Of the Church and its peripheral activities

Here are a couple of useful distinctions to make in discussing church and ministry.

First, we have raised, heard, and addressed questions about the churchly character of the synod over against congregations, over against schools, etc. It would be benefical to distinguish the Church from its peripheral activities, which have a churchly character because they are activities of the Church. Up to now, we have often heard people say things like, “Is the synod church?” With this distinction in mind, we can answer such questions more exactly.

The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. (AC VII)

The word “congregation” means something somewhat different, though similar to, the way we normally use the word. The authoritative Latin is “congregatio sanctorum,” while the authoritative German is “Versammlung aller Gläubigen.” They are quite parallel with the generic sense of “congregation” in English: a gathering, assembly, collection, or association of individuals. It usually implies a common location in space, but may also be more abstract.

The phrase “congregation of saints (or believers)” shows in what way the congregants are gathered. It is not spatially, but according to their saintly status before God, based upon the belief they hold in common. The rest of AC VII and its context bear this out.

We can safely say that no particular parish or synod is the one holy Church. So then, what does a person mean by asking something like, “Is the synod [to use a common example] church?” We can elaborate on the question in at least three ways.

  • Is the synod a manifestation or instance of the one, holy Church?

  • Is the synod somehow connected with the one, holy Church, or even part of it?

  • Does the synod have a churchly character?

The answer is complicated by the fact that these differing understandings of the question may have different answers. I think we can simplify things.

First, let’s use the term “Church” (singular) as AC VII and other confessional passages use it. It refers to the one, holy Church. So if the question is, “Is the synod the Church?” then our answer is an emphatic “No.”

Second, the one, holy Church is characterized by the fact that its members are only believing saints. That is not true of synod nor any of its member parishes, schools, etc. Therefore, none of these things can, strictly speaking, be a part of the one, holy Church.

Yet thirdly, two outward marks of the one, holy Church are also given in AC VII: “in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” Where these marks are found, some of the believing saints are sure to be present, so we can conclude that the one, holy Church is present. Inasmuch as we find these two marks present in/at the synod, we can be certain that the one, holy Church is also present there.

We are limited to observing the marks of the Church, and not the Church itself. Therefore, only those examples which show the Gospel rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered can safely be considered as “church” in some sense. In what sense? In the sense that such an example shows the presence of the one, holy Church in connection with those who show forth its marks.

So a parish congregation where the marks of the Church are found regularly by the intent of the parish, may be considered a true, Christian congregation — regardless of the presence of hypocrites and unbelievers in its midst. Yet another parish congregation that does not have the right teaching of the Gospel, nor the right administration of the sacraments, gives no evidence of the one, holy Church in its midst, regardless of any claims to the contrary.

In order to answer the question about the synod, we must therefore ask whether the right teaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments is found in its midst. Here’s the rub. We are considering the synod, not its member churches. We have to look a bit harder to find its teaching, because its teaching happens differently than in the parish. If we find that it teaches the Gospel rightly, then we have found one of the two marks of the Church. Does it also have the other mark?

Years ago, the communion services for synod conventions and pastoral conferences were routinely hosted at nearby congregations. We may have departed from that practice in the last five years or so. (I’m not sure.) The reason for such a practice is that our synod recognized that the Lord’s Supper has been entrusted by the Lord himself to particular stewards (1 Cor. 4:1), for its administration. They receive their stewardship through His call to the teaching office, also called the pastoral office. Since the apostles, these calls are defined locally, at particular parishes. It is further understood that pastors are not authorized to minister to the members of another parish, since it would be contrary to their own call and the call of the other parish’s pastor. Temporary visitors from a sister parish are excepted, as long as their own pastor is aware of the situation.

So according to our synod’s long-standing practice, there is no administration of the sacraments by the synod. The synod has one mark of the Church, but not the other. Adding to that, everyone who participates as part of the synod is also a member of a parish congregation, where he is expected to receive the Lord’s Supper. The synod is not meant to have membership of its own, in parallel with the membership of its parish congregations. In other words, it has no “congregatio sanctorum” apart from the members it borrows from parish congregations.

Therefore, we can’t conclude that the synod has the one, holy Church in its midst. However, when we consider the synod as a cooperative work of its parish congregations, rather than its own entity, then both marks of the one, holy Church come into view, though they are found within those parish congregations instead of the synod itself. So while we are prevented from concluding that the synod is “church” in the same way we can say that of its member congregations, we can safely say that the synod is an activity of the one, holy Church, by virtue of its presence in those member congregations. Again, this is despite the presence of hypocrites and unbelievers in the mix.

