QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS CONCERNING THE DOCTRINE AND PRACTICE OF CHURCH FELLOWSHIP
Adapted from an essay, "Church Fellowship and Its Implications", by E. C. Reim, prepared for the Northern Wis. Dist. in 1934 and read before the Wisconsin Synod's New Ulm convention in 1935. The essay is printed in the Proceedings of the 23rd Convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Joint Synod of Wisconsin and Other States.
The questions are, with one exception, not a part of the essay, but serve to bring out its salient points. The answers that are taken from the essay are in quotation marks. Additional notes and comments not in quotation marks are mine. September 1967 • M.H. Eibs • St. Paul, Minnesota
1. WHY IS A STUDY OF THE DOCTRINE OF CHURCH FELLOWSHIP IMPORTANT?
"The question of Church-Fellowship is one we face at almost every turn. On the one hand we have systematic efforts made chiefly by the Reformed group of sectarian churches to bring about better understanding and cooperation between the various Protestant denominations, with a program that calls for Union Services or exchanges of pulpits on frequent occasions, formation of non-denominational community churches, cooperation in various civic, social, educational, and political enterprises, with the ultimate goal of erasing all denominational lines and combining the various Protestant bodies into one great National Church. On the other hand we have the various mergers that have been effected in the Lutheran field."
True, God-pleasing Church fellowship must be based on agreement in doctrine and church practice. This is a Scriptural requirement. Such unity is in our day sadly lacking and is by-passed by the majority of churches in their headlong rush toward their so-called ecumenical goal of one big super church.
2.WHEN DID THE PRACTICE OF CHURCH FELLOWSHIP IN THE NEW TESTAMENT BEGIN?
It began with "the first public preaching of the New Testament Gospel of a crucified and risen Lord as it took place at Jerusalem on that first day of Pentecost."
3.WHAT DOES THE SCRIPTURE SAY OF THIS?
"And they continued steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship and of breaking of bread, and in prayers." Acts 2, 42)
4. HOW DID THE UNIFYING POWER OF THE GOSPEL MANIFEST ITSELF IN BREAKING DOWN AGE-OLD 'BARRIERS?
"The old aversion and enmity that had hitherto existed between Jews and-Samaritans gave way to a warm welcome into the Christian fold, a desire to share their most precious gifts with these newly found brethren of the faith." Examples: Philip the Evangelist went down to Samaria and preached Christ unto them. (Acts 8, 14f.) Peter at Caesarea. (Acts 10, 47)
5. WHAT CHARACTERISTIC OF TRUE FELLOWSHIP APPEARED IN THESE EARLY DAYS OF THE CHURCH?
Peter "rehearsed the matter from the beginning and expounded it by order unto them." (Acts 11, 4) This resulted in this happy development "They held their peace and glorified God, saying, Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life."(v. 18) "This sense of accountability to the brethren of the faith, this sense of consideration which most carefully avoids straining the existing ties and respects the conscience and faith of its fellows, is a most important mark of Christian fellowship." Another example: Paul and Barnabas explaining the reception of Gentile converts to the brethren at Jerusalem.(Acts15)
6. WHAT HAPPENS TO FELLOWSHIP WHEN THE PREACHING OF THE GOSPEL IS CORRUPTED?
"Fellowship as long as possible, with as many as possible, but never at the price of corrupting the Gospel." If this principle is maintained in the Church there will be true unity. But, when this principle is ignored, then true fellowship must cease. "But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other Gospel to you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed." (Galatians 1, 8).
7. WHAT IS THE ONLY SCRIPTURAL CONCEPTION OF CHURCH FELLOWSHIP?
"A fellowship based upon a common faith and engaged in a common task."
8. WHY IS THERE SO MUCH CONFUSION OF THIS POINT?
"It is due to the failure to distinguish between what Scripture teaches concerning the true unity of the Church and the practice of Christian fellowship."
9. WHAT BIBLE PASSAGES SPEAK OF THE TRUE UNITY OF THE CHURCH?
John 17, 21: "That they all may be one; as Thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee, that they also may be one in us." John 10:16. "Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they shall hear My voice; and there shall be one fold and one shepherd."
