Christ and the Church

Dr. Edmund Schlink

Editor’s Introduction: Dr. Edmund Schlink (1903-1984) was one of the most important Lutheran theologians of the twentieth century. After serving as a Lutheran pastor and seminary professor in Germany in the 1930s, he was called to be a professor of dogmatic and ecumenical theology at Heidelberg University in 1946. He taught there until his retirement in 1971.

The following theses were initially presented at a joint conference of Protestant and Roman Catholic theologians in Germany in 1953. Originally published in the theological journal that Schlink helped to found, Kerygma und Dogma, this essay, entitled Christ and the Church, was recently translated and included in the first volume of a five-volume project, Edmund Schlink Works (ESW), which is edited by Dr. Matthew L. Becker. See Edmund Schlink, Ecumenical and Confessional Writings, vol. 1 (The Coming Christ and Church Tradition and After the Council), ed. Matthew L. Becker, trans. Matthew L. Becker and Hans G. Spalteholz (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2017), 135-154. Please note: The editorial notes are by Dr. Becker. For information on earlier translations of this essay, see the editorial note on p. 135 of ESW 1.

This translation of the essay is reprinted here by permission of Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. For further information about the Edmund Schlink Works project, go to

While this essay was part of the post-war ecumenical dialogue between Lutheran and Roman Catholic theologians—the oldest continuous such dialogue in the world—it has relevance for other contexts, including the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Already in this essay, Schlink was developing a basic criticism that he would express more sharply in his reflections about the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), where he had been the official observer from the Protestant Church in Germany:

Every church is in danger of understanding itself as the center around which the other churches orbit as planets. This lies so close at hand because all Christians are certain that the church whose message brought them to faith—in which church they were incorporated into Christ through baptism, and through word and sacrament they are again and again nourished anew—is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. But the working of Christ is not restricted to this one church. He works in freedom without being bound by the borders of our churches. We cannot be content to measure other churches in respect to ourselves, but we have to take our starting point with Christ, by whom we are measured along with all churches. He is the sun around whom we, together with other churches, orbit as planets and from whom we receive light. A kind of Copernican revolution is necessary in ecclesiological thinking. (Edmund Schlink, After the Council, ESW 1.526).

Dr. Schlink’s theses still seem apropos today, not merely in light of official Roman Catholic ecclesiology but also in the context of some forms of Protestantism, wherein a given church body or denomination is viewed as a “sun” around which all other Christian groups revolve as mere “planets.”


Christ and the Church: Twelve Theses for an Ecumenical Dialogue among Theologians of the Protestant Church in Germany and the Roman Church

            In his investigations of the concept of the church in the New Testament Karl Ludwig Schmidt set forth this thesis: ecclesiology is Christology—a thesis that was certainly not new but which is in no way self-evident in the context of Protestant theology. At the outset I want to say that I am not able to understand my topic in terms of this equation, and specifically for the following reasons:

1. Ecclesiological concepts in the New Testament are very diverse and in no way merely Christological. Alongside Christological designations of the church, such as σῶμα τοῦ χριστοῦ [body of Christ], νύμφη [bride], γυνή [wife], there are also pneumatological ones, such as the temple of the Holy Spirit, and theological ones, such as ἐκκλησία τοῦ ϑεοῡ [church of God], λαὸς τοῦ ϑεοῡ [people of God]. Thus ecclesiology must be developed as a whole in a Trinitarian way, whereby it cannot be overlooked that in the confessional writings of the ancient church the statements about the church are directly related to the statements about the Holy Spirit. From here it is but a step to teach within a Trinitarian exposition that the church is the opus proprium [the proper work] of the Holy Spirit.

2. The multiplicity of ecclesiological concepts in the New Testament corresponds to the multiplicity of answers that tend to be given to the question concerning the origin of the church: Is it grounded in the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, that is, in the event of Pentecost? Is it grounded in the death and resurrection of Christ and thus at the same time in the sending of the apostles as the called eyewitnesses of his resurrection? Is it grounded in the election of the covenantal people of the Old Testament? Or in the creation of the first human beings, or in the eternal decree of creation that preceded the creation (the essential truth in the post-apostolic statements about the pre-existence of the church)? All these questions, each in its definite coordination (not to be further discussed here), are to be answered affirmatively. Also, the question of the origin of the church requires a Trinitarian answer. When the church above all celebrates Pentecost as the day of its birth, then in this way it has understood itself as the opus proprium of the Holy Spirit.

3. But even in view of the specifically Christological designations of the church, the equation “ecclesiology = Christology” is not advisable since it expresses only one of the various relations between Christ and the church and isolates it in a dangerous way. Equating ecclesiology and Christology is suggested by the New Testament statements about the church as σῶμα χριστοῦ, in which, of course, the irreversible ordering of head and body cannot be overlooked: only Christ is both head and body, while the church is only his body. Furthermore, there are the statements about the church as the bride of Christ, which express even more strongly a pairing of Christ and the church toward their unity. Then, too, however, one must take into consideration all the New Testament statements in which Christ confronts the church as the Lord, indeed, as the Judge of the church. Ecclesiology must also consider such warnings of the exalted Christ as those directed to the church at Sardis: “Repent! If you will not awake, I will come upon you like a thief….” (Rev. 3.3). These statements are opposed to a thorough-going equating of ecclesiology and Christology in a way similar to how it is impossible to equate the doctrine about what is created with the doctrine about God the Creator.

Under the theme of “Christ and the Church” we will not treat ecclesiology as a whole nor ecclesiology in the full scope of its Trinitarian context, but simply with respect to the special aspect of its Christological reference. The scope of this theme is defined in the following twelve theses, the first ten of which begin with the words, “The church is…” Most of these theses will be only briefly explained. But the statements concerning the attributes and marks of the church must be developed at greater length since these are of special significance for the theological discussion that is controversial. Then, in conclusion, we must ask the questions:  What does “is” mean here? What does it mean to say that the church “has” attributes?


