Friday, June 10, 2011

Church.... Visible and Invisible

Lutherans find great temptation to focus more on the invisible Church.  In our Confessions, however, we give primary focus to the visible Church -- where the baptized people of God are gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord [Pastors are implicit in this definition].  The visible Church is not all there is to Church and this is where the invisible enters in.  We see but a snapshot of the Church -- a moment and a place as she gathers around the Word and Sacraments.  Like the horizon extends past the part captured by the lens of a camera, so the Church extend past what we see.  This is known only by faith, by our trust in the Word and promise of Christ.  On the other hand, the primary way we know Church is by hearing the Word of Christ and by seeing the community called and gathered by that Word around the font and table.

It is disappointing that so many Lutherans choose to focus more on that which we cannot see -- the invisible Church -- than we we do see -- the Church brought into being by and nurtured by the means of grace.  Those who have no means of grace are left to find the Church in other places (Protestants and Evangelicals).  Without a means of grace, apart from an efficacious Word, they are left only with an unseen Church that is known only by faith -- as an article of faith.  Lutherans are different and we need to talk and act differently.

We see the Church.  We hear the voice of the Good Shepherd calling.  We feel the splash of living water upon our dying flesh.  We taste the bread and wine.  The first thought and image of the Church for us is not that invisible part we cannot see but the visible community of faith called and gathered around the Word and Table of the Lord.

Where Christ is, there is the Church.  Where is Christ but where His name is.  Where is His name but among the two, three, a hundred or thousands He calls and gathers through the means of grace.  Where is His name but where that Word is read, spoken, and preached; where baptismal water washes us clean; where bread and wine are set apart to be His body and blood.  While we may not say "where the Bishop is, there is the Church" we do not argue with the fact that the means of grace imply and assume that the Pastoral Office is there as Christ has established, a gift to His people to provide His gifts to them.

The catholic Church encompasses all people.  This is why national flags to not belong in the chancel or by the altar.  The catholic Church possesses the truth in all its fullness -- not bits and pieces of it.  The catholic Church is the mother of all the faithful and their home (race and ethnicity are fully overcome by this unity).  The catholic Church is exclusively God's and no other place offers hope of redemption and yet she is inclusive -- calling all sinners into life with Christ without regard to race, color, national identity or economic status.  The catholic Church is the domain of the Spirit who transcends for us every earthly barrier that we may be made one in Christ.  The catholic Church exists in time but spans the ages -- neither expanding God's revelation nor growing in understanding but holding up and holding forth the Word that is yesterday, today, and forever.  The catholic Church learns from her past and lives in a constant state of renewal or reform in order to remain ever faithful and yet she does not seek or return to some pristine moment or attempt to repristinate any one time or place.

In the local congregation this catholic Church is locally represented with the riches of Christ's grace in the promise and life of the Word, water, and meal.  Though this local congregation is but a fragment of its totality, in the smallest expression as in the grandest, the fullness of the catholic Church is there.  Neither the individual congregation nor the individual Christian is alone or apart or solitary but lives in vital fellowship with the whole of this Church because of Christ and because we are in Christ.

Those who feel no urgency about the Divine Service on Sunday morning or who have separated themselves from the Church for whatever reason have a false sense of security when they cling to the invisible Church.  This is not some consolation prize when we find ourselves alone or separate ourselves from the gathered community.  It is only through our life within the visible Church that we know of and appreciate the indivisible Church.  Some have gotten it backwards.  They know the invisible Church and at times are consoled by or encouraged by visible expressions of this invisible Church but they find such visible expressions optional and not essential.  This is not Lutheran thinking or confession.

The invisible Church is known most fully in the visible community of faith, where the saints of old join with the angels and archangels and the people gathered now to sing "Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of Sabaoth."  Instead of this perspective, too many Lutherans think of the invisible Church as real and the visible Church as less than real.  So it is easy for us to miss the Divine Service, to not belong to a local congregation at all, or to sit at home alone and think we have not missed anything.  If we could counter this fallacy, we just might see the pews begin to fill up with those whose names are on rolls but whose bodies are absent on Sunday morning...


Tapani Simojoki said...

