...God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and “the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.” (Smalcald Articles III, XII:2, The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert [Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000], pp. 324-25)

It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel. For this is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that there the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere. As Paul says in Ephesians 4[:4-5]: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Augsburg Confession VII:1-4 [German], Kolb/Wengert p. 42)

For we grant that in this life hypocrites and evil people are mingled with the church and are members of the church according to the external association of the church’s signs – that is, the Word, confession of faith, and sacraments – especially if they have not been excommunicated. Neither do the sacraments lose their efficacy when they are administered by the wicked. ... However, the church is not only an association of external ties and rites like other civic organizations, but it is principally an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons. It nevertheless 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. Moreover, this church alone is called the body of Christ, which Christ renews, sanctifies, and governs by his Spirit as Paul testifies in Ephesians 1[:22-23], when he says, “And [God] has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” Therefore those in whom Christ is not active are not members of Christ. ... There is an infinite number of ungodly persons within the church itself who oppress it. This article in the Creed presents these consolations to us: so that we may not despair, but may know that the church will nevertheless remain; so that we may know that however great the multitude of the ungodly is, nevertheless the church exists and Christ bestows those gifts that he promised to the church: forgiveness of sins, answered prayer, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Moreover, it says “church catholic” so that we not understand the church to be an external government of certain nations. It consists rather of people scattered throughout the entire world who agree on the gospel and have the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit, and the same sacraments, whether or not they have the same human traditions. ... Therefore, although hypocrites and wicked people are indeed associated with this true church according to the external rites, nevertheless when the church is defined, it must be defined as that which is the living body of Christ and as that which is the church in fact as well as in name. There are many reasons for this. For we must understand what principally makes us members of the church – and living members at that. If we define the church only in terms of an external government consisting of both the good and wicked, people will not understand that the kingdom of Christ is the righteousness of the heart and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Instead they will think that it is only the external observance of certain religious rites and rituals. ... Christ also speaks about the outward appearance of the church when he says, “The kingdom of heaven is like a net” [Matt. 13:47], or like “ten bridesmaids” [Matt. 25:1]. Thus he teaches that the church has been hidden under a crowd of wicked people in order that this stumbling block may not offend the faithful, and so that we might know that the Word and sacrament are efficacious even when they are administered by wicked people. Meanwhile, he teaches that although the ungodly possess certain outward signs in common, they are, nevertheless, not the true kingdom of Christ and members of Christ. For they are members of the devil’s kingdom. Nor indeed are we dreaming about some platonic republic, as some have slanderously alleged. Instead, we teach that this church truly exists, consisting of true believing and righteous people scattered through the entire world. And we add its marks: the pure teaching of the gospel and the sacraments. This church is properly called “the pillar...of the truth” [1 Tim. 3:15] for it retains the pure gospel, and, as Paul says [1 Cor. 3:12], “the foundation,” that is, the true knowledge of Christ and faith. Even though there are among these people many weak ones who build upon this foundation structures of stubble that will perish (that is to say, certain useless opinions), nevertheless, because they do not overthrow the foundation, these things are to be both forgiven them and also corrected. The writings of the holy Fathers bear witness that at times even they built stubble upon the foundation but that this did not overturn their faith. ... Therefore in accordance with the Scriptures we maintain that the church is, properly speaking, the assembly of saints who truly believe the gospel of Christ and have the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, we admit that in this life many hypocrites and wicked people, who are mixed in with these, participate in the outward signs. They are members of the church according to their participation in the outward signs and even hold office in the church. Nor does this detract from the efficacy of the sacraments when they are distributed by the unworthy, because they represent the person of Christ on account of the call of the church and do not represent their own persons, as Christ himself testifies [Luke 10:16], “Whoever listens to you listens to me.” When they offer the Word of Christ or the sacraments, they offer them in the stead and place of Christ. (Apology of the Augsburg Confession VII/VIII:3,5,9-10,12-13,19-21,28, Kolb/Wengert pp. 174-78)

Since, however, judgments of the councils are judgments of the church, not of the pontiffs, it is wholly appropriate that rulers restrain the wantonness of the pontiffs and ensure that the power to examine and to make judgments according to the Word of God is not snatched away from the church. And as other Christians are obliged to censure the rest of the pope’s errors, so must they rebuke him when he avoids and obstructs the church’s inquiry and true judgment. (Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope, 56, Kolb/Wengert p. 339)

In regard to the condemnations, criticisms, and rejections of false, impure teaching (particularly in the article concerning the Lord’s Supper), which had to be expressly and distinctly set forth in this explanation and thorough settlement of the disputed articles so that all would be able to protect themselves from them, and which can in no way be avoided for many other reasons: it is likewise not our will or intention thereby to mean persons who err naively and do not blaspheme the truth of the divine Word, much less whole churches, inside the Holy Empire of the German Nation or out. Instead, it is our will and intention thereby to condemn only the false and seductive teachings and the stiff-necked teachers and blasphemers of the same, whom we will by no means tolerate in our lands, churches, and schools, because they contradict the expressed Word of God and cannot coexist with it. We do this so that pious hearts may be warned against them, since we have no doubt at all that many pious, innocent people, even within the churches, are to be found who up until now have not come to agreement with us in everything. They walk in the simplicity of their hearts, do not understand the matter correctly, but take no pleasure in the blasphemies against the Holy Supper as it is celebrated in our churches according to Christ’s institution and about which is unanimously taught according to the words of his testament. It is further hoped that when they are correctly instructed in this teaching, they with us and our churches and schools, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit, will give themselves over to and turn toward the infallible truth of the divine Word. (Preface to the Book of Concord, 20, Kolb/Wengert pp. 12-13)

