Several years ago, I was party to an extended email exchange with a fellow WELS Lutheran who was frustrated by our diligence in maintaining orthodoxy, disgusted with what he called “splitting hairs.” The issue for him – and for many others having the same frustration – is really that of understanding the broad picture of Fellowship, of appreciating how seriously the Bible takes visible unity and agreement in all matters of doctrine and practice, how it is applied across church bodies as well as individually, and, especially, what we make of imperfections in our unity. In one email during our exchange, I supplied the explanation appearing below, which I think might be helpful in addressing the points brought out yesterday by Mr. Baker and Rev. Spencer. We don’t overlook imperfections, nor are we content to live with them, but out of love for Christ, His Word, and for our brethren, we address the sin of heterodoxy in order to restore its adherents to the Truth as we mutually confess and practice it, thereby “endeavoring to keep unity in the bond of peace... for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ.”
You bring up many points in your recent email, but I'll stick to the core issue, for now; and it's still Fellowship. And I'll try to keep this short.
Fellowship requires agreement in all matters of doctrine and practice
You ask, "at what point do we stop splitting hairs and start having fellowship, is my real question?" As long as anyone can say "I believe the Bible says X" when we believe it says "Y", we are compelled by love for God and His Word (Jn. 14:23-24) to examine their claim, and either accept it and change our doctrine, or reject it. The Bible is indeed clear, that we are responsible to hold pure every teaching, or doctrine, of Scripture (2 Th. 2:15; 2 Ti. 1:13-14; Tit. 1:9; He. 10:23-25). Starting with the Great Commission, Jesus commanded us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them and "teaching them ALL things whatsoever I have commanded you" (Mt. 28:18-20). Here Jesus defines His doctrine, or teaching, as that which He gave to the disciples to carry to all nations: ALL things whatsoever. These teachings are preserved for us by the Holy Spirit in the cannon of Scripture, which includes the entire Old Testament as well as what the disciples and apostles record by inspiration of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament. When the Bible calls us to be "fellowhelpers for the Truth" (3 Jn. 8), the Truth referred to is the teaching of Christ, that is, God's Word in its entirety ("Thy Word is Truth" [Jn. 17:17]). And it is this body of Truth in which we are beseeched in the name of Jesus Christ to be perfectly agreed and without division (Ro. 15:5-6; 1 Co. 1:10).
Just to make it clear, I'll rhetorically ask "So what teachings of the Bible are not fellowship criteria?" Answer: None. If anyone says anything contrary to the doctrine of Christ, they are not blessed, but accursed (Ga. 1:8-9). That's right, the words used in the Galatians reference are anyone and anything. If anyone does not have the doctrine of Christ, he does not have God (2 Jn. 9). If anyone comes with a religious teaching other than the doctrine of Christ, he is to be avoided (Ro. 16:17). If anyone comes to us with any religious teaching other than the teaching of Christ, the Bible commands that we "receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed" lest we become partaker of his evil deeds (2 Jn. 10-11). Any teaching that is at variance with the pure doctrine of Christ, is a teaching that is contrary to God's Word. Such teaching is divisive of fellowship.
All of these points are expounded in compelling detail in the books I mentioned earlier, Church Fellowship: Working Together for the Truth (John Brug), and Church Fellowship: What Does the Bible Say? (Seth Erlandsson). If you haven't read them, I would definitely recommend them. The former is a rather gentle introduction to the doctrine of Church Fellowship, while the latter is a strong and direct testimony concerning this doctrine, taken from Scripture, the Confessions, and the Church Fathers (it is a shame that NPH is no longer printing this slim, though very helpful, volume, and that it is now unavailable from NPH, since in my opinion it is a far more useful text than the former, as it comes from a strong Confessional perspective). Finally, consider the following quotes from Dr. Luther:
- "In the church, however, as far as the Word is concerned, it is not a matter of the forgiveness of sins; but this is the mathematical point and the highest purity. The Word is so irreproachable that not a single iota can err in the Law or the divine promises. For that reason we must yield to no sect, not even in one tittle of Scripture, no matter how much they clamor and accuse us of violating love when we hold so strictly to the Word. The beginning of all love is that the scepter of equity remains. If there is no other way of achieving this, then love or anything else must be broken, be it ever so great, just so the Word remains pure" (in his commentary on Psalm 45).
"We are prepared to preserve peace and love with all men if only they will permit us to keep the doctrine of faith entire and uncorrupted. If they will not promise this, they will demand love from us in vain. Damned be that love which is maintained at the cost of the doctrines of the faith! ...If a single one is set aside, they will gradually all be lost. They form one single, harmonious whole..." (from his commentary on Galatians 5:9).
How do Lutherans get “doctrine” from the Bible?
Thus, Fellowship requires agreement in ALL doctrines of Scripture, and this has been understood at least since the Reformation. So, what's a doctrine? Briefly, doctrine descends to us only through God's Word as it is studied according to sound hermeneutical principles. True Lutheran teaching relies on direct positive statements of Scripture, only. Only direct positive statements in the Bible are clear, and Scripture doctrine, or teaching, which we regard as objective and authoritative, can only come from such clear statements. In addition, we rely on the principle, “Scripture interprets Scripture”; in other words, the more clear statements interpret the less clear statements, putting the less clear statements (like anecdotal and prophetic sections, for example) in a position supporting the more clear statements, rather than one that qualifies them – accordingly, this hermeneutical principle also maintains the unity of the Scriptures. Finally, the role of human reason in true Lutheran teaching is subordinate to the authority of Scripture – reason is the handmaiden of Scripture, not its arbiter, necessarily elevating faith over reason, and teaching humility to the student of the Bible.
