A Laymen’s Commentary on the Smalcald Articles: The Church

Part III, Article XII. Of the Church.

1] We do not concede to them that they are the Church, and [in truth] they are not [the Church]; nor will we listen to those things which, under the name of Church, they enjoin or forbid. 2] For, thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd. For the children pray thus: I believe in one holy [catholic or] Christian Church. 3] This holiness does not consist in albs, tonsures, long gowns, and other of their ceremonies devised by them beyond Holy Scripture, but in the Word of God and true faith.

For papists the Church is whoever is subject to the pope, and thus in order to be the Church they must be part of the Roman Catholic church. We flatly reject this notion of what church is.  Rather as Luther artfully puts it the Church can be best defined by a seven-year-old child.  Note that in Luther’s day it was thought that children started to gain abstract thinking at seven. This is the point when catechesis switches from rote repetition to more in-depth instruction.  Even this seven year old child can define the church better than theologians who have thought for years about the topic.

The Church is not found by outward ceremonies but rather by true faith and adherence to that which our Lord commands us (John 10:1-21).  Where the Word and Sacraments are rightly taught and administered, there is the true Church. Thus we claim (as all denominations should claim about themselves) that the Lutheran church is the True Visible Church on Earth (TVCE).

That said the church is broader than just the True Visible Church on Earth.  We would certainly say that there are Christians in other denominations. They are not part of the True Visible Church though.

The Church is an article of faith, as confessed in the Creed.  We will not apprehend the true church until we reach heaven.  Then the visible and invisible church will be one and the same.

1 Built on the Rock the Church shall stand
Even when steeples are falling.
Crumbled have spires in ev’ry land;
Bells still are chiming and calling,
Calling the young and old to rest,
But above all the soul distressed,
Longing for rest everlasting.

2 Surely in temples made with hands
God, the Most High, is not dwelling;
High above earth His temple stands,
All earthly temples excelling.
Yet He who dwells in heav’n above
Chooses to live with us in love,
Making our bodies His temple.

3 We are God’s house of living stones,
Built for His own habitation.
He through baptismal grace us owns
Heirs of His wondrous salvation.
Were we but two His name to tell,
Yet He would deign with us to dwell
With all His grace and His favor.

4 Here stands the font before our eyes,
Telling how God has received us.
The altar recalls Christ’s sacrifice
And what His Supper here gives us.
Here sound the Scriptures that proclaim
Christ yesterday, today, the same,
And evermore, our Redeemer.

5 Grant, then, O God, Your will be done,
That, when the church bells are ringing,
Many in saving faith may come
Where Christ His message is bringing:
“I know MY own; My own know Me.
You, not the world, My face shall see.
My peace I leave with you. Amen.”

(LSB 645)

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