Dr. Francis Pieper
1957 Synod Convention Essay
The following form of this essay in the American language is both a translation and a condensation. In its original German form with considerable additions by recording secretaries on convention discussion, this essay is found on pages 9 to 51, Synodal-Bericht, Suedlichen Districts, Missouri Lutheran Synod, 1889, delivered by the author, Dr. Francis Pieper, at Klein, Harris County, Texas.
In respect to condensation, the reader should know that it was done by omitting numerous quotations and the record of convention discussion (with one exception). Here and there some sentences of the author himself were left out or shortened, because these cases seemed like repetition. But practically all of the condensation is represented by omission of quotations and the record of convention discussion, shortening the whole of it, 42 printed pages, by about twenty- per cent.
Let us proceed to the essay to be benefited by what God says in His Word on the matter of The Difference Between Orthodox and Heterodox Churches.
Every man’s first and principal concern should be that he belong to the communion of saints, that is, to the invisible church.
By nature all people are under God’s wrath because of their sin, and are therefore children of eternal damnation. A terrible condition! But a part of mankind is delivered out of this terrible condition by conversion to Christ. Although they, too, are sinners, they are now no longer under the wrath of God: they have God’s grace. And because they have grace — forgiveness of sins — they are also no longer children of wrath, but heirs of eternal life. Who are these blessed people? They are those who believe in Christ, the believers, members of the one Holy Christian Church.
This is the Communion, the Church, outside of which there is no salvation. “Why? Because without faith in Christ no one can be saved, as it is written: “He that believeth on Him (God’s Son) is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already” (John 3:18).
Whoever would escape the wrath of God and eternal death, which he has incurred by his sin, and whoever would become partaker of the grace of God and eternal salvation, which have been gained for him by the incarnate Son of God, must be concerned above all else that he belong to the communion of saints, to that blessed class of people who believe in Christ as their Savior.
These believers are scattered over the whole earth; they are found wherever the seed of the Gospel has been sown. There are great differences of training, civilization, language, and customs among them. They do not know each other personally. And yet they are most intimately connected with one another: they are more closely related to each other than the closest relatives, for the One Holy Spirit dwells in the hearts of them all. All have the same faith: they are saved by God’s grace in Christ; all have the same mind: they are completely subject to Christ. Daily they have the same experiences: they are lost sinners, and God for Christ’s sake richly and daily forgives them all sins. And afterwards in heaven they will all have the same experiences, for their lot will be the fulness of joy and pleasures forevermore at the right hand of God.
This is the wonderful fellowship of the One Holy Christian Church. This Church is invisible in this life. Why? Because we cannot see faith, that which makes a person a Christian. Only God, who knows the hearts, can see that faith. This Church will become visible in heaven, where its members will walk no longer by faith, but by sight; where they will be glorified by seeing God; and where they will shine as the brightness of the firmament.
This is the Church spoken of in Matt. 16:18, where we read: “Upon this rock” (namely, on the confession of Christ) “I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Furthermore, Eph. 1:22: God “set Him (Christ) … to be Head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all.” So also in Eph. 2:19–22 the members of this church are described as “fellow-citizens with the saints and of the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief Corner-stone; in whom all the building, fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord.” [This is the One Holy Christian Church.]
No more is needed for salvation than membership in the invisible church. In this essay we will deal with the difference between orthodox and heterodox churches, and also of the for membership in the orthodox church. But this affiliation is not absolutely necessary; indeed, there are circumstances where it is not at all possible. Take the case of a dying man who comes to faith without being able to join a visible church. That he did not belong to a Christian congregation does not in any way deprive him of his salvation. It can happen that a Christian lives in a place where no orthodox church is found. To join a heterodox congregation is forbidden in God’s Word; but some necessary service or connection otherwise hinders him from leaving the locality. A prisoner’s situation may preclude orthodox Christian fellowship for him; and yet, if he is a believer, he has God’s grace and salvation. Membership in a Christian congregation is not necessary for salvation. But there are circumstances when such membership is necessary as a confession of faith.
Yes, without saving faith in Christ, fellowship with believers and even membership in an orthodox congregation avails nothing. Moreover, a man is a hypocrite who practices outward fellowship without having faith. Those who are members of an orthodox congregation, who have an apparent zeal for it, who distinguish strictly between orthodox and heterodox fellowship are an abomination before God if they are not believers; they are outside of the Church of Christ and in the domain of the devil. This, too, we must constantly preach; of this we must constantly remind one another. Paul exhorts the members of the Corinthian congregation, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves” (II Cor. 13:5). And when we insist that Christians should stay away from all false churches and adhere alone to the orthodox church, this also serves a purpose: that our faith may not suffer shipwreck, that we may not fall away from the fellowship of the One Holy Christian Church outside of which there is no salvation. Of the one invisible Church it is said in the Seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession: “Also they teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints” (Trigl., p. 47).
Our Confessions warn us that one must be sure not to regard this Church as an earthly association with religious rites, so that all, even the godless, who take part in these services would be members of this Church. The Apology says: “For it is necessary to understand what it is that principally makes us members, and that, living members, of the Church. If we will define the Church as only an outward polity of the good and wicked, men will not understand that the kingdom of Christ is righteousness of heart and the gift of the Holy Ghost [that the kingdom of Christ is spiritual, as nevertheless it is; that therein Christ inwardly rules, strengthens, and comforts hearts, and imparts the Holy Ghost and various spiritual gifts]” (VII, VIII, Trigl. p. 231).
The Large Catechism says in the Explanation of the words I believe in the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints: “This is the meaning and substance of this addition: I believe that there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one Head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Ghost in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms” (Trigl. p. 691).
In this communion of saints there is only one faith, and no schism. All Christians are united by one faith and one love. We not only admit that there are children of God in heterodox churches, but we also maintain that these children of God are one with us in faith. They are agreed with us in the central doctrine of Christianity: they believe that by nature they are lost but are God’s children through faith in Christ Jesus. Therefore it is said: “in one faith, one mind and understanding.” If it is asked, for example, how this is possible under the Papacy, then Luther replies that in the Pope’s church besides Baptism there remains the text of the Gospels. Whoever believes, grasps, and holds the Word of the forgiveness of sins for Christ’s sake belongs to the children of God. “Wherever Word and Sacrament essentially remain, there remains a holy Church.” (Luther)
If one claims that more is necessary for salvation than faith in Christ, then the central doctrine of justification by grace, is denied. What does it mean — to be righteous and gain salvation by grace? It means to become righteous and gain salvation through no work done by man, no matter what it is called. Therefore whoever says that membership in a visible church is unconditionally necessary for salvation, says: Man becomes righteous and gains salvation not only by grace through faith, but also by this work, the act of belonging to a visible religious group. Similarly, those err who think that anything more than membership in the communion of saints is necessary for salvation.
