Sinful Separatism or Proper Rejection of Unionism?

Adorned with freshly laced Brooks Adrenalines, I stepped off the hotel elevator and ran into one of my confessional pastor friends. He obviously wasn’t ambulating towards the convention center for the Friday morning District Convention worship service. I “gently chided” him for his lack of attendance. His response:

I don’t do sectarian worship.

Of course, I don’t do sectarian worship either, which is why I was heading out the door for a beautiful run along Portland’s Willamette River. A block later I spotted another pastor friend walking westbound on Multnomah. Could he be making his way towards the convention center? Yes, he was. He explained, somewhat sheepishly, that his congregation had a youth delegate attending the convention this year. He didn’t want to set a bad example by skipping church. Either the old man or the new man in me, I’m not sure which, couldn’t help but wonder which was the greater sin.

My District seems to have more than its fair share of LCMS people who support women’s ordination, open Communion, evolution, and other non-Scriptural ideas, some of whom are District leaders. This year’s teaching from the convention dais coronated vision and leadership while vocation’s sublime crown of freedom was cast aside. Where the doctrine of vocation and the needs of the neighbor are cleaved, Lutheran theology has left the building, and self-made works fill the void. The question then becomes, “Should I commune with these people or not?” Holy Communion is the ultimate confession of unity, and unity means agreement in doctrine. If I don’t commune, would this decision constitute sinful separatism or proper rejection of unionism? I’d be interested in hearing what you’d do, and why. For the sake of discussion, let’s use the Christian Cyclopedia’s definition of unionism: co-organization, joint worship, and/or cooperation between religious groups of varying creeds and/or spiritual convictions. Please be polite, avoid judging motives, and consider that this decision is a matter of individual conscience.

Image credit: Saint Joseph on flickr; Creative Commons license 2.0.



About Scott Diekmann

Scott is a lifelong LCMS layman. Some of his vocations include husband, dad, jet driver, runner, and collector of more books than he can read. Oh, and also chocolate lover. He’s been involved in apologetics for over a decade, is on the Board of Regents at Concordia Portland, and is a column writer for the sometimes operational Around the Word Journal. He’s also written for Higher Things Magazine, The Lutheran Clarion, and has been a guest on Issues Etc. as well as the KFUO program Concord Matters.


Sinful Separatism or Proper Rejection of Unionism? — 90 Comments

  1. @Pastor Prentice #47
    “You know, pastors have to be careful, when we are leaders of God’s Church and bringing the Word to you the flock, we do get pumped up…got to keep it in check.”

    Read the black. Do the red. One of the reasons for the liturgy is to keep all of us, including pastors, in check. If we as a Synod had continued to read the black and do the red, there would have been no need for this article. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

  2. @Rev. Richard A. Bolland #29

    Pr Bolland,
    I understand you are pondering these question all the time. May God guide you and give you fearless endurance! Two thougts:

    1/ This writer saw the consequences, but didn’t want to follow them:

    2/ To be In Statu Confessionis is only possible in an orthodox church where heresy has popped up and gained some strength. It is possible only up to the point when the church changes its status from orthodox to heterodox.

  3. @Scott Diekmann #52
    Dear Scott,
    Oh I know exactly, I agree; but sometimes, the human nature wants to just pound the lectern, etc. and say, “people, do you get this, listen up”. Because the Word is filling our hearts as much (or more since we are orally proclaiming) it.
    Good order, yes. Good and proper order…

  4. @Pastor Prentice #47

    In this case, I now probably get the idea that it went like this:

    Was there a recording or pdf that I missed, so that we could see what he really said, and where in the service he said it?

    (Sticking to the liturgy is your best idea.) 🙂

    LWML [as I remember] usually elects a serious “Counselor” one convention, and the next, it elects one who is a “Clown”; the two serve overlapping terms. This must be the current “clown”.

  5. @helen #56

    It is on live stream.

