Lutherans expressed the clear biblical teaching about the Church of our Lord in a time when most people were rather unclear in that area. Our doctrine is confessed in the Augsburg Confession, articles 7 and 8, and Article 12 of part 3 in the Smalcald Articles.
The Evangelical Lutheran Synod has also produced a doctrinal statement on the Church, which tends to follow the simplicity of the Augsburg Confession in some ways, but adds a focus on church fellowship and the matter of “the local congregation.” The focus on church fellowship is to be expected because of the sturm und drang following the dissolution of the synodical conference. We want to be clear about our reasons for associating publicly, or not, with other Christians. The focus on “the local congregation” seems to be a holdover from a controversy between members of the Synodical Conference. Missouri Synod theologians like Francis Pieper recognized that a local congregation possesses the essential qualities of an outward manifestation of the Church, while Wisconsin Synod theologians wanted to confess that the particular details of congregational organization manifested among us are not divine requirements. For some reason, these two emphases were considered to be in opposition to one another, and some of that controversy crept into the ELS statement on the Church.
The language used in the ELS statement to describe “the local congregation” speaks of “external forms.” That sounds like jargon if I’ve ever heard it. As far as I can tell, an external form is a specific institutional arrangement with all of its organizational details. Apparently it was not obvious to all in 1980 that God has not commanded any particular “external form” of the Church, though I suspect that those allegedly espousing such a view were misunderstood by those who condemned it. That language was picked up again in the 2005 ELS doctrinal statement “The Public Ministry of the Word,” only there referring to a specific position of responsibility with all of its organizational details, such as the office of pastor. There, the ELS wishes to confess that God has not limited the concept of “public ministry” to any particular position of responsibility. Notice how the use of “form” in 1980 and in 2005 have a similar intent: to say that the Church (on the one hand) and the Ministry (on the other hand) are not limited to the examples we see before us today. Yet they are also different, not least in the fact that contrary examples of “church” were not available in 1980, while contrary examples of “ministry” were prevalent in 2005.
I wonder, then, why there has been such a desire to insulate ourselves from “forms.” Do some really believe that there has only ever been one outward arrangement for the institution of the Church, with all of its organizational details? Such a narrow view is a bit ridiculous, given the variety of arrangements that have existed through history. Or is this the product of a bogeyman? Has there been too much emphasis upon the principle of Christian liberty over against the essential marks found in a Christian congregation, so that in order to protect that liberty, we don’t even wish to define an external congregation essentially according to those marks? Is it reasonable to think of an “external congregation” exactly in terms of God’s Word and Sacraments, and if so, will Christian liberty allow us to consider such an external congregation as a divine model for every Christian to seek? Is there any reason to define “external congregation” in any other way, in this context?
My final observation about the ELS statement on the Church is that point number 3 stops short. It gives the impression that the definition of the “office of the keys” is exhausted in the phrase “the authority to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments,” and it says nothing about the divine command to perform these tasks. It ends with the adverbs “individually and collectively,” but only two references to explain them. In fact, the references are given in the order of “collectively” first, and “individually” second (a purposeful chiasm, perhaps?). What is lacking here is the connection between John 20:21-23 and the collective exercise of the Keys. Of course, this is a possible junction point with a statement on the doctrine of the Ministry. Some parts of the 2005 statement do serve to clarify this, but use different terminology.