1951 Synod Convention Essay
(Continued From the 1950 Convention)
We have already shown that the Church, in the proper sense of the word, is those people who heartily accept the Word of Christ, the Holy Scriptures, as the supreme law of their faith and life, that God keeps this Church in the world for the sole purpose of exercising the office or power of the Keys, that is, the authority to remit and to retain sins in His name, namely, by administering His Word and Sacraments, — the law alone to those who are impenitent, but the Word of the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper to the penitent.
Would that the Church were sticking to its God-given business and not trying to be a jack-of-all-trades, and that all who profess the Christian faith were convinced that the Church has but one duty over against the unbelieving world, namely, the duty of saving men by exercising the power of the Keys! As it is, many things are being done in the name of the Church, which do not belong on its program, and, as a result, many people expect these things of the Church, while at the same time its real work is neglected. For many have long been dissatisfied with the results of exercising the power of the Keys. Actually, human beings cannot see these results, simply because they are such intangible things as faith, hope, and love. What we see are the works which spring from faith and love, but which can be imitated very well by hypocrites. Then there are other things, unpleasant things, which seem to be the results of the Ministry of the Keys, but are really hostile reactions to it.
Perhaps, the most undesirable of these apparent results of the Ministry of the Keys is man’s natural reaction to the proper application of God’s Law to false doctrine and other sins, with all that that reaction brings in its wake. And by proper application of the Law, we do not mean a vague, general application to false doctrine and other sins, but one which specifies and identifies the sins of one’s hearers, or the sins which threaten them, so that they are not left in doubt as to which sins are meant. People in general don’t like such testimony and will not stand for it. If they can’t get rid of the witness, they will try to avoid him. We are told that after Jesus had applied the Law to a certain young man in a very pointed way, “he went away sorrowful” (Matt. 19,22). There came a time in Christ’s public ministry when, as John tells us, “many of His disciples went back and walked no more with Him.” John 6,66. There was a reason why His public ministry lasted only about three years. And that reason was the general reaction to His preaching. Church leaders didn’t like His preaching and disliked Him because He found fault with them. He told them, “Now ye seek to kill me, a man that hath told you the truth.” John 8,40. He said of them, “If I had not come and spoken unto them, they had not had sin; but now they have no cloak for their sin. He that hateth me hateth my Father also. If I had not done among them the works which none other man did, they had not had sin: but now have they both seen and hated both me and my Father.” John 15,22–24. Because His disciples preached as He had preached, they fared no better than He had. When Stephen accused his opponents of resisting God and breaking His Law, and especially of the murder of the Christ, “they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.” Acts 7,54. Since Old Testament law demanded the death of false prophets, and since the first foes of Christianity regarded Jesus and His messengers as false prophets, they put Jesus and Stephen to death. However, even where religious persecution of a physical kind is forbidden by law, as in our land, and is therefore difficult and dangerous, human hearts are still the same. And if people in general can’t imprison and kill him who properly presents and applies God’s Law, they will seek to get rid of him in some other way or to avoid him. We have already heard Jesus explain why He was hated, namely, because He uncovered the sins of His hearers. But Paul says quite generally: “The Law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.” Rom. 4,15. That is, the Law, properly presented and applied, fills people with wrath and anger, because it convicts them of transgression which they have hitherto ignored, failed to recognize or even sanctioned. They resent the Word of God because of the Law which disturbs their peace of mind. And unless and until they are convinced that it is God’s Law, and not merely the opinion of him who presents it, they are angry at him, hate him, and would be rid of him. Speaking figuratively of the earthly fate of God’s faithful witnesses, John says: “They that dwell on earth shall rejoice over them, and make merry, and shall send gifts one to another; because these two prophets tormented them that dwelt on earth.” Rev. 11,10. Paul had to write to the erring Galatian congregations: “If it had been possible, ye would have plucked out your own eyes, and have given them to me. Am I therefore become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” Gal. 4,15.16. Yes, even though true believers do not hate anyone, yet they may feel that if a preacher or someone else exposes their sins, especially such sins as they have hitherto not recognized, and so disturbs their peace of mind, even though he also assures them of divine forgiveness, he must be their enemy who likes to torment them. They may think that he does not care whether he makes trouble for them, if he condemns the false dotrine of heterodox Churches, especially of those to which their friends and relatives belong. How much more will the world regard God’s witnesses and their followers as its foes! Jesus said to the unbelieving Pharisees: “Why do ye not understand my speech? Even because ye cannot hear my Word! Ye are of your father, the Devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do.” John 8,43.44. — Moreover, if we so preach the Gospel as to exclude all false versions of it, especially such as threaten our hearers and are supported by their relatives and friends, our experience will be no less unpleasant. People in general simply don’t want God’s Word presented aright. And as surely as we present the Word aright, we shall be misunderstood, criticized, disliked, shunned. Some years ago, an editorial writer in a prominent Lutheran paper wondered why people were no longer burned at the stake and otherwise persecuted in our country. The editor did not seem to know why most Church people do not suffer for their faith in some way today. Let him testify against false doctrine and other sins as he should; let him insist that his religious associates do the same; let him try to persuade a congregation to admonish its erring members in the right way and to drop those from membership as unbelievers who persist in their error; let him take part in such admonition and excommunication; and he will not only suffer persecution, but will also stop wondering why Church people, in general, do not suffer for righteousness’ sake. Although our government makes physical persecution, especially of white people, difficult, it cannot prevent the misery which one suffers from being misunderstood, criticized, shunned, even hated by others, for one’s convictions.
