The inaugural post of this blog made the lofty claim that the Ecclesia Augustana “isn’t the LCMS. It isn’t the WELS. It isn’t the ELCA, ELS, CLC, ALCA, [or] ELDoNA.” In my opinion, this has significant implications in the realm of church fellowship.
Coming from a WELS perspective, the topic of church fellowship has long been controversial. The WELS Theses on Church Fellowship claim that “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." This may come as a shock to anyone who knows me, but I actually agree with the WELS on this. I don’t think it is our job to try to determine some ambiguous “levels” of fellowship. Nor when the Lord said to treat the errant in our midst as a “heathen and a tax collector" or to “beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves,” do I think that He actually meant “don’t let them preach or take Communion with you, but feel free to pray and do charity work with them whenever you like.”
What’s more, I agree with the WELS Theses when they further say: “in selecting specific individuals or groups for a joint expression of faith, we can do this only on the basis of their confession. It would be presumptuous on our part to attempt to recognize Christians on the basis of the personal faith in their hearts." Indeed, knowing what someone truly believes is an impossible task for anyone but God, “for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart." Moreover, the Lord has told us that “every tree is known by its own fruit,” so we can only judge a person in terms of their actions and confession. If someone does not share our mutual confession, they should be excluded from our mutual fellowship.
But what happens when someone claims to share our mutual confession, but is living and acting in direct contradiction to that confession? Or, even more sadly, what if someone does share our mutual confession, but our man-made church body (vis a vis “[a] spoonful of letters one might fish out of a bowl of alphabet soup”) tells us that they do not?
As someone whose home parish is affiliated with the WELS, I have struggled with both of these questions quite a bit. There are many people in the LCMS, ALCA, et al. who share my confession of faith. It pains me that my man-made church body tells me that I am not in fellowship with these people. At the same time, there are a large number of laymen and pastors in the WELS whose statements, worship, and actions indicate that they do not agree with what they claim is our shared confession. I would rather commune with someone in the former category than those in the latter any day of the week. Is this a violation of church fellowship principles?
I would contend that it is not a violation. Moreover, I would argue that it is a violation of church fellowship principles to commune with someone who does not share our confession of the Augustana and everything that entails, even if they pretend to be in fellowship with us; yes, even if they are a member of our man-made institution.
Without a doubt, this will not be a popular philosophy. We like the comforting notion that the Holy Spirit "has preserved all 400,000 members of the WELS in 100% doctrinal unity," to paraphrase a sermon I once heard. But such notions are really more destructive than they are comforting. God the Holy Spirit has promised no such unity to our man-made institutions; rather, "He calls, gathers, enlightens,
and sanctifies the whole Christian Church on earth, and keeps
it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith; in which Christian
Church He forgives daily and richly all sins to me and all
believers, and at the last day will raise up me and all the
dead, and will give to me and to all believers in Christ everlasting
life. This is most certainly true." This is the unity that the Holy Spirit grants us on earth. And by His grace we have also been granted a unity of confession in the Ecclesia Augustana. If only we would stop shying away from this unity and embrace it - in spite of alphabet soup.
About the author:
My name is Daniel Baker.
I live in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and am a member of a parish affiliated
with the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. I was baptized into the
Papal Church, but have been a member of my home parish for 18 years. I
am currently finishing up a Bachelor of the Arts degree in History at the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. By trade I am a church musician who
loves the Liturgy and hymns of the Lutheran Church. I currently play
the organ for three different WELS parishes in the state of Wisconsin.
My years as a Confessional Lutheran and church musician are few, so I
encourage you to take my writings with a grain of salt and welcome
constructive criticism and correction. Thank you for reading!