A Discussion of Fellowship
Montana District Pastoral Conference
Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod
October 8–10, 2002
Stephen C. Krueger
Thank you for the honor of your invitation to address your pastoral conference on the matter of church fellowship. I look forward to our dialogue within the boundaries of the Sacred Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.
A friend and colleague of mine, after slogging through the volumes of material on the matter of church fellowship recently said this to me. “Finally, in the end, I’ve come to the conclusion as my ecumenical principle, that any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine.”
Without trying to sound flippant or trite, I’d like to put that observation into play and ask, “Can Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod Christians conclude and then act on that conclusion, ‘Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine?’”
It’s a disarming and interesting question and I ask, “Could our discussion of church fellowship really be that simple … that I am, in fact, confessionally bidden to say, ‘Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine?’”
It gets more interesting as you read the New Testament and notice that the Lord Jesus does a great deal of fellowshipping. Perhaps one of the most recurring questions from the Gospels is the one put to Jesus’ disciples, “Why does your teacher eat [that is, table-fellowship] with tax collectors and sinners?” [e.g., Matthew 9:11]. The plot thickens all the more when the answer to that question comes rolling in. To redeem the poor likes of us is the reason why Jesus practices the fellowship principles He does, a point which does not escape the notice of St. Paul or any of the apostolic Scriptures, for that matter. You can quote the passages as nimbly as could I, such as:
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children [NRSV, Galatians 4:4–5].
Then, more seriously still, does the plot thicken even deeper when, say, a Martin Luther gets overcome by a verse like that and concludes, as he does, that Jesus’ fellowshipping with sinners got so extreme that Our Lord literally traded places with us in that “Happy Exchange” [der froehliche Wechsel] of the gospel: that my fame and fate [“sinner/death”] became His and His fame and fate [“eternal child of the Father/everlasting life”] became mine.
Talk about a fellowship relationship!
It is not without substantial Biblical warrant to notice, first off, that fellowship with some of the most questionable characters around was a weakness of Jesus’. After all, if the Lord could hang out with the likes of you and me, to say nothing of Peter the denier or Paul the persecutor or tax collector Matthew or any of the other characters in that rogue’s gallery that we call the saints of the Bible, sinners all, the whole matter of with whom we hang out should be a no-brainer. I don’t see how the soteriology of the Bible puts us in any other position than to say, whether we like it or not, “any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine.” Come to think of it, why shouldn’t friends of Jesus, having done what He did for the poor likes of me, be friends of mine, worth keeping company with?
Well, we have a tradition in the LCMS which would say, and has, otherwise. “You must take great care,” it has said, “to have the right friends of Jesus as your friends.” This tradition has claimed confessional warrant which, I doubt, from my own engagement with the Scriptures and the Confessions, even exists. Nevertheless, this tradition has managed to separate friends of Jesus, so much so that in the last 30 years, the LCMS enjoys fellowship in any meaningful way [around the Meal and the Word] with no one else in the United States. How is this justified?
The seminal article in the Augsburg Confession, Article VII, the one on the church, the one which has been “in play” as Lutherans have been involved in ecumenical dialogues for the past three decades [our synod running hot and cold on participating], speaks to the issue of fellowship and unity with other Christians and seems to come out saying just the opposite. Listen:
Likewise they teach that one holy church will remain forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the gospel is purely taught and the sacraments are administered rightly. And it is enough [satis est] for the true unity of the church to agree [consentire] concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says … [Kolb and Wengert, p. 43].
Those are words which sound pretty sympathetic with advancing our case for saying, “Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine.” Agreement or consensus in the gospel purely taught and sacramentally administered rightly [which, I submit, means evangelically] is the sufficient grounds for the unity of the church. Given what the Augsburg Confessors were up against, the unwillingness of the wicked bishops to ordain priests for Reformation churches and the view that unless you had a validly, episcopally and sacramentally ordained priest to confect the grace of God, you couldn’t be the church, that is quite a feisty counter-confession, actually. ‘No,’ says Melanchthon [my paraphrase of the confessors’ position], ‘thank you very much but we will be the church, too, that is, the assembly of saints [congregatio sanctorum] where the gospel is happening through being historically enacted in its proclamation and sacramental administration [and that, parenthetically, by presiders who are authorized to do so by the church itself, which, in turn, is authorized to do so by the very gospel they are administering]. God will get God’s Word proclaimed, as Luther says, even if God has to raise up women to do it, as Luther forcefully puts it to the Senate of Prague on how all Christians are properly “priests” [and thus the church of Bohemia need not worry about episcopally sanctioned ordination]:
To baptize is incomparably greater than to consecrate bread and wine, for it is the greatest office of the church—the proclamation of the Word of God. So when women baptize, they exercise the function of the priesthood legitimately, and do it not as a private act, but as a part of the public ministry of the church … [LW 40, p. 23].
