Our churches teach that one holy Church is to remain forever. The Church is the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. For the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree about the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies instituted by men, should be the same everywhere. As Paul says, “One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Ephesians 4:5-6). (Augsburg Confession, “Article VII: The Church”).
We have a great treasure in our church. And I do not say that to puff us up. The great treasure has nothing to do with our goodness, but everything to do with the presence and promises of Jesus.
When the first Lutherans presented the Augsburg Confession, the Roman Catholic Church was the only game in town. It was big, authoritarian, and ritualistic. Rome also considered themselves to be the only Christian church; therefore, they said the Lutherans were not part of Christ’s Church. In response, the Lutherans focused on the essentials of what Scripture teaches about the Church.
First, they confessed that the Church is one, and it is eternal. Even though they were excommunicated from Rome and forced to organize separately, they were not starting a new church. They confessed that there is still only one Church, because there is one Lord, and the Church is his body. Christ is the head of the Church, and he is the reason it will remain forever. He promised, “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Congregations or associations may shrink or close, but Christ’s Church is bigger than one congregation, and it will endure forever, even beyond this world.
Our Lutheran fathers defined the church on earth as “the congregation of saints in which the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered.” It is not the organization or the hierarchy that makes the Church. It is simply wherever God’s people are gathered around his Word and Sacraments that the Church exists. It is through these means that Jesus does his kingly work, so that’s where the Church is. Through his Word and Sacraments, Jesus sets us free from sin, death, and the power of the devil, and he rules in our hearts.
The primary activity, and the standard for unity in the Church, is the preaching of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. It is not necessary that rituals in every congregation need to be the same. Now this does not mean that anything goes, and it does not mean that all practices are equal. Some practices are better than others. Some church practices are contrary to Scripture. But we do not insist that everything has to be identical, because Scripture has not prescribed every detail of worship. The heart of worship is the Gospel and the Sacraments, because these are the means Jesus uses to serve us, and that’s what worship is all about. Where congregations agree on this and focus on this, we have unity.
The “Gospel and the Sacraments” is not a low bar for Church unity. Unfortunately, we have serious disagreements with other Christians about what the Gospel is, or what the Sacraments are and how they should be administered. These are the essentials. These are the very things that should unite us, so we cannot compromise them in order to have unity with other Christians. To compromise them would leave us with nothing, or at least very close to nothing. Then we would have unity, but with very little content. I have often heard Christians categorize Baptism as a “secondary doctrine,” meaning that, for the sake of unity, we shouldn’t make a big deal of it. If Baptism is a secondary doctrine, there aren’t very many primary doctrines. Of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament, at least fifteen teach something about Baptism. You can’t say that about much else. Instead of compromising on what we have, we joyfully cling to it and pray that all people would come to experience the freedom and joy we have in the Gospel and the Sacraments.
The peace of Christ be with you all,
Pastor Dan Antal