Secretarial Report on Discussion
The first thesis, it was added, is of highest importance. When it is not taken to heart properly, everything else in the other theses, will do no good. Indeed, then a person will only cause harm with his application of what follows. For this we have shocking examples. At a colloquy in Buffalo, the Grabau people admitted that they always proclaimed an unconditional necessity of belonging to the orthodox, visible church. To make the matter clear, Dr. Walther said to one of the Buffalo colloquists, “If I heard correctly, you hail from the United Church [a union church in Germany], where, you say, you came to faith.” This was affirmed. “Then,” Dr. Walther continued, “if you had died at that time, wouldn’t you have been saved?” The answer was “No.” Most terrifying! If this were true, faith in Christ would avail nothing until a man joined an orthodox congregation.
The divinely ordained external characteristic of the visible church is its orthodoxy. Heterodox church bodies exist only by God’s sufferance.
If a man has become a Christian, and if God does not take him immediately from earth to heaven, then he should not remain apart by himself, but should seek the fellowship of other Christians. This is God’s will. Look at the time of the Apostles. Wherever they preached, those who had come to faith through the preaching of the Apostles entered into fellowship, communion, with one another. These communions the Holy Scriptures call churches or congregations. Thus Paul speaks in I Cor. 16:19 of the “churches of Asia”; II Cor. 8:1 of the “churches of Macedonia”; I Cor. 1:2 of the “church of God at Corinth”; Acts 8:1 of the “church at Jerusalem”; yes, Rom. 16:5 of a “church in the house” of Priscilla and Aqila. These are the so-called local congregations.
To every local church Christ has given all spiritual rights and treasures [not because of external organization, but because its members are believers], as we see plainly, for example, from Matt. 18:17–20: “Tell it unto the church. But if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily I say unto you, Whatsoever ye shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say unto you, That if two of you shall agree on earth as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Every believer should, if he has the opportunity, join a Christian congregation. Concerning the local congregation, Heb. 10:25 says very expressly: “Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is. Acts 2:42 and 44 speak with praise and approval of fellowship in the local congregation: “They continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship. … And all that believed were together.” That Christian sins most grievously who does not join a Christian congregation when he has the opportunity to do so, for such affiliation is God’s will. Whoever can join a Christian fellowship but does not opposes God’s will.
Which Visible Church Should We Join?
But if we look at congregations which call themselves Christian, we see that they do not all agree in the expression of faith. Then the question of which one to join confronts the believer; or, if he already is a member of a church, as is often the case, whether he should remain in this fellowship or look for another. A Christian should and will govern himself in all things according to God’s Word. In order to answer this question, we have set up this Thesis II.
Only One True Faith
That God desires to have only an orthodox church is already manifest from the fact that God has given us the Holy Scriptures and in them has revealed all articles of Christian doctrine. As surely as God has revealed all doctrines that they be accepted in faith, even adding the threat of His wrath for adding to or diminishing ought from them, so surely God wants only an orthodox church. An orthodox church believes and confesses all the doctrines revealed in Holy Scripture.
The correctness of our Thesis is further proved by all passages of Scripture in which it is said that all Christians, regardless of nationality, shall have only one faith, the one revealed in God’s Word. In the well-known Words of I Cor. 1:10 it is said: “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 in the same judgment.” In other matters there are many differences among Christians: in those things which belong to the natural life, in culture, manner of living, etc. The Christians may also establish different forms of liturgy. But in one thing there shall be no difference, but only complete uniformity, among Christians, whether they are white or black, schooled or unschooled, namely, in faith, in doctrine. Eph. 4:3–6 proves this: “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in you alL” As certainly as all Christians shall have only one faith as revealed in Scripture, so certainly God would have the church to be orthodox. In Eph. 4:11–14 the Apostle says that Christ gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, etc. Why? That all might come to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God.
Only One Thing to Preach
That God wants the visible church to be orthodox is evident also from the commission to the divinely ordained office of the ministry. Every command of God in Scripture to preach the Word refers only to the preaching of the pure Word. When the Lord says, “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature”, (Mark 16:15), He expressly adds, “teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20). In Jer. 23:28 the Lord says to the preachers: “He that hath My Word, let him speak My Word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? saith the Lord.” The mark of a true preacher, according to Scripture, is that he preaches God’s Word rightly, that is, without admixture of his own thoughts. In II Cor. 2:17 Paul confesses of himself: “For we are not as many, which corrupt the Word of God.” But those preachers who depart from God’s Word, who mix truth with error, are threatened with God’s wrath: “Behold, I am against the prophets, saith the Lord, that use their tongues and say, He saith. Behold, I am against them that prophesy false dreams, saith the Lord, and do tell them, and cause My people to err by their lies and by their lightness; yet I sent them not nor commanded them; therefore they shall not profit this people at all, saith the Lord.” (Jer. 23:31–32).
Hear Only God’s Word
That God wants the church to be orthodox is evident also from the description which Scripture gives of the Christians. Christ says, “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them and they follow Me.” (John 10:27). According to the Scriptures it belongs to the make-up of a Christian that he hears only the voice of Christ, by faith adheres solely to God’s Word. Insofar as Christians depart from the Word of Christ, they follow another and deny Christ. In praise of the Jerusalem congregation it is said: “They continued steadfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine” (Acts 2:42).
Avoid False Teachers
All Christians are expressly warned to guard themselves carefully against false prophets. “Beware of false prophets,” Christ exhorts them in Matt. 7:15. And St. John enjoins upon them, 2 John 10: “If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine” — the doctrine of Christ — “receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed” — a brother in the faith.
Yes, the orthodoxy of the church is such a serious thing that in the Old Testament, when God employed bodily punishments in the church, He commanded His believers to stone the false prophet who led the people away from the Lord’s commands, even if that false prophet were the nearest relative. We read in that noteworthy passage of Deut. 13:6–10: “If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly saying, Let us go and serve other gods which thou hast not known, thou nor thy fathers: namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you, nigh unto thee, or far from thee, from one end of the earth even unto the other end of the earth; thou shall not consent unto him nor hearken unto him, neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him; but thou shalt surely kill him; thy hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die.” So God had ordained it in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, this bodily punishment is expressly done away with. But by this Old Testament law, God has shown that the orthodoxy of the church is a most serious matter. In the New Testament, Paul declares something similar when in Gal. 1:9 he pronounces the curse upon all who stubbornly falsify God’s Word.
Names of the Church
That God desires only an orthodox church is evident also from the names which are given to the church in the Holy Scriptures. In 1 Tim. 3:15 it is called the house of God — a spiritual house that God has built for Himself, and in which God alone is Master. As in an orderly home the father’s word prevails, so in the church, God’s house, God’s Word alone should rule, and that in every sense of the term. Therefore the preachers must preach only the Word of God. Whoever sets God’s Word aside deposes God from being Master of the house. The preachers, as stewards in God’s spiritual house, must demonstrate their faithfulness by preaching, not their own wisdom, but the pure Word of God. “If any man speak, let him speak as the oracles of God; if any man minister, let him do it as of the ability which God giveth; that God in all things be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom be praise and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (1 Pet. 4:11).