St. Paul says in Colossians 3[:3] that our life is not on earth but is hidden with Christ in God. For if Christendom were a physical assembly, one could tell by looking at every single body whether or not it is a Christian, a Turk, or a Jew, just as I can tell by looking at someone’s body whether it is a man, a woman, or a child, black or white. Again, with regard to a worldly assembly, I can tell whether a person has assembled together with others at Leipzig or at Wittenberg, or wherever. But I cannot tell at all whether or not he believes. Therefore, whoever does not want to err should remember clearly that Christianity is a spiritual assembly of souls in one faith, and that no one is regarded as a Christian because of his body. Thus he should know that the natural, real, true, and essential Christendom exists in the Spirit and not in any external thing, no matter what it may be called. For any non-Christian can have all these other things, but they will never make him a Christian; true faith alone makes Christians. Thus we are called “believers in Christ,” and on the day of Pentecost we sing, “Now let us pray to the Holy Ghost above all for true faith.” This is the way Holy Scripture speaks of the holy church and of Christendom. It cannot speak about it in any other way. Beyond that, there is a second way of speaking about Christendom. According to this, Christendom is called an assembly in a house, or in a parish, a bishopric, an archbishopric, or a papacy. To this assembly belong external forms such as singing, reading, and the vestments of the mass. Here, above all, bishops, priests, and members of religious orders are called the “spiritual estate” – not because of faith, which they might not have, but because they are blessed with external anointing, wear crowns and special vestments, say special prayers, do special works, hold mass, stand in the choir, and seem to perform all such external worship. Although the little words “spiritual” or “church” are violated here when they are applied to such externals, since they refer only to the faith which makes true priests and Christians in the soul, this manner of speech has spread everywhere – to the not unimportant seduction and error of many souls who think such external glitter is the spiritual and true estate of Christendom or of the church. There is not a single letter in Holy Scripture saying that such a church, where it is by itself, is instituted by God. ... If they [the papists] can show me that a single letter of Scripture speaks of it, I will recant all my words. I know that they will not do me that favor. Canon and human laws do call such externals “church” or “Christendom.” But that is not the point right now. Therefore, for the sake of better understanding and brevity, we shall call the two churches by two distinct names. The first, which is natural, basic, essential, and true, we shall call “spiritual, internal Christendom.” The second, which is man-made and external, we shall call “physical, external Christendom.” Not that we want to separate them from each other; rather, it is just as if I were talking about a man and called him “spiritual” according to his soul, and “physical” according to his body, or as the Apostle is accustomed to speak of an “internal” and “external” man [Rom. 7:22-23]. (Martin Luther, “On the Papacy in Rome Against the Most Celebrated Romanist in Leipzig,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 39 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1970], pp. 69-70)

This is the definition of the church in its essence: “The church is the place or the people where God dwells for the purpose of bringing us into the kingdom of heaven, for it is the gate of heaven.” From this it follows most properly that in the church nothing should be heard or seen except what God does, according to the statement (1 Peter 4:11): “Whoever speaks, as one who utters oracles of God; whoever renders service, as one who renders it by the strength which God supplies.” But if I am uncertain about the Word or the administration of God, I must be silent. But whenever I minister, that is, baptize or absolve, I must be certain that my work is not mine, but God’s, who works through me. Baptism is a work of God; for it is not mine, although I lend my hands and my mouth as instruments. Thus when I absolve you or call you to the ministry and lay my hands on you, you should not doubt that, as Peter says, it is God’s strength. This, then, is the complete definition of the church, which is the habitation of God on earth. Not that we should remain on earth, but the sacraments are administered and the Word is taught in order that we may be led into the kingdom of heaven and through the church may enter into heaven. Jacob saw this, his descendants also saw it, we too, and all who are now the church or will be the church after us see it, namely, that the church is the house of God which leads from earth into heaven. The place of the church is in the temple, in the school, in the house, and in the bedchamber. Wherever two or three gather in the name of Christ, there God dwells (cf. Matt. 18:20). (Martin Luther, “Lectures on Genesis,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 5 [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1968], p. 250)

The temple is now as wide as the world. For the Word is preached and the sacraments administered everywhere; and wherever these are properly observed, whether it be in a ship on the sea, or in a house on land, there is God’s house, or the Church, and there God should be sought and found. (Martin Luther, On Matt. xxi., 12 sq. [Erlangen 44, 253]; quoted in Henry Eyster Jacobs, Martin Luther: The Hero of the Reformation [Philadelphia: General Council Publication House, 1898], p. 379)

...Christ says: My sheep not only hear me, they also obey and follow me [John 10:3-5]; they increase in faith daily through hearing the Word of God and the right and perfect use of the blessed sacraments. There is strengthening and comfort in this church. And it is also the true church, not cowls, tonsures, and long robes, of which the Word of God knows nothing, but rather wherever two or three are gathered together [Matt. 18:20], no matter whether it be on the ocean or in the depths of the earth, if only they have before them the Word of God and believe and trust in the same, there is most certainly the real, ancient, true, apostolic church. (Martin Luther, “Sermon in Castle Pleissenburg, Leipzig,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 51 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959], pp. 310-11)

