Skip to content

On the Doctrine of the Church

Theodore Aaberg

1962 Synod Convention Essay

The Church is the company of all individuals who believe in Christ as their Savior from sin. Many passages could be cited to show this, for example, Matthew 16:18, Ephesians 1:22–23, Ephesians 5:23–27, but we will quote only this one, Ephesians 2:19–20, “Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but 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.” Consequently, he who can sing from his heart:

“I build on this foundation, —

That Jesus and His blood

Alone are my salvation,

The true eternal good…” Hymnary, 272,3.

can know that he also is of the household of God, a member of the Holy Christian Church.

Because the Church is the congregation of believers, it steps over all human boundaries, races, and nationalities, being truly catholic, or universal. Since faith in Jesus is the one requirement and the only requirement for membership, the Church does not regard the earthly rank of its members, being neither impressed by an abundance of earthly wisdom, riches, or reputation, nor offended by a lack of such things. The ground is level at the foot of the cross, said a Prime Minister of England as he stood at the communion rail in spotless attire and insisted that the dirty coal miner at his side be allowed to remain. In this he was merely echoing what Paul writes to the Galatians (3:28), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

That the believers are the Church is easily said, but less easily remembered. However, this truth is fundamental and must be held constantly before one’s eyes if he is not to be deluged by the pretentious and arrogant claims of the Anti-christ in Rome, or swamped by the equally insidious impressions and designs of the World Council of Churches, or its close relatives, the National Council of Churches of Christ, the Lutheran World Federation, and the National Lutheran Council. We need to come back again and again to the basic truth concerning the Church so well expressed by Luther when he said: “I believe there is upon earth a little holy group and congregation of pure saints, under one Head, even Christ, called together by the Holy Spirit in one faith, one mind, and understanding, with manifold gifts, yet agreeing in love, without sects or schisms.” (The Third Article, Large Catechism, Triglotta, p. 691.)

The Church, for all its work in the world, is not primarily interested in this world. Its members have a new love, namely Jesus, who first loved them, as Scripture says: “Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such but that it should be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:25–27. Jesus is their treasure; their hearts belong to Him, and their chief desire is to dwell with the Ascended Savior. Even when they are most active in Christian work, letting their light shine before men, proclaiming the Gospel to those in darkness, it is still Jesus and the heavenly home which hold first place in their hearts. This is as it should be, for Christ Himself told His zealous missionaries as they bubbled over with excitement at the success of their preaching endeavors: “Notwithstanding in this rejoice not, that the spirits are subject unto you; but rather rejoice, because your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20

To our first point, then, that the Church is the company of all those who believe in Jesus as their Savior from sin, we would now add that the Church is a band of pilgrims, of travelers, going home. As Abraham “looked for a city which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God,” as he and his company “confessed that they were strangers and pilgrims on the earth,” as they desired “a better country, that is, an heavenly,” Hebrews 11, so it is with Christians of all times. Their desire and longing for the heavenly home finds good expression in the last words of that famous Civil War General, “Stonewall” Jackson. Having been mortally wounded by one of his own men who mistook him for the enemy as he returned at dusk from organizing the pursuit of the defeated foe at Chancellorsville, he could say in the midst of the dust and smoke of battle as death approached: “Let us pass over the river and rest under the shadow of the tree.” (Compare Revelation 22:2) Or we might profitably appropriate to ourselves some of the spirit of Peer Stromme, a Norwegian Lutheran of another generation, who at the close of his pilgrimage could say to his fellow travelers:

“The last few years I have suffered constantly and I am now happy to know that I shalt die. It will not be a leap in the dark. Over on the other is an happy prospect where no light shall be needed since God Himself shall be our light

‘All trials are then like a dream that is past,

Forgotten all trouble and

All questions and doubts have answered at last,

Then dawneth eternity’s morrow.

Have mercy upon us, O Jesus!’

“Like all who have thought, I have also had my doubts. But my doubts have vanished. I believe on Him who to earth to save sinners; and I have the hmnble but sure hope that also I, for His sake, shall inherit eternal life. I shall stand in need a tremendous amount of mercy. But His mercy is boundless — so there will be enough for me, and more than enough for the rest of you also.

“Now, all of you, farewell, and a thousand thanks for your company. For my part, I know that while the road has been narrow, it is fortunate that it is not too long. And ’tis a sin to complain.”

