5.2 The Church

No earthly power can draw the boundaries of the church and decide who belongs to it and who does not. Only Christ, who gives faith to the heart, knows this; and only he sees this faith.

—Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther

Luther’s explanation of the Third Article of the Creed is widely quoted in writings of Conservative Laestadianism in support of its claim to be the one true church on this earth. My translation of the most popular quotes is as follows, after (i.e., based upon) the translation in McCain 2005:

For first of all, [God] has his own particular congregation in the world, which is the mother. Thus each Christian is conceived and carried by the word of God, which He reveals and cultivates, enlightens and enflames hearts, that they understand, take to themselves, hang onto, and remain in it. [Large Catechism, Part 4, §42; McCain 2005, 403-404]

I believe that there is a holy handful [little group] and congregation on Earth of pure saints, under one head, Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, mind, and understanding, with many different gifts but united in love, without sects or schisms. Of the same I also am a part and member, of all goodness that it has, partaking and brought along by the Holy Ghost and incorporated into it by this, that I have heard and still hear God’s word, which is the beginning of entrance. [Part 4, §51; McCain 2005, 404-405]

Another statement of Luther’s that has been taken (at least by me, in years past) as supporting the Conservatives’ doctrine of sectarian exclusivity is found in one of his sermons for the 17th Sunday after Trinity. There he quotes Eph 4:4-6 (a Laestadian favorite, see 4.2.1 for a couple of citations of it) and writes about the unity of the spirit, which “Christians should feel bound to maintain,” since

they are all members of one body and partakers of the same spiritual blessings. They have the same priceless treasures–one God and Father in heaven, one Lord and Savior, one Word, baptism and faith; in short, one and the same salvation, a blessing common to all whereof one has as much as another, and cannot obtain more. What occasion, then, for divisions or for further seeking?

Here Paul teaches what the true Christian Church is and how it may be identified. There is not more than one Church, or people of God, [on] earth. This one Church has one faith, one baptism, one confession of God the Father and of Jesus Christ. Its members faithfully hold, and abide by, these common truths. Every one desiring to be saved and to come to God must be incorporated into this Church, outside of which no one will be saved [paras. 21-22, from Luther’s Epistle Sermons: Trinity Sunday to Advent]

What Luther does not define in either of these quotes is the extent of the true Christian church. But he makes his view of that clear in other writings that most Conservative Laestadians have never heard of, nor will easily accept. I certainly understand that, since I somehow passed over these “other writings” until recently. That omission occurred despite my having studied Luther and his writings since the early 1990s, going to far as to learn German in order to access some of those writings without translations. The reason I missed these points is that my earlier study was mostly a search for support of my Conservative Laestadian presuppositions, which weren’t open to an honest appraisal of facts that didn’t fit those presuppositions.

Luther’s writings about the extent of the Church were just one of many such inconvenient facts. Those writings were like the gorilla-suited participant in a famous psychological study, who walked into a crowd of people playing basketball and whose presence was completely missed by people instructed to count how many times the ball was passed:

This gorilla study underscores how any choice of evidence depends on the mind-set of the observers. Each of us in the audience told our unconscious what to look for. To carry this out with maximal efficiency, an implicit second instruction was sent to the unconscious–to downplay or ignore irrelevant visual inputs. As we can’t anticipate all inputs to be considered, this latter instruction is open-ended. The unconscious has free rein as to what should or should not be seen. [Burton 2008, 155]

So let’s do an honest assessment and look for the gorilla, starting with Luther’s 1520 tractate The Papacy at Rome. There he raises the question of “whether it is possible for Christians to say that all other Christians in the world are heretics and apostates, even if they agree with us in holding to the same baptism, Sacrament, Gospel, and all the articles of faith, but merely do not have their priests and bishops confirmed by Rome” or buy such confirmation with money. The “Muscovites, Russians, Greeks, Bohemians, and many other great peoples in the world” all “believe as we do, baptize as we do, preach as we do, live as we do, and also give due honor to the pope, only they will not pay for the confirmation of their bishops and priests.” Thus, Luther held “that they are not heretics and apostates, but perhaps better Christians than we are, although not all, even as we are not all good Christians” (PE 1, 340-41).

Rejecting the papal position “that every community on Earth must have one visible head under Christ” (p. 348), Luther said that the Church or “Christianity” is called “the assembly of all the believers in Christ upon earth” and “consists of all those who live in true faith, hope and love; so that the essence, life and nature of the church is not a bodily assembly, but an assembly of hearts in one faith. . . . Thus, though they be a thousand miles apart in body, yet they are called an assembly in spirit because each one preaches, believes, hopes, loves, and lives like the other.” The force of Luther’s rhetoric may be lost to the modern reader here; a thousand German miles was a distance that few people would ever journey in his day, and “assemblies of hearts” so distant from each other would be essentially separate entities.

