Luther Was Wrong: Ecclesiology​

Therefore he who would find Christ must first find the Church.
-Martin Luther, “Sermon for Early Christmas Day Service,” Wartburg Postil

Intro – A Question of Ecclesiology

Around the time of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord in 2016, I found myself in the midst of a discussion being asked a very weird question. I was sitting at the kitchen table across from my stepsister-in-law, who attends a non-denominational evangelical group, and we were chatting about Orthodoxy when she asked something along the lines of, “So you don’t believe that if a pastor is reading/studying the Bible and having revelations from God, that he’d be in the Church?”

This caused me to pause a second as I composed myself before I answered, as this is a delicate topic—not just when speaking with Protestants, but with converts from Protestantism, and even with many cradle Orthodox as well.

The definition that the Church is composed of all those who believe in Christ is a recent invention of Martin Luther and an idea that, if false, has far-reaching implications for salvation; therefore, the fact that Luther was wrong is of paramount importance.

Finding and Defining ‘the Church’

The origins of the Orthodox Christian Church can be traced in history from it’s “founding” at Pentecost; furthermore, one can begin to see the blueprint with Christ’s words to St. Peter in Matthew 16:18, “κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν, καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς.” Following the Lord’s Great Commission and Ascension to the right hand of the Father, the Apostles went out and grew the Church by founding the Apostolic Sees, all of which are still in existence to the present day.

In all parishes which grew from the Apostolic Sees one will hear chanted or read the Symbol of Faith that Orthodox Christians have been reciting for over 1600 years, in which we confess not only the belief that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and Apostolic, but also “an affirmation of belief which is not found in modern Protestant confessions: belief in the Church. In the Nicene Creed, the [Orthodox] Church confesses belief . . . in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. Thus for the ancient Church, the Church Herself was an object of faith and a subject of credal affirmation. The early Church confessed belief in the Church Herself, even as She confessed belief in God,” as Clark Carlton relates in The Way. Further to the point, up until relatively recent times everyone (Orthodox, schismatics, heretics etc.) believed that outside the Church there was no salvation, membership being attained via baptism (with membership being distinct from salvation, but baptism necessary for salvation), that their church was the Church, and the relationship between the Church and others was one of schism, heresy, a combination of both, or excommunication/anathema. Nonetheless, there was a distinct belief that the Church was a visible body of believers of whom you could go to receive initiation.

The quickest way to find out whether or not the particular group you are attending is the same Church spread by the Apostles is to go back through history. I’ll use two examples: the group my stepsister-in-law attends, and the group I nominally grew-up in.

My stepsister-in-law attends Southland Church in Steinbach, MB; it doesn’t go back very far, and visiting their website doesn’t yield any information about it’s founding nor even where their leaders were educated or by what authority they do what they do. From the article I linked in the Intro we learn a little bit more about their pastor but still nothing substantial about their origins other than that it was already in existence in 1996, and since Steinbach was only founded in 1874 we have a time frame—though I highly doubt they existed for too long prior to 1996; regardless, we can trace the beginnings of their beliefs due to them being a “Non-Denominational Evangelical” group.

First we must realise that the phrase “Non-Denominational Evangelical” is a misnomer as well as an oxymoron; “Non-Denominationalism” (or “Nondenominational Protestantism”) meaning that the Non-Denominational group is independent in almost all matters, including dogma, whereas “Evangelicalism” is a trans-denominational movement within Protestantism (e.g., the Evangelical Lutheran and Evangelical Mennonite denominations).

The keen reader will by now be asking how a religious group can be without a denomination and yet be Evangelical since Evangelicalism is within denominations of Protestantism? The answer to such duplicity is easily found when we look at the origins of “Non-Denominationalism,” which are sketchy to trace but lead, of course, to the aftermath of the Radical Reformation, as the traditional Anglican priest Fr. Jonathan A. Mitchican wrote,

If an [North] American church calls itself “non-denominational,” nine times out of ten what that means is Baptist. Altar calls and appeals to personal conversion replace the sacraments as the means of grace. Baptism is a symbol of one’s personal conversion, nothing more, and it is only appropriate for adults. 