Erindringer, Peer Stromme, 1923, p. 7

It is within this framework, that the Church is the company of believers on the way to the heavenly home, that the burden of this essay lies. More specifically, we are concerned with how the Christian exists during this pilgrimage, how he locates other Christians who are making the same journey, and how he joins with them as they walk together towards the heavenly home, that place of rest on the other side of the Jordan.

The Christian’s Earthy Pilgrimage

This is the season of harvest for many people in our Synod, and while we seldom see sheaves or bundles of grain standing in the shock, ready to be loaded on the wagon and hauled to the threshing machine, as was so common in an earlier day, there is still the joy of harvest for our people. This joy has its counterpart in spiritual life and is well characterized by the popular old Gospel refrain “Bringing in the sheaves.” But as the farmer must experience much toil and hard work, as well as watchful care and concern, before he has the joy of harvest, so in spiritual matters, the Christian pilgrim has a long, hard row to hoe before he comes upon harvest days in heaven. When you look up this passage about bringing in the sheaves in the Bible, you find that the psalmist ties it in with sorrow and hardship. We read: “They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalm 126:5–6. So the Church, the Christians, must not expect an easy time of it here on earth. The way is difficult.

They must likewise expect to face danger on their pilgrimage. There is a reason why the Church on earth is called the Church Militant and the Church in heaven the Church Triumphant. As citizens of an earthly kingdom we find life divided between periods of war and peace, and since the close of World War II we have had what is called “cold war.” We sometimes weary of this. But we must remember that as citizens of Jesus’ kingdom we are, so long as we live on earth, engaged in a continuous struggle that is as hot as it can be, and it is because the enemy — that is, the devil, the world, and our flesh — is strong and determined, and we of ourselves weak and helpless, that our journey is so dangerous.

Difficult and dangerous — that is the proper description of the Church’s pilgrimage as it makes its way to the heavenly home. Who can blame the Christian when he says:

“Far off I see my Fatherland,

Where through Thy grace I hope to stand,

But ere I reach that Paradise,

A weary way before me lies.” Hymnary 584,1.

But while we have stressed that the way of the Christian on earth is difficult and dangerous, note well that we have not said that it is hopeless. No, far from it, for here we stand with Paul: “If God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things.” Romans 8:81–32.

The Christian pilgrim, then, alert to the difficulties and dangers of the way, wants above all else to stay close to God. He wants to walk in the shadow of the Almighty, his Maker, Redeemer, and Comforter. He wants to rest under His wings, and in every trial find in Him as his fortress and strength.

Now the question is: How can the Christian do this? How can as he travels toward eternity, walk with God on earth? Let us be clear on this that one does not do it through mysticism, as though one through meditation and submission of one’s will can make contact with God. Nor will pietism, which is spiritual drunkenness, bring or keep one in touch with God on life’s pilgrimage. If you want to walk with God and enjoy His blessing and protection and guidance on your pilgrimage, you must hold and embrace God’s Word. Yes more, you must make it your life, even as Moses said to the children of Israel: “Set your hearts unto all the words which I testify among you this day, which ye shall command your children to observe to do, all the words of this law. For it is not a vain thing for you; because it is your life: and through this thing ye shall prolong your days in the land, whither ye go over Jordan to possess it.” Deuteronomy 32:46–47. Our Lutheran Confessions state: “But God cannot be treated with, God cannot be apprehended, except through the Word.” Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 67.

It is through the Word, or the Bible, which is the same thing, that God reveals the truth to us. There He tells us about Himself and about us. He reveals how we and the world in which we live came into how we through Adam fell into sin, how He in His love sent His Son to rescue us from that disastrous fall. In this same Word He invites us to accept His Son as our Savior, to believe in Him., to put our trust in Him, and once more to become His children, cleansed of all sin and heirs of heaven. More than that, through this same Word, and here we note that this may be either the written Word or the Sacrament of Baptism, God the Holy Spirit graciously works faith in our hearts so that we come to confess our sins, believe in Jesus as our Savior, and strive to live a holy life. The Apostle Peter writes: “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” I Peter 1:23. Jesus Himself refers to the regenerating power of Baptism when He says: “Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” John 3:5. Through these same means, and also that other Means of Grace, the Lord’s Supper, God continues to bestow upon us His grace and favor, assuring us of forgiveness, strengthening our faith, perfecting our life, comforting us in our distress, defeating our enemies, leading us, as a shepherd his sheep, to the heavenly fold.