    Although I do not remember the exact wording, it was something to the effect that through the Sacrament Christ will change you from disciples with “low expectations” (I remember that specific phrase) to having a different level of expectations.

    O, and the one saying it was not one of the Counselors but a local Pastor.

    As for the printed liturgy, which I gather some here haveI seen (and of which one approves), I, for one, am not exactly thrilled with a formula of absolution referencing Christ’s work in sanctification rather than the Atonement.

  6. From the 2015 Convention Opening Worship video:

    01:35:01 “As we prepare for the right reception of Holy Communion, we respond with ninja strength…” (NOTE: Merriam-Websterninja (adj.): acting in a stealthy or clandestine manner like a ninja.)

    01:39:16: “In this feast God moves us from idle disciples with low expectations into bountiful ascension missionaries of making disciples.”

  7. @helen #56
    Dear, dear Helen,
    May I suggest keep the word “clown” out of the comments. Yes, we pastors do have thick skin, I have probably been called “clown” and I know some very nasty words by some in BJS (I withhold names).

    But can we become a “clown” free, “name-calling” free zone?

    And Helen, this goers for ME TOO! Not just you, but all.

    I remember my father who was self-admitted not well educated but spoke and wrote well, and told me as a young man, “you do not have to swear or reduce yourself to names to get a point across.” And until his death, I never heard a swear, etc. Oh, he could with words reduce a man to a puddle, but with words of a high order.

    And clowns scare us too. Unless it is Bozo, I loved him (and Cookie too).

  8. @Carl Vehse #58
    Thank you.
    I stand corrected.
    Ninja strength was not the purpose of the Preface.
    It is what we all already have – although a few minutes later we are all idle disciples with low expectation to whom the Sacrament is offered for the purpose of changing us.

  9. Mark and Avoid Fellowship is simply an unfortunate by-product of the tolerance of error within our Synod. In my opinion and in my own practice, it is the only way for Confessional people to exist in a heterodox Synod.

  10. @Carl Vehse #58

    (NOTE: Merriam-Webster – ninja (adj.): acting in a stealthy or clandestine manner like a ninja.)

    Thanks. I have thought for some time that word did not mean what some of the people using it want it to mean. (Are they so wrapped up in video games that they can’t get back to the real world?)

    E.g., I don’t care for RevFisk’s “Lutheran ninja clan” references. I have to shut him down early to not spoil an otherwise good commentary. But of course, I am not his target audience. ; (And I don’t miss much.)

    @Pastor Prentice #59

    May I suggest keep the word “clown” out of the comments.

    I didn’t invent that descriptive. I learned it in the ’80’s at LWML.
    I’m not sure (it’s been 30 years!) that the individual referenced then didn’t use it himself. [Those were the days of “clown ministries”….]

  11. Wikipedia: Ninja history

    …It is difficult to pin down the emergence of the first ninja, more properly called shinobi. After all, people around the world have always used spies and assassins.

    Japanese folklore states that the ninja descended from a demon that was half man and half crow. However, it seems more likely that the ninja slowly evolved as an opposing force to their upper-class contemporaries, the samurai, in early feudal Japan….

    … the ninja code valued accomplishing a mission by whatever means necessary. Sneak attacks, poison, seduction and spying were all shameful to the samurai, but fair play by the rules of the ninja….

    “No doctrinal error?”
    Appropriate to the liturgy of the Sacrament? Sounds more like someone wants to be ‘cool’ and hasn’t a historical clue! But all he knows of ninja probably came from a comic book… not the best reference to include in the liturgy either.

    “Clown” seems a benign description!!!
    (And I’m not anywhere near the liturgy.)

    Lord have mercy!