I. The church is the people of God called by Christ from the world.

            Jesus Christ died on the cross for the world, and in his resurrection he is exalted as Lord over the world. The world’s self-glorification and arbitrary self-rule are placed under Jesus’ judgment. At the same time, the redemption from this judgment is opened up in him for everyone who believes in him. We are called out from the world by the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection. This call is not only a report about Jesus, nor is it only the announcement of the redemption of those who believe in him. The gospel is at the same time also the word by which the risen Christ is himself active in the present. By the gospel Jesus Christ accomplishes the redemption of the believers, and by the gospel he shows himself in power as the exalted Lord. Through baptism we have not only received the sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but our “ownership” has been transferred to Christ, we have been delivered into his death, crucified with him, have died and been buried, in order that we live with him (Rom. 6.3ff.).

We are thus gathered out of the world by Christ and are united in him. We are added to the New Testament people of God—both Jews and Gentiles—in which the earthly differences between nations, classes, and sexes are eschatologically annulled. In the people of God, all the various different ones in the world are “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3.28).

As members of the New Testament people of God we are placed under the kingship of Christ. We no longer belong to ourselves, but to Christ our Lord. From him we daily receive forgiveness, life, and fellowship anew. Together, we are subject to his command.


II. The church is the prophetic, priestly, royal people sent by Christ into the world.

            Christ has called us out of the world in order to send us as his messengers into the world. He has given us a new origin from outside the world so that we proceed from this origin into the world. As those who have been freed by Christ, we must proclaim to the world its end, and to those who are enslaved, freedom in Christ. Both movements—being called out from the world and being sent back into it—belong essentially together in the concept of the church.

The church is sent into the world by the Lord, who as the crucified and risen one rules the world and intercedes for it in the threefold office of prophet, priest, and king. By his sending, the church receives a share in this office that corresponds in image to his. The church is the prophetic people—by whom the mighty deeds of God are being praised before the whole world (Acts 2)—and “the royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2.9). If in the old covenant individual people were called to be prophets or priests or kings, and if these individuals stood over against one another and the people, so now the church as a whole is one people of prophets, priests, and kings. Everything that is to be said about the different spiritual gifts in the New Testament (also about the special nature of a charisma of prophecy) and about the church’s ministerial offices fits within this reality of the prophetic, priestly, and royal office of Christ, which embraces the whole church and places it into service—the same Christ who makes every member of the church a prophetic witness and a royal priest. In the servant ministry of the church, sent into the world, the threefold office of Jesus Christ becomes real before the world.

Sent into the world, the church is the vanguard and instrument of the reign of Christ breaking into the world. Only if this sending of the church into the world is included in the concept of the church will the relationship between the church and the kingdom of Christ be properly recognized. The church is the kingdom of Christ in that its members are subject to Christ as Lord of the world and in that the church calls the world to acknowledge this Lord. The church is the impact and the instrument [Wirkung und Werkzeug] of the Lordship of the Kyrios.


III. The church is the worshiping assembly, in which Christ is actively present.1

            This two-fold movement of being called out from the world and then sent back into it has its center in the worshiping assembly, in which God’s act of salvation is proclaimed and praised and the Lord’s Supper is celebrated. Christ called us into it by the gospel, he added us to it in baptism, and from it he sends us out in servant ministry to the world. The worshiping assembly is so very much the heart and center of the life of the church that assembly, in the concept of ἐκκλησία, has become the principal term for the church in the New Testament. The designation of the church as the body of Christ (which relates to the Lord’s Supper) and its designation as the temple and house of God also point to this heart and center. The worshiping assembly stands also at the center of the Reformation concept of the church (Art. 7 of the Confessio Augustana).

The life of the church is concentrated with particular intensity in the worshiping assembly. In the worship event several dimensions need to be distinguished, to the first three of which we shall call attention now (and to two others in two subsequent theses): (1) the active self-realization of the crucified and risen Lord through word and sacrament; (2) our self-commitment to the Lord in the hearing of his word, in the reception of his body and blood, in confession, in prayers, acclamations, doxologies; and (3) our mutual service to one another, both to believers and non-believers, in witness and intercession.

In accordance with statements from the New Testament, through the present Christ each local worshiping assembly is, in the full sense, ἐκκλησία, σῶμα τοῦ χριστοῦ, ναὸς τοῦ ϑεοῡ. The worshiping assembly is this, not in view of all believers—since these are scattered throughout the world and belong to assemblies that are separated geographically—but in view of Christ who is wholly present in every local assembly of believers. So the church that consists of all believers in the world should not be understood as the sum total of all local churches, but rather it is a κοινωνία [communion; fellowship] in the sense of a common participation in the one Christ, who is present, whole and undivided, in each local assembly.


IV. The church is the bride waiting for Christ, who already now, in the worshiping assembly, takes part in the coming wedding feast.

            We are underway to meet the coming Lord, whose appearance in glory we await. In that way the church is like the bride who awaits the coming of the groom to the wedding.

In the worshiping assembly we do not, however, merely pray, μαραν θα [“Our Lord, come!”], but the Lord, whom we summon, comes into our midst. In the Lord’s Supper it is not only the crucified and risen one who makes himself present, but also the Christ who is coming again. In him we already share now in the great meal in the Kingdom of God, the eternal marriage feast of the Lamb. The church is not only the bride but the wife of Christ. Although we on earth are still journeying toward the goal, we here at the same time are already at the goal. Although we do not yet see the promised glory, yet we have a share in it already now by faith in the Lord, who gives himself to us in his Supper.

The worshiping assembly is thus at the same time the present fellowship of the believers on earth, together with the glorified believers of all times, whom Christ will one day assemble in heavenly radiance. In the presence of the coming Christ, the invisible unity of the militant church and the triumphant church is a reality.

