So who wants to talk church fellowship? (Sure, leave it to the WELS pastor to open up this can o’ worms.)
This will all seem terribly simplistic, I realize. And it is. But we might as well start somewhere.
Back around 1960, the LCMS had been dialoguing quite a bit already with the ALC. Some of those dialogues involved certain activities that had previously been considered (by WELS, ELS and LCMS) to be fellowship-related activities, especially joint prayers between LCMS groups and ALC groups.
The WELS protested, over the course of several years.
The LCMS replied, “Walther did it, so it must be OK.”
The WELS replied, “Walther’s fellowship discussions took place in a different context, when it was still being determined who believed and taught what. The ALC has by now clearly rejected Synodical Conference doctrine and has not changed its position. The LCMS should not join in prayer with them at these official meetings unless the ALC gives evidence that it no longer holds its false positions.”
The LCMS responded, “Walther did it, so it must be OK.”
The LCMS came up with a justification for this practice and coined the phrase “levels of fellowship” (cue evil music and sinister laughter). Church fellowship became essentially about altar and pulpit fellowship, acknowledging that “level” as requiring full doctrinal agreement between churches, but acknowledging other “levels” as not requiring full doctrinal agreement.
The WELS responded by coining a phrase of its own: “the unit concept” (cue evil music and sinister laughter). They viewed the LCMS “levels” as arbitrary distinctions that were created out of thin air to justify doing whatever they wanted to do with the ALC.
Here’s a portion of the WELS Theses on Church Fellowship defining the “unit concept.”
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…
…6. 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).
There have been many caricatures over the years of the unit concept, and to be honest, WELS members, pastors and seminary professors have been just as responsible as non-WELS members for creating and fostering these caricatures. Allow me to illustrate my understanding of the unit concept with a little First Century semi-historical fiction:
So imagine that the Apostle Peter is busy preaching to the saints in Jerusalem. He’s also organizing deacons to help with the works of charity among the Christian widows in Jerusalem. A man named Hymenaeus (cf. 1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:17) comes to Peter as a Christian, but a Christian who is teaching some strange things, namely, that the resurrection has already taken place. He has already been marked by the Apostle Paul as a false teacher and has begun to gather a following with his new teaching. The following discourse takes place:
Hymenaeus: “Hello, Peter.”
Peter: “Hello, Hymenaeus.”
Hymenaeus: “Peter, I know we don’t agree on every doctrine, but we both believe that Jesus is the Christ. Would it be all right if I give the sermon to the believers this Sunday?”
Peter: “No. You are a false teacher. How could I allow you to teach the believers? That wouldn’t serve the Truth.”
Hymenaeus: “Hmm. Well, all right. But you’ll allow me to commune at your altar, won’t you?”
Peter: “No. For we are one bread and one body, and you are trying to introduce dangerous leaven into the body, harming the body. Stop teaching your false doctrine. Repent, and then I will admit you to the altar.”
Hymenaeus: “Yeah, not gonna happen. I believe what I believe, and you should not judge me for it. But anyway, how about you at least let me lead a prayer at your Sunday gathering? Is that too much to ask?”
Peter: “Yes, it is too much to ask, Hymenaeus. You insist on teaching false doctrine which comes not from the Spirit of God, but from demons. It would not serve the Truth for me to allow you to lead us in prayer.”
Hymenaeus: “OK, then, would you come over to the flock I have gathered in Ephesus and lead us in prayer? I always tell them how much I respect you, even though I disagree with you about the timing of the resurrection. It would mean a lot if you could come and lead a prayer for us, maybe read a Scripture lesson or two.”
Peter: “No, I will not. That would give them the impression that the Truth can be broken up into bits that we can keep or discard as we see fit. I will not go and acknowledge you as a teacher of the Truth, nor will I go and give them the impression that Truth and error stand on equal footing, or that God is pleased that they continue to follow you instead of me.”
Hymenaeus: “Wow, Peter. I think you’re being very judgmental and an isolationist. You have to recognize other Christians out there who may not teach exactly the same way you do about the resurrection, but they love Jesus, too.”
Peter: “No. You have to recognize that Jesus gave me His Word of Truth and commissioned me to speak it. I am His apostle, together with all the other called Apostles of the Lord. You may not disagree with us and still pretend to follow Christ.”
Hymenaeus: “Fine, fine. Be that way. I won’t preach for you, and you won’t preach for me. I won’t commune with you and you won’t commune with me. But I have some friends who share my belief about the resurrection. They’re going to make a trip to Rome in order to teach the people there about Jesus. Would you consider taking up an offering for them to help them on their way?”
Peter: “No. You have broken up the Truth into bits and pieces and introduced your lies into the mix. What your friends would preach is no longer the Truth I preach. We cannot support your mission effort.”
