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Saturday, July 15, 2006

True Visible Church 

I opened the can of worms.

On the LCMS Lutheran MySpace group, I posted the following in this thread:

Frankly...I do have a problem with the doctrine of the "true visible church." The LCMS, like any other visible church, was created by sinful men and women, and is run by sinful men and women. To believe that this human institution can inerrantly reflect doctrine is, to my mind, a stretch.

However, I may be making inflated claims for what a "true visible church" truly is. Other thoughts?

In response, one of the other group members linked to this essay from C.F.W. Walther (a/k/a Mr. LCMS - or, more accurately, Herr LCMS):


These theses along with a detailed discussion were presented to the 15th Western District Convention of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod beginning June 15, 1870. They are published in English translation in C. F. W. Walther, Essays for the Church, vol. 1, (1857-1879 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1992), 202-128.

1. The true visible church in an unqualified sense, or a part of the same, is the one in which the Word of God is preached purely and the holy sacraments are administered according to Christ's institution.

2. A fellowship in which the Word of God is fundamentally falsified, or in which a fundamental falsification of it is tolerated, is not a true orthodox church, but a false, heterodox church or sect.

3. Every person is obligated to stand up for the true visible church, and, given the opportunity, to join it.

4. Everyone is obligated to avoid heterodox churches, and if one belongs to one like that, he is obligated to renounce it and leave it.

5. True Christians are also found in heterodox fellowships, to which they adhere as a result of their weak understanding.

6. Those who become convinced of the partial apostasy of the church fellowship to which they belong and yet continue in it are not among the weak but are either lukewarm, whom the Lord will spit out of His mouth, or epicurean religious cynics who in their hearts ask with Pilate: "What is truth?"

7. The main purpose of the holy sacraments is indeed to be tools and means through which the promises of grace are offered, communicated, and appropriated, as seals, testimonies, and pledges through which these promises are sealed. However, subordinate to this main purpose, they have also this purpose: to be distinctive signs of confession and bonds of fellowship in worship. Communion fellowship is therefore church fellowship.

8. Holy Communion was not instituted to make people Christians. It was instituted to strengthen the faith of those who already are true Christians. Therefore Communion should be administered to no one who has been revealed as a false Christian.

9. In Holy Communion the body and blood of Christ is actually present, distributed, and received by every communicant. Therefore it cannot, without grievous sin, be administered to those who do not confess belief in this mystery.

10. Holy Communion is also a mark of confession of the faith and doctrine of those with whom one celebrates it. Therefore the admission of members of heterodox fellowships to the celebration of Communion within the Lutheran church is in conflict with 1. Christ's institution; 2. The commanded unity of the church in faith and corresponding confession; 3. Our love for the one to whom the Sacrament is administered; 4. Our love for our own fellow believers, especially the weak, who by this action would be given grievous offense; 5. The command not to become participants in the sins and errors of others.

11. Members of heterodox fellowships are not excommunicated by their nonadmission to the celebration of Holy Communion in fellowship with the Lutheran church, much less are they (declared to be heretics and ) condemned, but only suspended until they become reconciled with the orthodox church by leaving the false fellowship in which they stand).

12. If the heterodox themselves regard and declare it improper to commune with the orthodox, then it is so much the more disgraceful for the latter to surrender to the former their [Lord's] Supper administered according to Christ's institution.

13. The more unionism and syncretism are the sin and corruption of our time, the more the loyalty of the orthodox church now demands that the Lord's Supper not be misused as a means of external union without the internal unity of faith.

Here is something that was written in 1866, and which focuses on more than communion:


The one holy Christian Church on earth, or the Church in the proper sense of the word, outside of which there is no salvation, is, according to God's Word, the total of all that truly believe in Christ and are sanctified through this faith.


Though the one holy Christian Church, as a spiritual temple, cannot be seen but only believed, yet there are infallible outward marks by which its presence is known; which marks are the pure preaching of God's Word and the unadulterated administration of the holy Sacraments.


Scripture in an improper sense calls churches also all visible congregations which have hypocrites and wicked among the believers but preach the Gospel right and administer the Sacraments according to the Gospel.


Scripture calls churches even the visible congregations guilty of a partial lapse from the true doctrine, as long as they hold God's Word essentially.


