Unionism: What Is It?

In the comments section of Friday’s post by Pastor Rossow titled “Per DP’s Advice LCMS Pastor Cancels Participation in Joint Service but Still Supports Unionism,” arguments were made that having a joint worship service with congregations of other fellowships, such as Methodists, or Baptists, or Presbyterians, is not unionism.  Holy Scripture, our Confession, Lutheran theologians, and our own synodical statements disagree with that position.  Here are a few quotations from across the centuries to illustrate the point.

From the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Constitution:

“Article VI Conditions of Membership

“Conditions for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod are the following:
1. Acceptance of the confessional basis of Article II.
2. Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description, such as:
a. Serving congregations of mixed confession, as such, by ministers of the church;
b. Taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or of congregations of mixed confession;
c. Participating in heterodox tract and missionary activities.” [emphasis added]

The official position of the Synod from “Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod”:

“28. On Church-Fellowship. – Since God ordained that His Word only, without the admixture of human doctrine, be taught and believed in the Christian Church, 1 Pet. 4, 11; John 8, 31. 32; 1 Tim. 6, 3. 4, all Christians are required by God to discriminate between orthodox and heterodox church-bodies, Matt. 7,15, to have church-    fellowship only with orthodox church-bodies, and, in case they have strayed into heterodox church-bodies, to leave them, Rom. 16,17. We repudiate unionism, that is, church-fellowship with the adherents of false doctrine, as disobedience to God’s command, as the real cause of the origin and continuance of divisions in the Church, Rom. 16,17; 2 John 9.10, and as involving the constant danger of losing the Word of God entirely, 2 Tim. 2,17 ff.”

From the Christian Cyclopedia on the LCMS website:

“Religious unionism consists in joint worship and work of those not united in doctrine. Its essence is an agreement to disagree. In effect, it denies the doctrine of the clearness of Scripture.” (Quoted from The Concordia Cyclopedia, St. Louis, 1927)

From the 1974 CTCR document “A Lutheran Stance Toward Ecumenism”:

“C. On the Congregational Level

“When congregations become members of the Synod they voluntarily accept certain limitations of their autonomy. For the sake of good order and the benefit of all, congregations consent to regulate the exercise of their rights according to a compact freely entered into and mutually accepted. Congregations, for instance, agree to be served only by such pastors as have been certified for placement by the Synod’s seminary faculties and who are members of the Synod. Similarly, congregations agree that they will practice fellowship only with those congregations which belong to a church body with which the Synod is in fellowship. Once such an agreement has been made, confusion and disorder result when congregations act
independently by practicing selective fellowship. The Synod has, therefore, on several occasions stated its position on selective fellowship. Key sentences from a resolution adopted in 1969 give the Synod’s position:

“WHEREAS, The members of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod have voluntarily united in a fraternal agreement to determine fellowship relations with other church bodies or congregations, not individually but through convention action (Handbook 1.21) . . .
   ” Resolved, That the Synod urge all its members to honor their fraternal agreement with all members of the Synod by refraining from practicing altar and pulpit fellowship with congregations of church bodies with whom the Synod has not yet declared fellowship.

“D. On the Individual Level

“1. In the exercise of their office pastors will follow synodical policy. Except in emergency situations and in such cases where their action cannot rightfully be construed as disregard for pure doctrine, for the responsibilities of their office, or for the concerns of their brethren in the ministry, pastors will ordinarily commune only those individuals who are members of the Synod or of a Lutheran church body with which the Synod is in fellowship. Pastors will not participate in joint worship services with pastors of denominations with which the Synod has not established fellowship relations. When pastors affiliate with ministerial alliances or associations, they will participate in such activities and service opportunities as do
not imply ecclesiastical fellowship where it does not yet exist.”

From the 2001 CTCR document “The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship”:

“The promise not to participate in worship services with those not in church fellowship with the LCMS applies particularly to pastors, who are the official representatives of both their congregations and the LCMS. Their solemn commitment to the scriptural and confessional position of the LCMS must be their guide and will supersede personal feelings or preferences. Trust among LCMS pastors, congregations, and leaders allows everyone to carry out their commitment to fellowship practices to which they have mutually agreed. This trust is undermined when these commitments, as they are set forth in the official documents of the LCMS, are openly violated. Public knowledge of such violations strains relationships and makes reasoned discourse of real issues difficult. This in turn hinders pastors from exercising discretion in unclear situations.”

