Friday, July 8, 2011

Fellowship: What about our imperfections?

In comments following Tuesday’s post, Choose Terms Carefully When Describing What the Church Does with the Gospel, Mr. Baker and Rev. Spencer draw out what seems to be a growing attitude toward doctrinal unity which we all agree is intolerable: “i.e. that of ignoring or belittling doctrinal differences within the WELS simply because there is no such thing as a ‘perfect church body’ here on this earth.” Rather than working toward unity by being vigilant for false teaching in our midst, and acting to admonish erring brothers in order to restore them to the Truth, such an attitude is dismissive of heterodoxy – not by denial that it exists, but by recognizing it and being content with its reality: “Oh well, there is no such thing as a perfect church – ha ha, guess that’s just another example of it.” Heterodoxy is sin. And to tolerate sin amongst one's brothers, is also sin. Like all sins, heterodoxy, and toleration of it, require repentance, not indulgence.

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.”

Dear xxxxxxx,

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 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."
I'm sure that there is much in orthodox teaching that I don't fully understand, that would take me quite awhile to wrap my mind around, but I believe it, I made public confession of this belief when I was made a member of my congregation, and I continue to give confession to it in my words and actions – and this belief, or faith, along with the understanding that follows, is worked in me by the Holy Spirit through the Means of Grace. For this reason as well, my own pastor has even said,
    "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."
Although belief and understanding are, for the adult, often closely connected, it is the belief that is at issue – and for the purposes of fellowship, by the direction of Scripture, we identify what a person believes by what they say they believe (their confession) and whether their works are consistent with that confession. If people, however, publicly say they believe the confessions of their church body, but secretly reject some of them, their false confession does not change the nature of biblical fellowship; it just makes those people into liars and hypocrites (who, we also know, will always be with us). Since we know that errorists will always be with us, if the love of Christ is indeed within us, our response is not to overlook indications of false doctrine revealed in foreign practices, nor to shrug off false statements, but to act in favor of unity by addressing such issues swiftly and directly.

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


Anonymous said...

"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."

Is this true? God's Word is timeless. When he spoke, his will was firm. Doctrine doesn't develop or change, does it? What changes is application. So women dressing modestly is a timeless Christian virtue. But no longer does this require the covering of one's head.

It seems to me that saying "doctrine develops" is a downright dangerous way to talk. (More so than talk of "sharing one's faith"!) Because it seems to equate traditional practice with doctrine. "This is the way the church has done it for so long, and so this is the theologically correct way of doing things." Monasticism developed over a long period of time and became a thoroughly entrenched tradition. It wasn't doctrinal. It flowed from a false understand of doctrine.

Had it been said that the way we talk about certain doctrine develops over time, fine. I don't know that what we called "the principles of fellowship" were called "fellowship principles" during the Reformation. The principles were there in God's Word, observed and applied. But the terminology we used developed, not the doctrine itself.

Saying doctrine "develops" seems to elevate historic application over fresh study of Scripture. It seems to imply that a long-standing practice in the church must be God's will, simply because it's long-standing, without any regard to whether or not God's Word explicitly calls for it. In short, saying doctrine "develops" seem very Catholic, in every BAD sense of that word.

My opinion.

In Christ,
Daniel Kastens

AP said...

Mr. Kastens,

The truths in revealed Scripture do not change, but doctrine (i.e. formulations / systems / symbols of those truths) have developed along with the history of the church. False doctrine has plagued the church since the start, and true formulations of doctrine (based on Scripture alone) arose in response. Galatians is largely a response to the Judaizing heresy. The Nicene Creed was written in response to heresies involving the person and divinity of Christ. It does nothing but express the truths Scripture teaches. The same is true of the Lutheran Confessions, which respond to corruptions and heresies of the Catholic church (and various so-called protestant sects).

So, again, the truth of Scripture does not evolve. You are setting up a strawman here, since no one is arguing that the truth God reveals evolves. There is no danger in speaking in terms of historical development of doctrine, because doctrine (church teachings or dogma) is a human formulation. The Book of Concord is not inspired. However, we believe in the doctrines it expresses because it is an entirely correct representation of the truths of Scripture and is itself normed by Scripture alone. There is, on the other hand, much danger in adopting the language, methods, practices and false doctrines of the sects.

Dr. Aaron Palmer

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dr. Palmer. That's actually very helpful. It's broadened my understanding of the word "doctrine." A definition for doctrine is "something that is taught." Etymologically, it would come from doctrina, which is Latin for teaching, right? So I was equating it with "Scriptural teaching." You are using the term to refer to the organization of Scriptural teaching. I wrote that I wish it had been said, "the way we talk about doctrine." But I see know what I meant was "the way we talk about Scriptural teaching." It's a subtle difference, but I see it.

