Theological Dialogue with Other Christian Church Bodies

Found on Witness, Mercy, Life Together blog:


In light of the third installment of dialogue between the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), October 27–28, which focuses on “Contemporary Issues Facing the Church in North America,” it is good to consider the new document produced by CTCR staff titled, “Theological Dialogue with Other Christian Church Bodies.” The document explores why it is good to engage in theological discussion with other church bodies, even if immediate fellowship is not foreseen. President Harrison requested the CTCR staff to study whether it is permissible and beneficial for the LCMS to engage in such discussions with other Christians. The result is the document below.

– Rev. Albert B. Collver, Director of Church Relations

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord,, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at


Theological Dialogue with Other Christian Church Bodies — 19 Comments

  1. We’ve gone over this already several times at BJS. The Report seems to be an honest attempt to formulate the rationale why we should be in theological dialogue with socially conservative church bodies.

    I’d like to highlight a couple of quotes. The first one is from p. 4, quoting the 1974 CTCR report on the “Lutheran Stance toward Ecumenism” (LSTE):

    Fruitful dialogue is difficult, if not impossible, unless participants share the sameunderstanding of the authority of Scripture or unless conversations are held for the purpose of reaching agreement about Biblical authority as a first step toward discussion of other areas of doctrine.

    Now, as far as the Catholic Church is concerned, we, according to this latest document, should not be talking about the authority of scripture at all. Instead, knowing that we don’t agree here (p. 6: “There are significant differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics in numerous doctrinal issues, including such primary matters as authority in the church and the doctrine of justification.”), we talk about marriage and women’s ordination. Nice.

    Something we can — perhaps — agree on. Of course, if we went any deeper than “marriage is between a man and a woman and really important for society” OR, “women should not be pastors,” we’d have to take up such controversial yet substantial theological issues as the sacramentality of marriage and ordination (and perhaps even sacraments in general), marriage and the special merit of virginity, divorce and remarriage, admission of divorced persons to the Lord’s Supper.

    But, wait, taking a hint from what the Synod had figured out already in 1974, such dialogue would be “difficult, if not impossible,” since on the key topic of the authority of scripture in the church (or on the other key topic of the doctrine of justification for that matter) one has not been able to reach agreement in the truth of God’s Word.

    Accordingly, we low-ball the dialogue’s goal: not altar and pulpit fellowship as in the past, also not really a defense against sectarianism or heresy (the first response on p. 2 makes that the purpose of ecumenical dialogue, but in the context of the Bylaws, it is the purpose of Synod itself) but mostly the mounting of a joint Christian voice on social (First-Article) issues that are near and dear to us as well as other socially conservative church bodies in the US:

    The level of societal, cultural, and ecclesial upheaval on moral issues and changes of long-standing church practices at the present time compel us to consider the importance of a united Christian voice on specific issues, wherever that is possible without compromise in other areas of doctrine and life.

    I take this to mean that we’re trying to form a political alliance, a kind of modern Smalcaldic League here. Just that this time, we’re not rallying against the pope and his armies. This time, we — in league with the pope — are trying to fend off those promoting “societal, cultural, and ecclesial upheaval on moral issues and changes of long-standing church practices.”

    Already from Luther one can learn that for such political alliances, no agreement on God’s Word in all its articles is necessary. And as the history of the Smalcaldic League shows, where people try to formulate some agreement as a basis for political cooperation, this always backfires. So, let’s just be honest: A common purpose is all that’s needed.

    And that’s probably why Luther didn’t spend a whole lot of energy on forging political alliances. He stuck to disseminating and defending “the truth of God’s Word, centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” He did so, not by engineering political coalitions (the like of Melanchthon were, on the other hand, all over that task — hmmm…), but by teaching God’s Word as clearly as he could. For, as AC XXVIII reminds us, the power of the bishops is the power of the Word, not that of the sword (or political coalitions).

    Maybe Roman Catholic / Anglican leaders have, due to their different understanding of the ministry, also a different understanding of the church’s societal role and purpose? Maybe that should be clarified before we join them in a “united Christian voice.”

    Of course, that would, per LCMS 1974, require some more substantive discussion, beginning with the doctrine of scripture. Something we don’t want to do right now, apparently.

    I also wonder, why haven’t we contacted the Southern Baptists yet to join us in the united Christian front against social change? They’re pretty conservative too (no women’s ordination, pro “traditional marriage,” anti abortion, etc.). But maybe they’re just not as classy as Anglicans and Catholics?

