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What Does Scripture Teach Concerning a Right Attitude Toward Erring Churches?

J.E. Thoen

1941 Synod Convention Essay

When we are asked to find an answer to this question, it is evident that it involves the question of unionism which is practiced and defended by nearly all churches, even those which are called Lutheran in our day. Just as we are tempted to do as others do in our private life, so we are also tempted to carry on our church work as we see it is done in other churches. It is of vital importance for us to find the right answer, not only because there is disagreement among our own brethren concerning this matter, but chiefly because our faith and life must be in accord with the Word of God, if we are to remain true disciples of Christ. “Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, if ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” John 8:31–32.

We have discussed the question of unionism in our meetings many times, and many sermons, lectures and articles have been published in our synodical reports and papers; and all have been agreed that unionism is a sinful practice and will lead to indifference and unbelief. Those who have read these writings should be well informed about what unionism is and understand that it is contrary to the Word of God, but the tactics of modern unionism are so skillful and varied that we must keep vigilant watch lest we be taken unawares by its wiles and be led< to depart from the truth and lose our faith.

One of the most deceiving tactics of unionism is that it seems to stress Christian love, tolerance and peace. Every true Christian loves his neighbor, whether friend or foe, and will, “if it is possible, as much as lieth in him, live peaceably with all men,” and is tempted to listen to unionistic talk of tolerance and co-operation between churches of differing confessions. The question of fellowship with heterodox churches has been discussed among us for years, and the conflict and struggle to remain faithful to the Word of God has indeed been difficult and trying, resulting in the loss of members and church property. And now, when men in the Synodical Conference with whom we have affiliated since the reorganization of our Synod, are urging us to accept doctrinal statements which seem to us to compromise the truth, it is hard to withstand the temptation to relax our struggle against error and agree to co-operate with churches that do not fully agree with us in doctrine and practice. The differences are made to seem so small and unimportant and our former opponents are said to be such fine and earnest people, that it is a pity that we can not work together for the building of God’s kingdom. They say we must learn to be a little more charitable in judging the doctrines of other churches. They speak and practice a little differently from us but they are sincere and earnest, and we must not condemn them but rather work together with them and strengthen them.

This kind of talk tempts the Christian in two ways; 1) Because, as long as he is living in time, he does not attain perfection in holiness. He is hampered by his own flesh or natural desires which tend to draw him away from a full confidence and trust in God’s Word and lead him to follow his darkened reason; 2) Because, as a Christian, he is tenderly and kindly disposed toward his neighbor and likes to speak well of him and overlook his faults and shortcomings.

This is a real temptation and many Christians are in danger of falling before it. When they see the constant conflict and struggle between men of different confessions and how it severs the tenderest bonds of friendship and relationship and divides the Church into contending groups, they long for peace. So they begin to say to themselves: “We are tired of fighting.” They become inclined to blame the leaders and teachers in the Church for the disturbance caused by disputes and discussions on questions of doctrine and practice and are ready to fall for the wiles of unionism.

We must try to strengthen such as have become weak and ready to give up the fight, because whoever is tired of fighting for the truth of the gospel of Christ is tired of being a Christian. They must be reminded that it is the right and duty of every individual Christian to do the will of God as it is revealed in His Word. It is not only the pastors and teachers in the Church that are to confess Christ before men, but all who would be saved. Christ says: “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven. But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.” Matt. 10:32–33. It is clear that this refers to all men in whatever position or station they are in life. But to confess Christ requires that we know Him and speak the truth about Him as it is revealed in the Scriptures. False teaching concerning Christ and His work of redemption is denying Him. Only those who confess Him and are actively engaged in working with Him are His disciples; all others are against Him. No one can be neutral concerning Christ, for He says: “He that is not with me is against me; and he that gathereth not with me scattereth.” Luke 11:23.