Some have also asked whether a Christian school is “church.” It would seem reasonable to draw the same conclusion, with similar reasoning. While Christian schools are not “church” in the same sense as the parish congregation, they are an activity of the Church insofar as they exist because of a Christian congregation having both marks of the Church.

Someone may object to my rather formulaic application of AC VII, especially my literal understanding of the little word “et” (and) between “in qua evangelium recte docetur” (in which the Gospel is rightly taught) and “recte administrantur sacramenta” (the Sacraments rightly administered). Why look for both marks, instead of being satisfied with either mark? Mere semantic preference. You may certainly use the word “Church” in other ways, if you wish. I prefer to follow the example of the Augsburg Confession, which defines what it means to be Lutheran.

Someone may note what Jesus said, Matthew 18:20, “For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them.” There is no mention of the sacraments there, right? That conclusion is premature. Consider the larger context of the passage, where Jesus refers to the Church. The verses immediately before this one say, “Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”

These are the steps of church discipline, the incremental exercise of the binding key. Note that the final step requires the Church. Further note that Jesus says “gathered in My name.” We have an example of exactly what Jesus meant in 1 Corinthians 5:4-5: “In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when you are gathered together, along with my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Both Paul and Jesus were speaking of the congregation which gathers in the Divine Service, where we are sure to find the Church, because there the Gospel is rightly taught and there the Sacraments are rightly administered.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, a parish congregation is not better off when there are hundreds or thousands of worshippers present at the Divine Service. Even with only two or three, all of the benefit and blessing comes from the presence of one man: Jesus. In fact, He adds that those two or three also have His authority to act as the Church.

How about gatherings of Christians other than a parish congregation? Is Christ present there, too? Of course He is. But your family of five is not authorized by Matthew 18:17-20 to excommunicate as the Church, unless it also happens to be a gathering in Jesus’ name, where the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. The same thing would go for the synod. On the other hand, every Christian is authorized by Christ to exercise His ministry when the need arises, by pronouncing His forgiveness upon penitent sinners, and pronouncing His judgment upon the impenitent brother who has sinned against him.

(It’s sad, but not unexpected, that I have to explain so many extra things to keep some readers from jumping to erroneous conclusions about what I have written.)

3 thoughts on “Of the Church and its peripheral activities

  1. …number of problems in your argument.

    *[J.J.: Looking forward to being corrected! ]*

    You say that it is not true of a synod that “its members are only believing saints”. How is this not true? I recall being examined extremely thoroughly before I was admitted to permanent membership of the synod precisely because everyone wanted to be sure that I was a believer. The teachings of any congregation are also examined closely before it is allowed to become a permanent member. This is done for the same reason it’s done in a local church, i.e. to protect our common faith from heretics and heathens. Do you mean simply that there are hypocrites in any gathering of Christians and therefore it’s likely that there are some in the ELS too? *[J.J.: Bingo. Now apply it to the question. Are these earthly institutions the same as the one, holy Church?]* (I’m having trouble imagining what else you could possibly mean) If that is what you’re saying, then I’d point out that this is no doubt true of any congregation as well. You acknowledge this later on, but gloss over it and never say why the possibility of hypocrites excludes the synod, but not the congregation, from being “church.”
    *[ J.J.: Please read my post a little more carefully. The point was that neither parish congregations, nor synods, nor church schools, etc. can be identified as the one, holy Church. ]*
    In establishing earthly fellowship, we go by confession and not the condition of the heart since we can reliably judge the former but not the latter. This is something that Synod has exactly in common with a local congregation. It is not a difference, as you make it out to be. *[J.J.: Again, you’ll have to read my article more carefully. This is not a point of distinction between synod and congregation, but between synod, congregation, etc. on the one hand and the one, holy Church on the other.]*

    Then you make the observation that “we are limited to observing the marks of the Church, and not the Church itself.” Okay, I guess I can agree with that for the most part, if it is intended to go along with the previous point. We can’t, with any reliable degree of precision, see the effects of the means of grace, but we do have God’s promise that they are effective. Ergo, we look with trust at what’s certain instead of what is a variable. There’s more to this point, but I agree with what I understand you to be saying. *[J.J.: OK, then.]*

    Then you add “only those examples which show the Gospel rightly taught AND the Sacraments rightly administered can safely be considered as “church” (caps added). So, you’re saying that, since the synod does not use the full means of grace, therefore we cannot reliably call it an example of “church.” Okay then, I’ll ask what you mean by “those examples?” I mean, what EXACTLY do you mean? Not just, “show me one,” but what are the boundaries and what is the center of an “example”? How is the boundary and center of a local congregation qualitatively different from that of a Synod?