    In a word, I wonder how these dialogues, clearly not intended to arrive at a joint confession of the gospel in all its articles can still be squared with the last sentence of the document:

    Authentic ecumenical dialogue must always be in the service of the truth of God’s Word, centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church has no higher treasure.

  2. It’s those nifty mitres, fancy crosiers, and splendored episcopal titles that are impressive when speaking out against injustice and for other political causes.

  3. @Holger Sonntag #1

    I appreciated the theological and historical context in response to the document and planned meetings.

    I think the speculation about why some and not others is totally out of line. If you can read minds and hearts, let us know so we can evaluate these judgments. Maybe the answer to the speculation can be found by asking those involved why they are meeting together.

  4. @Rev. Anthony Bertram #3
    Well, Br. Bertram, I don’t think I was speculating or doing anything of the sort of what you make sound like prying into God’s eternal counsels of election. I leave that to Catholic and other theologians of glory.

    I was just asking questions that, I thought, were legitimate, even though I phrased them somewhat satirically (that’s a first for Lutherans, I know: my bad!).

    At any rate, the questions were not answered (or even raised) in the document commissioned and published specifically to answer questions about this new wave of dialogues.

    Now, maybe you’re not wondering about these things and leave them to the arcane majesty and wisdom of our church’s leadership in St. Louis. Good for you. Sorry to disturb your peace of mind by sharing a piece of my mind. 😉

    But then I have to wonder: why are these documents even published here or elsewhere if we’re not allowed to raise questions on this forum, but always have to direct them directly and personally to those who put those documents out — put them out for what? The church’s unanimous approval?

    Roma locuta, causa finita — that sounds like a different church body, one with which we are — or at least in 1974 were — not in agreement on questions of “authority in the church.”

    But maybe we’re beginning to see things in a new way — thanks to these dialogues! (And who said they don’t work? Was that you, Carl Vehse?)

  5. I regret that Dr. Sonntag has chosen to embrace an approach to the posted document that can only but be characterized as putting the worst construction on it.

    I would personally be very curious to know how many personal substantial contacts Dr. Sonntag has had with Southern Baptist leaders and theologians.

    Our Synod has had many and they view us with high regard, in fact. The document certainly embraces all aspects of dialogue with any church body.

    Raising questions is one thing, immediately leaping to the worst case constructions is quite another.

  6. Some conservative Presbyterians are cheering. We can only pray that the conversations between Bucer and Luther can happen again. Even if we cannot completely come to an agreement, I can only hope that iron will sharpen iron.

  7. “The level of societal, cultural, and ecclesial upheaval on moral issues and changes of long-standingchurch practices at the present time compel us to consider the importance of a united Christian voice onspecific issues, wherever that is possible without compromise in other areas of doctrine and life. WhereChristians from varying traditions share a common truth, the strength of their voice is clearer andstronger if they speak together. This invites us to consider theological discussions that would allow us tostudy and address various issues with other Christians, including those with whom we have marked andsubstantial theological disagreements in other areas. It is also very possible that such discussions willfacilitate joint efforts together with other Christians to uphold biblical standards of morality, to respond to crises and catastrophes, and to participate in certain legal actions and activities.”

    This is a really important thing. When we can’t even work together on some issues we are causing dangerous divisions on needless things which have nothing to do with altar and pulpit fellowship.

    My Dad was really concerned about the church missing its focus and being worried about other things. After he died I came across this book that he had highlighted many months ago…
    Pope Benedict wrote this in 1968 in his book Introduction to Christianity: “One thing is clear; the Church is not to be deduced from her organization; the organization is to be understood from the Church. But at the same time it is clear that for the visible Church visible unity is more than “organization”. The concrete unity is more than “organization”. The concrete unity of the common faith testifying to itself in the Word and of the the common table of Jesus Christ is an essential pare of the sign that the Church is to erect in the world. Only if she is “catholic”, that is, visibly one in spite of all her variety, does she correspond to the demand of the Creed. In a world torn apart, she is to be the sign and means of unity; she is to bridge nations, races, and classes and unite them. How often she has failed in this, we know: even in antiquity it was infinitely difficult for here to be simultaneously the Church of the barbarians and the Church of the Romans; in modern times she was unable to prevent strife between the Christian nations; and today she is still not succeeding in so uniting rich and poor that the excess of the former becomes satisfaction of the latter- the ideal of sitting at a common table remains largely unfulfilled. Yet even so one must not forget all the imperatives that have issued from the claim of catholicity; above all, instead of reckoning up the past, we should face the challenge of the present and try in it not only to profess catholicity in the Creed but to make it a reality in the life of our torn world. (346-347)

  8. to dialogue with other Christian denominations is an opportunity
    for the LCMS to give a strong Biblical witness to our doctrinal
    beliefs. Our Christ-centered theology needs to be heard by
    other Christian denominations in a non-threatening way.

