Defining the church was a pertinent question for the Reformers and the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) and remains a difficult issue to navigate today. Any cogent account of the church needs biblical justification as the Bible records its origins and what Christ and the apostles thought of it. Therefore, based on the biblical data, the church has three main characteristics: 1) it is composed of people called and predestined in Christ Jesus, 2) it is the body of Christ, metaphorically speaking, and 3) those who are in the church live a noticeably different lifestyle than their neighbors outside of it. These three do not define the church independently but rather are intertwined. Further, while criteria outside of these three could apply to the church, these three characteristics are necessary conditions for the church to be what it is.
The apostles, particularly Paul, viewed the church not as a random culmination of persons but rather as a people sovereignly elected by God’s volition and unfathomable wisdom (Rom 11:28-36). This election often was viewed in conjunction with God’s election of Israel as a nation as well (Rom 9:2-33); in the same way God chose a small and weak nation to bring light to the nations, God chose what is foolish and weak in order to shame what is wise and strong (1 Cor 1:18-31). Questions of how God sovereignly elects persons (i.e. causal determinism, foreknowledge, middle knowledge, etc.) are not directly answered by scripture, but it was the biblical authors’ view that God was not merely random in his election. For example, Paul in his letter to the Romans, says, “And [the saints] whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Rom 8:30) (1). Just before this statement Paul also remarks that God works all things for the good of those who love him (Rom 8:28). This predestination to be holy and blameless before him occurred before the foundation of the world, and God did this out of love to the praise of his glorious grace (Eph 1:4-6).
Further, Jesus himself says, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me… My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand” (John 10:27, 29). Therefore, the church is fundamentally composed of people God has known and loved since before creation. He has oriented history to bring persons to himself and live well as Christ’s representatives on the earth (Eph 2:8-10).
The apostles conceptualized the united church as Christ’s body on the earth which bears witness to his death and resurrection not only as a historical fact but as a living reality. As such, the church acts on Christ’s behalf fulfilling the role given to yet rejected by humanity in the initial creation (Gen 1:27, 3:6). The church is constituted by individuals collectively being conformed to the refurbished image of God in Christ (Rom 8:29). It is this image of Christ’s body which formed the rhetorical force of Paul’s exhortations. Paul compares the interdependency of believers to that of a body. Because the eye cannot reject the hand and the head cannot reject the feet, believers within Christ’s body cannot reject or look down upon different members as all are essential (1 Cor 12:12-30). It is this collective sum with its varying gifts which is charged with preaching the gospel (Acts 1:8), ministering to the poor (Gal 2:10), and modeling the higher way of love to all people (1 Cor 13:1-13).
Further, the church as Christ’s body forms the ethical basis for relations among Christians. In order to magnify the role of the church as Christ’s body, Paul instructs that marriages within the church reflect the unity between Christ himself and his body. In the same way that the church submits to Christ’s headship, the wife submits to the husband’s headship, and similarly to how Christ loves the church, his body, the husband must self-sacrificially love his wife (Eph 5:22-33). Due to the church being Christ’s body, it must represent Christ to the world in a way that is necessarily different from how the world lives, and the world retaliates against it (John 15:18-25). Therefore, the Christian life must be noticeably different than that of the world.
Finally, the church, as the body of Christ, practices the lifestyle modeled by Jesus Christ, so the church is, fundamentally, a community of faith, or trust. In conjunction with the acts of love mentioned above, the church is also comprised of those who (if they are able) partake in the two sacraments prescribed by scripture as proper for those set apart in Christ: Baptism (Acts 2:38) and the Lord’s Supper (Matt 26:26-28). These acts proceed primarily as acts taken by faith which unify the community and mark them as one and set apart from the world (Eph 4:4-6; 1 Cor 11:27-34). Refusal to receive these sacraments is to refuse to identify with the Lord’s death and resurrection and remember Christ as he instructed his church.
Corporate participation in these acts also reflect the relationship between the part and the whole as each individual receives the sacraments of their own accord while it is the entire church which participates in and facilitates these sacraments. In this way, faith indwells the particular members of the church as individuals, but the life of faith can only properly manifest in communion with other believers (Col 3:12-17). An example of this truth is found in Paul’s letter to Philemon. While Paul appeals to Philemon for him to live out his faith rightly as an individual (Phlm 17), it is within the larger context of the church the letter is meant to be read aloud (Phlm 2). The community of faith fosters the life of faith thereby making communion within the church necessary for orthodox belief and practice.
