At Home in the House of Schwan: On Church Fellowship (by Pr. Charles Henrickson)

Today, May 29, is the 105th anniversary of the death in 1905 of Heinrich Schwan, the third president of the Missouri Synod. We honor his memory today by listening to his wise counsel.

This is the third in a series of excerpts from writings of the first five presidents of our synod–Walther, Wyneken, Schwan, Pieper, and Pfotenhauer–all found in a book by Pastor Matt Harrison, “At Home in the House of My Fathers” (available through logia.org).

Harrison’s introduction to his translation of a Schwan sermon reads, in part, as follows:

In a beautiful way, dominated by the Gospel, and charitable to Christians with whom Missouri was not in fellowship, Schwan maintains the necessity of unity in the full truth of the Church’s biblical Confession. (p. 506)

This excerpt is from H.C. Schwan’s 1879 “Sermon on Church Fellowship and Unity”:

To be sure, we should not hate and persecute those who adhere to a false faith. Nor should we avoid civil association with them. We should all the more in all things show them complete faithfulness, love, and friendliness. But God has not commanded us to maintain church fellowship with them. He has, in fact, strictly forbidden it. And we should certainly not think that all who belong to false-believing fellowships are stiff-necked enemies of the truth and children of perdition. We should certainly not forget that where the Word and Sacrament still essentially remain, where something of the sweet Gospel still resounds, there also children will be born to the Lord as the morning dew. Indeed, we can and should rejoice that we stand in the innermost and sweetest fellowship with all those who have saving faith in the heart, hidden before God, even though out of weakness they may be burdened by all sorts of error. But we cannot enter into church fellowship with such persons. Indeed, we do not know who they are, but the Lord knows those who are His. Where we establish public church fellowship, there must also be present public unity in the faith and Confession. (pp. 511-12)

Schwan here strikes the right balance, doesn’t he, between broad Christian kindness and firm confessional faithfulness. Our insistence that church fellowship be based on agreement in doctrine–this is often caricatured as though we think that only Missouri Synod Lutherans will be in heaven! Schwan shows this is not the case.

One other brief and timely quote from Schwan, this one from his 1896 Synodical Address:

What is it to us, then, whether our Synod is large or small, honored or despised, in the eyes of the world? She will remain under God’s blessing as long as she honestly stands for God’s Word and honor. Nor do we wish for a longer existence than that. Therefore, we commend all this to God! (p. 554)

Amen!

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