Let us hear the testimony of our Lutheran Confessions regarding the importance the Word to the faith and life of the Christian. In the Formula of Concord we read: “And by this means, and in no other, namely, through His holy Word, when men hear it preached or read it, and the holy sacraments when they are used according to His Word, God desires to call men to eternal salvation, draw them to Himself, and convert, regenerate, and sanctify them. I Cor. 1:21: ‘For after that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.’” Solid Declaration, II, 50. From the same Confession we again read: “And this call of God, which is made through the preaching of the Word, we should not regard as jugglery, but know that thereby God reveals His will, that in those whom He thus calls He will work through the Word, that they may be enlightened, converted, and saved. For the Word, whereby we are called is a ministration of the Spirit, that gives the Spirit, or whereby the Spirit is given, 2 Cor. 3,8, and a power of God unto salvation, Rom. 1,16. And since the Holy Ghost wishes to be efficacious through the Word, and to strengthen and give power and ability, it is God’s will that we should receive the Word, believe and obey it.” Solid Declaration, XI, 29.

The Word serves not only to nourish and sustain our faith, but also to protect that faith against the enemy. The psalmist says: “His truth shall be thy shield and buckler.” Psalm 91:4. And as the Christian prepares for battle, he is directed to “take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” Ephesians 6:17. Who can forget the Savior’s wielding God’s Word “a weapon glorious” against the devil in the wilderness battle, repulsing each thrust with a simple, yet effective: “It is written”? For good reason, then, our forefathers in Christ chose this word, “Gegraptai,” “It is Written,” as the motto of our Synod.

The next question is one which no Christian should ever have to ask, but which is forced on us by the devil, the world, and our flesh, and that is: “Shall this Word be the pure Word?” In answering this question we do not begin in a halting, apologetic manner, begging pardon for being concerned about pure doctrine, offering a few passages in proof, and then retiring to our shell, hoping we do not get laughed at too much in this day of doctrinal sophistication. On the contrary, without embarrassment or apology, asking no one’s permission, we say: “Why, of course, it is to be the pure Word which accompanies us on our pilgrimage to heaven.” As little as the thirsty traveler wants to drink from stale, stagnant, stinking water, but a clear, cold fresh spring, so the Christian pilgrim seeks his spiritual drink from the clear, crystal fountain of God’s Word in all its truth and purity. As little as the hungry traveler wants to eat dry, moldy bread, but rather wholesome, pure food, so the Christian pilgrim wants the Bread of Life in all of its wholesome purity. As little as the soldier wants a broken rifle, or ammunition that has deteriorated, but good weapons in perfect condition, so the Christian pilgrim in his warfare wants the pure Word of God which as the sword of the Spirit is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” Hebrews 4:12. As little as the farmer wants to go out in the field to harvest with a combine whose inside workings have the wrong sieves, so little does the Christian pilgrim in his laboring in the Lord’s harvest want to gather in the grain of souls with anything but the pure Word. So regardless of the particular phase of the Christian’s life and work, it is ever the same story — he wants the Word, the pure Word. He who is spiritually careless or unconcerned, sleepy or half dead, may have little regard for the pure Word, but not that Christian pilgrim who is intent on reaching his heavenly home. That the devil has succeeded in getting a vast portion of the visible church to despise and ridicule the necessity of pure doctrine, the pure Word, and thus to undermine and cut away the very ground on which they as Christians stand, is a forceful testimony both to the subtlety and deceitfulness of the “Father of lies,” and to the stupidity of the human heart and mind in spiritual things. Learned theologians sit on high elevations and lecture in scholarly tones about the errors of the Bible, the need for academic freedom in the study of God’s Word, the necessity for a certain degree of latitude in doctrine, the impossibility and the folly of insisting on pure doctrine, and all this, mind you, in the name of Christ, as they say, — while the devil sits on his elevation in hell and laughs, enjoying himself immensely, and with good reason.

What does Scripture say about pure doctrine? One need not look far. There is the Great Commission itself with its “… teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:20. Those who would offer the Great Commission as an excuse or necessity for insisting on something less than pure doctrine would do well to to take a closer look at it. Then we also have the words of the Savior on another occasion: “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. In Jeremiah we have this admonition: “He that hath my word, let him speak my word faithfully.” Jeremiah 23:28. Consider also the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, “Hallowed be Thy name,” as well as the second commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain.” And what of the many sharp words and warnings against false prophets to be found in the Scriptures? Do they not testify to this that God wants His child to have the pure Word, the pure doctrine? Is not this reason enough for the Christian to want pure doctrine? “What pleases God, that pleases me.”

