Chapter 28: The Church
"I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" -- so reads the common Christian confession of faith. Almost every word of the sentence is incomprehensible for the present-day man, and even for the average Christian. Luther called the word Church a "blank" and would have preferred the term "the Christian folk." "Church" means for most people the great building with the tower and chimes where every Sunday services of worship are conducted. All of that, to be sure, is used by the Church and reminds us that the matter of greatest significance in the Church is the proclamation of the Gospel. But the misunderstanding is just as great. As if the modest chapel near by were not just as truly a Church! As though there were Church only where there is a clergyman. What is meant in the New Testament by the word we translate "Church"? What is the Church of which the creed speaks?
Church, in Greek is called "ekklesia," which means, -- the chosen band. Just as the herald in former times read the royal proclamations in the market-place, and men poured forth from the houses into the square in obedience to his voice and listened to his message; or as the recruiting officer came into a village and with attractive speech won the young men into the army of some great lord, -- in similar manner there sounds forth among us God's call to salvation, the "come unto me all ye!" of the world's Saviour. The Company of them that hear and heed this call
constitute the "army" of God. The army he has won, "bought with a price," is the Church. Every one who heeds the call of Christ belongs to it, be he Catholic, Quaker, Methodist, or Reformed. One thing only is decisive: have you really heard, and really heeded the call, or have you made but an exterior gesture of joining this or that? And because this decisive matter can never be seen, judged, or evaluated from the outside, because unlike the military forces of a great king, no one can see or enumerate those who have become part of the "church army" of God, because this hearing and heeding of God's call is a hidden matter, known only to God Himself, we speak also of the invisible Church.
To be sure Christ desires no invisible army. He wants a host of such a kind that even the children of this world, who know nothing of faith nor want to know, will be able to note that there is something mightily at work within these "called-soldiers"; that they obey a mighty Other and no longer their own wills. And Christ now recruits this band through his "recruiting officers" his "heralds." The first heralds were the Apostles and for that reason the Church is called Apostolic. The Church rests on them; that is to say, upon the message which they proclaimed, upon the message of Jesus the Son of God, crucified and arisen, the message of the Kingdom and the Reign of God. One belongs to the Church when one is recruited by this message for Christ the King and Lord; and that means belonging to the Kingdom of God, now hidden, until it shall one day be revealed at the time of the end of all things.
This Church is not only "Apostolic," meaning "founded by the Apostles" but it is also universal. Formerly it was called "Catholic," but every man understands by that the Roman Catholic Church, which is something quite different. Universal means spread over the whole world. One army -- whether in Switzerland or in America or in Japan, wherever men "call upon the name of the Lord Jesus" at all times and in all places. Universal, too, in the sense that it cuts across all state churches, confessions, and sects. Christ does not have all his people in one body; they are not only scattered about through all lands, but are among all church organizations. The Roman Catholics rightly lament this latter fact. There should be but one Church. How much more driving power it would have, how much greater its impact on the world! And conversely: how the name of Jesus is blasphemed because there are so many churches, sects, and confessions! Why is it so? Because people did not remain in the truth, that is to say, the truth the Apostles proclaimed. And also be- cause pride, contentiousness, and pomposity supposed something additional was necessary, something beyond the hearing and the heeding of God's call. Sects have been formed for all sorts of insignificant reasons; for the most part, to be sure, because some established "church" had gone spiritually to sleep or had languished. There should be only one Church, but this unity can come only from a powerful renewal of faith, a new Reformation created out of the depths of the Gospel.
The most important and difficult word is the Holy Church. Holy doesn't mean what one usually under- stands it to signify, but means "belonging to God." That is definitive not only for the Church, but for eternal life also. He who does not belong to God and who has not really been enlisted, cannot be saved and must be lost. A man belongs to God and becomes holy by accepting the divine promise of forgiveness in repentance and faith. When that occurs another person is received into the Church, a new member grows upon the body "whose head is Christ." How does one get into the Church? Solely and simply by a hearty trust in and obedience to the Word of God. To establish "obedience to the faith among all nations" was the purpose of Paul in setting forth, and it was in this way that he enlisted the Church, the Army of God. Obedience to the faith is the touchstone of true Church membership.