The Biblical and Confessional Definition of the Church: A Brief Liturgical Ecclesiology
This month’s issue of the WorshipConcord Journal is in a very small way a response to a point Kent Burreson made at the beginning of last month’s article. Dr. Burreson began his article with these words: “As a result of having just recently attended the Model Theological Conference on worship . . . I have become even more aware that debates about worship in the church are ultimately debates about the church itself and its life. Or at least they ought to be!”
So here we will explore the biblical and confessional definition of the church. I want to explore this with you because I agree with Dr. Burreson, that the liturgy question is so closely connected to the question of the church.
So it is necessary that we ask what it is precisely that defines the church. How do we recognize the presence of the church? Do we recognize the church as a building with a steeple and a cross on top? Do we recognize the presence of the church by the way we worship?
There are three points I want to discuss in order to arrive at the biblical and confessional definition of the church. First we need to examine the sources to see what is and what is not of the essence of the church. Then I want to explore the question, Who has the confessional authority and freedom to order the church’s rites and ceremonies?
As we define the church on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, and clarify precisely what is of the essence of the church, I want to ask the following questions. What is of the essence of the church? Is liturgy of the essence of the church? Some say it is. Some say it isn’t. How do we know whether it is or isn’t?
Is the church defined liturgically? Some say it is. Some say it isn’t. How do we know whether it is or isn’t? Is the church defined liturgically? If it is, what does that mean for our theology and practice of liturgy? Does it mean complete liturgical conformity in all Lutheran congregations? And does that mean no freedom in liturgical practice? Some in the Missouri Synod have said this. Is the church defined liturgically? If it is not, what does that mean for our theology and practice of liturgy? Does it mean, ‘Adiaphora, therefore freedom’? Does it mean anything goes? With no consideration for our life together in the church catholic?
How do we define the church? We are not Schleiermachians, defining the church on the basis of our feelings and emotions, ‘We-all-believe-in-Jesus-so-can’t-we-all-just-get-along,’ kind of definition of the church. Neither are we Calvinists, taking a low view of the sacraments, or holding that some are predestined to heaven while others are predestined to hell. So, how do we define the church? Or better, how do Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions define the church? We do not look to tradition or personal opinion to define the church. The Bible uses a variety of metaphors to describe the church—the church is the body of Christ, the family of God, the household of faith. Scripture defines the church as . . .
“. . . God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3.15). In his Examination of the Council of Trent Martin Chemnitz, when he discussed the place of traditions in the church, helps us to understand that the church is the pillar of the truth, but not in the sense that the church is the source of all truth. According to Chemnitz the church is the pillar of the truth in the sense that the church is the repository of the apostolic Scriptures and is faithful to transmit these apostolic Scriptures from generation to generation.
The Apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2: “. . . you are . . . members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Ephesians 2.20). And in 1 Corinthians 12: “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body — whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free . . . you are the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12.13, 27). “The body of Christ,” “the pillar and foundation of the truth,” “God’s household.” These are all prominent metaphors in the New Testament for describing Christ’s church.
How do the Lutheran Confessions define the church? Again, I want to reiterate that the reason we need to have this discussion about how Scripture and the Confessions define the church, is because there are some who are claiming that liturgy is of the essence of the church, and that the church is defined liturgically. But is this actually so?
The Augsburg Confession defines the church in Article VII:
It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among whom the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. For it is sufficient [ satis est ] for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places. It is as Paul says in Eph. 4:4, 5, ‘There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism’ (AC VII).
How does Augsburg Confession VII define the church? I hope you noticed that this confession is explicit about excluding humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in liturgy from its definition of the church. So, how does Article VII define the church? It gives three and only three marks for recognizing the presence of the church. These are the three biblical and confessional marks of the church: Holy Gospel, Holy Baptism, Holy Communion. Let’s take each of these in turn.
Holy Gospel. Article VII actually refers to the purity of the Gospel as one of the three marks of the church. Christ crucified for the forgiveness of our sin. Paul wrote to the Corinthians: “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). This is the purity of the Gospel: salvation by grace alone through faith alone for Christ’s sake. In the Acts of the Apostles Peter preached: “There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” And to the Corinthians Paul wrote, “We proclaim a crucified Messiah.”
Salvation is neither earned nor deserved. It is not something that we can attain to. It is not something we can acquire by making a decision for Christ. It is not something we deserve because we are naturally born children of God.