So I apologize to Mr. Lindee for not taking his words properly. And I thank you for the clarification.

What you write does bring up an interesting tangent. You say the confessions (symbols) are an example of doctrine. And you say that doctrine evolves. Thus, the Confessions evolve. How so? Would we say that we add to it to clarify? For example, the Confessions don't address the roles of men and women than I can think of. But that doesn't surprise me, since it wasn't a theological issue at the time. So now we have other confessions, such as This We Believe, which touch on modern day challenges to the true faith. Is that what you mean by doctrine evolving?

Could it also mean that the way we use the confessions to help us formulate practice also evolves? It seems there are things the confessions didn't foresee. The confessors didn't forsee a time when a church might be half-full of non-believers (or at least non-members) who had been brought on Easter Sunday by believing friends, as Andrew brought Simon to see something he thought was special - the Messiah. The confessors didn't forsee a time when the saints might not only share the Gospel directly with their neighbor, but also invite countless numbers to come here the Gospel through a mass mailing. The world is just different. The problems are the same. The solution is the same. The tools - Word and Sacrament - are the same. But the way we communicate, the way church is organized and functions - it's different.

I don't know that I have a question. It seems at times I hear people using the confessions oddly. Someone (no one on IL) might say, "We have to have communion Christmas Eve. The confessions say to have the Lord's Supper every time the church gathers." But what if 60% of those present on Christmas Eve are non members who have been invited to church. The confessors probably didn't forsee such a thing.

Just thinking out loud about the "evolving" doctrine, which would mean evolving confessions, or at least evolving applications of them.


AP said...

I will have to leave it to others to comment on or explain the background of "This We Believe." All I know is that, as a called worker, I did not take a vow to teach in accord with "This We Believe." I took a vow to teach according to Scripture and the Book of Concord (i.e. the Lutheran Confessions). I have no problem with new doctrinal statements so long as they entirely conform to Scripture and the Confessions.

We take this vow, again, because the Confessions are entirely correct interpretation of Scripture. The confessions do not evolve, because the Truth they represent does not evolve. ELCA takes a different view--the view that one subscribes to the Confessions to the extent that they are a correct interpretation of Scripture. There is all the difference in the world between "because they are" and "to the extent that they are."

Of course circumstances and technology change. No one in the 16th century could have anticipated things like the internet. Nevertheless, Truth does not evolve to shape itself according to the conditions of society. It is rather our hope that Truth will influence society.

This whole idea that we have to change with the times is a tricky one (remember Change or Die anyone?) Taken to its extreme, that notion can lead us down the ELCA path. They will tell you that we are no longer living, for example, in the Middle Ages. Society has changed. Thus, this "better" understanding of social relations (or whatever else) should inform how we interpret Scripture. Well, look where that notion has gotten them--deep into apostasy.

Whether we adopt a practice, make a change, or apply doctrine to a given situation, in the end, has to be evaluated first and foremost on whether or not that practice, change, or desired application conforms to or is rooted in something other than the Truths we confess.

Dr. Aaron Palmer

AP said...

Speaking of fellowship: Rick Techlin has updated his blog, explaining that his appeal to overturn his excommunication (or termination of fellowship) has been denied. Personally, I stand behind Mr. Techlin, and I hope Intrepid Lutherans will do so publicly as well:

Rev. Paul Rydecki said...

Dr. Palmer,

Thanks, that was very helpful. You're right about This We Believe, too. It is not the norma normata for us like the Lutheran Confessions are. It's not found in the constitutions of our congregations, nor does any WELS pastor, teacher or congregation ever agree to teach according to it. Scripture and the explanation of Scripture in the nine (or ten) confessions in the Book of Concord. That's what we claim, on oath, to believe, teach and confess, and that's the way it should be.

It's a bit misleading to say that, because 16th century European culture was different than American culture, therefore the Church will necessarily worship differently (aside from the language itself). The purpose of the weekly gathering of believers has never changed, since the beginning of the New Testament. The Church gathers on the Lord's Day because the Lord said, "This do in remembrance of me." I mean that in the same evangelical sense in which Jesus instituted the Sacrament. Jesus gave the Church the opportunity to continue to meet with the risen Lord "as often as you drink it," and the Church from the very beginning concluded that they would "do this" at least every Lord's Day. The Lutheran Confessors agreed.

As for Rick Techlin, we still fully support him - now more than ever, and will be commenting shortly on the shameful treatment he has received at the hands of his pastors, congregation, district presidium and district appeals committee. We consider him to be a brother in the faith. We do not recognize the "discipline" that has been wrongly enacted by his congregation and ratified by the appeals committee. How could we, since none of them has been able to accuse Rick of a single error in which he persists or a single sin for which he has failed to repent?