Permit me at this point to summarize the ground we have covered. The Church is the company of believers. The believer is a pilgrim on the way to his heavenly home. The road on which he travels is difficult and dangerous. His desire therefore is to stay close to God, and this he can do in this life only through the Word, through which faith is created and sustained by the Holy Spirit. It is in the very nature of the case, as well as by the express instruction of our Lord, that this should be pure Word.

Let us go on with this picture of the Christian pilgrim traveling life’s road to the heavenly home, sustained and defended by the pure Word of God.

Must he travel alone? The question here is not whether he should travel in the company of unbelievers. This should present no problem since they are on a different road, headed in the other direction, the broad and wide highway that leads to hell. The question rather “Shall the Christian walk in the company of other Christians?” The answer is: “Why, of course he shall walk with other Christians!” How could it be otherwise when God makes love of the brethren a test of one’s faith and sonship? Scripture says: “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.” I John 3:14. With how many Christians should our pilgrim walk? All of them, of course. This is no new teaching. We have the question in our Explanation: “What ought Christians to do, seeing that they are one body, or communion?” The answer reads: “Christians ought to be united in true fellowship, and serve one another in love. Ephesians 4:3, ‘Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.’ Question 208. Our fellowship relations today resemble pretty much the narrow end of a tunnel. The wide end of the tunnel might well symbolize the fellowship which ought to prevail among all Christians. We must be on guard, dwelling as we do in the narrow that we do not come to think that this represents the fellowship principle, as though the narrower the circle of fellowship the better. Rather we are to begin with the wide end of the tunnel, representing fellowship among all Christians, as the principle, and the narrowing down as what taken place due to the false doctrine and practice of this or that church body whereby we have out of love for the Word and all concerned been forced into an even smaller circle of fellowship. But fellowship among all Christians on earth shall be our guiding principle and earnest Only when God’s Word itself forces us to make smaller the circle shall we do so.

Perhaps it should be noted at this point that here we are not about the fellowship of the Holy Christian Church which is a thing, and requires no effort or selection on our part, but is and ever remains an accomplished as Scripture testifies: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even 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.” Ephesians 4:4–6. This matter was covered thoroughly in last essay on “The Holy Christian Church” by President B.W. Teigen, and appeared in last year’s Synod Report. In this paper we are attempting to get at this matter of what we call Church Fellowship — that recognition of one another as brethren in Christ, and the manifesting of the fellowship which we have in the Holy Christian Church.

How the Pilgrim Locates His Companions

Now as Christians are united in the Holy Christian Church in one body and fellowship, so they ought to express that fellowship with one another in a visible way. This is not to say that there must be one visible church organization to which all should belong, but there ought to be a recognition of one another as Christians and a fellowship with one another which expresses itself in various forms. The question then is: How shall I as a Christian pilgrim recognize among the many human beings on earth those individuals likewise are Christians traveling the same road as I? Since it is faith which makes one a Christian, and since faith is in the heart, which faith I cannot see, it is obvious that I cannot select fellow Christians on the basis faith. We must locate and identify them in another way. Here it will help us to remember how it comes about that one becomes and remains a Christian. The Holy Ghost accomplishes it through the Word and Sacraments, So it would follow that where the Word and Sacraments are in use, and here we think primarily of local congregations, there I may assume, yes, there I may be certain, Christians are to be found. How can I sure of this? Because of God’s promise concerning the Word: “For as the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to sower, and bread to the eater: So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my month: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10–11. Where does the farmer look for wheat on his farm? Out on the road, or down in the pasture? No, he looks for to come up where he has sown the seed. So we look for Christians where the seed of the Word has been sown and is being sown in the hearts of men. The Augsburg Confession ties these two questions together, What is the Church? and Where is the Church? when it says in Article VII: “The Church is the congregation of in which the Gospel is rightly and the Sacraments are rightly administered.” More must said about the expressions “rightly taught” and “rightly administered” later, but let us get the main thrust of this statement which tells us that the Church is the believers, and these believers are found where the Word and Sacraments are in use. Since the Church is created and sustained by the Means of Grace, where else would you expect to find it than in those places where the Means of Grace are in useP For this reason the Means of Grace are called the “Marks” of the Church. Where the Means Grace are in use, God is hanging out a sign which says that believers, the Church, is present. Just who they are as individuals is not and can not be determined, but that believers are present,is a certainty, based on God’s promise. So the Christian pilgrim looking for traveling companions must look where the Means of Grace are in use.