  12. @Matt Mills #54

    Btw Matt, an honest question: Should our little group (in the fellowship totally approx. 40 souls) join something bigger? There is the WELS affiliate (maybe 300 persons), which doesn’t confess the consecration, and there is the Mission Province, MP, (maybe 1000), which on their site as an accepted part has the following quote from their in the MP well reputed nun Marianne Nordström: “to re-fight the battles of the 1500s is quite wasted.” (about the reformation) and about Luther in the same document, that he in other Lutheran denominations than Church of Sweden (!) has become something like an sectarian “antipope”.

    What would you say, Matt?

  13. @Rev Jakob Fjellander #65
    Dear Rev. Jakob,
    Stay LCMS, stay with a Church on paper that confesses a true and proper understanding of Biblical doctrine. Even though there are men and women that stray from the norms we maintain, there are still pastors and leaders fighting the good fight, and include this sinner as well. You have the support of fellow pastors like myself.

  14. Scott,

    I think there’s a practical difference between the way the laity and the pastors approach this question, not least of which because their vows and vocations differ a bit.

    For pastors, who stand as undershepehrds of Christ in the places where Christ has installed them to faithfully administer His Word ans Sacraments, everything they say and do regarding fellowship is important. They are responsible for their own congregation or mission/chaplaincy, but they are also responsible for the message they send to their people by their associations. For a pastor to commune at a service which is unfaithful to his ordination vows, is to become in himself an image of that unfaithfulness, leading all who follow his example to the errors of that erring fellowship.

    For the laity, the duties are different. Primarily, the laity are left to suffer under better or worse pastoral servants, seeking only the consolation that comes from Christ in His Word and Sacraments. In their vocations of father and mother, they must be careful to ensure that the altar and pulpit to which they bring their children (and even themselves) is faithful enough to give forth the gifts which bestow forgiveness, life, and salvation, without leading into mortal sin or unbelief.

    To this end, I think many (myself included) use the Scriptures and the Confessions as a measuring stick to evaluate the altars and pulpits we encounter, rather than any particular denominational shingle hanging on the door. Using that standard, there are those with whom I do not commune within the LCMS, because they have departed our fellowship in doctrine and practice, and I do not wish to mislead Christ’s people into their errors by my example. There are those outside our fellowship who are more in accord with our Confessions in their actual living out of the Christian faith, and if necessity were to arise, they would be safer harbors for the laity than badly erring LCMS congregations. But that is in itself a perilous road, and a different discussion.

    Once the question has been answered about the home congregation, I think the traveler should be wary of any altar or pulpit they encounter, before they know that pastor and that flock is at least striving to be orthodox… and in reality, travel is very rarely an emergency which requires communion in an iffy situation. Abstaining from the Supper in a questionable situation is not sin– it is prudence.

    As for the specific example you observed in the NOW district convention, if you wouldn’t commune at an Enthusiast altar in your own neck of the woods, why would you do so at a convention? The only thing that changes is the peer pressure, not the doctrine. Your morning jog was probably a good choice.

  15. A heart-felt question, not exactly on topic but related to Holy Communion being an expression of unity: Even if their liturgical, confessional credentials are highly regarded, and they read the black and do the red, are LCMS congregations heterodox in their practice when they offer Holy Communion less often than our Confessions say we do?

  16. @Debbie #70
    Dear Debbie,
    No, they are not heterodox for having communion every other week, or (not sure in today’s environment) monthly as in days of old practice.

    We gather to do what in worship? To bow to God and be fed, Word and Sacrament. Some Churches like St. John Wheaton, offer the Eucharist daily (OK, not on Monday), some every other week.

    Now at Faith, we worked together and they demanded Communion weekly because we all know what it means, one of the best weapons we have in our walk with God.

    Yet other Churches are not their yet, or feel Communion needs more oversight, what a Pastor is to do as the one who presides over the Holy Meal for his congregation.

    I do believe there is a Biblical imperative to dine weekly (as often as you gather); yet we refrain from making it DOGMA.

  17. Scott,
    This is a very interesting question. For my part, I was taught, to be mindful what rail I kneel at, who I’m kneeling with, and who I am allowing to administer the Sacrament, to me.
    Yes, I have & do abstain, at times. I ask questions privately. Then with prayer, I act accordingly. I believe, someone used the word, prudent.
    Perfect term.

