Catholicity and the Congregation

Inspiring words to consider about your own mundane-seeming congregation from Rev. Rick Stuckwisch:

The catholicity of the Church comprises two aspects:

(1.) It is the unity of doctrine and fellowship, of teaching and practice, which is shared by all the congregations of the whole Church in every time and place; and,

(2.) It is the fullness of the one Church in each congregation, in each time and each place, wherever the apostolic doctrine of Christ is faithfully received and handed over in teaching and practice.

To say it simply, the whole Church is manifested in each congregation, and each congregation belongs to that same one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. . . .

The catholicity of any given congregation is therefore both inward and outward. Each congregation of the Church is fully the Church in that place, whole and complete in the means of grace; yet, no congregation of the Church is independent of the rest, but belongs to the whole, to the one Body of Christ, past, present and future. Congregational autonomy does not mean that a congregation is free and clear to go its own way and do its own thing. Rather, congregational autonomy means that the Church in each place is fully self-contained and self-sufficient in the local Ministry of the Gospel; because it is Christ Himself who speaks and acts in that Ministry. But the Ministry of the Gospel does not belong exclusively to any one congregation; because it is the sacred tradition of the one Lord Jesus Christ, handed over to His holy Apostles and to each succeeding generation of His Church on earth. Because a congregation lives from that Ministry, and is the Church because of that Ministry of the Gospel, it belongs to the fellowship of every other congregation that lives from that same Holy Ministry.

The whole post is worth reading. It gets into Lutheran stuff and Missouri Synod polity–including the problems with it currently, going so far as to make some positive suggestions for improving it. But still, as we discuss “denominations” and “non-denominations,” the catholicity inherent in each faithful congregation is important to contemplate.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Carl Vehse

    The problems in the Missouri Synod are not primarily with the polity, but with those that currently occupy executive positions in that polity.

    As for the term “catholicity,” a Lutheran needs to ask, “What does this mean?”, and “How does this term relate to the Lutheran doctrinal understanding of the invisible and visible church?”

  • Bryan Lindemood

    Nice short explanation of how each congregation ought to view itself and its brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Carl, I think “catholicity” includes all of the invisible church as known and seen only by God – we have it by faith now. As we have it by faith we see symptoms of it visibly although imperfectly. This is the visible Church. The clearest indication of the invisible in the visible is where the Word is preached for the forgiveness of sinners according to the whole counsel of God in His revealed Word and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are taught and administered according to Christ’s institution. If you are around those things – there is absolutely no reason to doubt that you are near to the voice of God for you.

    I am one Lutheran who really likes the term “catholic” and wish we would put it back in our creeds because to confess “one holy Christian church” seems rather redundant to me. The term “catholic” and/or “catholicity” carries more of this connotation of the invisible church which we know is there by faith and through that faith we know that it is even more real than the church we see. Christ alone be praised.

  • Carl Vehse

    Bryan: I think “catholicity” includes all of the invisible church as known and seen only by God

    We have a winner! A good Lutheran answer!

    Lutherans who like to wade in the Tiber or Bosporus, or read too much Loehe, often mistakenly claim “catholicity” refers to a visible church.

  • Paul

    Yes, Rev. Stuckwisch has said it very well indeed. I’m going next to read the whole article. But before I do (and perhaps I’ll comment again later), it does seem to me that the LCMS is still fighting that old ecclesiology battle which neither “side” seems to have clear. Here in MN, we recently had a model “Unity and Diversity in Worship” conference. Once side quotes “as long as they have the Gospel” while the other side quotes “we make no changes” from the Confessions not realizing that it is for the sake of the Gospel that we make no changes independently and it is for the sake of autonomy that we do not insist on externals. They’re arguing different sides of the same coin. I find that the majority of our congregations understand the proper tension but that the “leadership” of either extreme doesn’t get it. That’s my impression.

  • FW

    You can layer in my experience living as an ex-patriate here in brasil. the language is portuguese. the culture is as exotic as you can be and still be european based. to be an organic part of the rhythm of the holy liturgy is to realize in a deeply emotional way, that words cannot fully express, the beauty of the phrase “one, holy, catholic and apostolic”.

    My church here, the mother church in rio de janeiro for LCMS based lutherans (the brasilian church, like the canadian church used to be districts of the LCMS…) is slowly dying. The beauty of this is exactly the same as the image of our dying-dead Lord hanging on the cross.

    My dying church gives meaning to every part of my life and provides the rhythm of death and resurrection. in portuguese. familiar.

    Only the Holy Spirit could create a bond where I KNOW that my fellow worshipers share a unity of faith and practice that no organization could impose.

    Think…. how odd is it that i could walk into the office of my new pastor and immediately talk in shorthand of the deep mysteries and challenges and joys of being a christian. In portugues. never having met him before.


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