Now what about this matter of “rightly taught” and “rightly administered” of the seventh of the Augsburg Confession? Does it mean that Christians are present only where every doctrine and all doctrine is taught in its truth and purity, and where both sacraments are rightly administered? To put it even more bluntly: Does it mean that the Holy Christian Church is to be found only in those church bodies which truly follow the Lutheran Confessions where we would then have the Gospel purely taught and the Sacraments rightly administered? The answer to these questions is simply: “NO.”

We must remember that even in a heterodox communion, the Gospel may be rightly taught on this or that occasion, or in this or that portion of a church service, as, for example, in the reading of the Gospel for the day. Likewise we must remember that when false doctrine stands alongside the pure doctrine, it is never the false doctrine which creates or sustains faith, but the pure doctrine alone. Then too, there is something to what the dogmaticians say when in regard to Article Seven they state here they are speaking of the Church in its ideal state.

Perhaps it might be helpful in this connection to quote from Walther’s essay: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church, The True Visible Church of God Upon Earth,” presented at the Missouri Synod Convention in 1866, and now available in English translation from our Synod Book Company. In Thesis IV he states: “Scripture calls even such visible communions ‘churches’ as are guilty of a partial deviation from the pure Word of God as long as they retain God’s Word essentially.” Then using Paul’s letter to the Galatians as Scripture proof, showing how Paul calls the Galatian congregations “churches” even though he declares that they no longer had the doctrine of the Gospel in its purity, he goes on to summon witnesses from the Confessions and the Church Fathers. From the Preface to Book of Concord: “… But we have no doubt at all that one can find pious, innocent people even in those churches which have up now admittedly not come to agreement with us. From Gerhard: “When the pure preaching of the Word and the proper administration of the sacraments are called the marks of the church, the church is considered in the first named state, and it is compared not only with secular communions but also with a church that is impure and corrupt. That this is rightly done is evident from the fact that definitions, rules, and canons must be derived from the ideal and that the corrupt churches must be reformed, restored and purified according to the norm and form of the sounder and purer doc trine,” (Locus de ecclesia, par. 126). From Carpzov: “In Article VII of the Augsburg Confession the church is explained not as it often happens to be, but as it should be properly and in its normal condition, that is, when it is not harassed by persecutors and not troubled by heretics. It certainly can happen, and actually does happen, that it is hidden under tyrants or exists under a corrupt ministry. Nevertheless it does not cease to be a church, as the Apology of the Augsburg Confession (Article VII, VIII, 173) well explains this matter.” (Isagoge in libros symbolicos, p. 306). The quotations in this paragraph are to be found in Walther’s essay mentioned pages 15–19. So much then for the fact that the Christian determines the location of other Christians on the basis of the pure Marks of the Church.

Let us pick up our Christian pilgrim again who by this time has with great joy come upon a group of people who are using the Means of Grace. Here, on the basis of God’s own promise, he knows he has found company for life’s pilgrimage. The Word is preached, and Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are administered. The little children say, “Abba, Father,” the older ones recite the Commandments, Creed, and Lord’s Prayer, and the adults speak longer and more thoroughly on the promises and teachings of God’s Word, but their confessions of faith are in essence the same thing, and he has no reason to believe other than this that here the pure preaching of the Word and the right administration of the Sacraments hold sway. Or to put it in Scriptural terms, that here they were continuing “steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine”, Acts 2:42, and speaking “the same thing …”, I Corinthians 1,10. That there might be hypocrites in the group, he cannot deny, but that the Church is here, true believers are present, of this he is positive for here are the Marks of the Church.

So he has found company, fellow pilgrims, for his journey. He attaches himself to this group, recognizes them as fellow Christians, gathers with them to use the Word and Sacraments; and thus they travel together, with each setting of the sun finding them a day’s journey nearer home.

It would be nice if we could conclude by saying that this group found another group, and another, until all Christians on earth were walking together through life hand in hand, and could then close this paper with the lovely ending: “And they all lived happily ever after.” But this being the Church Militant, there are other matters to consider, thanks to the devi, the world, and our flesh.