David Truemper of Valparaiso University convincingly argues, in my opinion, as he looks carefully at AC VII, including that article’s predecessor articles [the twelfth of the Schwabach articles and the earlier draft of AC VII sent to Nuremberg], that AC VII in its adopted version “stresses, not the purity or correctness of a church’s doctrinal formulations [about the gospel], but the genuineness of the gospel and sacraments in its midst.” Dr. Truemper then amplifies his conclusion:
This is neither a reductionist principle, requiring only some minimal consent that the gospel has to do with Jesus, nor is it a maximalist principle, requiring complete and prior agreement in theological formulations as preconditions for church fellowship, nor is it even a spiritualizing principle, pointing to an invisible and spiritual unity as a sort of given for the real [i.e. invisible] church. It is a simple and straightforward assertion that that which makes the church church is also that which makes the church one church. Gospel and sacraments as actually preached and done require all that is essential for the church’s being and for the church’s oneness.
That here the confessors were asserting both their oneness with the church catholic and their legitimacy to be that very church, both claims authorized by the sole-sufficiency of the gospel, is underscored in AC VII by the Ephesians 4 text which Melanchthon cites to support the twin claim: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism” [vv. 4-5]. The historical existence of the Body of Christ and its unity are assumed as seamlessly inherent in the call to one hope, associated with one Lord, associated with one faith, associated with one baptism.
Truemper, further, notes that the qualifying words “purely” and “rightly” used in AC VII are tautologies, redundant with “the gospel” and with the administration of the sacraments as visible gospel. To preach [German version] the gospel “in its purity” and to teach pure gospel [Latin version] and to administer it rightly is to do no other than to keep the goodness of the Good News good because impure gospel is no gospel at all. In a similar way Robert Jenson links pure and right gospel to its unconditionally promising character [that sinners are saved without human merit], recognizing that impure gospel is really no gospel at all, as conditional limits are set on the promising Word, throwing sinners on their own merits instead of on Christ’s alone.
Thus, it has been my conclusion that AC VII, rather than serve as grounds for the church’s disunity, confesses precisely the opposite as our faith and offers no impediment at all to making the claim, “Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine.”
Where we certainly may differ, and most assuredly have among us, is knowing what to do with AC VII, since we are all obligated to confess the article in our life together. Some, such as myself, would argue that AC VII virtually necessitates seeking out Christian unity as God’s gift in the gospel to the church and genuinely affirming that unity wherever we can, including through responsible fellowship practices and through dialogue partnerships. Others, of course, would not concur with this conclusion but then must face the question, “How are we to say no to others in the fullness of the Body of Christ to whom Jesus has said yes?”
I do not want or mean to caricature positions which I do not represent [too much of that has gone on already in our current fellowship debate]. Yet, as Melanchthon tracks out Lutheran ecclesiology further in the Apology VII & VIII, he speaks to the concern which Eck raises in the “Confutation,” that AC VII and AC VIII are really dreaming about a church which may exist “invisibly” somewhere, as some Platonic Republic or Ideal but not truly in history. Melanchthon, of course, deflects the criticism and distinguishes not between a “visible” and “invisible” church but between a church “hidden under the cross” in history and a church “revealed” [Ap. VII & VIII, 17-18]. Its “marks” [notae], of course, are the ones pointed to in AC VII, “the pure teaching of the gospel and the sacraments” [Ap. VII & VIII, 20]. Not to teach “the pure teaching” [notice the singular, doctrina] is to do what the opponents do, “teach that men merit the forgiveness of sins by their love for God before entering a state of grace” [Ap. VII & VIII, 21]. This “remove[s] Christ as the foundation” [Ap. VII & VIII, 21].
The argument of the Apology precludes taking refuge in a notion of unity which exists somewhere beyond history, invisibly, but not one which can be historically realized. No. The real church exists in history, and united at that, wherever its “marks” show up in history and believing sinners are getting their sins forgiven and offered new life in the gospel [AC IV]. I respectfully suggest that to continue to play with the notion, ‘Well, there is a real and united church someplace out there, but it exists invisibly and we will never know it in history so why try to express it in our various practices?’ is a position which Melanchthon confessionally is, in fact, categorically rejecting [and seriously calls into question, I might add, the confessional integrity or adequacy of The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship adopted most recently by synod in convention].
There is another section of the later confessional writings to which I would like briefly to turn. Professor Truemper deals with it extensively. It is the discussion of the Adiaphoristic controversy in the tenth article of the Formula of Concord. Truemper summarizes his argument as follows:
In FC X, 31 my focus is on the statement, “Churches will not condemn each other if they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and in all its articles.” I demonstrate that this translation of the original German text cannot mean what it is taken to mean in the published writings of recent LCMS theologians, namely, that it requires complete and prior agreement in all theological/doctrinal formulations as a condition for church fellowship. On the basis of the time and in the historical setting, I demonstrate that the phrase in question is best understood as saying, “Churches will not condemn each other so long as they are agreed in the gospel, at whatever points it is articulated.” That is to say, churches will not break their unity [much less maintain their brokenness] over ceremonies, over canon law or over theological formulae when they are otherwise united in the gospel they in fact proclaim and celebrate.
