Just How “Lutheran” Is “The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship”?

Stephen C. Krueger

Editorial Note: Missouri Synod officialdom has been busy of late cranking out new study documents that attempt to hold the line against ecumenical relations with other Lutherans and other Christians whom the synod deems to be errorists. One is the 58-page “Admission to the Lord’s Supper,” published last November by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations. As of this past February we have yet another document, a 40-pager produced jointly by the president’s office and the CTCR, titled “The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship.” This one is required to be used as the basis for the study of this issue at all district conventions this year, imposed on the districts by mandate of the 1998 national convention.

Pastor Stephen Krueger shares with us his response to this document. Steve is pastor of Zion Lutheran, Portland, Oregon, the host church for the first Daystar Free Conference last January.

Just How “Lutheran” Is The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship?

The President’s Office of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has invited the response and critique of the larger church to the recent (February 2000) document produced by the synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations, titled The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship (LUCF). The document purports to be a study “to explain the Synod’s position” (p. 4). Given the opportunity to respond, in this event, members of the synod must. The “study” is too flawed to live up to its title as The—not just ‘A’ but ‘THE’—Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship.

Yet, given the claim as the Lutheran understanding of Church fellowship, it is fair to ask of the study just how Lutheran it really is.

Flaw 1: LUCF never takes Augsburg Confession VII seriously.

When Lutherans have been in conversation with anyone from the Body of Christ (e.g., the Lutheran ecumenical dialogs of the past thirty years), the chief Lutheran confessional text has been the Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (hereafter AC). That article on “The Church” reads:

Our churches also teach that one holy church is to continue forever. The church is the assembly of saints in which the Gospel is taught purely and the sacraments are administered rightly. For the true unity of the church it is enough [satis est] to agree [consentire] concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies, instituted by men, should be alike everywhere. It is as Paul says, “One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all,” etc. (Eph. 4: 5,6).

LUCF does not begin, however, with this seminal article. It launches its study with the thesis that Christian unity is grounded in the Christian’s participation in the divine life, even as the Trinity is united. “By union with Christ, we believers become one with the triune God and so become one with one another” (p. 5).

Now there is nothing inherently wrong with this departure point, which most certainly has Biblical warrant, although “participation in the divine life,” ironically, is more a Roman Catholic than a Lutheran way of talking. Still, were it not that the study is distracted from grappling with this key confessional article in any kind of serious way, it would be a good beginning. But Article VII is never seriously put into play except here and there. When it finally makes its appearance on page 9 of the 16-page document, it is only after it can no longer derail LUCF from its foreordained conclusion: that fellowship with anyone not in full doctrinal agreement with what the synod calls a doctrine (discussed later) is not allowed.

Flaw 2: AC VII’s “satis est” (“it is sufficient”) disappears altogether.

In the Lutheran Confessional tradition, what is so striking about AC VII is the generosity of those who confess it for what is necessary for true Christian unity. LUCF never notices that. LUCF is too interested in throwing every impediment it can think of in the way of Christian fellowship. Nor does LUCF notice why AC VII is so evangelically generous. AC VII is serious, and gravely so, about the norm of the Christian Gospel alone in establishing unity in the Body of Christ (note that the Ephesians 4 text which AC VII cites is only mentioned once in LUCF and then as a proof-text among many others on p. 6).

What is that Gospel which AC VII has in mind? According to LUCF, “The Gospel comprised the entire Christian faith and not a simple affirmation that Jesus is Lord” (p. 10). But it is far more and other than that. Anyone attentive to the internal rationale of the Augsburg Confession knows “the Gospel” to be that Gospel articulated in the “chief article,” namely, Article IV, the one on justification by grace through faith in Christ alone. It is that Gospel which in the Augsburg Confession stands as the hermeneutical core to everything the church believes, teaches and confesses. Would that it were so in LUCF.

It is the sole sufficiency of the Gospel, serving not only as the grounds for true unity of the church but for everything the church believes, teaches and confesses, which LUCF misses and misses in its entirety. It never seems to notice “satis est.”