We cannot recount all the joys and sorrows, problems and blessings which come to our Christian pilgrim through his association or fellowship with his newly-found brethren, but for the purposes of this essay, we must mention a few. There was the time in the use of the Means of Grace when one brother, in an altogether humble and pious way, presented views on a doctrine which were clearly not in accord with God’s Word. The brethren, including our pilgrim, were greatly saddened by this for the false doctrine was now a cause of division among them, and they took note of it at once, knowing they would have to clear up the matter, for they must all speak the same thing, and have no divisions among themselves, as Paul wrote. Guiding them in this unpleasant chore, and helping to make it a labor of love, was such instruction as Paul gave Timothy: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, In meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; And that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will.” 2 Timothy 2:24–26. With respect and love for both the Word and the erring brother, they set to work to study the Word, and together with the erring brother to discuss his position in the light of the Word. It wasn’t always easy or pleasant to do this, and progress was slow, but as long as all of them, including the erring brother, clung to the Word and wished to be obedient to it and were determined to get the matter settled, they kept at it, and by God’s grace the issue was resolved so that the brother withdrew his false views. In this instance the unity of the Spirit was restored through the rejection of the error.

But it didn’t always go so well. There was the time when a number of the group clung to a false position, and in spite of all admonition, persisted in it, so that finally there was no other way to restore the unity of the Spirit than to cut off these people from the group and no longer to recognize them as fellow Christians. That they might still have been Christians no one would deny, for there is often a fortunate inconsistency between what is believed in the heart and confessed with the mouth, but for all of that it was clear they could no longer walk as a group, confessing their faith, since God’s Word has so many instructions and warnings about this very thing, for example, “Beware of false prophets …”, Matthew 7:15; “Mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them,” Romans 16:17; “A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” Galatians 5:9. So out of love for the erring, hoping that this action would jar them to their senses, and out of love for God’s Word, and out of a concern for their own spiritual welfare they sorrowfully separated themselves from these people who were confirmed in their error. Of course, as so often happens, there were many things said and done by both groups that were not in keeping with their Christian profession. But for all of that, the thing had to be done. In this instance, the unity of the Spirit was kept in the bond of peace through the rejection of the errorists from the body.

There was a time also when a controversy arose concerning the forms of worship they should use, the order of service, and the like. Some felt that there must be unity in this matter, even as in doctrine, but a study of Scripture showed that there was nothing commanded in this respect, and so they settled the matter by a majority vote, with all agreeing to go along with the result. In this they were echoing the Seventh Article of the Augsburg Confession which says in part: “And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rites or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike. As Paul says: One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, etc. Eph. 4,5.6.”

We would like to mention other phases of the church life and work of the Christian pilgrim and his brethren, especially their work of proclaiming the Gospel to the world, but that would take us a little afield from the purpose of this paper.

Perhaps there are some in the audience who by this time feel that this is all well and good, but that we ought to open our eyes to reality and face up to the fact that we are today confronted not with a Christian pilgrim here and there along life’s road, but with massive Church denominations with tremendous memberships, long histories, and fixed, public confessions of faith, and it is in this arena that the problems of the Church, especially in the matter of fellowship, must be solved.

This is true, to a certain extent. But we make the matter too simple if we think we can forget about individuals and deal with them in a cold, mechanical way on the basis of the public confession of faith which their particular church happens to make. There are church memberships and church memberships. Sometimes it means much, and sometimes very little, and we are fools indeed if we from the outset deal with individuals as though they were church bodies. Somewhere along the line one’s church membership will have to be dealt with, but to give us a little warmth and understanding, as well as a Scriptural approach to the many fellowship problems which crop up in our lives, we need to keep the illustration of the Christian pilgrim in mind. Furthermore, fellowship between church bodies is still fellowship between people. It isn’t the church buildings or the college buildings of the several denominations that are in fellowship, but the people of those denominations. In this day of great stress on outward organization, large numbers, and the like, where the unwary and unthinking are led almost to equate their particular denomination with the kingdom God, we do well to keep in mind that the Church is nothing else than a Christian here and a Christian there and another one over yonder.