Salvation is pure and simple gift of God. Our Father in heaven gives us his salvation because he loves us. Period. He doesn’t give us his salvation because we are special, or because we love him, or because there is something in us that compels him to save us. Our Father in heaven gives us his salvation because of his love for us, and for no other reason. This is why he gave his Son to die on the cross for us. It is his unconditional gift. This is the purity of the Gospel.
“For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves; it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2.8-9).
The highest way of worshiping Christ is to seek forgiveness of sins from him. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession gives the example of the repentant woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, and wiped them dry with her hair. Melanchthon wrote in Article IV of the Apology:
The woman came, believing that she should seek the forgiveness of sins from Christ. This is the highest way of worshiping Christ. Nothing greater could she ascribe to him. By looking for the forgiveness of sins from him, she truly acknowledged him as the Messiah. Truly to believe means to think of Christ in this way, and in this way to worship and take hold of him (Apology IV.154).
The purity of the Gospel is the first identifying mark of the church. According to Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, there are two, and only two, others.
In addition to the pure Gospel the only other two marks of the church are the sacraments administered in accordance with the Word of God: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. These are what tell us that the church exists in any given place. Where these are missing, there is no church.
Holy Baptism is simple water combined with the promise of God’s Word. It is the gift of faith. It is not a good work we do. Baptism is God’s work of pure grace on the depraved sinner. The clearest text from the Bible for demonstrating God’s action in Baptism is Titus chapter 3, where the Apostle wrote:
But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3.4-7).
Holy Communion is the third identifying mark of the church. It is the true body and blood of Christ given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. “Take and eat; this is my body. . . . Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26.26-28).
These are the identifying marks of the church. There are no others. This is what we believe, teach, and confess. Holy Gospel. Holy Baptism. Holy Communion.
Luther wrote in his 1530 Commentary on Psalm 117: “Wherever one finds the Gospel, Baptism, and the Sacrament, there is His church, and in that place there are certainly living saints.”
And Melanchthon wrote in the Apology: “. . . the church . . . has its external marks, so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the gospel of Christ” (Ap VII & VIII.5). What renders the church externally recognizable are the Gospel and the sacraments, not humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in liturgy, a point which is repeatedly and consistently stressed throughout the Lutheran Confessions.
In Augsburg Confession Article VII we confess together with the whole church: “. . . it is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that the ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places. . .” (AC VII.2).
Hermann Sasse wrote in very clear and unmistakable terms, that the true marks of the church are the Gospel and the sacraments. Sasse wrote the following in a 1961 letter to Lutheran pastors titled, ‘Article VII of the Augsburg Confession in the Present Crisis of Lutheranism,’ published in English translation in We Confess the Church: “. . . the Gospel and the sacraments as the notae ecclesiae (‘the marks of the church’) [are] the only marks by which we can in faith recognize the presence of the church. . . .” Sasse was consistent on this point. While Sasse extolled the great blessings of historic liturgical traditions in the church, he was careful to distinguish the Gospel and the sacraments on the one hand from humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in liturgy on the other hand. Sasse distinguished between the two, because he honestly confessed with Article VII that the unity of the church did not depend on “ceremonies, instituted by men . . . [being] observed uniformly in all places.” For Sasse what renders the church externally recognizable are the Gospel and the sacraments.
Sasse again in ‘Article VII of the Augsburg Confession in the Present Crisis of Lutheranism’:
The true unity of the church, of which Article VII speaks, is both an article of faith and a reality in the world. It is the unity which binds together all those, wherever they may be in the world from the rising to the setting of the sun, who truly believe, who have one Christ, one Holy Spirit, one Gospel, one Baptism, and one Sacrament of the Altar, whether they have or do not have the same ceremonies or traditions. They have one Christ and one Holy Spirit because they have one Gospel, one Baptism, and one Sacrament of the Altar.
Sasse identified the Gospel and the sacraments as the only marks of the church, and in addition to writing against the lex orandi lex credendi principle, Sasse consistently maintained that liturgy was not of the essence of the church.
Here I will share with you several quotes from Luther and Sasse, regarding those things which are not marks of the church. But I want to begin by returning again to Augsburg Confession VII, just as a reminder, so that we are absolutely clear about what we confess. “. . . it is not necessary [ nicht not ] for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places. . .” (AC VII.2).
To demonstrate the consistency in Sasse’s thought, let me quote from Here We Stand, a book written by Sasse and published in 1934.
