39 Articles—The Visible and Invisible Church (1)

Article 19 marks the third division of the Thirty-Nine Articles. Built on the two articles that precede them, articles 19-22 define the marks of the true church, its visible and invisible character, the nature of its authority in relation to Scripture, and the hallmark of a false church that seeks to overthrow the sufficiency of Christ’s righteousness.

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same. As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

At the time of the Reformation it was essential to define the doctrine of the church against the error of Roman Catholicism where too much emphasis was being placed on the visible church. Cranmer’s Reformatio Legum tells of “the insanity of those who think that the Roman church was founded on a rock of such a kind that it has neither erred nor can err” [Bray, 209]. Article 19 is also similar to article 7 of the Augsburg Confession of 1530 reflecting the shared concern of the Reformers.  

It is significant to note that of all the controversies of the period, the marks of the true church defined by Cranmer in 1553 remained unchanged when the articles were promulgated in 1571. His genius here is to look beyond the various practices of the apostolic era. The source of unity is not an outward ecclesiastical unity, but unity is grounded upon the one who is true: God himself. If we are to have true unity with one another in the church, then we must have true unity with the one who is the Truth which means then that we need to ground the doctrine of the church in election. If we were to lay the Reformation confessions side by side we would see that the doctrine of the church arises out of the doctrine of election. Once again, we must pay attention to the narrative of the articles. Article 17 and 18 on election and on the uniqueness of Christ for salvation must logically precede this article. As we are united to the Lord Jesus Christ, the necessary consequence is that his pure Word is preached by legally authorized and properly trained ministers (article 23), and the sacraments administered according to his command: the two sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper (article 25). Cranmer echoes Ephesians 4 here. The essence of the church is that a congregation of faithful people must be in union with this one God, this one Lord, through his ordinary means of grace.

Cranmer fixes the gaze of the visible church on the invisible church. He was well aware of this visible/invisible Church distinction, as is evident in the Thirteen Articles (1538), where we read in article 5 that “true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head” make up the invisible Church, and the visible Church comprises “all who are baptized in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated” [Bray, Documents of the English Reformation, 189]. True unity begins with the one who is true, and that unity must cohere with our union with him. It is interesting to note how in an age when the Roman Catholic Church pushed hard toward the visible, Cranmer pushes hard toward the invisible and he indirectly sets up what is to follow in the succeeding articles concerning the foundation of the visible church in a series of “nots”. 

  • The true church is not in one government system (article 23 – clergy are lawfully appointed, not necessarily ordained by a bishop). 
  • It is not found in unity of worship (article 34 – it is not necessary that customs and forms of worship be the same everywhere). 
  • It is not found in church councils (article 21 – Councils have indeed erred, even in things relating to God). 
  • It is not found in human succession (article 20 – the church is the witness and guardian of Holy Scripture). 

The article towards its close mentions the three historic patriarchates of the Eastern Church, “Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch”, powerful churches, which, though founded by apostles, had still fallen into error. How then is the true unity of the visible church understood? It is the common testimony of the truth in a biblically faithful confession like the Articles of Religion (pure Word of God) and the order of worship that Christ commands like the Book of Common Prayer (sacraments administered according to Christ’s ordinance). Cranmer returns to the Scriptures in which all knowledge and things pertaining to salvation reside to flesh out the hallmarks of his ecclesiology. In so doing he also acknowledges that it is God’s providence that takes time to bring the church to its fulfillment. The church is moving toward its consummation. There is an almost eschatological flavor to it.  Cranmer sees a distinction between the existence of the church and its perfection in Christ Jesus through the lens of the Scriptures. 

When you begin to see as Cranmer did how the existence and perfection of the visible church are founded upon a God who is true who is bringing us into union with himself, then this becomes the foundation for the existence and perfection of the visible church. We need not be concerned to be under one organizational umbrella or a human succession. We should be concerned with the truth. When we are concerned with the truth, then we can come together to discuss differences between us. We are not to minimize the truth so that we can come together to feel good.

Which brings us to the modern, pragmatic “feel good” description of the church within the Anglican Church of North America masking as doctrine, the so-called “three streams of the church”: Catholic, Evangelical (or Protestant) and Pentecostal (or Charismatic) traditions or “tributaries” being channeled into a single “river” to create some kind of doctrinal synthesis. Such a synthesis has abandoned Cranmer's biblically faithful doctrine of the church in its common testimony of the truth. Two of the three streams, for example, reject the classical Pentecostal teaching about a post-conversion baptism of the Holy Spirit or the normative practice of glossolalia and prophecy. Two of the three have historically repudiated the Roman Catholic understanding of the ordained ministry as sacerdotal and would have a very different view of the nature and number of the sacraments. And one of the three does not understand justification as primarily the gracious imputation of Christ’s righteousness to individual believers received through faith alone. It reminds one of Philip E. Hughes observation on Roman Catholic and Anglican dialogue during the early 1970s, that to resort to fine-sounding but ambivalent terminology is to paper over the cracks and then to call attention to the attractiveness of the wallpaper. Without a thorough revision of its doctrine of the church along biblically faithful lines, the Anglican Church of North America has merely turned back the clock to restart in the early 1970’s when concern for the truth had already been abandoned and is set to repeat the tragic history which followed. 


Meet the Puritans is a conversation of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting us.


Henry Jansma