Truemper argues his case, again in my opinion, convincingly. His major thesis is that the doctrine of the gospel is the doctrine, which gets articulated in any number of ways (we know these as articles of faith), which are all, if they are proper articles of faith, grounded in the gospel and irreducibly linked to that unconditionally promising Evangel.
Truemper finds that understanding to be the understanding throughout the Formula and in the Formula’s predecessor documents [e.g., Jacob Andrae’sSix Sermons]. “Doctrine” [doctrina, singular] and “gospel” are used interchangeably and refer, in Truemper’s view, to the gospel that is actually being administered in the church [and again not to doctrines about the gospel]. You can read Truemper’s compelling case for yourselves and, I submit, it is one of the main things we need to discuss among ourselves in the synod on the issue of fellowship, because I’m not even sure we are remotely clear on what we mean by the term “doctrine.” Is there doctrine which is not related articulately to the gospel? And, if to say there is, are we using the word “doctrine” in a way which is sub-confessional, or at least in a way never intended by the confessors themselves, including the concordists of the late 16th century? And then, on top of that, to use “full agreement in doctrine,” or even more so, as has been suggested, “full agreement in doctrine and practice,” as a condition for fellowship, are we, in fact [as Truemper argues] not merely “sub-confessional” but “anti-confessional”?
Professor Truemper’s case deserves a fair hearing and a fresh set of eyes because it makes the claim of a responsible and viable confessional position actually necessitated by our confessional commitment. Certainly it ought to provide grist for additional study not just before additional fellowship agreements are entered into but also before other churches are condemned by our number. In my own study Truemper’s position is additionally buttressed by noticing, particularly in the FC, just how the concordists “do theology.” We ought to notice, for example, that, say, in FC VII, on “The Holy Supper,” that what was really at stake in the Sacramentarian controversy was not merely an ontology of the Sacrament but, in fact, the church’s christology and soteriology are involved in confessing that the same Christ in heaven is truly present in the Meal. And, of course, that’s exactly where the Formula’s next article takes us: to “The Person of Christ” [VIII]. That interior logic, the same as earlier confessions use, is one which we would do well to relearn today [my teacher, Robert Bertram, argues that the Augsburg Confession, for instance, is really an extended commentary on the doctrine of justification].
There’s much more to be said on the issue of fellowship beyond this brief examination primarily of the Lutheran Confessions. What I hope has been helpful is to let you listen in on a case not for doctrinal indifference about the matter of fellowship but for how the Lutheran Confessions themselves understand doctrine, that is, evangelically, and, in fact, necessitate church fellowship and our hunger for unity in the Body of Christ.
The issue, of course, burns. Some say ironically that the subject of unity will divide the church. It is not necessary for that to be, also in my humble opinion. The same arguments above apply equally among us in the LCMS. Because we are Jesus’ friends, we are, first and above all, friends, too.
At the outset, however, I asked, “May an LCMS Lutheran say, ‘Any friend of Jesus is a friend of mine?’”
From the perspective of heaven, as we ask that question from an eschatological point of view, and remembering just how big the church triumphant may truly be, opened up, as it is, by the Friend of sinners, whose weakness to a “fault” [hold that thought] was hob-nobbing and table-fellowshipping with sinners such as you and I, in the Final Analysis the issue just may have been that disarmingly simple all along that any friend of Jesus had always been a friend of mine and, dare I hope it, ours.
Stephen C. Krueger
San Diego, California
1. LW 26, pp. 367–72. See also my paper, “The Blessed Duel: How Christ Is the Christian’s Victory Over the Law,” presented at the 2001 Fort Wayne seminary symposia and published on in the 2001 folder on the Daystar Journal website.
2. David G. Truemper, “Enough Is Enough: Augsburg Confession Article VII and the Grounds for Communio in Sacris,”[An unpublished paper delivered at Daystar Free Conference II, October 30, 2000, © 2000 David G. Truemper]. Used with the author’s permission. The paper is publicly available on the Daystar Journal website (the folder for the year 2000)., p. 7 of 18.
3. Truemper, pp. 7-8 of 18.
4. Truemper, p. 7 of 18.
5. Eric Gritsch and Robert Jenson, Lutheranism [Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976], p. 132.
6. For a representative sampling of these positions see Truemper, n. 1, p. 11 of 18.
7. Truemper, p. 1 of 18.
8. Truemper, p. 10 of 18.