Christian doctrine has been developed over the millenia, as challenges to Scripture teaching have required examination of such claims according to what the Bible says
So, to return to the beginning, if someone says "I believe the Bible says X," he is asserting "X" as a Bible doctrine. If I believe the Bible really says "Y," I am compelled by love for God and His Word to examine this claim and either accept it, changing my doctrinal confession, or reject it and give a firm testimony to the truth. And this is really the process of doctrinal development over the millennia. Someone asserts a new teaching, Christians examine it, and they either accept it or reject it. The consequence of such rejection can be the restoration of the errorist to the Truth, or if he persists, separation from the errorist. Thus, as long as we continue to be faced with challenges to pure Biblical teaching, the "hair splitting" must continue. Church Fellowship, as the Bible makes clear, is conditioned on full agreement in all of its teachings. I shake my head at some of the growing challenges we will be facing in coming years, like Process Theology and "the new perspective on Paul." Such doctrinal innovation is nothing but shameless human arrogance, if not the work of the Devil.
Application of Fellowship among church bodies
In its application, Fellowship is practiced in a variety of contexts. Between church bodies, it is relatively cut and dried – doctrine and practice are written down, compared, differences are examined, and either agreement and unity results, or separation results. The point to remember is that in separation we are not only giving a testimony to their error, and warning of the danger of that error, but we must also do so in a way that provides a clear testimony to what is true. The objective of separation, just like excommunication, is to call errorists (sinners) to repentance and back to the pure doctrine, not to punish them.
Application of Fellowship among individuals: How do we deal with imperfections?
Between individuals who share fellowship, however, the objective confessions they publicly agree to serve as the standard of their unity. Between them there will be many imperfections, however – and I think this is the point that many people have trouble with. This imperfection is due to man's sinful nature, weakness of faith, lack understanding, etc. However, this is no excuse for tolerating departures from God's Word! Our love for God and His Word compels us to work to maintain its purity and to defend orthodox teaching. If we are willing to tolerate the error, our love for God and His Word must be questioned (Jn. 14:23-24). If we know of an erring brother within our fellowship, his error is sin, and if that error is a private matter, the process of Mt. 18 applies. We go to that person to seek understanding of what he said or did, evaluate it, and if he is found to be in error, we offer admonition and instruction. Again, we need to go to that person and seek understanding and clarification, not automatically assume they are in error, but also not allowing the possibility that error may exist. They may have misspoken, we may have heard or witnessed something out of context, etc. Likewise in matters of public offense, the process of 1 Ti. 5 applies.
But what about those whose understanding is lacking? Can I have fellowship with my three-year-old son? Yes, I can and do. His conscience is informed by what he believes is true, and I know that everything he believes is true, I also believe is true. I know that everything he believes is false, I also believe is false. In fact, I can say that most of what he believes is true, he probably doesn't understand. But he believes it just the same, which makes it a matter of his conscience, not necessarily his understanding. If I discover that we are at variance, I admonish and instruct him. And as he grows more intellectually capable, I continue to admonish and instruct him, to build him up, out of love and concern for his soul. This is why I stated, in a previous note, that fellowship between brethren is not defined by uniformity of understanding, but by the common conviction of conscience tempered by the humility of a teachable heart. Dr. Luther, at the Diet of Worms, helps us to see this as he singles out conscience as the seat of agreement:
- "Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason ...my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen."
- "If someone without a church affiliation walks in and says, 'I know that I don't know everything the Bible says, but I know that I want to believe whatever it says,' then this is grounds to receive that person into fellowship. We continue to admonish and instruct as long as he remains teachable, but if (and only if) at some point we discover that what he believes is at variance with what we believe, and if he persists in his false belief (i.e., is no longer teachable), only then do we separate."
We must admit that among those who share biblical Fellowship there will be imperfections, but love for God, for His Word, and for our brethren compels us to admonish and instruct, to build one another up, "endeavoring to keep unity in the bond of peace," each member functioning according to his gifting and function, "for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God..." (Ep. 4:2-16). Read this section from Ephesians. It is describing how Christians function as a "unit," as a body, building and strengthening one another. If, in private matters, all we do is pick at the errors and failures we observe in our brothers, without actually going to them out of genuine love and concern to address their sin, then we are guilty of sin against our erring brother, and of sin against everyone in our fellowship. Likewise in public matters, if all we do is hiss and cluck our tongues among ourselves, rather than bringing matters of public sin before them and before all who are affected by it, then by our inaction we are sinning against our erring brother and against our entire fellowship. Out of love for Christ, we have no right to overlook mishandling of His Word, nor do we have any right to condemn our brother unless we have first acted out of love and concern – again, love for God, for His Word, and for our brethren – to address his sin, either privately or publicly as the situation requires, and have given him the opportunity to repent and receive absolution.
Mr. Douglas Lindee