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“God be praised—a seven-year-old child knows what the church is”

by Dr. Mary Jane Haemig (Professor, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

Conference Document - 2005

Presentation to WordAlone theological conference, November 7, 2005

Every Sunday you confess, when you say the Apostles’ Creed “I believe in one holy Christian church.” What does this mean? My purpose this morning is to give you a brief historical introduction to what Luther and the Lutheran reformers thought about the church. (This is what theologians call ecclesiology.) I want to give you a rather basic introduction – so I apologize to those of you who already know more than this – but I hope that even for you this will be a useful review.

Luther and his fellow reformers were confronted early with questions of church and authority. Was the Pope the head of the church? Roman Catholics claimed he was – more precisely they claimed that, according to divine law, the pope was head of the church. That is, they claimed that God had mandated the pope to be the head of the church. Of course, that argument was based on Matthew 16:18-19 "on this rock I will build my church ...I will give you the keys..." The pope, the successor of Peter, was the "vicar of Christ." (Notice the assumption: Christ is absent; someone (the pope) must represent him.) At the Leipzig debate (1519) Luther rejected the claim that the pope was, according to divine law, head of the church. Christ alone is head of the church. One of Luther’s most famous treatises, To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation (1520), diagnosed problems stemming from a faulty concept of authority in the church. Luther named the three "walls" the Roman church used to defend itself - and Luther abolished them!

  1. The claim that clergy are separate from and superior to laity. (Luther countered with the Priesthood of all believers)
  2. Only the pope may interpret Scripture (Luther: any Christian is competent)
  3. Only the pope has the right to call a Council (Luther: any Christian does)

In the 1520s Luther and his followers called for a Council to be held to reform the church. In fact many of the discussions of “church” in the 1520s and 1530s come within the context of discussions of possibility of a council. Another context for discussion of “church” were the persistent claims made against Luther and his followers that they had gone against the church, departed from the historic faith, and were schismatics. Luther and the reformers sought to show that they were in continuity with the apostolic faith and had not departed from the church – of course, it all depended on what you meant by church!

I. Small Catechism

Let’s start our discussion with Luther’s Small Catechism. The creed states “I believe in one Holy Christian Church” and Luther explains:

I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me with his gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith, just as he calls, gathers, enlightens, and makes holy the whole Christian church on earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith. Daily in this Christian church the Holy Spirit abundantly forgives all sins – mine and those of all believers…(Kolb/Wengert 355-6)

You notice several things right away: Just as I cannot create my own faith, so I cannot create the church. Just as the Holy Spirit gives faith and keeps us in the faith, so also the Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the church. I don’t decide to join the church and we don’t decide to form the church. It’s all God’s work. The church exists because God the Holy Spirit is active.

II. Augsburg confession

The basic definition of the church is found in AC 7. It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church. It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel. For this is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that there the gospel is preached harmoniously according to a pure understanding and the sacraments are administered in conformity with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that uniform ceremonies, instituted by human beings, be observed everywhere. As Paul says in Ephesians 4 [:4-5]: “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” (Kolb/Wengert 42)

Note first that the reformers did not include this among the “disputed articles” (In the Augsburg Confession Articles 22 through 28 are known as “Disputed Articles, Listing the Abuses That Have Been Corrected.”) As the confessors stated at the conclusion of Part One “As can be seen, there is nothing here that departs from the Scriptures or the catholic church, or from the roman church…” (Kolb/Wengert 59) So the reformers were stating what they believed was the true understanding of the church as Christians had known that understanding. The reformers did not see themselves as innovators, rather as recovering what had previously been taught.

I want us to look closely at AC 7 “It is also taught that at all times there must be and remain one holy, Christian church.” This first line, of course, echoes the ecumenical creeds. “I believe in the holy Christian church” “I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” (Note: Luther followed medieval practice in translating “Christian” from Latin into German.) The reformers stressed their continuity with the apostolic faith. Notice those words “be and remain” – the reformers believed that the church would always endure because Christ said so and he can be trusted. (One implication of this is that even in the midst of the worst of medieval Roman papacy, God preserved the church. There never has been a time when the church has not been preserved!) Contrary to their detractors, the reformers were not schismatic – they firmly believed that God preserved one church. The reformers believed the church was one - they said this despite obvious divisions even in their time (Think of the divisions between the Eastern and Western churches); it is clear that they did not think its unity consisted in organizational unity. One more thing: notice this does not say “there must be and remain one holy Lutheran church.