Since it is the duty of every individual Christian to confess Christ, it follows that he must know the truth about Christ and His work as the Savior and judge in questions of doctrine according to the truth which he has learned. That it is the right and duty of every individual Christian to judge doctrine we also see from the following: Christ warns His disciples: “Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s cloth· ing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Matt. 7:15. A true prophet is a preacher or teacher sent by God to declare His will concerning things of the present or future as it is revealed in the Word of God. A false prophet is a preacher or teacher who claims to be sent by God, but who does not declare God’s will as it has been revealed in the Word of God, but omits a part of it or adds something of his own so that the sense and meaning of the message does not agree with the Word of God. That is, he teaches false doctrine. Whether the false doctrine adulterates the gospel or the law, or it springs from ignorance or willful intent to deceive, the fruit and effect of it will be the destruction of true faith in life. It is the right and duty of all Christians to judge the preachers and teachers by their doctrines, even when they step forth in what appears to be officially correct clothing.

When Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, pleads with his fellow Christians at Rome to avoid false teachers, he utters the same warning as the Lord: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrines ye have learned; and avoid them.” Rom. 16:17. It is a warning which all Christians must heed and not only those in Rome. Every individual Christian must judge the doctrine if it is in accord with God’s Word or contrary to it. If it is contrary to the truth of Scripture, it causes “divisions and offenses” in the church. Those who teach such doctrines may not be known by their outward appearance and life, but it is the false doctrine that marks them as false teachers, disturbers of the peace and unity in the church and sets stumbling-blocks in the way of faithful believers.

It is plain that Scripture teaches that every individual Christian must judge doctrines according to God’s Word in order to stand in the true faith. It is his right and duty to defend his own spiritual life, and anyone who is tired of fighting in defense of the truth is in danger of his life.

According to The Confessional Lutheran Dr. F. Pieper writes thus on this question: “The right of judging on questions of doctrine does not rest with the Church at large only, nor with synods only (representing the Church of a certain country), nor with the clergy alone, but with all individual Christians, since upon all Christians is laid the duty of distinguishing pure teachers from deceivers, and of departing from error, Matt. 7:15; Rom. 16:17. To take away from Christians the right of judging on questions of doctrine, is an abominable outrage, and the origin of popery.” (Distinctive Doctrines and Usages, p. 134.)

When unionism claims that charity and tolerance toward error and errorists must be practiced in order to secure the unity of the Church and the progress of Christ’s kingdom, it teaches a lie and contends for the wiles of the devil. When a Christian performs his duty in accord with the admonitions of Scripture and judges doctrines, he condemns error and contends for the truth, and is enlisted in the Savior’s war against sin and the devil.

It is true that Christ is the Prince of Peace and that His gospel is God’s message of peace to the world, as Christ Himself declares, when He says: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. For God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. And this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” John 3:16–21.

The Son of God came into the world to save man from the power of darkness, that is, from the power of sin and the devil. The Son of God is called the Light that “is come into the world,” and He is come to destroy the darkness, but “men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.” “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, lest his deeds be reproved.” All men as they are by nature, the whole world which Christ came to save, are so completely under the power of the devil and sin that they hate Him, reject the peace He brings, and will not come to Him. They are under the wrath and condemnation of God because they love evil and will not accept God’s love and mercy. And just as they hate Christ, so they also hate them that “do truth,” believe on Him and do the will of God. So the coming of Christ with the message of God’s peace brings conflict and war between good and evil, between darkness and light. And no Christian can avoid taking part in that conflict.

God’s plan of salvation for sinners is designed to bring conflict and war in the world, war against the power of the devil, against his dominion over man. When Christ sent His disciples to preach the gospel in the cities of Israel, He said to them: “As ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He tells them: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.” Matthew 10:34–36. So terrible will be the conflict that the disciples will be in danger of their life. He says: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. But beware of men: for they will deliver you up to the councils, and they will scourge you in their synagogues; and ye shall be brought before governors and kings for my sake; for a testimony against them and the Gentiles.” … “And the brother shall deliver up the brother to death, and the father the child: and the children shall rise up against their parents, and cause them to be put to death. And ye shall be hated of all men for my name’s sake; but he that endureth to the end shall be saved.” Matt. 10:16,18; 10:21,22. The conflict is so fierce that many of those who preach the gospel and confess Christ be, fore men will be put to death. The tenderest ties among men will be broken. It can not be otherwise because those who have been converted and brought to faith by the power of the gospel are reborn, new creatures whose hope of salvation is forgiveness of sin by grace alone for Christ’s sake. They no longer seek to satisfy the lusts of the flesh but fight against them by word and deed and seek to do the will of God, while the children of the world are self-righteous, hate God, find delight in disobedience to His will and seek to satisfy the lusts of the flesh. So the Christian can not avoid conflict with them. “For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit.” Rom. 8:5. And it is not a minor conflict, the outcome of which is of little consequence. It is a struggle of life and death. “For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Rom. 8:6.