10. BUT, IS SUCH TRUE UNITY FOUND TODAY?
Yes, it certainly is. "Else the prayer of Christ was an unanswered One," (John 17:21) and "His prophecy would be an unfulfilled dream." John 10:16
11. WHERE IS SUCH TRUE UNITY FOUND?
This true unity is found only in the Holy Christian Church, the communion of all true believers in Christ.
12. HOW DOES ST. PAUL DESCRIBE SUCH UNITY IN THE HOLY CHRISTIAN CHURCH?
"There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all." (Ephesians 4: 4-6)
13. BUT, IS NOT THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH
DISRUPTED BY THE DIVISIONS WHICH EXIST BETWEEN DENOMINATIONS?
No. "It is not affected in the least by the degree to which the outward unity of the Church has been rent with schisms."
14. IS THE UNITY OF THE CHURCH DEPENDENT UPON OUR PRACTICE OF CHURCH FELLOWSHIP WITH EACH OTHER?
"It is not dependent in any way upon the extent to which we now acknowledge or practice fellowship with each other." "The true unity of the Church, of all believers, exists triumphantly even over against the divided state of the outward church."
15. WHAT THEN CAUSES THE CONFUSION IN THIS MATTER?
"It is when men seek to bring about that which already exists, that which God Himself has already created, that they confuse what should be a clear and simple matter."
16. WHAT CONDITIONS EXIST WHICH PREVENT THE PRACTICE OF CHURCH FELLOWSHIP?
"We are confronted by the stubborn fact that serious differences of doctrine exist. We may wish that it were otherwise, but we cannot deny that it is so. In the face of these conditions the question arises whether it is possible to practice fellowship where there is such a divergence of opinion."
17. WHAT ATTITUDE DOES THE RELIGIOUS UNIONIST HAVE TOWARD THESE SERIOUS DIFFERENCES IN DOCTRINE?
He ignores them. "He would bring about a union of all, if possible, who call themselves 'Christian'. For him it is sufficient if men will join him in working for the betterment of mankind and assist him in spreading the Gospel of the Universal Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man. A National Church is entirely within the scope of his imagination."
18. WHAT WOULD RESULT IF WE ENTERED IN UPON SUCH A FELLOWSHIP WITH SO BROAD A BASIS?
"Either we would be giving silent assent to the pronouncements of Liberalist preachers when they deride the doctrine of the Inspiration of the Word of God, challenge the Divinity of Jesus Christ, substitute an entirely different conception of sin for the scriptural one, and ridicule the teaching that our sins have been atoned for by the bloody sacrifice of Christ - or we would, when silence would no longer be endurable, find ourselves protesting against these willful perversions of the Gospel, testifying to the Old Truth and becoming involved in a battle, the bitterness of which would make the word fellowship a mockery."
19. BESIDES THE FELLOWSHIP WITH LIBERALISTS AND MODERNISTS, & WHAT OTHER FELLOWSHIP IS WRONG AND DANGEROUS TO OUR FAITH?
"It is fellowship of those who agree in respect to the fundamental articles of Christianity, but who differ in regard to individual doctrines."
20. WHAT IS THE ATTITUDE OF THE MAJORITY OF CHURCH BODIES WITH REGARD TO THIS FORM OF FELLOWSHIP?
"It is perfectly possible for Christian fellowship to be maintained despite differences of opinion." (-quote from Dr. J. Gresham Machen.)
21. "CAN ONE STILL HOLD FELLOWSHIP TO BE SAFE IF IT INVOLVES ANY COMPROMISE ON QUESTIONS OF TEACHING?"
"Paul was speaking of just such differences in regard to single points of doctrine when he wrote to the Galatians (5,9): "A little leaven leaveneth the whole loaf." ... A Christian dare not compromise on a single point of doctrine, and .... once error has been tolerated, it perpetuates and communicates itself to other parts of the body of doctrine, eventually corrupting the entire teaching of the church."