This is the fourth dimension of the worship event.


V. The church is the body of Christ, which in the worshiping assembly is being built up for the new universe.

            Through the reception of the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper we who are baptized and believe in Christ are being built up as the body of Christ. Christ is the head of his body. As head he rules the church, his body, which he faces as its Lord. But at the same time, Christ is not only the head but the head and the body. The church does not only live under him as its Lord, but it lives in Christ, it is a part of Christ, it is the body of him who is himself the head and the body. The unity of the church and Christ is not one of identity since Christ alone—and never the church—is the head of the body, but that unity is the unity of the body of Christ.

The body of Christ is growing—growing “unto him2 in every way, he who is the head, namely, Christ” (Eph. 4.15), and growing from the head, “from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth from God” (Col. 2.19). This growth takes place through the knowledge of faith, in the fruit of good works, as well as in the suffering of those who bear witness, who “complete what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ for the sake of his body, which is the church” (Col. 1.24). But above all, the growth of the body occurs through the addition of further members, who are the fruit of the gospel that is proclaimed in the world. So the body of Christ grows in the growth of the believers and in the size of their company, inwardly and outwardly, upwards and in the breadth of space and time in the struggle with the spiritual attacks and trials in the world. As “the firstborn from the dead,” Christ is thus “the head of the body,” “the beginning” (Col. 1.18), and the goal of the growth. But at the same time, however, Christ is “the perfect human being” (Eph. 4.13), in whom the body and all the members are fitted together under the head.

As the body of Christ, the church has a significance beyond just reaching out to human beings, namely, a significance that pervades the entire universe. The church is “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1.23). The power of Christ that fulfills the universe is present in the church; the church is the fullness of Christ which he extends into the universe. Indeed, the church is “the universe in its eschatological form” (Ernst Käsemann).3 In the church the creation comes to its goal—not as the world, but as the realm under Christ’s Lordship. Thus, it is that in the church the voices of all creatures who praise God as their Lord come together in harmonious sound. The worshiping assembly joins in the angels’ song of praise, who offer the Sanctus to God. Of course, the praise offered by the church in this world will not come to voice without supplications, petitions, and loud sighing, and yet the new creation is already now a reality in Jesus Christ and the people who praise him.

This is the fifth dimension of the worship event.


VI.The church is the fellowship of the gifts of grace in whose multiplicity the one grace of Christ actively manifests itself.4

           All the New Testament writings bear witness to the fact that each member of the New Testament people of God is given the Holy Spirit. That the outpouring of the Spirit brings about a multiplicity of spiritual gifts is especially the testimony of Paul (but see also 1 Pet. 4.10ff.). To each believer a special charisma is imparted: “All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses” (1 Cor. 12.11). Paul’s teaching about the multiplicity of spiritual gifts is so fundamental that his statements may in no way be restricted to the congregations in Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14) and Rome (Rom. 12.6ff.), not even to the Pauline congregations or to the earliest Christian community. Instead, the multiplicity of spiritual gifts belongs to the very nature of the church at all times and in all places. As the body of Christ, the church is also an organism of diverse gifts in which a concrete spiritual gift is freely imparted to each believer by the Spirit.

Each spiritual gift is διακωνία [service], given for the building up of the congregation. No one receives the spiritual gift for oneself. Therefore, in the midst of all the charismata, love is “the more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12.31), the surpassing “more precious way” [köstlichere Weg] (Luther).5

In the multiplicity of God’s gifts, the fullness of the one Christ is made present in the congregation and through the congregation in the world. The multiplicity of charismata may appear in different forms in different congregations (see already 1 Cor. 12 and Rom. 12) and at different times, but it is always the appearance of the one χάρις6 of Jesus Christ. As head of the body he is the bearer and source of all charismata, and they in turn are all ordered in their service toward him. The fellowship of the gifts thus consists in their common participation in the one χάρις of Jesus Christ.


VII.The church is the congregation led by Christ himself through the pastoral office.7

            The calling of all into membership in the prophetic-priestly people of God and thus into servant ministry has to be distinguished from the calling that commissions and authorizes particular members for a specific servant ministry.8 The servant ministry that is exercised on the basis of a concrete commissioning and authorizing in the church (as already in the foundational ministry of the apostles) has to be distinguished from the multiplicity of the freely emerging charismata and ministries of all believers. Now it is true that everyone who exercises a spiritually gifted ministry is identified with a concrete word of the congregation insofar as he or she is subject to the testing and judging of the congregation. This applies, for example, to the “Amen!” by which the Pauline congregation acknowledged the freely given witness in its midst as the witness of the Spirit. This applies in a different way also, for example, to the Pauline exhortation to acknowledge in willing obedience the ministry of Stephanas for the sake of his active engagement with the congregation (1 Cor. 16.15). But we must distinguish between the words that are subsequently assigned to those who exercise a spiritually gifted ministry and the calling that precedes the ministry, which sends specific individuals into a specific ministry and authorizes them thereto with prayer.

In this case we are speaking of the church’s ministerial office: it is one such spiritually gifted ministry in the church which—in the midst of the multiplicity of spiritually gifted ministries in the church—is grounded in a special calling, commissioning, and sending. At the same time, all of the church’s ministerial offices are distinguished from the historic apostolate in that it alone is accorded the unique and incomparable authority of the eyewitnesses to the Lord’s resurrection, those who were themselves called directly by the Lord. This authority is foundational and normative for the church of all times. All the other ministerial offices in the church have authority only in obedient subordination to the apostolic authority. Those church ministries that are based on a special calling that precedes them are especially the functions of founding and leading the church. We group these ministries together in the concept of the pastoral office, to whose various forms other offices of service [Diakonie] in the narrower sense are then added.