Communions still holding God's Word essentially but erring obstinately in fundamentals, IN SO FAR as they do so, are, according to God's Word, not churches but schisms or sects, i. e., heretical communions.


Communions destroying the unity of the Church for non-fundamental errors or personalities or ceremonies or wicked life, according to God's Word are schismatic or separatistic communions.


Communions calling themselves Christian but not accepting God's Word as God's Word and therefore denying the Triune God, according to God's Word are no churches but synagogues of Satan and temples of idols.


Though church-writers sometimes call communions holding God's Word essentially true, i. e., real, churches over against non-churches, yet over against erring churches, or sects, a true visible Church in the absolute sense is that only in which God's Word is preached right and the holy Sacraments are administered in accordance with the Gospel.


Though according to the divine promises it is not possible for the one holy Christian Church ever to perish, it is yet possible, and at times it has really happened, that there did not exist a true VISIBLE Church in the absolute sense, in which through an uncorrupted public ministry the preaching of the pure Word of God and the administration of the unadulterated Sacraments held sway.


The Ev. Lutheran Church is the total of all unreservedly confessing agreement with the pure Word of God, of the teaching brought again to light through Luther's reformation and delivered summarily in writing to Kaiser and Reich at Augsburg in 1530 and repeated and expanded in the other so-called Lutheran symbols.


The Ev. Lutheran Church is not the one holy Christian Church outside of which there is no salvation, though it has never separated from the same but acknowledges it alone.


If the Ev. Lutheran Church has the marks of pure Gospel-preaching and unadulterated administration of the holy Sacraments, then it is the true visible Church of God on earth.


The Ev. Lutheran Church recognizes the written Word of the apostles and prophets as the only and perfect source, rule, norm, and judge of all teaching, a. not reason, b. not tradition, c. not new revelations.


The Ev. Lutheran Church holds fast to the clearness of Scripture. (There are no "views" and "open questions.")


The Ev. Lutheran Church acknowledges no HUMAN interpreter of Scripture whose interpretation must be received as infallible and binding on account of his office; 1. not an individual, 2. not an order, 3. not a particular or general council, 4. not a whole Church (nicht eine ganze Kirche).


The Ev. Lutheran Church accepts God's Word as it interprets itself.

A. The Ev. Lutheran Church lets the original text alone decide.

B. The Ev. Lutheran Church, in the interpretation of the words and sentences, holds fast to the usage of language.

C. The Ev. Lutheran Church acknowledges only the literal sense as the true sense.

D. The Ev. Lutheran Church holds the literal sense has but one sense.

E. The Ev. Lutheran Church, in interpreting, is guided by the context and the intention. Otherwise the Scripture is garbled.

F. The Ev. Lutheran Church acknowledges the literal sense may be the improper sense as well as the proper; but it does not depart from the proper sense unless forced by Scripture itself either the circumstances of the text itself or a parallel passage or the analogy of faith.

G. The Ev. Lutheran Church interprets the dark passages by the clear ones.

H. The Ev. Lutheran Church takes the articles of faith from the texts constituting the seat of doctrine and judges all obiter dicta accordingly.

I. The Ev. Lutheran Church rejects out of hand every interpretation not in harmony with the analogy of faith, Rom. 12:7.


The Ev. Lutheran Church accepts the whole written Word of God (as God's Word), deems nothing in it superfluous or of little worth but everything needful and important, and also accepts all teaching deduced of necessity from the word of Scripture.


The Ev. Lutheran Church gives to each teaching of God's Word the place and importance it has in God's Word itself.

A. It makes the teaching concerning Christ, or justification, the foundation and marrow and guiding star of all teaching.

B. The Ev. Lutheran Church distinguishes sharply between the Law and the Gospel.

C. The Ev. Lutheran Church distinguishes sharply between the fundamental and the non-fundamental articles of doctrine contained in Scripture.

D. The Ev. Lutheran Church distinguishes sharply between what God's Word commands and what it leaves free. (Things indifferent [adiaphora], church government.)

E. The Ev. Lutheran Church distinguishes as sharply as cautiously between the Old and the New Testament.


The Ev. Lutheran Church accepts no teaching as an article of faith which is not contained in God's Word and is therefore not absolutely sure and certain.