The medieval schoolmen differed from this view on a number of points as they defined the qualifications for the church largely in relation to the sacraments. Canon 1 of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 confessed that, “There is one Universal Church of the faithful, outside of which there is absolutely no salvation. In which there is the same priest and sacrifice, Jesus Christ, whose body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar… this sacrament no one can effect except the priest who has been duly ordained in accordance with the keys of the Church.” According to the RCC, only their ordained priests could administer the sacraments which impart the means of grace necessary to achieve salvation. For theologians like Bonaventure, the validity of the sacraments depended upon the authority of the one who administered them, “Therefore, it was fitting that the administration of the sacraments be entrusted to persons, not by reason of their sanctity, which varies according to the condition of their will, but by reason of their authority, which always remains what it is” (2).
Salvation can only come from the RCC because it is this church which provides the sacraments which save as they alone possess those with authority to administer them. Sacraments taken outside of this context have no effect. According to Bonaventure, “But no one may be saved outside that unity of faith and love that makes us children and members of the Church. Therefore, whenever the sacraments are received outside it, they are received with no effect for salvation, even though they are true sacraments” (3). Therefore, the mark of the church is wherever the sacraments are properly administered by the right authorities. When later Protestant churches arose, they were not deemed part of the church due to their lacking this proper authority. In light of this, the church could be conceptualized as a tool for achieving salvation. The church served the believer in boosting her towards salvation in the hopes that she might achieve it. Martin Luther, himself educated and trained within this system, came to vehemently disagree with this conception of the church.
Luther agreed with the medieval schoolmen that salvation is only found in the church, but his understanding of this phrase drastically departed from how those within the RCC understood it. For Luther, the church is, “wherever the Gospel of God and the Sacraments are present” (4). The church’s holiness comes totally from outside itself yet manifests through the proclaiming of the gospel through both scripture and sacrament. Where there is no gospel, there is no church, and while these marks are present, the church is holy. On this basis, Luther can claim that the Church of Rome is holy and even the village of Wittenberg is holy because, “[W]e have the works of God among us, that is, the Word and the Sacraments, and these make us holy” (5). Therefore, for Luther, the church is the inn and infirmary for persons who are sick and need curing (6). The believer needs the church not because the church is useful for gaining salvation but for healing the wounds of the sinner and proclaiming the gospel. Luther’s view of the church as inn and infirmary arises out of his view of the Christian as saints yet sinners. According to Luther, “The saints are always sinners in their own sight, and therefore always justified outwardly” (7). The sinner cannot bring herself to righteousness because even attempts at righteousness are muddled with wickedness. It must be God who justifies the believer, and God does so entirely by his own volition before any works are done (8). Therefore, the Christian is not justified by administered sacraments from the proper human authority but rather by imputed righteousness from the proper divine authority.
For Luther, nothing makes the church saints, or holy ones, except the holiness which God works within them (9). Those who are in the church are as such due to God’s predestination and election operating out of his good will, a fact which is not dependent upon receiving the right sacraments prior to conversion. The only dependent is grace, and this grace cannot be acquired through any good action since a person cannot even bring herself to exercise any truly good act because all is still corrupted by sin (10). Therefore, believers must trust in what Luther calls the passive righteousness given to them by God (11).
Importantly, however, passive righteousness does not remove the mandate for doing good works. According to Luther, “Therefore even though God judges us according to our works, it nevertheless remains true that the works are only the fruits of faith. They are the evidence of our belief or unbelief” (12). The way in which God examines the genuineness of a believer’s faith is through the subsequent works she performs out of her genuine faith. Luther describes this change in the believer’s life as an inward sprinkling in reference to the ritual purification of the Old Testament (13). While the Christian is justified in this way before God, she still must be sanctified which is a process where she grows constantly until the old Adam dies completely (14).
(1): All Bible verses are from the English Standard Version.
(2): Bonaventure, “On the Sacramental Remedy,” in Works of St. Bonaventure, Volume IX, ed. Dominic Monti, OFM (Saint Bonaventure, NY: Franciscan Institute Publications, 2005), 227.
(3): Ibid., 228.
(4): Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Basic Exegetical Writings, ed. Carl L. Beckwith (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2017), 213.
(5): Ibid., 212.
(6): Ibid., 18.
(7): Ibid., 12.
(9): Ibid., 83-84.
(10): Ibid., 16-17.
(11): Ibid., 204.
(12): Ibid., 105.
(13): Ibid., 85.