22. WHAT IS THE ONLY ALTERNATIVE IF WE WILL FOLLOW THE DIRECTIVES OF SCRIPTURE?
The only alternative is that "of a fellowship based on a common faith in all points of doctrine." "What Paul said to the Corinthians (I, 1, 10), "Now I beseech you brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment," certainly teaches us to seek to remove any disagreement that may exist, carefully and patiently striving to bring about understanding and agreement; but where that proves impossible, where men are not speaking the same thing, are not perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment, these words do not tell us to perpetuate, or perhaps effect, an outward union; rather the contrary. When men, for the sake of outward union, agree to let certain differences of doctrine stand and label them 'differences of opinion', they are compromising. They are weakening their own and each other's confession and teaching, they are converting true, scriptural fellowship into a false one."
23. IN ADDITION TO UNITY IN TEACHING, IS UNITY IN CHURCH PRACTICE ESSENTIAL TO TRUE FELLOWSHIP?
It is. "Our church practice is essentially a confession of the faith that is in us. It is a testimony, a teaching. For unity in practice does not deal with unity in outward customs, ceremonies and the like. The setting up of certain requirements in such things dare not operate, to disrupt or hinder Christian fellowship in matters concerning which the Word of God has not spoken decisively. But where Scripture has laid down certain definite principles, the practice which is founded, on these principles is definitely a confession of faith, and unity in such practice becomes essential to true fellowship."
24. BUT DO NOT ALL THE MAJOR LUTHERAN BODIES PROFESS ALLEGIANCE TO THE SAME CONFESSIONAL WRITINGS OF LUTHERANISM AS PRINTED IN THE "BOOK OF CONCORD"
Yes, but with tongue in cheek! Upon first glance it would seem that "there were no obstacles to perfecting a close degree of fellowship over the entire field- until we observe the wide divergence in church practice (as to lodge membership, altar and pulpit fellowship with other denominations, etc.) and note that these are matters which involve a confession of faith, and are governed by principles that are laid down in the Word of God. Then we find that there is a difference - a difference of faith, as expressed in practice. (NOTE: This principle has been violated in all the mergers between Lutheran synods, LCA, TALC, and in the efforts being made at the present time to join together in organic union the LCA, TALC and the Missouri Synod.)
When the Mo. Synod fellowships with more liberal churches, even with Reformed churches (example: Redeemer Lutheran Church, Mo. Synod, St. Paul, Minn. conducted a joint Vacation Bible School in 1967 with St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church) this practice shows a difference in teaching on the doctrine of church-fellowship. When the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod would not break off fellowship with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from 1955 to 1961, and officially defended this continued fellowship with the Missouri Synod, this church practice in disobedience to Romans 16:17-18 revealed that the Wisconsin Synod actually had a different doctrine of fellowship than we who now make up the CLC. It was because of this doctrinal difference that we separated from the Wisconsin Synod, not, as has been charged, because we were too hasty.
25. ALL THE ABUSES NOTWITHSTANDING, WILL NOT THE CHRISTIAN SEEK TO FOSTER TRUE FELLOWSHIP?
Yes, "just as faith without works is dead, so a fellowship which professes a common faith, yet shuns the common task, is mere lip-service, a disavowing of the brethren, tantamount to a severance of the fellowship' "It is a normal thing for Christian fellowship to express itself in joint undertakings." Synods are an example of this. "Serving on the one hand as an expression of the unity of faith and doctrine, they have at the same time become the means by which we jointly engage in work that lies far beyond the capacity of the individual Christian or congregation."
26. HOW CAN TRUE FELLOWSHIP BE PRESERVED?
"Church-fellowship must be both discriminating and selective, and dare not shrink from severing an existing relationship if necessity arises."
27. WHAT IS MEANT BY A SELECTIVE AND DISCRIMINATING
The Christian cannot recognize the fellowship of any and all that offer themselves. True, he has no right to base his selection of those with whom he would practice fellowship on personal likes or dislikes, on social standing, on business grounds, political expediency, or any similar reason. It must be a selection based on the ground of a common faith. It must be discriminating; it must weigh, judge, test, in short do what John says:(I John 4, 1) "Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. "
28. WHAT IS MEANT BY SAYING THAT AN EXISTING RELATIONSHIP MUST BE SEVERED IF NECESSITY ARISES?
"Necessity here again being determined not by personal wishes or preference, but only by what is clearly taught in the Word of God. True fellowship cannot endure to be linked up with doctrine that is contrary to Scripture and to its own confession of faith. It cannot establish or bear union without unity. It cannot endure to be unequally yoked together with unbelievers."