    *[J.J.: I addressed this — some, at least — further on in the article. The next paragraphs after the one you quoted contain some examples. First, two examples of parish congregations in which one qualifies and the other does not. Then, the somewhat different example of a synod. Later, the same principles are applied to the example of church schools.]*

    I’ll offer a few of the boundaries that one might typically think of with a congregation. Do you mean the gatherings which take place in a certain sanctuary, or only some of the gatherings? Are Bible Classes held after Sunday service included as gatherings? Do you mean the gatherings convened according to a certain constitution and by-laws and articles of incorporation? If so, do Church Council meetings count? Do you mean a certain exact group of people? How many times does a group of people and their pastor need to make proper use of the Sacraments in order for them to be one of your examples of church? Once? Regularly? And what does “regularly” mean? Is it, “As often as we think they need to be used”?

    *[J.J.: I’m thinking of the congregation that gathers regularly for the purpose of receiving the Gospel and the Sacraments. That doesn’t mean only the Divine Service itself, but the “loaf” formed of those who partake in “the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17). Your questions suggest a mechanical understanding of “congregation,” rather than an organic understanding. Legalism lies in that direction. “Regularly” means “on a regular basis,” and implies “intentionally.” I would make no rule about how often, but notice that the Church has maintained a weekly frequency as a matter of custom, since the Resurrection of our Lord.]*

    My point is that any time a person points to a specific place in this world and says, “look, the Church,” this will always be an indefinite and approximate observation. That doesn’t mean it’s not true, real, or trustworthy. It just means that the gathering being pointed to is always a little fuzzy around the edges. I would point out that all of the conditions laid out above are met approximately in the gathering which we’ve labeled “Synod” as well. Missionaries baptize on the authority of their call issued by the synod. *[J.J.: Yes, this seems to be the exception. Is it certain that they act on behalf of the whole synod? I think I once saw a paper about this. The question has risen before.]* The Seminary conducts higher education in Biblical truth on behalf of the synod. We pay their salary. We fire them if they stray from the faith. *[J.J.: Yes, that certainly parallels the way we treat our parish pastors.]* Furthermore, we do have the Sacrament of the Altar together at convention. Is this too seldom for you? Is a celebration of the Sacrament like a unit of money, where it takes a couple installments to be effective? *[J.J.: I don’t understand this analogy.]* I wouldn’t imagine that you (or, please God, any Lutheran) would consciously advocate such a view. But, just in case, I can also add that the Supper is also consecrated and distributed regularly at Pastor’s Conferences all across the country.

    No doubt you’d respond that such a use of the Sacrament is and always would be under the auspices of the pastor who hosts the Conference. *[J.J.: That’s been our practice, anyway. Why is that?]* That’s probably almost always going to be the case, just as it has historically been true of the celebration at our Synod Convention (I think it’s still true, btw. The service is in Trinity Chapel, but I think that a pastor from either Mt. Olive or Peace is always going to technically be the host pastor. They’re still careful to put an announcement in the bulletin to that effect. …which, frankly, I think is a little silly. When we gather for the Synod Communion Service, are we “Mt. Olive”?
    *[J.J.: We are guests at the altar of Mt. Olive, which extends temporarily to the altar of Trinity Chapel.]* Of course not!) Such technicalities are coffee-house smoke which dodge the question. Where in Scripture, or in the confessions, does it say that the one consecrating and distributing the Sacrament must have a proper call “from a single local congregation”? The answer, of course, is: nowhere. The first part is necessary, the part (the part in quotation marks) is not. You made it up. *[J.J.: I’m a bit baffled. Where did I write “single local congregation?” I don’t claim what you are saying. Are you responding to me, or to someone else? As far as administering the Lord’s Supper, the requirement we recognize is that the officiant be properly called to do so in the place or context where it is done. AC XIV would apply. We don’t call special pastors for our synod conventions and conferences. Instead, we are served by the pastors who have pre-existing oversight. We become their guests.]*

    A Synod is nothing more or less than a group of congregations joined in fellowship for the defense of the faith that God has given and furthering of the Gospel which He works through us. Our common faith in Christ is why our Synod exists. Our synod derives its authority from the legitimacy of the Gospel which it preaches and to which it clings. *[J.J.: Great paragraph so far. No problems here.]* It is simply a congregation on a larger scale.

