Theses on Church Fellowship
Introduction to the Theses
Already during the early 1940s differences began to disturb the unity within the Synodical Conference on the doctrine and practice of church fellowship. Since 1872, when this confessionally sound federation of Lutheran synods was founded, the member synods were fully agreed on the fellowship principles that had brought them together. All held that complete confessional unity is the necessary scriptural basis for all practice of church fellowship, that is, for pulpit, altar, and prayer fellowship.
In the 1930s the Missouri Synod held meetings with the American Lutheran Church, a merger of Lutheran synods not in doctrinal agreement and not in fellowship with the Synodical Conference. Following the practice of the ALC, these meetings included joint prayer among all participants. Objections to this fellowship practice were answered by a Missouri Synod resolution in 1944, asserting that not all joint prayers are a practice of prayer fellowship. In regard to prayer, Missouri was allowing for a different practice and establishing different principles than those jointly held throughout its history by the synods of the Synodical Conference.
As this and other problems threatened the unity of the Synodical Conference, this body in its 1956 convention called upon its president to call a joint meeting of the union committees of the four member synods. One of the purposes was to draw up doctrinal statements faithful to Scripture in order to reestablish the fact that the synods of the conference were indeed in doctrinal agreement.
To the Wisconsin Synod’s 1959 convention the Standing Committee on Matters of Church Union (see footnote 1) could report that six meetings of the Joint Union Committees for a total of 18 days had been held since 1957. A doctrinal statement on Scripture and another on the Antichrist had been successfully completed. (See earlier sections in this booklet.) The subject of church fellowship had also been discussed on the basis of the presentation of theses by the Wisconsin Synod. These had been prepared by the subcommittee of eight in full consultation with the entire Standing Committee. In the meetings of the Joint Union Committees most of the points had met with approval. The Missouri representatives, however, were not ready to acknowledge “the scriptural correctness of the basic point of our Wisconsin Synod presentation . . . that all joint expressions and demonstrations of a common Christian faith—call them church fellowship or by any other term—are essentially one, that they involve a unit concept, and that they are therefore all [also prayer] governed by one set of principles”(Proceedings, 1959, p. 165). In view of the seriousness of this subject for the future relations of the two synods, the convention requested the Joint Union Committees to give primary consideration to the area of fellowship.
In 1960, the Missouri men submitted their “Theology of Fellowship” to the Joint Union Committees. On the crucial point noted above, this document spoke of a “growing edge of fellowship” and contended that “in reaching out to those not yet in confessional fellowship with us there is the possibility of the beginning of the practice of fellowship.” This was the start of what has become Missouri’s position on “levels of fellowship.” In the meetings in May 1960, after three days of discussions, the Wisconsin delegation recognized that the consideration of this subject had reached an impasse.
The doctrine of church fellowship became the primary divisive issue that resulted in the 1961 Wisconsin Synod resolution suspending fellowship with the Missouri Synod. The resolution recognized the “Theses on Church Fellowship” as “an expression of the scriptural principles on which the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod has stood and which have guided it in its practice for many years.” Since their appearance the theses have been and are still recognized as such.
Theses on Church Fellowship
Church fellowship is a term that has been used to designate both a status and an activity. Both usages lie very close together, and one flows out of the other. The two usages follow the general dogmatic distinction of actu primo et actu secundo.
Church fellowship can be defined as the status in which individuals or groups, on the basis of a common confession of faith, have mutually recognized one another as Christian brethren and now consider it God-pleasing to express, manifest, and demonstrate their common faith jointly.
Church fellowship can also be defined as the activity which includes every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of the common faith in which Christians (individuals or groups), on the basis of their confession, find themselves to be united with one another. (Mutual recognition of one another as Christian brethren is itself one such “joint expression” of common faith in which Christians on the basis of their confession find themselves to be united with one another.)
For very practical reasons, we have preferred to treat church fellowship in our theses as a term designating an activity since the inter-synodical tensions have to do more with church fellowship as an activity than as a status. Both as a status and as an activity, church fellowship needs to be distinguished from the spiritual fellowship of faith in the Holy Christian Church (Una Sancta) which it is meant to reflect but with which it cannot simply be identified. For in the case of hypocrites, who have not yet been revealed, church fellowship is still called for, though the fellowship in the Holy Christian Church (Una Sancta fellowship) is actually not existing. On the other hand, people may in God’s sight be united in the fellowship in the Holy Christian Church (Una Sancta fellowship) and yet not have warrant to practice church fellowship here on earth.