No life can exist without activity. Action is the central principle of life. Every kind of life of plant or animal is active according to its nature. As soon as it ceases to be active it ceases to exist, and death takes its place. So it is also with the spiritual life of the Christian. Faith must bear fruit or it will die. Faith without fruit is dead and is no longer faith. The first and chief fruit of faith is confessing Christ before men in word and deed. But confessing Christ brings opposition, conflict and persecution in the world. When Peter and John preached in the name of Jesus, and Peter in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth healed a man who had been lame from his birth, the people gathered around them and marveled greatly, “And when Peter saw it, he answered unto the people, Ye men of Israel, why marvel ye at this? or why look ye so earnestly at us, as though by our own power or holiness we had made this man to walk? The God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob, the God of our fathers, hath glorified his Son Jesus; whom ye delivered up, and denied him in the presence of Pilate, when he was determined to let him go. But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you: and killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead: whereof we are witnesses.” Acts 3:12,15.

Peter and John confessed Christ before men and reproached the Jews for their wickedness. What happened then? “And as they spake unto the people, the priests, and the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came upon them. Being grieved that they taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” Acts 4:1–2. They laid hands on Peter and John, arrested them and put them in prison. The next day the rulers of the Jews, including the high priest, came together to prosecute the apostles. “And when they had set them in the midst, they asked, By what power, or by what name, have ye done this? Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel if we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; be it known unto you all, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole.” Acts 4:7–10.

This is a true story from which we learn the experience of all Christians who confess Christ before men, in true faith do good works and oppose evil. Notice, too, that this took place in the erring church of the Jews. The apostles fought against the false teachings in the church of their own nation, and when the rulers commanded them “not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus,” they answered: “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Acts 4:19–20.

There is abundant evidence that a Christian will constantly be in conflict with the world and false teachers and suffer persecution, and our own experience teaches us this. Every Christian is enlisted to fight in defense of the truth of the gospel of Christ and against error and wickedness among men. The apostle Paul pictures the Christian as a soldier and admonishes all Christians to be fully armed: “Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, in the power of his might. Put on the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Wherefore take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having your loins girt about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness; and your feet shod with the preparation of the gospel of peace; above all taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Eph. 6:10–17.

Any one who is tired of the conflict and refuses to take part in the defense of the true doctrine of the gospel disobeys the admonitions of the Word of God, discards his armour and weapon of defense, and is exposed to the thrusts of the enemies of his faith and will surely fall. The Scriptures certainly teach that it is impossible to co-operate with error and still retain the truth. God will preserve His children who dwell in the midst of enemies only when they are ignorant of the evils about them and faithfully serve and trust in Him. Those who want to be charitable toward errorists and tolerant of error and practice unionism are not moved by any real love for others; they are moved by a selfish desire for applause for themselves as liberals who are high,minded and lovers of liberty of thought and opinion in matters of doctrine and faith. They say that if any one is honest and earnest in his belief, whatever it may be, he is to be regarded as a child of God with whom one should be willing to fellowship. The slogan of the unionist is: “Not doctrine, but life.” They say: “Christianity is not doctrine, but life.” It should be easy to understand that this is the same as to say: “A sinner is justified before God by his character and good works.”

Whoever holds this doctrine rejects Christ and His redemption just as the Jews and Greeks did. The apostle Paul tells us why the Jews and Greeks rejected Christ: “The Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom. But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling’ block and unto the Greeks foolishness; but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God.” 1 Cor. 1:22,24.

