The Reformed Faith

An Exposition of the

Westminster Confession of Faith

Robert Shaw

Chapter XXV. Of the Church

Section I.— The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.

Section II.— The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ; the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

Section III.— Unto this catholic and visible Church, Christ hath given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world; and doth by his own presence and Spirit, according to his promise, make them effectual thereunto.


The Greek word ecclesia, which we render Church, is derived from a word which signifies to call out, and denotes an assembly called out and convened for any particular purpose. In democratic states it was applied to the assemblies of the people, who were called out by a public herald, and gathered into a certain place, in order to deliberate together. To specify the various meanings which this word bears in the New Testament is at present unnecessary; it is sufficient for our purpose to remark, that the term is used to denote an assembly or society of men, called by the gospel out of the world which lieth in wickedness, into the faith and fellowship of Jesus Christ. But there is a twofold calling; the one external, merely by the Word—the other internal, by the Holy Spirit, which is peculiar to the elect. Hence the Church may be considered under a twofold aspect or form; the one external or visible—the other internal or invisible. The Church, viewed as invisible, consists, according to our Confession, "of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ, the head thereof." Of this Church the apostle speaks (Eph. v. 25-27): "Christ loved the Church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it, with the washing of water by the Word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish." Of the members of this Church some have already finished their course, and are now perfected spirits in heaven; others are still living upon earth, and engaged in the Christian welfare; which diversity of condition has given occasion for the ordinary distinction between the Church triumphant, and the Church militant. The invisible Church, viewed as comprehending the whole number of the elect, will not be completed until that day when "the Lord shall make up his jewels." This Church, viewed as actually existing on earth at any particular period, is composed of those who have been called by divine grace into the fellowship of the gospel, and sanctified by the truth; and these constitute one Church, because, however distant in place, and diversified in circumstances, they are vitally united to Christ as their head, and to one another as members of the same body, by the bond of the Spirit and of faith. "By one Spirit are we all baptised into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit."—1 Cor. xii. 13.

"This Church is said to be invisible, because it cannot be discovered by the eye. It is not separated from the world in respect of place, but of state. It lies hidden in the visible Church, from which it cannot be certainly distinguished. The qualifications of its members are internal, their faith and love are not the objects of sense. Towards our fellow-men we can exercise only the judgment of charity, founded on probable grounds; but we are liable to err; and, from various causes, may suppose saints to be hypocrites, and hypocrites to be saints. It is unseen by every eye but that which 'searches the heart and tries the reins of the children of men.' 'The Lord,' and he only, 'knows them that are his.'"

The visible Church, according to our Confession, consists "of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children." Of this Church the Apostle Paul speaks, in 1 Cor. xii. 28: "God hath set some in the Church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues." "This Church is called visible, not only because the persons who compose it are not angels or separate spirits, but men dwelling in mortal flesh, but because, as a society, it falls under the observation of our senses. The members are known; their assemblies are public; we may be present in them, and observe the celebration of the several parts of their worship. It is distinguishable, like any other society; and we can say, Here is the Church of Christ; but there is the Church of the Jews or of the Mohammedans. Nothing more is necessary to discover it than the use of our senses. Having learned, by the perusal of the Scriptures, what are the discriminating characters of the Church, wherever we perceive a society whose creed and observances are, upon the whole, conformable to this pattern, we are authorised to say, This is the Church, or rather, a part of the Church."

When we speak of the visible and invisible Church, this is not to be understood as if there were two Churches, or as if one part of the Church were visible and another invisible. The former includes the latter, but they are not co-extensive; the same individuals who constitute the Church considered as invisible, belong also to the Church considered as visible; but many who belong to the visible, are not comprehended in the invisible Church.

The ministry and ordinances of the gospel, which Christ has given to the visible Church, are designed for the gathering of sinners into the Church invisible, and for the perfecting of the saints; and, by the concurring influences of his "Spirit, they are made effectual to these ends. This is clearly taught by the Apostle Paul (Eph. iv. 11-13): "He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ." This being the design for which a gospel ministry was appointed in the Church, it will certainly be continued until all the elect are gathered to Christ, and every one of them brought to perfection. So much is implied in the promise of Christ: "Lo, I am with you alway even unto the end of the world."—Matt. xxviii. 20. This also secures the success of the gospel. At some periods few may seem to be gathered unto Christ; but, from time to time, some are "added to the Church of such as shall be saved." All that the Father gave to Christ shall come unto him, and none of them shall be lost. "Other sheep I have," says Christ, "which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold and one Shepherd." - John x. 16.

