Dr. Holger Sonntag provided the following remarks as a comment on the Lutheran/Eastern Orthodoxy post, but it truly deserves its own blog post.
Could we try to see the urge to "go east" by some as pointing to a deficit among Lutherans? In other words, has the notion of "true visible church" receded so far into the background of our ecclesial consciousness / conscience that we, quite honestly, don’t care much about it anymore? Does this transform the church into some "platonic idea" our Confessions deny it to be (Ap. VII-VIII:20), so that now folks look for surrogates elsewhere?
The Lutheran confessions emphatically include the visible church by defining the church as the assembly of believers among whom the gospel is preached purely and the sacraments are given accordingly (AC VII:1). They don’t engage in speculation about believers outside the true visible church (they don’t deny them, for sure: God does work in mysterious ways) or the concommittant speculation: how much truth is enough? The focus clearly is: preaching God’s gospel in its truth and purity and giving Christ’s sacraments rightly. That’s where true believers will be found because God’s word (and that’s, as far as we are concerned, God’s PURE word, of course) will not return void. Do we have the same kind of promise for the impure word and sacraments without falling into some sort of magical thinking (just reciting the "words" will do it, regardless of how many layers of false teaching / meaning cover them)?
So, what about the "Eastern Catholics"? They do seem to offer a compelling "visibility" that lures people away from the true doctrine. Do we just say: "Visibility — impossible / not necessary!" Or do we offer an alternative vision of visibility? I think we should, and could, do the latter. We just have to state unequivocally wherein the church’s visibility consists: not in gold-clad prelates or ancient-language liturgies, or in holiness of life, but in true preaching and true sacraments.
Luther and the Confessions do not allow us to become "ecclesial existentialists" who are content with external nothingness (faith in heart is plenty…). That would be a super-human church, or enthusiasm. They point us, instead, to the pure marks that God has given his church (and God’s church can only be the true visible church), so that individuals would know where to find God for certain and join God’s people for the sake of their salvation.
In response to a certain warm enthusiasm for Eastern Catholicism, we need to focus on keeping the marks of the church pure (and visible/central) and on pointing people to them. That certainly starts, as Rev. Cwirla pointed out, in the local congregation. But local congregations don’t live on islands. They are (or aren’t) in fellowship with other congregations; by fellowshipping with others they basically form one big congregation/church gathered around one pure gospel in word and sacraments, as scattered as true individual congregations might be across time and space (cf. Ap. VII-VIII:20).
One underlying question is: Can the true visible church, as defined above, ever disappear? If it can, and some believe it can (including Walther), then it’s maybe not our primary concern (as it was Walther’s) to keep God’s church visible, as much as we can (by preaching the truth; admonishing the erring, etc.). Then we’re perhaps content to let it slip into the invisiblity of our heart’s faith and then say: Well, there’s just no one who can be right all the time! God knows his children … Endorsing American denominationalism (a form of Pietism) is the almost unavoidable outcome. But how long can true faith live on the impure gospel and sacraments? Can we apply God’s promises to impure word and sacraments (cf. only Ap. VII-VIII:30f.: without unity in pure word and sacraments "there can be no faith in the heart"!)?
Martin Chemnitz, and it seems also Melanchthon, held that the true visible church would not utterly vanish from world history and that the true visible church is necessary for there to be the invisible church (faith requires, as far as we know, the pure word; only the pure word is God’s word). At times, the true visible church on earth would be very small, but it would never be conquered by hell’s forces, thanks to God’s promises (Mat. 16; 28). Chemnitz dedicated his life to defending it and keeping God’s truth visible in this world’s kingdom of lies; certainly, God’s promises given to the true visible church upheld him in his struggle (if the true church doesn’t have God’s promise, why fight for it??).
Luther did the same; he too believed that, according to God’s promise, "a Christian holy people is to be and to remain on earth until the end of the world" (AE 41:148), which he then defined quite along the lines of AC VII: this "Christian holy people" is recognized by the fact that it possesses God’s word purely preached(some have it only with straw, though; but some completely pure, see Ap. VII-VIII:20-21); the pure sacraments etc.
Luther and the confessors of the Lutheran church believed that doctrine could be kept pure, not just "pure mostly." In pure doctrine and the other pure marks, and in people gathered around them in (outward) unity (can’t sift out hypocrites on earth), God’s church is visible for the joy and edification of God’s holy people.
Can we earnestly hold this out as a real, gospel alternative to other attempts to "visibilize" the church (gold, statistics, success, holiness of life, ancient liturgies)? Or have we grown content with church as a mere "platonic idea" existing in our memories or books?