In the face of the situation of my former affiliation (the LC-MS), a number of its people are beginning to recognize the depth of the problem. Some seem to think it a political problem, and so hope to solve it by getting new leadership at its next election. Others see it as a spiritual problem, and so hope to solve it by prayer and catechesis. Only a few, but a growing number, understand the problem in its root and depth.
It is a theological problem, caused by a false doctrine of the Church and of Mary, the archetype of the Church. (Make a list of all the problems affecting the Protestant and Roman confessions, and you will find a common factor. All of them concern the Third Article of the Creed, the article on the Holy Spirit. To coin a phrase from Luther, "What does this mean?")
It is an existential problem, in that (judged even by the lights of the Lutheran Confessions themselves, and great Lutheran theologians like Francis Pieper), the
But the LCMS is not alone. The same is true of every Lutheran body in the world. The Lutheran description of Church, as found in the Lutheran Confessions, no longer fits any existing Lutheran body. And so it stands for contemporary Lutherans as a prescription--a demand. Another word for 'prescription' is 'law,' and for Lutherans no human being but Christ can fulfill the law. What comfort, then, can troubled Lutherans find?
Some Lutherans try to find comfort in the notion of the 'invisible' or 'hidden' Church.
Of course, they say, any example of 'Church' below is a corpus mixtum, a 'mixed body.' Because it is composed of sinners, every visible expression of Church must be sinful. (A few years ago, one heard the Church referred to by some of these men as 'whore;' such language is not heard often anymore, but the the thought behind it is still there.) "How could anyone call the visible Church 'holy' or 'pure'?" they ask. "Look how at every level, parish and beyond, it has such sinners!" This is an example of the logical fallacy of composition. It would be as if I said, "Look at this airplane. It's completely made up of parts that weigh little; therefore, it weighs little."
But beyond these visible bodies, or hidden within them, they say, is the true Church. The more refined among them speak of it as 'hidden.' The Church is revealed in the activities of the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments. Now since these things are only done parish by parish, Church cannot be revealed in anything broader than a parish. Trans-parochial entities are called "Church" in a way similar to brick-and-mortar buildings being called "church"--by extension of the proper meaning. But their attempt to limit the nature of Church to its activities has an even more radical implication. Since it is entirely possible that a minister may not, on a given Sunday, rightly preach the Gospel or rightly administer the Sacraments, one cannot say with certainty that one has been in Church until after the Divine Service is ended! Like Tantalus of old, on the Lutheran teaching of Church one can always reach for the Church, but can never touch her. Some might try to use the words of
The Lutheran notion of hidden Church is a miracle exactly opposite of the Roman miracle of transubstantiation. In the case of transubstantiation, there is a substance (the body of Christ) with no visible accidents of its own. In the Lutheran notion of hidden Church there are accidents (in the category of 'action') with no visible substance underlying them--rather like the Invisible Man in this humorous video by Rowan Atkinson. At its best, this view of Church is sacramental Barthianism. Just as Karl Barth claimed that revelation happens at a kind of mathematical point, so for those who hold the notion of 'hidden church', Church only happens at the mathematical point of a given Divine Service.
Orthodox theologians may sometimes use the language of 'visible' and 'invisible' Church. But their meaning is vastly different from the way those terms are used in the western confessions of faith. The 'visible' Church is the Orthodox Church on earth; the 'invisible' Church comprises the Church on earth, together with those who are in heaven and even those not yet born--all of whom are present to God. Aleksei Khomiakov comments:
The Church is one. Her unity follows of necessity from the unity of God; for the Church is not a multitude of persons in their separate individuality, but a unity of the grace of God, living in a multitude of rational creatures, submitting themselves willingly to grace. Grace, indeed, is also given to those who resist it, and to those who do not make use of it (who hide their talent in the earth), but these are not in the Church. In fact, the unity of the Church is not imaginary or allegorical, but a true and substantial unity, such as is the unity of many members in a living body.
The Church is one, notwithstanding her division as it appears to a man who is still alive on earth. It is only in relation to man that it is possible to recognize a division of the Church into visible and invisible; her unity is, in reality, true and absolute. Those who are alive on earth, those who have finished their earthly course, those who, like the angels, were not created for a life on earth, those in future generations who have not yet begun their earthly course, are all united together in one Church, in one and the same grace of God; for the creation of God which has not yet been manifested is manifest to Him; and God hears the prayers and knows the faith of those whom He has not yet called out of non-existence into existence. Indeed the Church, the Body of Christ, is manifesting forth and fulfilling herself in time, without changing her essential unity or inward life of grace. And therefore, when we speak of the Church visible and invisible, we so speak only in relation to man.