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The Church in the World

D. Pfeiffer

1950 Synod Convention Essay

The title of this paper, the Church in the World, suggested to the essayist 1. That God keeps the Church in the world. 2. That He keeps it there in order to exercise the power of the keys for the salvation of the world. 3. That the Church is greatly hindered in its work by widespread dissatisfaction with the results of exercising the power of the Keys. 4. That, in order to do its work, the Church must preserve and increase its efficiency by exercising the power of the Keys in its own midst. And 5. that the Church must expect to bear a cross as it does its work.

The Church, in the proper sense of the word, is not what ordinary conversation makes it, namely, a church building, or public worship, or some religious group of people, whether Christian or not. Ordinarily, the word “church” is never used in the proper sense in which Scripture almost always uses it.

Pre-eminent among Bible-passages which define the Church is Col. 1,18. This passage says of Christ, “He is the head of the body, the Church”. The Church is thus defined as a body whose head is Christ. With other words, the Church is something over which He rules. “The Church”, says Eph. 5,24, “is subject unto Christ”. Another reason why the Church is compared with our body is given in such passages as 1 Cor. 12,12.13: “As the body is one, and hath many members, and all members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body”. That is the Church is a body of people, of many people. It is that body of people who are obedient to Christ, heartily accepting His Word as the supreme law of their faith and life.

The Epistle to the Hebrews identifies the Church in a different way as it says: “Both He that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all one: for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare Thy name unto My brethren, in the midst of the Church will I sing praise unto Thee”. Hebr. 2,11.12. According to the rules of Hebrew poetry, which the Epistle quotes here, the statement, “I will declare Thy name unto My brethren”, is parallel to the statement, “In the midst of the Church will I sing praise unto Thee”. Thus the quotation itself identifies the Church with Christ’s brethren, while the Epistle, by using the quotation as it does, identifies Christ’s brethren with those who are sanctified by Him. In short, the Church is those people whom Christ sanctifies and recognizes as His brethren. Indeed, that statement which we quoted before from 1 Corinthians, “By one Spirit are we all baptized into one body”, was originally addressed “unto the Church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints”. 1 Cor. 1,2, That is, also the First Epistle to the Corinthians recognizes only the sanctified as the Church; even the Church in a certain locality is only the sanctified who are there.

As Christ’s brethren, the sanctified must be children of God, inasmuch as Christ is the Son of God. For we cannot be someone’s brothers without being his father’s children. But, as Paul says, “ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus”, Gal. 3,2. And so we can identify the Church with people who have faith in Christ. Indeed, it is through faith alone, faith in Christ, that He sanctifies them. He himself speaks of “them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me”. Acts 26,18.

Since Christ’s brethren, the people who are sanctified by faith in Him, are God’s children, it is not surprising that Scripture compares the Church to a household. It does this, for example, in Eph. 2,19–22 in which the Church is also compared with some other things. We read there: “Ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord, in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit”. Here the body of the believers is compared, not only with a household or family, but also with a temple. In other words, the Church is a living temple, made up of human bodies, persons and souls, which depends upon the truth proclaimed by the apostles and prophets, but especially upon the central figure in the writings of the apostles and prophets. But still another comparison is implied in the passage just quoted, namely, in the words, “fellow-citizens with the saints”. Here the Church is compared with a nation. Peter, too, says to those who are “elect according to the foreknowledge of God, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1,2): — “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people”. 1 Pet. 2,9. Yes, since Christ is the only ruler of this holy nation, it may well he called a kingdom. And it is so called in Scripture. It is called the kingdom of God, of Christ, or of heaven. To be sure, Scripture often, perhaps usually, refers to the blessings which come to us through faith, or even to God’s saving power, when it speaks of that kingdom. But sometimes it refers to the people of the kingdom. Jesus uses the expression in both senses when He says: “Suffer the little children to come unto Me, and forbid them not: for of such (that is, of such people) is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God (that is, its blessings) as a little child, he shall not enter therein”. Mark 10,14.15. Because of the blessings which the believers have in common, the Apostles Creed calls the Church a communion, that is, a a group of people having certain in common. And other comparisons might be mentioned here.