The church is called God’s and Christ’s kingdom (John 18:36). As the word of an earthly king rules in his domain, so in the spiritual kingdom, the kingdom of Christ, Christ’s Word alone should rule, for Christ has made His Word the law in His kingdom. He says in John 8:31–32, “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.” In Is. 8:20 we read: “To the law and to the testimony! If they speak not according to this Word, it is because there is no light in them.”
Since the church is called the bride of Christ, it should cleave solely to Him. This is done first and foremost when it heeds the Word of Christ alone, in faith adheres to His Word alone, and permits nothing to lead it away from that Word.
Whenever the church listens to the word of another, it becomes unfaithful to Christ; hence, the Israelitic church, when it fell away from God, is often called an adulteress. The church is exhorted in Ps. 45:10–11: “Hearken, O daughter, and consider and incline thine ear; forget also thine own people and thy father’s house; so shall the King greatly desire thy beauty; for He is thy Lord; and worship thou Him.” Paul warns the Corinthians, II Cor. 11:2–3, against false doctrines in such a manner that he reminds them how the church as the bride of Christ should not allow herself to be led away from God’s Word and in that way be defiled.
But there actually exists many heterodox churches, that is, such as do not in all parts remain with the divinely revealed truth. That there would be such religious groups is foretold in Scripture. Therefore this fact should not seem strange to us. Paul says to the elders of Ephesus, Acts 20:29–30: “For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. Also of your ow11 selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.” These men who will speak false doctrine will succeed in gaining a following. In 1 Cor. 11:19 the Apostle actually says: “There must also be heresies” — that is, parties which will spread false doctrine — “among you.”
Why Churches Exist
Now we ask: What is God’s will concerning heterodox church bodies? Especially in our time, the claim is often made that it is God’s will that there should be various churches with varying faiths. The different confessions, it is said, are the inevitable result of God’s leading of persons and nations of different characteristics into the church. Therefore the different tendencies in the church, they say, have equal rights. It is said that we demand too much when we maintain that all Christians should have the same faith. This view is as wrong as it is general.
As surely as God has revealed only one doctrine in the Holy Scriptures, and as surely as He commands all Christians to accept this one doctrine and forbids every departure from it, so surely it is displeasing to God that there are heterodox churches. That such churches exist is not desired by God; they exist only by God’s sufferance. God’s universal rule over all things has no more to do with the existence of heterodox churches than with any other sin. Nor does this contradict the truth that there are dear children of God in heterodox churches.
Even in heterodox churches, wherever parts of God’s Word are still preached, souls are converted to God. But God does not want them to exist as heterodox churches, bodies which depart in one or more ways from God’s Word. This we must maintain firmly on the basis of God’s Word. We must remember what these heterodox bodies are as such: churches which have inscribed false doctrine on their banner and have established a separatistic body. The Reformed, for example, have a false teaching concerning Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, namely, that Baptism is not a washing of regeneration, and that in the Lord’s Supper the true body and blood of Christ are not present.
But why does God suffer heterodox churches to arise? The Word of God answers that: It is not that God would have heterodox bodies together with orthodox bodies for the sake of variety in the garden of His church, but that Christians keep their distance from heterodox churches. Indeed I Cor. 11:19 says: “There must be also heresies among you”; but then He does not add: God wants it that way in the church, and now you have the free choice to belong to any kind of group; rather: “That they which are approved may be made manifest among you.” God suffers the formation of sects to prove His own, whether they are sincere and honest about His Word, even when under very deceptive circumstances they may be tempted to depart form His Word and cling to error.
We see this (God’s testing of His people) in Deut. 13:3, where we read concerning a false prophet who comes with signs and wonders, “Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It is a time of trial for the Christian when by God’s sufferance false prophets come. God then tests the obedience of His believers. For it is not God’s will that Christians should join with the false prophets, but that they should keep away from them, follow the voice of their Shepherd only, and thus reveal themselves as the lambs of Christ, as Luther says in his writings against Hans Worst: “When it happens that men become disagreed in doctrine, it has this effect, that it separates them and reveals who the true Christians are, namely, those who have the Word of God in all its purity and excellence.” (Erlanger Ed. 26, 28).
Therefore a Christian should not be indifferent about which church group he joins; but he has God’s earnest command to distinguish sharply between orthodox and heterodox churches and, avoiding all church fellowship with the heterodox, adhere only to the orthodox church.
If, as we have seen in the second thesis, it is true that God wants only orthodox churches, and if the existence of heterodox churches is to be attributed only to divine sufferance, then “a Christian should not be indifferent about which church group he joins.” Many Christians, believing that it makes no difference which church group a Christian joins, act accordingly. When they come to a place, they join any kind of Protestant church that may be found there. There are people who successively were Reformed, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist — depending upon the place where they lived. We should not be surprised when this happens among the sects, for they are not certain about their distinctive doctrines because they are not grounded in God’s Word. But even would-be Lutherans who confess that the doctrine they have learned from the Lutheran Catechism is the correct one often have few misgivings about joining heterodox congregations. And so they act as though it makes little difference to which church group a Christian belongs. This is altogether wrong. This would be the case only if there were no difference between orthodox and heterodox churches in the sight of God.
But there is a great difference as we have seen in our second thesis — a difference so great that God wants only the orthodox church, and clearly condemns heterodox churches. Therefore it is the duty of every Christian to distinguish sharply between orthodox and heterodox churches. God expressly requires this. “Beloved,” we read in I John 4:1, “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world.” And the Lord Jesus exhorts all believers, Matt 7:15: “Beware of false prophets.” Those Christians who will not distinguish between true and false prophets, between orthodox and heterodox churches, are disobedient to an express command of God.
Who Is Orthodox?
In our day people do not make this distinction at all or they look at it in the wrong way. They not only fail to make it the Christian’s duty to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches, but they even declare it to be a Christian virtue when someone pays no attention to doctrinal differences. they call it presumptuous when a church body maintains that in all articles of Christian faith it has revealed the truth of God’s Word.
The sectarians also speak of “the orthodox,” that is, right believing preachers and churches. These sectarians, however, do not adhere to all doctrines of the Christian faith, but, in the general falling away, still confess at least a few fundamental doctrines. They call such groups orthodox which perhaps still teach that the Bible is God’s Word, that Christ is God’s Son, that through conversion man comes to God, and that through faith in Christ man can be saved, even though at the same time they deny other doctrines clearly revealed in Gods Word. But this can nevermore be called a proper manner of distinguishing between orthodox and heterodox churches. Whoever judges according to God’s Word can call only those churches and teachers orthodox which are obedient to God’s command, add nothing to His Word, and take nothing away from it.