For there are two kinds of churches stretching from the beginning of history to the end, which St. Augustine calls Cain and Abel. The Lord Christ commands us not to embrace the false church; and he himself distinguishes between two churches, a true one and a false one, in Matthew 7[:15], “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing,” etc. Where there are prophets, there are churches in which they teach. If the prophets are false, so also are the churches that believe and follow them. We have been unable up to now to get the papists to willingly prove why they are the true church, but they insist that according to Matthew 18[:17] one must listen to the church or be lost. Yet Christ does not say there who, where, or what the church is; only that where it is, it ought to be listened to. We confess and say that as well, but we ask where the church of Christ is, and who it is. We are concerned non de nomine, “not with the name” of the church, but with its essence. (Martin Luther, “Against Hanswurst,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 41 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966], p. 194)

The Christian Church has no authority to ordain any article of faith, never has ordained and never will ordain one. The Church of God has no power to enact any precept as to good works, never has done it, never will do it. All articles of faith are fully established in Holy Writ, so that there is no need of ordaining even one more. All precepts of good works are fully prescribed in Holy Writ, so that there is no need of appointing even one more. The Church of God has no authority to ratify articles [of faith] or precepts [of good works], or to give sanction to Holy Scripture itself, as though the Church were a higher authority or clothed with judicial powers, never has done it, nor ever will do it. On the contrary, the Church of God is ratified and endorsed by Holy Scripture as its lord and judge. The Church of God approves, that is, it recognizes and acknowledges the articles of faith or Holy Scripture as a subject or a servant does the seal of his lord. For the maxim is sure: He who has no power to promise and grant either the future or present life, cannot ordain articles of faith. The Church of God has authority to appoint rites and customs in regard to festivals, food, fasting, prayers, vigils, etc., but not for others, only for itself; neither has it ever done, nor will it ever do otherwise. A church is a group or assembly of baptized and believers under one shepherd [pastor, pfarher oder Bisschoff], whether of one city, or of an entire country, or of the whole world. This pastor or prelate has nothing to ordain, because he is not the Church, unless it be that his church empowers him. (Martin Luther, “Propositiones adversus totam synagogam Sathanae et universas portas inferorum” [Propositions Against the Whole Synagogue of Satan and All the Gates of Hell] [St. Louis XIX:958; WA 30:II:413-427]; quoted in Francis Pieper, Christian Dogmatics, Vol. III [Concordia Publishing House, 1953], pp. 430-31)

The circle of the believers is not visible; the church is the circle of believers; therefore the church is invisible. ... For the sake of confession the circle of the church is visible... By confession the church is recognized [Propter confessionem coetus ecclesiae est visibilis... Ex confessione cognoscitur ecclesia], according to the word of Paul: “For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” [Rom. 10:10]. (Martin Luther, a university disputation of 1542, WA 39II, 161; quoted in Lewis W. Spitz, “Discord, Dialogue, and Concord: The Lutheran Reformation’s Formula of Concord,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 1 [June 1979], p. 191)

For we must believe and be sure of this, that baptism does not belong to us but to Christ, that the gospel does not belong to us but to Christ, that the office of preaching does not belong to us but to Christ, that the sacrament [of the Lord’s Supper] does not belong to us but to Christ, that the keys, or forgiveness and retention of sins, do not belong to us but to Christ. In summary, the offices and sacraments do not belong to us but to Christ, for he has ordained all this and left it behind as a legacy in the church to be exercised and used to the end of the world; and he does not lie or deceive us. Therefore, we cannot make anything else out of it but must act according to his command and hold to it. However, if we alter it or improve on it, then it is invalid and Christ is no longer present, nor is his ordinance. I do not want to say, as the papists do, that neither an angel nor Mary could effect conversion, etc.; but I do say that even if the devil himself came (if he would be so pious that he wanted to or could do so), and let us suppose that I found out afterward that the devil had inveigled his way into the office by stealth or, having assumed the form of a man, let himself be called to the office of the ministry, and publicly preached the gospel in the church, baptized, celebrated mass, absolved, and exercised and administered such offices and sacraments, as a pastor would, according to the command of Christ – then we would for all that have to admit that the sacraments were valid, that we had received a valid baptism, had heard the true gospel, obtained true absolution, and had participated in the true sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. For our faith and the sacrament must not be based on the person, whether he is godly or evil, consecrated or unconsecrated, called or an impostor, whether he is the devil or his mother, but upon Christ, upon his word, upon his office, upon his command and ordinance; where these are in force, there everything will be carried out properly, no matter who or what the person might happen to be. If we would consider the person, then the preaching, baptism, and Lord’s Supper which Judas and all his descendants have performed and administered and would still be performing and administering according to Christ’s command, would be nothing but the devil’s preaching, baptism, and Lord’s Supper, for it would then be administered and given to us by the devil’s members. But because the office, word, and sacrament are the ordinance of Christ and not of Judas or the devil, we permit Judas and the devil to remain Judas and the devil, and yet accept through them the blessings of Christ. For when Judas went to the devil he did not take his apostolic office along with him but left it behind, and Matthias received it in his stead. Offices and sacraments always remain in the church; persons are daily subject to change. As long as we call and induct into the offices persons who can administer them, then the offices will surely continue to be exercised. (Martin Luther, “The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 38 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971], pp. 200-01)