While we could say more on this point, what we have already said should be enough to show that the Church, in a figurative sense, is not some external organization or some humanly discernible group of people, but a body of people which cannot be discerned by men. It is those people, but only those, who, being sanctified through faith in Christ, are obedient to Him, heartily accepting His Word as the supreme law according to which they should believe and act.

Indeed, we would he unable to locate the Church, had God not promised that His Word bears fruit wherever it is in use. But He has promised this, for example in Isaiah 55,10.11, when He says of His Word: “It shall not return unto Me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and prosper in the thing whereto I sent it”. This promise is implied in Christ’s Parable of the Sower which finds among the hearers of the Word, also such as “in an honest and good head, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience”. Luke 8,5–15. Consequently, the use of God’s Word, especially its public use, and more especially its public use in unadulterated form, is a sure mark of the Church, that is, a sign of its presence and location. Bearing this in mind, we can well understand the complaint of the psalmist Asaph: “We see not our signs: there is no more any prophet”. Ps. 74,9. Therefore, when the Scriptures direct us to the Church in the proper sense of the word, we should look for its marks and know from them where the Church is.

At this point, it may be well to insert a word also about the practical nature of the Scriptural doctrine concerning the nature and essence of the Church. This doctrine is not something which is to be handled as a mere theory. It is to be applied, for example, when we are talking about the strengthening and building of the Church, or when we are making an effort to do these things. Let us then be talking about the real Church, and working for it, and not for some discernible religious group which will eventually dissolve. Or when we are talking about the work of the Church, let us first be sure that we have that Church in mind, against which the gates of hell will never prevail.

This Church is in the world. And by “world”, we now mean, not the earth on which we live, or the human race as a whole, but rather only those people who do not belong to the Church, that is, the unbelievers. We now use the word as John does in the statement: “Marvel not, my brethren, if the world hate you. We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren”. 1 John 3,13.14. Jesus, too, spoke of the world in this sense when He said of His apostles: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world”. John 17,16.

The Church is in the world. That is, the believers live among the unbelievers, both manifest and secret, perhaps even in the same household. And although God does not want any to be unbelieving, yet He does not, for this reason, want the believers to separate themselves from the world, for example, by becoming hermits. Praying for His apostles, Jesus said: “I pray not that Thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that Thou shouldest keep them from the evil” (John 17,15); and a little later (v.18): “As Thou hast sent Me into the world, even so have I also sent them into the world”. And He wanted this to apply also to the other believers. For, without repeating what He had just said about the apostles, He prayed also for all future believers (v.20), so that they might not be different from the apostles, but rather be one with them (v.21). Thus He implied that the future believers, too, were to be in the world. The Parable of the Tares and the Parable of the Net teach that God wants the Church to remain in the world until the Last Day, Matthew 13. In the Parable of the Tares, Jesus shows that the intermingling of manifest unbelievers with believers in the world should not move His servants to seek the eradication of unbelievers from the world, but that this eradication will be accomplished by the angels on Judgment Day. The Parable of the “Net That Gathered of Every Kind” teaches much the same lesson, only that secret unbelievers, or hypocrites rather than manifest unbelievers, are meant by the bad fish.


God keeps the Church in the world for a purpose. The Church is to exercise the power of the Keys for the salvation of the world. The Church should exercise this power also for its own salvation, as we shall see later. And there are some other things which the Church should do. It should relieve the needy who cannot be relieved in any other way. For Paul says, “If any man or woman that believeth have widows, let them relieve them, and let not the Church be charged; that it may relieve them that are widows indeed”. 1 Tim. 5,16. And 1 Cor. 16,1 speaks of a collection for needy believers. Indeed, one of the chief inter-congregational projects of the Apostolic Age was collections for needy believers. See Acts 11,29; Rom. 15,26; 2 Cor. 9,1ff. Morever, according to 1 Cor. 6,1–8, the Church should act as a court of final appeal in controversies between its members, so that they need not put it to public shame by going before earthly courts for a settlement. However, these are obligations which the Church has over against its own members, and not over against the world. And we are now discussing the purpose for which the Church is in the world. Indeed, were the Church not in the world, it would have no needy or disagreeing members.