We also felt that our definition of church fellowship was general enough to include both proper and improper practice of church fellowship, for the definition itself does not specify what constitutes an adequate confession on the basis of which individuals or groups may properly find themselves united in a common faith. For is there not in all church fellowship the assumption present that an adequate confession exists? Our presentation under the points of B sets forth what constitutes a proper confession, the marks of the Church (notae purae), on the basis of which Christians may properly find themselves united in a common faith.
Church fellowship is every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of the common faith in which Christians on the basis of their confession find themselves to be united with one another.
A. How Scripture leads us to this concept of church fellowship.
- Through faith in Christ, the Holy Spirit unites us with our God and Savior. Gal 3:26; 4:6; 1 Jn 3:1.
- This Spirit-wrought faith at the same time unites us in an intimate bond with all other believers. 1 Jn 1:3; Eph 4:4-6; Jn 17:20,21. Compare
also the many striking metaphors emphasizing the unity of the Church, e.g., the body of Christ, the temple of God.
- Faith as spiritual life invariably expresses itself in activity which is spiritual in nature, yet outwardly manifest, e.g., in the use of the means of grace, in prayer, in praise and worship, in appreciative use of the “gifts” of the Lord to the Church, in Christian testimony, in furthering the cause of the gospel, and in deeds of Christian love. Jn 8:47; Gal 4:6; Eph 4:11-14; Ac 4:20; 2 Co 4:13; 1 Pe 2:9; Gal 2:9; 5:6.
- It is God the Holy Ghost who leads us to express and manifest in activity the faith which He works and sustains in our hearts through the gospel. Gal 4:6; Jn 15:26,27; 7:38,39; Ac 1:8; Eph 2:10.
- Through the bond of faith in which He unites us with all Christians, the Holy Spirit also leads us to express and manifest our faith jointly with fellow Christians according to opportunity: as smaller and larger groups, Ac 1:14,15; 2:41-47; Gal 2:9; as congregations with other congregations, Ac 15; 1 Th 4:9,10; 2 Co 8:1,2,18,19; 9:2. (Before God every activity of our faith is at the same time fellowship activity in the communion of saints. 1 Co 12; Eph 4:1-16; Ro 12:1-8; 2 Ti 2:19.)
- We may classify these joint expressions of faith in various ways according to the particular realm of activity in which they occur, e.g., pulpit fellowship; altar fellowship; prayer fellowship; fellowship in worship; fellowship in church work, in missions, in Christian education, and in Christian charity. Yet insofar as they are joint expressions of faith, they are all essentially one and the same thing and are all properly covered by a common designation, namely, church fellowship (see footnote 2). Church fellowship should therefore be treated as a unit concept, covering every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of a common faith. Hence, Scripture can give the general admonition “avoid them” when church fellowship is to cease (Ro 16:17). Hence, Scripture sees an expression of church fellowship also in giving the right hand of fellowship (Gal 2:9) and in greeting one another with the fraternal kiss (Ro 16:16); on the other hand, it points out that a withholding of church fellowship may also be indicated by not extending a fraternal welcome to errorists and by not bidding them Godspeed (2 Jn 10,11; cf. 3 Jn 5-8).
B. What principles Scripture teaches for the exercise of such church fellowship.
- In selecting specific individuals or groups for a joint expression of faith, we can do this only on the basis of their confession. It would be presumptuous on our part to attempt to recognize Christians on the basis of the personal faith in their hearts. 2 Ti 2:19; Ro 10:10; 1 Jn 4:1-3; 1 Sa 16:7.
- A Christian confession of faith is in principle always a confession to the entire Word of God. The denial, adulteration, or suppression of any word of God does not stem from faith but from unbelief. Jn 8:31; Mt 5:19; 1 Pe 4:11; Jer 23:28,31; Dt 4:2; Rev 22:18,19. We recognize and acknowledge as Christian brethren those who profess faith in Christ as their Savior and with this profession embrace and accept His entire Word. Compare Walther’s “Theses on Open Questions,” Thesis 7: “No man has the privilege, and to no man may the privilege be granted, to believe and to teach otherwise than God has revealed in His Word, no matter whether it pertains to primary or secondary fundamental articles of faith, to fundamental or nonfundamental doctrines, to matters of faith or of practice, to historical items or other matters subject to the light of reason, to important or seemingly unimportant matters.”