The following quote is taken from the September 18, 1917 edition of The Lutheran Witness. It points out that the LCMS would have no joint worship services with other Lutheran synods on the Reformation Jubilee, because there was no unity in doctrine. Obviously, this refusal to hold joint worship services with other Lutheran synods would also apply to other non-Lutheran denominations:

“Joint Reformation Celebrations. — Many of our congregations will take part in joint celebrations of the Jubilee. The churches of the Synodical Conference in many centers of population will gather in imposing union services. But there will be no participation of our churches in general Lutheran or Protestant gatherings.
“The reason for this position of our Synod has been stated before, but in view of the approaching celebration demands restatement.
“We hold it to be self-evident truth that, where there is no unity of faith, there ought to be no unity of worship. If the texts of Scripture which forbid unionism (for example, Rom. 16, 17; 1 Tim. 6, 3 ff.) do not apply here, they are devoid of meaning.
“We hold it to be a truth that may be readily verified by investigation that there are real differences in doctrine between the synods composing the Synodical Conference on the one hand and, for instance, the Ohio Synod, the Iowa Synod, the General Synod, the General Council, and the United Synod of the South, on the other. [The predestinarian controversy is mentioned.]
“…There are other differences, as, for instance, on the Sabbath question and other adiaphora (liquor question, etc.). The evolution doctrine is taught in some church-papers. For a full discussion of these differences and others read Prof. Bente’s book: Was steht der Vereinigung der lutherischen Synoden Amerikas im Wege? which contains a sufficient array of facts to convince the Christian reader that there are very real and effectual bars to Lutheran union. But where there is no unity, there can be no joining worship nor joint celebrations of the Jubilee.
“The question is not: What do individual Christians in these bodies believe? but this: What is the public and official stand of these synods in matters of Christian doctrine? We believe that there are true Christians in all these Churches, because the essentials of the Gospel are still preached. Even so there are, no doubt, children of God in the Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, even in the Episcopal and Roman Catholic Churches. But all these Christians are permitting men who have departed in some point from the Gospel of Christ to determine the public and official doctrine of their bodies. These Christians are misled. They follow blind leaders. We may make every allowance for human weakness, and thus, in a measure, condone their fault. We recognize the stress of circumstances. But we cannot do one thing: we cannot enter into relations of fellowship with them so long a they do not obey the word of Jesus and proclaim their undivided adherence to His teachings.
“These words are not written for the purpose of instructing our own people, to whom all these statements are commonplaces, but for the benefit of the outsider. No Missouri Synod Lutheran rejoices in the fact of division. But he recognizes the fact. And by dispassionately exhibiting this fact, we appeal to the conscience of all good Christians who are now separated from us because of affiliation with men who teach falsely, and would have them remove the offense from their midst in order that there may be Lutheran unity throughout the length and breadth of the land.
“There is no other possibility of the removal of division except by speaking plainly to Christians concerning the error which they support by their membership. In the performance of this duty we must not grow negligent, not even in this year of Jubilee.”

Hermann Sasse, “Concerning the Unity of the Lutheran Church,” Letters to Pastors, No. 25, translated by Matthew C. Harrison:

“True ecumeny, which sees the one church of Christ wherever the means of grace are yet preserved—through which the Lord calls to His church—even beyond the boundaries of one’s own ecclesiology, stands opposed to false ecumeny, which treats Christians of all denominations as brothers in faith. This false ecumeny tries to make visible and tangible that which we humans cannot see and touch, the church as the people of God, as the Body of Christ, as the temple of the Holy Spirit. This false ecumeny changes the ‘article of faith’ about the church into an ‘article of sight.’ It understands the unity of the church, which only the Holy Spirit can create and maintain, as something which we humans can produce. And it tries to produce this unity, in that it works to realize the one faith, the one baptism, the one sacrament of the altar as a compromise of various forms of faith, various interpretations of baptism, and various understandings of holy communion. In so far as it does that, this false ecumeny overlooks [the fact] that the various understandings of the means of grace are not only different possibilities of understanding the truth, but rather that soul-murdering errors and church-destroying heresy also hide among them. True ecumeny sees this. Therefore, it is able to recognize the true unity of the church only there, where it recognizes the one correct faith, the one correct baptism, the one communion of the Lord Christ. True ecumeny asks, therefore, not first about unity, but rather about truth. It knows that where the true church is, there, and there alone, is also the one church. In this sense it understands the high priestly prayer of the Lord, too, in which the ‘that they may all be one’ is linked inseparably with ‘sanctify them in Your truth; Your Word is the truth’ (John 17:17, 21).”

Wilhelm Loehe in Three Books About the Church:

“Let the great ‘It is sufficient’ with which the Augsburg Confession insists upon unity in doctrine and sacrament be our war cry, our watchword, our banner.”

Dr. Franz Pieper, from “Unity of Faith”, an essay delivered at the 1888 Convention of the Synodical Conference, translated by E.J. Otto:

“We dare not allow any other concept of unity to arise among us than the unity of faith which is in harmony with Scripture, the agreement in all articles of Christian doctrine.”

