Q2: Do you see any practical uses of the visible/ invisible church distinction in the context of the local church, besides the knowledge that people are saved by grace alone through faith alone and not by church membership, attendance or the lack thereof? If so, what do you think they are?
I again offer an unlimited word count for the answer.
A2: I have listed all the uses of the local church in my two opening statements, but I am grateful for the opportunity to restate them:
The purest churches under heaven are subject to mixture and error; and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan; nevertheless Christ always hath had, and ever shall have a kingdom in this world, to the end thereof, of such as believe in him, and make profession of his name.
In the execution of this power wherewith he is so entrusted, the Lord Jesus calleth out of the world unto himself, through the ministry of his word, by his Spirit, those that are given unto him by his Father, that they may walk before him in all the ways of obedience, which he prescribeth to them in his word. Those thus called, he commandeth to walk together in particular societies, or churches, for their mutual edification, and the due performance of that public worship, which he requireth of them in the world.
The members of these churches are saints by calling, visibly manifesting and evidencing (in and by their profession and walking) their obedience unto that call of Christ; and do willingly consent to walk together, according to the appointment of Christ; giving up themselves to the Lord, and one to another, by the will of God, in professed subjection to the ordinances of the Gospel.
As all believers are bound to join themselves to particular churches, when and where they have opportunity so to do; so all that are admitted unto the privileges of a church, are also under the censures and government thereof, according to the rule of Christ.
No church members, upon any offence taken by them, having performed their duty required of them towards the person they are offended at, ought to disturb any church order, or absent themselves from the assemblies of the church, or administration of any ordinances, upon the account of such offence at any of their fellow members, but to wait upon Christ, in the further proceeding of the church.
To be as specific as possible, I believe the local church is the visible church — and if all of the work of the church is not evident there, it needs reforming. So for example, Daniel would appeal to the three marks of the church (Biblical preaching [both Law and Gospel, one hopes], Use of Sacraments, exercise of Discipline) and call it quits. But thankful, the Protestant confessions call for much more than that for the church to be true to the call to be saints joined together.
For example, as said in my second opening statement, Calvin himself found the idea that the church should be completely perfect in this world a "dangerous temptation", and that "the man that is prepossessed with this notion, must necessarily in the end withdraw from all others, and look upon himself as the only saint in the world, or set up a peculiar sect in company with a few hypocrites." Those are Calvin's words of caution to those who are so urgent to be separated from other Christians who are imperfect — given in context of describing how it is possible that Paul can call what is at Corinth a "church" where discipline is almost unfound, the sacraments are misused grossly, and the Gospel itself is being corrupted by factions, by a waywardness toward idolatry, and by a false view of the resurrection.
From that perspective, one very serious and sobering use of the visible church distinction is how the church models reconciliation. It's interesting to see that Paul demands that the man in dire sin in Corinth be cast out in his first letter, but then in his second letter tells the Corinthians to forgive him because he is now repentant -- an act that Daniel and I would both say is the right working of discipline. But at the same time, does Paul require of the Corinthians that they separate from the super-saints who are slandering him in Corinth and causing divisions and all manner of other failings? Not once does he say this! He instead pleads Christ's sacrifice for all believers so that the factionalism will be overcome. Paul doesn't require that the "good ones" maintain their distance from the "bad ones" when it comes to the abuses of the Lord's Supper: he requires instead that the Lord's supper [sic] be the sign of unity among them, because the body of Christ is discerned there — not just a feast for our favorite friends. And think of this: in Paul's discourse to the Corinthians about right worship, he makes it clear that worship does not exclude unbelievers but in fact must be intelligible to them so that when they are present among the believers in worship, the act of worship will convict them and call them to account. Most critically, in 1 Cor 7, Paul requires of believers married to unbelievers to say [sic stay] in the marriage if the unbeliever is willing to stay married to them. This is magnified ten-fold when laid up against the definition of marriage Paul lists elsewhere in Eph 5.
So what of discipline then? And of the doctrine of separation? What are these and what are they used for?
