This series of articles was included in successive issues of “Der Lutheraner” in the year 1884, under the title “Welches sind die vornehmsten Kennzeichen eines gesunden und kräftigen Gemeindelebens in der lutherischen Kirche hiesigen Landes?” The author is Wilhelm Sihler, who was instrumental in the founding of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne in 1846 and also a longtime instructor there. He was also elected vice president of the Missouri Synod at its founding in 1847.
I offer these translations not as rigid prescriptions for Missouri Synod congregations in the year 2020, but as a window to a blessed past and useful guidance for those pastors and congregational leaders who want to see their congregations thrive. – R.L.L.
What Are the Primary Indications of a Healthy and Strong Congregational Life in the Lutheran Church of this Land? (Part 1 of 4)
Before grappling with an answer to this question, it would be good and useful to clarify what is the essence of congregational life. We give a short answer this way: such a congregational life consists in this, that the spirit and life of Christ, by power of the Gospel and Sacraments, enlivens the members of the congregation, penetrates and unifies them.
According to its spiritual essence such a congregation is gathered in faith before God and unified with similar congregations before God; but as David says: “I believe, therefore I speak,” so such a congregation will be recognizable from the outside. And this happens through the pure preaching of God’s Word and the proper, divinely-instituted administration of the Sacraments.
Such a congregation then is recognized as an orthodox or Evangelical-Lutheran congregation. We must necessarily hold to this epithet “Lutheran” so long as the Reformed in all its branches holds to its Scripture-contrary errors in the teaching of the Gospel. Otherwise there certainly would be no designation more beautiful than this: The Evangelical Church, namely the one opposite the Roman-papistic un-evangelical church.
According to the above explanation, what congregational life actually is and how it manifests itself in scattered local congregations, we must still answer the question which appears in the heading of this essay: namely, where is such a congregational life possible in this land?
First a negative answer. Namely, there is no actual congregational life possible in this land, where the Word of God is not preached purely, nor where the Sacraments are not administered according to the Gospel. But where such preaching takes place, there it is also impossible, that contrary to God’s promise in Isaiah 55:11, God’s Word would return empty from every hearer. In a greater or lesser part of the hearers God’s Word will certainly do its work in a way which pleases God. He will have success, and therefore he sends it. That is, God’s Word will work repentance through the Law and true faith in Jesus through the Gospel.
So also says the 5th Article of our Augsburg Confession, that the Holy Spirit works faith in hearers through these means of grace, where and when he wills.
Through repentance and faith these converted Lutherans receive in the forgiveness of sins and their acceptance as God’s children also the Spirit of the Son or the Holy Spirit, who generates the spiritual life in them and forms the actual congregational life in their cooperation in the “works of faith and labor of love.”
The more such Lutherans are numbered in a congregation, whether they recognize this or are in faith stronger or weaker, so much stronger will also the be the congregational life. The more hypocrites and false Christians are mingled with them, so much weaker will the congregation be. For these who are Christians by mouth or name-only are the tares among the wheat, the rotten fish in the net, the goats among the sheep. And since they as unbelievers also have no fellowship with the head, and the Spirit does not move them, so they belong to the spiritual body of Christ just as little as phlegm and waste belong to a natural body.
After this short introduction concerning the essence of congregational life within the Lutheran Church of this land, it is now time to grapple with the answer to the above question.
First of all is the most important indication of a healthy and strong congregational life undeniably this – that there be tenacious seriousness and zeal in the congregation for church attendance. This means there is intense desire for the devout and collective hearing of God’s Word and the diligent, salutary use of the Holy Supper. We consider what is said of the mother- and pattern-congregation in Jerusalem from Acts 2:42, “They remained steadfast in the doctrine of the apostles.” In orthodox congregations no other doctrine put forward.
To be sure, diligent church attendance does not mean we are done speaking about this topic. There is more to it. Weak Christians and many hypocrites intent to establish their outward devotion and church attendance to be their righteousness before God.
The main thing is and remains, that the proclaimed Word is understood, that it moves in the heart, and that the Holy Spirit is permitted room to use it thoroughly in the heart and conscience. It is also very salutary to repeat the text again with devotion at home, to think over the words and consider what parallel texts say. Through this practice much is retained from the sermon, and out of this the correct spiritual digestion and acquisition takes place.
Bound up with this concept is the diligent attendance of the Catechism- or Christian-instuction, which is held Sunday afternoons in the city congregations; similar is where here and there the exposition of a book of the Bible takes place on an evening during the week.
Lutheran congregations use the Small Catechism in actual Catechism-sermons and use our Small Catechism for instruction and examination, especially among the new confirmands. If the greater part of the congregation would neglect this, this would certainly be no sign of a healthy and strong congregational life, but a weak and sickly state. It would then appear that those who regularly come on Sunday morning do it mostly out of habit. They give the appearance, as if they make a kind of ceremonial visit for God in their worship attendance, in order to keep God favorable and inclined toward them. It is also very questionable, if they would actually go to church so diligently were it not considered impolite in our land to work on Sunday, or if other places of enjoyment were open.
But diligent attendance of the Catechism-instruction is of the greatest importance for young and old alike. For it can only happen this way, that the congregation can “remain steadfast in the doctrine of the apostles” which keeps our Lutheran Small Catechism in use. Where it enjoys thorough use, not only will the salutary divine truth in the individual articles shine forth, but it will also strongly defend the congregation against the intrusion of error. The vigilant and thoughtful hearer will always be ready “to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.”
But it is impossible that those absent from the Catechism-instruction, who surely spend no more time with the Catechism at home, would be in the position to give an account of the chief parts of the sound Lutheran faith. And it is just as unlikely that he would be able to dismantle the opinions of a well-spoken papist priest or enthusiast, should they falsely present Bible passages to him. For the pertinent proof-passages of the Divine Word will not be at hand. He will in any case forget them, even though he maybe knew them as confirmand.
How different and better it was in the year of the blessed Reformation. There young and old, man and wife, scholar and unschooled, poor and rich, high and low – each was at home in his Small Catechism. And it was so dear to each one of them, that even uneducated wives were thoroughly able to use the Catechism to refute the monks and priests.
(continuation to follow)