Sunday, December 10, 2006

Church as Congregation: Luther's Focus, the Pope's Realization

There is a certain deliciously delightful irony to the fact that the first substantial post on this new blog site offers a back and forth with the Pope. Some things never change, nor should they. The current Bishop of Rome published these words in 1986. They have a familiar ring to them: "Luther did not have in mind founding a Lutheran Church. For him the focus of the concept of the Church was to be found in the congregation. For relationships that transcended the congregation, in view of the logic of developments at that time, one depended as far as organization was concerned on the political structure, in other words on the princes. Thus there arose the *Land* or provincial Churches in which the political structure took the place of the structure of its own which the Church lacked. Much has changed in this field sinc 1918, but the Church continues to exist in provincial Churches which are then united in Church federations. It is obvious that when the concept Church is applied to this kind of accidental historical formation the word takes on a different meaning from that which is envisaged in the case of the expression 'Catholic Church'. Provincial Churches are not 'Church' in the theological sense but organizational forms of Christian congregations which are empirically useful or even necessary but which can be swapped for other structures. Luther was only able to transfer Church structures to the princedoms because he did not regard the concept of the Church as established in these structures. But for Catholics, on the contrary, the Catholic Church, that is the community of the bishops among themselves and with the pope, is as such something established by the Lord which is irreplaceable and cannot be swapped for anything else." (*Church, Ecumenism, and Politics* p. 114, 115)

What I think the present Bishop of Rome correctly understands in this is that to Lutherans polity is not a matter divinely mandated, not a matter on which the Church's existence hangs. Lutherans now are and have in the past lived in utterly disparate polities - and this does not hinder the recognition of a shared faith. Thus, for example, right now the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is in communio in sacris with the Archbishop of Latvia and the parishes and priests and bishops that he superintends.

What I am not sure the present Bishop of Rome understands is HOW for "Luther the concept of Church was to be found in the congregation."

For Luther and for the Lutheran Church first and foremost the Church "is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd." SA III, XII:2 This is in perfect accord with the Apology's assertion: "at its core, it [the Church] is a fellowship of faith and the Holy Spirit in hearts." Ap VII/VIII:5 Thus while the marks which locate the Church are invariably bound up with local congregations, the Church so understood is "no Platonic state, as some wickedly charge. But we do say that this Church exists: truly believing and righteous people, scattered throughout the world." Ap VII/VIII:20.

The Church is not then congregations, but congregation. The singular in AC 7 is vital. The Church is NOT in the Lutheran understanding a series of unrelated congregations. The Church is rather "the congregation of saints" among whom the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. Not enough thought is given to the force of that singular: *congregatio sanctorum* in Latin, but even more explicit auf Deutsch *die Versammlung ALLER Gläubigen.* This is to look at the Church from the view afforded in the Revelation of St. John.

The Church is the one assembly of all believers. It is not many local assemblies, but ONE assembly. And the reality that is confessed behind this is that what the local congregation manifests is never merely community with a broad spectrum of similar-minded folk alive now. No. The congregation manifests the assembly of ALL believers. When we worship together, gathered in the Divine Name and receiving the saving Gospel and interceding for the world, and partaking of the Lamb's Feast, we are not present with some piece, some miniscule fraction of the Church. We are present with the whole of it. Hebrews 12 bears this out when it describes what you have come to when you gather as Church, where there is the blood that speaks a better word than Abel's. But it is also shown in numerous other ways in the Sacred Scriptures. Find Jesus the Lord, the Head of the Body, and you will invariably find not pieces, but the whole of the Body with Him.

When Paul directs the Corinthians to excommunicate a man, he assures them that he will be there with them in s[S?]pirit. When John is worshipping on Patmos, the veil is drawn back and he finds that he is not worshipping alone, but with the whole Church. When in the confiteor at Compline we confess "to almighty God before the whole company of heaven and to you my brothers and sisters" you should not be thinking that "brothers and sisters" are only those you can see in the room. The Church remains whole, one, indivisible, and entire. It is the assembly SINGULAR, the congregation SINGULAR of all believers. To come together as Church [1 Cor. 11] and partake of the Eucharist is to be manifest that we are NOT one of many, but ONE Body.

This is a reality which by its very nature must be believed and cannot be seen. But it is confessed and manifested in the Scriptures and in the liturgy. "Holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd." What this means for the ecumenical task is not resignation to the mess that now is, but it does mean that we are given the responsibility of manifesting rather than creating this churchly unity, for the churchly unity always will be and remain a gift given by God the Holy Spirit as He binds hearts to Jesus Christ and so one another and brings us into unity with the inner communion of the Blessed Trinity.