If therefore you ask on what basis a Christian must distinguish between churches, the answer is, “On the basis of faith, on the basis of doctrine.” Sound and sure judgment is possible only in this way. One can never judge rightly by looking only to see whether there is good Christian order in a congregation or whether the minister gives the impression of being a pious man. All that can be mere sheep’s clothing which conceals the errorist, as Christ says in Matt. 7:15, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing.” Moreover, you cannot judge on the basis that a man appeals to Scripture and quotes Scripture; the Christian must insist that also the doctrine of Scripture is actually taught. The devil, too, in the temptation of Christ, quoted Scripture.
Signs and Wonders
Yes, Christians should also not allow themselves to be bribed by signs and wonders, for they can be only illusions, deceptions, of Satan. God called the attention of His believers to this in the Old Testament, in Dent. 13:1–3: “If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder, and the sign or the wonder come to pass whereof he spake unto thee, saying, let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; thou shall not hearken unto the words of that prophet or dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” This is a very effective passage to show that in judging churches and teachers, we should look at the doctrine alone, to see whether they teach the Word of God purely and clearly. Signs and wonders are not infallibly distinguishing marks; they should make an impression on us only when they are accompanied by correct doctrine. If false doctrine is present, we should designate him who presents it as a false prophet, no matter how astounding the things he shows us may be.
According to II Thess. 2, the Pope’s “coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders.” Of the Last Times Christ says, Matt. 24:24: “There shall arise false Christs and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” So it is clear that Christians have the duty to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches on the basis of doctrine.
Laymen Can Judge
But can the Christians judge? Are they able to do so? Certainly! Christ gives them this obligation, thereby implying that by God’s grace they can do so. Many have the opinion that only pastors are in a position to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches. But this is altogether false. All Christians, not only the pastors, are exhorted by the Lord in Matt. 7:15, “Beware of false prophets.” And John says: “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone into the world.” (1 John 4:1). This passage, also, is addressed to all Christians alike.
Christ has so arranged it that all His dear believers, the unlearned as well as the learned, can distinguish between truth and falsehood in spiritual things. He has revealed all doctrines in thoroughly clear passages, which can be understood by the unlearned as well as the learned. The Holy Scriptures are a testimony that make wise also the simple (Ps. 19:7). Therefore, when a Christian simply abides by the Word of Scripture, he can very well distinguish between truth and error.
That Christians are confused sometimes and imagine that they do not know which is the true doctrine is due to the fact that they lose sight of the Word of Scripture, that they want to judge with their blind reason and not with God’s Word.
The Word of God refutes all errors as soon as it is brought into the discussion. For example, once there was a dispute in a Methodist gathering concerning perfect sanctification of a Christian in this life. The majority maintained that a Christian could be completely sinless here on earth. Then one man arose and said that he had committed no sin for years! Another arose and, instead of making a long reply, simply quoted I John 1:8: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So before them all, the error was refuted by the clear Word of God. And so it is with all teaching.
The Christian who knows Luther’s Small Catechism can defend himself with this knowledge against all error, for the fundamental articles of Christian doctrine are the very ones against which the errorists offend.
We distinguish between erring churches and the godless mass of people on the outside. The latter may be an association which, although they still call themselves churches, teach nothing of the saving Gospel; or, as our fathers expressed it, such as no longer have any essential parts of the revealed, saving truth. Their doctrine can bring no one to saving faith. Examples in our day are the Unitarian groups; they do not teach the Triune God and consequently fail to teach that Jesus Christ is truly God and that He as true God become man in order to redeem mankind through His substitutionary life, suffering, and death. No one within this association can come to faith in Christ as the Savior of sinners. This group and similar ones no longer merit the name “Christian fellowship.” They are completely outside of the Christian Church. This judgment agrees with Article I of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession.
We do not place these completely unchristian group on the same level with heterodox churches. In all heterodox bodies it is still confessed that Christ is God’s Son and that He died for the redemption of man, although indeed at the same time many errors are also taught. But souls can still come to faith in these erring churches. vVe are here not dealing with the difference between the orthodox church and the world, but with the difference between orthodox and heterodox churches, between those churches which confess the revealed truth in all articles of doctrine and those churches which reject the truth and confess error in a number of teachings.
Practice What You Preach
Therefore a Christian can and must distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches, and he should then also act according to this knowledge. Avoiding all fellowship with the heterodox, he should adhere to the true church. God’s Word declares this in all passages which admonish us not to hear false teachers, but to flee from them. By belonging to heterodox congregations you will be hearing their heterodox teachers, and so do the very opposite of what Christ has commanded with respect to false teachers. The passages used before belong here also — Matt. 7:15: “Beware of false prophets,” and II John 10:11: “If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine” — the doctrine revealed in God’s Word, the doctrine of Christ — “receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed,” namely, as a brother in the faith. That one should not become a member of a heterodox fellowship we see from Acts 20:30–31, where the Apostle warns, “Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them. Therefore watch and remember that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears”; that is to say, abide in the true doctrine which in the last three years I have taught you, and have nothing to do with those who speak “perverse things.”
II Corinthians 6:14–18
II Cor. 6:14–18 says most expressly: “Be not ye unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.”
Objections have been raised against the application of this passage as proof that God has forbidden fellowship with heterodox churches. The objectors maintain that this passage speaks of unbelievers, and not of erring believers. But erring churches, insofar as they err, are also unbelieving. They are unbelieving with respect to quite a number of Bible passages. And to this they add the great evil that on the basis of their errors they have established sectarian communions in the Christian church. Thereby they split up Christendom and fight against the orthodox church.
Word for word II Cor. 6 applies to the erring churches insofar as they are such. It says: “What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?” To preach false doctrine and to believe false doctrine is the greatest wickedness there is: a sin against the First Commandment. Luther stresses this so frequently. He always repeats: “False doctrine is sin against the First Commandment.” Whoever sets God’s Word aside, twists God’s Word around, puts his own meaning into God’s Word — he does not permit God to be his God; he acts wickedly. God often says in His Word: “Thou shalt not steal.” But just as clearly and even more often we find it said in Scripture: Thou shalt not believe false doctrine; Thou shalt not preach false doctrine; Thou shalt not hear false doctrine. Now just as He is wicked who transgresses God’s Word by stealing, so he is especially wicked who, contrary to the equally clear commandment of God, preaches, accepts, or promotes false doctrine, in any measure or form. When God says that you must not steal, then you must not steal even a little bit. The same applies to the matter of hearing and preaching false doctrine. One becomes a partaker of wickedness by spreading or advancing even only one doctrinal error. The first part of Christian righteousness and Christian life is the trusting acceptance of all of the Word of God.
We read further: “What communion hath light with darkness?” False doctrine is darkness, and true, revealed doctrine is the light in this world.
“What concord hath Christ with Belial?” All false doctrine is the work of the devil. It is the lie in spiritual things against God. And the real father of this lying is the devil. Whoever deals in false doctrine is doing the devil’s work.
“What agreement hath the temple of God with idols?” The church is God’s temple because God’s Word resounds in it. Whenever man’s doctrine — error — is preached in the church, the worship of a different god is taught than the true One who has revealed Himself in Scripture. Yes, whenever a doctrine different from God’s Word is proclaimed in the church, the house of God is turned into a temple of idols.