“Evangelicalism” on the other hand is much more clear, originating in the 18th century in Britain and it’s American colonies amongst descendants of the Radical Reformation, then eventually spreading to those descendants of the earlier Protestant Reformation.

My second example is the Blumenort Evangelical Mennonite Church in Blumenort, MB, the religion I grew up in, at least nominally. The history of this group is hard to follow, full of migration, name changes, and schism, but to the best of my knowledge, the origins of this group come from Mennonites in the Netherlands splitting into Frisian Mennonites and Flemish Mennonites in 1566.  On 1 September 1801 Klaas Reimer was elected minister of the Flemish Danzig Mennonite religion and eventually ended up in the Molotschna Mennonite settlement in southern Russia, wherein 1814 he and some followers broke away from the Flemish Mennonites and founded the Kleine Gemeinde. After immigrating to Canada the Kleine Gemeinde in Manitoba changed their name to Evangelical Mennonite Church in 1952, which in 1960 was changed to Evangelical Mennonite Conference.

As we can see from the above two examples, neither of them can be traced to any of the Apostolic Sees. Compounded to this is the obvious fact that the two groups previously mentioned are in fact two and not one, the dogmatic differences being obvious when one realizes that the current lead pastor of Southland is a former Mennonite Brethren (another Mennonite schismatic group founded in 1860 in the Molotschna settlement).

So far we have been shown that the Church is singular and not plural (just as St. Paul teaches in Ephesians 4:4-6), that the oneness of the Church has always been proclaimed and believed, it’s history traceable through the Apostolic Sees and thus can be seen and found.

The question obviously arises then as to what exactly ‘the Church’ is; the answer being found in Colossians 1:18 and Ephesians 1:22-23 where we are told that the Church is the Body of Christ. With this answer it is obvious why it matters whether or not one belongs to the Church of the Apostles as opposed to the ideology of Martin Luther, Menno Simon, Klaas Reimer, or Ray Duerksen: because if you don’t belong to the Apostolic Church, you are not apart of the Body of Christ.

Luther’s Redefinition

The historic belief in the oneness, catholicity and Apostolic authority of the Church can be clearly seen amongst the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, especially St. Ignatius of Antioch’s (himself a student of St. John the Apostle) Epistle to the Smyrnaeans; this, coupled with the fact that traditional Protestants accepted the authority of the Ecumenical Councils one has to wonder when the modern Protestant misunderstanding of the Church diverged from the historic understanding of the Orthodox Church, and for this it would be best to begin where the Protestants began: the Roman Catholic heresy.

As stated above, up until relatively recent times everyone (Orthodox, schismatics, heretics etc.) believed that outside the Church there was no salvation, membership being attained via baptism (with membership being distinct from salvation, but baptism necessary for salvation), that their church was the Church, and the relationship between the Church and others was one of schism, heresy, a combination of both, or excommunication/anathema. So in 1054 when the Roman Patriarchate separated from the Pentarchy it still considered itself apart of the Church, and eventually as ‘the Church.’

This was the idea believed by Martin Luther when he began his protest against the Roman Catholic heresy: he had no plan to found a new ‘Church/church’ (which was impossible, since the Church is one, as he confessed in the Papist distortion of the Symbol of Faith), but rather to correct what he perceived were errors the Roman Catholic religion was making; therefore, when he was excommunicated on January 3rd, 1521 he found himself—despite his alleged belief in Sola fide—without the possibility of salvation.

It did not take Luther long to find a way around the situation he found himself in. Following his excommunication, while he was hiding out at the Wartburg Castle between May 1521 and March 1522, he redefined not just what the Church was (the Apostolic Body of Christ now became “the company of believing people”) but also where it could be found (“where his [Christ’s] believers are” as opposed to where the Apostolic Sees are). This word-play ensured for himself the possibility of salvation because he continued to believe—as all had, and as he himself continued to preach after his excommunication via his Wartburg Postil (1922)—that “outside of the [Catholic] church there is no truth, no Christ, no salvation.”

