It will be of advantage to treat our theme under two main headings, in accordance with the usage of Scripture, which employs the term “church” in two (and only two) significations: A. The Church Universal; B. Local Churches.
A. The Church Universal. The nature of the Christian Church, in the primary significance of the term, as referring to the one holy Christian Church (invisible) of our Creed, may be defined as follows: The Christian Church consists of men (people) who believe in Christ, that is, believe that God forgives them their sins for the sake of Christ’s vicarious satisfaction. This definition is clearly given us by Scripture in Acts 5:14 (cf. Acts 2:47): “Believers were the more added to the Lord, multitudes both of men and women.” With this our Confession fully agrees, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession speaking of the Christian Church as: “men scattered throughout the whole world who agree concerning the Gospel.” All unbelievers, whether they are openly godless or hypocrites, are not a part of the Church, but are only mingled with the Church according to external association. The Scripture proves this by describing all unbelievers, whether heathen or Jews, as dwelling-places and workshops of the devil, “the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:1–3). The designations which Holy Scripture predicates of the Church do not fit unbelievers, for instance, “house of God” (1 Tim. 3:15), “temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you” (1 Cor. 6:19), “body of Christ, fulness of Christ” (Eph. 1:23). In short, there is no substitute for faith in Christ as a means of entrance into the Christian Church, also not the administration of offices. Pastors, elders, school teachers, students, professors, presidents, visitors, who do not in their hearts believe on Christ as their Savior, are outside the Church. To believe on Christ or the Gospel is to have faith in the article of justification by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith, without the deeds of the Law. Hence Luther says of this article that it alone brings forth, nourishes, builds, preserves, and defends the Church, and without it the Church of God cannot subsist for one hour.
The attributes of the Christian Church, according to Holy Scripture, are: invisibility, unity, holiness, universality, and apostolicity.
a). The Church is invisible, because faith in the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins, which faith makes a person a member of the Church, is known only to God, but is invisible to the eyes of man. 1 Kings 8:39: “For Thou, even Thou only, knowest the hearts of all the children of men.” Luke 17:20, 21: “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” See also Acts 1:24; 2 Tim. 2:19. The means of grace, which have been falsely called the visible side of the Church, are the means ordained by God for the production and preservation of faith, and hence marks of the Church, that is, they show where upon earth, according to God’s promise (Is. 55:10, 11), the Church is to be found; but they are not a part of the Church, since the Church consists only of believing people.
b). The Church is one, John 10:16: “one fold,” or better: “one flock,” since all members of the Church “agree concerning the Gospel,” and therefore “one faith” (Eph. 4:5; Gal. 3:28: “ye are all one”) is common to all.
c). The Church is holy, 1 Peter 2:9: “an holy nation;” in the first place, entirely and perfectly holy through the righteousness of Christ imputed to faith, Rom. 4:5: “his faith is counted for righteousness;” in the second place, incompletely holy through the inherent righteousness of life, Rom. 6:14: “sin shall not have dominion over you,” every member of the Church being under the sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit who dwells within believers (John 14:17: “He dwelleth with you, and shall be in you”).
d). The Church is universal, for it embraces the believers in the Lord of all times, among all peoples, and in all places. Acts 10:43; Gal. 3:6; Mark 16:15, 16. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Art. XII, par. 66) calls attention to the fact that Acts 10:43 gives expression to the real “consensus of the Church” when it declares: “To Him give all the prophets witness.” “I verily think that if all the holy prophets are unanimously agreed in a declaration (since God regards even a single prophet as an inestimable treasure), it would also be a decree, a declaration, and a unanimous strong conclusion of the universal, catholic, Christian, holy Church, and would be justly regarded as such.”
e). The Church is apostolic, in the sense of holding fast to the apostolic doctrine. Acts 2:42: “They continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Eph. 2:20: “Ye are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief Corner-stone.”