The first is simply answered: the local church categorically has the responsibility to pastor the flock through elders so that the spiritual welfare and maturity of each member and the church as a whole is cared for. That is: the local church is responsible for seeing to it that there is unity through truth. From a positive standpoint, this is done through the exhortation of truth from the pulpit and from the fellowship hall. From a negative standpoint, it is also upheld by expressing the truth in love to those who are not doing it right. As I have said elsewhere, "churches ought to exercise some kind of process which recognizes that they do not exist as a body which stands for nothing, and which gives them a clear process for working that out in real life."
But what of this "doctrine of separation" which is at the center of your complaint against me? You have made quite a lot of noise against my alleged ignorance or apathy to the historical contexts of the Protestant confessions, but one thing radically absent from all of them is the severe definitions of separation which you are nevertheless demanding. You have equated your view with the work of the councils, but ironically no councils exist to hand down the judgments you are extolling, and you are then requiring the individual to make the particular judgments completely apart from visible church structures and authority.
So for example, if Warren's The Purpose Driven Life is read in a church (probably in the 40-day structure), I perceive that your view is that it's not a church anymore: they have "taken part in the wicked deeds of Rick Warren". Those who count themselves as very on about holiness have to run away — be separate immediately, or be subjects of separation themselves.
Yet where is this found in the theology of the reformation? Indeed: the best possible place to attempt to find it is Robert Shaw's exposition of the Westminster Catechism when he says this about Sanctification:
In Scripture, the word sanctification bears a variety of senses. It signifies separation from a common to a sacred use, or dedication to the service of God. Thus the altar, temple, priests, and all the sacred utensils, were sanctified. It also signifies purification from ceremonial defilement.–Heb. ix. 13. But the sanctification of believers, of which this chapter treats, consists in their purification from the pollution of sin, and the renovation of their nature after the image of God.
... Sanctification is imperfect in this life. There have been men, and there still are, who maintain, that sinless perfection is attainable in this life. This is held by Antinomians, who profess that the perfect holiness of Christ is imputed to believers. It is held likewise by Romanists, Socinians, and others, who affirm that believers have, or may attain, a perfect inherent holiness. The doctrine of sinless perfection was also held by the founder of the Methodists; and the same opinion is still held by his followers. In opposition to such views, our Confession decidedly affirms, that sanctification is "imperfect in this life." Though it extends to the whole man, yet "there abideth still some remnants of corruption in every part." The Scriptures abound with the most explicit testimonies against the doctrine of sinless perfection.–Eccl. vii 20; James iii. 2; Prov. xx. 9, 1 John i. 8. The epithet perfect, is indeed applied to several saints, but it must be understood either comparatively, in which sense "Noah was perfect in his generation;" or, as synonymous with sincerity or uprightness, in which sense God said to Abraham, "Walk before me, and be thou perfect." That the most eminent saints mentioned in Scripture were not free from sin, is evident from the defects and blemishes which are discovered in their conduct. They were far from imagining that they had attained to sinless perfection. - Job ix. 20; Ps. xix. 12; Phil. iii. 12. Every real Christian will certainly aspire after perfection; but none can attain to absolute perfection in this life.
As there is both grace and the remainders of corruption in every saint, it follows, that there will be "a continual and irreconcilable war" between these two opposite principles. This conflict is described in a very striking manner.–Rom. vii.; Gal. v. 17 Sometimes the one principle prevails, and sometimes the other; but grace will finally overcome.
But sadly, that cannot be twisted into a doctrine which demands that Christians, themselves imperfect, must exact through a tribunal of their own reason, either repentance or banishment from every creature confessing faith in Christ. Instead, Shaw rightly points out that the doctrine of sanctification is about my war with my sin as it is conducted by the Holy Spirit for the purpose of God's grace overcoming that sin — not to drive me away from others over matters of opinion, or worse: my own execution of some confession against those who disagree with me.
Finally, the spectacular fact of the visible church is that it is the place where sinners are made right with God. That is: not only are we reconciled by the blood of Christ to God over and against our sins, but we are also made right toward each other so that our objections to each others [sic] flaws and shortcomings can be laid to rest through Christ's work.
By no means should that be construed as a license to be lawless, or to allow for utter lawlessness and blasphemy. But it does make for the basis to be reconcilers first, and to seek to forgive first, and to call to repentance with a loving and hopeful heart first. The Gospel is not the Law, and it does not demand of us that we seek the condemnation of others through the Law. It makes us into something better than the Law could have made of us, and with that comes something greater than the mere requirements of fundamentalist separation.