One of the defining struggles for Jonathan Edwards was the problem of distinguishing between what he called the "visible Church" and the "invisible Church." This was a concept that became very important early in the Reformation -- it was something that both Martin Luther and John Calvin had to reckon with in their own theological work.
The concept of an "invisible" vs. "visible" church becomes necessary the moment you define the church in terms of a true, living faith and relationship with God. The problem stems from the fact that a person may profess faith outwardly, but inwardly their heart may not truly be aligned with God. A person may appear outwardly in every respect to be faithful both in word and deed, but it is difficult (if not impossible) to know whether that person is putting on a show of faithfulness in order to win the adulation of others. This poses an ecclesiastical problem if you belong to a church that insists its membership rolls should more or less only include true believers. Because it then sets for ecclesiastical leaders the more or less impossible task of reading what is truly in the hearts of his or her parishioners.
Edwards pointed out that we can look for "signs" of true, inward faith in people's outward behavior. But ultimately we cannot know for sure. We must acknowledge that, at least to some extent, the "visible" (earthly) church will not correspond perfectly with the "invisible" (true) church. Some individuals who should be included may be excluded from the church. While other individuals who should be excluded may be included in the church. Edwards believed this was the true meaning of the "wheat and the tares" parable. Only God knows the true state of individuals' hearts, and only God will ultimately be able to sort things out when Christ comes again and brings our present age to an end. Still, Edwards insisted that the church needs to try to discern, and needs to try -- as much as is humanly possible -- to sort the wheat from the tares.
The Book of Mormon seems to make reference to this important principle in passages I've read recently in Helaman. The principle of a universal, invisible Church seems to be established in Helaman 3: 28-29:
Yea, thus we see that the gate of heaven is open unto all, even to those who will believe on the name of Jesus Christ, who is the Son of God. Yea, we see that whosoever will may lay hold upon the word of God....Here, access to the Kingdom of Heaven is presented purely as an act of will, an act of desire. It is presented as a movement of the heart. "All... who will believe"; "whosoever will."
A few short verses later, this true church is contrasted with the church as it exists in the world. Verse 33:
And in the fifty and first year of the reign of the judges there was peace also, save it were the pride which began to enter into the church—not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God—This verse uses the word "church" in two different senses. The first use of the word "church" is when the author indicates that "pride... began to enter into the church." So here he is speaking of the visible institution, with earthly membership rolls. But as quickly as he states that pride has entered "the church," he clarifies. "Not into the church of God, but into the hearts of the people who professed to belong to the church of God." So here is as clear a statement as you can find almost anywhere in scripture that individuals who suffer pride to grow in their hearts are not actually members of God's true church. They may be on the membership rolls of "the church" but they are not members of, what this author calls "the church of God." They may "profess" to be members, but they are not in truth, in the only sense that really matters in the eternities.
Now, this notion disturbs (and I think should disturb!) complacent views of the church and what church membership means. Often it disturbs us, though, for the wrong reasons. A wrong reason for it to disturb us is that it deprives us of nice easy categories into which we can simplistically place everyone and everything in the world. In a nice, tidy, complacent (arrogant) world, we belong to the One True Church, and our membership nicely entitles us to a front row seat in the Kingdom of Heaven. And everyone who is not with us is against us, so we're justified in treating them somewhat less than. And to be reminded that things don't actually work that way, that some people we might think of as damned are actually saved, and some that we might think of as saved are actually damned, well that messes things up and makes us very unhappy.
But a right reason for this to disturb us would be if it does the opposite. If it makes us just a bit insecure in our assumptions about our belonging in the Kingdom of Heaven. If it makes us realize that our church membership can't save us, if our hearts are improperly aligned.
This is just where Jonathan Edwards went with this insight. Church leaders, he insisted, must attempt to align the outward, visible church with the inward, invisible (true) church, but they will fail. They do so out of a responsibility to the souls of those they watch over. But their efforts are secondary to the efforts and responsibility of the individual believer. It is the individual believer, Edwards insisted, who must primarily ever be on the look-out for "signs" of true belief within their own heart and soul. It is ultimately our responsibility to measure our desires in the balance of Heaven-ordained virtue.
For Edwards, this Heaven-ordained virtue was organized in its totality around the principle of divine love. God's infinite, eternal, perfect love for all of creation, and for all his children is the founding principle of the cosmos. A true love for God will manifest itself in a selfless love for everyone and everything that God loves. And it is our task to measure ourselves against and align ourselves with that kind of love.
Whosoever will, may.