  18. @Brad #67

    Thanks for your response Brad. My comment in the post about which is the greater sin was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Attending a district worship service, whether you’re a pastor or a layman, is an adiaphoron. You can do either within the bounds of Christian freedom, although violating your conscience to do one or the other would be neither right nor safe. Being a pilot, I’m away from home on Sunday’s quite frequently. There have been times when there was an LCMS church nearby, yet I opted not to attend, having previously checked out the congregation. Open Communion and praise songs about me are things I choose to avoid. Confessing is about more than what document you point to as a means of identification, it’s about what it is we believe, teach, and confess. Our actions often speak more about what we confess than does the document to which we allegedly subscribe.

  19. I used to travel a lot in my job. I always felt it was better to attend a Christian church (e.g. Baptist) to hear the Gospel than to sit in the hotel on Sundays. Do confessional Lutherans think it’s better to sit in your room (and avoid the Gideon Bible) if there’s no liturgical LCMS church nearby? 🙂

  20. @John Rixe #74
    There’s no confessional consensus on the circumstances you describe that I know of John. It’s an individual decision. There are tons of opportunity to hear the Gospel on the internet, although you are only going to receive the Lord’s body and blood by attending.

  21. That’s a smart move. Why should we put ourselves in the vulnerable position of knowingly communing at the altar with folks who–like Trojan horses–wish to infect our God-given fellowship under the guise of the least common denominator. @Harry Edmon #5

  22. @John Rixe #74

    Do confessional Lutherans think it’s better to sit in your room (and avoid the Gideon Bible) if there’s no liturgical LCMS church nearby?

    To mention the obvious: several sermons are posted on BJS every week, some in advance, some right after they’ve been given.

    If you can access the internet there are confessional LCMS churches which stream a video of their service in real time.

    By Monday or Tuesday evening you can usually hear the audio of sermons from Lutheran churches or read the text on their web sites. [Some take longer to get it out/some take so long I don’t bother looking for them. I like this week’s lesson this week at least.]

    The Bible can be accessed at Biblegateway in 25 versions; you don’t have to carry it or rely on Gideon. It’s also possible to download the whole Bible from CPH to a smartphone; quite a few use them in Bible class.

    You won’t get the sacrament at a Baptist church either; see your Pastor when you get home.

  23. That’s true, Helen. For those that travel extensively it seems kind of sad to sit in a room with a smart phone on Sundays, but it is an option. I loved singing with the Baptists. 😉

  24. @Rev Jakob Fjellander #65
    Dear Pastor,
    I don’t know enough about your situation to give an informed answer to your specific questions on fellowship on Sweden. In general though, we are called to be the body of Christ rather than either the severed finger of Christ, or the body of the Weltgeist. I fear we’ve focused on avoiding the later to the point that we occasionally glory in being the former, and I regret that. There are ditches on both sides of the road. If the body of Christ where you live is forty souls, rejoice in those 40, while you work towards true doctrinal unity w/ the rest.

    @John Rixe #74

    Scott is right to say that this is legitimately an individual decision. When I find myself in places w/o Confessional Lutheran congregations I do both. I continue my private devotions, and I often visit a congregation that I am not in altar and pulpit fellowship with. Based on AC XXI 10ff, and many similar statements in our confessions though, I generally visit RC churches rather than Protestant ones. I find that the liturgy and lectionary professes our theology, much better than the worship de jour of the sects.

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  25. @Scott Diekmann #73

    Roger that– a job with a transient lifestyle makes for tough choices. I had similar stuggles on active duty.

