I recently read a press release from the Church of Sweden titled “Personal Letter to Trans People.” In this letter Europe’s largest Lutheran denomination opens with the following words, “We’re writing to you from a church that’s also trans. A church is made up of people. People are different. We have confirmations, employees, church hosts, elected officials, volunteers and other parishioners who define themselves as transgender. The church is also made up of transgender people. Therefore, the Church could be described as trans.”
Now, on its surface this is a wonderful and inclusive statement. After all, we have been taught for years that the church is not a building nor is it an institution per se, but it is the people that make up the church. It is the sum total of the sheep who hear the voice of the Shepherd. The church then can look quite different at any given time and place. It can be small and hidden in homes or big and boldly proclaiming the truth from the rooftops. It can be embraced by the culture or shunned and ridiculed, an agent of the state or its sworn enemy.
Yet it seems somewhat problematic to me to define the church in this world by the makeup of the members within it. At its core, the identity of the church isn’t the sexual orientation, race or ethnicity of any of its members. The church isn’t black or white, male or female, rich or poor, slave or free, straight or gay. The church is the body of Christ. The church, then, is our Lord’s church, and he alone defines it. In fact, the way we typically denominate the churches of our age is by the confession they make. So, a Lutheran church ought to have a particular confession. The same goes for Baptist and Catholics and the like. And the level of the faithfulness can only be measured by the Word of God, not cultural pressures or popular wokeism.
The Lutheran confession about the church is best summed up in the Augsburg Confession, article 7, which states:
Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4:5-6.
The church, according to this confession, is the congregation, to be sure. But the heart of the congregation, the focus of their fellowship, is the Gospel rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly administered. That alone defines the church. This is its identity.
Will such a fellowship have transgendered people in it? Absolutely it will. It is a broad and inclusive place of repentance and trust in the Good News of salvation through Christ alone. But I think we need to be careful in rebranding the church by the multiple identities of those who make it up and the individual struggles they face.
I love the image in Mark 3 of our Lord sitting in a packed house teaching those who gather around him. Some people come up to him and say, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And our Lord says, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.”
Those who sit at the feet of our Lord, those who attend to his Word. Those receive the gracious Law and Gospel of God. They are his family. They are his church. It is made up of sinners of all stripes who have no hope outside of his work. They cling to Christ for salvation. They bear his name and live under his mark. This is the church, the only church that matters.