Flaw 3: LUCF understands consensus (consentire) in the Gospel as something other than the Lutheran Confessions do.

One of the major flaws in the LUCF study is that it never defines what it means by “doctrine.” This is key, of course, since full doctrinal agreement is what LUCF calls for in order for there to be fellowship between Christians. Is doctrine, to LUCF, what the Church historically refers to as “dogma,” that is, the minimum core content of the faith, without which the Christian faith ceases to be? We are given to believe that maybe this is the case when LUCF refers to Werner Elert, one of its authorities, who is “widely respected” (p. 8).

LUCF enlists Elert’s study of eucharistic fellowship in the early Christian community as key to its rationale that agreement in doctrine is necessary for church fellowship because that is the pattern suggested by the early Christian church. Yet Elert’s Eucharist and Church Fellowship was discussing the major dogmas of the early Christian church, which crafted those dogmas to preserve the kerygma or Gospel. Good examples would include the ancient Church’s Trinitarian dogma at Nicaea (A.D. 325) and then Constantinople (A.D.381) and the church’s christological dogma at Chalcedon (AD 451). Agreement or consensus in dogma, indeed and without argument, is necessary for Christian unity and fellowship.

But the LUCF fails to notice what Elert means with such agreement when it states, “By his partaking of the Sacrament in a church a Christian declares that the confession of that church is his confession” (p. 12). To Elert such agreement is agreement in dogma, which Elert defines as “the mandatory content of the Church’s proclamation” (see his The Christian Faith, pp. 15-20). Even more interestingly, LUCF would not be comfortable with the major thrust of Elert’s work, which was to call into question the results of the post-Luther Reformation, including the Formula of Concord (to say nothing of the period of Lutheran Orthodoxy), as regressive and unable to hold to the dynamic character of Luther’s own theology and that of the Augsburg Confession and Apology. (See Elert’s The Structure of Lutheranism, vol. 1, for Elert’s views.)

In Elert’s other works (e.g., The Christian Faith, The Christian Ethos and The Structure of Lutheranism, to name a few) he is quick to identity the Gospel-ground of everything the church believes, teaches and confesses. The church confesses its doctrine “for the sake of the Gospel.” The church requires agreement in dogma and not in whatever whims a synodical president or convention happen to feel are in vogue in a particular triennium and calls “a doctrine.” In this Elert is seeking to identify the inner rationale of Lutheran confessional theology. All the church’s doctrines must be irreducibly linked to the center, the core, the “chief article of faith,” that is, the Gospel of justification by faith alone (Article IV).

Even as LUCF seeks to enlist Elert to advance its argument, Elert’s own witness to the confessional core of the faith is missed in its entirety. To Elert, “doctrine” (upon which the church must agree for fellowship) is dogma, that is again, “the mandatory content of the Church’s proclamation” (The Christian Faith, p. 18). To LUCF, “doctrine” is whatever the synod seems to call “doctrine.”

Thus, if Elert is correct in his assessment of the theology of the Lutheran Confessions, that here we have a body of doctrine confessed for the sake of the Gospel, LUCF has it miserably wrong. A good example is LUCF’s smuggling in the Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod (1932) on p. 14 as a part of the synod’s doctrinal consensus. LUCF conveniently fails to notice that the Brief Statement as a litmus test for fellowship was rescinded at the synod’s own 1962 Cleveland Convention because it added to the synod’s own confessional article of subscription to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions alone.

Flaw 4: LUCF is dishonest about “denominationalism.

LUCF claims that “‘Denominations’ are not a new phenomenon” (p. 6). The meaning, of course, is that what people experience today as denominationalism is to be expected and that it was equally so in the early Christian community. LUCF then proceeds with the logic that, if you want to be a part of the true visible church, you’d better chose the right one (which is, of course, us, of the denomination called The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod).

Yet, is this caricature of the early Christian experience fair or accurate? Does the “denominationalism” contemporary folks experience in the hundreds of Christian denominations resemble life in the early Christian community? Of course there were divisions in congregations of the New Testament, such as those St. Paul confronted in Corinth. As we know these divisions from his epistles, most of them had to do, interestingly, with legalism (Galatians is a good example). Yet the evidence for “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” would better describe the early Christian experience than does imposing what people today mean by “denominationalism.”

