Indifference is not characteristic of the liturgy
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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

One Church, One Call

This is from the archives. I originally wrote it in 1994, and republished it in 2006.


            As the seeds of discord continue to be sown among us in the Missouri Synod and others regarding “the doctrine of the call," so also myopic declarations of “truth” continue to sprout.

            There has developed a great uneasiness among us over “the doctrine of the call” in recent years, because, alas, our churches have at last begun to act out the part that was so unbecomingly thrust upon them when we first began to think of them as something other than what they are.  

            When our fifteenth-century fathers pointed out so clearly the sacred significance of each local place were the word of God is preached and the Sacraments administered, they did so in the interest of magnifying, ultimately, the word and the Sacraments themselves.  It is preaching and the Sacrament that makes that place sacred.  Jesus warned us not to forget this, when he declared, Ye fools and blind: for whether is greater, the gift, or the altar that sanctifieth the gift?  The source of holiness, that is, is greater than that which it makes holy.  The means from which the Church derives her holiness are of greater significance than the Church’s holiness itself.

            In this regard we must ask whether there has been a misguided exaltation of the local congregation among us.  Indeed the assembled community of saints is engaging in the most sacred of matters, when they are attending to the preaching of the Gospel and the reception of the most sacred Sacrament of Christ.  One could (and should) call even the smallest congregation’s altar the most sacred place on earth, for that very reason.  For there is one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, etc.  So is there one mass, one Supper.  The place from which the Supper is given is therefore the most sacred place in all the world, wherever it is, and in as many places as it is.  Since the mass is one, that place is also one.  There is only one most sacred place in all the world, but it is severally found, even as there is only one Christ, who likewise is severally heard and seen in the Predigtamt.

            What seems to have obtained among us, however, is a loss of this perspective, due no doubt to the great American idol, which is Individualism.  We have become hopeless nominalists, in the worst sense of the term.  Reality, for us, is only in the individuals which comprise the whole, the sum total of all members of a given category.  Thus the Church is only the individuals which comprise it, and nothing else or greater.  “Church”, then, is merely a name for this sum total, and nothing else.  The expression of this “truth” is summed up in one of gaudy Jesus songs: “I am the Church, you are the Church, we are the Church together.”  Thus “Church” itself has become nothing, and might really be better identified with a plural noun, such as “believers”.  Yet believers do congregate in local places, and hence “the congregation” is also exalted among such minds, since it marks a visible collection of people, that is, one available to sight.  This at the cost of the oneness of the Church, however, which is not available to sight.  Where such nominalist individualism insists upon exalting the supreme holiness of the local congregation, any confession of the unity of the Church in its several places is not very convincing.  Such minds tend rather to see a division of the Church into several entities.

            When one loses sight of the holiness of the Sacrament as the source from which the Church’s holiness is derived, and when the nominalist perspective on “congregation” obtains, the result is a greater emphasis on the holiness of the people there than on the holiness of the Sacrament there for which the people (presumably) have gathered.  Gone now is the truth that the sacredness of the place and of the people is a derived sacredness, derived from the Sacrament, and in place of the Sacrament one finds instead a notion of the sacredness of the local congregation.  Now it has become the assembly whose sacredness is supreme, whether or not the mass is celebrated, and even whether or not the word is heard, sung, and confessed.  Since the holiness of the local assembly is no longer seen as being a derived holiness, now even the Voters’ Assembly, since it is an assembly of the faithful, is regarded as sacred!  The holy incense that once shrouded the ancient altars and Sacrament has been replaced by the cigarette smoke that fills the parking lot outside the meeting-hall where the “real” business of the Church is transacted some four times a year.  This is the spirit of antichrist in our midst.

            By this mischievous spirit a devilish twist has bewitched also our notion of the Church’s call to her ministers.  The call must now arise out of the local assembly, since the local assembly is the only true Church there is; moreover, for a pastor to be moved from one assembly to another he must receive a new call and be released from his old call.  The reason?  The Church is no longer one, but several.  As the Church is no longer one, so the call is no longer one. So from one divine reality to another the pastor goes, and there is rarely a hint during any of the proceedings that this man is still serving, actually, the same Church.  That is because, in the eyes of servants of the American idol, he is not.

            But the Church is not several.  She is one, and She is real, as one.  This we confess: one holy Christian Church.  One Bride for one Christ.  One Christ who through his one Bride calls men to serve in his stead.  “The Church is above the ministers,” certainly.  But what does this mean?  It means that the ministers are bound to the Church’s confession, to the unity of her faith.  For the ministers to adhere to the Church’s confession is for them to be obedient to their Mother, the Jerusalem above.  The Church, their Mother, demands this obedience of them, and will not tolerate nor expect disobedience.  One cannot really begin to grasp the truth expressed here with a nominalist mind-set, however, for these words say nothing, nothing at all, about sheep being authoritative over their shepherds.  To the contrary, the Church demands that the shepherds feed the sheep.

            Since there is one Lord, there is also one Church, and there is also one ‘call’.  The Bridegroom calls certain men from among the Bride’s children to serve as their overseers in his stead.  Rome has for centuries been known for declaring that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ on earth; against this we confess that every minister is Christ’s Vicar; this is why Christ calls ministers, namely, to be as Aaron was for Moses: his voice.  This call, however, can only come mediately, that is, through means.  Since Christ always employs means when he distributes his grace, therefore he also employs means when he calls those who are to administer this grace.  He calls, that is, through his Church.  He speaks through his Bride.  But it is no differently to be understood in the case of the call than in the case of Baptism, the Supper, or the word of Forgiveness.  When the Bride of Christ gives birth to her children through Baptism, it is the vicars of Christ who administer this Baptism.  Thus the Bride bears her children, while the Bridegroom begets them.  The ministers are not vicars of the Bride, but of the Bridegroom (Were this not so, then certainly women could serve as acceptable vicars; no wonder the cries are growing louder among us for women’s ordination!).  So also in the Supper.  The Bride is said to feed her children, but it is actually the Bridegroom, the family Provider, who administers the feed, the Sacrament, through his vicars.  Thus also the preaching of forgiveness, or the word of absolution, does not arise out of the assembly, but flows from the Bride, whose mouth is one with the Bridegroom she kisses, so that, once again, it is the vicars of the Bridegroom, sons of the Bride, who do the preaching and the absolving.

            And so also in connection with the call.  The Bride calls her servants; the Bride, that is, not simply the local congregation, except inasmuch as the local congregation expresses the reality of the Bride in the holy mystery of the divine service.  It is the Bridegroom who truly administers this call, however, since he is the source of it; this he does through the prophetic utterances and laying on of the hands of his vicars.  This is why the laity do not take active part in the laying on of hands; only the ministers do.

            And this, then, is the divine call.  It is one.  It is the holy call to be a minister of Christ in his one divine and holy Church.  To be sure, the particular means of placing men in this or that parish is not unimportant, since order and decency must obtain in all things, but such placing here or there, or moving from here to there, ought never to be misconstrued as a replacement for the one divine call from the one divine Shepherd by means of the one divine ordination (or holy orders from him), administered through, in, and for the benefit of the one holy Bride, the one Church.