The unity of this church which Rome insists is both from and back to the papacy is not so much a Protestant concern. To be sure, the external reality of different denominations is a scandal and it would be better if we were all united and had one address for our church headquarters. But... the great Protestant image of the church is less a one church than little bits of that one church divied up and deposited in various and different churches so that no one can ever claim the fullness and the most any one part can claim is a little chip of the whole. Christianity has become like the various Bible versions -- an objective reality known only in spiritual or theoretical form with a subjective reality in differences and divisions in which none can claim absolute truth. The so-called unity in diversity.
Lutherans have succombed to this kind of thinking and have begun speaking as if the great ecumenical endeavor were a physical unity before the world in which doctrincal differences are irritants that, while never fully overcome, are best ignored iin the belief that real unanimity is either impossible or not all that important -- since the best we can ever know is partial truth. So some Lutherans are content in being in communion with those who share no common teaching on Scripture, salvation, sacraments, etc., but who have decided to let the differences not be church dividing. On the other hand, many of these Lutherans and those with whom they are in formal communion have raised up a standard more rigorous and important than common confession, namely, social justice in its manifold forms.
Some in Missouri have also given into the idea that we are but one among many, each with their own little bit of Christ and their own slant on the truth. Until Christ comes, we cannot say which is right or wrong except in their most offensive and extreme forms. Into this diversity party come the jarring voices of our past which insist that Lutheranism is not merely one version of the truth or one bit and piece of the church catholic, but the one, holy, catholic church on earth. This church is not only spiritual and invisible but visible and concrete in the gathering of people around the Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. The one church is invisible in respect to the "who," and visible in respect to the "where."—Pastor Kurt Marquart, The Church, p. 23.
Even more bluntly. It is claimed by our Lutheran fathers that Lutheranism existed before Luther (before Luther was, Lutheranism is). We insist that the Confessions of our Church confess not part of the faith or one version of the faith but the evangelical and catholic faith received as the sacred deposit from the apostles and prophets and kept true and without error to the present age. Now the structures of Lutheranism may come and go and even the name of Lutheranism fully and finally disappear but the faith remains, endures, and will not be lost.
From the get go, the reformers' claim was not newness or novelty but fealty. They sought to demonstrate that what is is that Lutherans believed, confessed, and taught was that which, from the beginning, had been believed, confessed, and taught. In the Augustana, they make the bold statement: “Our churches do not dissent from any article of the faith held by the Church catholic” (AC, Part II, 1) and in the Formula of Concord they insist that they confess “the simple, unchangeable, permanent truth” (SD, RN, 20). The later dogmaticians elaborate on this claim. Johann Gerhard, whose four volume Confessio Catholica was written to prove the claim of catholicity for Lutheran doctrine and to give evidence of its presence in every age of the Church. Unless you disavow this intention, the very name Lutheran is itself an insistence that the orthodox, catholic, Christian, faith and doctrine confessed in this Confession is the faith the Church has held through every age. Individual church bodies may err but this confession is faithful and true to the Scriptures.
This is not a claim of arrogance but of faithfulness. It is not a claim that a particular church body or structure is error proof or that its boundaries define what is the true, visible church on earth. But it is the claim that Lutherans are not a sect, do not possess merely a portion of the truth, or that they represent but one version of Christianity (equal to and not inferior to any other version of Christian doctrine). Today more than ever, Lutherans seem to be uncomfortable with this and backtracking from the bold statements of their Confessions.
Marquart has it right. The one church is invisible in respect to the "who," and visible in respect to the "where." The where is defined not by claim but by confession, not by lineage but by faithfulness, not by size but by marks. The name Lutheran is new but the confession is not. I cannot understand why anyone would want to identify with a name that stood for any less -- unless they also believed that, for all practical purposes, there is no longer the evangelical and catholic faith but merely the leftovers of its history deposited here and there throughout the remnants of a Christianity which can never be fully known or known in its fullness (confession) or identifiable in its location. That is the real meaning of a virtual church.
As long as there has been an orthodox Church on earth, so long there has been a Lutheran Church. It sounds strange, but it is true, the Lutheran Church is as old as the world; for it has no other doctrine than that which the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles received from God, and proclaimed. The name Lutheran, indeed, did not come into existence until three hundred years ago, but not the matter which that name signifies. Accordingly, the question, Where was the Lutheran Church before Luther? is easily answered, thus: The Lutheran Church was wherever there still were Christians who with all their heart believed in Jesus Christ and His Holy Word, and would not surrender this alone-saving faith of theirs in favor of human ordinances, or who made this Church their final refuge in the hour of death. (W. H. T. Dau in Four Hundred Years: Commemorative Essay On the Reformation, p.313).