Anonymous said...

I am sincerely confused now.

Mr. Lindee wrote, "Christian doctrine has been developed over the millenia."

I took issue with that, because I equated Christian doctrine with Scriptural teaching. Dr. Palmer explained what is meant by "doctrine." He wrote, "The truths in revealed Scripture do not change, but doctrine (i.e. formulations / systems / symbols of those truths) have developed along with the history of the church." The Confessions are, of course, "symbols."

Now Dr. Palmer writes, "The confessions do not evolve, because the Truth they represent does not evolve," which was the exact point I made in my first comment on this post. It my hangup simply that I am taking "develop over time" and "evolve" to be the similar concepts? That seems to be splitting hairs.


Daniel Baker said...

Once a doctrine has been formulated, it does not "evolve." I will let Dr. Palmer speak for himself, but that is how I interpreted his words. New symbols can and are added, and further clarification may be added to those already extant, but the symbols themselves are not ever-changing as some imagine. When new symbols are added (e.g. the Book of Concord at the time of the Reformation) it is because of some peril in the Church, not because the Word of Scripture has changed or because the doctrines of the Church are evolving. Is this correct, pastors?

AP said...

Sorry to confuse you! I think Mr. Baker said it very well. When I say that the Confessions do not evolve, I mean that those particular statements of doctrine (i.e. the Book of Concord of 1580) does not, should not, and must not "evolve". Could someone write a new confession or creed? Yes, but why? The church needing to make a statement on some issue that previous creeds have not addressed might be one legitimate reason (i.e. stating a specific position on abortion or gay marriage). Any such new creeds would not be new in at least one sense. They can only be true creeds / doctrine if they entirely agree with Scripture and the Book of Concord. The Book of Concord itself is only an evolution or development of doctrine in the sense of reformation. It did not invent anything new (as the authors insist again and again), but merely returned to a true understanding of Scripture that had become corrupted in the church of the Middle Ages.

Dr. Aaron Palmer

David Wietzke said...

I was a bit surprised by the above comments on "This We Believe" not being binding on WELS pastors and congregations.

Even if one has not formally sworn an oath to uphold its teaching, doesn't continued membership--and ministry--in a church body imply full and enthusiastic agreement with its publicly declared statements of faith? Of course, there might be a desire for an improvement in wording or phrasing of a confession that don't affect the substance of the doctrine being confessed. But aren't WELS pastors obligated by virtue of their membership to walk together with their synod's teachings? If one disagrees with such a formal doctrinal statement, how could one continue in fellowship with such a group without protest?

It seems to me that there will always be a need for new confessions because Satan will never cease inventing new ways to attack the faith which the previous confessions did not directly address. I don't see why these newer statements should be viewed as necessarily any less binding than the previous ones were. What use is would it be for a church to issue a confessional statement if its members and pastors are not expected to teach in accordance with it?

Maybe I misunderstood the point being made.

Unknown said...

"This We Believe" is a simple booklet to summarize the Lutheran belief as WELS folks to people outside fellowship. There is no need to bind pastors and congregations to a synod booklet that summarizes beliefs.

Every time the booklet changed, we would have to modify out local church constitution. The Christian faith is given via the Bible and the Book of Concord (Lutheran Confessional writings), which reflect the Bible's truths. No more is required.

As Satan created new attacks that have not been addressed in the Bible? From modernism and post-modernism and gnosticism, it seems there is nothing new today not covered in the Bible. Specific instances may not be covered, but I have yet to see anything not covered in the gospels and epistles.

Rev. Paul Rydecki said...

Exactly what Perry said. It is simply impossible for an established church body to formulate new doctrinal statements that are binding. Churches and pastors join a synod based on its stated doctrinal foundation, which, for the WELS, is still the Scripture and the Book of Concord. Any restatement of belief or summary of belief that comes later may well represent a majority opinion determined by majority vote, but doctrine isn't determined by majority. Either there is unanimous agreement or there is not.

There is supposed to be unanimous agreement on the Scripture as it is expounded in the Confessions. That's the requisite for membership in our synod. But there is no practical way that I can see of reaching a unanimous consensus in regard to new doctrinal statements. Not every pastor has a vote at synod convention. Not every congregation has a vote at synod convention. Even if it did, the congregation itself may not be unanimously agreed with a new doctrinal statement.

It seems to me that you would almost have to form a new synod if you wanted to make new confessions to be on the same binding level as the Book of Concord.

AP said...

Well said Mr. Lund and Pastor Rydecki. There is nothing new under the sun.

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