Such unpleasant reactions to the Ministry of the Keys are not really results of that Ministry, but certainly seem to be. Therefore, many professed Christians have become dissatisfied with the exercise of the power of the Keys, and their dissatisfaction is hindering the Church a great deal from fulfilling its purpose in the world. For it has, on the one hand, discouraged many from exercising the power of the Keys aright and, on the other, has prompted people to substitute other things for the Word and Sacraments in the work of the Church, so that most people no longer know for sure what the Church should be doing and doing with all its might.
Because the Ministry of the Keys by itself fails to attract the crowd, many have tried in various ways to make this ministry more attractive to the natural man. Among the means used for this purpose are costly Church buildings, elaborate orders of worship, beautifully robed and well trained choirs, oratorical preachers, and personable spokesmen of other kinds. True, all these things, like Mary’s ointment, may be used to the glory of God, and, when so used, are pleasing to God and should not be criticized. However, all too often they are introduced into Church life, not to glorify God, but to meet competition, to attract the crowd and to impress the world. Then such things are an abomination to the Lord. But there are also at least two other things which can hardly be defended under any circumstances, namely, misleading Church publicity and various congregational organizations whose purpose is social.
By misleading publicity, we mean a playing-up of external attractions such as we have already mentioned and even of spiritual attractions, combined with a complete or almost complete silence regarding the painful cost of genuine Church membership. There is a good deal of such publicity in professed Christendom today. Much of it is confined to preaching; but it has also broken into print. And it is not doing the Church in the real sense of the word any good whatsoever, even though it certainly helps much to fatten what is generally regarded as the Church. For it is one thing to get people into your congregation or Synodical organization; it is quite another to make them members of the true Church. Jesus stressed not only the privileges of membership in His Church, but also its costs. “Strait,” said He, “is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” Matt. 7.14. He told, not only His disciples, but people in general, “Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.” Mark 8,34. See also Luke 9,57–62; 14,25–33. And as regards organizations whose aim is social, we do not condemn them. We believe that they have their place in our modern life. We believe that a Christian may belong to such organizations with a good conscience, so long as their principles, practices, and purposes are not evil and detrimental. Indeed, we believe that Christians are often wise in forming such organizations among themselves. But we object when such organizations are sponsored by the Church, that is, in its name, as though it had a social purpose. It does not have such a purpose at all. Christ has put the Church in the world in order to exercise the power of the Keys for the salvation of the world. The Bible indeed speaks of Christian fellowship again and again. See, for example, Acts 2,42; Gal. 2,9; I John 1,3. The last passage reads: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.” However, this fellowship is not social, but spiritual. It is a fellowship in the Gospel. Paul wrote to the Philippians: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making request with joy, for your fellowship in the Gospel from the first day until now.” Phil. 1,3–5.