In the next sentence the reformers define what church is: “It is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel.” Believers exist only where there is faith – and faith comes from the work of the Holy Spirit through the means of grace, the preached word and the sacraments. So we are not talking about any assembly of people -- we are not talking about a group of like-minded people who have decided to get together, like the garden club, the Rotary, or the boy scouts. The church is a particular type of assembly – that assembly of believers among whom the activity of the Holy Spirit in Word and sacrament takes place. So ultimately it is the means of grace, word and sacrament, that identifies the church – not the people assembled nor the persons presiding.

When Lutherans talk about the church they should talk about what’s happening – not about who’s in charge or even about who’s there. This is a theological definition of the church that is activity – centered It is not person-centered, that is, it does not focus either on the people gathered or on the ministers proclaiming or leading. It is also not centered around an organization. When we say “activity centered” it is key that we recognize we are talking about God’s activity in Word and Sacrament, not our activity in coming together, creating an organization or even our activity in administering Word and Sacrament.

As many have noted, this is a “minimalist” definition of church. In fact, it specifically rejects the claim that something else is necessary – universal uniform ceremonies. The Augsburg Confession does not reject the use of human structures and forms to support the activities of Word and Sacrament but it never makes particular structures or forms necessary. This would have made something more than Word and Sacrament necessary for the church. Many parts of the Augsburg Confession would never have been written if the reformers had not had to confront continually the threat posed to the apostolic faith by matters that human authority had added to the faith. Check the warnings about church regulations in AC 15, the protest in article 24 against the way the mass had been abused, and the statement in article 28 that the bishops have introduced new forms of worship and burdened consciences.

Finally, we should recognize that AC 7 offers a humbling definition – it makes very clear that we don’t make the church, God does!

III. The 1530s and later

The Lutheran reformers did not back away from the description of the church in AC 7 but rather defended it and fleshed out exactly what it meant. In the 1530s Luther and the reformers continually faced the argument “How can you claim to be right? How can you go against what the church has taught? You have separated yourself from the true church! You are therefore heretics!” Luther and the reformers did not back down! Instead they further sharpened their thinking.

Luther wrote the Smalcald Articles as a summary of his theology, to be used by the Lutheran reformers at a future ecumenical council. Luther does not discuss the church until almost the end of the Smalcald Articles. The brief first part deals with the “lofty articles of the divine majesty” and the longer second part with the “office and work of Jesus Christ.” In that second part Luther dismisses the notion that the pope is head of the church by divine right. Luther had argued this since the Leipzig debate (1519). Christ was the true head of the church. The third part of the Smalcald articles treats a series of doctrinal topics -- sin, law, repentence, gospel, baptism, Lord’s Supper, Keys, Confession and several other topics before it finally gets to Church at #12. What Luther has done is he has first described all the activities of the Holy Spirit to gather call, gather, enlighten, and sanctify the church. So by the time he gets to stating what the church is, it’s obvious:

We do not concede to them that they are the church, and frankly they are not the church. We do not want to hear what they command or forbid in the name of the church, because, God be praised, a seven-year-old child knows what the church is: holy believers and “the little sheep who hear the voice of their shepherd.” This is why children pray in this way, “I believe in one holy Christian church.” This holiness does not consist of surplices, tonsures, long albs, or other ceremonies of theirs that they have invented over and above the Holy Scriptures. Its holiness exists in the Word of God and true faith. (Kolb/Wengert 324)