When the apostolic message is proclaimed in the pastoral office, the same promise which Jesus once gave to the apostles holds true for the pastors [Hirten = “shepherds”]: “Whoever hears you, hears me” (Lk. 10.16). When the pastor cries: “Be reconciled to God,” then the pastor is like the apostle, “an ambassador for Christ,” an instrument by which God himself exhorts the church and the world (2 Cor. 5.20). The consoling, exhorting, judging voice of the pastoral office is not only a human voice, but the voice of Christ, who uses human words as his voice. The same mission and the same promise that were given to the apostles are valid for the pastoral office in all times: “Sins you forgive, they are forgiven, and sins you retain, they are retained” (Jn. 20.22ff. Compare with Mt. 16.19 and 18.18). In everything that the pastor does in obedience to the commission, the pastor encounters the congregation as the vicarious representative of Christ, the one good Shepherd. As the pastor thus leads the worshiping assembly, Christ himself leads the church through this ministerial office, and consoles, exhorts, strengthens, and judges it.

Because Christ is himself actively present in the charismata and ministries of the whole congregation, the leadership of the congregation therefore cannot be a lordship of the pastoral office over the congregation. Not only the pastoral office but also the freely voiced spiritual witness stands vis-a-vis the congregation, for Christ encounters the congregation also through that witness. Christ acts upon the congregation through the pastoral office, and he acts upon both the congregation and the pastor through the various spiritually gifted ministries. The pastoral office thus stands in the midst of the reciprocal ministries of all the members toward one another. The pastor stands in the midst of the manifold workings of the one grace of Christ through the manifold ministries of each to the other. Therefore also the spiritually gifted witnesses in the congregation are not to be examined by the pastoral office alone, but likewise the congregation has the responsibility and the duty to examine, criticize, and judge every freely rendered ministry, just as also the ministry of the pastor.


VIII. The church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” (The Nicene Creed).

            These four attributes of the church are interwoven with one another in a special way. The first three have the same Christological structure, while the fourth occupies a special position.


  1. The unity of the church

We not only see a large number of locally separated assemblies, but already in the New Testament letters we read about various tensions, oppositions, and the forming of groups within the local congregations, for example, the oppositions in Corinth, even about the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and also tensions and oppositions between the apostles (Gal. 2.11ff.). These tensions and even the forming of cliques did not hinder Paul from bearing witness to the unity of precisely these congregations and their members, nor from addressing those who were disunited among themselves about this their unity, nor from exhorting them to unity by appeal to that unity.

The unity of the church is not primarily the unity of its members but the unity of Christ who is acting upon them all and, indeed, at all times and in all places. It is one and the same Christ who has called them all through word and sacrament and has incorporated them into himself—one and the same Christ who is actively present in the multiplicity of spiritual gifts. Since all members of the church have been chosen by the one God, called by the one Christ, and renewed and gifted by the one Holy Spirit, the unity of those who believe in Christ, who have been baptized into Christ, and who receive the body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is a matter of faith—over against all their visible tensions, oppositions, cliques, and separate natures. Indeed, this unity is a reality created by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

Because those who believe in Christ, who have been baptized into him, and have received his body are one, they should strive for unity; because they are one, they should be one. On the basis of the unity gifted in Christ, the apostle exhorts them to make space for this unity in an orderly joint celebration of the Lord’s Supper and in a mutual, loving inclusion of the spiritually gifted individuals, as well as in the reciprocal recognition of ministerial offices and in the mutual intercession and aid effort beyond the local congregation. Thus, the exhortations of the apostle to the Corinthian congregation that refer to this subject generally take the structure of New Testament paraclesis [exhortation]. The imperative is spoken on the basis of the indicative of the act of salvation that has taken place and which is acknowledged in faith. The unity of the church is not a task and work of human beings, but rather it is on the basis of the unity effected by Christ that believers are to be one.


  1. The holiness of the church

We do not see this holiness, when we gaze upon all those who consider themselves members of the church. Nor do we see it when we visualize the picture which the New Testament letters give us of the earliest Christian congregations. There we read of manifold sins; and even when the incestuous and some of the grossest sinners were excluded from the congregation, there was still enough to be admonished—presumptuousness, greed, legalism, little faith, misuse of Christian freedom, and lovelessness of every kind. Added to that were the hidden sins, then just as now. In fact, from the very beginning, the church was an “infirmary and care facility for the sick and those in need of healing” (Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (1515/16), WA 56:276. [LW 25:263. –Ed.]).

The holiness of the church is not primarily the holiness of its members but the holiness of Christ imputed to this assembly and the holiness of the Spirit, who sanctifies these people in Christ and dwells in them. Only in this way can we understand the unabashed freedom with which the writers of the New Testament letters address as saints those same members of the congregation whose sins they have clearly brought to light. The holiness of the church is not the sum of the holiness of its members, but rather the holiness of Christ, who gives himself to the church and dwells at its center—in the power of the Holy Spirit, who sanctifies sinners. If we look at the members of the church, then we see that all are sinners and the church is a fellowship of sinners and not of saints. If, however, we believe in Christ, who is actively present in the church through the Spirit, we know that through the gospel and the sacraments this horde of sinners is justified and will be justified anew each day. In this sense the church is simultaneously a house of the sick and the palace of the healed—to the senses it appears as a house of the sick but with the eyes of faith it is a palace of the healed.

Because the church is holy through God’s sanctifying work, therefore its members should set sin aside and strive after holiness. The exhortation to holiness presupposes the salvific act of holiness. Because the members are sanctified, they should lay hold of holiness. Because they are holy, they should live as holy. Thereby we should note that these New Testament imperatives are not directed only to particular members of the church but to entire churches. For that reason, this also applies to the whole church as a whole:  Because it is sanctified, it should then be holy.