Besides, the Ministry of the Keys cannot he made attractive to the world, and for Christians it need not be made more attractive than it is. All who think that they can, by means of various externals, make the Law and the Gospel acceptable or at least tolerable to the world, will learn in the course of time how futile this is. “The Law worketh wrath,” and the Gospel is foolishness and a stumbling-block, regardless of the external circumstances. Hence, dissatisfaction with the results of exercising the power of the Keys, unless quenched, will go further than the attempt to make the Word and Sacraments attractive to the world. Such dissatisfaction invariably leads to the only thing that can make the Law and the Gospel attractive to the natural man, namely, a corruption of the Ministry of the Keys. Accordingly, there has long been almost universal opposition throughout professed Christendom to the proper application of the Law, especially in the pulpit and in Church discipline and excommunication. This opposition has long been so determined and general, that there are comparatively few today who consistently testify against false beliefs and other sins, especially those which should be condemned above others, namely, those in one’s own community. Many a preacher has toned down the Law which he preaches, refraining from testimony which offends respectable people and drives them away from his religious organization into the arms of some other preacher. But when the Law is toned down, the Gospel, too, loses its meaning. For the Gospel is God’s gracious answer to the demands which His Law makes upon men. In the Gospel is revealed to faith exactly that righteousness which the Law demands of men. The Gospel assures us that Christ fulfilled all righteousness for us, obeying and suffering under God’s Law in our stead and to> God’s complete satisfaction, so that anyone who now accepts Christ as his Substitute in the matter of righteousness is accepted before God for Christ’s sake. As Paul says, “Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone that believeth.” Rom. 10,4. Therefore, as surely as the Law is presented and applied in a vague, weak, and inoffensive way, that is, in a way which does not identify and specify the sins of the hearer and those which threaten him, the Gospel, too, loses its significance, and its doctrines, one after another, are ignored more and more as useless and impractical. In the end, the preacher proclaims neither the Law nor the Gospel, but a message calculated to promote external, civic righteousness. Or else the corruption may first seize upon the Gospel, inasmuch as its doctrines are unreasonable; and, if there is anything that man esteems, it is his reason. Not for nothing, does Solomon say, “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, and lean not unto thine own understanding.” Prov. 3,5. The doctrines of the Gospel cannot be reasonable, because they are not a complete revelation of the things which they present. As Paul says, “we know in part.” I Cor. 13,9. That is, because the Gospel presents only some of the facts in the ease of everything that it reveals, its doctrines cannot be rationalized, but must be accepted by faith alone. Certainly, the Gospel reveals nothing more clearly than the person and work of Christ. John 5,39; Rom. 1,1–3. Yet if we know absolutely everything that the Gospel tells us about Him, we do not know all about Him. This is equally true of other things which are revealed in God’s Word, such as the process of our conversion and of our predestination. And one cannot rationalize anything with certainty until he knows all the facts in the case. But people, in general, do not know or do not remember this in connection with God’s Word, and, besides, rely too much on their own reason. As a result, they corrupt the Gospel out of deference to reason, in order to make it attractive to the natural man and, for that matter, also to the Old Adam in the Christian. In other words, they reject Gospel-truths because reason draws false conclusions from them; or, if the conclusions are plausible, they teach them as God’s truth along with the truths from which they are drawn. But then the Law, too, must be corrupted into such a demand as this false Gospel answers. As Paul says, “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” Gal. 5,9. In short, a more or less reasonable religious message is proclaimed in the name of the Church as the Word of God, because the unadulterated Law and Gospel do not attract the crowds. We are convinced that one of the main reasons, if not the basic reason, for the false doctrine and unionism against which we are now battling in our Synodical Conference, is just this widespread dissatisfaction with the results, apparent and real, of exercising the power of the Keys. We are naturally prone to resort to such things in order to attract the world. But they only harm the real Church, even though they go far in furthering religious organizations.
Hand in hand with efforts to make the Word attractive to the world is a relaxing of the requirements for Church membership. Men cannot, of course, change the requirement for membership in the Church, a requirement which Jesus lays down in His statement: “My mother and my brethren are these which hear the Word of God and do it.” Luke 8,21. But men can be ignorant of the Church, or forget what it really is, and confuse it, at least in practice, with discernible religious groups; and requirements for membership in these can be regulated by men. We are convinced that the desire to win the world for such groups, more than any other factor, has brought about the gradual but widespread elimination from Lutheran Church constitutions of paragraphs prohibiting lodge membership and woman’s suffrage. Parallel to this is the comparatively recent right-about-face of many in our Synodical Conference toward the question of Scouting. Refusing to let boys and girls be members of our churches if they are and persist in being members of Scout organizations has kept many people away, and hence this refusal has become a thing of the past in many congregations. Besides, people are permitted to be Church members, although they neglect the public ministry of the Keys or live in other ungodliness.