We would like to summarize once more what we have covered, in the hope that these basic principles will help us to see our way through the maze of fellowship problems which confront us in our day. The Church is the company of believers whose faith has been created by the Holy Spirit through Word and Sacrament. These believers are pilgrims on the way to their heavenly home. The road on which they travel is difficult and dangerous. Their desire is to stay dose to God, and this they can do in this life only through the Word of God. It goes without saying that this is the pure Word of God. It is in the very nature of their faith, as well as the expressed will of God, that they should not walk alone, but in the company of all Christians. They can locate the presence of other believers only by noting where the Means of Grace are in use, for these serve as the Marks the Church, since through them alone faith is created and sustained. While they cannot know for sure just who the individual believers in the group gathered about the Means of Grace are, since faith is hidden in the heart, they can know for sure that believers are present, since God has made definite promises concerning the results that will attend the preaching of the Word. This joining together in manifesting their fellowship is also on the basis of the Marks of the Church, and this means pure teaching and the right administration of the Sacraments. Where a conflict occurs between what is taught in the Bible and what is confessed by a Christian, it is resolved on the basis of what is taught in the Bible, and the unity of the Spirit is restored among those Christians through the eventual departure of either the error or the errorist. Thus Christians continue their pilgrimage with the Word of God as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night leading them on to the Promised Land. Let us be guided by these principles, based as they are on God’s Word, and we will not be too perplexed in our day as to where we belong and where we do not belong.

How The Pilgrim Joins His Companions

Yet we are not quite satisfied with leaving this paper until we tackle the matter of Church denominations a bit. These many Christian church bodies, grouped as they are under the headings of Lutheran, Roman Catholic, and Reformed, have their confessions of faith, and you learn of these through their official confessional position that is put down on black and white, also from their “life”, that is, by what is publicly taught in their pulpits, seminaries, and church papers. If there is a conflict between these two, then you give precedence to what is currently being taught in the public church life rather than what is asserted in the constitution as their confessional position.

Our overseas brethren have stated it thus: “The faith which is taught in a church is first of all the formal and official confession of a church. This may, however, be called in question or rendered doubtful by actual or practical negation of it. In that case a distinction must be made between sporadic contradiction and persistent approval or toleration of contradiction. In the latter case, the official confession, no matter how excellent, is negated.” (Statement of the Overseas Committee to the Doctrinal Committees of the Four Synods of the Lutheran Synodical Conference, Aug. 24–27, 1961, Fellowship in Its Necessary Context of the Doctrine of the Church, Thesis 10)

Now then, if all the church bodies were lined up before you, and you were trying to figure out where you as a Bible-loving Christian ought to take up residence, whom would you pick? To put it another way, Which one is right?

The question needs clarification. If by “Which one is right?” you mean “Which one is the Church?” the answer is: “None of them.” The Church is the Holy Christian Church, and that is simply the congregation of all true believers in Christ. It is this Holy Christian Church to which you must belong in order to be saved. But if by the question: “Which one is right?” you mean: “Which denomination has the Marks of the Church, the Word and Sacraments, in their truth and purity, then the answer is a plain, forthright: “The Lutheran Church.” This is what we teach our children in the Explanation of the Small Catechism, question 210: “What church denomination has faithfully kept the true teaching of God’s Word? The Lutheran Church has faithfully kept in its Confessions the true teaching of God’s we should, therefore, belong to this church, and shun all false teaching.”

This raises another question: “But which Lutheran Church? There are so many.” Where do we go? New York, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Mankato, or where? To this question we say: “You go to none these. Rather, you go to the Lutheran Confessions, the Book of Concord; and all those who uphold these teachings, they are the Lutheran Church, have the Marks of the Church in their purity, and among such, whoever they may be, you belong as a Bible-loving Christian. If the Evangelical Lutheran Synod fulfills these qualifications, good. Join up, if you aren’t already in a church body of which the same can be said, and work hard for it. If the Evangelical Lutheran Synod does not come up to the aforementioned standard and refuses to conform, then leave it alone.” We trust that this will suffice to show what we mean as we now say that the Lutheran Church is the true visible church on that is, the one with the pure Marks of the Church.

But someone will say: “All Lutheran Church bodies in this country subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions, therefore it makes no difference to which Lutheran group I belong.” It is true that all Lutheran Church bodies in this country make formal subscription to the Lutheran Confessions, some being more explicit than others in their subscription to the entire Book of Concord. But that does not mean that they all follow the doctrines therein confessed. And this is where the documents drawn up in times of church controversy since the days of the Book of Concord come into consideration, and they cannot be disregarded since they serve as statements of how a particular church understands the Confessions. We should note well that a portion of the Lutheran Confessions themselves are devoted to warfare against Pseudo-Lutheranism.