  1. The catholicity of the church

If by catholicity we understand that the church encompasses the world geographically, we see very little of that in the New Testament writings, for what significance has even the route from Jerusalem to Rome in comparison with the whole world? Nevertheless, the meaning of the Nicene Creed is that the church was already catholic at the time of Pentecost.

The church is catholic because Christ, the exalted Lord, the Pantokrator, acts in it—he to whom is given all power in heaven and on earth. The word catholic does not occur in the New Testament writings. It is first found in Ignatius and indeed in a Christological context: “where Christ is, there is also the catholic church” (Ignatius of Antioch, Letter to Smyrna, 8.2).9 In the further development of the concept, the geographical extension of the church on earth became more prominent, and later a distinction was made between the factual and virtual geographical extension. In contrast, the Reformers liked to translate the word catholic as “Christian,” in accord with the original formulation. We may connect with this an understanding of catholicity which one comes across repeatedly in the ecclesiology of the Eastern Church, according to which the catholicity of the church consists in the comprehensive multiplicity of the charismata, of theologies, and of believers. The catholicity of the church is the catholicity of Jesus Christ, Lord of all lords, Lord of the universe. As this Lord, he is presently active in the church; he incorporates believers into his body, which is the πλήρωμα [fullness] that fulfills the universe; through the variety of spiritual gifts he allows them to participate in the all-embracing richness of his grace; and he sends them into the world in order to proclaim to it the end of its own autonomy and to proclaim him as the Lord of the world. Because Christ is the Pantocrator in the midst of the church, because he empowers and sends it, the church is catholic. It is catholic on the basis of the catholicity of its Lord, which is imputed to it.

Because the church in Christ is catholic, it ought to be catholic. It does not first have to achieve its catholicity through its self-extension, but it has to believe in its Lord, who encompasses the universe and to obey him. Because it is catholic by faith, it is to make space for the abundance of his gifts of grace in the manifoldness of knowledge, of witness, and of servant ministry in the widest sense, by which the Lord makes himself present in his richness. Because it is catholic, it is to advance into all areas of the world in order to proclaim to all people him who is already their Lord, whether they know it or not, whether they acknowledge him or deny him. Since we do not first need to make Christ the Pantocrator by our own effort and need not first make the church catholic, our servant ministry—despite all spiritual attacks and trials is in the end an untroubled and joyful one.


  1. The Apostolicity of the Church

Apostolicity occupies a special position among the four attributes of the church. To be sure, it is true of each one of these attributes that it is realized only in conjunction with the other three. They are inseparably interwoven with one another as are the attributes of God. Even their enumeration is incomplete in a way that is similar to that of the attributes in the doctrine of God. Yet in this intimate interrelationship and unity of the four attributes, apostolicity has a special place insofar as Christ—the one, holy Christ who is exalted over the universe—encounters the church in fact only in the apostolic witness. Without the apostolic witness he would be absolutely hidden, and only on the basis of this witness is he in fact known. So the significance of apostolicity is that it is the attribute on which the other attributes of the church rest in a special way because without the ministry of the apostles Christ does not rule the church nor does he make himself present in it.

If we understand the apostles to be the called and enlightened eyewitnesses of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, then they are the foundation of the church, and not merely in the historical sense, namely, that the church was once founded through their ministry and thus on them. Beyond that, as the called eyewitnesses of the victory of Christ, they have an abiding, incomparable, unrepeatable, normatively unique position as authoritative vis-à-vis the church in all subsequent ages. There is no access to Christ by bypassing the apostolic witness to Christ. Only in the faith in the apostolic gospel is the church therefore the one, holy, catholic church in Christ. If the church is the apostolic church in its obedience to the apostolic message, then it is thereby the one, holy, catholic church.

Because this is so, the church for all time must heed the exhortation to abide by the apostolic gospel and, where it has departed from it or gone beyond it, to return to the apostolic message. This is the meaning of the call: ecclesia semper reformanda est [the church ought always to be reformed].


IX. The church is indestructible.

            The structure of the attributes of the church becomes even plainer here, for of the relevant New Testament passages none speaks strictly of any attribute of the church, of its own capability to abide on the earth or of its incapability to be destroyed. Rather, they speak of the promise of God in Christ.

The world resists the message of the church. The message of the end of the world and the summons to submit to Christ the Lord is a disturbance to the world. The world wants its own eternity. It wants to remain the world. So it struggles against the church and does so in a two-fold manner: on the one hand, in open attack, oppression, persecution, and, on the other, by adapting itself to the church, in bringing the church into subservience, and in secularizing it. This second way is the more dangerous. In one way or another, this struggle takes place under ever new camouflage and on constantly changing historical fronts.

To the church is given the promise that it will endure in the midst of all spiritual attacks and trials. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16.18). The woman (the church) remains on the earth, even when her seed (the individual members) are killed (Rev. 12.6, 13ff.). Even if it is almost choked by the weeds that the enemy has sowed secretly, it will abide until the time of harvest (Matt. 13.24ff.).

This promise does not mean that the church will always remain in the same place, with the same increase in the number of its members, with the same order, with the same clarity of knowledge and love, with the same multiplicity of spiritual gifts. But never will the earth be without those to whom is given the promise that they will “inherit the earth” (Matt. 5.5). Never will the earth be without those for whose sake and for the completion of whose number God preserves the world in spite of sin and death. There will always be the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

Because the church is given this promise, it receives the imperative to struggle against the powers of the world. Christ does not only promise “neither shall anyone pluck them out of my hand” (John 10.28), but he also commands, “Abide in me!” The struggle in which the church is ordered to engage is an extremely strange one, and it is waged on both sides with very different weapons. The church struggles as it gathers around word and sacrament, as it thanks God, also for its spiritual attacks and trials, and intercedes for its enemies, as it confesses Christ before the world and takes upon itself suffering for its confession. It struggles as it proceeds in its λειτουργεῖν [service, worship] in the broadest sense, and as it remains that which it is from its very origin—as it abides in Christ. It struggles for the victor’s crown by abiding in him who already is victor over the world.

