The Invisible Kingdom and the One True Church
Are "other" Christians condemned outside the one true Church? Examining Christ's prophetic parables of faithful and nominal believers in Matthew 25.
William Blake, “The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” (c.1800). Watercolor, pen and black ink, brush and wash, over graphite.
The kingdom of heaven is fragmented here on earth. To call the body of Christ broken or divided is a very controversial statement. Many regard it as blasphemous or schismatic and others see it as normative, inevitable, or even Biblical. In Catholicism and Orthodoxy, the Spirit works solely through one tradition and institution as the true Church of Christ, which as His body is not and cannot be broken, so there is no salvation outside of Christ’s Church. They just vehemently disagree with each other on which Church is truly Christ’s. In Protestantism and Reformed traditions, there is a different approach altogether. There is the visible church and invisible church, where the visible church, the community, doctrine, and practices of all believers on earth, is divided (into denominations and sects) and the invisible church, the true church of born-again believers only God can see, is united in the Spirit. The difference is substantial. A Protestant denomination typically does not believe their denomination is the one true Church, instead they belong to it, so that salvation is possible outside of any denomination or sect. While the notion of a normative broken visible church is fallacious in my view, the principle of the invisible church appointed to salvation appears pretty rock solid throughout Scripture. But what is often overlooked is that part of the invisible church is disunited in Spirit and appointed to condemnation, judged by what is visibly manifest. The kingdom of heaven is visibly united in name alone.
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
This is, perhaps, best articulated in three of Christ’s prophetic parables in Matthew 25, starting with his illustrious Parable of the Ten Virgins:
Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
– Matthew 25:1-13
The ten virgins represent the kingdom of heaven here on earth, Christ’s Holy Church. Five virgins were wise and faithful, five virgins were foolish and nominal. Even so, “they all became drowsy and slept”, the faithful included. While the faithful at least kept their lamps lit, however dim, the nominal had little to no oil to keep their lamps lit at all, so the fire burned out when Christ came. Even so, flame or no flame, they were still considered virgins. They were still considered virgins until the appointed time of God’s judgment (v.12). These nominal believers were also not counted among the heathen or heretics, they were not carnal but entrenched in the life of the Church as virgins (cf. Matthew 7:21-23, 18:17). The Church Kingdom is nominally united, but spiritually distant from both God and their fellow virgins. Since they became “drowsy and slept”, the five faithful servants did not have enough oil to sustain their own flame let alone support the other five (v.9). The Church Kingdom is visibly weak because its flame, the Spirit, is either dim or out. Christ alludes to this principle of the invisible sustaining visible perseverance elsewhere: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)
The Parable of the Talents
Now consider; what is the ultimate difference between hiding the light of your lamp and not lighting your lamp at all? Is it not akin to the wicked, worthless servant who received one talent and then hid his Master's money in the ground? (Matthew 25:18) Christ elaborates on this cowardly, inward-focused way of believing in His prophetic Parable of the Talents:
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here, you have what is yours.’ But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
– Matthew 25:24-30 (vv.14-30)
The three servants represent the kingdom of heaven here on earth. Each servant was held personally responsible to earn a spiritual profit while the Master was away, but the slothful servant does nothing of the sort. He buried his faith in the ground so that no one can see his good works and give glory to his Master in heaven. He was not of the good soil, he was of the path, rocky ground, or thorns, his belief had no roots and it proved fruitless (Matthew 13:19-22). The earnest servants were of good soil, they heard the word and understood it; they bore fruit and yielded, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty (Matthew 13:23). A belief is invisible, but a belief becomes visible in behaviour–––you can see it (cf. Matthew 13:13). The earnest servants were invisibly and, therefore, visibly profitable on earth as it is in heaven, but the wicked and slothful servant was invisibly and, therefore, visibly disingenuous (vv.24-25). Even so, the slothful servant who buried his only talent was still mingled among the “good and faithful” servants while he was waiting for the Master to return (vv.21,23). He was still considered a servant until the appointed time of God’s judgment. The Church Kingdom is nominally united, but invisibly and visibly divided from both God and his fellow servants. The servants were individually tasked and obliged apart from each other, but each bore the same responsibility and mission to be profitable. Each servant stood in judgment and the Master, not the servants, judged each servant accordingly.