    *[J.J.: That last sentence is going to need some more supporting context. In what sense do you mean it? Do you realize that the papists said something like that which the Treatise and large chunks from the other confessions refute?*

    *Remember, the point of this article is that we can understand the churchly character of an earthly institution better when we distinguish between the one, holy Church and its peripheral activities. Rightly teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments are not peripheral activities.]*

  2. Thanks for your replies. I appreciate them. I would say that it’s clear that you and I are concerned to guard against different abuses when it comes to the doctrine of the Church. I won’t reply much more except to revisit the point you made when you described what’s going on at the Synod’s Communion Service.

    *[J.J.: No, please reply all you want! Especially where you detect that I’m off my rocker.]*

    You said, “We are guests at the altar of Mt. Olive, which extends temporarily to the altar of Trinity Chapel.” My question is: “Whuh…?” No, seriously, my question is: is this mental back-flip really necessary? Can’t we just say that we, as a gathering of believers, are receiving the Sacramental gift that God gave to His Church? Are we not allowed to simply choose someone from among us to preside over the Lord’s altar for that occasion? If your reply is: “no, because he’s not called to do that,” then I’d ask where pastors get the authority to preach the devotions we do every day? No one is allowed to PREACH or administer the Sacraments without a regular call. So, what’s the difference?

    *[J.J.: That would indeed be part of my reply. In addition the pastor-for-the-occasion would have a responsibility to be a faithful steward of the mysteries of God. That requires some knowledge of his [strikeout]flock[/strikeout] communicants beyond having their names on a list. I don’t know what you mean by “devotions every day.” Do you mean family devotions? Personal devotions? Sick-calls and shut-ins?]*

    …okay, and then, before I go, I can’t help but say that I would be hard pressed to think of a worse answer to the question I asked than your “loaf” comment. (and, please understand, I’m smiling as I write this) That was about as imprecise as one could possibly get. The point I was making is that describing the boundaries of a local congregation is every bit as difficult as describing the boundaries of a Synod. So, you come back at me with this “organic” understanding of a “loaf,” and I say, “my point exactly.”

    *[J.J.: I thought the loaf thing was a stroke of genius. (IMHO.) I admit that there is something imprecise about it, but I hope you see that it makes and illustrates the point. It is the right teaching of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments that actually make something “church,” not a collection of parameters or rules that we could transform into a checklist. Almost as a side effect of this, the ministry of Word [underline]and[/underline] Sacrament is a necessity.]*

  3. You said, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘devotions every day.’ Do you mean family devotions? Personal devotions? Sick-calls and shut-ins?” No, I mean the devotions at Synod Convention. Every morning, and at several times during the day, somebody gets up and …gives a talk. Sometimes the “talk” is only 5 minutes or so, and other times (in the morning, especially) this talk can get to be 15 minutes long. Is this not a sermon? (And, if you dare to say no, I will take a poll among the …speakers… next year and find out how many of them said the exact same thing in their …speech… that they said from their pulpit the preceeding Sunday.) So, if it’s a sermon, then is that not preaching? If so, then I ask where they get their authority to preach thus without a regular call to preach to that “congregation.” How can they preach unless they are sent? And, the obvious question then becomes: who is calling them? Or, to put it in your words, how is this preacher “properly called to do so in the place or context where it is done”?

    And, as you craft your reply, be prepared for me to ask the next obvious question, “why can’t that same authority be applied to the administration of the Sacrament?” Why this extendo-altar game. As if Pastor Kerkow says “Go, Go, Gadget altar!”

    …sorry, it’s getting late. I hope that wasn’t blasphemous. …or disrespectful. Your explanation matches well with what I have always heard about the communion service. I’m the one out on a limb, not you.

    Anyway, as for the rest of it, I won’t reply more to your response to my original comment because I can’t think of a way to do it other than replying in-text to your in-text replies. …and I’m afraid your other readers might begin to think of me as tedious.

    *[J.J.: Nobody can be more tedious than me. ([Though if I were as tedious as a king, I could find it in my heart to bestow it all upon your worship.](http://shakespeare.mit.edu/much_ado/much_ado.3.5.html))*

    *You raise a good question about the synod convention devotions. I’d love to hear how others see this. For myself, I would consider my own speaking at convention to be authorized by my call as a pastor to a synod parish. You may wonder how I could suppose that a call to a local congregation across the country could apply to a devotion/sermon given in Mankato at convention. Speaking only for myself, I see the convention as merely a collaboration of congregations, so in a sense, all of those parish churches are present at the convention. The Lord’s Supper is a bit different from preaching, because of the stewardship element. It would seem best to have a local pastor bear the responsibility of hosting the communion service, for the sake of reducing confusion and respecting the jurisdiction of his call.]*

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