Hymenaeus: “Why do you hate Jesus so much, Peter? Can’t you see that evangelism takes precedence over your doctrinal nitpicking? Here. As a show of good faith, I would like to make a donation to your mission efforts. We may not agree on everything, but I’m OK with that.”
Peter: “I will not take your money, because the Truth does not need the support of error. Are you trying to make up for your lies with money? Did you ever hear the story about Simon the Sorcerer? How about Ananias and Sapphira?”
Hymenaeus: “Let’s move on, shall we? No joint preaching. No joint communion. No joint prayer. No joint mission work. But I just know you’ll agree to this. There are lots of poor people in Jerusalem, and there are plenty of poor people in Ephesus. Surely the poor matter more to Jesus than any minor differences there might be between you and me. So one week, I’ll come here with an offering from my church, and you and I can walk the streets of Jerusalem arm in arm together handing out money to the poor. Then the next week, you come to Ephesus and we’ll do the same thing there. At other times, my deacons can work with your deacons, and my members can work with your members. It’ll be awesome.”
Peter: “No. I am an apostle who teaches the Truth of Christ. You teach lies, and your lies are dangerous. You are wrong to minimize the significance of your lies. I will not walk the streets with you and so teach the world that the First Table of the Law can be trampled upon in favor of the Second. If you want to help the poor, then repent of your lies. Teach the Truth. Stop opposing the apostles of the Truth. Stop drawing our sheep away from us to gather around you and your lies. Submit to the apostolic Truth, in faith. Then your service to the poor will be pleasing in the sight of God, who is able to multiply the loaves for the poor without any help from you.”
Hymenaeus: “I’m appalled at your intolerance, Peter. I will make sure the world knows how arrogant you are. I think I’ll go back to Paul and see what he has to say about it.”
Peter: “Good luck with that.”
Now, here’s where it really gets sticky. The WELS did not view itself as Peter and the LCMS as Hymenaeus. The WELS viewed itself as Paul, the LCMS as Peter, and the ALC as Hymenaeus. The WELS expected the LCMS to treat the ALC as Peter treated Hymenaeus in the story above. But instead, “Peter” was much more willing to work together with “Hymenaeus” in the 1950’s and 60’s (and eventually welcomed Hymenaeus into full apostolic fellowship with him – until Hymenaeus started ordaining Priscilla). So Paul eventually broke fellowship with Peter, and that was that.
So where does that leave us? It leaves us with a great big mess, because neither “levels of fellowship” nor “unit concept” are adequate for the Church. Let’s consider where each has ended up after 50+ years of implementation.
“Levels of fellowship” has been followed to its logical conclusion (or perhaps simply abused), so that you have rampant ecumenism:
- joint participation in wedding ceremonies and “civic ceremonies,”
- open communion,
- Lodge membership acceptable,
- Yankee Stadium,
- a Christmas Day community worship service at the local Presbyterian church in which an LCMS congregation eagerly participates,
- A Change or Die Conference with LCMS, WELS and ELCA participants helping each other to change the Church together in order to promote the “gospel” in the inner city,
- LCMS in full fellowship with church bodies in full fellowship with the ELCA (Lutheran World Federation),
- Lutheran World Relief.
“Unit Concept” has been followed to its logical conclusion (or perhaps simply abused), so that you have a strange sort of synodicalist sectarianism (as it has been called), or narcissistic isolationism.
- “Sorry, Aunt Millie. You may be dying, and I’m sure I’ll see you in heaven, but you still hold membership in an LCMS congregation, so no, I can’t pray with you.”
- No dialogue – positive or negative – with anyone else in the world,
- A “bravado of orthodoxy” that leads to an attitude of “WELS = Good, non-WELS = Bad,”
- A Change or Die Conference with LCMS, WELS and ELCA participants helping each other to change the Church together in order to promote the “gospel” in the inner city, (“Hey, we’re not praying together, so it’s fine if we work together for Gospel ministry in other ways.”)
- A WELS pastor applying for and receiving RSO status in the Missouri Synod, so that now both synods are promoting his admittedly non-Lutheran televangelism jointly. (OK, that’s just completely inconsistent with the unit concept. And yet it’s tolerated. Maybe we don’t really hold to the unit concept as a synod at all!)
In the end, it all leads down the path toward legalism—on both sides of the fence. Arbitrary, man-made rules, that are followed superficially and enforced arbitrarily, all the while missing the point.
We’re supposed to be working together, under Christ, for the Truth. Anything that compromises the Truth should be avoided. Anything that fosters the Truth should be promoted. There. Isn’t that simple? Or maybe just simplistic. It’s worth discussing, at least.