That the coming-out-from-among-them (II Cor. 6) applies in particular to separating from the heterodox, is set forth in Rom. 16:17 where we read: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.”
This objection is raised: “You yourselves admit that also in heterodox bodies there still are children of God, and yet by separating yourselves from these churches, you separate yourselves from the children of God in them; yet, you condemn these believers. In that case, isn’t it better to practice fellowship with the heterodox?” First of all we answer No! It cannot be better because God expressly forbids us to do this. Moreover, we do not separate ourselves from the children of God among the sects, but from the sects as such. The sects separate these dear children of God from us.
They hold those who belong to us captive among themselves. So these believers must outwardly support a wicked cause while in their heart they belong to us. These children of God would, of course, come over to us at once if they were better instructed.
It is also for the benefit of the children of God among the heterodox that we refuse fellowship to the churches. Thereby we are constantly reminding them that they are in the wrong camp.
We do not cause any divisions in the church when we avoid the fellowship of the heterodox. According to Romans 16:17 they who teach doctrines contrary to the revealed truth cause divisions and offenses in the church. Whoever adheres to false teachers and thereby strengthens their stand, causes divisions in the church. But whoever avoids false teachers and their followers and practices no fellowship with them is engaged in the holy work of preventing divisions within Christendom. But, sad to say, the devil has been successful here in distorting the language and the meaning of the Bible. The destroyers of unity are called the promoters of unity and those who promote unity as Scripture teaches are called destroyers of unity.
Avoiding all church fellowship with the heterodox does not bar us from civil association with them, neither does it bar us from speaking a bout scriptural things with them. I Pet. 3:15–16 exhorts us: “Be ready always to give answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ.” The heterodox should see that we have no passion for quarreling and condemning, that we are God-fearing, truth-loving, peaceful people who act as we do only because we fear God’s Word.
By the command of God which forbids fellowship with the heterodox, everything is forbidden whereby we strengthen the evil work of the heterodox body. Therefore Christians should under no circumstances become members of heterodox churches. If a Christian finds himself in a place where there is no orthodox church, he must be content with private worship the home, for God has nowhere given release from this Word: “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrmy to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17).
This divine command to avoid the heterodox bars us from contributing to the building fund of sects or even of the Roman church, for thereby they are promoted. When he is approached for such a contribution, a Christian should briefly and earnestly give the reason for refusing his support. He should openly state that according to God’s Word he is obliged to reject the false doctrine which the heterodox church teaches, and that he therefore cannot help to bring it into house and home. One should not brush off those who desire an offering by saying that he has no money, etc., for then they might believe that you are merely too stingy to give them something. No, here is the opportunity to confess your faith frankly and openly.
Only in the orthodox church is God given the honor which He requires; and only in it are souls rightly cared for. Fellowship with heterodox churches militates against God’s honor and is a constant danger to the soul.
God’s Word revealed in Scripture is God’s honor. As God in His Word has revealed Himself to us human beings, so He wants to be honored and worshipped by us human beings. As men stand towards God’s Word, so they stand towards God. This we dare not forget. We mortal beings have God here on earth only in His Word. When by God’s grace we have arrived in yonder life, we shall see God face to face. Whoever seeks God here on earth must seek Him in His Word; whoever wants to keep company with God must keep company with God’s Word; whoever claims that he loves God must prove his love by loving God’s Word, as Christ expressly says: “If a man love Me, he will keep My words” (John 14:23).
We Honor God in His Word
Therefore we also say, “Whoever would honor God must honor Him in His Word.” And what does this include? We must accept all of God’s Word as unbreakable truth. We must accept God’s words as they read, and not take the liberty to explain things away — misconstrue them — because the openly expressed sense of a passage is against our reason. Neither have we the right to make a choice of the doctrines revealed in the Bible, accepting some but rejecting others. God’s honor demands that we accept and keep all His words.
Let us now apply this difference between the orthodox and the heterodox. In the orthodox church all of God’s Word is respected as truth to be kept unbroken; all words of God are accepted as they read, without any forced explanations; all doctrines revealed in Holy Scriptures are believed and confessed. Thus in the orthodox church God is honored in all His words; to Him alone is given that honor which He demands. In the heterodox church, on the other hand, not all of God’s Word, revealed by God in the Holy Scriptures, is accepted.
But heterodox leaders assure us that they place God’s honor above everything and seek to honor God in all things. Let us maintain this over against them, that God is respected in His Word. They must demonstrate that they honor God in all things by letting God’s Word as it reads be the decided factor in all teaching. If they assent to God’s Word in all teaching, good! Then, indeed, they truly honor God; then they cease to be heterodox. But if they continue to misconstrue the Holy Scriptures, to twist them and cast the Word behind them, then they, in spite of their assurance to the contrary, should not try to talk us into believing that they honor God.
Take the case of an earthly king. His subjects must demonstrate that they honor him by submitting to the laws which he issues. Christ is the King in His church, in His spiritual kingdom. He has made His revealed Word, Holy Scripture, the Law of His kingdom. He requires of His spiritual subjects that they accept all of His Word. When someone misconstrues His Word and rejects parts of it, then he is in rebellion against Christ as the sole Ruler in His kingdom. And if in this matter a man acts very humble and pious, then that is either great ignorance or pure hypocrisy.
Let us by no means forget that God is either honored or despised by man’s attitude toward His Word. We too easily lose sight of this truth. We rather put at the head of the list certain outward, striking works by which we are to manifest our Christianity. Works of charity toward the needy and forsaken are regarded above others as signs of genuine piety. Of course these works must be found in a believer’s life. Whoever fails to do them, although God requires these works, too, will one day hear from the mouth of Christ, “I was an hungered, and ye gave Me no meat,” etc.; “Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41).
But the first and foremost work by which a man gives proof of his Christianity is and remains this: From the heart he fears God’s majestic Word, believes it, submits to it, takes nothing away from it, but confesses it wholly and fully. God says: “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My Word” (Is. 66:2); “If a man love Me, he will keep My words” (John 14:23).
To accept God’s Word in humble faith is obedience to the First Commandment. As surely as the First Table of the holy Ten Commandments precedes the Second, so surely the trusting acceptance of His Word is also the first part of God-pleasing piety. This first part of piety is also the foundation for all other good works. Without a sincere fear of God’s Word, all external works, though they be ever so impressive in the eyes of men, are worthless before God. Let us never forget what Luther says so often: Doctrinal error, the departing from God’s Word, is sin against the First Commandment. Whenever a man separates himself from Holy Writ, he separates himself from God’s authority, follows other gods, and profanes the name of God.