But, nonetheless, a spiritual “unity is of itself sufficient to make a church, and without it no unity, be it of place, of time, a person, of work, or of whatever else, makes a Church” (p. 349). In his view, such unity “does not consist in similarity of outward form of government, likeness of Law, tradition and ecclesiastical customs” (Sermon for Seventeeth Sunday After Trinity, para. 23, from Luther’s Epistle Sermons: Trinity Sunday to Advent). But when “unity becomes division,” he said in another sermon from the same volume, “certainly two sects cannot both be the true Church. If one is godly, the other must be the devil’s own” (Sermon for Fifth Sunday After Trinity, para. 7).

Conservative Laestadians certainly have had, in my experience at least, a common spiritual understanding on most things during any one period of time, although one can see clear changes in teaching and practice over the decades just by reviewing the chronological listings of “” excerpts earlier in this book. Modern travel and communications allow a close bond to remain between the multiple outward organizations of the SRK and LLC, and the various congregations outside Finland and North America where they do mission work.

But one must deal with Luther’s assertion that, based on Jesus’ identification of the Kingdom of God being “within you” (which is how Luke 17 appears in Luther’s Bible translation), “it is clear to everyone that the kingdom of God . . . is not at Rome, nor is it bound to Rome or any other place, but it is where there is faith in the heart, be a man at Rome, or here, or elsewhere” (pp. 349-50). Luther compares to the false prophets of Mt 24 those “preachers of dreams in material communities, which must of necessity be bound to localities and places. How is it possible, or whose reason can grasp it, that spiritual unity and material unity should be one and the same? . . . Therefore, whosoever maintains that an external assembly or an outward unity makes a Church, sets forth arbitrarily what is merely his own opinion” (p. 350). There is not, he says, “one letter in the Holy Scriptures to show that such a purely external Church has been established by God.” Rather, “the Christian assembly, according to the soul, is a communion [or congregation] of one accord in one faith, although according to the body it cannot be assembled at one place, and yet every group is assembled in its own place” (p. 355).

While it is true that Luther was dealing with a claim of exclusivity by the Pope and his outward institution at Rome, is it really much of a stretch to consider the similar way that Conservative Laestadianism views itself, a single “spiritual communion” consisting of the SRK, LLC, and SFC, and a handful of known others sustained by the mission efforts of those three interrelated groups? What would he say about how Conservatives disparage every other one of the tens of thousands of Christian denominations in the world–including several Laestadian ones–given that he could “neither endure nor keep silent” when the papists would “revile and slander and curse the Greeks, and all who are not under the pope, as though they were not Christians, as if Christianity were bound to the pope and to Rome, when St. Paul and Christ have bound it only to faith and to God’s Word” (An Article in Defense of all the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull [1521]; PE 3, 81-82). Read Luther’s similar 1520 statement in The Papacy at Rome (PE 1, 391) with the contextual shelter of its final phrase “under the pope” stripped away to expose yourself to the general force of his viewpoints on the Church, and see if the answer isn’t clear:

I will not suffer any man to establish new articles of faith, and to abuse all other Christians in the world, and slander and brand them as heretics, apostates and unbelievers, simply because they are not . . .

The broad geographical reach of the Church as envisioned by Luther may come as a surprise, too:

[I]t is clear that the Holy Church is not bound to Rome, but is as wide as the world, the assembly of those of one faith, a spiritual and not a bodily thing, for that which one believes is not bodily or visible. The external Roman Catholic Church we all see, therefore it cannot be the true Church, which is believed, and which is a community or assembly of the saints in faith, for no one can see who is a saint or a believer. The external marks, whereby one can perceive where this church is on earth, are baptism, the Sacrament, and the Gospel; and not Rome, or this place, or that. For where baptism and the Gospel are, no one may doubt that there are saints, even if for only the babes in their cradles. [p. 361]

Under the rule of the Turk there are Christians, and likewise there are Christians in all the world, as there were aforetime under Nero and other tyrants. [pp. 382-83]1

[T]he Greeks and Bohemians are not heretics or schismatics, but the most Christian people and the best followers of the gospel on earth. [An Article in Defense of all the Articles of Dr. Martin Luther Wrongly Condemned in the Roman Bull (1521); PE 3, 71]

I believe that there is one holy Christian Church on earth, i.e., the community and number or assembly of all Christians in all the world, the one bride of Christ, and his spiritual body of which he is the only head. . . . And this same Christianity is not only under the Roman Church or Pope, but in all the world, as the prophets foretold that the gospel of Christ should come into the entire world, Psa 2, 18. Thus also under the Pope, Turks, Persians, Tartars, and everywhere Christianity is scattered, but spiritually gathered in one gospel and faith, under one head, i.e., Jesus Christ. . . . In this Christianity, wherever it exists, is the forgiveness of sins, i.e., a kingdom of grace and of true pardon. [Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper]

To an opponent who mocked his calling the Christian Church a “spiritual assembly,” Luther demanded an answer to his proof texts:

“There is no respect of persons with God”; and, “The kingdom of God is within you”; also, “The kingdom of God cometh not with observation” . . . I dare say that you would call the Christian Church, or us, in whom God lives and reigns, the kingdom of God. How can I follow your reason and deny Christ, Who clearly says here that there is no locality, place or anything external in the kingdom of God; it is not here or there, but the spirit within us. But you say, it is here and there. [Answer to Emser of Leipzig (1521); PE 3, 394-95]