However, there are religious organizations aplenty which, although they are called Churches, have not only corrupted the Ministry of the Keys, but have even abandoned it entirely, and have put other things on the Church’s program. In fact, this is done so much that even religious groups which still exercise the power of the Keys more or less, have adopted these things. We may put most of these things under the head of social betterment, that is, the betterment of society. Here we find efforts to overcome juvenile delinquency by offering something to keep the youngsters busy, as, for example, the Scouting program. In this class, too, belong youth centers whose purpose it is to furnish recreation for young people. A great many young people’s societies are used in the same way so as to become purely social organizations. Some Churches have become even more ambitious in their efforts at social reform and have taken a hand in the settlement of labor disputes, in agricultural projects, furtherance of religions of all types for the good of the country, etc. According to an essay delivered at the 1948 convention of the Western District of the Missouri Synod, the National Catholic Rural Life Conference has this four-point program: “1. To care for underprivileged Catholics on the land; 2. to keep on the land Catholics who are now on the land; 3. to settle more Catholics on the land; 4. to convert the non-Catholics on the land.” (Proceedings of the Sixty-Seventh Convention of the Western District of the Missouri Synod, page 39.) And the Missouri Synod essayist adds: “Our Church should have some kind of agency giving advice on where farms are available in a Lutheran community, and it would not be out of reason to give advice and even help to young couples anxious to own their own farm.” (The same, page 48.) We are not opposed to legitimate efforts at social and economic betterment. We favor them. Moreover, insofar as ability and discretion permit, we want to take part in them. And we believe that others should be encouraged to do the same, and that our people should not be. backward in voicing their ideas for civic and economic progress. But we are definitely opposed to the Church sponsoring such efforts or taking part in them. Even if there were no objectionable features in Scouting, such as the Scout Oath and Law, still this would not be something for the Church to sponsor. The Church is in the world for the same purpose as Christ was in the world, namely, in order to save it. And the Church cannot fulfill this purpose, but is rather hindered from fulfilling it, by efforts on its part for social betterment. The Church can fulfill its purpose only by exercising the power of the Keys through the administration of the Law and of the Gospel. In order to improve social conditions on such a wide and extensive scale as the needs require, one must use force, or at least the threat of it. To be sure, force alone cannot cure social ills. Persuasion, too, must be used, for example, in the form of education, perhaps even more than force. Yet persuasion alone cannot do it, even if one concedes that it will suffice in the majority of cases. Force must be there. But the Church cannot lightly use force or be associated with an agency of force in its work. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews.” John 18,36. In agreement with this Paul wrote: “The weapons of our warfare are not carnal.” 2 Cor. 10,4.
So far as the essayist knows, we, as a Church, have hitherto refrained from efforts at social and economic betterment, except in our full-time schools. But are we, therefore, free of dissatisfaction with the results of exercising the power of the Keys? If, as some say, there is not enough personal mission work among us, is this partly explained by the presence of that dissatisfaction in our midst? In other words, since the proper exercise of the power of the Keys does not attract people as much by far as do the earthly and external things which so many Churches use for this purpose, have we become discouraged with the proper exercise of the power of the Keys as a means of gaining souls and adopted a defeatist attitude here? Is this dissatisfaction leading us to frown upon, or at least not to encourage, real Law and Gospel preaching in our publications and pulpits, that is, to a corruption of the Holy Ministry and to unionism? Is there a neglect of Church discipline and excommunication in our midst? If so, how much of that neglect finds its cause, not in ignorance, but in that dissatisfaction? Do we want to gain the world so badly that we are not only neglecting to bring God’s Word to our unbelieving neighbors as we should, but also secretly desiring to adulterate it here and there? These are questions which we should ponder in earnest.