But this office of the keys belongs to all of us who are Christians... For the word of Christ in Matt. 18[:15] is addressed not only to the Apostles, but, certainly, to all the brethren: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault... If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” And, further on, “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” [Matt. 18:17,18]. We need pay no attention to the bogey man of these masqueraders [the papists] when they distinguish between the power of the keys and the use of the keys, a distinction based on no Scripture but on their own recklessness alone. As usual they beg the question. For when it is incumbent on them to show that they have a power different from that given the whole church, they rush on as if this were already demonstrated, and then go on to this fictitious distinction that the power of the keys belongs to the church, their use, however, to the bishops. This is trifling, and the argument has nothing to support it. Christ gives both the power and the use of the keys to each Christian, when he says, “Let him be to you as a Gentile” [Matt. 18:17]. For who is this “you” to whom Christ refers when he says, “Let him be to you”? The pope? Indeed, he refers to each and every Christian. And in saying, “Let him be to you,” he gives not only the authority, but also commands its use and exercise. For what else does the phrase, “Let him be to you as a Gentile,” mean than to have nothing to do with him, to have no fellowship with him. This truly is to excommunicate, to bind, and to close the door of heaven. This is confirmed by what follows: “Whatever you bind...shall be bound.” Who are those addressed? Are they not all Christians? Is it not the church? If here the giving of the keys to the church means not the use but only the authority, we would by the same source claim that its use has never been given to anyone, even to Peter (Matt. 16[:19]). For clearly the words of Christ are everywhere the same when he bestows the office of binding and loosing. If in one place or with reference to one person they signify a conferring of authority, they signify a conferring of authority everywhere. If they signify the conferring of the use in one place, they signify the conferring of the use everywhere. For the words of God are everywhere the same and we are not permitted to give them one meaning in one place and another meaning elsewhere, though these masks [the papists] make bold to ridicule the mysteries of God with their fictions. So the lies of men are of no avail. The keys belong to the whole church and to each of its members, both as regards their authority and their various uses. Otherwise we do violence to the words of Christ, in which he speaks to all without qualification or limitation: “Let him be to you,” and “You will have gained your brother,” and “Whatever you,” etc. And the words which were spoken alone to Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” here find their confirmation. This word also, “If two of you agree on earth,” and “Where two are gathered in my name there am I in the midst of them” [Matt. 18:19,20]. In all of these declarations we find established the fullest authority and the most immediate exercise of the right to bind and to absolve. Were this not true we would be denying to Christ himself the right and use of the keys as he dwells among even a couple of his disciples. (Martin Luther, “Concerning the Ministry,” Luther’s Works, Vol. 40 [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958], pp. 26-27)

The keys to bind and loose are the power to teach, not merely to absolve; for the keys pertain to everything by which I may help my neighbor: to the comfort that one can give to another; to public and private confession, absolution, and whatever else there may be. But above all they pertain to preaching. To preach “He who believes will be saved” means to open heaven, and to preach “He who does not believe will be condemned” means to close heaven. The binding rests on this: When I preach, “You belong to the devil wherever you may stand or go,” heaven is closed to such a one. But if he should fall down and confess his sin and I say, “Believe in Christ; then your sins are forgiven,” that means to open heaven. Thus Peter used the keys when, as reported in Acts, he converted three thousand persons in his sermon (Acts 2:41). So all of us Christians have the power to bind and to loose. (Martin Luther, Church Postil: Gospel Portion, “On the Day of Saints Peter and Paul, Apostles” [1525]; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, Church and Ministry [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1987], p. 276)

In Matt. 18:17-18 the Lord Christ entrusts the supreme jurisdiction and power in matters of the church not to the secular government but to His congregation. Among these matters the most important are the election and calling of ministers and the right to judge doctrine and to depose unfaithful pastors. He says expressly that whoever does not want to hear the church shall be regarded as an excommunicated heathen and a tax collector. This is to be understood in the sense not only that the church has the power to excommunicate impenitent sinners but also that the congregation has the supreme authority in all church matters such as reproof, church discipline, divisions, judging doctrine, and appointing pastors, to mention only these things. (Tilemann Heshusius, Concerning Calling and Deposing Ministers [Giessen, 1608], pp. 50-51; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, Church and Ministry, p. 343)

Has the office to forgive and retain sins been entrusted only to the apostles? These happened to be present with a few others when Christ spoke the words (John 20:30). But this office has not been bound to their persons; it belongs to the whole church. Christ says: “If he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector. Assuredly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth,” etc. (Matt. 18:17-18). ... Although every believer may privately forgive another his sins when he explains to him the Gospel, ...nevertheless for the public assembly of the church the Holy Spirit has established His order so that nothing may be done improperly and dishonorably. Therefore, it is not permitted that a woman should speak in the church, or even a man, unless he has been called. But the church has its ministers [Diener], to whom the public preaching of the Gospel, that is, the forgiving and retaining of sins, has been entrusted. According to Acts, Paul told the elders of the congregation at Ephesus: “Take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God” (Acts 20:28). From this and other passages of Holy Scripture it is obvious that the office to forgive and retain sins, which is the office to preach the Gospel, has indeed been given to the whole church, but it has been so regulated that the church should be edified and not be confused. (Johannes Brenz, Commentary on John 20; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, Church and Ministry, p. 280)