To get back to this that the Lutheran Church is the true visible church on earth: It boils down to this that if a Christian without any preconceived notions or outside influence sat down and studied the Bible very carefully and thoroughly over the years and wrote out its teachings, he would come up with the same teachings as presented in the Lutheran Confessions. Oh, there would be some differences. For example, the many historical references to the political and conditions of the 16th century would be missing, the wording would be different, there might not be the same stress laid on this or that doctrine, the exegesis of certain passages might vary, but the essentials would be the same. Both would teach the same thing.

If you doubt this, why not try it for yourself? If you are not thoroughly familiar with your Bible, begin by studying that. Then take up the Book of Concord, beginning perhaps with the three ecumenical creeds, and a review of Luther’s Small Catechism which you learned in youth. Later study the Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Large Catechism, and see if what you have learned from Scripture does not match what is taught in these confessions. Then do the same with the Smalcald Articles and the Formula of Concord. The Lutheran Confessions and the Lutheran Church have nothing to fear from such Scripturally-based, careful scrutiny, and you have much to gain.

In the book Four Hundred Years, edited by Dr. W.H.T. Dau, and published by Concordia in 1916, there appears a chapter by the editor entitled: “Lutheranism and Christianity”. Here one learns to appreciate what true Lutheranism is, namely a going back to the pure apostolic doctrine. Permit me to offer these few quotations: “In this manner Luther consistently, throughout his writings, maintains the identity of his teaching with that of Christ, of the Bible, of the true apostolic Church. To be Lutheran a doctrine must be Christian, and anything Christian is Lutheran.” Page 309. “Adapting the saying of William Chillingworth to his own Church, the Lutheran truthfully asserts: ‘The Bible, the whole Bible, nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Lutheranism.’” Page 310. “As long as there has been an orthodox Church on earth, so long there has been a Lutheran Church. It sounds strange, but it is true, the Lutheran Church is as old as the world; for it has no other doctrine than that which the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles received from God, and proclaimed. The name Lutheran, indeed, did not come into existence until three hundred years ago, but not the matter which that name signifies. Accordingly, the question, Where was the Lutheran Church before Luther? is easily answered, thus: The Lutheran Church was wherever there still were Christians who with all their heart believed in Jesus Christ and His Holy Word, and would not surrender this alone-saving faith of theirs in favor of human ordinances, or who made this Church their final refuge in the hour of death. … Ah, but then we are ‘the alone-saving Church’, and the Roman Church has revived in the Lutheran! Yes, we must be prepared for this shallow inference from statements which assert merely the ecumenical character of Lutheran teaching, and merge Lutheranism utterly in Christianity, so much so, that we see Luther no more, but ‘Jesus only’. We must be prepared likewise to meet the objection that the claim of scripturalness and catholicity is asserted by every sect. Anybody can assert. The patient expounder of Lutheranism will succeed in showing to the satisfaction of every unbiased mind that the Lutheran Reformation is nothing but the restoration of Christianity in its original, pure form.” Pages 313–314. So far, Dr. Dau.

Our task in these days of sore distress for confessional theology is to make a most thorough study of 1) the Scriptures and 2) the Lutheran Confessions, and in the renewed and strengthened conviction that what we hold is less than the teachings of the very Word of God, to confess with all vigor and honesty our doctrine before all the world. Let us not worry about our Synod and its growth. Rather, let us preach apostolic doctrine with apostolic fervor, and the Synod will take care of itself.

We would close with another word from Dr. Dau. “With malice toward none, with love toward all, with peace in their hearts and truth on their lips, let the sons and daughters of the Lutheran Church address themselves to the tasks of the new age. Let them reclaim from error who are still fettered by it, aid all who struggle to assert and maintain the pure pristine teaching of God’s Word; above all, them hold that fast which they have, that no man may take their crown. And let them trustfully confide to the God of truth, righteousness, and love the fortunes of their Church as they were taught to do in their childhood days:

God’s Word, which Martin Luther taught,

Shall nevermore be brought to naught.” Page 315.

These were good words in the year 1916, and they are good words in the year 1962, also.

Visit Us
Follow Me