No less than by the aforesaid dissatisfaction and its fruits, the Church is hindered in the fulfillment of its purpose also by the reputation which it has, or, in other words, by what people in general expect of it, because such efforts have been made so long and so widely in its name. For it should be easy to see that as an individual may be greatly hindered in the work which he should do, so the Church is greatly hindered in its divinely appointed work by an evil reputation. “Dead flies,” says Solomon, “cause the ointment of the apothecary to send forth a stinking savor: so doth a little folly him that is in reputation for wisdom and honor.” Eccl. 10,1. And the Church, with its old reputation for wisdom and honor, has become guilty of a little folly. Because the Church has indulged in other things than its real work, people have come to expect it and despise a congregation or Synod which does not produce them. When Jesus cleansed the Temple, what, chiefly, was He seeking to restore? Many people miss the main point of these two incidents in His life, and therefore do not apply as extensively as they ought, the principles which moved Him. John 2,13–17; Mark 11,15–17. He was not chiefly concerned with the fact that worldly business was carried on in the courtyard of the Temple, or with the fact that this business was probably done for private gain, or even with the fact that this business was done dishonestly. He was chiefly concerned with the fact that the Temple was not being called a house of prayer by all nations, as His Father desired. In other words, Jesus was chiefly concerned with the reputation which that business had given to the Temple. Although all who visited the Temple should have thought and spoken of it as. a house of prayer, they went home remembering it also as a place where buying, selling, money-exchanging were being carried on. Most likely, all this business indirectly benefited the Temple, inasmuch as it was necessary and permissible for foreign Jews to buy animals and birds for sacrifice, and to exchange their foreign coin for coin which was acceptable in the Temple, when they came to Jerusalem. But all this did not change the fact that when this business was done in the Temple, it gave the Temple a name which God did not want it to have. We should have just as great zeal for the reputation of God’s spiritual temple, the Church. We should be much concerned about what people think and expect of the Church, and, to that end, we should not only do all God wants us to do that the Church may carry out its real purpose, but should also seek to eliminate from its program everything that does not belong on it, although it may be innocent and necessary enough under other circumstances. We do not object to buying and selling for the benefit of the Church. As long as angels are not employed to administer the Law and the Gospel among men, money will be needed for the livelihood of the ministers of the Word and for the earthly things which they need to do their work. We think that our people should be encouraged to carry out even long-range projects for the benefit of the Church’s work. Why should a Christian not raise some livestock or grain, use wages earned during a certain time, sell food or other things, or make money in some other honest way, for the benefit of God’s kingdom? But we do definitely object to seeing any of these things done by a congregation or by any of its societies in a way which would obscure or destroy the right conception of the mission of the Church. There are people who refuse to belong to a congregation, or at least complain about it, if it does not offer entertainment for its young people, or if its ladies’ aid does not engage in worldly business in order to raise money for the Church. Who has not heard it said of some congregations, “They don’t have anything for their young people,” meaning that the congregation offers little or no recreation to its young people? People who think such things have a false conception of the Church’s purpose, perhaps of the Church itself. With them, the Church has the wrong kind of reputation. And this very reputation hinders the Church in fulfilling its real purpose in the world. People, even with the best of motives, are very busy in work which is not Church work at all, but think that it is Church work, while the real work of the Church is not being done as it should and could be done under other circumstances. Here we could mention also the widespread notion of honoring almost any dead human body with religious ceremonies in the name of the Church. For this practice has given many occasion to regard the Church as a kind of annex to the mortuary. We have heard of a Lutheran pastor who foolishly remarked, “What are ministers for, if not to bury the dead!” And we once had the experience of having an undertaker arrange with us for the funeral of one of our parishioners. No doubt, even unbelievers need to be buried; and perhaps some sort of religious service could be arranged to accompany such a burial without denying Scripture. But if the Church helps in burying all the dead, then it gets the wrong kind of name for itself, and people can hardly be blamed for thinking what that preacher said. No doubt, there are other things which are done under the auspices of congregations, Synods, and other religious organizations, but which have no immediate and necessary connection with the Ministry of the Keys. Let us beware of doing anything under Church auspices, which will give people the impression that the Church has any other purpose in the world than exercising the power of the Keys for the salvation of men. At the same time, — and this, too, should help us to see the thing aright, — let us realize that if the Church does its particular job to the best of its ability, this will take all the time, and money which the Church ever finds at its disposal for work in world. If nothing more were ever done in the name of the Church for the world than baptizing in the name of the Triune God and teaching all that Christ has commanded the apostles, wherever and whenever He gives the Church the opportunity to do these things, the Church would always have its hands full.
At this point, we could also mention the reputation for hypocrisy which the Church has acquired, because brotherly admonition and Church discipline are neglected, and people are Church members in good standing, who, by wantonness (for example, on the dance-floor), drunkenness, covetousness, or other scandalous sins, spoil the reputation of the Church, Yes, even the good name of God. We could well quote against them and against the Churches which tolerate this situation: “Thou that makest thy boast of the Law, through breaking the Law dishonorest thou God? For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you.” Rom. 2,23.24. But, undoubtedly, this particular point will become apparent as we read the next section of our essay.
