"entangled together"

Yesterday I mentioned Augustine and the Donatists. The main issue in the Donatist schism was the scandal over clergy that caved under Roman persecution and gave up important church documents, then when the persecution ended they were being accepted back as church leaders. It's easy to understand why some were upset about this. The Donatists ended up breaking away from the main church and insisting that their group was the true Christian church.

The division still existed when Augustine became bishop in northern Africa, which happened to be where the Donatists were strongest. So he took up the struggle against them. One of his main arguments was that not everyone in the church was perfect (or even necessarily a Christian), but that is no reason to reject the church:

As long as she is a stranger in the world, the city of God has in her communion, and bound to her by the sacraments, some who shall not eternally dwell in the lot of the saints. Of these, some are not now recognized; others declare themselves, and do not hesitate to make common cause with our enemies in murmuring against God, whose sacramental badge they wear. These men you may today see thronging the churches with us, tomorrow crowding the theaters with the godless. But we have the less reason to despair of the reclamation even of such persons, if among our most declared enemies there are now some, unknown to themselves, who are destined to become our friends. In truth, these two cities are entangled together in this world, and intermixed until the last judgment effects their separation. (City of God, 1,35)
This offers the image of a more honest, committed, holy group of people, the "true church" within the institutional church organization. And it's not easy to tell who is who, or weed out the less authentic Christians.

Later, during the Reformation, John Calvin uses the terms "visible church" and "invisible church" to describe these, with the invisible church being those who are true Christians. His use of those terms is unfortunate. Because it easily suggests that there can be true Christians that are not "visible" or not recognized, but are true Christians "in their heart" where only God can see. Many have denounced such an understanding. In a way, though, the boundaries of the true church are not as "visible" as the boundaries of the institutional church. And it is true that God sees his own, even when we do not recognize them or count them as our brothers and sisters.

Calvin resorted to this argument against the Anabaptists, who were also rejecting the organized church of their time (Calvin's and Luther's churches, which had themselves broken from the Catholic church). Like the Donatists, the Anabaptists thought the church was much corrupted and they needed to start again with a more pure assembly of believers. They also re-baptized, as the Donatists had (rejecting the sacraments of tainted clergy). So it's not surprising that the Anabaptists were called "neo-Donatists."

The early Anabaptists mostly rejected the "invisible church" argument, since they thought the church should be a visible community of the saints, people truly and clearly living out the way of Jesus. But then it wasn't long before there were serious scandals and obvious wrongdoing within the Anabaptist congregations. As much as we would like to live in and offer the witness of pure Christian communities, they never seem to be all we hoped for. Or all that Jesus promised.

Based on my own experience also with a wide variety of Christian groups, I am pretty much convinced that Augustine was right about the true church being mixed in, and not clearly defined, within the (compromised, watered down) institutional church. Maybe "invisible" is not a good description, though I'm sure they are usually not of high status in the church and not widely praised for their faithfulness. I once heard them called the "remnant" church. That image works better for me. Like when Elijah felt he was the last faithful man and God reassured him that he had preserved a remnant in Israel, seven thousand, who had not bowed to Baal. And the remnant concept becomes common in the later prophetic writings. Though they are scattered and often unknown, there is a faithful remnant that God will preserve and one day lift up to be recognized by all.

I think it can be reassuring to us, too, just as it was to Elijah.