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 GlÃ¤ubigen.” 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.)