Although the true Church in the proper sense of the word is in its essence invisible, nevertheless its existence can be (definitely) recognizable, namely, by the marks of the pure preaching of God’s Word and the administration of the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution (Thesis V from Walther’s Church and Office).
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My sainted teacher the Rev. Dr. Kurt Marquart used to put it this way: “We cannot infallibly know the ‘who’ of the Church (because faith is unseen), but we can know the ‘where.’ ” As Ignatius of Antioch put it: “Where there is Christ, there is the Church.” The presence of the Church is not determined by a priesthood sanctioned by the papacy. The presence of the Church is not guaranteed by the morality of the church members. The presence of the Church is not guaranteed by an Office of the Ministry passed from minister to minister in succession. The presence of the Church is not guaranteed by a voters’ assembly. The presence of the Church is not guaranteed by the size of the congregation. The presence of the Church is not determined by the activity of individual members.
The presence of the Church is determined and guaranteed by Christ in His Word and Sacraments. Christ creates and sustains faith by these means. Where they are present and distributed, there is the Office of the Ministry and believers who receive these Means of Grace. This teaching is enormously comforting because in this life we are associated with Christians who are purely poor sinners, just like ourselves. They fail. We fail. Pastors fail. Some fail horribly. We are often loveless. Our righteous deeds are as filthy rags, as Isaiah says (64:6). Our congregations are often beset by controversy and conflict. Why? We are sinners, just like the apostles at the time of Jesus and just like the congregations in Galatia,
Ephesus and Corinth. The beautiful and comforting teaching of the New Testament is this: the Church lives where Jesus is in His blessed Word and Sacraments. There faith is created. There is the Church.