This is the next in a monthly series of articles requested by the New Jersey District President commemorating anniversaries of particular writings or events in the life of Martin Luther. They are intended to introduce the historical background and theological content and implications of those writings or events, as well as raise questions about how they might pertain to consciously Lutheran parish ministry in twenty-first century America. The purpose is not to provide answers to these difficult questions, but to provoke reflection, personally or jointly, on how Luther’s life and thought relate to the challenges facing us.
Lutheranism’s relationship with the church has always been, well, complicated. On the one hand, we tend to criticize the institutional church, in particular denominational leadership, when it stands in the way of how we want to conduct our ministries. On the other hand, we depend upon what the institutional church provides us. For instance, without our own denominational institutions, we would have no seminaries to train clergy and no publishing house to provide us with Lutheran ministry resources and no health care plan or pension plan to aid us when we are ill or retired. The same was true for the Lutheranism that emerged out of the Reformation. Without universities or superintendents (the German version of bishops) or church orders or consistories of clergy or even state governments administering the affairs of the church, there would have been structures to support the ministry of Word and Sacrament in those lands. We as Lutherans have long struggled with this tension between the ministry of the church and the institutions of the church, between the preaching of the Word and administration of the sacraments that creates faith and saves sinners, on the one hand, and the institutional structures that facilitate that ministry.
Maybe one reason for this tension in Lutheranism is that Lutheran theology developed in the midst of a conflict between Luther’s reforms and the ecclesiastical bureaucracy in Rome. It is worth reiterating that Luther never intended to overturn the existing structures in the church or to criticize the papacy. He consciously avoided those issues as the controversy over indulgences grew. Luther’s opponents, however, immediately turned his criticism of indulgences into a referendum on the papacy. Critics like John Tetzel (the infamous preacher of indulgences). Sylvester Prierias (the Roman official who responded to Luther’s “95 Theses”), and John Eck (Luther’s debate opponent at Leipzig in 1519) all argued that the pope had every right to create articles of faith and to institute indulgences because of the authority given him by Christ over the church. Setting aside the fact that their position did not necessarily reflect what medieval theologians and canon lawyers actually taught about papal authority, this became their first line of defense against Luther. Augustine Alfeld, a Franciscan friar in Leipzig, fits this mold. He had written against Luther in April 1520, arguing that unless a Christian submits to the pope as head of the church, then he is not a member of that church. Luther could not let this point stand, so he responded with his June 1520 treatise, “On the Papacy and the Church, Against the Most Celebrated Romanist in Leipzig.”
In “On the Papacy,” Luther specifically targeted Alfeld’s definition of the church. According to Alfeld, every community on earth necessitates a physical head, and since Christendom (Christenheit) is a single community it requires a single head under Christ, namely, the pope. Luther will respond to this by speaking about Christendom in three ways: there is a spiritual, internal Christendom; a physical, external Christendom; and a legal Christendom, which is just a corruption of the external, physical Christendom. The first two are more pertinent to us. For Luther, the primary definition of the church is that of a “spiritual, internal Christendom.” This spiritual, internal Christendom is made up of believers who affirm Christ and receive his forgiveness by faith. It is not a matter of civic affiliation or external membership in church, but of faith in Christ and in what he has done for the Christian. As Luther says later in the 1537 Smalcald Articles, the church consists of “holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd” and has to do with “the Word of God and true faith” (III.7). This is also why the Augsburg Confession is able to say that “many hypocrites and evil persons” are mingled with the “congregation of saints and true believers,” who alone make up the spiritual, internal Christenheit (Augsburg VIII. For Luther, the church is defined first and foremost by the faith of the believers. But it should also be said that Luther’s definition has nothing whatsoever in common with the prevalent meme that “the church isn’t the building, but the people.” The church is not strictly the people themselves at all—that is an idea pioneered by Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of Protestant Liberalism, who described the church as a voluntary association of like-minded individuals. Rather, it is the gathering (Versammlung, Augsburg VII) of believers, whose faith is always and ever created and sustained by the Holy Spirit at work through the Word and the sacraments (Augsburg V).
But there remains another side to the church that, while secondary, is not in any way negligible. “This other side of Christianity,” Luther says, is “physical, external Christendom.” Unlike it the spiritual, internal church, it is certainly “man-made,” but that doesn’t mean it is needless. On the contrary, Luther adds: “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…So, too, the Christian assembly is a community united in one faith according to the soul, although, according to the body, it cannot be assembled in one place since every group of people is assembled in its own place” (LW 39:70). Though the ministry of Word and Sacrament happens in local congregations, those local congregations require structures and institutions to facilitate what they do. Yes, those structures and institutions are man-made, not mandated by Scripture; yes, they are external and do not in and of themselves create or sustain faith in the heart through the Holy Spirit. Yet they still remain essential so that the local ministry of Word and Sacrament can function. What Luther has in mind here again are the fiscal, administrative, and legal facets of the church. These are never to be confused with the essence of the church, nor are they its primary definition. Where that happens, those institutional structures take on an outsized importance that detracts from the spiritual, internal component of the church. (This is also what Luther has in mind with his third definition of Christendom, created by ecclesiastics who define the church in terms of its buildings and financial resources, which he considers a corruption of the necessary physical, external church.) At the same time, it is necessary precisely because it makes possible the ministry of Word and Sacraments that creates and sustains faith, and thus forms the spiritual, internal church.