In order to do its work on earth, the Church must preserve and increase its efficiency. And this cannot be done by systems, organizations, or other externals, although we should “let all things be done decently and in order.” 1 Cor. 14,40. There is no other way for the Church to preserve and increase its efficiency than by faithfully exercising the power of the Keys in its own midst. This means that the Church, if it would do its peculiar work properly in the world, must forgive and retain sins also over against all who profess to belong to it. Right here is a great sore spot in modern Church life, and, we are afraid, our own Synod is suffering from it. Indeed, Church discipline is a rarity in congregations today. They do not object to forgiving sins in God’s name. No; they realize that the Church should extend God’s forgiveness to penitent sinners by faithfully administering the word of the Gospel, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper to This phase of the Office of the Keys has been stressed among us. But we are afraid that the other phase of this office has not been stressed, yes, has hardly been mentioned in some quarters. This is the retention of sins, the withholding of God’s forgiveness, from the manifestly impenitent by refusing to apply the Gospel in word and sacrament to them and by applying only the Law to them, so long as they do not repent.
Modern congregations have manifest sinners in their midst, as did the ancient Corinthian congregation. There are people who willfully neglect and even forsake the public ministry of the Means of Grace and public worship for years on end, and yet hold membership in modern Church organizations. Indeed, this very evil is so general and of such long standing, that few recognize it as one of the greatest of all evils. But Jesus told those whom He sent out to preach: “Whosoever will not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment, than for that city.” Matt. 10,14.15. Moreover, chronic drunkards, manifest grudge-bearers, adulterers, and other evil-doers are and continue to be nominal members of the Church. They are not rebuked and admonished. Or if someone does admonish them privately, but without success, the matter never reaches the voters’ assembly. For congregations in general do not rebuke such erring members, and even refuse to do so, and their members are well aware of this. Indeed, just that person who asks the average congregation to do its duty at this point will only get himself into trouble, and, if he presses for action, to him may be applied the saying which the apostles applied to Jesus when He cleansed the Temple for the first time: “The zeal of Thine house hath eaten Me up.” John 2,17. Some of the very people who want their pastor and elders to rebuke the evil in their congregation, and will uphold them when they do so, and criticize them if they do not do so, do not want the voters’ assembly as such to admonish sinning Church members. One may persuade some congregations to issue an ultimatum to a particularly scandalous sinner; but to lead them to admonish manifest sinners patiently is far harder, and, in many cases, impossible unless the congregation is first cleansed by a split. And so far as excommunication is concerned, in which a sinning Church member, after unavailing congregational admonition, is dropped from membership as an unbeliever, it is so little practiced in American Christendom, that a national magazine has called it “a European custom.” It might be dismaying to learn how few of us, despite many years of Church membership, have ever taken part in an excommunication, or in Church discipline, or have even tried to initiate these godly practices. Yet Jesus mentions the retention of sins alongside the remission of sins, and Paul found it necessary more than once to take part in excommunication. Seeing how rare these practices are in modern Church life, one might suppose that there are little false doctrine and other ungodliness to be found in professed Christendom. Yet the very opposite is true. We are living in the days concerning which Jesus said: “Many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.” Matt. 24,11.12.
We have been taught that even excommunication, harsh as it seems to be, is for the salvation of the excommunicated person. And this is correct. Paul told the Corinthian congregation “to deliver such an one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit might be saved in the day of Jesus Christ.” 1 Cor. 5,5. To Timothy, he wrote regarding two false teachers: “whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.” 1 Tim. 1,20. But not often, so far as we know, has it been stressed that excommunication is also for the purification of the Church. The new explanation of the Catechism (Concordia Publishing House) follows the example of the old one in not even mentioning this purpose, although it mentions the other. But Scripture certainly stresses the one as much as the other. Thus, in urging the Corinthian congregation to excommunicate an ungodly member, Paul said, “Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump.” 1 Cor. 5,6.7. Yes, not only false doctrine, but also evil practice and example, even among lay members of the Church, if not disciplined and purged away, are a leaven for evil in the Church. Not only the false teacher, but also the adulterer, the drunkard, the neglecter of public worship, the covetous man, and other evildoers, if he continues in his sin despite patient admonition, should be dealt with according to Christ’s command (and, mind you, it is a command): “If he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican.” Matt. 18,17. Or, as Paul put it in his letter to the Corinthian congregation: “I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or an extortioner, with such an one, no, not to eat. … Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.” 1 Cor. 5,11.13. And in his second epistle to the same congregation, he wrote: “I fear, lest when I come, I shall not find you such as I would, and that I shall be found unto you such at: ye would not: lest there be debates, envyings, wraths, strifes, back-bitings, whisperings, swellings, tumults: and lest, when I come again, my God wi11 humble me among you, and that I shall bewail many which have sinned already, and have not repented of the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed. This is the third time I am coming to vou. In the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established. I told you before, and foretell you, as if I were present, the second time; and being absent now I write to them which heretofore have sinned, and to all other, that, if I come again, I will not spare.” 2 Cor. 12,20–13,2; see also Gal. 1,8.9; 5,12; Eph. 5,11.
