Churches as communions of believers as opposed to visible gatherings

A communion of believers is a church by definition

In his paper arguing that a synodical congregation is a church, August Pieper demonstrates that the New Testament only uses the word “church” to mean “communion of believers,” never “visible organization” (1929, “Concerning the Doctrine of the Church and of its Ministry, with Special Reference to the Synod and its Discipline”). The importance of this lies in its exposing attempts of organizations claiming to be churches to usurp the authority to proclaim the gospel from believers. This “trouble” is summarized in the Pieper’s citation of Luther on p. 7:

Luther remarks in Concerning Councils and Churches: “The holy Christian Church is a people that is Christian and holy, or as one is wont to say, holy Christendom, yes, all Christendom. In the Old Testament it is called God’s people. And if in the children’s creed such words had been used: ‘I believe that there is one Christian holy people,’ all trouble could easily have been avoided that has resulted from the blind, unclear word ‘church.’ For the word Christian holy people would clearly and mightily have brought with it both the understanding and the judgment as to what is or is not Church.

Traditional uses of the word “church” obscure the meaning of Scripture, leading to various errors that have the effect of giving the keys to organizations such as visible gatherings, whether or not that is the intent. That is why Luther, Walther, Pieper, and the authors of the WELS theses on the church emphasized the importance of returning to the New Testament definition of the church as the communion of saints. On pages 7-8, Pieper quotes Walther, with his citations of proof texts, and Luther to demonstrate their agreement that hypocrites claiming church membership are really not members of the church.

Even when the New Testament refers to local churches, it never means visible organizations that include unbelievers but only communions of believers. These churches are sometimes called “invisible” because exactly who is and who is not a believer as opposed to an unbeliever in disguise remains hidden. Any communion of believers is a church in the New Testament sense, consisting of any number from “two or three” believers to all believers worldwide. Churches are hidden since 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).

A visible gathering in Christ’s name is a church by synecdoche

If a church is simply a communion of believers, why do we use the word “church” for organizations or not-for-profit corporations such as St. Mark Lutheran Church (UAC)? These visible organizations, containing unbelievers as well as hidden believers, are not churches in the literal sense but are only called churches by synecdoche, as Pieper points out. Wilbert Garish explains in Section 2 of his essay on church and ministry,

This use of the word is a figure of speech called synecdoche or part for the whole. For example, when you go to the garden center to buy a bag of lawn seed, only if you read the fine print on the package will you know that you have received not just grass seed but also a small percentage of weed seeds and inert material. Nevertheless, by synecdoche the package is labeled lawn seed. The other contents are disregarded. In the broader use of the word church the whole group gets its name from the most important part, the believers. The hypocrites who may be present are disregarded.

Thus, local and synodical organizations are only figuratively called “churches” because they include not just believers but also unbelievers who hypocritically claim to be believers. Lutheran theologians have used the word “church” in that figurative sense by applying it to visible bodies, as when Walther described “the Evangelical Lutheran Church.” On the other hand, local, synodical, and worldwide communions of believers are churches in the literal, New Testament sense. Having no unbelievers, local and synodical churches are hidden within their visible organizations.

Corroborating passages of Scripture

That the New Testament speaks of churches only as communions of believers is corroborated by the fact that “church” in Matthew 18:15-17, to be intelligible to the disciples, had to carry the same meaning that it does in 16:16-19. Does this fail to distinguish the “two or three” witnesses from the church of “two or three” believers (Matthew 18:15-17)? No, “tell it to the communion of saints” in context cannot mean to tell it to the ones involved in the previous step of the procedure. They are not qualified to represent the communion in that case. As witnesses, they cannot serve as the jury. Context, as always, is crucial. The point is that the process should be orderly and in accordance with the Eighth Commandment.

Jesus referred the last step of discipline to the local church in the literal sense because it consists of believers, those who have received the keys of the kingdom (18:18-20), not to the local church in the figurative sense of a congregation that includes unbelievers, as if the keys were given to a visible gathering (pages 12-13). The one in error is regarded as a Christian brother in need of loving admonishment (page 21). Of course, if all admonishment is refused, he can no longer be regarded as a brother, that is, as a member of the church in the strict sense.

