"Thus saith the LORD, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls." (Jeremiah 6:16)

The Church Can, and Sometimes Does,
Exist Without Any Visible Appearance

by Stuart DiNenno

“To say that the visible church has failed to the point where it is not manifested in any of the present institutional churches, is to say that Jesus’ words were not true when He proclaimed that the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. You would have us believe that the promises, power, and grace of God has failed.”

This is the typical reply I receive from today’s so-called Reformed ministers and other defenders of the “churches” when I tell them I believe the denominational congregations are all apostate and that the church has ceased to exist in America in an institutional sense. What they fail to recognize is that they are making the same erroneous assertion that the Romanists used in opposition to the Reformers who were maintaining that the visible church, in the sense of public institutions that are truly preaching and practicing biblical Christianity, could indeed cease to exist and actually had done so under Romanism. John Calvin wrote the following in the Prefatory Address to King Francis I of France in his Institutes of the Christian Religion:

“Our controversy turns on these hinges: first, they [the Romanists] contend that the form of the church is always apparent and observable. Secondly, they set this form in the see of the Roman Church and its hierarchy. We [the Reformers], on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance…”

Calvin continues:

“They [the Romanists] rage if [one declares that] the church cannot always be pointed to with the finger. But among the Jewish people how often was it so deformed that no semblance of it remained? What form do we think it displayed when Elijah complained that he alone was left? How long after Christ’s coming was it hidden without form? How often has it since that time been so oppressed by wars, seditions, and heresies that it did not shine forth at all? If they had lived at that time, would they have believed that any church existed?”

Calvin was asserting that the church consists of the true Christians, not the institutions that serve the Christians. The gates of hell often prevail over institutional churches, sometimes even to the point that the church is not publicly manifested anywhere in a nation. However, the gates of hell cannot prevail over the church in the sense that Christians will be exterminated from the world. There always will be a remnant of Christians on earth to worship God, even in the worst of times, and Christ never ceases to rule over the earth, as Calvin went on to explain:

“But Elijah heard that there still remained seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee before Baal. And we must not doubt that Christ has reigned on earth ever since he ascended into heaven. But if believers had then required some visible form, would they not have straightway lost courage?”

Based on statements contained in this letter to the king of France, it appears Calvin was maintaining that the church had disappeared in a public sense, or at least largely so, prior to the Reformation, being institutionally represented only by apostate Romanist congregations. Of course, the Romanists insisted that this was not possible but Calvin showed that his position was not an innovation when he quotes a luminary of the early church, Hilary of Poitiers (310-367), warning against becoming too attached to the outward forms of the institutional church because it would be given over to Antichrist:

“Indeed, Hilary considered it a great vice in his day that, being occupied with foolish reverence for the episcopal dignity, men did not realize what a deadly hydra lurked under such a mask. For he speaks in this way: “One thing I admonish you, beware of Antichrist. It is wrong that a love of walls has seized you; wrong that you venerate the church of God in roofs and buildings; wrong that beneath these you introduce the name of peace. Is there any doubt that Antichrist will have his seat in them? To my mind, mountains, woods, lakes, prisons, and chasms are safer. For, either abiding in or cast into them, the prophets prophesied.””

So you see, whether you agree or disagree with my evaluation that all of the institutional churches in America are dead, it cannot be said that in stating so, I am asserting anything that has not been asserted before, or that I am denying the words of Christ who said that the gates of hell shall never prevail over the church.

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