No Harm Is Meant
The objection is raised that the heterodox mean no harm. Of course the Christians in heterodox circles mean no harm; it is due to their ignorance that they do not confess the whole Word of God. But the founders and leaders of the sects have evil purposes; and the devil, the originator of all false doctrine, would rob God of His honor, and souls of their salvation. But if it is said, “In heterodox churches they are only indifferent to Scripture,” the reply should be made, “Indifference to Scripture is disrespect for God. A Christian should not be indifferent; rather, God’s Word should stand higher in his estimation than everything in the world. Christ says: ‘Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be call the least in the kingdom of heaven’ (Matt. 5:19).” We must say with Luther: “I feel that every Word of God makes the world too narrow for me.” That is honoring God rightly.
Luther writes that God does not want to be worshipped with such service and teaching as men have chosen. (Cf. St. L. Ed., 721, par. 271.) He writes also: “Where God reveals Himself in His Word, there serve Him; there show Him honor. Then you are truly God-fearing, as you should be. — Therefore we tread upon Pope, factions, and sects. We are not afraid of them; neither do we honor those who establish a worship of God of their own invention, outside of and against God’s Word, who condemn the true religion and correct teaching and call it heresy. They fear where there is no cause to fear; and where there is cause to fear, they do not fear at all.” (St. L. Ed., I:1538, pars. 169–170.)
Let us show how God’s honor is diminished when His doctrine is altered.
God’s Word teaches that Christ has redeemed all people and that God would have all men to be saved. To honor God rightly, we must believe that God does not desire the death of a single sinner, but that according to God’s will each sinner should by faith in Christ obtain eternal life. Take note of how God is dishonored and what a false picture is drawn of Him by the false teaching which claims that God has redeemed and would save only a part of mankind! No, the truth is this: As the light of the sun is universal and shines on all people, so in Christ the divine sun of grace is risen upon all people without exception, which should give them light unto spiritual and eternal life.
The Scriptures teach that those who obtain salvation are converted and saved solely by God’s grace in Christ, so that no man can glory in himself above others, but each one must confess: “That I am now converted, that Thou alone hast done.” But the “synergists” maintain that a man by his own efforts, by his better conduct, etc., brings about his conversion. They do not give God alone the glory for their conversion and salvation, but ascribe this glory partly to themselves.
The Reformed and all reformed sects deny the Real Presence of body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. Thereby they detract from God’s honor. Apart from the fact that these do not accord Christ the honor of believing His Word, consider this: How gloriously the love of Christ beams on us poor sinners when we in accordance with His Word firmly hold that He even gives His body and blood as a seal for the assurance of the forgiveness of our sins! Whoever vitally understands this, will in his heart rightly sing and rejoice before God. Whoever, on the other hand, regards the Lord’s Supper as a mere memorial feast in which there is nothing else present than bread and wine, in his heart no such praise will be found.
All Bible Doctrines Serve Our Salvation
God has our salvation in mind in each doctrine — that we come to faith in Christ, are kept in faith, and thus by the power of God through faith are preserved unto salvation. What we read at the end of John’s Gospel (20:30) applies to all Scripture: “These (things) are written, that ye might believe,” etc. Whoever cuts off a part of Bible doctrine cuts off a part of that which should bring him to faith and keep him in it. We read in II Tim. 3:16: “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness.” And in Rom. 15:4: “For whatsoever things were written aforetime“ namely, all Scriptures of the Old Testament “were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the Scriptures have hope.”
Assurance by Grace Alone
Whoever falsifies the doctrine that we by grace alone, for Christ’s sake, through faith in Christ have forgiveness of sins and eternal life; whoever ascribes the obtaining of God’s grace altogether or in part to our works or better conduct: he makes it impossible for us to be sure of God’s grace and our salvation. For whoever has an awakened conscience and knows anything about himself must confess with Paul that in him — that in his flesh, — dwelleth no good thing, Now if grace and salvation rest even only in part on our own worthiness, then we can never be sure of them, but must spend our life in doubt and uncertainty.
How soul-destroying the teaching of work-righteousness is, we can see in Luther. In spite of his honorable and strict life, he sank ever deeper into doubt concerning God’s grace. And he would have been ruined in body and soul if he had not by God’s grace come to the knowledge that the forgiveness of sins does not rest on our works, but solely on God’s mercy in Christ. With this knowledge the certainty of grace entered his heart.
Free Grace Denied
Among the sects the teaching is mostly such that grace-hungry souls can have no sure comfort. The almost universal rule of sectarian preachers is to offer the comfort of the Gospel only when sinners beforehand have improved themselves and sin less, while at the same time the true Christian knows: There can be no betterment as long as a person does not believe in the grace of God.
Need of Spiritual Comfort
A person who comes to the knowledge of his sins needs much comfort. Therefore God has opened manifold channels of comfort in the means of grace which He has ordained. God blesses us with the forgiveness of sins not only by the preaching of the Gospel, but also through holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, wherein He bestows upon and seals for each sinner in particular the forgiveness of sins. It is written that we are baptized “for the forgiveness of sins”; it is written that in the Lord’s Supper Christ gives us that body which was given for us and that blood which was shed for us — as a pledge and seal of the forgiveness of sins which we have through Christ’s suffering and death.
Yes, Christ has also ordained Absolution in the words, “Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them” (John 20:23), so that when a poor sinner hears the absolution out of man’s mouth, he can be certain his sins are forgiven before God in heaven.
The Divine Foundation
It is, of course, true that if someone on the basis of the Gospel, yes, on the basis of only one passage (for example, “For God so loved the world,” etc.: “The blood of Jesus Christ,” etc.) believes the forgiveness of sins, he really has forgiveness of sins — in fact, all the spiritual gifts merited by Christ — and can be saved. His faith which is based on only one Gospel passage has a divine foundation. For that reason many within sectarian churches are saved, although they are hindered by sectarian error from making the right use of their Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and Absolution.
There is, of course, a great difference between those who grow up in heterodox churches and who for lack of knowledge remain in them — they can be saved in spite of their unknown sins — and those who from childhood have learned the truth but transfer to a heterodox church in order to please men, for the sake of convenience, or perhaps even on account of some rebuke administered to them in the orthodox church. The latter commit a wilful sin which becomes a hindrance to their salvation. The fact that people in heterodox churches can be saved cannot benefit us who know that a Christian should not be found in such a church.
Three Brooks and Unionism
The harm of union between the orthodox and the heterodox can be made clear by an example. Three neighboring farmers each have a brook. The one brook has dear, pure water; the second has cloudy, muddy water; and the third has stagnant, impure water. The proposal is made to combine the three brooks in order to form a bigger, more important looking stream. “No,” says the owner of the pure water, “I want to keep my water clear. If you wish clear water, then get it from me; I’ll still have enough.” Likewise the orthodox church should refuse union with heterodox churches, in order that the water of life may not be mixed with any deadly ingredients.
The Word Must Remain Sure
The danger of staying in a heterodox church becomes clearly evident when considered from still another point of view. It is necessary above all that the Word of God remain immovably and incontestably certain for a Christian. Therefore David prays, Ps. 119:88: “Stablish Thy Word unto Thy servant.”
