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Christian Church and the word church are used to denote both a Christian association of people and a place of worship. The word church is usually, but not exclusively, associated with Christianity. The term means something quite different for each religious institution that sees itself as belonging to the Christian traditions.
In the phenomenological sense there are many such associations of people. Today there is no single entity recognized by the secular world as the unique Christian Church.
By "Christian Church" is also understood the single entity that Christians refer to when they use the singular in the Apostles' Creed to speak of "the holy catholic Church", and when they speak in the Nicene Creed of "one holy catholic and apostolic Church".
Protestants in general make a clear distinction between an invisible and a visible Christian Church, considering neither of which to be identical with any one of the phenomenological associations of people that are known as churches. By the invisible Church they mean "that which is actually in God's presence, into which no persons are received but those who are children of God by grace of adoption and true members of Christ by sanctification of the Holy Spirit. Then, indeed, the church includes not only the saints presently living on earth, but all the elect from the beginning of the world."
By the visible Church they mean all Christians taken jointly. In this sense "the name 'church' designates the whole multitude of men spread over the earth who profess to worship one God and Christ. By baptism we are initiated into faith in him; by partaking in the Lord's Supper we attest our unity in true doctrine and love; in the Word of the Lord we have agreement, and for the preaching of the Word the ministry instituted by Christ is preserved. In this church are mingled many hypocrites who have nothing of Christ but the name and outward appearance. There are very many ambitious, greedy, envious persons, evil speakers, and some of quite unclean life. Such are tolerated for a time either because they cannot be convicted by a competent tribunal or because a vigorous discipline does not always flourish as it ought. Just as we must believe, therefore, that the former church, invisible to us, is visible to the eyes of God alone, so we are commanded to revere and keep communion with the latter, which is called 'church' in respect to men."
The Roman Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church reject this separation of a visible from an invisible Church. A theologian of the latter Church has described as a Nestorian ecclesiology "the error of those who would divide the Church into two distinct beings: on the one hand the heavenly and invisible Church, alone true and absolute; on the other, the earthly Church (or rather 'the churches') imperfect and relative".
Roman Catholic theology, reacting against the Protestant concept of a purely invisible Church, emphasized the visible aspect of the Church founded by Christ, but in the twentieth century placed more stress on the interior life of the Church as a supernatural organism, identifying the Church, as in the encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi of Pope Pius XII, with the Mystical Body of Christ.
This encyclical rejected two extreme views of the Church: (1) A rationalistic or purely sociological understanding of the Church, according to which she is merely a human organization with structures and activities. The visible Church and its structures do exist but the Church is more, she is guided by the Holy Spirit: "Although the juridical principles, on which the Church rests and is established, derive from the divine constitution given to it by Christ and contribute to the attaining of its supernatural end, nevertheless that which lifts the Society of Christians far above the whole natural order is the Spirit of our Redeemer who penetrates and fills every part of the Church". (2) An exclusively mystical understanding of the Church is mistaken as well, because a mystical "Christ in us" union would deify its members and mean that the acts of Christians are simultaneously the acts of Christ. The theological concept una mystica persona (one mystical person) refers not to an individual relation but to the unity of Christ with the Church and the unity of its members with him in her.