The unity of the historic church is not achieved through conformity in rites and ceremonies, nor through identical organization and life patterns nor even through uniformity in theological thought-forms and opinions. Such unity is only achieved when, in the joyful assurance of our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, we are one in our understanding of what His saving Gospel is, and one in our understanding of what He gives us in His sacraments. ‘For the true unity of the church, it is enough,’ the Augsburg Confession states. It is, indeed, enough. But it is also necessary.
Liturgy is not of the essence of the church. Consequently we cannot say that the church is defined liturgically. While Sasse was a champion of historic liturgical forms, he was not a slave to the liturgy. On the contrary, Sasse confessed genuine Gospel freedom in the church’s use of liturgy. However, Sasse was careful not to turn this freedom into the license it has become today. Sasse’s words serve as a poignant reminder to us, on the one hand not to turn uniformity of liturgy into a requirement for unity in the church, and on the other hand not to diminish the necessity of the right teaching of the Gospel and the sacraments for the true unity of the church.
As Sasse also wrote in “Article VII of the Augsburg Confession in the Present Crisis of Lutheranism”: “the great satis est, it is sufficient . . . involves a necesse est, it is necessary” . . . to be “one in our understanding of what His saving Gospel is, and one in our understanding of what He gives us in His sacraments.”
Luther clearly articulated the biblical definition of the church in the face of Roman Catholic opposition, who claimed that the confessing evangelicals from Wittenberg were not the church. In his 1541 essay, ‘Against Hanswurst,’ Luther wrote:
The church is a high, deep, hidden thing, which one may neither perceive nor see, but must grasp only by faith, through baptism, sacrament, and word. Human doctrine, ceremonies, tonsures, long robes, miters, and all the pomp of popery only lead far away from it into hell—still less are they signs of the church. Naked children, men, women, farmers, citizens who possess no tonsures, miters, or priestly vestments, also belong to the church.
There is a flip-side to this. We cannot say that none of these things may be used in the church. They may. They become problematic when we require their use, or when we insist that they not be used. Luther addressed both of these problems already in his 1525 essay, ‘Against the Heavenly Prophets’:
The Pope destroys freedom in commanding outright that the sacrament is to be elevated, and would have it a statute and a law. He who refrains from keeping his law sins. The factious spirit destroys freedom in forbidding outright that the sacrament be elevated, and would have it a prohibition, a statute, and a law. He who does not act in accordance with this law sins. Here Christ is driven away by both parties. . . . One errs on the left side, the other on the right, and neither remains on the path of true freedom.
The application of Luther’s insights 500 years ago to today’s context in the Missouri Synod presses hard against our collective conscience, and demands repentant reconsideration of the path we have been walking on.
Who has the confessional authority to make changes in the church’s liturgy? Is it the pastor? Is it the Board of Elders? The worship committee? The voters’ assembly? Or is it the Synod in convention? The Commission on Worship? The faculty of our seminaries? Here I will examine briefly the question whether it is the local congregation or the larger church body that has the confessional authority and freedom to order liturgical rites and ceremonies in the church.
In his classic work, The Structure of Lutheranism, Werner Elert discussed how the Formula of Concord combated the idea that by bringing about uniformity in liturgy the two opposing parties in the Reformation could be brought into theological agreement. Elert wrote:
. . . the principle expressed by the Formula of Concord [is] ‘that the community of God in every place and at every time [that is, in every local congregation] has the right, authority, and power to change, reduce, or increase’ external customs (X, 9) . . . .
This is from The Structure of Lutheranism, page 333. The word the Formula of Concord uses, which is translated “community of God” and which Elert identified as the local congregation, is Gemeine. Let’s look at Solid Declaration Article X, paragraph 9:
Therefore, we believe, teach, and confess that the community of God [ Die Gemeine Gottes ] in every time and place has the right, power, and authority to change, reduce, or expand such practices according to circumstances [ nach derselben Gelegenheit ] in an orderly and appropriate manner, without frivolity or offense, as seems most useful, beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the building up of the church.
To keep this brief, I want to make two points about this passage. The first point is that Die Gemeine Gottes, which is translated “the community of God,” refers to the local congregation. This is clearly demonstrated both by parallel passages and by synonyms of Gemeine in the Lutheran Confessions (like Versamblung in the Large Catechism). This particular passage in Formula of Concord X demonstrates that the local congregation has the confessional authority and freedom to order its own humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in liturgy.