Clark Carlton, in the second volume of his catechism series, The Way, makes Luther’s redefinition very clear,

Martin Luther did not voluntarily leave the Roman Catholic Church; he was excommunicated. Once he found himself on the outside looking in, however, he was forced to rethink the very definition of the Church.

Because Luther had been excommunicated by the institutional Church, he immediately took aim at the very idea of the Church as an institution:

For this self-authenticating Church, Luther would substitute a Church composed of those who hear and accept God’s Word. He even held that the term “kirche should be discarded . . . [and] replaced by the word gemeinde [community, congregation] [now, doesn’t that word look familiar?-Thomas S.],” the idea being that the authoritative institution would give way to a group of Christians who gather themselves about the Word.

More than a thousand years before Luther’s Reformation, St. Augustine had said, “For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the catholic Church” For him, as for the other Fathers of the early Church, the truth of the Gospel was confirmed by the living experience of the Church which is Christ’s very Body upon earth, animated by the Holy Spirit. Luther, however, turned St. Augustine’s theology of the Church on its head. For him, it is the Word—that is, the Gospel of grace and sola fide, not the actual text of the Bible—that validates the Church.

In order to justify his distinction between the true Church and an earthly institution, Luther invoked the distinction made by St. Augustine between the visible and invisible Church. Augustine developed his theory in response to the Donatist heresy, which was plaguing the Church in North Africa. The Donatists argued that the validity of the sacraments—indeed the very legitimacy of the Church herself—was dependent upon the moral purity of the clergy. Thus those leaders who had lapsed under persecution had, according to the Donatists, polluted the whole Church. The Donatists thus created their own, “pure” church. St. Augustine argued that the holiness and legitimacy of the Church was due to the holiness of Christ, not the holiness of Her several members. His famous statement that there may be some in the Church who are not truly in the Church and some outside who will ultimately be revealed as being truly in the Church was meant to safeguard the legitimacy of the historical, catholic Church—in opposition to the claims of the Donatist counter-church.

Once again, however, Luther turned St. Augustine’s theology upside down [here in the text Carlton gives a relevant footnote for us: “Jaroslav Pelikan, who is himself a Lutheran [at the time The Way was published, 1997, he was. The late Pelikan, however, converted to Orthodox Christianity in 1998] and the editor of the English edition of Luther’s Collected Works, emphasizes this point: “This definition of the church as the ‘number of the predestined’ was to figure prominently in the polemics of the late Middle Ages and the Reformation against the institutional [Roman] church, but in Augustine’s theology it had precisely the opposite function.” Emergence, p. 303.”]. Whereas Augustine sought to safeguard the unity of the empirical Church, Luther used the distinction in order to degrade the concept of the empirical Church and emphasize instead the non-historical, invisible Church (. . .)

Because one mark of the Church is the validity of its saving knowledge, it becomes extremely important for Luther to distinguish between the true Church of the Word and the Church of mere outward form. Using the Augustinian formula of invisible Church as opposed to visible Church, the great Reformer is able to claim that “the essence, life, and nature of Christendom is not a bodily assembly but an assembly of hearts in one faith.” It would be difficult to imagine a more docetic view of the Church [here in the text Carlton gives another relevant footnote for us: “Lee, p. 57. Docetism is the heresy that the Word of God did not truly take upon Himself human flesh. Therefore, his humanity is in appearance only, not in reality. Thus, according to Lee, this idea of Luther’s discarnates the Church as the Docetists tried to discarnate Christ.”].

There is a considerable degree of irony here, however. For, when Luther was confronted with the reality of the religion he described in theory, he reacted against it vehemently. Luther was not only vexed by the Roman Catholic Church that had excommunicated him, but also by Anabaptists, who insisted on putting into practice the idea that the Church was a community gathered by the Word.

In many respects the Anabaptists were simply trying to live according to the theological principles by which Luther justified his revolt against the Roman Church. Their complaint with Luther, as Philip Lee observes, was that he was inconsistent.