In order to abide in Christ, the church in its history has delimited the New Testament canon and defined dogmas and ordered the church. These decisions have their common origin in service to the worshiping assembly, and historically they have been made in the struggle against threats to this assembly.

In the canon the church has collected the original documents of the apostolic message. The canon is the norm of the church’s speaking and acting, yet not because the church would have created it but because the apostolic message is the normative foundation of the church for all time. With the canon the church has acknowledged the norm of the apostolic witness to Christ.

In dogma the church has confessed Christ. Dogma is authoritative for the church’s speaking and acting, not because it would have been formulated by the church but because the Christ to whom the apostles have born witness is here confessed—he who is the same yesterday, today, and forever and who has ever to be confessed anew by the church on its historically changing fronts.

In its order, the church has defined the way in which the servant ministry of preaching and the administration of the sacraments is to occur. Also order has its binding validity, not because it was instituted by the church but because of the mission of the Lord to preach the gospel and because of his institution of the sacraments. In whatever its respective historical situation, the church has to acknowledge with its orders the ordinance of Christ.

Here we should not overlook the increasing range of possibilities within which the church has made these three decisions. By delimiting the canon it was bound to the historical, original documents that had been handed down (notwithstanding the whole problematic of the “antilegomena”)10 and to their exact text. In dogma, the church has always borne witness to use its own words, in the choice between various concepts and in controversy with ever-changing heresies and worldviews. The ordering of the church is in its details conditioned to an even greater degree by the external presuppositions of the respective situation in which the church obeys the commission of its Lord. From here arises the issue of the historical variability of these church decisions and the various ways in which they have binding force in the church.


X. The church is visible in this world.

            The church is hidden from the eyes of the world, as are the earthly Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit. To be sure, everyone can see the worshiping assemblies, hear their witness, and recognize the historical duration and spatial expansion of Christendom. But without faith the church cannot be recognized as the people of God. In the eyes of the world it is hidden in the abundance of religio-historical and religio-sociological analogies. It appears as only one religion among many. Neither its unity nor holiness nor catholicity is recognizable without faith in its Lord.

The church, however, is also hidden from the eyes of the believers. It is, to be sure, clear that those who have separated themselves from the worship assembly do not belong to the people of God. But beyond that, the people who are the children of God are hidden among the many who, though they may take part in the worship service, nevertheless do not lead a new life—whether it be that they deny to confess Christ before the world or that they persist in adultery, covetousness, lust for power, and so forth, or self-righteously boast before God and others of their irreproachable conduct and of their confession. Often enough the number of hypocrites seems greater than that of the true believers. One must, however, not stop here with such judging of others and one must in no way pre-empt the separating between the living and the dead members of the church, which is reserved for Christ as the coming Judge. Rather, it is precisely the believer who recognizes himself or herself again and again as the sinner, the hypocrite, the denier! Who could ever boast of his or her obedience before God? Who must not cry daily, “Forgive me my sins”? The one holy church is not merely hidden under the disunity and unholiness of others, but also underneath my own sins.

In the midst of the assemblies of this world the church is recognizable in no other way than in which sinners recognize themselves as justified and holy, namely, by faith in the gospel. The church is not the gospel but the assembly of sinners in which the gospel is preached. But the gospel is God’s powerful, active word by which he effects faith and justifies and sanctifies believing sinners. The gospel persists in awakening faith and having a salvific effect, despite every contradiction leveled against it by human beings. Where it is preached and where those who hear it give their confession as a response to it, one may surely reckon that God is gathering his people, however questionable the assembly is in which this occurs. Where people are baptized, there is an implanting into the body of Christ, and where the Lord’s Supper is received, there is the building up of the body of Christ, even when unbelief is judged in this event and the believers are hidden among the hypocrites. So the preaching of the gospel and the administration of baptism and the Lord’s Supper are the marks by which the church can be recognized with complete certainty in this world.

Of course, where the gospel is proclaimed, there, along with faith, arise also new obedience, prayer, and witness, as well as spiritual attacks, trials, and suffering. There gifts of the Spirit emerge, by which one serves the other and in which the love of Christ is manifested in the midst of the world. In a broader sense all these effects can be designated as signs of the church. But they remain in the twilight of all human action. Often enough prayer is hidden underneath inexpressible sighing, and often enough the self-boasting of the “haves” is hidden underneath the witness to the world. The church is also visible in a larger sense in its order, its liturgy, and its service. But in the midst of all such visibility the gospel and the sacraments remain purely and simply the notae ecclesiae [marks of the church]. They are related to all these others as the message of Jesus is related to his signs. Without faith in the message, Jesus’ miracles were not recognized as signs of the lordship of God. Even other miracle-workers did miracles. Only on the basis of the notae ecclesiae does all the rest become signs of the church, and only thus is the church recognizable in the religio-historical and religio-sociological construct of Christendom. Gospel, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper are the only distinguishing signs by which the reality of the church in the world can unerringly be recognized. The issue of the one, holy, catholic church is thus contingent upon the apostolicity of its message.

The gospel now is an “outward” word, which everyone can hear; and baptism and the Lord’s Supper are as water, bread, and wine “outward” signs, which everyone can see and consider. The world acknowledges them only as human words and earthly occurrences. But faith recognizes in them God’s word and deed. God’s own word is encountered as an external, audible, human word; and Christ, the crucified and risen one himself is imparted to the believer in an external, visible, earthly occurrence. So, for faith, the church is visible in this world. Although hidden beneath the sins of its members, it is nevertheless palpable in the gospel, which justifies believing sinners. If, with Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, one distinguishes between the visible and the invisible church, that is, between the assembly of all the baptized and that of the true believers, so one must add this: in the visible church of sinners, in which the gospel is preached, the invisible church is visible. In conformity with the usage in the New Testament letters we may now also in this church with the judgment of faith, love, and hope regard and address all those gathered as the saints of God because the gospel is at work here as God’s active, justifying, sanctifying word. So the church is visible to faith, although it is hidden precisely in its worldly visibility, and it is invisible to unbelief, although unbelief sees it. Similarly, Jesus became visible to faith as the Christ, although in his self-humiliation he pointed away from himself to the coming Son of Man, and the Christ remained invisible to unbelief, although it saw and heard Jesus.