The Church must purge itself of sinners whom it cannot lead to repentance by talking to them, or it will constantly be hindered and obstructed by them in its world-saving work. “In a great house,” says Paul, “there are not only vessels of gold and silver, but also of wood and of earth; and some to honor, and some to dishonor. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honor, sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work.” 2 Tim. 2,20.21. (This he says just after speaking of false teachers whose “word will eat as doth a canker.” v. 17.) We believe in showing all patience to those who have fallen into sin; but the Church should not neglect to admonish them and, if they will not listen, should drop them from membership as unbelievers. Modern congregations are to be rebuked for their neglect, and pastors, too, if they have neglected to instruct their people in the matter. Christ had this against the congregations in ancient Pergamos and Thyatira, that they tolerated evil-doers in their midst. Rev. 2,14.15.20. And, as we have already observed, Paul rebuked the congregation in Corinth for the same sin. We are convinced by such passages of Scripture, that widespread neglect of Church discipline and excommunication fully explains why there is so much false doctrine and worldliness in professed Christendom, and why the Church has resorted to all sorts of humanly conceived measures for keeping people within the Church and for making the world listen to its message. No doubt, some of the unionism of our times is a reaction against a policy which is intolerant toward false teachers, but not toward other evil-doers. Such a reaction is unjustified because one evil does not justify another. People who react thus should stop and consider that, as the messages to the Seven Churches show, Jesus praised intolerance toward false teachers, even where it was connected with tolerance of other evil-doers, but rebuked the toleration of other evil-doers at the same time. Nevertheless, there seems to be such a reaction today, a reaction against dead orthodoxy, and it should make us take stock of ourselves. vVe are intolerant toward persistent false teachers in our Churches and schools. And this is godly, as we have already noted. Rev. 2,2.6. But are we equally intolerant toward persistent evil-doers of other kinds in our Churches? If not, the Lord certainly censures us. Rev. 2, 14.15.20. The same apostle who said, “If any man preach any other Gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.” (In Greek, “anathema”), also said, “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema, maranatha.” Gal. 1,9; 1 Cor. 16,22. From the love which Christians have for one another, as this manifests itself in their words and deeds, the world should see that they are Christ’s disciples, so that this love is actually all the advertising and publicity which the Church needs. John 13,35: “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” But the Church, by neglecting discipline and excommunication, has permitted a great horde of false teachers and other evil-doers to obscure and to hide the love of Christians for one another with divisions and other and has led the world to think wrongly about the Church and its true members.
We do not hope that professed Christendom in general will ever purge itself. Rather, we expect it to grow worse. See 2 Timothy 3 and 4 where we read (with omissions): “This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be … lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof, … ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth … Evil men and seducers shall wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived. … They will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.” But this does not mean that all parts of Christendom will follow such a course. No; we can be faithful by God’s grace, even though the whole world opposes us in this and eventually overcomes our Churches and the Synod.