Without in any way disagreeing with the point you are making — it's thoughtful and helpful and on the money as usual — I can't resist mounting one of my stableful of hobbyhorses.

Language of visible and invisible, outside of the use given to them in the Nicene Creed, really isn't helpful. It's a sort of Reformed-pietist trick that sits very poorly with biblical (= Lutheran) ecclesiology, despite the fact that many good people have picked it up. The Bible doesn't use it, the Lutheran Confessions don't use it.

There is no invisible church. The church is always visible. What isn't visible is the dividing line between wheet and tares, sheep and goats, true believers and hypocrites. The outer fence is baptism. Within the baptised body, there is a corpus mixtum. The elect and the hangers-on, the saved and the merely religious — only God can draw the distinguishing line, and it will only become visible at the last judgement.

Faith is internal, but its object is always external. Ergo, there ain't no invisible church.

And, heck, I am a pietist [but there ain't no such thing as a Pietist — but that's another hobbyhorse].

Pastor Peters said...

When I first penned this, I was attempting to say that the old ways of using visible and invisible have been coopted and the Reformed meanings adopted by Lutherans. Seen and unseen do rather fit it better. Growing up in a Swedish town, I was told that the half circle of the altar rail there was a reminder that the circle is always complete (church always catholic) and yet not always or all seen. Perhaps I should have included something of this sort in my post.... Thanks

Carl Vehse said...

"Lutherans find great temptation to focus more on the invisible Church."

Temptation is not right word. In his 1889 essay, "The Distinction between Orthodox and Heterodox Churches", Franz Pieper stated his Thesis I: Every man's first and principal concern should be, that he belong to the Communion of Saints, that is, to the Invisible Church.

From early in its beginning (if not all the way back to Dr. Carl Vehse's 1839 Protestation document, or C.F.W. Walther's 1841 Altenburg Debate), the Missouri Synod has made its doctrinal understanding of the "invisible Church" known with Theses III - VII, IX, concerning the Church (C.F.W. Walther, Church and Ministry, trans. by J.T. Mueller, CPH, St. Louis, 1987, pp. 38-158).

For example, Walther quotes Luther (Comment on Galatians 5:19, Halle Edition, 8:2745): "Therefore we rightly confess in the Creed and say: 'I believe a holy Christian Church.' For it is invisible and lives in the Spirit at a place to which no one can come." [p.41], and Chemnitz (Loci theologici, part 3, p.117): "The true and holy church of the elect nevertheless remains invisible" [p.43], and John Gerhard (Loci thologici, 'De ecclesi", par. 151): "When we say: 'I believe one holy Christian church,' the word 'believe' shows clearly that we speak of the invisible church, which is proved also by the added adjective 'holy' [p.43], and many other Lutheran theologians are quoted similarly.

The Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod (1932) states the position that "the Christian Chruch on earth is invisible till Judgment Day, Col. 3:3,4."

John Theodore Mueller also discussed the "invisible Church" in his Christian Dogmatics (CPH, St. Louis, 1934), in the chapter on "The Doctrine of the Christian Church": A. The Church Universal (pp. 541-562). In his Section 3. The Properties of the Christian Church (pp. 547-549), Mueller states: "All who affirm that the Church is either wholly (papists) or partly (modern Lutheran theologians) visible destroy the Scriptural concept of the Church and change it from a communion of believers to an 'outward polity of the good and the wicked'”.

Anonymous said...

He Vehse, if thats your name, how do you belong to the invisible church without belonging to the visible one? is one pitted against eht other?

Tapani Simojoki said...

@ Carl Vehse:

Walther, and following him much of the creme de la creme of Missouri theologians, do indeed go to town on the in-/visible distinction. I would argue that that's a big mistake, and I hope that hey don't actually mean it in the way it sounds. See if you can find suppoting quotations in the Scriptures and Confessions.

One mustn't forget that Walther was a recovering pietist.

@ Pr. Peters

I grew up with a semi-circular altar rail. But for us, that was to confess our communion with the church triumphant, angels & archangels. I still love semi-circular rails above any other design.

Carl Vehse said...