The epithet "Catholic"—which is here applied to the visible Church—does not occur in Scripture, but has been used from an early period, although not always in the same sense. As employed in our Confession, it is synonymous with the term universal. It is well known that the Church of Rome arrogantly claims to be the catholic Church, and pronounces all beyond her pale, or who do not submit to the usurped supremacy of the Pope, to be heretics, and accursed of God. It might be easily shown that her pretensions are unfounded and presumptuous—that in no age has she realised the character of universal. But the true Church of Christ is not confined to any country or sect; it comprehends all who profess the true religion and observe the ordinances of the gospel; and the several particular Churches, when regularly constituted in the different parts of the Christian world, are integral parts of the catholic or universal Church.

Having given a general explanation of these sections, the several propositions which they embrace may be more particularly considered.

1. There is a universal invisible Church, comprehending the whole body of believers, or all the elect of God, as called out of the world unto the fellowship of Jesus Christ. This is denied by Papists, who maintain that the catholic Church is absolutely visible - as really as any of the kingdoms of this world, and consists not merely of the elect effectually called, but of unbelievers and manifest sinners - even all who profess subjection to the See of Rome. But the Church of which we now speak consists of such only as are true believers. These, it must be admitted, are not visible; and, consequently, the Church which they constitute must be invisible. As men, believers are the objects of sense; but as believers, they come not under the cognisance of the senses. In the visible Church they are mingled with hypocritical professors, and the one cannot be certainly and infallibly distinguished from the other. The Scripture teaches us that there is a Church which is the spouse of Christ, and whose glory is internal (Ps. xiv. 13); which is the mystical body of Christ, conjoined with him by spiritual bonds (Eph. i. 93); and the individual members of which are joined together in one body by one Spirit—1 Cor. xii. 13. But these things cannot be discerned by the senses, and we must, therefore, believe that there is a catholic or universal invisible Church, composed of true believers.

2. There is a universal visible Church, consisting of the whole body of professing Christians, dispersed throughout all parts of the world. This is denied by the Independents, who confine the idea of a visible Church to a single congregation, which ordinarily assembles in one place for public worship. But, in various places of the New Testament, the word Church (as applied to the visible Church) cannot be restricted to any particular congregational Church. When we are told that "Saul made havoc of the Church" (Acts viii. 3), and that "he persecuted the Church of God, and wasted it" (Gal i. 13), it cannot be supposed that it was only a single congregation that was exposed to his fury. It is related (Acts ix. 31), that, after his conversion, "the Churches had rest throughout all Judea, and Galilee, and Samaria;" which certainly intimates that formerly they had suffered by his blind zeal; yet they are all spoken of as one Church persecuted by him. All Christians throughout the world are united together in such a way as to constitute them one Church. This is evident from the various designations given to the catholic visible Church. It is called "a body," in allusion to the natural body, consisting of various members, all so connected together as to form one body. It is termed "the kingdom of God;" but a kingdom is one, though made up of many provinces and subordinate governments. It is designated "the house of God;" which implies that, though made up of many parts, it is but one spiritual family. As it is impossible that the whole body of professing Christians can meet together in one place for the observance of the ordinances of religion, it is necessary that particular Churches or congregations should be formed for this purpose; but these particular Churches constitute several integral parts of the one catholic or universal visible Church.

This visible Church comprehends hypocrites and formal professors, as well as those that are effectually called and regenerated. On this account the Church is compared to a floor, in which there is not only wheat but also chaff (Matt. iii. 12); to a field, where tares as well as good seed are sown (Matt. xiii. 24, 25); to a net, which gathers bad fish together with the good (ver. 47); to a great house, in which are vessels of every kind, some to honour and some to dishonour.—2 Tim. ii. 20. Such being the state of the visible Church, as exhibited in Scripture, there can be no warrant to exact from persons positive marks of their regeneration, as indispensable to their admission to the fellowship of the Church, and to require from them an account of their religious experience for the purpose of forming some judgment about their spiritual state. Christ has not authorised the office-bearers of the Church to make an entire separation between true believers and formal professors of religion.— Matt. xiii. 30. This is a task to which they are altogether incompetent; for, as the servants of the husbandman could not, for a considerable time, distinguish the tares from the wheat, so the servants of Christ cannot infallibly distinguish hypocrites from sincere believers. They can only judge of persons by their external deportment; and this cannot furnish evidence sufficient to enable them to pronounce an unerring judgment about their spiritual state before God. The ground of admission to the fellowship and privileges of the visible Church, is a scriptural profession. Of this alone the office-bearers of the Church are capable of judging and to proceed upon a judgmental about their spiritual state as it is in the sight of God, would be to assume the prerogative of Him who alone a "searcheth the heart."

