The Called to Communion guys have written a compelling article defending the Catholic conception of the Church: a visible, hierarchically organized Body.
But Protestants believe that the Church Christ founded is a purely spiritual, invisible entity. The only thing visible about it is the individual Christians still on this earth.
Protestants have to go this direction as a consequence of their belief that the early Church became corrupted. That visible Church was and is the one that has existed throughout history and was led by bishops with succession from the Apostles. But since Protestants think it went apostate, the only solution is to say that the “true” Church is invisible, with no relation to the corrupt visible organization called the Catholic Church.
I am not going to rehash Called to Communion’s excellent article–please do read it!–but instead just look at a few consequences of Protestantism’s ecclesiology.
An Invisible Pillar, a Silent Church
In Ephesians 3:7-10 St. Paul wrote that:
Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.
The Protestant invisible Church can make nothing known. Its embodied members (of a disembodied, shapeless entity) certainly do speak and say that this or that is the gospel; this or that is true; this or that is reliable, but they speak in a cacophony of contradictory voices, not in a unity of truth required to fulfill St. Paul’s words in Ephesians.
Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely ‘pneumatological’ as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond.
St. Paul says in 1 Tim. 3:15 that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. A bulwark is a defensive fortification that can be identified, is fixed, and can actually refute attacks from heretics and apostates. This requires a visible entity that can speak with divine authority.
The Protestant invisible Church cannot be a bulwark: it is purely invisible and un-identifiable. Since Protestant denominations and churches contradicts each other on countless doctrines, all speaking without any authority beyond their own opinion, it is impossible to even know what the truth really is, even if one of them happened to be speaking it.
Protestants would answer that you know what is true by your personal reading of the Bible. So you know who is speaking the truth by judging their words based on your interpretation of the Scriptures (which is, of course, the accurate one).
Did God Allow This to Be?
If Protestantism is true, woe to the illiterate and unlearned. Woe to the majority of generations who have lived in the past 2,000 years who were not able to read, and even if they could, were not scholarly enough to interpret the Scriptures soundly.
Protestants say: “Those unlearned people could learn the truth from going to a church that preached the true gospel.” Yet recall the way to identify a “church preaching the true gospel” is to go to one that agrees with your interpretation of the Scriptures. In the case of unlearned people, how are they supposed to come up with a true interpretation of something they cannot read? Should they listen to someone else read it and then come up with all the doctrines of justification, sanctification, salvation, baptism, Eucharist, liturgy, and so on?
And how do they know the books of the Bible in the first place? Are they to find old manuscripts of ancient books and begin reading them all?
God, fortunately, is kinder, stronger, and more gracious than this. He founded His Church to speak with an authoritative voice, with His voice: “He who listens to you, listens to me.” It was through His visible, hierarchically organized Church that He has made known His manifold wisdom, as St. Paul, inspired by the Spirit, proclaimed in Ephesians 3.
This visible Church is a bulwark, a sign of contradiction to the world and to the cacophony of Protestant denominations. When heresies have arisen, as they have in every century, the Church convenes councils to authoritatively condemn the heresies and explain the orthodox belief. This Church is identifiable: you find it through the succession of the Apostles, the bishops of the Church.
The unlearned and illiterate have never been left alone. God made it possible for all of them to know Him in spirit and truth, through the sure voice of His Church. Thanks be to God for His great mercy and love, ensuring that we know the truth. It is hard enough to live out the truth when you know it. When you don’t know whether what you believe is true or not, when you have errors in your faith, it is impossible to live the truth in its fullness.
Christ founded a visible Church, with unity of faith, sacraments, and government. Deo gratias.