While I cannot see the invisible (or hidden) Church, I can perceive that it is present when and where I see the marks of the Church, which are visible, so that what I can see is the visible church, which Walther defines in Thesis VI on the Church:

"In an improper sense, the visible community of all that have been called, i.e., of all who attend the preaching of the word, professing adherence thereto, and partake of the sacraments, a community consisting of good and evil men, is also, in accordance with holy Scripture, called the (universal catholic) church and the several divisions thereof, i.e., the congregation here and there existing, in which the word of God is preached and the sacraments are administered, are called [particular] churches, and that, because in these visible gatherings the invisible, true, properly so called, church of believers, saints, and children of God is concealed, and since without the aggregate of the called no elect must be sought."

Thus, while Christ assured the repentent thief on the cross that he was a member of the invisible church, according to Thesis VI the thief was also a member of the visible church, even though he was not a baptized member of a specific (congregation) church.

Lurker said...

Talk about reaching for it! "Thus, while Christ assured the repentent thief on the cross that he was a member of the invisible church, according to Thesis VI the thief was also a member of the visible church, even though he was not a baptized member of a specific (congregation) church." Its unbelievable how far some will go with a one time circumstance and extract to the modern circumstance. Really. Like which congregation were any of the apostles members of? Or the Virgin Mary? Whew, this is such a stretch it makes me tired to read it.

Carl Vehse said...

The terms, "Holy Trinity" and “Triune God," are not found anywhere in Scripture. However, the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is indeed found in both the Old and New Testaments and is held by all true believers - the invisible Church.

Bjarne W. Teigen, in "The Church in the New Testament, Luther, and the Lutheran Confessions" (Concordia Theological Quarterly, Vol. 42:4, Oct. 1978, p. 389) states: "[I]t may be quickly discerned that the terms 'invisible' and 'visible' are not used in the Book of Concord, but they are found among the later dogmaticians. It is the position of this paper that the dogmaticians, the Book of Concord, and the Luther are in doctrinal agreement on this point despite differing terminology."

In his Kirche und Amt, C.F.W. Walther provides a number of statements from Scripture and the Confessions on the doctrine of the invisible Church.

In addition to the previous quote from Martin Luther on the invisible church, let's not forget statements from other less-recognized "creme de la creme of Missouri theologians":

"The true and holy church of the elect nevertheless remains invisible." Martin Chemnitz (Loci theologici, part 3, p.117)

"When we say: 'I believe one holy Christian church,' the word 'believe' shows clearly that we speak of the invisible church, which is proved also by the added adjective 'holy'." John Gerhard (Loci theologici, 'De ecclesi", par. 151)

This understanding of the invisible church is the position of the Missouri Synod; between 1851 and 2001 the Missouri Synod in convention has passed fifteen doctrinal resolutions that specifically refer to the church in the proper sense as invisible, deny that the church in the proper sense is visible, or adopt theses or statements that make the same statements about the Church.

And, of course, it is, for which Luther praised God in the Smalcald Articles (XII.2), the definition of the church even a child seven years old knows.

Carl Vehse said...


Would you clarify the point you are making?

Anonymous said...

The point about the congregation the penetent theif on the cross was or was not a member of or his lack of baptism strains credibility. This was a onetime thing and not something to extrapolate from.

Carl Vehse said...

Anon. asked me the question, "how do you belong to the invisible church without belonging to the visible one?"

I answered the question with the example of the penitent thief on the cross.

Anon. responded "This was a onetime thing and not something to extrapolate from."

Anon., you are deluding yourself. Check out Acts 8; the Ethiopian eunuch was certainly a member of the invisible church. Scripture indicates no membership in a visible church, although he may have joined a visible church later. There is also Melanchthon's example in the Treatise, para 67. Furthermore, in time of war, chaplains have been asked to performed baptisms especially by those facing death in battle. Nurses in hospitals have performed baptisms on newborns who were dying because of birth defects or disease.

This is not to say that it is okay for a person to deliberately avoid joining a visible church once he becomes a Christian, but that it is possible to have membership in the invisible church before a Christian becomes a member of a visible church (and preferable the true visible church - the Lutheran Church).

Thank God the penitent thief is not a "onetime thing," but that God through Word and Sacrament brings people into the invisible church in locations in addition to a visible church.