    While I am a devote of sound systematic theology, and something of a stickler for well articulated confession of the same, I have been learning over the last decade the deeper truth of Christ’s admonition about trees and their corresponding fruit. What a congregation or synod confesses with ther lips or on paper is important– but it is ultimately meaningless if in practice they deny that confession so that it does not shape or inform the life of those people. It is here that St. James drives home Jesus’ point, that if we think we will show off our faith without corresponding works, the Apostles and their legitimate decendents will exhibit their faith by their works. Our own Confessions notethat there is no saving faith apart from repentance and good works– fruits which flow from Christ the Vine by faith. The same principle is true with our Confessions… the fruit will show forth the reality of the tree, regardless of the label it has put on itself.

    God is not deceived by our sophistry and name games, and neither should His people be.

  26. @Matthew Mills #82

    “Based on AC XXI 10ff, and many similar statements in our confessions though, I generally visit RC churches rather than Protestant ones. I find that the liturgy and lectionary professes our theology, much better than the worship de jour of the sects.”

    A point long lost on our very Protestant influenced contemporaries… and exhibited by their willingness to join forces with Willow Creek or Saddleback. There is nothing authentically Lutheran which prefers sectarianism over catholicity.

  27. @John Rixe #79

    …Also isn’t it important to go to church for mutual encouragement?

    “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.”  – 1 Thessalonians 5

  28. @Brad #85

    Perhaps they are confused by the lines in the BOC 1580 that read:
    “This is about the Sum of our Doctrine, in which, as can be seen, there is nothing that varies from the Scriptures, or from the Schwarmeri, or Iconoclasts as known from their writers.”
    Or perhaps:
    “Falsely are our churches accused of abolishing the Mass; for the Mass is retained among us, and celebrated with the highest reverence, though we are absolutely jiggy w/ all the weirdoes that HAVE abolished the mass.”

    Whoops, my bad, I guess there’s nothing in the BOC 1580 expressing our desire to be “one” w/ the sects.

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills

  29. Dear BJS,
    This is what I said to my people, perhaps many of you may tear it apart, but what I said is what I said as a public official of the Lord:

    A Note from Pastor Prentice
    Oh my, what a week it was, and yes I refer to the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage. I do think many of you want to say, “Give it a rest pastor”. Maybe some struggle with it, I have fielded many questions. It seems I have a target on me that cries, “dig in and get me going.” Not you all, but at work, around the town; I guess they know I am a reverend.

    Here is my first answer…I don’t have every answer in all theological problems. That is why we keep studying, me included. Now you wonder why I am back at Wheaton College, to better understand what God has to say.

    Perhaps we simply don’t like what God has to say on issues like this. Now some ignore God completely, some say God changed His mind, some say God did not mean it for today. We can and should wrestle with God’s Word, but we do believe His Word is timeless (a discussion for another day on inerrancy and infallibility).

    Perhaps some on Sunday in my sermon said, “Here we go, more Law”. But perhaps lost was the comments at the end, God is patient and loving. He does not want to destroy any sinner. His love is their through His Son Jesus.

    Yes, some may ask, “are we welcoming of gay people”. My answer, we are welcoming of all people and what comes with them, all of their sins. I print that on every bulletin cover.

    Yes, but some may say, “That is not sinful behavior”. At this, I can only say, “I want to agree with you, it might make things easier, but that is not what God says.” But I will include, “hang tough, we can wrestle with God’s Word and come up with more and more understanding.” No one said being a Christian is easy. Jesus never thought it was easy either; He spoke of sin and was killed for it (for all us sinners). Yet Jesus never doubted or refuted Scripture.

    We will struggle with this and many other issues, but let us not lose heart, let us wrestle and learn from it.

    Perhaps many of us are like a child whose Mother or Father said something we do not like. We stamp our feet and complain, but as we grow and eventually understand, we then say, “Yes, they were correct.” Oh it does take time.

    Be thankful, we live and breathe another day; God has granted us time to work things out. I sure am!

    Ps) We never know when the last day is coming, so let’s keep active in our working things out…and attending Church is good for that (just saying).

    Pastor Prentice

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