Marks of the Church

As I said in a previous post, Christian Assembly: Marks of the Church in a Pluralistic Age is an amazing book. Anyone interested in ecclesiology (especially from a Lutheran perspective) should put this book on their short list. Some thoughts:

The authors are clear to say that the church is not defined by person (clergy, bishop, hierarchy, "the saved," Lutherans, believers of a particular creed, etc.) or place (geography, building, Rome, Canteburry, etc.). The church is an event, the action that takes place when God’s Word is spoken, God’s Word made incarnate in the sacraments, and God’s comfort granted in the forgiveness of sins. That is church. All other particulars, all the details – though important – are secondary matters, adiaphora, adamently not make-or-break issues for salvation or the integrity of the Gospel.

What does this mean? Well, this means that Lutherans have a concept of church that is not limited by people or place or structure or belief. Where the marks of the church are, there is the church – regardless of what it says on the sign out front. Period.

But then the authors also talk about the imortance of the adiaphora. Adiaphora doesn’t mean unimportant, but it does denote an issue of secondary importance when placed next to the life-giving Gospel and the living Word of God. Church structure/discipline, liturgy, music, style, education, formation, membership, faith practices – these and many other aspects of our congregational life can serve, support and enhance the central marks of the church. Conversely, they can also cheapen those marks, obscure them, and rob them of meaning.

And so when we talk about worship "style" and different forms of church organization, we are talking about secondary elements of our Christian life. Important? Yes. Does life or salvation hang on any of these things? No. The church – the Christian church, the Lutheran church, the church by the gas station – the church is that event that happens when God’s word is active in speech, in sacrament, in forgiveness. We Lutherans have a legacy of adiaphora that we have inherited from our forebearers in the faith – from worship styles to ecclesial organization to piety to theology – but these things do not define us or our church. The central marks of the church define us.

Which leads us to a new question: what does it mean to be Lutheran? Our own Lutheran tradition tells us that the marks of the church are word, eucharist, baptism, forgiveness of sins – but these are not uniquely Lutheran things! Perhaps by habit or inheritance we do them in a "Lutheran" way, but if church is defined "simply" by (shared, held-in-common, ecumenical) marks, then why or what makes us Lutheran?

This book doesn’t seek to answer the question, "What makes our churches Lutheran?" But I gather that this question is really an exercise in adiaphora. The Christian church is that gathering around the central marks of the church – that much is clear by this book – and the authors also discuss the ways in which, for Lutherans, these marks of the church are embraced and enacted in Lutheran ways – especially with the lenses of the theology of the cross and justification by grace through faith. But constructing a particularly Lutheran definition of church – down to organization, liturgies and styles – that’s not the point of this book.

What this book does is remind us of what is essential to the being of the church (and what can be the basis for ecumenical partnerships), and in doing so it subtly embraces a tension between tradition and freedom, inheritance and innovation – a tension I believe we Lutherans need to embrace from both ends, not just the more familar end of tradition and inheritance.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

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