[T]he Christian Church is not bound to any person, place, or time . . . firmly on my side are [the common people], also the little children in the streets, together with the great multitude of Christians in the world, and they stand with me against the painted and pretended Church of the pope and his papists. If you ask how that is possible, I answer briefly, all Christians in the world pray: I believe in the Holy Ghost, one holy Christian Church, the Communion of saints. If this article [of the Creed] is true, it follows that no one can see or feel the holy Christian Church, and no one can say it is here, or there. [pp. 396-97]

The Apology of the Augsburg Confession associates the Church with a “congregation of saints, who have with each other the fellowship of the same Gospel or doctrine” (Articles 7-8, The Church; McCain 2005, 144). But it also suggests an expansive Lutheran view of the Church:

[We should] not understand the Church to be an outward government of certain nations. Rather, the Church is people scattered throughout the whole world. They agree about the Gospel and have the same Christ, the same Holy Spirit, whether they have the same or different human traditions. [p. 144]

[W]e do say that this Church exists: truly believing and righteous people scattered throughout the whole world. We add the marks: the pure teaching of the Gospel and the Sacraments. [p. 146]

Luther taught that one could identify the presence of Christians by their possession and preaching of the Word of God. In his 1523 Right and Power of a Christian Congregation, he set forth “the certain mark of the Christian congregation” as “the preaching of the Gospel in its purity.” One could be “certain that where the Gospel is preached, there must be Christians, no matter how few in number or how sinful and frail they be” (PE 4, 75). In his 1539 On the Councils and the Churches, Luther described the Church as “a Christian holy people that remains on earth and must remain until the end of the world,” and explained how “a poor, erring man wants or is able to notice where such a Christian holy people is in the world” (WA 50, 628). Primarily, it is “recognized in that it has God’s Holy Word,” but that Word might be possessed unequally, with

some having it completely pure, some not completely pure. Those who have it pure are called those who build a foundation of gold, silver, and precious stones. Those who have it impure are called those who build a foundation of hay, straw, and wood, but still are made holy by fire.” [pp. 628-29]

The presence of the “external Word [being] orally preached by men like you and me,” Luther wrote, is an outward sign whereby Christ’s church is to be recognized:

Wherever, therefore, you hear or see this Word preached, believed, confessed, and acted on, have no doubt that there must known be a true Ecclesia sancta Catholica, a Christian, holy people, even if you [plural, presumably referring to members] are very few . . . If there were no other mark than this one alone, it would still be enough to know that in that very place must be a Christian holy people. [p. 629]

Luther uses the indefinite article (“ein Christlich heilig Volck”) here, but one can’t read too much into that. At times he also refers to “the Christian holy people” when he goes on to discuss six other signs of the church.

Those additional signs are correct teaching and administration of the Sacraments of Baptism and Communion, a twofold “open and particular” use of the keys of loosing and binding, calling of pastors, “prayer and public thanksgiving and praise to God,” and the “Holy Cross” in the form of hardship, persecution, and temptation. In discussing each of these additional signs, Luther writes that where you see it you can know that a (or, variously, “the”) Christian Holy people are there (WA 50, 632; PE 5, 272-86).

The viewpoint of Conservative Laestadians is that the pure “gospel” or “external Word,” Luther’s primary mark of the Christians in both 1523 and 1539, is nothing more than the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins. Luther gave weight to that view by asking, “What is the difference between saying ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’ and preaching the gospel?” (from Althaus 1963, 316). “For Luther, the greatest good which the [Christian] community possesses is that forgiveness of sins is to be found in it,” Althaus notes, and goes on to quote Luther as saying, “I believe that the forgiveness of sins is to be found in this community and nowhere else” (p. 316).

But Conservatives are not the only Christians who proclaim the forgiveness of sins to each other. Members of other Laestadian groups even use much the same “believe sins forgiven” language, and it cannot be dismissed that they obtain comfort by hearing and accepting it. So where does that leave the seeker who is trying to be guided by Luther’s teaching that where the Gospel or Word is preached, there must be Christians, even if the Word is present there with some impurity?

One area where Luther is in agreement with the Conservative view is that “the whole world is evil and that among thousands there is scarcely one true Christian,” and that “the world and the masses are and always will be unchristian, although they are all baptized and are nominally Christian” (Secular Authority [1523]; PE 3, 236-37). The difference is that Conservative Laestadians view “true Christians” as few and clumped together in a few distinct places while Luther considered them to be “few and far between” (p. 237), “not many, but they are everywhere, though they are spread out thin and live far apart . . .” (On War Against the Turk [1529]; PE 5, 89). “[T]he number of upright and true Christians in every place is very small,” he wrote in his Table Talk (§364), with the Christians being “invisible and unknown” to the world (§224).

1 Luther’s teaching on this topic, as with numerous other topics, is not without contradiction. In his Table Talk, he narrows the geographic window considerably, saying “we have the Gospel now only in a corner. Asia and Africa have it not, the Gospel is not preached in Europe, in Greece, Italy, Hungary, Spain, France, England, or in Poland.” Rather, it was in “this little corner,” Luther’s Saxony (§759).