3. The children of professing Christians are members of the visible Church. This is denied by Antipaedobaptists; and many Independents, though they admit infants to baptism, hesitate about what account is to be: made of them; whether they are to be considered as Church members, or only as put under the care of the Church in order to their preparation for that state. "It is a considerable presumption in favour of the Church state of the infants of Church members, that, in civil society, the privilege of children is the same with that of their parents. The kingdoms of this world consist of infants as well as adults; and shall we think that infants are excluded from a place in the kingdom of Christ? The children of British subjects are entitled to the same privileges as their parents, although, in the meantime, they be not capable of an understanding, or full enjoyment of them. Is it not, therefore, reasonable to suppose that the constitution of Christ's kingdom is every whit as favourable to the privilege of infants? We are not, however, left to supposition and analogy in this matter; their privilege may be clearly established from the Word of God. God's covenant with his Church extends to parents and their children. Infants were members of the Church under the Old Testament, and there is no word of their exclusion under the New; nay, in the New Testament there are various testimonies that the privilege of Church membership extends to infants still." Our Lord himself asserts it most expressly (Luke xviii. 16): "Jesus said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God." If, by a the kingdom of God," as some contend, be here meant the state of glory, we might strongly infer, that children, being heirs of glory, ought to be acknowledged as members of the visible Church. But it is more probable that, in this passage, by "the kingdom of God" is to be understood, the Church on earth; and our Lord assigns as the reason why children should be suffered to come to him, that he recognised them as members of his Church.

4. There is no ordinary possibility of salvation out of the visible Church. This is widely different from the doctrine of the Romish Church, which affirms that the Roman Catholic is the only Church, and that there is no salvation out of that Church. The same arrogant pretensions are frequently put forth by proud, uncharitable Prelatists, in the southern part of the island, who, assuming that their own society is "the Church," pronounce all who do not submit to the government of bishops to be schismatics, and hand them over to the uncovenanted mercies of God; or, in other words, exclude them from all hope of salvation. But we are not so presumptuous as to confine the possibility of salvation within the limits of any particular Church, neither do we absolutely affirm that there is no possibility of salvation out of the universal visible Church. Our Confession, in terms remarkably guarded, only asserts, that "out of the visible Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation." There is, then, a possibility of salvation without its pale; for a person: may, by some means, such as by the perusal of the Scriptures, be brought to the knowledge of the truth, and have no opportunity of joining himself to the Church; but such cases are extraordinary: and, as God usually works by means, there is no ordinary possibility of salvation out of the visible Church, because those who are out of the Church are destitute of the ordinary means of salvation.

Section IV.— This catholic Church hath been sometimes more, sometimes less, visible. And particular churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.

Section V.— The purest churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error: and some have so degenerated as to become apparently no churches of Christ. Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth, to worship God according to his will.


1. The catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible. It has been already shown that the Church, as to its external state, is visible, and it will afterwards appear that the Church shall never perish. But though the visible Church always exists in some part of the world, it is not always equally flourishing and equally conspicuous. As the moon waxes and wanes, so the Church sometimes shines forth with splendour, and at other times is so obscured as to be scarcely discernible. It may be so reduced in numbers, and the few that remain faithful may be so scattered, or compelled to hide themselves, through the violence of persecution, that the most discerning Christian shall scarcely perceive the form of a visible Church. This we maintain in opposition to the doctrine of the Church of Rome, that the Church has been, is, and shall be, most gloriously visible to the whole world. This doctrine is refuted by the history of the Church, both under the Old and the New Testament. Under the former dispensation, so general was the defection to idolatry, and so violent the rage of persecution, during the reign of Ahab, that Elijah supposed he was the only worshipper of the true God that survived. God had indeed reserved to himself seven thousand men who had not bowed the knee to the image of Baal—but they were "hidden ones;" and Elijah, having failed to discover them, came to this conclusion: "I, even I, only am left."—1 Kings xix. 10. Under the latter dispensation, we read of a period when two wings of a great eagle were given to the woman (that is, to the Church), that she might fly into the wilderness, to hide herself.—Rev. xcii. 14. The Church is always liable to be oppressed by persecutions, or corrupted by errors; and both of these must obscure her brightness and glory.

2. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error. Papists strenuously maintain that the Church cannot err; but as they are not agreed among themselves where this infallibility resides—whether in the Pope or in a general council, or in both united—we may regard this as affording indubitable evidence that the claim is preposterous and unfounded. If any individual or Church were really invested with a privilege so important and distinguished as infallibility, it would certainly have been clearly announced where it is lodged. We need only appeal to history for innumerable proofs that particular Churches have erred, and that no Church has erred so egregiously as the Church of Rome. "The faith once delivered to the saints" will be preserved by some society or other, greater or less, in all generations; but no particular Church is secured against error.

3. A true Church shall always be preserved upon earth. Often has the Church been greatly reduced as to numbers, and particular Churches have become so corrupt that they might rather be considered as synagogues of Satan; but never has the Church of Christ been annihilated. And as the Church has subsisted from its first erection in Paradise to the present hour, so it will continue throughout all subsequent ages, till the second coming of Christ. Earthly kingdoms may be overturned, and the mightiest empires laid in ruins; but neither power nor policy can ever accomplish the utter destruction of the Church. There is, indeed, no security for the permanent continuance of the Church in any particular country where it has been once planted; but we have the most solid ground for assurance that, in one place or another, Christ shall have a seed to serve him and to perpetuate his name as long as sun and moon endure. Hitherto the Church has, for the most part, been subjected to persecution from the powers of this world; but, though like a bush burning, she has not been consumed. Power and stratagem may be combined to effect her ruin, but in vain; she is "built upon a rock, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her."

Section VI.—There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ: nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.


That the Lord Jesus Christ is the alone head of the Church must be maintained, not only in opposition to Papists, who affirm that the Pope of Rome, as the successor of Peter and the vicegerent of Christ, is the head of the universal Church; but also in opposition to Erastians, who make the supreme magistrate the head of the Church within his own dominions.

A universal headship or dominion belongs to Christ. As God, he has a natural and essential right to rule and dispose of all creatures at his pleasure, and for the manifestation of his own glory. As Mediator, he has a universal headship by donation from the Father. It is said (Eph. i. 22), the Father "gave him to be the head over all things to the Church;" where, it is to be observed, the apostle is not treating of Christ's headship over the Church, but of his universal headship as Mediator. He is constituted head "over all things;" but this power is delegated to him that he may overrule all things for the good of the Church; and therefore he is said to be head "over all things to the Church," or for her benefit.. But Christ has a peculiar headship over the Church, which is his body. This is expressly asserted (Col. i. 18): "He is the head of the body, the Church." Here he is compared to the head of the natural body; and in Eph. v. 23, he is declared to be the head of the Church, as the husband is the head of the wife.

To the visible Church Christ is a head of government and direction. He is the "Ruler in Israel," and "the government shall be upon his shoulder."—Isa. ix. 6. "Yet have I set my King," says Jehovah, "upon my holy hill of Zion." Ps. ii. 6. To him it belongs to enact laws for his Church —to institute the ordinances of worship, and the form of government to be observed by her—to appoint her office-bearers, and to prescribe the manner of their admission into office. To the Church invisible Christ is not only a head of government and direction, but also of vital influence. Hence he is called "the head, from which all the body, by joints and bands, having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God."—Col. ii. 19. Christ is the sole and exclusive head of the Church, whether considered as visible or as invisible. His authority alone is to be acknowledged by the Church, as her supreme Lawgiver. Her language must ever be: "The Holy One of Israel is our king." Let men distinguish as they will, but as a body with more heads than one would be a monster in nature, so the Scripture clearly shows that the body of Christ, which is the Church, is no such monster. As there is "one body," so there is only "one Lord." Christ has not delegated his authority either to popes or princes; and though he is now in heaven as to his bodily presence, yet he needs no depute to act for him in the Church below. Before he ascended up on high, he gave this precious promise to his disciples: "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world:" and "where two or three are gathered together in his name, there he is in the midst of them." - Matt. xxviii. 20, xviii. 20.

