– that according to our Lord Jesus Christ there are true and false churches (Christian communities) here on earth, and that it is possible to recognize them;
– that He tells us to adhere to churches or congregations where His teaching in all parts is preached pure and clear, and where the sacraments are administered according to His institution;
– that He forbids us to participate in common confession, prayer, worship or other divine services along with those who adhere to or tolerate false doctrine;
– that this His doctrine of church fellowship is an expression of His pastoral care and great love for the sheep of His flock.
The Christian Church’s old doctrine of church fellowship is considered in today’s ecumenical climate as hopelessly outdated, unfair and impossible to apply. The reason for this is not the underlying principle of unity in itself. The need for unity and cohesion around certain basic values is affirmed in many earthly contexts, and is understood by reason. Those who for example belong to a political party or a non-profit organization are expected to be loyal and support the objectives and rules set forth. Members who no longer can or want to do so usually leave the organization or are excluded from it.
The fact that many churches today still firmly resist the application of this principle to the area of Christian doctrine relies heavily on the fact that the churches have lost the belief that what is right and wrong in terms of Christian faith can be deduced from Scriptures. The development of modern theology and philosophy has made it so that belief in eternal, unchanging truths has largely been lost. The Bible can be accepted as a source of inspiration, it is said, but it must not and can not be used in a dogmatic way.
Even a cursory reading of the New Testament shows however that our Lord Jesus Christ did not have this opinion. Jesus was dogmatic in the truest sense, and talked about what would be taught and not taught in the Church. He fearlessly presents Himself as “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6). He does it with the definite article and in an exclusive sense.
Jesus invites urgently His disciples to “abide in his word” and to “beware of false prophets”. He warns us of future delusions and that “many” false prophets will arise in His name (Matt. 24:11 ff.). “Do not go out ... do not believe them”, He firmly says. It should be noted that it is not the pure paganism outside the Church which Jesus warns of, but of what happens within the Church, in His name. He talks about delusions in Christian garb, i.e. of such delivered by a preacher with Bible in hand in church services. Jesus predicts very well the implacable war against divine truth that Satan shall run unto the end. But to this His very realistic view of what was coming to the Church in the future, He adds strong promises. Jesus promises to mightily lead and protect His sheep, “no one shall snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:28). Jesus does not abandon His sheep but tells them what they should do. Those who then listen to Him stand under the promise that they shall not be seduced and lost. He expects that the sheep in His flock shall recognise the error when it comes. Sooner or later will its true face always be revealed – the wolf’s.
It is an undeniable fact that Jesus invites those same ones to unite together around the Word and the sacraments. Both Jesus and His apostles prohibit all forms of worship fellowship with false doctrine. This is a commandment of God with the same weight and seriousness as all the other commandments of God. Christians are not to be included in an external fellowship that allows that which is contrary to the holy gospel's teachings. It is a betrayal of Christ. Through false doctrine, you lose God himself. That is precisely why the orthodox church formulated and adhered to the strict words: “Nulla communicatio in sacris cum haereticis aut schismaticis!” (No fellowship in sacred things with heretics or schismatics!).
Church affiliation always implies doctrinal fellowship. The church at whose altar we kneel is the church whose faith we profess outwardly. The actual confession changes not by the fact that we perchance believe something else on our own part. Many have wanted to defend remaining in an obviously erroneous church precisely on the ground that in their hearts they do not acknowledge all that their church teaches. They have not realized that Christ’s teaching on church fellowship is not just about the inner life, but also – and especially – about the outer life, about the confession we make through our actions, our membership, church attendance and financial support. If we for example belong to a pluralistic church that allows different doctrines to compete with each other on more or less equal terms, then we thereby confess and support the belief that truth is relative, elastic and flexible. We are doing our part in evil.
To live in a church that proclaims and tolerates that which is demonstrably contrary to Scripture and the teaching of Christ may in the long term create devastating consequences both for ourselves and for others. First, we subject ourselves to seduction and endanger our soul’s salvation. We gradually get used to hearing the Word of God mixed with human teachings – often in a beautiful package – and get progressively dulled. We also entice by our example others to stay in the house of seduction. There are many tragic examples of both clergy and laity who in pious zeal have chosen to remain in an apostate church “to fight for her rehabilitation”, but finally have given up, been assimilated and fallen away from the word of Christ.