In Temptation and Death
When a sinner is in temptation and in the throes of death, when the waters of Belial roar about him and the foe accuses and assails him with the charge that he is a shameful sinner and therefore damned: there is only one deliverance. Then such words as these must be impressed upon him: “The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (I John 1:7); “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (I Tim. 1:1.5). If a sinner accepts these words as they read and regards them as sure and certain words, then he has comfort in the midst of death, and his heart becomes peaceful in the mightiest storm of temptation. But in heterodox churches the Word of God is constantly made uncertain for the Christian. Several examples should make this clear.
They who claim that Baptism is not a means of grace, no washing of regeneration, must continually deny these words of Scripture, “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). “Repent, and be baptized, every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and yo shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost” (Acts 2:38). “Not the works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost” (Tit. 8:5).
Whoever denies the Real Presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper must pervert the words of Institution where Christ, speaking of that which He gives His Christians to eat, says: “This is My body,” and speaking of that which He gives them to drink, says: “This is My blood.” Likewise the words in I Cor. 10:16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?”
In Conversion and Salvation
Whoever fails to acknowledge that conversion and salvation are dependent solely on the grace of God, but makes them dependent also on the conduct of man, must actually strike out hundreds of Bible passages which testify of the spiritual death, the through-and-through corrupted nature of man, its enmity against God, etc. (Eph. 2:1; Col. 2:13f.; Gen. 8:21; John 3:5; Rom. 8:7; I Cor. 2:14.) Moreover, he must strike out all those Bible passages which ascribe the working of faith to the grace and power of God (Eph. 1:19–20; Phil. 1:29); he must strike out all those Bible passages which declare that we are righteous through faith alone (Rom. 3:28,24; I Cor. 4:7), and that we are kept by the power of God unto Salvation (I Pet. 1:5; Phil. 1:6).
Danger to the Soul
In order to defend falsehood, the heterodox must continually deny God’s truth. It is rightly said, “It takes nine lies to maintain one lie.” Whoever allows himself to ignore or cut some truths out of Scripture must beware lest the devil make doubtful to him in the hour of death the clear Word that says, “The blood of Jesus Christ, His Son, cleanseth us from all sin” (I John 1:7). Therefore, staying in heterodox churches is a very dangerous thing for the soul. You must avoid them so that you may retain a firm and certain Word of God. As those two hundred who in their simplicity followed Absolom had to share the danger of rebels, so also those Christians who are among the heterodox must share the danger for the soul which false teaching brings with it.
One Error Begets Others
Furthermore, consider this: All doctrines of the Bible are connected with one another. One error draws in others after it. Zwingli’s first error was the denial of the presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. In order to support this error, he had to invent a false doctrine of Christ’s person, of heaven, of the right hand of God, etc. If one error is held, the whole Word of God logically falls, and it is then only by God’s grace that all divine truths are not torn out of the heart by the devil.
Luther strikingly answers the objection of the Zwinglians, that they erred in one point only and that therefore church fellowship should not be denied them, using Gal. 5:9: “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” (See Luther’s Commentary on Galatians.)
It appears strange to many that we cling so firmly to pure doctrine; people call this obstinancy or love for disputation on our part; but our conscience is bound in the Word of God.
The Power of Error
The first part of faithfulness to God is simple, humble abiding in His Word. Every departure from God’s Word, every error, is dangerous to the soul. There is a terrible, a diabolical power in error, for every error is the devil’s work; and through fellowship with error a man puts himself under the influence of Satan. Here human reason is helpless. The Papacy is an example. Although reason recognizes its errors, reason does not offer any security against being misled by it. We see wise, intelligent people ensnared and caught by the Papacy, unable to free themselves from its uncanny hold; whoever is not rescued by God’s strong hand will never get out.
Let us beware therefore, lest by practicing church fellowship with the heterodox we carelessly place ourselves into danger and so lose our salvation.
We should regard membership in the orthodox church not only as a duty, but also as the greatest blessing and highest honor, even if the orthodox church outwardly bears a humble form.
This thesis is a simple deduction from the foregoing. If God has commanded fellowship with the orthodox church — and that, as we have seen, is the case — then this fellowship is our duty: a duty for every Christian under all circumstances. God never permits transgressions of the First Commandment, nor has He ever said to any Christian, “You may cultivate church fellowship with false teachers as though they were your brothers in the faith.” Rather, God has simply said: “Avoid them”; that is, avoid all who cause divisions and offenses contra1y to the doctrine which you have learned (Rom. 16:17). Whoever has church fellowship with the heterodox is disobeying God.
But we should not look upon fellowship with the orthodox church merely as a duty in the sense of being a bitter must. For a Christian who has learned to know God as his dear, gracious Father is happy when he knows that in a certain matter he is doing God’s will. In those works which God commands him, the Christian walks as in a paradise.
Therefore we should look upon membership in the orthodox church as a most glorious privilege, as a great proof of God’s grace, for which we can never sufficiently thank God. We have not provided this treasure for ourselves, but it is the grace of God which has led us into this church. Therefore, we must, if we reflect only a bit, thank God daily that we are members of the Church of the Reformation.
Heterodox churches are perpetually mobilized against the orthodox, against that church which in conformity with the will of God confesses the whole truth. The heterodox insult and persecute those who abide in God’s Word. Surely an evil work! For Christ says He will regard that which is inflicted upon those who confess Him as being done to Him. Those Christians who are in heterodox churches support this evil work and become guilty of persecuting Christ. (Acts 9:4; I Cor. 15:9.)
Next to our conversion, we regard our membership in the orthodox church as the greatest manifestation of God’s grace.
The orthodox church is not a pure church in every respect. Godless people mingle with the godly in it. Together with the godly in the orthodox church there are hypocrites, people who use the expression “pure doctrine” only with their mouth and who act as Christians only outwardly, but whose heart is far from God. These are an abomination to God, and, when they become manifest, a disgrace to the church. The godly members are and remain poor sinners who must daily pray the Fifth Petition. But in spite of this the orthodox church is clothed with a glory, for it alone has God’s Word in its truth and purity and it alone adheres to the truth.
True Church: Small, Unpopular
The orthodox church outwardly bears a very humble form. This can become a stumbling-block for the Christians, if they are not on guard against their Old Adam, causing them to be ashamed of their church and hanker after sectarian churches whose splendor impresses the natural eye. But, we ask, what is the cause? Why does the true church often appear so lowly? Is it not because of its faithfulness to Scripture? Because in teaching it is earnestly concerned with God’s Word? Because in obedience to God it does not remain silent over against error but condemns error? Because it is loyal to Scripture and does not look upon truth and error as having equal rights? Because it seriously applies the Lord’s Holy Word to life? Because it enjoins upon rich and poor alike that all who name the name of Christ must depart from iniquity? And because it declares that whoever lives in conformity with the world will be lost with the world? Yes, these are the things the orthodox Lutheran Church does, and because it does these things, it is often small and unpopular.
