How should our WELS congregations view active, non-WELS Christians within their communities (i.e. Baptist, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Catholic, ELCA, etc)? I’ve discussed this question with several WELS pastors through the years. In regard to fellowship practices, it's been unanimous that the beliefs of such Christians are spiritually dangerous and we should guard ourselves against giving any suggestion of unity or support to their beliefs. However, in regard to evangelism practices, I've received differing viewpoints from pastors. Some view such Christians as evangelism prospects because what they believe is spiritually dangerous and may even have eternal consequences. Others see such Christians as children of God and heirs of eternal life, so they are not evangelism prospects for our WELS congregations. Some even say it would be “sheep stealing” to make such Christians evangelism prospects. How does WLS teach pastors to view non-WELS Christians in regard to evangelism practices? Should our congregations and pastors regard them as evangelism prospects, or simply “sheep of another pasture”?
While I am a graduate of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary (WLS), I do not teach there. Since you were interested in knowing what Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary specifically teaches future pastors about evangelism practices with regard to “active, non-WELS Christians,” I asked for a response from Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary. The following response is courtesy of Professor Daniel Leyrer, who is responsible for formal Evangelism instruction at the Seminary:
“Proselytizing (or ‘sheep stealing’) is the practice of making contact with and preaching to active Christian members of heterodox churches in order to move them from their Christian church into our Christian church. It’s a practice we avoid for a couple of reasons. First, it denies the doctrine of The Church by suggesting that Christianity can only exist within WELS congregations. Such a suggestion is neither scriptural not confessional (cf. Augsburg Confession, Article VII). Second, proselytizing violates the call the heterodox minister has to serve by seeking to sever the bond established by that call.
“However, I italicized the three words ‘in order to’ in the paragraph above to make a point. The purpose or intent of our action is key in determining when evangelizing crosses the line into proselytizing. Proclaiming the gospel to a Christian of another fellowship because I have been asked to give an answer concerning the hope that I have (cf. 1 Peter 3:15) is not proselytizing. Proclaiming the gospel to the public at large through multi-media outreach is not proselytizing. Serving my neighbor by providing good Christian education through my church school, and in the process proclaiming the gospel in that school, is not proselytizing. And if an active member of a heterodox Christian church makes a decision to leave their church and join ours after receiving gospel instruction in our midst by their choice, I will chalk that up not to proselytizing, but the Spirit’s working through gospel proclamation. “