In that sense, remembering the definition of Church that Luther was working with, the congregation was indeed the locus of his thought on "church." How could it be otherwise?


Holger Sonntag said...

I appreciate these comments on the church. While it does make sense to speak of "churches" (congregations, church associations, etc.), we also must not lose sight of the fact pointed out in this article: the church is one. This is why Melanchthon and Chemnitz bring in the creeds here: "I believe ... in THE communion of saints." Church fellowship implies seeing each other gathered in one big sanctuary around God's word and sacraments.

AC VII is really pertinent here: the one church that will remain forever is the one assembly of believers gathered around the pure word and sacraments, however far and wide it is scattered in the whole world. This article thus doesn't answer the question that's on the mind of many today: are there believers in other, unorthodox churches? Melanchthon, in his Loci, admits that there are due to baptism, but he reminds us of the close link between faith and the *pure* preaching of the gospel. No other preaching is in view in AC V, in my view. And this is why he ties the "assembly of believers" right in with the pure word and sacraments in AC VII. He doesn't first talk about the "invisible" church and then about the "visible" church; he elegantly ties them together in one sentence: the invisible church is where the visible church is.

So, there is already genuine "church unity" that is indeed a gift of God (he makes us agree with the consensus of the church unchangeably expressed in the Scriptures, Ap. XII,66; as somebody put it: the catholicity of the church depends on the apostolicity of its doctrine) but, clearly, not every "church" is part of the church confessed in the creed as far as their actual public confession / teaching / preaching and sacraments are concerned. There is the true church as defined in AC VII; and then there is the false church which is also basically one, even though there are differences in kind (and it seems that, for Lutherans, this false church would include Jews and Muslims, not? See AC I,5; LC II,66.).

Ecumenical dialogue really would have to aim at drawing "apostate" churches and Christians back to the church of the true preaching and sacraments (that's not Rome). This is not so much a matter of making (gradual) "progress" (towards some goal like being nice to one another) as one of repentance and forgiveness.

Luther called the word "church" a blind and unclear word. He's right. There are many layers and levels in this term: We have the "visible" church -- the sum total of all those who are joined in outward agreement with the pure gospel and sacraments. We have the invisible church -- the sum total gathered in the visible church minus the hypocrites (hypocrites = those without faith but still right confession and holy living). But then we also have church as a "political / civil" organization with by-laws etc. that may have a certain standing in a given legal order. Clearly, (too) much energy and hope is devoted to the latter dimension of "church."

Holger Sonntag said...

As I said, I agree with Pastor Weedon's fine comments on the oneness of the true church. Yet maybe the pope had a good point too regarding the importance of congregations. Now, I don't want to play off congregations against the church. No need for that. Yet at the same time, it must be said that, if we read the statements of the Confessions concerning the pastoral office (Augsburg Conf. 28 and the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, for starters), that the major Lutheran reform of the ministry is the reestablishment of the pastoral office as *the* office of the church. This, as I said, was not meant as a move towards "parochialism" or "congregationalism" but has to do with the centrality of the preaching of the pure gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments that is carried out by concrete pastors in concrete congregations.

In the Roman Catholic church, pastors / priests are more like appendices to the bishops who are said to be alone in "apostolic succession." "The church" thus is where the bishops are. Lutherans would say: the church is where pastors are who rightly preach the word and administer the sacraments accordingly. AC V, VII, VIII hang together; AC II-IV too (see Pastor Alms' post on the need to begin with sin), the transition from IV to V being a key link.

A common liturgy is then a fine, humble way to preserve and express the oneness various congregations enjoy in the one church in faith (see Ephesians 4:2-6). This is what the confessions teach (Apology VII, 33-34; XV, 51-52).

William Weedon said...

Dr. Sonntag,

I wonder if it is the most accurate to say that we are gathered in one big sanctuary *around God's Word and sacraments,* though. I would put it slightly different: we are gathered in one big sanctuary around the throne of God and the Lamb *by God's Word and sacraments.*

Thus the vital importance of the pure teaching of the Gospel and the right use of the sacrament - because to falsify them is precisely to endanger that through which faith is imparted and sustained, that through which we are enabled to BE church - that great company around the throne.

Just a thought.

Anonymous said...

If the Church is truly one, and manifests as the congregation, how is it possible to differentiate between Christians who, by definition are members of the congregation, regarding Eucharistic fellowship.

If we are all members of the one congregation, on what basis do we decline sharing the Eucharist with members of that one congregation?