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 2 of 4)
The second indication of a strong and healthy congregational life is this, that many come to the Table of the Lord. So it was said about the congregation at Jerusalem, that they had been steadfast in the “breaking of the bread.” To be sure, there was an Ananias in their midst, along with his wife, Sapphira. And it is probable that they were not the only hypocrites who partook of the Sacrament. But this is written for us as a comfort; for it is impossible, that in every orthodox, visible, local congregation that there aren’t hypocrites and false Christians. They too come to the Sacrament even though they are unbelievers inside. They come to their shame and are guilty concerning the body and blood of our Lord.
A congregation can go for decades having the pure Word and Sacrament, as well as faithful soul-care of the individual members. Perhaps in the course of years the number of members can grow from both within and without, and the congregation can become quite prosperous. Nevertheless, evil does not stay away forever. The number of Christians by mouth- and name-only grows also, and by greater measure when a congregation enjoys prosperity. This is the case when worldliness quietly and gradually penetrates in.
This is a great danger in our time, since the children of this world are so gripped by the lust of the eyes and the flesh. The deep and steady flow of monstrous lucre, as well as the insatiable and coarse desire of pleasure, wash them into a sea of eternal corruption.
At the same time, the rich enjoyment of the Lord’s Supper is and remains in such a congregation always a cheerful sign of its spiritual well-being; for outside the hypocritical Christians, who through their unbelief have no fellowship of faith and spirit with the true Christians, there is still on the basis of Isaiah 55:11 also real and living members of the spiritual body of Christ. But among these you do find differences. For there is in every congregation a greater or lesser number of such members who are richer in recognition and inner experience. They are stronger in faith, and while they work out their earthly calling, they hold their heavenly calling firm in their eyes. With great seriousness they seek after sanctification and are mindful of their eternal salvation. So much so, they forsake temporal goods that they lose not the eternal. These people prove themselves as mature, stronger Christians. They exercise their faith in the servile, self-denying, brotherly, and general love. They do so with counsel, comfort, deed, and also with great patience, often enduring long and painful cross and struggle. Such members of Christ, who are moved so strongly by their head with his Spirit, are to be sure also in bigger, orthodox congregations always a small band of people.
The greater part of a congregation usually consists of Christians who are weaker in recognition, faith, and way of life. Quite often the hypocrites actually look more impressive than these. The hypocrites perhaps have a better outer recognition of Law and Gospel than many less learned, but true, Christians. The hypocrites might actually have God’s Word more often in their mouths and appear more zealous to reach the unchurched. Hypocrites perhaps give more to the maintenance of the church and school than the weak Christians, even while living with the same means.
Nevertheless there is a great difference in God’s eyes between the two; for the hypocrites inwardly hate God from the heart and his punishing Law. When the Law is used according to its spiritual understanding, it lays bare its challenges, threats, curses, and death and condemnation against sinners. Therefore hypocrites also hate the preaching of the Gospel, which puts to shame their self-righteousness and works-righteousness; for “if righteousness came from works of the law, Christ has died in vain.” At the same time, as said above, hypocrites can have a better outer understanding of Law and Gospel than many less learned but true Christians.
But weak Christians hold no ill will in their hearts against the preaching Law and Gospel. They gladly learn Moses and Christ from God’s Word ever better and more thoroughly. They see themselves as poor sinners. They take simple, child-like comfort of the Gospel into their hearts, and they grow stronger in faith.
It was especially with these in mind that our dear Lord Jesus Christ instituted the Holy Sacrament of his body and blood. It was as if he spoke at their reception of the Supper: “So certainly you receive and enjoy in the blessed bread my body and in the blessed wine my blood, so certainly I have given my body for you and poured out my blood for you for the forgiveness of your sins.”
What a miracle it is, when these weaker Christians come diligently to the Sacrament together with the stronger; for rarely do they consider themselves strong Christians. Much more each considers himself the chief of sinners, as the converted St. Paul said of himself. In the same way every man takes the Lord’s word to St. Paul to heart: “My power is mighty in weaknesses.”
The next inner difference between the stronger and weaker brothers consists in this, that the stronger have a deeper and more thorough recognition of their sin and repentance to God. Therefore through true faith in Christ they also grasp the grace of the forgiveness of sins from the Gospel all the more. Therefore their love in return towards God also burns all the more, who first loved them in Christ. And for Christ’s sake, so also a richer love of neighbor burns in their hearts, be it brotherly or general love. It never and nowhere seeks for itself.
Concerning all this we know it pleases God in large part, to visit his stronger spiritual children with more difficult cross and trial. He allows the devil to work on them, even shooting his fiery arrows of spiritual temptations into their hearts. At the same time God spares his weaker children. So God’s children always have great cause to seek out the comfort of the Sacrament most diligently.
(continuation to follow)