We had better insert here that when we say that the Church is obliged to care only for its own needy, we are not denying that believers should do good to all people. They should. Gal. 6,10. But a distinction should be drawn here and at other points between Christians as individuals and Christians as members of the body of Christ. He Himself draws this distinction in Matt. 18,15–17. He distinguishes there between my brother who has sinned, me who have seen him sin, and even one or two others whose assistance I may need in winning him, on the one hand, and the Church which, if necessary, should finally admonish the sinning brother, on the other hand. The same distinction is observed in 1 Tim. 5,16, which we read before, between the believer who can care for his needy relative, and the Church which is to care for widows who have no one else to care for them. We believe that this distinction is widely overlooked, with the result that many think that anything which Christians as individuals may properly do, the Church, too, may properly do, and that what they should do, it, too should do. No doubt, this partly explains the social gospel, that is, the conviction that the Church has social obligations, but then also the backwardness of many Lutherans and of others in taking part in social and civic activities. In other words, on the one hand, since Christians as individuals have social obligations which God’s Word lays upon them, it is wrongly thought that Christians as the Church have such obligations; and, on the other hand, since the Church as a body does not have social obligations, some of its members have wrongly concluded that they, also as individuals, do not have such obligations, and hence they have isolated themselves more or less from civic and social life. When the Greek word for “church” teaches us that we should not think here of Christians as individuals, each working for himself, but of Christians as a single body. The Greek word is ekklesia, and it means “assembly”. The individuals who make up this assembly have more duties as individuals, than they have as members of the assembly. — We repeat, then, that God keeps the Church in the world in order to exercise the power of the Keys for the salvation of the world.

We are speaking of those keys concerning which Jesus said to Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven”. Matt. 16,19. They are the things which lock and unlock the kingdom of heaven to men. They are the divine forgiveness of sins which alone opens heaven to men, and the withholding of that forgiveness which alone closes heaven to men. By healing a palsied man, Christ once demonstrated His authority to forgive sins on earth, that is, to forgive them in God’s name and stead. Matt. 9,6. This very same authority, He has given to His people on earth. From Him, they have the authority to forgive sins and, what is often unknown or ignored, the authority to withhold forgiveness, in God’s name and stead, not of course in an arbitrary way, but according to God’s Word. Jesus told Peter: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. Matt. 16,19. Not long afterwards, He assured all the apostles that they had this authority, namely, when He said to them concerning the sinning brother: “If he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto yon, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven”. Matt. 18,17.18. In other words, the keys of the kingdom of heaven, the authority to fasten and unfasten the doorchain of God’s spiritual house, were not given only to Peter, but to all the apostles. And this authority was not given to them as apostles, but rather as believers. This is clear from the fact that Paul ordered the Corinthian congregation to use both keys. Speaking of a sinning member of the congregation, Paul told it “to deliver such an one unto Satan” (1 Cor. 5,5), something that the congregation did simply by withholding God’s forgiveness from that member. For anyone who has God’s forgiveness belongs to Him, but anyone who does not have it belongs to Satan. When Jesus sent out Paul to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, Jesus told him, “I send thee to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins, and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in Me”. Acts 26,17.18. Later on, after that sinning member had repented, Paul wrote to the Corinthian congregation: “ Ye ought rather to forgive him, and comfort him, lest perhaps such an one should be swallowed up with overmuch sorrow”. 2 Cor. 2,7. And we see that Paul was speaking, not of human forgiveness, but of divine forgiveness, when he then says, “To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also: for if I forgave anything to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ”. 2 Cor. 2,10. Peter calls the believers “a royal priesthood” thus teaching that they are kings and priests. 1 Pet. 2,9. But one the chief functions of priests and kings is to condemn the guilty or to pardon them.