The Final Judgment
It is important, then, when we consider the fragmented Church that we also recognize Christ’s first two parables in Matthew 25 emphasize His prolonged delay, “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept” (v.5), And again, “Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them” (v.18). He emphasizes this for good reason. After two prophetic parables about the lengthy Church age and the drowsy, slothful believers who will inevitably come about, He returns as the final judge of all believers, faithful and nominal alike, to conclude the chapter (Matthew 25:31-46). Then and only then, at the end of the age does He separate “the sheep from the goats” (v.32). The point remains consistent throughout: The goats were still in the flock until the appointed time of God’s judgment. It is no coincidence that the final warning to stay awake in Matthew 25 is prophetically accounted and eschatologically concerned with the final judgment of nominal believers mingled in the Church Kingdom. It shifts from parabolic to anecdotal, from invisible to visible, it is no longer the kingdom as, it is the kingdom is.
Now consider; what divides the faithful from the nominal? Is there any indication that a true believer is staying awake through the night? Or is there any indication that a believer has fallen asleep with no oil left in their lamp? Christ splits the difference at the end of the chapter:
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’
– Matthew 25:41-45
It is clear that weak, slothful, faithless, cowardly, inward-focused, self-seeking believers do not visibly follow through on Christ’s teachings and commands here on earth, and there are visible indications and earmarks that reveal nominal Christian character (cf. James 1:27). Belief manifests behaviour, invisible manifests visible. For all were virgins and all were servants unified in name alone until the appointed time of God’s judgment. In Spirit and perseverance the whole Church Kingdom stands drowsy and divided against itself, yet in Spirit and perseverance does Christ’s one true Church Kingdom stand invisibly and visibly united to inherit the coming kingdom; who are the five faithful and wise virgins who kept their lamps lit, the good and faithful servants who doubled their profits.
Invisible Manifests Visible
It is, therefore, conceivable that such character, whether nominal, anemic, or carnal, may invent or cling to peculiar doctrine and practices in the name of Christ; it is also equally conceivable that people raised in peculiar doctrine may reject their upbringing and return to follow true doctrine/practices, even if they are outside of the one true institution, perhaps, mistakenly skeptical of it. Likewise, while the nominal in these passages are visibly slothful, there are believers outside of Catholicism and Orthodoxy and Protestantism who, at the very least, appear to be spiritually and visibly fruitful, providing for orphans and widows, the most vulnerable and least advantaged, or perhaps even prophesying, driving out demons, and performing miracles in God’s name (Matthew 7:21-23). For those reasons, they are still considered Christian. All Christians are nominally united and considered Christian until the appointed time of God’s judgment. Notice, however, that there is still potential for one institution to be the one true Church, say, nominally united under Orthodox as opposed to the generic term Christian. Even so, whether Christ’s Church is one institution or many, the Christian world is still nominally united and spiritually divided according to Scripture.
Be that as it may, when invisibly divided, then visibly disunited, too, whether in doctrine or behaviour; for the heavenly effects the earthly, the invisible strengthens the visible, not the other way around. That is what we pray for, after all, for the heavenly to visibly manifest here on earth through us: “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) The invisible precedes the visible. In fact, the Lord’s Prayer reveals a seemingly lost principle to many modern congregants–––the invisible God is made visible in the presence of true believers. The invisible church is visible when it is Christ through us, His teachings and commands (Matthew 28:19-20), not the Church through us, for their are nominal believers and, therefore, nominal teachings and commands and churches (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:12-13). That is to be united as one body in the Spirit of Christ (cf. Ephesians 4:4-6). For the five foolish virgins responded to Christ’s return by expecting the Church to light their lamps for them, and their lamps burnt out because they were not Christ focused. Likewise, how are we to be the light of the world if not through Christ, through whom all light was made visible from darkness?