29. WHAT DO UNIONISTS THINK OF THIS TEACHING?
"They are quick to raise the cry of intolerance. They will point to the schisms that have rent the Church because of such unwillingness to compromise on matters of doctrine, and do so as if that were a development of recent times, a condition which they are called to cure."
30. WHAT DID JESUS, HOWEVER, TELL US LONG AGO IN THE BIBLE?
"He warned against false prophets and false Christs that would arise. (Matt. 7, 15; Matt. 2: 23f.) He said: "Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay, but rather division. For from henceforth there shall be five in one house divided, three against two and two against three. The father shall be divided against the son, and the son against the father; the mother against the daughter and the daughter against the mother; the mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in- law against her mother-in-law." (Luke 12, 51-55)"
31. WHY MUST THERE BE SUCH DIVISION OR SEVERING OF FELLOWSHIP?
"Truth is at stake. Truth cannot compromise with error. When the two meet halfway, Error is still error, but Truth has ceased to be truth. Testimony is at stake. When Testimony loses its note of certainty and concedes an equal place to Contradiction, Testimony is weakened thereby. "For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?" (I Cor. 14, 8) Confession is at stake; when we no longer clearly confess, we begin to deny."
32. WHAT MUST BE DONE BY THOSE WHO ARE CAUGHT IN A CHURCH BODY WHICH IS DOCTRINALLY UNSOUND AND DIVIDED?
"In these matters those who stand for a true fellowship and wish to keep it inviolate must take the initiative. It will not do to leave it to chance that the discordant elements in a church body gradually come into harmony and agreement. It does not work that way. On the contrary, if left to themselves, conditions rapidly grow worse. Neither will it do to express the pious wish that those who are not truly brethren may remove themselves. They will not do so."
33. IN TAKING THIS STAND FOR A TRUE FELLOWSHIP, WHAT IS ONE DANGER WHICH MUST BE GUARDED AGAINST?
"That of a Pharisaic attitude. When the temple at Jerusalem was being rebuilt under Ezra after the Babylonian Captivity, the Samaritans made a proposal that smacks of the unionism of today (Ezra 4, 2): "Let us build with you, for we seek your God as ye do." The refusal of the Jews to entertain the offer was well founded, and is commanded because the Samaritans had corrupted the worship of the true God. But the superior, contemptuous manner in which the Jews of the New Testament regarded the same Samaritans is condemned and in marked contrast with the manner in which Christ Himself dealt with them."
34, WHEN WE TAKE A STAND FOR TRUE FELLOWSHIP AND AGAINST UNIONISM, ARE WE JUDGING THE PERSONAL CHRISTIANITY OF OUR OPPONENTS?
"Where constancy to God's Word requires us to declare that there can beno true fellowship between ourselves and others, where an existing fellowship must perhaps be terminated, old ties severed, that does not necessarily involve a denial of the personal Christianity of those from whom we are so separated."
35. WHEN IS A JUDGMENT OF A PERSON'S CHRISTIANITY INVOLVED?
"Only where manifest impenitence is stubbornly adhered to in spite of careful admonition, the denial of fellowship does and must involve a denial of the impenitent person's Christianity - and then always. Matthew 18: "Let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican."
This distinction must be carefully made and maintained: To condemn another's false doctrine and in obedience to God's Word (Romans 16, 17-18) to sever the ties of fellowship with him, is not the same thing as to call someone an impenitent sinner. (Matt.18)
"The tide of Unionism is rising strongly within our land. We shall have to set our faces resolutely against it. Invitations and temptations to take part in unionistic undertakings come to us with increasing frequency. We shall have to take a definite stand against them. .... But above all may the description of the unfortunate situations resulting from an uncertain attitude on the question of Church Fellowship serve to create in us a new appreciation of the fellowship that we have in our own Church and synod, a fellowship that is based upon a common faith and dedicated to a common task."