Luther makes quite clear in this treatise that there are two sides of the church, each equally important, yet they must be distinguished. The spiritual, internal church always remains primary, while the physical, external church supports the work that brings about that spiritual, internal church. Since the physical, external church is “man-made,” it will look different at times and it will take different shape in certain places. Such a definition frees us to make the ministry of Word and Sacrament primary, and to be adaptable in terms of how we structure, fund, and govern the church’s practical affairs. Nevertheless, it is in writings like this that Luther bequeaths to subsequent Lutherans an ongoing tension. Lutherans have often referred to these two dimensions as spiritual and physical, internal and external, invisible and visible, universal and local, often times making one unnecessary or irrelevant. But that’s not true for Luther, nor is it true for us. At the end of the day every church of every place and every time requires both dimensions. It is also the reason why in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession Philip Melanchthon quite intentionally describes the church as “not only the fellowship of outward objects and rites, as other governments,” but primarily “a fellowship of faith and of the Holy Ghost in hearts” (Apology 7.5). That “not only” (non…tantum) is significant: to understand the church rightly, we cannot ignore the “fellowship of outward objects and rites” that enable the ministry of Word and Sacrament to function (think: conventions, voters meetings, church constitutions). And it is only through that ministry of Word and Sacrament that faith and the Holy Spirit come to the hearts of sinners.
On the basis of what Luther and the confessions have to say about this distinction, two important points must be underscored. First, the ministry of Word and Sacrament is not an adiaphoron, nor does it belong to the external, physical definition of the church. On the contrary, what is preached and administered, heard and received in the public, corporate worship of the church belongs without question to the internal, spiritual aspect of the church. As the Formula of Concord says, “God does not call without means” (FC Solid Declaration XI.27), but “he has ordained for this purpose His Word and Sacraments as ordinary means and instruments” (FC SD XI.76). Second, though the structures and institutions of the church are clearly secondary to the salvation conferred to believers through Word and Sacrament, they are not dispensable. They remain absolutely necessary and fundamental, if evolving and ever-changing, components of the external, physical church. Without those structures and institutions, the ministry of Word and Sacrament simply does not happen. One look at St. Paul’s repeated appeals to stewardship and administrative affairs in his letters, or the frequent reorganization of the church in Acts, bears witness to that.
Defending the relevance of the institutional church may not strike a chord for many a Missouri Synod pastor in our American religious context. Much like the secular politics that so shape our approach to denominational life, we prize autonomy over authority, freedom over structure, independence over dependence. When denominational decisions don’t go our way, when denominational officials we don’t like get elected, or when denominational policies don’t sit well with us, we can be tempted to ignore them, or to reduce our ministry to the congregation that pays us. But that viewpoint simply does not appreciate the necessary role the physical, external church plays in our pastoral formation and our pastoral ministry. Simply put, we need it—even when we don’t like it!
How, then, should we approach our denominational participation, especially when we find much to disagree with? And how should we talk about that denomination when so many among whom we minister, willfully or not, may know and care little about the denomination at-large? After all, according to reported statistics, New Jersey is the second-smallest district in the Missouri Synod in terms of reported communicant membership (after Wyoming) and in terms of reported congregations (after the SELC). More to the point, despite living in the country’s most densely populated state, we are dwarfed by Roman Catholic, Reformed, and Jewish traditions. The temptation in our relative outpost here in the Garden State is to view ourselves independent of what happens in St. Louis or Fort Wayne—or maybe Springfield, where our own district office is located. How can we understand ourselves as part of something bigger, though, as part of something downright fundamental to the work we do here in our corner of the country? How can we create a broader denominational consciousness not only among us as clergy, but among our parishioners, where we care about what happens at the International Center and Synod conventions and our seminaries and Concordia University System schools? How can we as clergy participate more actively in these structures, not just on the synodical level, but on the district level, whether that is circuit meetings, pastoral conferences, or service to district itself? How can we encourage our congregations and individual congregants to likewise avail themselves of those resources and contribute to them by serving in so many of the capacities that require lay involvement and support? Whether we like it or not, these institutional structures are fundamental to who we were and to what we do. We need them, and they need us.