Luther redefined what “the Church” was to him, and his definition of the ‘invisible Church of those who hear and accept God’s Word’ has stayed with us to the present day, bringing us all the way through history from Germany to the question asked by my step-sister-in-law in present-day Manitoba, Canada, and thus has lead us back to what started this blog entry in the first place: would a pastor reading/studying the Bible and having revelations from God be in the Church?

Modern Confusion Due to Multiculturalism and the Heresy of Ecumenism

The reason why a question such as the one which leads to this blog post could even be asked after all the history has been sought through is due to multiculturalism (at least in Canada; cultural pluralism in the USA) and the heresy of the Ecumenical Movement. The many ways that this is clearly seen are diverse—through mixed marriages, converts, and even cradle Orthodox being secularised—yet all lead to the same confusion in correct ecclesiology.

The problem with multiculturalism when it comes to religion is that most (all?) cultures have some religion connected to them, the culture being more the reason for the perpetuation of the religion—especially when (eventually) most of those within a culture no longer believe in the culture’s dominant religion, which is why when people ‘switch churches’ it’s rarely very ‘far’ from where they started: Mennonites and Baptists become Evangelicals and/or Non-Denominationalists; Lutherans and Anglicans become Catholics; Catholics become Orthodox, Lutheran, or Anglican; Orthodox become Catholics etc.. A good example: I know a man who confesses the truth of Orthodoxy, but being Italian and Catholic, won’t convert—because he is Italian! The point being that culture reinforces one’s earliest religion through the food, the religious music, and the memories of going to services with one’s grandmother so on and so forth: it’s sentimental. And for most, that’s enough to stay put.

Most of us living today no doubt have grown up in the shadow of the Ecumenical Movement, with the Movement’s origins in the early twentieth-century it had already taken root and begun to spread by the time most of us reading this were even conceived. The problem with Ecumenism—and where its link to multiculturalism is most visible—arises when we see mixed marriages within the Church, as well as when we receive converts from amongst the heterodox; due to the Ecumenical Movement the zeitgeist—or our “Sitz im Leben,” if you will—that is indoctrinated upon all who are unaware of the theology behind the impetus of the Ecumenical Movement makes it next to impossible to extricate ones mind from the dominant worldview, which is that we all worship the same God (Muslims too), that the issue of salvation outside the Church is a non-issue because we are all in the Church, and dogma in unimportant because unity is what matters most.

The most difficult topic to deal with that arises from mixed-marriages and the reception of converts from amongst the heterodox ultimately ends up being the very issues which result in Ecumenism being seen for the heresy that it is: ecclesiology and soteriology. The theology upon which Ecumenism stands on, and of which most are unaware, is in Protestant missiology. From this cornerstone, the ‘invisible church’ ecclesiology of the Reformers ironically becomes ‘visible’ through the redefinition of ‘the Church’ detailed above, the redefinition of which is so important to the heterodox as it was for Luther because outside ‘the Church’ there is no salvation. This directly leads us to soteriology as it concerns those who form mixed-marriages and heterodox converts, both of whom will obviously have family and friends who by the historical and Orthodox Christian definition would be outside the Church; however, with the inextricably linked ecclesiology and soteriology at the root of Ecumenism they’re all good, bro—provided they at least belong to what we used to refer to as the ‘Judeo-Christian tradition,’ but now politically correct and ecumenically proper call ‘Abrahamic religions.’

Outro – A Matter of Soteriology

What initially started out as a question of ecclesiology is, as I hope has been made clear, actually a matter of soteriology. The ecclesiology of Martin Luther was an afterthought to his soteriology, and ultimately so—because when he redefined the soteriology of the Roman Catholic religion he was still in that religion of which he believed to be ‘the Church,’ one, holy, catholic (‘Christian’ in German), and Apostolic. While he was still in communion with Rome his understanding of what ‘the Church’ was had not had to be reconsidered, because his ecclesiology was the same as Rome’s; however, following his excommunication ecclesiology became a pressing issue of utmost importance for his soteriology, because as he himself has said: to find Christ one must find the Church first.

