The protestant is inclined to apply to ecclesiological matters the text in which the apostle Paul compares the old covenant to the earthly Jerusalem and the new to the heavenly Jerusalem. The protestant’s predilection is for the heavenly Jerusalem. The church is a reality so inward and so secret that it cannot but be invisible; God alone knows who properly belongs to it. The people of God, as a people, is certainly a visible and earthly reality; but the life that it now lives in the flesh, the protestant again would say with St. Paul, it lives by faith in the Son of God; as people of God, it exists only by virtue of faith. God does not establish its foundation sin this world; nothing can guarantee its quality; it is the church only as it turns on the axis of faith. That is why for the protestant the church cannot be an institution, an objective concrete reality which abides in itself. It appears rather, hic et nunc, in the very act which makes it emerge as a reality of faith, when believers assemble to heed in faith the word of God, or when they confess their faith before the world.
Luther set the tone of protestant tendencies in ecclesiology when he discontinued the use of the word church. He chose to recognize only the word Gemeinde, that is, the community of believers, the group of viatores, of pilgrims who pass through this world with their eyes fixed on the distant horizon which has been disclosed to their faith by the promise implied in God’s word. There can be no question of any establishment in this world which would denote a yielding to the temptation to anticipate the last times, the ultimate aeon. In order to remain dependent on the promise and the promise alone, the Christian must resist the temptation to set up in the present age an organized institution in which the human will would have, at its free disposal and exercise, that which can depend only on the sovereign liberty of God.
This passage is simply remarkable for its concision as well as its depth of insight. The bit right in the middle, at the end of the first paragraph, about the church appearing / existing here and now only as an event or act – and the event or act of hearing the word and proclaiming the gospel before the world! – is superb. Then, at the end of the second paragraph we find an indictment not only of Roman Catholicism but also of much of Protestantism. For while certain strands of Roman Catholic thinking can view the church as the sort of institution that Leenhardt describes, it is certainly true that Protestants can act like the church is such a thing, even though they might not believe it. They do so every time they care more for their church building than for the poor, or more for maintaining the high musical caliber of their choir rather than for the proclamation of the gospel to those who have not heard. All of this Leenhardt gives us in a lucid, conversational style.
[*]Leenhardt was one of the interesting francophone Reformed thinkers, from the early 20th century, whose modern Reformed resurgence was parallel to but not in any way derivative of Barth, that deserve more attention.