If we are faithful in exercising the power of the Keys in our midst and toward the world, we will of course get into trouble for it, not only with unbelievers, but even with poorly informed Christians. “All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution,” says Paul. 2 Tim. 3,12. Writing to a persecutor in Germany, a prominent theologian of our day foolishly said: “One is afraid — like our little Norwegians here in our country — lest one no longer suffer shame for Christ’s sake in the conflict with the Evil One.” (Quoted in Confessional Lutheran, May, 1950, p. 60.) Although the writer meant that our Synod has a “persecution-complex,” we can only say that one should be afraid when one no longer suffers shame for Christ’s sake in the conflict with the Evil One. Although the Church enjoys seasons of rest from persecution, yet when one no longer suffers such shame, one may well assume that he is unfaithful to the Lord, and proceed to identify this unfaithfulness. The Scriptures have too many statements regarding the inevitability of suffering for righteousness’ sake to warrant any other assumption. John 20; 16,33; Acts 14,22; 2 Tim. 3,12. And not a little of this suffering will be inflicted by uninformed or misinformed Christians. Matt. 16,22; 2 Cor. 2,13; 10,10; Gal. 4,16–19; Phil. 1,16. That very remark which we quoted before cuts. Yes, we must expect to be misunderstood, criticized, shunned, even hated by a great many people. For, as we have already heard, “the Law worketh wrath.” Rom. 4,15. It makes some people angry and resentful whenever and wherever it is applied properly to false doctrine and other sins, especially when this application is made from the pulpit, in Church discipline and excommunication, or in the press. And, with reference to the Gospel, Paul says that it is a stumbling-block and foolishness to the natural man. 1 Cor. 1,23. Paul is, of course, referring to his own version of the Gospel, not to some version which has been “doctored up” to attract the world. Gal. 1,6–9. Yes, even the Gospel makes trouble for us, perhaps not so much by what it says, as because the worldly-wise Church leaders and members find it a hindrance to their ambitions for the Church in the world and, therefore, become impatient with it and intolerant toward those who insist upon it. Not only will the faithful Christians be made miserable by people who are enraged by the Law and impatient with the Gospel; but, because the faithful application of the Law and of the Gospel estranges or bores and so drives away many people, even Christians may, for this reason, oppose the faithful exercise of the power of the Keys. But here belongs that familiar passage which is so often wrongly referred to the wealth of the world, rather than to its people: “What shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8,36. We cannot gain the world for ourselves without losing our own soul. We simply cannot avoid arousing and facing the enmity of the world, if we are faithful to the Lord in the use of the Word and Sacraments. “We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God,” Paul told the persecuted congregations of Asia Minor. Acts 14,22. And, of the early Christian Church, some Roman Jews said, “As concerning this sect, we know that everywhere it is spoken against.” Acts 28,22. In fact, the world is so radically opposed to the proper exercise of the Office of the Keys, that it is astonishing that we are members of the Church, or that anyone is ever delivered from the world into the Church. Indeed, it is nothing but a favor, a pure favor, on God’s part when any member of the world is grafted into the body of Christ. Eph. 2,8.
Just because God’s Word makes so much trouble for those who apply it faithfully, but because they are blamed for this trouble as though they were evil-doers, Jesus said, “Suppose ye that I am come to give peace on earth? I tell you, Nay; but rather division.” Luke 12,51. He thus takes the blame which men, whether from malice or from ignorance, heap upon those who faithfully obey Him. He does this for the comfort of His sufferers, and in order to encourage us all to take up our cross, that 1s, to suffer for righteousness’ sake, also in faithfully exercising the power of the Keys. For, as we value our souls, we must at all times be ready to be misunderstood, criticized, shunned, even hated and slandered and ridiculed, yes, killed by those whose good opinion we value, or by others, for exercising the power of the Keys, as well as for the acts of obedience to God. This is the price which the Church has to pay for doing its work in the world. Luke 14,25–33.
Let us then, at this point, follow Christ’s example. As the Epistle to the Hebrews describes it, “let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the Author and Finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set at the right hand of God. For consider Him that endured such contradiction of sinners against Himself, lest ye be wear1ed and faint in your minds. Ye have not yet resisted unto blood, striving against sin. And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of Him: for whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom He receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards and not sons.” Hebr. 12,1–8. The chastisement to which this passage refers is not any kind of affliction, but only that which men inflict upon us in one form or another because of our obedience to God. Such affliction is a of divine sonship, while the absence of it indicates that one is not a child of God. Indeed, it is not wrong to regard suffering for Christ’s sake as a mark of the Church, a secondary mark of course, but nevertheless a mark. The Scriptures speak too emphatically of the inevitability of such suffering in the Christian life to let any Christian think that he shall escape it.
As we examine ourselves in the light of the Word of God, we find that we are full of sin. And not the least of our sins are those which this essay has described. We have not participated as we should in the work which Christ wants His Church to do in this world. We are very far from perfection at this point. We have often been dissatisfied with the results of exercising the power of the Keys aright for the world and in the Church. We have sometimes substituted, or at least wanted to substitute, other things for the Means of grace, perhaps even while we pretended not to be making any substitution. We have not taken up our cross as we should have done. Truly, we are an evil people. Let us repent of all our sins, and forsake them without delay, lest the kingdom of God depart from us and from our children and be given to another people which will bring forth the fruits thereof. With Him, there is forgiveness, that He may be feared. Yes, he has forgiven us all our sins for His Son’s sake. Moreover, he wants us to be sure of this. Otherwise, why should He have given us more than one Means of Grace to certify that we are in His favor? He wants us to be sure of it in order that we may have the heart that is, the willingness and the courage, to do His will under all circumstances, and to do it out of pure gratitude to Him. Amen.