It is the reality of living in the historical fall-out of such theological difficulties that most converts to Orthodoxy don’t realize, and of which most of whom are looked to for guidance don’t as well, such as cradle Orthodox and clergy. Ultimately such a cavalier attitude about the Church comes down to the difference between the Orthodox Christian Church’s affirmation of Her belief in Herself consistently through two millenniums, and the Protestant uncertain ecclesiology which has lead to all the fragmentation we see today of which they sweep aside with the axiom “unity in diversity.”

But then, as we let this sink in, perhaps we come to think that if Luther’s ecclesiology was (and is) such a hastily assembled house of cards, maybe his soteriology before his excommunication was built upon sand and not upon the rock? The implications of such a question are far-reaching and nothing short of spiritually devastating if true.

Postface & Further Reading

This false ecclesiology can be seen implemented timeline of the Reformation.

The Reformation is over. Protestants won. So why are we still here?

[The three below can be found here]

Metropolitan PHILARET of blessed memory, former First Hierarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad, from his First Sorrowful Epistle

Perhaps somebody will say that times have changed, and heresies now are not so malicious and destructive as in the days of the Ecumenical Councils. But are those Protestants who renounce the veneration of the Theotokos and the Saints, who do not recognize the grace of the hierarchy,—or the Roman Catholics, who have invented new errors,—are they nearer to the Orthodox Church than the Arians or Semi-Arians?

Let us grant that modern preachers of heresy are not so belligerent towards the Orthodox Church as the ancient ones were. However, that is not because their doctrines are nearer to Orthodox teaching, but because Protestantism and Ecumenism have built up in them the conviction that there is no One and True Church on earth, but only communities of men who are in varying degrees of error. Such a doctrine kills any zeal in professing what they take to be the truth, and therefore modern heretics appear to be less obdurate than the ancient ones. But such indifference to truth is in many respects worse than the capacity to be zealous in defense of an error mistaken for truth. Pilate, who said “What is truth?” could not be converted; but Saul, the persecutor of Christianity, became the Apostle Paul. That is why we read in the Book of Revelation the menacing words to the Angel of the Church of Laodicea: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spew thee out of my mouth” (iii. 15-16).

From “An Open Letter to the Orthodox Hierarchy”, by Fr. Michael Azkoul

Of course, the heresy of the Papists and Protestants is a clear affirmation of the Orthodox Church as the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church” as declared the Council of Constantinople (1672), the Encyclical of the Eastern Patriarchs (1848), the Council of Constantinople (1872), the Patriarchal Encyclical of 1895, the Holy Russian Synod of 1904, and the memorable words of [the] Patriarch of Constantinople, Joachim II, “Our desire is that all heretics shall come to the bosom of the Orthodox Church of Christ which alone is able to give them salvation …” (in Chrestos Androutsos, The Basis for Union… Constantinople, 1905, p. 36).”

From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIV, No. 2&3, 26

[In response to a question from a student at St. Vladimir’s Seminary …] Second, let us see what a “contemporary” Father of the Church—one who was awarded an honorary doctorate by your seminary, incidentally—has to say, in keeping with the true consensus of our Orthodox Patristic tradition, about the heterodox. In his essay, “Attributes of the Church” (Orthodox Life, Vol. XXXI, No. 1 [Jan.-Feb. 1981], p. 29), the Blessed Archimandrite Justin (Popovich) writes:

From time to time, heretics and schismatics have cut themselves off and have fallen away from the One and indivisible Church of Christ, whereby they ceased to be members of the Church and parts of Her Theanthropic Body. The first to fall away thus were the Gnostics, then the Arians, then the Macedonians, then the Monophysites, then the Iconoclasts, then the Roman Catholics, then the Protestants, then the Uniates, and so on—all the members of the legion of heretics and schismatics.

[Please reach out to me if you see any errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, dogma, and theology. Thank you.] 

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