Charles Porterfield Krauth, from “The Right Relation to Denominations in America,” in Lutheran Confessional Theology in America:

“When the Lutheran Church acts in the spirit of the current denominationalism it abandons its own spirit. It is a house divided against itself. Some even then will stand firm, and with the choosing of new gods on the part of others there will be war in the gates. No seeming success could compensate our church for the forsaking of principles which gave her her being, for the loss of internal peace, for the destruction of her proper dignity, for the lack of self-respect which would follow it. The Lutheran Church can never have real moral dignity, real self-respect, a real claim on the reverence and loyalty of its children while it allows the fear of the denominations around it, or the desire of their approval, in any respect to shape its principles or control its actions. It is a fatal thing to ask not, What is right? What is consistent? but, What will be thought of us? How will the sectarian and secular papers talk about us? How will our neighbors of the different communions regard this or that course? Better to die than to prolong a miserable life by such compromise of all that gives life its value.”

Johann Gerhard, quoted from Cyberbrethren, trans. by Rev. Dr. Benjamin Mayes:

“Not just any unity of faith and doctrine is a mark of the Church, but only the unity of true faith and doctrine, that is, of prophetic and apostolic doctrine, for that alone is of immovable and perpetual truth. Therefore the unity of faith that is a mark of the Church must be based on one foundation of doctrine: the apostolic doctrine. Accordingly, the Church is said to be ‘built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles’ (Eph. 2:20). It is said about the heavenly Jerusalem that “its wall has twelve foundations and on them the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb”( Rev. 21:14). Accordingly, in Zech. 8:19 ‘truth and peace’ are joined. In fact, truth is set ahead of peace so that we may understand that God approves of only that peace, concord, and unity which enjoys the foundation and bond of truth. John 8:31: ‘If you remain in My Word, you are truly My disciples.’ John 17:21: ‘That they may be one in Us.'”

Johann Michael Reu, from the pamphlet “In the Interest of Lutheran Unity'”:

“We find this attitude of tolerance quite frequently among unionists. It is often used to assuage a troubled conscience, one’s own as well as that of others; for the unionist declares that every one may continue to hold his own private convictions and merely needs to respect and tolerate those of another. This attitude is totally wrong, for it disregards two important factors: (a) in tolerating divergent doctrines one either denies the perspicuity and clarity of the Scriptures, or one grants to error the right to exist alongside of truth, or one evidences indifference over against Biblical truth by surrendering its absolute validity; and (b) in allowing two opposite views concerning one doctrine to exist side by side, one has entered upon an inclined plane which of necessity leads ever further into complete doctrinal indifference, as may plainly be seen from the most calamitous case on record, viz., the Prussian Union.”

Dr. Theodore Graebner, from his essay “The Leprosy of Unionism”:

“No one believes that any Missouri Synod man would dare to propose at this time (1918) official synodical collaboration with the Reformed sects in church-work. That is a late development at which one does not arrive at a jump. On the other hand, the danger is ever present that on the specious plea of advancing the cause of “Lutheranism,” we be tempted to enter into fellowship with members of synods Lutheran in name, but only partly Lutheran in doctrine and practice. There is danger that we get a taste of applause and flattery; that we become eager for “recognition” as a great church-body; that we compromise our doctrinal stand for the purpose of meeting emergencies. And the time to become aware of that danger is NOW.

“It is a bad sign when hearers become angry at their pastor for “preaching against other churches.” It is a worse sign when pastors, bowing to such disapproval, begin to withhold instructions concerning the errors of the sects. It is a most alarming symptom when pastors and parishioners fraternize. . . with those who represent a different conception of Lutheranism. It becomes denial of the Truth when they associate with such for the purpose of “making church-work more effective” or “keeping the Lutheran Church on the map.”

“As we love our church, let us so teach our people so that they will fear the contagion of error as they would fear to breathe the air of a small-pox hospital. Let us exhibit to them the damnableness of false doctrine. Let us preach Luther on this point, who saw only the work of Satan in every deviation from the truth of Scripture. If our people learn to recognize every false doctrine as a snare of the devil, spread to catch victims for hell, they will not need to be held with a rein lest they stampede into unionism. .. .

“Let it be understood that any undertaking or activity which is, in effect, the doing of religious work jointly with those from whom we ought, according to Scripture to separate, is unionism. Here, if ever, the old sayings must apply: “Nip the evil in the bud.” Our first duty is that of watchfulness. There is no higher duty now because there is no greater danger.”

Dr. Martin Luther, quoted in F. Bente’s Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions:

“Whoever really regards his doctrine, faith, and confession as true, right, and certain cannot remain in the same stall with such as teach or adhere to false doctrine.”

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