The Ev. Lutheran Church prizes the gift of interpreting Scripture as given by God to individuals, 1 Cor. 12:4, 7, 8, 10, 30; 14:32; 1 Thess. 5:20.


A. The Ev. Lutheran Church is sure that the teaching contained in its Symbols is the pure God's truth because it agrees with the written Word of God in all points.

B. The Ev. Lutheran Church requires its members and especially its teachers unreservedly to confess and vow fidelity to its symbols.

C. The Ev. Lutheran Church rejects all fraternal and churchly fellowship with those who reject its Confessions in whole or in part.


The Ev. Lutheran Church administers the holy Sacraments after the institution of Christ.


True Ev. Lutheran churches are those only in which the teaching of the Ev. Lutheran Church, as laid down in its Symbols, is not only acknowledged officially but is also in vogue in the public preaching, Jer. 8:8; Matt. 10:32 f.


The Ev. Lutheran Church holds fellowship in confession and charity with all at one with it in faith, Eph. 4:3.


The Ev. Lutheran Church has thus all the essential marks of the true visible Church of God on earth as they are found in no other known communion, and therefore it needs no reformation in doctrine.

Also see this from Dr. F. Pieper, delivered in 1889.

And Here We Stand links to this:

Could we try to see the urge to "go east" (i.e. to Eastern Orthodoxy) by some as pointing to a deficit among Lutherans? In other words, has the notion of "true visible church" receded so far into the background of our ecclesial consciousness / conscience that we, quite honestly, don't care much about it anymore?...

The Lutheran confessions emphatically include the visible church by defining the church as the assembly of believers among whom the gospel is preached purely and the sacraments are given accordingly....The focus clearly is: preaching God's gospel in its truth and purity and giving Christ's sacraments rightly. That's where true believers will be found because God's word (and that's, as far as we are concerned, God's PURE word, of course) will not return void. Do we have the same kind of promise for the impure word and sacraments without falling into some sort of magical thinking (just reciting the "words" will do it, regardless of how many layers of false teaching / meaning cover them)?...

One underlying question is: Can the true visible church, as defined above, ever disappear? If it can, and some believe it can (including Walther), then it's maybe not our primary concern (as it was Walther's) to keep God's church visible, as much as we can (by preaching the truth; admonishing the erring, etc.). Then we're perhaps content to let it slip into the invisiblity of our heart's faith and then say: Well, there's just no one who can be right all the time! God knows his children ... Endorsing American denominationalism (a form of Pietism) is the almost unavoidable outcome. But how long can true faith live on the impure gospel and sacraments?...

Martin Chemnitz, and it seems also Melanchthon, held that the true visible church would not utterly vanish from world history and that the true visible church is necessary for there to be the invisible church (faith requires, as far as we know, the pure word; only the pure word is God's word). At times, the true visible church on earth would be very small, but it would never be conquered by hell's forces, thanks to God's promises (Mat. 16; 28). Chemnitz dedicated his life to defending it and keeping God's truth visible in this world's kingdom of lies; certainly, God's promises given to the true visible church upheld him in his struggle (if the true church doesn't have God's promise, why fight for it??).

Luther did the same; he too believed that, according to God's promise, "a Christian holy people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world" (AE 41:148), which he then defined quite along the lines of AC VII: this "Christian holy people" is recognized by the fact that it possesses God's word purely preached(some have it only with straw, though; but some completely pure, see Ap. VII-VIII:20-21); the pure sacraments etc.

Luther and the confessors of the Lutheran church believed that doctrine could be kept pure, not just "pure mostly." In pure doctrine and the other pure marks, and in people gathered around them in (outward) unity (can't sift out hypocrites on earth), God's church is visible for the joy and edification of God's holy people....

But Rev. Richard Bolland notes in passing:

Many simply do not believe that there can be a true visible church on earth (TVCE). Then follows the reasoning that since no church can actually get it right, that it then becomes a matter of finding the church with the lesser wrong.

Frankly, this is my belief. Even if the men and women (human and sinners all) who run the LCMS were able to perfectly encapsulate God's doctrine, what guarantee do we have that this perfect doctrine would be preached in every sermon and every Sunday school at every LCMS congregation?

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

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