[Nothing new here, but putting thoughts together that I had scattered around a bit before. I delivered this this morning at Concordia Seminary's Theological Symposium on the Church; it was quite refreshing to walk from delivering this to Morning Prayer where Prof. Bartelt said it all again, far better and more eloquently and we got to JOIN in the praises around the throne!]
Ecclesiology in Eschatological Perspective
I believe that to understand the Lutheran perspective on the Church, one must recognize that the Lutheran Church – together with Scripture – sees the Church primarily as an eschatological reality. Said most simply, she’s a product of the future age butting back into the present age. And any way of speaking about her or describing her that does not take cognizance of this, will ultimately fail to be faithful to the Scriptural teaching about her.
St. Paul once wrote that “we look not to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transitory, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Is the Church transitory or eternal? The answer I would propose is eternal. And so the visible of the Church is merely where the invisible butts into the visible; the eternal shows up in the transitory. The Church as she is in Christ, that is, as she ultimately is in herself, is not in this age an object of sight, though she does mark her presence in certain ways. Let me see if I can get at this by another route.
The current Bishop of Rome published the following words in 1986. They have a familiar ring to them: "Luther did not have in mind founding a Lutheran Church. For him the focus of the concept of the Church was to be found in the congregation. For relationships that transcended the congregation, in view of the logic of developments at that time, one depended as far as organization was concerned on the political structure, in other words on the princes. Thus there arose the Land or provincial Churches in which the political structure took the place of the structure of its own which the Church lacked. Much has changed in this field since 1918, but the Church continues to exist in provincial Churches which are then united in Church federations. It is obvious that when the concept Church is applied to this kind of accidental historical formation the word takes on a different meaning from that which is envisaged in the case of the expression 'Catholic Church'. Provincial Churches are not 'Church' in the theological sense but organizational forms of Christian congregations which are empirically useful or even necessary but which can be swapped for other structures. Luther was only able to transfer Church structures to the princedoms because he did not regard the concept of the Church as established in these structures. But for Catholics, on the contrary, the Catholic Church, that is the community of the bishops among themselves and with the pope, is as such something established by the Lord which is irreplaceable and cannot be swapped for anything else." (Benedict XVI, Church, Ecumenism, and Politics p. 114, 115)
What I think the present Bishop of Rome correctly understands in this is that to Lutherans polity is not a matter divinely mandated, not a matter on which the Church's existence hangs. It’s in the realm of the transitory not the eternal; accidental to the Church’s life rather than to her essence. Lutherans now are and have in the past lived in utterly disparate polities - and this does not hinder the recognition of a shared faith. Thus, for example, right now the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is in communio in sacris with the Archbishop of Latvia and the parishes and priests and bishops that he superintends.
What I am not sure the present Bishop of Rome understands is HOW for "Luther the concept of Church was to be found in the congregation."
For Luther and for the Lutheran Church first and foremost the Church "is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd." SA III, XII:2 This evokes, of course, John 10:16 with the great promise of the Lord: “And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” This is in perfect accord with the Apology's assertion: "at its core, it [the Church] is a fellowship of faith and the Holy Spirit in hearts." Ap VII/VIII:5 Thus while the marks which locate the Church are invariably bound up with local congregations, the Church so understood is "no Platonic state, as some wickedly charge. But we do say that this Church exists: truly believing and righteous people, scattered throughout the world." Ap VII/VIII:20.
The Church is not then congregations, but congregation. The singular in AC 7 is vital. The Church is NOT in the Lutheran understanding a series of discrete congregations. The Church properly speaking is rather "the congregation of saints" among whom the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. Not enough thought is given to the force of that singular: congregatio sanctorum in Latin, but even more explicit auf Deutsch die Versammlung ALLER Gläubigen. This is to look at the Church from the view afforded in the Revelation of St. John; it is to look at the Church eschatologically. To see in faith from the End, from the Age to come, what the Church in this age is – something that we can only know in faith.
The Church is the one assembly of all believers. It is not many local assemblies, but ONE assembly. And the reality that is confessed behind this is that what the local congregation manifests is never merely community with a broad spectrum of similar-minded folk alive now – not even if those similar-minded folk are finding their unity in their bishops and their submission to the Roman Pontif. No. The congregation manifests the assembly of ALL believers.
When we worship together, gathered in the Divine Name and receiving the saving Gospel and interceding for the world, and partaking of the Lamb's Feast, we are not present with some piece, some miniscule fraction of the Church. We are present with the whole of it. The words of the Preface point us this way: “Therefore with angels, and archangels, and with all the company of heaven.” This is but some reflection upon the entire New Testament picture of the Church.
Hebrews 12:22ff. bears this out when it describes what you have come to when you gather as Church:
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering (angels whooping it up might be a modern paraphrase), and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than that of Abel.”
Find Jesus the Lord, the Head of the Body, and you will invariably find not pieces, but the whole of the Body with Him. This no one can see with the eyes of the body, but it is the faith of the Church that when we gather, we never gather with less than the whole family of God – with all believers alive now, yet to come, and those who have gone ahead, and all the angels and heavenly critters of Revelation. They’re all there. And we’re there with them.
So John, when exiled on Patmos, and “being in the Spirit” on the Lord’s Day suddenly finds himself not alone. There is Jesus showing Himself to Him and the saints across Asia minor right there and then the vision opens up bigger and wider and its not just them but all creature in heaven and earth and under the earth, and the martyrs are there, crying from under the altar, the twenty four elders (patriarchs and apostles) are offering up the prayers of the saints and glory is everywhere. You just can’t see it yet. But that’s the reality that the Church lives in.