Did you hear that note of sarcasm? You can hear Luther answering his critics! They had based their claims in the “authority of the church.” But what they called the church was not in fact the church! The church was something quite different – and even a seven-year-old child knows that!In 1537 Philip Melanchthon wrote his Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope. It was intended to supplement article 28 of the Augsburg Confession, “The Power of Bishops.” [I call this the most-ignored of the Lutheran Confessional writings. The reason is obvious – it could upset some ecumenical applecarts.] In this treatise Melanchthon demolishes the claims that the pope is by divine right above all bishops and pastors, that the pope by divine right has authority to bestow and transfer both ecclesiastical and secular kingdoms, and that it is necessary for salvation to believe these things. He then discusses “the Power and Jurisdiction of bishops.” What is relevant here is not so much his attack on medieval hierarchical structures, but rather where he locates the right to administer the Gospel, the right to see to the doing of Word and Sacrament. That right is in the church!

The Gospel bestows upon those who preside over the churches the commission to proclaim the Gospel, forgive sins, and administer the sacraments…It is universally acknowledged, even by our opponents, that this power is shared by divine right by all who preside in the churches, whether they are called pastors, presbyters, or bishops…

…since the distinction of rank between bishop and pastor is not by divine right, it is clear that an ordination performed by a pastor in his own church is valid by divine right.

As a result, when the regular bishops become enemies of the gospel or are unwilling to ordain, the churches retain their right to do so. For wherever the church exists, there also is the right to administer the Gospel. Therefore it is necessary for the church to retain the right to call, choose, and ordain ministers.

This right is a gift bestowed exclusively on the church, and no human authority can take it away from the church…Among those gifts belonging to the church [Paul] lists pastos and teachers and adds that such are given for serving and building up the body of Christ. Therefore, where the true church is, there must also be the right of choosing and ordaining ministers. (Kolb/Wengert 340-341)

Did you notice? “The Gospel bestows…” not some other authority. The church – not the pope or the bishops – has the right to administer the gospel, to chose and ordain ministers.

But Luther and Melancthon were not yet done!

In 1539 Martin Luther wrote a lengthy treatise On the Councils and the Church. One thing this treatise shows is that Luther had been doing a lot of reading on the matter of the church and giving a lot of thought to what the church really was. In Part I Luther argued that it was impossible to achieve a reformation on the basis of the councils and the fathers. He cited the fact that “it is obvious that the councils are not only unequal, but also contradictory. The same is true of the fathers. If we should try to bring them into accord with one another, far greater discord and disputes would ensue than we have at present, and we would never get out of it.” (LW 41, 20) In other words, don’t rely upon the church fathers and the ancient councils for an authoritative precedent to tell you what to do in the church. In Part II Luther reviewed the first four ecumenical councils: Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. He concluded that they did not establish any new articles of faith, for the doctrines they formulated were already present in the gospels. Rather they defended “the ancient faith and the ancient good works in conformity with scripture.” (LW 41, 122) If they established anything new in regard to faith or good works, the Holy Spirit had not had a hand in it and they are acting outside of the Scriptures.

The most important part of this is Part III, where Luther gives seven signs of the true church: (Luther's Works 41, 148) As Luther puts it: "Well then, the Children's Creed teaches us that a Christian holy people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world ... How will or how can a poor confused person tell where such Christian holy people are to be found in this world?" As you listen to these seven signs, notice several things: 1) Luther does not think the church is invisible – but it may not be immediately apparent, it may be hidden and therefore you have to look for signs, 2) these signs are visible, audible, perceivable, and 3) the signs Luther discusses are simply the ones he and other reformers discussed earlier.

1. "possession of the holy word of God" "This is the principal item ... for God's word is holy and sanctifies everything it touches ... For the Holy Spirit himself administers it and anoints or sanctifies the Christian church with it..." "Yet this holy possession is the true holy possession, the true ointment that anoints unto life eternal, even though you cannot have a papal crown or a bishop's hat, but must die bare and naked, just like children (in fact, all of us), who are baptized naked and without any adornment. But we are speaking of the external word, preached orally by men like you and me, for this is what Christ left behind as an external sign by which his church, or his Christian people in the world, should be recognized." (149) "Now wherever you hear or see this word preached, believed, professed, and lived, do not doubt that the true ecclesia sancta catholica, a 'Christian holy people' must be there, even though their number is very small ... And even if there were no other sign than this alone, it would still suffice to prove that a Christian, holy people must exist there, for God's word cannot be without God's people and conversely, God's people cannot be without God's word. (150)

Notice, once again, that this activity of the Word is not dependent upon or linked to a particular institutional form or a particular person. It is possible for this Word to happen in churches with a great variety of outward institutional forms.

