One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church
Several days ago, I posted my position on the conversion of a Lutheran pastor to Eastern Orthodoxy. My words were strong and my rhetoric vigorous. I stand by what I said.
I want also to make the following points clear. While the action of embracing Eastern Orthodoxy is a turning away from the Gospel purely preached, and hence a turning away from Christ, I do not want to leave anyone with the impression that I believe the Eastern Orthodox Church is not Church, or that anyone who joins that Church is no longer a Christian, or that the pastor who converted is no longer a lover of, and believer in, Jesus Christ. I believe that his actions were deceitful and sinful, and I entrust him to the mercy of Christ.
Ironically, and tragically, while the Eastern Orthodox Church believes itself alone to be Church, even to the point of declaring that the Eucharist in our churches is not the Lord’s Supper, nor our pastors legitimate or valid servants of Christ, and our salvation in doubt, because our clergy have not receive the so-called "apostolic succession," we Lutherans, who are truly catholic in our confession of the Church, never have, and, as long as we remain true to our confession, never will regard the EO as not being Church. This may appear to some to be a contradiction, a mystery, a puzzlement. But it is only so to the extent that we do not properly understand, and confess, that there exists truly one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As always, Hermann Sasse is profoundly helpful on this point, and offers these poignant remarks:
"Currently there exists no Una Sancta, or no longer, or not yet; that has been the judgment of the world, also the Christian world, in every age and will continue to be so until the Last Day. Yet where one knows, however, what the church is, of which the New Testament speaks, the church that is the people of God, the Body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, one knows that faith in the holy, catholic, apostolic Church is not faith in a concept, that is, an ideal to be actualized, or not to be actualized. For the one Church of God, to read according to the Lutheran Confessions, is not a Platonic city, but rather a reality in this world that will be believed and that can only be believed by one that believes in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. Faith in the Church is part and parcel of faith in the Triune God, who gives us testimony about Himself in Holy Scripture. The article about the Church therefore belongs in the Creed as a true article of comfort . . . It is therefore that we Christians need this article. To that end we pray it daily in the Creed, ne desperemus, "that we should not despair," as the Latin text of the Apology says [VII/VIII.9]. For indeed, without this article we would otherwise despair and whoever does not understand this article, he must despair when he views the condition of Christianity and inquires about the one Church of God.
"Our fathers in the Age of Lutheran Orthodoxy had no illusions about who the Pope was and about the Society of Jesus. Yet they believed that the Church existed in the mission churches of the Jesuits in America and East Asia even as we believe its existence in the communion of the Roman Antichrist that has again become so clear to us today [probably a reference to the events that would lead to the 1950 publication by Pius XII of Munificentissimus Deus and the promulgation of the assumption of Mary]–in conjunction with whom we do not overlook those figures of the Antichrist that are so similar to him in Protestantism–everywhere we believe it where the means of grace are still present. We know that we are bound together in the one Church of God with all those "that from this age to that in the world, from dawn to dusk, truly believe in Christ, that therefore have one Gospel, one Christ, one sort of Baptism and Sacrament and are governed by one Holy Spirit, even if they have different ceremonies" (Ap VII/VIII, 10f). And when we also can only believe in and not realize this bond in this life because we may not declare ourselves in solidarity with false doctrine, nevertheless this faith remains indeed a reality to which we can give expression even without a union.
"And thus the situation stands exactly with the churches of the Protestant world. … Whom would it serve if in every country a "United Church" were to assume the place once occupied by the old confessional churches? These unionist churches would be but new denominations with watered-down confessions or none at all, in any case with completely different dogmatic coloring. … No, from this senseless construction of unions that only worsens the division of Christianity the Church should declare itself free in order to set themselves to the task that alone can have the understanding of true ecumenical work: the new ordering of the relationship of the great denominational confessions to each other.
"Instead of wanting to make the Una Sancta, the One Holy Church, visible — which is just as impossible as the attempt to make the Trinity visible — for the Una Sancta is an article of faith and not an article of sight–the churches of Christianity should learn to live together with each other, and, except for publishing when required the necessary polemics on behalf of truth, to communicate with each other to make it clear that only really believes in the Una Sancta.
"As long as faithful confessional Lutheranism is present, its duty is to stand watch and bear witness against the surrender of that, which for Luther was the central idea of the Reformation, because it is nothing other than the Gospel from the One that is alone our Righteousness and who through the Means of Grace of His Gospel and the Sacraments instituted by Him, that of the washing of regeneration and that of His true Body and Blood builds His Church on earth. "His work no one can hinder," not even the folly and self-will of men. For it is not our Church, it is His Church. And this church is called perpetuo mansura, everlasting, in contrast to churches that we men seek to build. We learned this from Luther and he learned it from Holy Scripture. It is in this sense that we desire to believe and comforting article of the Una Sancta, dear brothers. Believe it in the manner that Scripture teaches it to us, and nothing else. Believe it in the manner that we should believe all the articles of faith: not only in word, but also in deed."
Source: Hermann Sasse, Letter to Pastors, Number 3: On the Problem of the Relationship Between the Lutheran and the Reformed Church (Erlangen, January 1949), unpublished translation.