Matthew 18:15-20 is such a clear passage of Scripture that its definition of the church as an assembly of two or three believers was recognized by the first Lutherans:

In addition to this, it is necessary to acknowledge that the keys belong not to the person of one particular man, but to the Church, as many most clear and firm arguments testify. For Christ, speaking concerning the keys adds, Matt. 18, 19: If two or three of you shall agree on earth, etc. Therefore he grants the keys principally and immediately to the Church, just as also for this reason the Church has principally the right of calling. [For just as the promise of the Gospel belongs certainly and immediately to the entire Church, so the keys belong immediately to the entire Church, because the keys are nothing else than the office whereby this promise is communicated to every one who desires it, just as it is actually manifest that the Church has the power to ordain ministers of the Church. And Christ speaks in these words: Whatsoever ye shall bind, etc., and indicates to whom He has given the keys, namely, to the Church: Where two or three are gathered together in My name. Likewise Christ gives supreme and final jurisdiction to the Church, when He says: Tell it unto the Church.] . . . Here belong the statements of Christ which testify that the keys have been given to the Church, and not merely to certain persons, Matt. 18, 20: Where two or three are gathered together in My name, etc. Lastly, the statement of Peter also confirms this, 1 Pet. 2, 9: Ye are a royal priesthood. These words pertain to the true Church, which certainly has the right to elect and ordain ministers since it alone has the priesthood.

Under “Thesis I,” Pieper provides additional exegetical support for the observation that the New Testament never uses the Greek word for “church” in the figurative sense but only in the literal sense. On pages 5-6, he argues that epistles that Paul wrote to churches were only addressed to believers, even when he mentions their dangerous errors in doctrine. Paul addressed them as believers retaining their faith in the gospel, having been misled only temporarily. For example, Pieper understands Galatians 1:6 and 5:4 in light of 5:10, which sharply distinguishes between the false teachers misleading the church, who will bear their penalty, from those misled only until receiving Paul’s admonition. That demonstrates how clear passages shed light on those that are less clear. In that way, Scripture is the infallible interpreter of Scripture. In terms of Matthew 18:15-17, Paul was still admonishing the Galatians in brotherly love, confident that they would repent of entertaining false doctrine (5:10) before it became necessary to regard them as sinners and tax collectors.

Synodical churches

This has implications for the role of synods. The catholic church is the communion of all believers everywhere. That a local church is a local communion of believers, as August Pieper maintained, is confessed even by those thought to overemphasize that form of the church (see this Christian Dogmatics quote). In exactly the same way, a synodical church is a communion of believers representing their local communions. Pieper argued this in detail under “Thesis IV” (pages 15-17), demonstrating that a synodical congregation bears the marks of a communion of believers as appropriate for its purpose of joint church work.

There, he answered the objection that since synods do not have the marks of the church as clearly as local congregations, according to the marks of the church listed in the Lutheran confessions, they cannot be churches. The Lutheran confessions are best understood by remembering they were never intended as interpreters of the Scriptures (as if God’s word were dark!) but rather to expose error to the light of God’s word. For the purpose of reporting defiant unrepentance “to the church,” Christ said it could be identified wherever two or three gather to worship in his name, and that they have the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 18:15-20). Clear enough. The presence of a pastor administering the sacraments does not qualify anyone, much less an organization, to use the keys. On the contrary, two or three believers, having the keys, authorize someone to teach the gospel and administer the sacraments on their behalf.

Does that mean we must reject the confession’s statement that teaching the gospel in its purity and the accordingly administering the sacraments are the marks of the church? No, not if that language is understood in terms of normal usage of the word “marks.” The marks of a duck are that it quacks, waddles, swims, looks like a duck, etc. It does not follow that no one can identify a duck until hearing it quack or that a duck waddles when in the water or swims when on land. In conclusion, some marks may be sufficient but not absolutely necessary for an identification, depending on the setting.

The whole point of the confession’s statement on the marks of the church was to refute the criticism that understanding the church as the communion of saints as opposed to an organization implied that such a church was a theoretical idea that could not be identified in practice. They did not have our distinctions between local and synodical communions in mind.

Walther knew how to understand the confessions. That is why he could identify the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a visible church, a church in the figurative sense as opposed to a church in the strict sense of a communion of believers only.


It is important to understand what Scripture teaches about the communion of believers because some have speciously argued that their jurisdiction in the public ministry is restricted to the local church. The fact that those arguments fall short of proof from clear passages of Scripture means their restrictions must be resisted.

Indeed, since all believers have the keys and priesthood of the kingdom (John 20:21-23; 1 Peter 2:9), they take them wherever they assemble in Jesus’ name, especially when they gather as a synodical church. In this way, the Holy Spirit empowers them to choose missionaries and seminary professors to proclaim the good news on their behalf and, as necessary, to administer discipline in obedience to Matthew 18:15-20.


Modified 3 August 2014.