The right to preach and administer the sacraments belongs basically to the whole church, but its public exercise [belongs] only to its legitimately called ministers. Nevertheless, every member of the church, as well as the whole church [together], has with equal right the keys and authority to teach, yet only for private application and not for public and solemn use, so that there may be no disorder by which the church would miserably be torn to pieces. When the congregation gathers publicly, then the keys are to be administered only by those on whom the whole congregation has conferred their exercise and use through the public call. (Salomon Deyling, Institutiones prudentiae pastoralis [1734], 3.4.7; quoted in C. F. W. Walther, Church and Ministry, p. 176)

...Christ says (Matt. 5:23-24) that whoever is not first reconciled to his brother cannot offer his gift at the altar, and Christ earnestly proclaims to the offended party, Matt. 6:15: “If you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” God promises that He will regard this fraternal reconciliation as valid in heaven (Matt. 18:18). On this passage Theophylact says: “If when you have been sinned against you hold him who sinned against you, after a threefold admonition, as a publican, he will be such also in heaven; if, however, you loose him, that is, forgive him when he confesses and asks for it, he will be acquitted also in heaven. For it is not only the sins the priest looses which are loosed, but also those will be bound or loosed whom we, when we have been wronged, either bind or loose. Under this confession there is included also this, when a brother is moved and led by fraternal reproof to acknowledge and confess some sin, even if it was not committed against us. For so, says Christ, you have gained your brother. And James says that this confession is useful on account of the prayer for one another: Pray for one another, that you may be saved!” (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1978], p. 595)

For although the keys were given to the church itself, as the ancients correctly teach, we nevertheless by no means hold that any and every Christian without distinction should or can take to himself or exercise the ministry of the Word and sacraments without a legitimate call. As however the ancients say that in case of necessity any Christian lay person can administer the sacrament of Baptism, so Luther says the same thing about absolution in case of necessity, where no priest is present. He says nothing different from what Lombard, Bk. 4, dist. 17, and Gratian, De poenitentia, dist. 5, say on the basis of the opinion of the ancients. Earlier we have also noted the opinion of Theophylact, that whatever is either loosed or bound in fraternal reproof and reconciliation is loosed and bound in heaven itself. Moreover, there is no doubt that when the Word of the Gospel is proclaimed, God works efficaciously, no matter by whom it is proclaimed. (Martin Chemnitz, Examination of the Council of Trent, Part II, p. 621)

The most important feature of a synodical fellowship is pure doctrine and understanding. A Synod, after all, is to be a part of God’s church on earth. For that reason also its distinguishing mark is this that in it “the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments are administered in accord with the Gospel.” Also [a Synod] is to be built on nothing but the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ as the cornerstone. Also [a Synod] is to be a flock of those holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. Also [a Synod] has been given the assignment which the Savior, when He ascended to heaven, left behind for His church on earth, “Teach them to observe all things which I have commanded you.” Also its ultimate purpose is the salvation of sinners, which is achieved by nothing else than the pure Gospel. Also its very first prayer should be, not “Thy kingdom come,” but “Hallowed be Thy name!” ... Yes, what am I saying? – even if a Synod has the pure confessions of the orthodox church as its law, but does not have [in practice] the pure doctrine and its [correct] understanding, then it, too, will be one of those whitewashed sepulchers that look beautiful on the outside but inwardly are full of the bones of dead men and all uncleanness. Pure doctrine and pure understanding always go together. Pure doctrine is absent not only where philosophy is taught instead of theology, humanism instead of Christianity, not only where those things are selected from God’s Word which seem to agree with reason, while whatever does not agree is rejected, not only there where the cross of Christ is brought to naught by clever words, not only where articles of the holy Christian faith are denied and adulterated, or made uncertain by calling them open questions, not only where human ideas are mixed with the thoughts of God and then proclaimed as God’s Word, where together with the unchanging apostolic and prophetic words changing views and stylish opinions and together with the sure Christian hope uncertain human hopes are preached, [no,] the pure doctrine is also absent there where one only in slavish obedience bows under the yoke of the confessions of the orthodox church, and with fearful heart seeks to repeat what the confessions have said without living insight into the basis and inner connection of the doctrine of salvation and without personal experience of its divine power. (C. F. W. Walther, “First Sermon at the Opening of the Synod,” Lutherische Brosamen [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1897], p. 391)