Consequently, the church belongs in the creed: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.” It has often been remarked that there is a difference here: “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” but “I believe the church.” The Holy Spirit is the Lord, but the church is his creation. The church does not have its place in the creed in the same way as God the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. I believe in God as my Thou, who has created and redeemed and sanctified me, and who daily acts anew as Creator, Redeemer, and New Creator of me and all people. The statement of faith about the church is, however, a statement about human beings upon whom God is acting. I cannot believe in the church any more than I can believe in myself as a Christian. But I believe in God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who in his faithfulness has created the church and preserves it. Because I believe in the triune God, I also believe the church. God’s new-creating work through the gospel brings about the church and makes the church recognizable, visible.

The attributes of the church and the notae ecclesiae are not identical. The attributes are the effects of the notae, for the distinguishing signs of the church—the word and sacrament—are the means through which Christ acts upon the church and gives himself to the church. Through word and sacrament he gives the church its unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity, as well as its indestructible permanence.


XI. The threat of judgment applies to the church.

            Christ will come in glory. He will overthrow all opposition. He will redeem the poor, those who hunger for righteousness, those who are waiting for him. Yet he does not come only as the Judge of the world but also as Judge of the church. It is in this sense that the earliest Christian community understood the parables about the wheat and the weeds and of the net with the good and the bad fish (Mt. 13.37ff. and 47ff.). In this sense we find again and again in the New Testament the call to repentance addressed to the churches—not only to individual members, but to entire churches (see especially the letters in Revelation). Indeed, the call to repentance applies to the whole of Christendom.

This call to repentance extends not only to false doctrine and vice, to little faith and disobedience of every kind. Beyond that, the call must unfold also in respect to the special dangers that only arise from such decisions by which the church wants to abide with its Lord in its conflict with the world. It is not the church that keeps God’s word steadfast, but God through his word keeps the church steadfast. The church does not defend itself against all assaults, but God defends it, and thus it persists. If the church has in this faith delimited the canon and defined dogma and ordered the church, this does not exclude the possibility that its preservation by Christ may be perverted into a self-preservation of the church, nor the possibility that the church may misuse the canon, dogma, and order as a means of self-preservation. So even in the church we know the danger of the scribes, who in their appeal to Scripture ignore the summons of the living Christ. We know the danger of such an orthodoxy which by its sticking to dogma overlooks the riches of Scripture and fails to make the confession that the church has to make in new here-and-now situations over against entirely different threats and false teachings. We also know the danger of an ecclesiastical legalism which stands in the way of the abundance of the gifts of the Spirit and the here-and-now leading of the church by its living Lord. There is a self-confidence in the church which makes it deaf to the call of the living Christ and to the sisters and brothers scattered throughout the world, and which makes the church blind to the constantly changing camouflages under cover of which the world seeks to devour the church. Canon, dogma, and church order have to serve the church’s abiding in Christ. But Christ remains the living Lord of the canon, of dogma, and of church law.


XII. The promise of glorification by the Christ who is coming again, applies to the church.

            Out of the judgments Christ will redeem, perfect, and glorify the church. His Parousia will be the end of the believing, waiting, hastening, struggling and suffering church, but also of the church which is sinning, which is bound together with the world, and which seeks its own security. The church will then stop being a corpus mixtum in which the true believers are hidden among the hypocrites. The coming Christ will present the church in its purity. If now the church militant and the church triumphant are separated, at that time this distinction will come to an end. Then will be the end of the hiddenness of Christ in the human word of the gospel message and under the water, the bread, and the wine of the sacraments. Then we will see him, and the reality of having died with Christ and having arisen with him, and the fellowship of the body of Christ will become visible. The coming Christ will encounter the church not only as the one who makes it perfect but also as its Judge. Above all, however, he encounters the church as the one who makes it perfect—as the bridegroom who goes out to meet his bride in order to celebrate with her the eternal marriage feast.

The first theses began with the words, “The church is…” We must now inquire, by way of conclusion, about the meaning of this word is.

The church is, because Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen one, acts ever anew upon it. Looking back on the theses, we may now say: The church is, because Christ calls his people out from the world (I), Christ sends them into the world (II), Christ makes himself present in the worshiping assembly (III), Christ prepares the marriage feast (IV), Christ builds up his body (V), Christ unfolds his grace in the abundance of the gifts of the Spirit (VI), Christ leads the church through the pastoral office (VII). The explanatory remarks about the other theses were also derived from the working of Christ. But Christ does not merely work here and there, much less in an occasional and arbitrary manner, but continuously in the faithfulness of God. What he has begun he will also complete. The church is, because Christ is continuously active upon it. The church was not before this action; and it is not for a moment without this action. Christ’s working upon the church is at the same time the life of Christ in the church. For through baptism he takes the sinner into his death and his resurrection, and in the Lord’s Supper he gives himself bodily as food to sinners. He is present in his church as the living one. In Christ’s living presence the church has its being.

Christ acts on the church through the gospel (through preaching as the sacramentum audibile and through the sacraments as the verbum visibile). The word of the gospel encounters the church as a two-fold address: as assurance and claim, as gift and demand, as Christ’s act of grace for the church and as Christ’s command to the church, to live as befits the grace that has been received.