The Jews regarded themselves as children of God because they were the descendants of Abraham who would be justified before God by keep, ing the ordinances of the Law such as the Sabbath, circumcision, tithes etc. They did not regard themselves as in need of redemption from sin in order to become the children of God. They regarded themselves as citizens of the kingdom of God in their own right. What they wanted was a savior to liberate them from the rule of the heathen Romans and to erect a temporal kingdom of the Jews which should have dominion over the Gentiles.

When Jesus and His disciples came and preached repentance of sin and salvation through faith in the redemption of a crucified Savior, they regarded it as a stumbling-block, a hindrance to their hopes and desires. The gospel of Christ was to them a snare and a trap by which the pride of the Jewish people would be destroyed and their desire to gain freedom and independence lost. So they determined that it was better to put Jesus to death than to permit all the people to be destroyed. The Jews persecuted and rejected Christ because they were proud and self-righteous.

The Greeks sought after wisdom, that is, they would make themselves perfect by their own reason and understanding. They held that a man would attain perfect peace and happiness through human knowledge of himself and the universe. They regarded it as contrary to all reason to believe in salvation and happiness or justification by one who died. To them the gospel of Christ was foolishness. The wisdom of the Greeks was salvation by works.

Those, who were saved among the Jews, were not saved by their own righteousness or good works, but by “Christ the power of God,” that is, by “being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.” Those who were saved among the Greeks, were not saved by their wisdom, but by the wisdom of God who “was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them.” It is evident that there can be no fellowshipping or co-operation between those who in accordance with Scripture teach justification before God by grace alone for Christ’s sake and those who teach justification wholly or in the least part by the work and effort of man. There must be conflict and strife between them, for they are going opposite ways. They can not walk together, because they are completely disagreed.

“The redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24) is a real, historical fact, something which has actually taken place, and is finished, complete and perfect. If anything is added to it or taken from it, it is no longer the same thing. It is not a mere proposition or doctrine of terms of peace, but it is a complete peace, established by God alone, with all the requirements included. That is the testimony of all the Scriptures.

We need only to quote a few passages to assure us of this fact: “But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace are ye saved), and hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” Eph. 2:4–10.

When Paul speaks of how sinners are saved, he describes it as God’s doing alone. It is God alone who quickens, gives life to those dead in sin. Sinners are saved by grace, not of themselves, not of works. A sinner’s salvation “is the gift of God.” It is something God has prepared. A gift of grace is not something earned or deserved, for then it is no longer a gift but a recompense or wages. As Christians “we are God’s workmanship.” We are “created in Christ Jesus.” If anyone speaks of his own work and effort in becoming a Christian, he boasts and does not speak the truth.

It is not by his own effort, study or reasoning that a sinner becomes disposed or willing to accept the grace of God: “It is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.” Phil. 2:13. The Philippians were Christians who were willing to do good works, but Paul warns them not to ascribe such willingness to themselves as though it were a fruit of their own holiness and goodness. Even after conversion, they are unable to will and do good works by their own power and strength. It is God who works in them “both to will and to do.” From beginning to end our salvation is a gift of God. Neither before nor after conversion does man contribute in the least to his justification before God. “The redemption that is in Christ Jesus” is the sole and only assurance of salvation for all. That is the faith which was once delivered unto the saints and for which we must “earnestly contend” (Jude 3).

Time does not permit us to describe or point out the various false doctrines taught and tolerated even in churches which claim to stand on the Lutheran Confessions as a correct statement of the doctrines of Scripture. They err on many points vital to true Christian faith of salvation by grace alone for Christ’s sake. They tolerate divergent doctrines, neglecting to heed the admonition of the Holy Spirit as it was given by inspiration to the apostle Paul: “Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment.” 1 Cor. 1:10. We must contend for unity of doctrine and faith among ourselves and can not avoid conflict with them. We must avoid them and refuse to fellowship with them. That is the right attitude toward erring churches according to Scripture:

“Beware of false prophets which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” Matt. 7:15.

“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.” Rom. 16:17.