The Church is established by the word of God in accordance with the command of Christ: “Go and make disciples of all nations,” etc. For that which makes us Christians is faith, and faith comes by the word of God. ... For the Church, the kingdom of Christ, is “not of this world” (John 18, 36). It is a kingdom of the Spirit; it consists of people who are indeed “in” the world but who are not “of” the world, all of whom have the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8, 9), and are born again of water and of the Spirit. It is a kingdom which owns spiritual treasures. It is a real kingdom, just as real as the external kingdom whose citizens we are in this world; but it is a spiritual and invisible kingdom and cannot be seen or observed (Luke 17, 20-21), as we also confess in the Third Article when we say that we believe the holy Christian Church. If we could see it, it would not be an object of faith. ... But...we can still, according to the word of God, know where this holy Church is to be found. Concerning this we confess in the 7th Article of the Augsburg Confession, that the Church is there where “the Gospel is rightly taught and the sacraments rightly administered.” So, as the word and the sacraments are things which can be heard and seen, and around which a larger or smaller group of people gather, an assembly is produced thereby, which is also called “church,” namely, the so-called visible church, to which all those belong who confess the word that is preached, whether they are truly believers or not. Before God, however, only the believers are true members of the Church... They cannot live isolated, separated from one another; for they love one another, and they know that it is the will of God that they shall be one in Christ (John 17, 20-23). Nor shall this love be so hidden in the heart that it does not manifest itself; for Jesus says (John 13, 35): “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Therefore the believers did not stand each one alone by himself at the Pentecost festival. There was a congregation at once, and we read about this congregation that “the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul”; and that “they continued daily with one accord in the temple.” About what were they gathered? About the word and sacraments, the Lord’s institutions, and they knew that He himself had promised to be in the midst of them with His powerful though invisible presence. And thus it is still wherever there are souls that have received “the same precious faith” “which was once delivered unto the saints.” They must and they will join together and precisely about the word and sacraments. How do they do this? By establishing the office of the word in their midst and calling a minister of the word. ... Nobody is the lord of the congregation except Christ. But Christ governs by His word, and the public preaching of the word is carried out by the congregation in accordance with Christ’s ordinance through the office of preaching. Those who are in this office shall be guides by declaring the word of God. So long as they do this, the congregation obeys Christ in that it obeys its guides. Where the word of God speaks, there it is not the pastor who commands, but God Himself. Where the word of God does not speak, there the pastor has nothing to command; for he shall only declare what God has said. (Ulrik Vilhelm Koren, “The Right Principles of Church Government,” Faith of Our Fathers [Mankato, Minnesota: Lutheran Synod Book Company, 1953], pp. 117-19, 123-24, 126-27)

But how about a whole church body, composed of many congregations? Is such a body instituted by God? Not directly. Wherever the apostles came and gathered souls by the word and sacraments, there a congregation was thus formed, the office of the word was established, and there was a church... The fact that all believers in the various regions did not manifest themselves as a single church or congregation was due, not to the nature or essence of the Church, but to the external circumstances: that they lived in different places, spoke different languages, etc. According to its essence the Church is one. ... But since Christ, in accordance with His promise, is Himself present in every place where He by His word has gathered a congregation and is in their midst with His gifts, therefore each local congregation possesses everything that it needs, and it does not have to look anywhere else for help in that respect. It is self-existent. But the inner unity between such a congregation and other congregations which have the same faith is not broken thereby, for this follows from the nature of faith. Therefore we see also that there was such intimate union in faith and love between the apostolic congregations. Not any external compulsion, but the inner need, brought about their union. It follows from the circumstances in which the Church exists here in this world that this inner need, in the course of time, will necessarily manifest itself through planned cooperation between the individual congregations. For if God’s commands concerning the preservation of the word, concerning the maintenance of the pastoral office, and concerning the qualifications of those who are to be put into this office are to be followed; if the instruction of the children and Christian discipline are to be promoted; if the command Christ has given concerning the preaching of the Gospel to all nations is to be carried out; if the need that love feels to help other suffering Christians, poor congregations, orphaned children, and lonely old people is to be filled; then it is self-evident that the individual congregation would not be able to carry it all out, and that the congregations which are in a position to do so should join together and help each other in all these things. How would things go, if this duty were not recognized? And what could be the reason for a congregation’s unwillingness to be along in such a union except this, that it had not recognized those duties and the demands of love? But if it, then, is a necessary consequence of faith and love that the inner unity of the Church manifests itself in external cooperation, how can this be done in a proper and God-pleasing way? Plainly only by joining together into one body and by adopting certain rules for cooperation. ... If we hold fast to what we have taught above, from the word of God, about the essence of the Church and the independence of each congregation, it will not be difficult to understand how a body of free congregations must be governed. Such a church body cannot have any government “by divine right.” But that there must be some government follows from the fact that all things shall be done decently and in order, which is what God demands; but the government itself can belong only to the congregations, and it can be carried out only by the men who are sent and empowered by the different congregations for that very purpose. ... The Synod, then, dare not have any authority over the individual congregation. It cannot impose anything upon it, cannot demand anything of it which God has not demanded, cannot levy taxes upon it. Since the basis on which the union into one body has been built is unity in the faith, the first point in the agreement must be that the individual congregation will not let its confession or its rules conflict with the word of God or Christ’s will. This is not a power that the Synod assumes. It is God’s demand and not men’s, and this demand receives no more authority by the fact that the church body, the Synod, expresses it than if an individual presented it, although the common testimony might be a source of strengthening for one in need of it. In order to preserve unity in faith and to make progress in Christian life, a body of orthodox congregations will, indeed, find it necessary to establish a special overseer’s office for the pastors and congregations, such as has been the case from the earliest periods in the church. But at the same time the church body must take care to learn, from church history, how necessary it is that the execution of this office does not conflict with the principles given above. The bishops were not elected to rule. The Lutheran Church testifies to this in the Augsburg Confession, in the Apology, and in the Smalcald Articles. We elect these overseers or presidents, as we call them, not to rule but to remind us of our Savior’s rule and His royal word, and, by supervision, admonition, encouragement, and advice to help us use and obey the word of God. They have no other power than that of the word. To reach all the common goals that have been named – schools and educational institutions, distribution of books, missions, charitable institutions, and everything that can serve the kingdom of God – it is necessary that men and women who have the necessary qualifications are chosen and commissioned, and that the required funds are gathered and managed. Here we will be reminded of the words of the apostle Paul, when he in I Cor. 12 speaks about the different members of the body of Christ, and how one member needs the other, how the eye, the ear, the hand, the foot all have mutual need of each others’ help, and that there must be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. Since the Church has been given no other rules with regard to all those things than that all things be done decently and in order, it becomes the task of the church body to learn how all such matters can best be arranged. And since there is no authority established by God to command in such matters, it follows that the church body cannot command or force anything upon the congregation either. ... Love will, indeed, render it necessary for the individual congregation not to reject such resolutions, if they do not conflict with the conscience, but it must be a free matter, since love is free. No compulsory commandment can be given. (Ulrik Vilhelm Koren, “The Right Principles of Church Government,” pp. 129-31, 134-36)