2. The holy sacrament of baptism. "A public sign and a precious, holy possession by which God's people are sanctified."

3. The holy sacrament of the altar. “this too is a public sign and a precious, holy possession left behind by Christ by which his people are sanctified so that they also exercise themselves in faith and openly confess that they are Christian…(152)

4. The office of the keys exercised publicly. "Now where you see sins forgiven or reproved in some persons, be it publicly or privately, you may know that God's people are there." (153)

5. "the church is recognized externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer." There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who…give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things…in behalf of and in the name of the church..." (154)

Notice that the discussion of ministers and offices comes AFTER word, baptism, Lord’s Supper, and keys. These are the chief things – and we only appoint ministers because we want to make sure that these get done. The sixth sign is what we do in response to all God has done for us.

6. "the holy Christian people are externally recognized by prayer, public praise, and thanksgiving to God." (164)

But Luther is not done. He knows from both scripture and experience that there is yet another sign of the true church. The seventh sign is the one that we find most difficult.

7. "...the holy Christian people are externally recognized by the holy possession of the sacred cross. They must endure every misfortune and persecution, all kinds of trials and evil from the devil, the world, and the flesh (as the Lord's Prayer indicates) by inward sadness, timidity, fear, outward poverty, contempt, illness, and weakness, in order to become like their head, Christ. And the only reason they must suffer is that they steadfastly, adhere to Christ and God's word, enduring this for the sake of Christ, Matthew 5 [:11]...... In summary, they must be called heretics, knaves, and devils, the most pernicious people on earth…And all of this is done not because they are adulterers, murderers, thieves, or rogues, but because they want to have none but Christ, and no other God. Wherever you see or hear this, you may know that the holy christian church is there..." (164-165)

Luther gives one final piece of advice on how to find the true church.

"Now when the devil saw that God built such a holy church, he was not idle, and erected his chapel beside it, larger than God's temple ... Oh, he is far better equipped with sacraments, prophets, apostles, and evangelists than God, and his chapels are much larger than God's church; and he has far more people in his holiness than God. One is also more inclined to believe his promises, his sacraments, and his prophets than Christ. He is the great god of the world." (167)

Luther was not the only one to write extensively on the church at the end of the 1530s. Philip Melancthon wrote a treatise On the Church and the Church Fathers in 1539 [1] in which he dealt extensively with Roman claims.

I have cited these testimonies for this reason, so that first it might be considered what the church is, and so that the mind may be led away from the carnal opinions which imagine that the church is the papal state tied to the orderly succession of bishops, as kingdoms are upheld by an orderly succession of rulers. But with the church it is a different matter, for it is an assembly not bound to an orderly succession, but to the Word of God. The church is reborn where God restores the doctrine, and gives his Holy Spirit. Paul testifies in Eph. 4[:11] that the church is ruled and preserved in this manner, not by orderly succession: ‘He gave gifts to men, apostles, prophets….’ He teaches that the true church is where Christ is at work and where he bestows true teachers. Therefore, when the name and the authority of the church is opposed to us, let us first consider whether they are speaking of the true church or about the papal assembly and its succession and form of government. Let us not permit ourselves to be scared away from the Word of God by the false protection of the name church.[2]

Melanchthon’s words are blunt – don’t try to scare us by arguing that you are the church and we are not! We know what the church is!

