, “The church that is visible not only to God but to the suffering world, is the local fellowship of those who have been brought to a belief in the true principles and doctrines of the Christian faith.”

Micah: So much more focused on intellectual assent.

Mackenzie: That’s true. It says, “To be a member of this kind of fellowship, not only is the inward work indispensably necessary,” there we go, the not intellectual assent part, “But also profession of belief in Jesus Christ and the Holy truth delivered by his Spirit and the scriptures.” As we were looking at this beforehand, Micah’s response was to point out that this means that the visible church is a thing that can be, well that is, it’s obviously more narrow, but something that you can draw clearer lines around and define better.

Micah: I think the way I put it was, it seems here that Barclay’s conclusion is that while we cannot and Jesus tells us not to judge, right. We cannot judge people’s relationship with God. That’s something we’re explicitly as Christians told not to do. We can’t judge people’s relationship with God, but from what Barclay’s saying here, it does seem that we can and from what other parts of the bible say, it seems that we can and must judge the boundaries of the visible fellowship.

Mackenzie: Which would be like having requirements for membership in a meeting, would be an example of that.

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: There’s a whole can of worms about how that is decided in meetings. I’m sure that among pilgrim friends, it’s probably more like how in other churches where you have, where you are expected to assent to a creed … Well, okay no. You have to assent to a creed in other churches. I’m sure that there is some statement of belief that has some sort of judgment laid on it in the more programed traditions. Would that be the correct assumption?

Micah: I think in most Quaker, in most Quaker churches that are consciously Christ centered, there will be an expectation that members should be wanting to follow Jesus for sure. I think in different congregations, there might be more or less explicit requirements around that, but it wouldn’t make any sense right, to like … You don’t join the golf club when you have no intention of golfing. Why would you join the Christian fellowship with no intention of following Jesus? It just doesn’t make any sense?

Mackenzie: Whereas with liberal friends, having gone through membership clearness like a year, something ago, while we talked about our faith journeys and things like that. I talked about how I did not feel comfortable applying for membership until I felt comfortable calling myself a Christian because to me, it seemed dishonest, but I know that that is not a requirement in my meeting or in many liberal meetings that you would call yourself a Christian or Christ-centered or Jesus follower or any of the variations that people have come up with to avoid saying the word Christian due to its negative connotations.

Micah: Well I’ll tell you what happened for me. When I first became a Quaker, I was not yet a Christian, although I did become one not too long after that. On my clearness committee, when I was applying for membership, I told them, just so you know, you should know, if we’re talking about membership for me, that I’m not a Christian. The response of my committee was, well you should know that we are.
That was, and the meeting I joined was sort a liberal meeting, but sort of on the Christian, on the more Christian side of liberal meeting. It was interesting that like, they basically said, in that particular liberal meeting, they didn’t require that I identify as a Christian but they required that I understood that the congregation was Christian, which was an interesting distinction.

Mackenzie: That we’re all in agreement of what is going on here and what the focus is.

Micah: Right.

Mackenzie: Which reminds me of Wes Daniels having said that if everyone’s in agreement about what the center is, then you don’t have to worry about drawing lines around the edges and policing those. People will naturally sort themselves into either being part of the group if they like the focus and are fine with it and all that. If they’re not really into what’s going on, then they’ll find a group where they jive better.
One last thing in here is, it talks about, it says, “On the one hand, the description of the church is very expansive. Anyone, regardless of initial religious understanding may be brought into the universal church, the church invisible. But on the other hand, this description of the church is very restrictive. To be brought into the church, one has to be sanctified by actual obedience. Early friends did not underestimate how difficult it was to be part of the church by being sanctified by obedience. Their writings record their deep struggles for obedience.” I think that’s an important thing to consider.

Micah: Yeah. I think ideally, now obviously this doesn’t always play out in practice. In fact, maybe it most of the time doesn’t, but ideally, the purpose of the visible fellowship is to help those of us who are, who are on this journey. Like I say, you know, my Jewish friend, they’re much kinder and more compassionate and a better person in many ways than I am. The role of the Christian fellowship for me, is to help me, as a follower of Jesus, who acknowledges Jesus as my Lord, to become more like him, and therefore more like my Jewish friend in some ways. That’s interesting, right?

Mackenzie: Wait. Jesus was Jewish.

Micah: Oh yeah. Yeah. But to … I think the role of the fellowship is accountability and support, mutual support for that journey becoming more like Jesus, which you can do on your own. You can climb Everest on your own I suppose, but most people die doing it.

Mackenzie: Well that just went morbid. See, when you said the doing it on your own, I thought of the desert fathers. Weren’t these like early Christian, usually men … I mean they’re called fathers, who like just wandered off to the desert and lived there all alone, like hermit style.

Micah: Right. They did get together, but they spent most of their time alone. They would have little get togethers.

Mackenzie: So they had yearly meetings?

Micah: I don’t know. I don’t know how frequent they were.

Mackenzie: I’m teasing. Okay. Fine, the joke fell flat.

Micah: Desert yearly meeting.

Mackenzie: Yes, there you go. So this was episode 30 of this podcast, and we have had over 20,000 downloads since we started this a little over a year ago. That is so cool. I just wanted to like take a minute to recognize that because celebrate.

Speaker 1: You can find us on the web at, as quakerpodcast on Twitter, Facebook or Patreon and on iTunes.