The dignity and glory of the Church is seen in the fact that her members, as such, are subject only to Christ, that they are the possessors of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and indeed of all things.
a). Her members, as such, are subject to no man, but only to Christ, Matt. 23:8; 1 Cor. 7:23: “Ye are bought with a price; be not ye the servants of men.” With this the command to “obey them that have the rule over you” (or better: “guide you”), “and submit yourselves” is not in conflict. For the obedience of Christians to their teachers is limited to God’s Word which the teachers proclaim; and if they teach otherwise than God’s Word teaches, then God’s command to the hearers is: “Avoid them!” (Rom. 16:17).
b). The members of the Church, or the believers, are the original possessors of the means of grace, 1 Peter 2:9; Matt. 28:19, 20, and consequently of the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, Matt. 18:18, which assertion is not refuted but confirmed by Matt. 16:18, 19, because according to the context the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven are given to Peter, not in his character as an apostle, but inasmuch as he believes in Christ.
c). The members of the Church, or the believers, possess all things, 1 Cor. 3:21, 22: “all things are yours.” In their interest, and indeed by them, the whole world is ruled, Rom. 8:28. It is, moreover, a Scriptural axiom that the Christians, as the “body of Christ,” do with Christ all that He does. The Scripture proof for this assertion we have in Psalm 2:8, 9, compared with Rev. 2:26–28.
How is the Church founded and preserved?
a). God creates and preserves the Church according to His grace, Col. 1:12–14, and according to His omnipotence, Eph. 1:19–23. Those who teach that conversion and salvation are dependent not only upon God’s grace but also upon the different conduct of man or his lesser guilt in comparison with others, become guilty, by such teaching, of doing as much as in them lies to overthrow the foundation of the Christian Church, for the Church lives by grace alone.
b). God creates and preserves the Church not without means but by the means of grace. Hence Scripture also ascribes the working of faith to the men who administer the means of grace. Rom. 10:17: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.” 1 Cor. 4:15: “I have begotten you through the Gospel.” Hence it is said in Gal. 4:26 that the Christian Church, the Jerusalem which is above, is the mother of us all (that is, of all members of the Christian Church). Those who teach an operation of the Holy Ghost without means do as much as in them lies to destroy the foundation of the Christian Church, for the Church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (of the Word), Eph. 2:20.
c). The State, with its external power, is neither a means nor an auxiliary means for the building of the Christian Church. The reason that we must maintain this assertion is that faith in Christ comes not through external power, but only through the Gospel. Therefore all those who want to employ the power of the State as an auxiliary means for the building of the Christian Church are acting foolishly and contrary to Scripture.
B. Local Churches. Scripture speaks of the Church not only in the singular (Eph. 5:25: “Christ loved the Church;” John 10:16: “one flock”) but also in the plural with designation of the place where the churches are located, for example, 1 Cor. 16:19: “the churches of Asia.”
The nature of the local church or congregation may be defined as follows: The Christian local congregation is the congregation of believers or saints which is gathered about Word and Sacraments at a particular place. The address of the Corinthian congregation reads, 1 Cor. 1:2: “Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” Also the functions which are entrusted to the local congregations presuppose faith. Col. 3:16: “teaching and admonishing one another … singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Rom. 16:17: Judging doctrine and avoiding false teachers. Matt. 18:15: Admonishing and exercising church discipline.
The local church is a divine institution. That the formation of local congregations is a divine ordinance is established both by direct and indirect Scripture proof, a.) The direct proof is derived from the fact that God has commanded the Christians who live in one place not only to read God’s Word but also to establish among themselves the office of the public ministry and to hear the publicly preached Word, Titus 1:5: “For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain elders in every city, as I had appointed thee.” (N.B. Paul did not give orders on his own authority, but only in accordance with a divine ordinance), b). The indirect proof is derived from the commission to the local congregation of certain functions which themselves are exercised by divine command, for instance, the exercise of church discipline on the part of the congregation (Matt. 18:17: “Tell it unto the church”), congregational celebration of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11: 17: “ye come together”), etc. The uniting of local congregations into synods, conferences, etc., is only an ecclesiastical ordinance, that is to say, it is left to Christian liberty, since there is no command of God to this effect in Scripture.