    The late great Dr. A. C. Piepkorn earned the LCMS a ton of
    respect in the Roman Catholic-Lutheran Dialogues in the
    1960’s. Perhaps someone will do the same for the LCMS in the
    21st century.

  9. What always baffles me about those who take a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about any kind of dialogue with other Christians, or anyone for that matter [and I’m NOT suggesting this is anyone’s attitude in these comments, so far] is the utter absurdity of the position.

    “We won’t talk to you because we disagree with you and our not talking with you will convince you and show you how much we disagree with you and by not talking with you we think this will lead you to reconsider your position and consider ours. But we won’t talk to you about it.”


  10. @Rev. Paul T. McCain #5
    I just wonder why folks are getting so hung up on one little paragraph in my initial post that didn’t even carry all that much weight.

    Personally, I’m all for discussing doctrine with other Christian church bodies. But the point of that discussion should indeed finally be the restoration of church unity (“altar and pulpit fellowship”) in the truth of God’s Word which, we believe, we already have. In other words, inter-denominational dialogue always aims at conversion to the truth of the gospel which, we believe, is distorted in certain ways in other church bodies’ confessed theology.

    Such talk should never, I believe, just be about getting to know one another. For that, it’s enough to read the loads of books that are available.

    Such was the nature of the important dialogues between Lutherans and Catholics and Lutherans and Reformed in the 16th and 17th century.

    I remember reading in Pieper’s Church Dogmatics, vol. III, that it is a work of love to deliver true believers from the false teachers of heterodox church bodies. That’s a good thing too. But one should not underestimate the power of God’s word to convert even heterodox teachers. Dialoguing with them is certainly never “non-threatening” to them, not in that we replace arguments with fists or extortion schemes, but in that error is always threatened by the truth. But it definitely is a good way of witnessing to them.

    What I see, on the other hand, presented in the document under discussion is mostly an attempt to find some theological rationale for why we can / should work together in social service projects with those with whom we disagree on highly important doctrines (p. 4).

    So, from the outset, we won’t speak about controversial doctrines because the talks are said not to be about entering into altar and pulpit fellowship. We just cover areas where we already agree (p. 5-6).

    Who, I wonder, is really helped by “statements of common conviction” that we draft with some minor Anglican body or even the Roman church? Would pastors or parishioners be helped if they could say to people: look, folks, you really should stop being in favor of homosexuality because the LCMS and the ACNA are agreed that it’s bad?

    (Don’t expect any help on women’s ordination, by the way, as the ACNA is itself divided on this issue: But good they’re still for the authority of the bible.)

    Would it be beneficial if we could open life counseling centers with the Roman church, after we can’t really do that with the ELCA anymore? Would that be somehow “in the service of the truth of God’s Word, centered in the Gospel of Jesus Christ”?

    Seems to me we’re not currently supposed to be talking about the gospel at all.

  11. I’ve had several encounters with very active members of Baptist churches who think there is no difference between the LCMS and the ELCA regarding the major social issues of our day. These people aren’t intentionally keeping their head in the sand.

    I grew up in the midwest, regularly attended church and was very involved. I didn’t hear a clear explanation of Lutheran theology until I was 30 – and it was on a crackly AM radio station for 1 hour a day in the afternoon.

    I personally think the LCMS has done a terrible job getting the Word out and marketing themselves. Just this week I had someone ask why a conservative guy like me would attend a church that approved of openly and unrepentent gay clergy. They were shocked when I told them there was another Lutheran denomination – and they even have a church in our town! Synod leaders having conversations with other church bodies will help set an excellent example for lay people to do the same. This is just a tiny step in the right direction.

    Next thing is to convince the most gung-ho confessionalists who are among the most knowledgeable and best equipped of our group that people in other denominations aren’t our enemies, and we don’t betray anything of Lutheranism by discussing our common ground as well as our differences. I think Pastor Todd Wilken, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt and Dr. John Warwick Montgomery are excellent examples. We need about 10,000 more of them!

  12. This might be a good read in the context of this thread:

    And this, from the 2010 Constitution. This “objective” of Synod has continuously held first priority, since 1847.

    “Article III Objectives
    The Synod, under Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, shall—
    1. Conserve and promote the unity of the true faith (Eph. 4:3–6; 1 Cor.
    1:10), work through its official structure toward fellowship with
    other Christian church bodies, and provide a united defense against
    schism, sectarianism (Rom. 16:17), and heresy;”

    What does our unconditional quia subscription to the Lutheran Confessions mean?

