“The Church’s One Foundation.”
Written in 1866 AD, this hymn proclaims the mysteries of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. In the first stanza alone, the author 1) proclaims the centrality and the divinity of the divine person of Jesus Christ to the Church - linking the theological disciplines of christology and ecclesiology, 2) joins together eschatology (“new creation”) and sacramentology in a biblical baptismal reference (“by water and the Word”), 3) invokes the incarnation, the monergism of grace, and the mystery of the Church as the Bride of Christ, and 4) introduces the sacrificial theme of the atonement.
And that’s just stanza one.
The third stanza, however, is painfully poignant today. The author speaks of the Church “oppressed.” Surprisingly, the author is not speaking of external persecution in the worldly sense (e.g. the Roman arena and cross, Communism, Islam), but rather “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” For this is how the Church is truly oppressed, internally, by her most vicious enemy: the devil.
Luther considered the “cross” - that is persecution, to be a “mark of the Church.” If Satan is not working night and day to destroy you, you have become uninteresting to him. Only one who is hopelessly lost has that kind of “luxury.” As long as the Bride of Christ endures in the fallen world the true Church will suffer the assaults of schism and heresy bubbling up from within.
This reality is of great comfort when we see encroachments of the secular world upon the Church. For if she were not the Church, Satan wouldn’t care to attack her.
No part, jurisdiction, or confession within the Church Catholic is exempt from such internal discord - though some feel the need to put forth the illusion that their particular confession is free from such schisms and heresies.
The conservative element of my own confession (the Missouri Synod), known historically as “Lutheranism,” is particularly prone to triumphalism and false security because on the surface, we have resisted much of the world’s encroachment. Our church body is unabashedly pro-life, we only ordain men to the pastoral office, we openly teach that homosexuality is a sin and not in accordance with God’s created order, and we hold unequivocally to the infallibility of the Bible. Our particular church body also clings without reservation to the 1580 Book of Concord - at least on paper.
All of this can make Lutherans obnoxiously smug and arrogant. But we have much to keep in mind before we get on our high horses. We have utter confusion about who is authorized to officiate in Word and Sacrament ministry - and are subjected to an endless parade of Bible studies, reports, votes at conventions, opinions of bureaucratic boards and seminary faculties - all to figure out what the heck the office of the ministry is. If we don’t know after 2,000 years, something is wrong.
As former members of our synod have rightly pointed out, we have aberrations and abominations regarding the Holy Sacrament of the Altar, whether it is served amid terrible irreverence which belies our confession of the Real Presence, or involves the substitution of foreign elements for the bread and wine used by our Lord. There are disagreements among us over whether or not the Lord’s Presence expires from the elements, and whether the Real Presence exists from the time of consecration or only begins when the element is orally received.
We can’t even find commonality in such externals as the liturgical forms used in worship.
And in spite of our official positions regarding women’s ordination, there are lay members, pastors, and even high ranking church officials who believe women’s ordination is not prohibited by Scripture. Many of our young people, according to surveys, believe in premarital sex, homosexual unions, and the legitimacy of abortion. We do not even have consensus as to whom should be communed at our altars.
World Lutheranism suffers from different schisms and heresies - such as a militant established advocacy of women’s ordination and the encroachment of the homosexual movement upon theology.
Some see our church body “by schisms rent asunder, by heresies oppressed” and conclude that this cannot be the Church. For certainly, the Church, the true Church, would not be rent and distressed. For such people, the cross is not a mark of the Church, but rather a mark of not being Church.
Some flee to Anglicanism - which shares the Lutheran historical tradition of the western Reformation, and indeed much of our theology and hymns - certainly our Anglo-Saxon liturgical tradition and western Catholicism. And yet, if there is any communion that typifies being rent asunder and distressed by schism and heresy, it is Anglicanism. There seems to be a special hatred seething in the heart of Satan for the Anglican communion, having used every trick in the book to rend and distress them, many identical issues to that which plague world Lutheranism: women’s priestly and episcopal orders and the normalization of homosexuality being chief among them - all stemming from a claimed mastery over, rather than submission to, Holy Scripture.