The distinction between orthodox and heterodox local congregations is Scriptural, because it is God’s ordinance that in all local congregations only God’s Word should be taught and heard, 1 Peter 4:11: “as the oracles of God.” Where there exists a deviation from the apostolic doctrine we are dealing with an organization which is disobedient to God, and here Romans 16:17 and Matthew 7:15 are to be applied in practice. “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves” (Matt. 7:15). The much ridiculed terminology, “orthodox churches” and “heterodox churches,” is Scriptural. Erring communions originate and persist contrary to diving ordinance. In order to hinder the origination and perpetuation of such heterodox groups Paul commands Timothy, 1 Tim. 1:3, to “charge some that they teach no other doctrine” at Ephesus, and enjoins the Roman congregation to separate from such as deviate from the apostolic doctrine, Rom. 16:17. If doctrinal discipline is exercised against false teachers who arise in its midst (Acts 20:30, 31) the congregation or fellowship of congregations in which such discipline is maintained thereby retains its orthodox character, but if such discipline is neglected it forfeits its orthodoxy.
There are indeed children of God also in heterodox churches. There are members of the Christian Church also in heterodox communions if and because so much of the Word of God is still taught, heard, and read there, that men can thereby come to the knowledge that they deserve damnation (through the Law) and may come to faith in Christ as the Savior of sinners (through the Gospel). A Biblical example of this situation is the Samaritan church, which, according to John 4:22, was a heterodox communion, but in which, according to Luke 17:16, there could also be found believers. (N.B. The man’s gratitude was the fruit of faith in the Messiah, v. 19; but his knowledge of the Messiah had come to him from the Scriptures which he found fulfilled in Jesus). The truth of this matter is that every man who by the operation of the Holy Spirit believes on Christ the Savior of sinners is a child of God, regardless of the church body with which he is outwardly connected.
But God’s own recognition of His children also in heterodox communions does not permit orthodox Christians to practice fellowship with the heterodox. Church fellowship with the heterodox is strictly forbidden in Scripture, Rom. 16:17. Civil fellowship with errorists or unbelievers is not forbidden by God’s Word, 1 Cor. 5:10; but church fellowship or religious fraternization with the heterodox is strictly prohibited by God, Rom. 16:17; 2 John 10, 11: “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” The greeting here forbidden is not the civil greeting but that of brotherhood in the faith. Church fellowship with the heterodox (unionism, syncretism) is the cause of the wretched divisions in the Christian Church which offer such a serious offense to the world and to weak Christians.
By the word “schism” a division within the church is designated which should not occur, and is therefore sinful, for instance, a separation because of differences in church ceremonies, terminology, etc., in general, because of such things as are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. The Lutheran Church repudiates such sinful divisions in the Seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession.
Christian congregations may in Christian liberty establish associations with sister congregations of the same faith, in which they are represented by delegates in accordance with stipulations agreed upon among the participants. But such a “representative church” does not exist by divine ordinance, and hence there are no individual persons (supreme head of the church, supreme head of the state) nor any college of persons either within a single congregation or among several congregations (board of elders, synodical delegates, council, board of directors, etc.) who can determine ecclesiastical matters in such a way that the consciences of the Christians should be bound thereby. For in the Christian Church God’s Word is the only authority which binds consciences. Matt. 23:8, 10: “One is your Master.” Therefore councils, synods, etc. have only advisory power, not any autonomous judicial power (“jurisdiction”) or legislative power.
The question may arise whether we may vote on any question at all in the Christian Church. The answer is that we may, but with this distinction: a). In matters of doctrine we vote not to establish doctrine, but to determine whether all have recognized the Christian doctrine in a point of controversy, b). In matters of indifference (matters not determined by the Word of God) we vote in order to determine what the majority holds to be fitting, while the minority then yields to the majority, or conversely, the majority yields to the minority for love’s sake.