Christ’s Church Inherits the Kingdom
Christ will give the true Church the kingdom of heaven in new creation, which was sown here on earth, “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” (v.34) As illustrated by the five virgins representing Christ’s spiritually unified Church Kingdom, the final consummation, the marriage supper of the lamb, the final Eucharist, happens at the end of the age (cf. Revelation 19:6-10). Only then will the bride of Christ be glorified as “one flesh” with Christ, and fully be the body of Christ, a profound mystery (Ephesians 5:29-32). Till then, we wait. A terrifying revelation spoken by the prophet Daniel long ago:
As I looked, this horn made war with the saints and prevailed over them, until the Ancient of Days came, and judgment was given for the saints of the Most High, and the time came when the saints possessed the kingdom…. And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.
– Daniel 7:21-22, 27
Condemnation Outside the Church
The Church Kingdom is visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly. It is the earnest and slothful servants, the faithful and nominal virgins, all of whom are considered Christian until the appointed time of God’s judgment. Is not the communion bread, the body of Christ, also broken for the faithful and nominal congregants alike? (Luke 22:19; cf. 1 Corinthians 11:29) For Christ and the apostles taught not to judge or condemn others before the appointed time, and the apostles were not even willing to judge or condemn themselves, even though they were directly called by Christ, as Paul testifies to the Corinthians, “I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” (1 Corinthians 4:3-4) So, how much less are we to cast judgment upon another’s servant, however nominal or anemic or carnal they be? “It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4) For the faithful servants did not condemn the slothful for burying his only talent, but reserved judgment for God.
So, what does Paul say to do with the nominal, anemic, or carnal believers? “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.”” (1 Corinthians 5:11-13) Even though nominal or anemic or carnal believers are visibly outside of the one true Church, not even an apostle would condemn them! As James testifies also, “There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?” (James 4:12) In fact, even when Paul does pronounce judgment on that nominal believer, he does so to preserve the spiritual integrity of true believers and the witness of Christ through His Church; he tells the Church to assemble in the power of Christ and expel the nominal believer to his face, he does not condemn him: “you are deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Corinthians 5:3-5) Consider the authority structure of Paul’s statement. Paul does not presume to know that the man will be condemned by God, rather he takes the side of hope that his spirit may be saved when God judges the world. Contrary to Catholic and Orthodox doctrine, salvation and condemnation does not appear to be an apostolic responsibility nor is it in the Church’s jurisdiction here on earth.
How, then, can a modern apostle condemn at all? Likewise, how could I fully affirm dogma (saving truth) that condemns “other” Christians wholesale without condemning them myself? Would I not be guilty of judging my neighbour, also? Unless a so-called Christian plainly, willfully, relentlessly and unrepentantly contradicts, perverts, or distorts the holy kingdom-building gospel, such as the notorious preachers of the “Word of Faith” movement, prosperity theologians, and Jehovah's Witnesses, to name a few, in which case the heretic is visibly outside the Church Kingdom for attempting to destroy it from within through self-worship, idolatry, and deceptively twisting God’s word for their own advantage, being the sin of antichrist and Satan, in this instance the believer is free to affirm a heretic’s condemnation if they do not repent (Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Peter 2:1-3, 4-9; Revelation 22:18-19). Such people are outside the invisible and visible Church, even nominally. Yet even this requires great discernment because repentance is always possible, even if it doesn’t seem likely (Acts 8:12-25).
What do we conclude, then? If you are inside the Church Kingdom, it does not necessarily mean you are saved, for there are nominal Christians inside the kingdom of heaven. If you are outside the Church Kingdom, it does not necessarily mean you are condemned, for condemnation belongs to the Lord. Whether we are laity or apostles, if we are in the one true Church, condemnation is not in our spiritual jurisdiction until the appointed time of God’s judgment (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:1-3).
Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
– 1 Corinthians 4:5
The invisible Church Kingdom is God’s sovereign responsibility at the end of the age. The visible Church Kingdom is our immediate responsibility set before us, it is the Church age. We would do well to follow through on our responsibility and restore the visible Church, to light the lamps and give light to all in the house, so the anemic do not fall into outer darkness and weaken Christ’s witness. The kingdom is set on a mountain, it cannot be hidden.
Matlock Bobechko | November 28, 2022 – 9:00 AM EST
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This is your best post yet! Very articulate, and if paramount importance.