- Actually, however, the faith of Christians and its manifestations are marked by many imperfections, either in the grasp and understanding of scriptural truths, or in the matter of turning these truths to full account in their lives. We are all weak in one way or another. Php 3:12; Eph 4:14; 3:16-18; 1 Th 5:14; Heb 5:12; 1 Pe 2:2. Compare Walther’s Thesis 5: “The Church militant must indeed aim at and strive for absolute unity of faith and doctrine, but it never will attain a higher degree of unity than a fundamental one.” Cf. Thesis 10.
- Weakness of faith is in itself not a reason for terminating church fellowship, but rather an inducement for practicing it vigorously to help one another in overcoming our individual weaknesses. In precept and example, Scripture abounds with exhortations to pay our full debt of love toward the weak.
a. General exhortations. Gal 6:1-3; Eph 4:1-16; Mt 18:15-17.
b. Weakness in laying hold of God’s promises in a firm trust. Mt 6:25-34.
c. Weakness with reference to adiaphora in enjoying fully the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. Ro 14; 1 Co 8 and 9. The public confession of any church must [on the basis of Scripture] establish, however, which things are adiaphora, so that it may be evident who are the weak and who are the strong. Ro 14:17-23; 1 Co 6:12; 10:23,24.
d. Weakness in understanding God’s truth, and involvement in error. Ac 1:6; Galatians (Judaizing error); Colossians (Jewish-Gnostic error); 1 Co 15; 1 Th 4:10-12,14; 2 Th 3:6,14,15; Ac 15:5,6,22,25. Note how in all these cases, Paul patiently built up the weak faith of these Christians with the gospel to give them strength to overcome the error that had affected them. Compare Walther’s Theses 2, 3, 4, and 8.
5. Persistent adherence to false doctrine and practice calls for termination of church fellowship.
a. We cannot continue to recognize and treat anyone as a Christian brother who in spite of all brotherly admonition impenitently clings to a sin. His and our own spiritual welfare calls for termination of church fellowship (excommunication). Mt 18:17; 1 Co 5:1-6.
b. We can no longer recognize and treat as Christian brethren those who in spite of patient admonition persistently adhere to an error in doctrine or practice, demand recognition for their error, and make propaganda for it. Gal 1:8,9; 5:9; Mt 7:15-19; 16:6; 2 Ti 2:17-19; 2 Jn 9-11; Ro 16:17,18. If the error does not overthrow the foundation of saving faith, the termination of fellowship is not to be construed as an excommunication. Moreover, an excommunication can only apply to an individual, not to a congregation or larger church group. The “avoid them” of Romans 16:17,18 excludes any contact that would be an acknowledgment and manifestation of church fellowship; it calls for a cessation of every further joint expression of faith. Cf. 1 Co 5:9-11. Compare Walther’s Theses 9 and 10.
c. Those who practice church fellowship with persistent errorists are partakers of their evil deeds. 2 Jn 11.
From all of this, we see that in the matter of the outward expression of Christian fellowship, the exercise of church fellowship, particularly two Christian principles need to direct us: the great debt of love which the Lord would have us pay to the weak brother, and His clear injunction (also flowing out of love) to avoid those who adhere to false doctrine and practice and all who make themselves partakers of their evil deeds. Conscientious recognition of both principles will lead to an evangelical practice also in facing many difficult situations that confront us, situations which properly lie in the field of casuistry.
On the basis of the foregoing, we find it to be an untenable position
A. To distinguish between joint prayer which is acknowledged to be an expression of church fellowship and an occasional joint prayer which purports to be something short of church fellowship;
B. To designate certain nonfundamental doctrines as not being divisive of church fellowship in their very nature;
C. To envision fellowship relations (in a congregation, in a church body, in a church federation, in a church agency, in a cooperative church activity) like so many steps of a ladder, each requiring a gradually increasing or decreasing measure of unity in doctrine and practice.
“Theses on Open Questions” by Dr. Walther, 1868
(These theses are the ones on the basis of which the Wisconsin and Missouri Synods established fellowship.)
It cannot be denied that in the field of religion or theology there are questions which, because they are not answered in the Word of God, may be called open in the sense that agreement in answering them is not required for the unity of faith and doctrine which is demanded in the Word of God, nor does it belong to the conditions required for church fellowship, for the association of brethren or colleagues.