LUCF never takes up, by the way, the far more serious question of how a denomination called The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod understands its positive relationship with the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” As the LCMS confesses that faith through the creed, doesn’t it commit itself not to see itself as a separate denomination but as a confessing community of believers who are part of a larger confessing community of believers in Christ?

Oh, LUCF, as it discusses the confessional material, makes a point of saying there is an una sancta out there someplace, known only to God. And it does try (unconvincingly) to say that it doesn’t want to fall into the trap noticed by Melanchthon that he calls “dreaming about some Platonic republic” (Ap VII, 20), which the Lutherans were accused of doing by their opponents in the Reformation. But LUCF falls into that very trap itself by not acknowledging that the true church exists around the one gospel and sacrament “marks” wherever the gospel is being believed. Don’t Methodists, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, etc., possess those same “marks,” too? If God can recognize Christ’s holy church in other “denominations,” aren’t we bidden also to recognize those “marks” and rejoice that they, too, have “the pure teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments in harmony with the Gospel of Christ” (Ap VII, 5)?

One last point on “denominationalism”: Since Vatican II the larger Lutheran community, including at times the LCMS, has been involved in serious dialogues with other Christian traditions (or other “denominations”). The results of these 30-year-old dialogues, in many cases, have been amazing. In two of these dialogues, with the Reformed tradition and the Roman Catholic Church, the dialogues have uncovered ample reasons to say that the positions condemned by the Lutherans about the Reformed and Roman Catholics were often positions which both groups do not recognize as their own. While in a lengthy footnote (42), LUCF condemns other Lutherans for entering into agreements with the Reformed tradition and the Roman Catholic Church, LUCF shows no knowledge or interest in the dialogues which produced these agreements. If the Missouri Synod is to make intelligent choices about fellowship with other Christians, aren’t these dialogues of key importance? Perhaps the CTCR could better serve the Synod by familiarizing this church body with these amazing discussions with other “denominations.”

Flaw 5: LUCF’s discussion of “absolute truth” to justify its conclusion of separationism misses the central truth of the Gospel.

In the theology of the Book of Concord “pure doctrine” consists of “the pure doctrine of the holy Gospel” (e.g., SD, X, 10). The job of the Lutheran theologian is to demonstrate the Gospel-grounding of all the church’s teachings because they all ought to lead the church to Christ at the center, who is “the truth” (John 14: 6). LUCF has a completely different understanding of truth. To LUCF truth involves absolute propositions about the faith which come from Scripture. It complains, then, that there is an erosion of this understanding of truth in our day and time (“Any discussion about absolute truth is outdated to many,” p. 7) and infers that somebody needs to be the defenders of these absolute truths; therefore, it must be us of the LCMS. There is never an attempt in LUCF to grapple with what Lutheran confessional theology understands as “the pure doctrine of the holy Gospel.”

Flaw 6: The LUCF discussion is really about the following claim: “Professing allegiance to the Lutheran Confessions while practicing altar and pulpit fellowship with those who oppose their doctrine is a denial of them” (p. 12).

One could make a strong case for saying that the theology which produced LUCF is itself in opposition to the Lutheran Confessions, as demonstrated above. Again, if it were seriously interested in the Lutheran Confessions, LUCF would take such confessional statements as “satis est” of AC VII as the weighty confession it is. But the flaw is that the host of questions raised by “fellowship” challenges in the church today is left unaddressed. The document is really chiefly about altar and pulpit fellowship. All the other practical questions which emerge in the life of the church (some of these appearing in the “Case Study” section) are really given very little guidance in the study itself.

The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship is a seriously flawed document intended to justify a spirit of separatism within The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. It is hardly worthy of a community of Christ-confessors who confess with the creed “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” If it is to have any use either as a theological or a practical guide to fellowship issues in the synod today, the CTCR needs to take up the task again, this time seeking to be “Lutheran” and not sectarian.

Pr. Stephen C. Krueger
Zion Lutheran Church
Portland, Oregon
June 15, 2000

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