  13. Once again, Pastor Sonntag indulges in worst-construction assumptions when he writes:

    “So, from the outset, we won’t speak about controversial doctrines because the talks are said not to be about entering into altar and pulpit fellowship. We just cover areas where we already agree (p. 5-6).”

    Holger, I encourage you to stop this line of rhetoric. It is simply irresponsible.

    How do you know what is going to be discussed? How do you know that “controversial” topics won’t be discussed?

    I wonder what is your personal experience in interconfessional dialogue? I’ve been involved in them as part of LCMS teams and you better believe the “controversial” subjects get talked about.

  14. @Joe #11
    Indeed. The LCMS has done a horrible job marketing itself. Thankfully, independent, confessional Lutheran blogs and websites that are not officially a part of LCMS, Inc. have become popular alternatives for most people. For example, Worldview Everlasting, Issues Etc., and Pirate Christian Radio are far superior to anything owned and controlled by Synod or District.

    You mention Baptists think that the LCMS and the ELCA are the same. I would add that (most) Roman Catholics also have such misconceptions. Other than Lutherans themselves, who else has ever heard of the word “Synod” and understands the basic differences between the various Lutheran “sects.” Should the burden really be on the non-Lutheran to assume the tedious task to find out?

    The LCMS wants to articulate to other church bodies what it believes. Would that theology be defined by confessional LCMS doctrine, or by Willow Creek doctrine? Perhaps theological dialogue with other church bodies will help the LCMS understand how to proceed with the Koinonia Project.

  15. It is true that many lay people in other denominations know little about Lutherans or the Missouri Synod, just as many Lutheran laity don’t know much about different Baptist organizations or the difference between the Church of God and the Church of Christ denominations. In fact there are many Lutherans who know little about the Lutheran Church and its confessions. Some Sunday do a survey at a Lutheran church and ask lay members to name the symbolical books of the Lutheran Confessions (Even the LCMS constitution didn’t name all the individual books).

    Other than Lutherans themselves, who else has ever heard of the word “Synod”

    Here’s are a few nonLutheran churches who have heard and used the word “Synod” in their respective organizations: Roman, Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopal, Anglican, Baptist (in West Papua), Eastern, Pentacostal, Reformed, Mennonite.

  16. President Harrison gave a Thursday (Oct. 27) evening ANCA-LCMS Dialogue presentation, “Contemporary Challenges and Opportunities before the Church,” that can be seen in three parts on the WMLT blog.

    At 5:15 into Part 2, President Harrison admits, “Our relationship with the ELCA is over… We’ve ended a number of expressed joint work; we just can’t do it anymore with a good conscience.”

    Some applause followed that comment.

  17. Pastor McCain,

    I think I understand what you are saying about how the “controversial” topics Pastor Sonntag alludes to come up. But doesn’t he have a good point about the stated goals of these meetings? Things – including those most precious things to which we hold – “come up” in each and every interaction we have all the time.

    Why can’t things be reversed: i.e. the goal is altar and pulpit fellowship and the social issues will come up in the course of those dialogues.


    “Next thing is to convince the most gung-ho confessionalists who are among the most knowledgeable and best equipped of our group that people in other denominations aren’t our enemies, and we don’t betray anything of Lutheranism by discussing our common ground as well as our differences. I think Pastor Todd Wilken, Dr. Rod Rosenbladt and Dr. John Warwick Montgomery are excellent examples. We need about 10,000 more of them!”

    I like what Pastor Wilken, Rosenbladt and Montgomery do as well. I am so much with them. I also listen daily to Albert Mohler, a man I have grown to love. That said, insofar as he rejects infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper, he is an enemy of the Gospel.

    Those are hard words, and I am not in any way eager to say them. But once in a while, I do believe they need to be said – with imagine this, gentleness and respect.

    And a prayer that the Holy Spirit would convict and teach them, even as I am surely not done learning as well.

    Pastor McCain – again, I would be eager to hear your take on this. I desire nothing but friendly conversation, even if that means being a skunk at the dinner party once in a while (though not a bull in a China shop)

    In Christ!

    Nate Rinne

  18. By the way, I am trying to model what I talk about here in a dialogue with Dave Armstrong:

    I am hoping to start round 2 of our debate in less than a week or so. In order to do it, I am reading Gerhard’s “On the Church” and meeting Dave’s replies with his words.

    Just two laypersons trying to get down to what really matters in an open, vigorous – and yet “gentle and respectful” kind of way.

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