You might think that it should be easy to tell what we mean by the word “church,” but it’s not. It turns out, we use the word in plenty of different ways. Is there a best or most proper way? That depends if you’re asking a language question or a theology question.
In terms of language, you can use the word church in any way you like that effectively communicates your message.
In terms of biblical doctrine, the word is most properly used to describe the communion of saints. In other words, the church is “the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd” (S.A. III, XII). In still other words, the church is “the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (A.C. VII). Some people, by convention, spell it with a capital C when they are using the word this way.
Colloquially, the word “church” usually refers to a civic organization of people which may be associated with at least one fixed piece of real estate. That’s not the same thing as what I wrote in the previous paragraph. Martin Luther’s Roman opponents believed that “the Church” was the organization of people headed by the Pope, associated with real estate all over the world. We make the same mistake when we think of our congregation or the synod as “the Church.” We play with that fire a bit when we ask questions like, “Is synod Church?” We must be careful. (“Get out the sticks and matches, boys!”)
We must also be careful, when we read the PMW doctrinal statement, to understand the word “church” in a consistent way. Here is one place where we could easily find that two people accept the doctrinal statement, but believe it says contradictory things. That’s what happened so tragically with some doctrinal statements in the 20th Century, which then became the basis for outward fellowship when there really wasn’t full agreement on the scriptural doctrine.
So, without further ado, here is my eighth point summarizing my longer explanation of the PMW:
When the statement speaks of the “church,” it means the Holy Christian Church on earth, of which visible congregations are the primary manifestation because of the believers who are part of those congregations. However, since faith is invisible, the only sure marks of the Church are God’s Word and the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, each of which is a means of grace. When applied to sinners, these marks are the ministry of the Keys.