We may not take it amiss that it [the church] is God’s institution. God has not, however, instituted the local congregation. That which God has instituted is that which stands in the Third Article [of the Creed], that we believe “one holy, universal Christian Church.” It was not essential that it was established in Jerusalem by the preaching of the apostles, but by that means the Kingdom of Heaven was established upon earth and showed itself in Jerusalem as the first congregation. Now it is God’s will that all Christians should belong to a local congregation. That there are local congregations is because of circumstances, such as language, locality, and other factors. If we could move toward the ideal, this oneness [of the Church] would manifest itself everywhere, where God’s Word is. Concerning the external reality one confesses the local congregation as an appearance of the holy, universal Christian Church. Were the internal reality to reveal itself it would show itself to be at one with [and] in the holy, universal Christian Church by faith in Christ. There are difficulties... We have in the introduction to the Book of Concord a hint to disentangle the matter. Where the Means of Grace are used so that the soul can be freed, that is an appearance of the holy, universal Christian Church. That they who separate [from the Means of Grace] are condemned, that we see from God’s Word. (Ulrik Vilhelm Koren, quoted in Norwegian Synod Report, Minnesota District, 1904, p. 41 [translated by Charles J. Evanson]) (An alternate translation of a portion of Koren’s statement can be found as follows in Bjarne W. Teigen, “The Church in the New Testament, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions,” Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 42, No. 4 [Oct. 1978], p. 392: “We must not make a mistake of what is God’s institution. He has not directly instituted the local congregation. What God has instituted is what stands in the Third Article, that we believe ‘a holy Christian church.’ ... It is of the highest importance that one recognizes the local congregation as a manifestation of the holy Christian Church.”)

For the Lutheran Church, matters of church government belong to the adiaphora, to the “rites and ceremonies, instituted by men” (Augsburg Confession VII), concerning which there may and must be freedom in the church. Christ is not the legislator of a human religious fellowship, and the Gospel has in it no law which prescribes the only right way of organization and polity for the church. One must be clear as to what this means. Other churches have “an order by which the Lord wills the church to be governed,” as Calvin put it. This is true of all Catholic churches, both of the East and of the West, and of all Reformed churches. Their differences have to do only with what that order must be – the universal monarchy of the pope, the episcopal-synodical government of the church as in the Eastern churches and Anglicanism, a ruling senate of presbyters among whom there must be no differences of rank, or the autonomy of the individual congregation as in Congregationalism and among the Baptists. These are just a few notable options, all of which claim to represent what the New Testament requires for the polity of the church. Luther’s entire greatness and the boldness of his basic theological principle of the strict separation of Law and Gospel become evident when one sees how, beyond all these possibilities, he goes his lonesome way: Christ gave his church no such law prescribing one right organization, government, and polity (de constituenda ecclesia). Any way of organizing things may do, so long as the means of grace are going on and are not frustrated. (Hermann Sasse, “Ministry and Congregation,” We Confess the Church [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1986], pp. 70-71)

...with the power of the keys (potestas clavium) the church is also given the right and the task to confer [übertragen] the “ministry of teaching the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments” (ministerium docendi evangelii et porrigendi sacramenta [AC V 1]), that is, to call men to the preaching office to carry out the task given it by Christ to proclaim the Gospel. By church is always meant here the one inseparable church which is the body of Christ. But this church never appears in our space-time world and in this sinful humanity in its totality, and never in full purity. We perceive its presence in faith in our historical, empirical churchdoms in the pure preaching of the Gospel and in the correct administration of the Sacraments. Wherever we may say in faith “Here is the church of Christ,” there we may also assert, “Here is the ecclesiastical authority which Christ has given his church – the right and duty to install pastors, for preaching and absolution, for administration of the Sacraments, for the orderly establishment of the Divine Service, and so on.” The church of Christ can be and is present where “two or three are gathered” in his name (Matt 18:20). It can manifest itself as the local congregation or in a group of congregations or even in a territorial church. It is completely false always to immediately apply what our confessions say of the congregation [Gemeinde], the congregatio sanctorum, to the local congregation. Those “called saints” in Rome [Rom 1:7] at the time of Paul apparently only very rarely came together all in one place. And the introduction to the Letters to the Corinthians testify that already at that time “all the saints throughout Achaia” belonged to the “church of God in Corinth” [2 Cor 1:1]. But in whichever form the church appears, where it really is present, there is ecclesiastical authority. (Hermann Sasse, “Church Government and Secular Authority,” The Lonely Way, Vol. I [Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2001], p. 223)