The other point I want to make about this passage is with regard to the phrase, nach derselben Gelegenheit. Nach derselben Gelegenheit means “according to its own circumstances.” In addition to the correct understanding of Gemeine as local congregation at Article X paragraph 9, nach derselben Gelegenheit further emphasizes the confessional authority of the local congregation to order its own rites and ceremonies in liturgy, according to its own circumstances in the local context. This is our confession. This is what we subscribe as pastors and teachers of the church.
I want to share with you one more passage from the Confessions to demonstrate this point. In Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration Article X paragraph 25 we have the following.
From this explanation everyone can understand what a Christian community [ was einer christlichen Gemein; Latin: quid unamquamque ecclesiam ] and every individual Christian, particularly pastors, may do or omit in regard to indifferent things without injury to their consciences, especially in a time when confession is necessary, so that they do not arouse God’s wrath, do not violate love, do not strengthen the enemies of God’s Word, and do not offend the weak in faith.
Both the German, was einer christlichen Gemein, and the Latin, quid unamquamque ecclesiam, highlight our confession that it is the local congregation which has the confessional authority and freedom, not autonomy, but confessional authority and genuine Gospel freedom to order its own humanly instituted rites and ceremonies in liturgy, according to its own circumstances, for the building up of the church.
In a discussion of the relationship between sacraments and ceremonies in his Examination of the Council of Trent, Martin Chemnitz wrote this:
Nor should it be thought that such ceremonies belong to the integrity and genuineness of the sacraments, much less that they are necessary for this, but they are to be considered as indifferent rites, which, if they cease to be useful for edification . . . , must either be corrected or changed or, after the example of the brazen serpent, be abrogated and wholly taken away. Those rites also which are retained should remain what in fact they are—indifferent ceremonies, in order that they may not become snares of consciences but be freely observed without any idea that they are necessary.
Chemnitz then wrote that “barring offense [these things] can be omitted or be changed or abrogated by the direction and consent of the church” and that “churches [should not] be condemned on account of differences in rites of this kind or if, in omitting or changing them, they use their liberty according to the . . . rule of Paul.” The rule of Paul Chemnitz refers to has to do with the edification of the church in matters of worship. In Romans 14 Paul urged the strong not to judge the weak in matters of conscience. And in 1 Corinthians 14 Paul gave the Corinthians explicit directives about worship and instructs that “everything should be done decently and in an orderly way.”
In 1561 Chemnitz wrote a Latin document, the short title of which is Iudicium. Iudicium means “Judgment,” and in this document are Chemnitz’s best theological “judgments” on a number of controversial matters of his day. One of these controversies was over the church’s theology of adiaphora, or “things that are neither commanded nor forbidden by God, as the Confessions define it. Regarding adiaphora Chemnitz wrote this in his Iudicium:
. . . when a godly consensus in purity of doctrine is retained, when faith is kept inviolate, and when Christian truth resides in those rites which are according to their nature matters of adiaphora, there can be diversity as long as this does not cause scandal, for the sake of the edification of each church.
Now, having said all that, there is a flip-side to our confession that the local congregation has the authority and freedom to order its own rites and ceremonies in liturgy. The flip-side being, that there is a (small-c) catholic context, that we must not ignore.
Arthur Carl Piepkorn once wrote that: “[The Confessions] stand in a continuous chain of Catholic witness. The Reformation and post-Reformation periods possess per se no superior authority. We are Catholic Christians first. Western Catholics second. Lutherans third.” Hermann Sasse agreed with Piepkorn on this point. In other words, the Lutheran church does not exist in a vacuum. We are not an a-historical church. We have a history. To ignore that history, or to act as if it did not exist, is to make ourselves to be the standard of theology and practice in the church, and it is to open ourselves to the very real risk of repeating the theological errors of the past, and jeopardizing the salvation of God’s people in the process. This is the kind of hybris that chafes beneath the unifying principle of accountability. But accountability is a direct corollary of catholicity. We are accountable to each other. We do not hold to anything goes. Neither do we legislate uniformity.
Luther, Melanchthon and Chemnitz strove for liturgical uniformity among all the churches. But they only sought this uniformity insofar as it was possible. Because they understood the identity of the church to be located in the purity of the Gospel and the sacraments administered in accordance with the divine Word, they were careful not to require liturgical uniformity or to impose it legalistically on a broad scale. They honestly recognized the confessional authority and freedom of the local congregation to order its own rites and ceremonies in liturgy in a broader confessing evangelical catholic context.
James Alan Waddell
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