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Adolf Schlatter on the Church

Posted by on Oct 2, 2009 in books, definition, fellowship, members, ordinances/sacraments, unity | 2 comments

About two and half years ago, I wrote an article called “Adolf Schlatter on the Church“. In the post, I responded to something that Schlatter wrote concerning the unity of the early church. I still wonder why we can’t live in that same unity today.


Adolf Schlatter on the Church

Adolf Schlatter was an anomaly in late nineteenth and early twentieth century German theological scholarship. Though holding a teaching position at Tübingen, a university well-known for approaching the Bible through higher criticism, Schlatter maintained conservative (evangelical?) beliefs. I have wanted to buy his two volume set The History of the Christ and The Theology of the Apostles for some time. I was finally able to buy them, and I flipped through The Theology of the Apostles looking for Schlatter’s view of the church. There is certainly much more to read, but I found this paragraph very interesting:

Moreover, the public confession of Jesus’ lordship produced in them a union that oriented everyone’s conduct toward the same goal, and the Spirit’s presence invested the community with a thoroughly spiritual dimension. Baptism did not result in a multitude of autonomous congregations but the one church, because baptism called its recipients to the Christ. Likewise, the table around which the community gathered was not the table of a teacher or baptizer or bishop but Christ’s table. By receiving their share in Christ, they simultaneously entered into communion with all other believers. The concept of the church thus took on a universal dimension from the start that remained undiminished, just as the individual local Jewish congregation had always been considered to be part of the one Israel.

According to Schlatter, the universality and the unity of the church was more than an ideal. The church was universal and united because of its shared confession, conduct, goal, baptism, table, and portion in Christ, not to mention the common presence of the Spirit of God.

As I look at that list – a list of items that, according to Schlatter, once brought the church together – I recognize that many, perhaps all, are now used to divide the church instead of unite the church. While the confession (“Jesus is Lord”) was originally intended to separate believers from nonbelievers, we now use expanded confessional statements to separate one group of believers from another group of believers. While the one baptism originally represented death to self and new birth in Christ, baptism is now used to divide the body of Christ into different factions. Similarly, the Lord’s table and even conduct are often used to separate churches instead of uniting them.

Do we recognize that who we are as the church has little (if anything) to do with the things we say or even the things we do? I would suggest (along with Schlatter) that who we are as the church is instead associated with us having received a “share in Christ”. But, that also means that who other people are does not depend on the words they say or the things they do. Instead, those who have received Christ have “simultaneously entered into communion with all other believers” – not because of their actions or a prayer or a confession, but because they now belong to Christ and they now belong to the Father’s family. Certainly, there may be a need for discipleship and teaching people to live as a part of the Father’s family, but we do not have the right nor the authority to dismiss someone from the Father’s family nor to choose to disassociate with someone who Christ has claimed as His own.

Can we know with certainty that someone belongs to Christ? No. But, then again, no one can know with certainty about us either. With the “confession of Jesus’ lordship” (“Jesus is Lord”) someone claims acceptance into the family of God and the presence of the Spirit. As a family, we are then required (yes, I do mean required) to accept that person, to disciple that person, to bear with that person, to love that person, to serve that person, to teach that person, to forgive that person even if (especially if!) that person disagrees with us. We come together in community, but that community is not based on us and our beliefs and our confessions. That community is based solely on our individual and mutual relationships with God through Jesus Christ enabled by the Holy Spirit.

When we separate from someone that we consider a brother or sister in Christ, we are usurping the authority of God. And, when we refuse to hold brothers and sisters accountable to their confession “Jesus is Lord”, then we are ignoring our mutual responsibilities as part of God’s family.


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  1. 10-2-2009

    Amen. Over the centuries there have definitely been too many layers of confessions, creeds, and doctrinal statements placed on the simple confession that Jesus is Lord.

    Our community is attempting to live out that unity that we have because we are the Body of Christ, and not because all of us agree on every doctrine or issue.

  2. 10-2-2009


    I understand what you’re saying. I’m just beginning to understand and live out the importance of accepting one another based on our common identity in Christ (i.e. “Jesus is Lord”).