In the course of the history of Christianity, two theories regarding the church have developed; one we can conveniently call the macrocosmic theory and the other the microcosmic. The first is the Roman Catholic and Anglican way of thinking, which holds that the Holy Catholic Church is a visible society with an unbroken line of institutionalized officers, regulations, and powers. The other theory, which we could term “Congregational-Baptist,” asserts that the church is the local and visible congregation, united by a voluntary covenant and completely autonomous. Thinking big, or macrocosmically, as also the general ecumenical movement seems to do, is to think of a great universal external church. Thinking small, or microcosmically, is to think of the church as a small external community, such as what we call a “local congregation.” But neither one of these theories is open to Lutherans, and this for two reasons. First, every definition of the ekklesia tou theou in the Confessions declares that the church is comprised of those who have been grafted into Christ by faith but are hidden from man’s sight and are known only to the Lord. Secondly, since the presence of the church can be known only by its pure marks because the church is created only through the Gospel of God and not “any other gospel” (Gal. 1:18), it is recognized only by the “pure teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the Gospel of Christ” (Ap. VII, 2). God gathers His eternal church out of the human race through His Holy Word (SD II, 50). We can see where the church is only by the use of and adherence to the “pure marks,” and such adherence occurs both in what we call local congregations and in larger ecclesiastical bodies. It is contrary to the Lutheran Confessions, therefore, to assert that a local congregation, or a regional church, or any other visible or external form, is the only divinely designated body or unit in the visible church. (Bjarne W. Teigen, “The Church in the New Testament, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions,” pp. 390-91)

What is the special office and calling of the Church? To administer the Word and Sacraments. The Church saves only by bringing the saving Word. Whence has it this authority and commission? From the Lord Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church, who has entrusted it with the Power of the Keys. Matt. 16:19–“I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” 18:18–“What things soever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and what things soever ye shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” John 20:23–“Whosesoever sins ye forgive, they are forgiven unto them; whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” “This is a power or commandment from God of preaching the Gospel, of remitting and retaining sins, and of administering the Sacraments” (Augsburg Confession, Art. XXVIII). Does not this power belong, however, to a class or order within the Church? As will be seen later, there are no classes or orders within the Church. The Christian Ministry is not an order but an office. It is an instrumentality whereby the Church acts. In other words, it is the executive of the Church in performing this work. This is proved as follows: In Matt. 18:18-20, the Power of the Keys is said to exist wherever “two or three are gathered together in my name.” Wherever, then, there is a Christian congregation, there is authority to communicate to penitent and believing individuals the Gospel promise of the gratuitous forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake. “Just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the Keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the Keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to every one who desires it” (Schmalkald Articles, 343). Can the Church, at its will, dispense with the ministerial office? By no means. But it is for the Church to call, appoint and ordain those who are to exercise the functions of this office. Explain the call or appointment by the Church. The authority delegated by Christ rests ultimately in any congregation of two or three believers. Such assembly, as the Spirit of Christ influences it, will act with reference to the interests of the entire Church, and according to a fixed order. But it is never to be forgotten, that all the power of the Church exists in its smallest congregation, and is not derived by the local assemblies, through large Particular Churches, and by Particular Churches from the Church Universal, and by the Church Universal from Christ. The New Testament conception of Christ, dwelling in the heart of the believer, and making him a king and priest unto God, does not provide for a long and complicated series of agencies whereby we may reach Christ and Christ may reach us. What inevitably results? The Gathering of believers into local congregations and their further organization into congregational unions or Particular Churches, according to the necessities or the peculiar circumstances of the time or place. As the Church assumes a more settled form in the lands in which it is planted, and extends its missionary, benevolent and educational operations, a form of external organization, know as “the Representative Church,” inevitably follows. United activity always means attention to details of organization, which, however, according to the New Testament conception, must be in accord with the principle of Christian Liberty. How is the organization effected? Generally in accordance with what has been gradually developed in the experience of the Church. The Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles show the first beginnings of this process in response to needs that were then felt. But not even the practice of the Apostolic Church is a rule which is absolutely obligatory on the Church of succeeding periods. “The Apostles commanded to abstain from blood (Acts 15:29). Who observeth that now-a-days? And yet they do not sin who observe it not” (Augsburg Confession, Article XXVIII). Nevertheless the highest respect is paid to what has been found serviceable in the past, and no break with historical antecedents is justifiable, unless a rule or practice is clearly recognized as having survived its usefulness. “We cheerfully maintain the old traditions made in the Church for the sake of usefulness and tranquility; and we interpret them in a more moderate way to the exclusion of the opinion which holds that they justify” (Apology, 224). (Henry Eyster Jacobs, A Summary of the Christian Faith [Philadelphia: United Lutheran Publication House, 1905], pp. 403-05)

The church council, in which the president occupies the chair, is charged with seeing to the execution of the decisions of the Synod. In the interims between meetings it works to promote the Synod’s goals and the interests of the church body. To this end it stands watch over purity of doctrine and the development of the Christian life, it examines candidates, it mediates disputes, and as necessary it provisionally suspends pastors from the privileges of membership in the Synod. The Synod’s president, whose office is in essence that of a bishop, is charged with carrying out annual visitations, ordaining pastors, presiding at meetings of the Synod, looking after matters prepared for deposition at these meetings, reporting to the Synod on his own activities and those of the Synod as well as on the state of the church body as a whole. Since as a rule the church council assembles only a few times a year, he must in many instances act on behalf of the church council, exercising supervision over the church body as a whole and seeking its welfare in every respect. Although ecclesiastical government so-called in our church body [the Norwegian Synod] is substantially different from that here in Norway, there is a resemblance in the way it specifically distributes authority and offices. (Herman A. Preus, Vivacious Daughter [Northfield, Minnesota: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1990], p. 51)

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