Daring encroachments have been often made upon this royal prerogative of Christ, both by ecclesiastical and civil powers. Long has the Man of Sin and Son of Perdition blasphemously arrogated universal headship and lordly dominion; and when the Reformation took place in England, the headship over the Church was only transferred from the Roman Pontiff to the British Sovereign. Henry VIII. was recognised as "supreme head of the Church of England;" and it was enacted, "that the king, his heirs, &c., shall be taken, accepted, and reputed, the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England, called Anglicana Ecclesia; and shall have and enjoy, annexed and united to the imperial crown of this realm, as well the title and style thereof as all honours, dignities, immunities, profits, and commodities to the said dignity of supreme head of the said Church belonging and appertaining." It was also enacted, that his majesty hath full authority to exercise "ecclesiastical jurisdiction;" and " that the archbishops and bishops, have no manner of jurisdiction ecclesiastical, but by, under, and from the royal majesty." In the commencement of Queen Elizabeth's reign, the metaphorical term head was changed into supreme govenor; but both terms signify the same thing. No part of the power or authority which had been possessed by her royal predecessors was relinquished; for, at the same time, it was enacted, that "all jurisdictions—spiritual and ecclesiastical— should for ever be united and annexed to the imperial crown." This sacrilegious usurpation of spiritual authority, and impious invasion of Christ's sovereignty, is sanctioned by the Church of England, in her 37th Article. It runs thus: "The queen's majesty hath the chief power in this realm of England, and other her dominions; under whom the chief government of all estates of this realm, whether they be ecclesiastical or civil, in all causes doth appertain." Some Churchmen, indeed, seem to be ashamed of recognising the sovereign as head or supreme governor of the Church, and have attempted to palliate or explain away the real import of the title. But the attempt is vain; of the spiritual jurisdiction which the title involves, and of the Erastian bondage under which the Church of England is held, numerous proofs can be easily adduced. Who knows not, for example, that the appointment of all her bishops belongs to the sovereign—that her clergy cannot meet in convocation without the permission of her majesty; and that the convocation has actually been suspended, or virtually abolished, for upwards of a century? That a Church so completely fettered is utterly powerless for the suppression of heresy and for the exercise of discipline recent events have too clearly demonstrated.

The Church of Scotland, at the era of the Reformation, nobly asserted, and practically vindicated, the sole headship of Christ. This was especially the grand and leading principle of the Second Reformation; and it was in the way of contending for the royal prerogatives of Christ, as her alone king and head, and resisting the Erastian encroachments of aspiring princes upon her spiritual liberties, that many of her sons suffered bonds and exile, and shed their blood in fields and on scaffolds. Though the sole headship of Christ is explicitly asserted in our Confession of Faith, yet it is deeply to be regretted that this vital principle was not more effectually guarded in the Revolution Settlement. The Act 1592, upon which the Church was erected at this time, contained no acknowledgement of the headship of Christ; and it was not formally asserted by any act of the General Assembly. Though a regal supremacy was neither directly claimed by the Crown nor conceded by the Church, yet it was not long till it was virtually exercised. The meetings of the General Assembly were repeatedly dissolved and prorogued by the sovereign; and, in 1703, when the Assembly had prepared the draft of an act for the purpose of asserting the supremacy of Christ, the intrinsic power of the Church, and the divine right of the Presbyterian government, it was abruptly dissolved by her majesty's commissioner, without any recorded protest. "But ecclesiastical independence was still more invaded, and spiritual interests more effectually subjected to secular dominion, by the restoration of the power of lay-patrons, after it had been repeatedly abolished. The power of patronage, when it is of any real effect in the settlement of the vacant churches, flows from the same spring with the ecclesiastical supremacy, and can neither be vindicated nor condemned, but on the same principles with it; and is indeed, when exercised by the Crown, a branch of it." Without referring particularly to those recent struggles of the Church to vindicate her spiritual independence, which have issued in the disruption of the Scottish Establishment, there is nothing, it may be remarked, more clearly evinced by these events, than the determined resolution of the State to retain and exercise an Erastian power over the Church. But the Christian people of Scotland have given the most unequivocal proofs of their continued and firm attachment to the sole supremacy of Christ as "king in Zion"—a truth in defence of which their ancestors "loved not their lives unto the death." They cannot contend or suffer in a nobler cause. Those who assume a headship over the Church of Christ, are guilty of an impious usurpation of his prerogatives; and his faithful subjects are bound to display their loyalty to him, by asserting his sole right to reign and rule in his own Church, and by giving no countenance to a claim so degrading to the Church, and so dishonouring to her alone king and head.

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