Would it not be disgraceful if we would be ashamed of this church because of its outward lowliness, which in reality is an honor? Would it not be disgraceful if we would prefer membership in a heterodox church because it is more prominent and counts for more in the eyes of the world? All heterodox churches deny that divine truth, the Word of Scripture, is the sole source of doctrine and they permit all kinds of human opinions to stand. They court the wisdom of this world and the ungodly life which accompanies it, and their unfaithfulness to God brings them the honor of the world.
Some time ago a respected Presbyterian pastor in St. Louis confessed that if he would try to have God’s Word rule in his congregation as it does with us, his whole congregation would scatter within a month.
Let us not be ashamed of the external lowliness of the orthodox church; else we are ashamed of Jesus Himself and of His holy Gospel. The Lord Jesus walked about on earth in lowly form as a poor Man. And yet at that time all were required to follow Him. We condemn the scribes and Pharisees and all such in Israel who would not follow Jesus because of His lowly appearance. Now let us take heed that we do not commit the same sin! What Christ taught, the true church teaches; and as in the days of His flesh He appeared in the form of a servant, so the true church occupies a lowly position. We dare never let this fact keep us from membership; we should join it with pleasure and joyfully confess its teaching. Whoever denies the orthodox church denies Christ.
Let us evermore look at the matter with the right kind of spiritual eyes. The orthodox church is the most beautiful and glorious church, for it is adorned with God’s Word. Now if an orthodox congregation consisted only of poverty-stricken people, of nothing but woodchoppers, and even if it assembled for worship in a barn, still every Christian would far, far rather have fellowship in such a humble congregation, then fellowship in a heterodox group of wealthy people with a church built of blocks of marble.
There are Lutherans who look upon their congregation as a kind of second-class church because they are awed by the public influence of sectarian churches. ‘Whether the sects recognize us or not, we should not think of our church as a second-class church, nor allow ourselves to be pushed into a corner as outcasts who must first apologize for taking the liberty to exist. We should and must remain conscious of this — God requires it of us — that as an orthodox church we alone have an express charter from God for our existence. The sectarian churches exist only by God’s sufferance. Therefore our whole heart should belong to our church. We should be happy to belong to it as members. We should, even under most humble conditions, gladly serve our church as preachers and teachers, and joyful spirit and restless zeal work for its extension. We should earnestly strive and daily pray that our descendants may be the heirs of the Church of the Reformation.
The reasons which have been advanced for joining heterodox churches and for remaining in them sometimes sound very pious; but considered in the light of God’s Word, they are completely invalid and stem from our blind, conceited, self-willed, and presumptuous flesh.
The reasons which might be named here were already partly covered in the discussion of the first five thesis. Let us briefly to only several reasons.
Sometimes their origin — namely, that they come from the flesh is open on the face of them. For example, it is argued that a man out of consideration for his business must belong to a heterodox church. To this we simply say, “That is turning one’s faith into an earthly business.” It means that the question, “What must I do to be saved?” is subordinated to the other one, “What shall we eat? What shall we drink? Wherewithal shall we be clothed?”
Deeds, Not Creeds
Others say, “Faith does not matter at all. The important thing, finally, is the deeds.” This is altogether heathenish talk. So much depends on faith that he who believes in Christ 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” (John 3:18). And of all the works which are well-pleasing to God and which manifest faith, the most important is that a man adheres to all of Scripture and confesses it, adheres to the orthodox church.
This reason sounds more honorable: “My relatives, yes, members of my family belong to a heterodox church; so I do not want to cause disturbance and disorder in my family by belonging alone to the Lutheran Church. I love my family too much for that.” You should not go over to them, but they should come over to you: that is God’s will. If you do not succeed in winning them from error, then you must forgo the good fortune of being united with your own in one church.
It is true that it hurts not to be able to have church fellowship with those who are closely related to you. But the Lord has already taken such a case into consideration and has rendered His decision. He says, Matt. 10:37–38, “He that loveth father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. … And he that taketh not his cross and followeth after Me, is not worthy of Me.” And Matt. 19:29, “And everyone that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands for My name’s sake shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” At such times think of this: The Lord your God is testing you whether you love the Savior who shed His blood for you — whether you love Him more than all others.
When to Separate
You say, “I want to remain in the heterodox fellowship in order to prevent it from losing the truth altogether.” If you should find yourself in a heterodox fellowship, then first of all bear witness to the truth, clearly and definitely. If you are heard, good. Under circumstances you may also wait a while to see whether the truth is received. But as soon as it is clear that the truth will not be accepted, you must leave that body. If you remain in it, you are no longer supporting the truth, but error. It is blindness if you suppose that you are still a witness-bearer for the truth when you continue in fellowship with openly known errorists. As Luther says: You “cannot remain in the same stall with others who spread false doctrine or are attached to it or always speak good words to the devil and his crowd” (St. L. Ed., XVII: 1180).
The Question of Outward Peace
Some say that if you distinguish so exactly between orthodox and heterodox churches, and will have no fellowship with the heterodox, then the church will be disturbed constantly, and the harm will be greater than the benefit. Such words come from the conceited flesh. Surely Christ knows best what will harm or benefit His kingdom. The Lord says concerning those who adhere to falsehood: “From such turn away” (II Tim. 3:5); “Avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). Do this, if you want to be a Christian, and do not presume to rule the church with your human wisdom.
The church is benefited only when that is preached which works faith and maintains it — namely, the unadulterated truth revealed in Scripture — and when everything that hinders faith in Christ, that is, false doctrine, is kept away. If the church were only an external organization, an arrangement to provide a living for pastors, superintendents, and other ecclesiastics, or merely a society for the support of the civil state, then everything would need to be anxiously avoided that could disturb its outward peace. But the fact is that the Christian church is an institution of Christ for the preaching of His pure Word to save souls.
Take Heed lest You Fall
Another says: “I can very well take care of my soul, also in those churches which proclaim error together with truth. Whatever is there said against God’s Word, I will not accept.” So speaks the presumptuous flesh. Don’t trust yourself too much! Error is not such a powerless thing. As there is tinder in your heart for every sin, so there is tinder in it for every doctrinal error. Your objection itself proves that you do not have the proper abhorrence of false doctrine. You are already gone half astray.
Besides, you simply cannot care for your own soul. That God must do. He wants to do it, and He will do it. He will protect you, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone, in spiritual matters, too. That He has promised. But that promise is binding only when you walk in God’s ways. When do you walk in His ways? When you abide in God’s Word, when you avoid the fellowship of errorists, as God has commanded.
If we judge on the basis of Scripture and not according to our own thoughts, then this will be sure: By avoiding all church fellowship with errorists, we walk according to God’s will and serve the best interests of the church as well as of our own soul. May God ever give us that enlightenment which will enable us at all times to recognize the difference between orthodox and heterodox churches. And may God likewise give us a lively and holy love for the truth so that we may always practice what we preach. Amen.
Note: The translating and condensing of this essay was done by a number of persons. — Geo. Schweikert