Let us emphasize that we are not now speaking about human forgiveness. God has strictly forbidden us to withold our own human forgiveness from anyone at any time. We should never hold a grudge against anyone, even while we are closing heaven to some one. But we are speaking here of God’s forgiveness, that same forgiveness which Jesus bestowed upon the palsied man in the words: “Thy sins be forgiven thee”, and which He then demonstrated His authority to bestow. This divine forgiveness, we should withold from the impenitent so long as they do not repent, even though we should at the same time not withhold our own personal forgiveness from them. Whenever we withold God’s forgiveness, we should do this in love, so that we may not hurt our erring brother unnecessarily, and so that our act may be pleasing to God, even though a wrong motive does not invalidate such an act. Phil. 1,18. The main point, then, is this, that, as Christ had authority to extend and to withold forgiveness in His Father’s stead, so does His Church have authority to withold and to extend this same forgiveness.

The Church exercises the power of the Keys simply by administering the Law and the Gospel, and in no other way. By the Law, the Church witholds God’s forgiveness from those to whom it administers the Law only. For there is no forgiveness whatever in the Law; but it finds all men guilty, and condemns them to death. “What things soever the Law saith, it saith to them who are under the Law; that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God”. Rom. 3,19. The Law is “the ministration of death … and of condemnation”. 2 Cor. 3,7.9. The Law therefore is the key with which the Church closes heaven to sinner, that is, if it applies only the Law to them. The Gospel, on the other hand, is the key with which the Church opens heaven to them. For the Gospel is the divine declaration: “I have forgiven you all your sins”. That is, the Gospel either assures us of this forgiveness, or speaks of its causes or of its effects. It is therefore called “the word of His grace”, “the gospel of peace”, and “the gospel of the kingdom”. Acts 20,24; Eph. 6,15; Matt. 24,14. And inasmuch as God has connected the Gospel with earthly elements to make two sacraments, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, these, too, are assurances and declarations of God’s forgiveness. Acts 22,16. Matt. 26,18. Strictly speaking, the Lord’s Supper should not be included here even though it brings divine forgiveness. For this sacrament is not for the world, but only for the Church; and we are now speaking of the Church in the world. This may fully explain why Jesus did not mention the Lord’s Supper, but only Baptism and His Word in His great commission. Matt. 28,19.20: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you”. Mark 16,15.16: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature. He that believeth, and is baptized, shall be saved; and he that believeth not shall be damned”. Yes, the Church withholds Gods forgiveness from those to whom it applies His Law alone, while it extends His forgiveness to all to whom it applies the Gospel, even though it also applies the Law to them. For not the Law, but the Gospel, is the final word of God. “The covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the Law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect”. Gal. 3,17. “The Law entered that sin might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”. Rom. 5,20.

Now then, God keeps the Church in the world in order to exercise the power of the Keys through His Word and Baptism for the salvation of the world. So far as the unbelieving world is concerned this is the only purpose and work of the office of the Church; and would that Christendom in general knew and remembered this! We read, John 20,21–23: “Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained”. Remembering that Jesus breathed on His disciples in order to symbolize the gift of His Spirit to them, we can run His words together thus “As My Father hath sent Me, even so send I you. Receive ye the Holy Ghost: whosesoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained”. From this it is apparent that the Church has no other purpose in the world than Christ had. For He sent His disciples into the world as His Father had sent Him into it, endowed with the Holy Ghost and authorized to remit and to retain sins in God’s stead, that is, to extend and to withhold God’s forgiveness. And this, let it be repeated is the whole purpose, work, and office of the Church in the world. Peter says as much when he tells believers: “Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people, that ye should shew forth the praises (that is, virtues) of Him who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light”. 1 Pet. 2,9. The purpose of the believers on earth is to show forth God’s virtues in the world, — His holiness and justice by means of the Law that men may see their need of His forgiveness, and His grace and love by means of the Gospel, that they may hope for eternal life. Indeed, if the Church advertises and publishes God’s virtues, what more need it do in the world? If the Church goes about administering the Law, the word of the Gospel, and Baptism in the world to the best of its ability, it will have its hands full, and will have neither time nor energy to do more for the world. For Christ’s statement is still true and will remain true until the end: “The harvest truly is plenteous, but the laborers are few”. Matt. 9,37. We are fairly overwhelmed when we think only of those few places where our little synod now has the chance to exercise the power of the Keys for the salvation of the world.

(To be Continued)