Which church has the keys of God’s kingdom? What are its marks?

What is Coke? The soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe of the Coca-Cola company. How can I find some? Look for its marks: it is found in cans and bottles with red and white labels that read in distinctive cursive, “Coca-Cola.” Does that mean Coke is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. Coke, by definition, is the soft drink prepared according to the Coca-Cola recipe.

What is a church? A communion of believers in Christ. How can I find one? Look for its marks: it is found where the gospel is taught in its purity and the sacraments are administered according to Christ’s command. Does that mean a church is defined by its marks? No, the marks tell how to identify it, not what it is. A church, by definition, is a communion of believers.

The difference is crucial since in looking for the marks, many have forgotten what they were looking for. For example, some teach that churches in the strict, literal sense include unbelievers. Forgetting that a church is a communion of believers was addressed by the Reformers:

Although, therefore, hypocrites and wicked men are members of this true Church according to outward rites [titles and offices], yet when the Church is defined, it is necessary to define that which is the living body of Christ, and which is in name and in fact the Church [which is called the body of Christ, and has fellowship not alone in outward signs, but has gifts in the heart, namely, the Holy Ghost and faith]. And for this there are many reasons. For it is necessary to understand what it is that principally makes us members, and that, living members, of the Church. If we will define the Church only as an outward polity of the good and wicked, men will not understand that the kingdom of Christ is righteousness of heart and the gift of the Holy Ghost [that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual, as nevertheless it is; that therein Christ inwardly rules, strengthens, and comforts hearts, and imparts the Holy Ghost and various spiritual gifts], but they will judge that it is only the outward observance of certain forms of worship and rites.

Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Articles VII and VIII, paragraphs 12-13, emphasis added

A failure to distinguish the marks for identifying the church from the definition of the church is a root of all kinds of confusion. The holy, catholic, and apostolic church is the congregation of saints, the flock hearing and believing the Good Shepherd’s voice, as Luther explained. A church by definition is a communion of saints;  this is the the narrow, literal sense of the word “church” (A. Pieper, “Concerning the Doctrine of the Church and of its Ministry, with Special Reference to the Synod and its Discipline,” p. 10). F. Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics (III, pp. 419-420) makes it clear that even local churches, strictly speaking, have no unbelieving members:

When we speak of a Christian congregation, or local church, we always mean only the Christians or believers in the visible communion. The congregations, too, consist only of believers. As the wicked and hypocrites do not belong to the church universal, so they are no part of the congregation either. This is the clear teaching of Scripture.

Indeed, churches are hidden in the sense that unbelievers posing as believers may be in the midst of the believers. They are the weeds among the wheat (Matthew 13:24-30). Hypocrites do not really belong to the churches they pretend to join (1 John 2:19).

At the same time, the communion of saints is known by its marks, especially the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the administration of Christ’s sacraments according to his command. To the extent that visible gatherings have those marks, we may call them churches in a figurative or wide sense because they manifest hidden churches, the communions of saints within them. Such visible gatherings are primarily among believers living in the same region (1 Corinthians 16:1), but other gatherings, such as synods (Acts 15:6-29), and even what Walther called “the Evangelical Lutheran Church” also display the marks of the flock to varying degrees.

A church by definition is a communion of believers. Some communions have more believers than others: they vary in size from “two or three” believers to all believers worldwide (Matthew 16:16-19; 18:15-18). This is forgotten once we leave those words of Christ to make our own rigid definitions and judgments on what is and what is not a visible church, as if the keys were given to an organization as opposed to the communion of believers.

For example, some Lutherans have claimed that synods cannot be churches because they do not administer the sacrament of baptism and because administering the sacraments according to Christ’s command is an essential mark of the church. Were they consistent, they would have to conclude by the same reasoning that local congregations among the elderly that do not have occasion to administer baptism cannot be churches and that the local congregations among the Reformed cannot be churches because they do not really have the sacrament of the altar. These Lutherans reason that since synods are not churches, they do not have the keys of the kingdom and therefore cannot call ministers or administer church discipline. That at first sounds convincing since the marks of the church are easily mistaken as the definition of the church, but what do the clear passages of Scripture say? Jesus did not give the keys and priesthood of the kingdom to any organization bearing the marks of the church but rather to the church, that is, to the believers, as seen in John 20:21-23 and 1 Peter 2:9, which are addressed to believers without the word “church.” The local and synodical churches the believers form for the use of the keys are distinguished from congregations of unbelievers by the proclamation of the gospel in its purity and the correct administration of the sacraments. In that way, the marks of the church play their proper role, that of distinguishing Christian congregations from non-Christian congregations. The marks of the church are not for distinguishing local Christian congregations from synodical Christian congregations. Since a church is simply a communion of believers, to deny that a synodical congregation is a church is to imply that it is a congregation of unbelievers (see Psalm 50:16-23). Thus, Lutherans who assert that synodical communions of believers are not churches thereby admit to holding that a church is something other than a communion of believers. That is the source of the confusion.

The keys and priesthood of the kingdom belong only to the sheep hearing the Good Shepherd’s voice (John 20:21-23), not to any organization with a constitution, rules of order, corporate legal status, etc. While the sheep are to do everything in good order, they have wide freedom in how to best organize themselves for announcing the saving deeds of the Shepherd who called them from darkness to light (1 Peter 2:9).

Organization is especially important for public discipline since the due process required by the Eighth Commandment requires some fair procedure. In the early days of the Reformation, the Evangelical Lutheran Church carried out its work of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments for some time before courts could be organized to hear cases (Walther’s Pastorale: American Lutheran Pastoral Theology, 1995, Lutheran News: New Haven, pp. 234-235). Unlike Calvinists and others among the Reformed, Lutherans do not consider discipline to be a mark of the church.

That is because the Evangelical Lutheran Church takes her stand on the bare Scriptures. The flock uses the keys when Christ is present with two or three sheep according to his promise in Matthew 18:18-20. Jesus made the promise to the church against which the gates of hell would not stand before there was a local congregation in any organized sense (Matthew 16:16-19). In using the keys, the sheep proclaim the gospel privately (1 Peter 2:9), choose pastors to proclaim the gospel in word and sacrament (Matthew 28:19-20), and administer discipline subject to the Eighth Commandment (Matthew 18:15-18). Jesus cannot lie or deceive. He is there “in the midst of them.”


“Pass the Coke,” she requested. He snapped, “Coke is all over the world! ‘Pass the Coke?’ You never defined a local Coke!” Looking at the bottle on the table with the usual red and white label, she repeated, “Pass the Coke.”

“But that can’t be Coke! The bottle is open. It’s not even full! Coke comes in closed, full bottles. That’s what you told me when you sent me to Walmart!”

Assessing the situation, she smiled and rose to pour more Coke for her guests and herself.

Created 26 June 2014. Revised 7 July 2014.