It shows up in other odd places too. Check out St. Paul’s words to the Corinthians when he had to deal with the excommunication of the man who had taken his father’s wife. What does he say? “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.” (1 Cor. 5:4-5). When Paul directs the Corinthians to excommunicate a man, he assures them that he will be there with them in s[S?]pirit.
Does it begin to click? Find the Church and you find not pieces, but the whole. Jesus with all his angels and saints, the one assembly of believers. This shows up also in the liturgy. I’ve mentioned the preface’s conclusion. There are a number of other spots worth considering.
When in the confiteor at Compline we confess "to almighty God before the whole company of heaven and to you my brothers and sisters" you should not be thinking that "brothers and sisters" are only those you can see in the room. We admit that coming together as we have in Jesus’ name, we are present with the whole Church and thus confession is made before the whole company of heaven with whom we have gathered.
We sing it in hymns such as “Ye Watchers and Ye Holy Ones” – LSB 670. Verse one rings in the choirs of angels – all the titles for angels that roam the Scriptures – as we urge to raise the glad strain and cry out with us. Then there’s the stanza to the Blessed Virgin, verse 2, in which we ask her who is higher than the cherubim and more glorious the seraphim, to “lead their praises” for she, after all, is Bearer of the Eternal Word. But we don’t stop with her. Then there’s the souls in endless rest, the patriarchs, the prophets blest, the holy twelve, the martyrs strong, and finally all saints triumphant join the song. It swirls upward like the visions of revelation, opening a picture bigger and bigger with every verse as together as ONE assembly we sing supernal anthems to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit, Three in One. Alleluia!
It shines in the new-to-us hymn from Loehe for communion. If you’ve not learned it yet, put it on the top of your to do list! “Wide open stand the gates adorned with pearl, While round God’s golden throne, The choirs of saints in endless circles curl, And joyous praise the Son! They watch Him no descending To visit waiting earth. The Lord of life unending Bring dying hope new birth. He speaks the Word the bread and wine to bless: ‘This is My flesh and blood!’ He bids us eat and drink with thankfulness This gift of holy food. All human thought must falter – Our God stoops low to heal, Now present on the altar, For us both host and meal. The cherubim, their faces veiled from light, While saints in wonder kneel, Sing praise to Him whose face with glory bright No earthly masks conceal. This Sacrament God gives us Binds us in unity, Joins earth with heav’n beyond us, Time with eternity.” You don’t get it any more clear than that.
Our Eastern brothers and sisters have this one down pat and so they plaster their worship space with their icons to manifest, to show, that the Church is gathered as a whole. We Westerners used to do a similar thing with stained glass and statuary. We’re always the whole family together.
That’s why Walther’s insight was quite profound: the smallest congregation is on a perfectly equal footing with the most grand cathedral parish – for each is only the smallest visible piece of the one great reality that we cannot see – you can’t see most of the worshippers at ANY service! Glorious! The tiniest parish is a megachurch for the Church remains whole, one, indivisible, and entire. It is the assembly SINGULAR, the congregation SINGULAR of all believers. To come together as Church [1 Cor. 11] and partake of the Eucharist is to be manifest that we are NOT one of many, but ONE Body.
How live was that to Luther? Consider these words of Luther cited in Day by Day (that splendid devotional from the old Fortress Press):
“And to everyone who believes through the Word of the Apostles the promise is given for Christ’s sake and by the power of this prayer, that he shall be one body and one loaf with all Christians; that what happens to him as a member for good or ill, shall happen to the whole body for good or ill, and not only one or two saints, but all the prophets, martyrs, apostles, all Christians, both on earth and with God in Heaven, shall suffer and conquer with him, shall fight for him, help, protect, and save him, and shall undertake for him such a gracious exchange that they will all bear his sufferings, want, and afflictions, and he be partaker of all their blessings, comfort, and joy. How could a man wish for anything more blessed than to come into this fellowship or brotherhood and be made a member of this body, which is called Christendom? For who can harm or injure a man who has this confidence, who knows that heaven and earth, and all the angels with the saints will cry to God when the smallest suffering befalls him? “ (Day by Day, p. 353, Luther’s exposition of John xvii 1528)
And so in the Divine Service this comes to such beautiful fruition in the Prayer of the Church, where the scope of the prayer reaches from one end of the earth to the other and we remember as well the saints in heaven with whom in Christ we are one, and we ask the mercy of God for all sorts and conditions of men. [And how utterly sad when parishes allow the scope of the prayer to dwindle to the concerns only of that parish community! How utterly contradictory to everything we believe about the Church!]
All of this is a reality, which by its very nature must be believed and cannot be seen. But it is confessed and manifested in the Scriptures and in the liturgy. "Holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd."
What this means for the ecumenical task is not resignation to the mess that now is, but it does mean that we are given the responsibility of manifesting rather than creating this churchly unity, for the churchly unity always will be and remain a gift given by God the Holy Spirit as He binds hearts to Jesus Christ and so one another and brings us into unity with the inner communion of the Blessed Trinity.
In that sense, remembering the definition of Church that Luther and we Lutherans work with, the congregation is indeed the locus of our thought on "church." How could it be otherwise? The ONE congregation, which manifests itself mostly invisibly in countless parishes across the face of the globe as they all assemble at the ONE altar where the Lamb of God reigns in love.