In the assurance of the gospel Christ grants to believers his righteousness, his holiness, his life. Through the gospel he shows himself as the Lord who grants to the believers everything that is his. By faith in the gospel the church is the one, holy, catholic, and indestructible church.

In the claim of the gospel exhortation Christ bids us to live from his strength. Because we are declared righteous, we ought to take hold of righteousness. Because we are made holy, we should strive for holiness. Because we have been transferred into his life, we ought so to live. On the basis of the life of Christ in the church, this exhortation holds true: Be one, be holy, be catholic, abide in him—be those who you are in Christ.

From the above, there emerges the answer to the further question: In what sense does the church “have” the attributes of unity, holiness, and so forth? These attributes come to the church in Christ’s efficacious assurance and claim, more precisely, in an ever new assurance and an ever new claim—in his giving, which is new every day, and in his commands, which are new every day. The church “has” these attributes in a daily new reception and a daily new taking hold. In other words, the church has its attributes only in the double movement of being called out from the world by Christ and being sent forth into the world by Christ.

The church is one in being gathered by the one Christ, and in seeking for unity on the strength of being united with him. The church is holy in the reception of the holiness of Christ and in sanctifying itself on the strength of having been sanctified. The church is catholic as the possession of Christ, the Pantokrator, and as his instrument for proclaiming his lordship to the world. The church is one, as it repents for its disunity and believes in the one Christ. The church is holy as it repents of its sins and believes in the holy Christ. As the church acknowledges its errors through self-examination in the light of the apostolic message, it is apostolic. As the church surrenders itself to die with Christ, it lives and abides. But should a church desire to hold fast as its own possession, both its being and its attributes, divorced from Christ’s assurance and claim that are new each day, then such an understanding of unity would lead to schism, such an understanding of holiness would lead to a denial of repentance, such an understanding of catholicity would lead to a claim of world domination, such an understanding of apostolicity would lead to a separation from the historic apostolate and thus to self-assertion over against Jesus Christ. The attributes of the church are to be acknowledged with fear and trembling as the ever-new gracious acts of God’s faithfulness in Christ. In this faithfulness the church has its being.

Statements about the being and attributes of the church thus take part in the structure of statements about the being of believers in Christ and about the attributes of believers: their righteousness, their holiness, and so forth. This instruction, to be sure, has an intrinsic limitation: my being in Christ, my being as justified and sanctified stands or falls with my ever new reception in faith of the righteousness and holiness of Christ which he grants us through word and sacrament. But the church does not stand or fall with my faith. The church was before the individual came to faith, and it will abide even if the individual falls from faith. Statements about the church thus can never expand into personal generalizations. On the other hand, however, one cannot overlook the fact that the church is the fellowship of believers and that we can make true statements about the church only in faith. But in that respect, while the statements about the church cannot be separated from the personal existence of believers, one should watch out not to hypostasize the church.11

Editor’s Notes

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  1. Regarding theses 3 and 4, cf. Edmund Schlink, “The Cultus in the Perspective of Evangelical-Lutheran Theology” (ESW 1.166-175).
  2. Schlink is here quoting Luther’s translation of the Greek phrase, αὐξήσωμεν εἰς αὐτὸν τὰ πάντα (Lasst uns… wachsen in allen Stücken zu dem hin… [“Let us grow unto him in all ways,” emphasis added]), which is a more accurate rendering than is found in many English versions, e.g., the King James Version (“grow up into him in all things…”), the Revised Standard Version (“We are to grow up in every way into him…”), the New Revised Standard Version (“we must grow up in every way into him…”), and the New International Version (“we will in all things grow up into him…”). Schlink’s use of Luther’s translation stresses we are to grow unto Christ or toward Christ, i.e., to become like him.
  3. The source for this phrase by Ernst Käsemann is unknown, but the idea is expressed in his doctoral dissertation. See Ernst Käsemann, Leib und Leib Christi: Eine Untersuchung zur paulinischen Begrifflichkeit [Body and Body of Christ: An Investigation of the Pauline Conceptuality] (Tübingen: J. C. B. Mohr [Paul Siebeck], 1933), 184-6.
  4. Regarding theses 6 and 7, cf. sec. 1 in Edmund Schlink’s essay, “Apostolic Succession,” (ESW 1.211ff.).
  5. Und ich will euch noch einen köstlichere Weg zeigen [And I want to show you a still more precious way], 1 Cor. 12.31 in Luther’s translation of the Bible.
  6. In the New Testament the Greek word χάρις refers to God’s grace, favor, or goodwill. Cf. BDAG 1079-1081.
  7. Literally, “the shepherd office” (Das Hirtenamt), Schlink’s preferred way of referring to the office of the pastor.
  8. Schlink here uses the verb auftragen, which can mean both “commission” (as in “order” or “instruction”), as well as “mission” or “task.” One noun form is Beauftragung and another is Auftrag. The former will normally be translated as “commissioning,” while the latter as “mission” or “commission,” depending on the context. Elsewhere Schlink designates this “commissioning” or “missioning” as a “special sending” (besondere Sendung). That later combination of words will normally be translated as “commissioning” in order to distinguish it from a more general “sending.” Cf. the second section (“Sending into Servant Ministry”) of chap. 8 (“Apostolic Succession”) in ESW 1 (pp. 216ff.).
  9. Ignatius of Antioch [c. 35 – c. 107], “Letter to the Smyrnaeans,” 8.2, in Early Christian Fathers, ed. Cyril C. Richardson (New York: Collier, 1970), 115.
  10. Included here are the so-called Old Testament Apocrypha as well as additional writings whose canonical authority was disputed and “spoken against” within the early Christian community, e.g., Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude, Revelation, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Epistle of Barnabas.
  11. Schlink’s use of hypostasieren here refers to the application of divine and human attributes to the church, of thinking and speaking of the church in the same way that Christians think of Christ as two natures—divine and human—in one person (hypostasis).

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