The Lutheran reformers did not back away from their view of the church in the 1530s, nor in subsequent years. They did not, in the heat of battle (whether among themselves or with other Christians) decide that they had been wrong or that they needed to amend their notion. They did not long for some other authority – be it a council of bishops or a pope or the testimony of the individual conscience – but instead acknowledged only Jesus Christ as witnessed in the scriptures. They did not think that the unity of the church meant that all had to be part of the same visible human organization or subject to the same human head. Further, they did not seek a church that was “pure” in any sense other than purity of doctrine. Let me say a few words about that last one – the reformers knew that the membership of the visible church is always mixed. Saints and sinners both – and even the saints are also sinners. Nowhere in their discussions of the church do they maintain that here on earth we can separate these. The holiness and purity of the church rests not in its membership but rather in the Word.

IV. Recurring questions:

Someone may say at this point, “Well, it’s all nice in theory, but what about the real world? Don’t we live in a world where we have to decide difficult issues in the Christian faith and in the church? And don’t we really need an authoritative person or structure to do that? The Confessors of the sixteenth century lived in that difficult world too, and in the midst of that they clung only to Christ.


[1] Printed under another title in Commentary on Romans translated by Fred Kramer (Concordia, 1992),

[2] Ibid., p. 242.

A. How do we decide difficult issues in the faith? And how can we be sure that what he hear preached and taught is correct? Since we believe that Christ, the Word, is present and active among us in the preaching of the Word, in baptism,in the Lord’s Supper, we cannot despair even in the face of difficult issues, exegetical confusion, and ecclesiastical collapse. Tempting as it is to ask for an authoritative human or human structure or office to solve our problems, we cannot do this for Christ alone rules over what is preached and taught in our churches.

We believe, teach, and confess that the only rule and guiding principle according to which all teaching and teachers are to be evaluated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments alone…(Epitome, Kolb/Wengert, 486)

Luther and the reformers made clear that it is a task for all Christians to discern what is true and false in the faith. In fact, one of the reasons the reformers insisted that laypeople learn Luther’s Small Catechism was so even the simplest layperson could pass judgment on what was preached to him, on what was true and false in the faith.

B. What about ministers/pastors/called people? What is their status?

The Augsburg Confession in article 5 speaks of Preaching and Ministry not preachers and ministers. This would seem to open the door to anyone engaging in the doing of Word and Sacrament. But the reformers were not careless – for in article 14 they stated “it is taught that no one should publicly teach, preach, or administer the sacraments without a proper call.” The key word here is public – we call certain people to do these activities publicly. These people serve the church but do not constitute it or define it. More specifically, they serve the task of proclamation – but they do not define that proclamation.

C. What about outward structure? If one isn’t mandated, can’t we do anything?

Yes, we can do anything! But what do we want to do? The Lutheran confessors were willing in their time and place to allow the structures and offices of the Roman church IF it was agreed that these were by human, not divine right. In their time, they were willing to have bishops and even a pope, if all had a proper understanding of these as offices set up by humans for the purpose of serving the church.

We live in a different time and place. The Lutheran confessions give us a freedom to shape the outward visible structure that supports Word and sacrament ministry in whatever way best supports the doing of that ministry in our time and place – as long as we do not make anything other than Word and sacrament necessary for the church.

Historically Lutheran churches have taken many forms – from the hierarchical to the congregational. Lutherans in North America, freed from the constraints of their European state churches, tended at first to have structures that were very “flat” -- focusing responsibility and energy on the congregation. Lutherans spent much time and energy in the 20th century on organizational mergers. We’ve had an unfortunate tendency to think that the doing of “church” depends on how big, encompassing, and inclusive our organization is. We’ve focused on the external human form. But as Lutherans our confessions call us continually to remember, as apology 7 puts it that the church is not only an association of external ties and rites like other civic organizations, but it is principally an association of faith and the Holy Spirit in the hearts of persons. It nevertheless has its external marks so that it can be recognized, namely, the pure teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the gospel of Christ. (Kolb/Wengert 174)


Why is this all important? It’s important precisely so that we do NOT focus on the church but rather on the Word, Jesus Christ. That Word calls us to spread his word everywhere. We are not to be occupied with “the church” but rather with Christ and our neighbor!. We are most “the church” when we are not reflecting on what it means to be church but rather when we are actually seeing to the doing of Word and Sacrament.