The error of an individual member of the Church even against a clear Word of God does not involve immediately his actual forfeiture of church fellowship, nor of the association of brethren and colleagues.
Even if an open error against the Word of God has infected a whole church body, this does not in itself make that church body a false church, a body with which an orthodox Christian or the orthodox church would abruptly have to sever relations.
A Christian may be so weak in understanding that he cannot grasp, even in a case of a fundamental article of the second order, that an error which he holds is contrary to the Scriptures. Because of his ignorance he may also continue in his error, without thereby making it necessary for the orthodox church to exclude him.
The Church militant must indeed aim at and strive for complete unity of faith and doctrine, but it never will attain a higher degree of unity than a fundamental one.
Even errors in the writings of recognized orthodox leaders of the Church, now deceased, concerning nonfundamental doctrines of the second order do not brand them as errorists nor deprive them of the honor of orthodoxy.
No man has the privilege, and to no man may the privilege be granted, to believe and to teach otherwise than God has revealed in His Word, no matter whether it pertain to primary or secondary fundamental articles of faith, to fundamental or nonfundamental doctrines, to matters of faith or of practice, to historical matters or other matters subject to the light of reason, to important or seemingly unimportant matters.
The Church must take steps against any deviation from the doctrine of the Word of God, whether this be done by teachers or by so-called laymen, by individuals or by entire church bodies.
Such members as willfully persist in deviating from the Word of God, no matter what question it may concern, must be excluded.
From the fact that the Church militant cannot attain a higher degree of unity than a fundamental one, it does not follow that any error against the Word of God may be granted equal rights in the Church with the truth, nor that it may be tolerated.
The idea that Christian doctrines are formed gradually and that accordingly any doctrine which has not completed such a process of development must be counted among the open questions, militates against the doctrine that the Church at all times is strictly one, and that the Scripture is the one and only, but fully sufficient source of knowledge in the field of Christian religion and theology.
The idea that such doctrines as have not yet been fixed symbolically must be counted among the open questions, militates against the historical origin of the Symbols, particularly against the fact that these were never intended to present a complete doctrinal system, while they indeed acknowledge the entire content of the Scriptures as the object of the faith held by the Church.
Also the idea that such doctrines in which even recognized orthodox teachers have erred must be admitted as open questions militates against the canonical authority and dignity of the Scriptures.
The assumption that there are Christian doctrines of faith contained in the Holy Scriptures, which nevertheless are not presented in them clearly, distinctly, and unmistakably, and that hence they must be counted with the open questions militates against the clarity, and thus against the very purpose or the divinity of the Holy Scriptures, which is offered to us as the divine revelation.
The modern theory that among the clearly revealed doctrines of the Word of God there are open questions is the most dangerous unionistic principle of our day, which will lead consistently to skepticism and finally to naturalism.
Footnote 1: For the make-up of the Standing Committee and its eight-member subcommittee, see the Introduction to the Statement on Scripture.
Footnote 2: Full attention needs to be given in this statement to the limiting terms: “insofar” and “joint.” The “insofar” is to point out that it is indeed only in their function as joint expressions of faith that the use of the means of grace and such other things mentioned as Christian prayer, Christian education, and Christian charity all lie on the same plane. In other respects the means of grace and their use are indeed unique. Only through the means of grace, the gospel in Word and Sacrament, does the Holy Spirit awaken, nourish, and sustain faith. Again, only the right use of Word and Sacrament are the true marks of the church, the marks by which the Lord points us to those with whom He would have us express our faith jointly.
For anything to be a “joint” expression of faith presupposes that those involved are really expressing their faith together. This distinguishes a joinft expression of faith from individual expressions of faith which happen to be made at the same time and at the same place. Certain things like the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, the proclamation of the gospel, and also prayer, are by their very nature expressions of faith and are an abomination in God’s sight when not intended to be that. When done together, they are therefore invariably joint expressions of faith. Other things like giving a greeting, a kiss, a handshake, and extending hospitality or physical help to others are in themselves not of necessity expressions of Christian faith. Hence, doing these things together with others does not necessarily make them joint expressions of faith, even though a Christian will for his own person also thereby be expressing his faith (cf. 1 Co 10:31). These things done together with others become joint expressions of faith only when those involved intend them to be that, understand them in this way, and want them to be understood thus, as in the case of the apostolic collection for the poor Christians at Jerusalem, the fraternal kiss of the apostolic church, and our handshake at ordination and confirmation.