The practical application of the doctrine of church fellowship takes place according to Scripture in two ways: either by doctrinal discipline, so that the false teacher is forbidden to work in the church, or, if this is not possible, by leaving the church that tolerates false doctrine. Christ and His Apostles nowhere give us permission – not even for a time – to stand in church fellowship with false prophets, for example in order to “protest and spread the true teaching of the church until all hope is gone, or until one gets expelled”. He bids us instead to flee. No special circumstances or emergencies may here be played out against God’s command about right church fellowship and put it out of power. The doctrine of church fellowship falls under the three commandments in the first table of the Law, which all talk about our worship. Love for God and His word must prevail over everything else.
Church fellowship shall be terminated only when clear and distinct differences in doctrine and confession exist. The doctrine of church fellowship should not be confused with donatism and other utopian attempts to create “pure” churches, which only consists of true believers. Hypocrites, such as those who confess with the mouth but not have the faith of the heart, are found in all churches. Separating them out is both prohibited and impossible for us. It can only be done by God, and He shall do so at the last day (cf. the parable of the tares and wheat, Matt. 13: 24 ff.). A pure church in that sense does not exist.
From the doctrine of church fellowship, we also carefully distinguish schisms of different kinds. The schisms we mean here are divisions in the church for reasons other than the purely doctrinal. These include the formation of parties or breakaways because of different views on ecclesiastical arrangements, ceremonies, traditions and the like, things which the Holy Scriptures neither command nor forbid. Such divisions are sinful. The Church must always be on guard against schismatic spirits who sow unrest and discord in the Church and without grounds want to make this or that into a church-dividing doctrinal issue.
The Scripture’s doctrine of church fellowship is simple and clear. But to leave a Church whose faith one can no longer partake of, can on a personal level be difficult and painful. It can also carry a range of both financial and practical problems, especially by the absence of any true worship community nearby to which one could belong. Such problems, which should not be underestimated or concealed, belong to the conditions of Christian life. Many Christians over time have wrestled with them, but they have also experienced how God in different ways provides for His family. To follow God’s commandments has always been a blessing to them.
The doctrine of church fellowship is a powerful expression of God’s love and care for His church, which He so dearly has redeemed with His blood. It is for the church a vital protection against loss of the Word of God and the very Gospel itself. It has also – not least in our time – proved, that where the Bible’s teaching on church fellowship falls, there is soon no limits to what may occur in the church.
What the Holy Scriptures say
If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (John 8:31-32)
...endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were 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. (Eph. 4:3-6)
Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. (1 Cor. 1:10)
If anyone speaks, let him speak as the oracles of God. (1 Pet. 4:11)
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves. You will know them by their fruits. (Matt. 7:15-16)
When he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers. (John 10:4-5)
Now I urge you, brethren, note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them. (Rom. 16:17)
If anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:9)
What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, And I will receive you.” “I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty.” (2 Cor. 6:15-18)
Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds. (2 John 9-11)
What the Lutheran Confessions say
Also they [our churches] teach that one holy Church is to continue forever. The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. 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. (AC VII, Trigl. p. 47)
Thus [According to this doctrine] the churches will not condemn one another because of dissimilarity of ceremonies when, in Christian liberty, one has less or more of them, provided they are otherwise agreed with one another in the doctrine and all its articles, also in the right use of the holy Sacraments (FC X, Trigl. p. 1063)
... we confess that hypocrites and wicked persons have been mingled with the Church, and that the Sacraments are efficacious even though dispensed by wicked ministers, because the ministers act in the place of Christ, and do not represent their own persons, according to Luke 10:16: He that heareth you heareth Me. Impious teachers are to be deserted [are not to be received or heard], because these do not act any longer in the place of Christ, but are antichrists. And Christ says Matt. 7:15: Beware of false prophets. And Paul, Gal. 1:9: If any man preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed. (Ap VII/VIII, Trigl. p. 243)
This being the case, all Christians ought to beware of becoming partakers of the godless doctrine, blasphemies, and unjust cruelty of the Pope. On this account they ought to desert and execrate the Pope with his adherents as the kingdom of Antichrist; just as Christ has commanded, Matt. 7,:15: Beware of false prophets. And Paul commands that godless teachers should be avoided and execrated as cursed, Gal. 1:8; Titus 3:10. And he says, 2 Cor. 6:14: Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what communion hath light with darkness?
To dissent from the agreement of so many nations and to be called schismatics is a grave matter. But divine authority commands all not to be allies and defenders of impiety and unjust cruelty. On this account our consciences are sufficiently excused; for the errors of the kingdom of the Pope are manifest. And Scripture with its entire voice exclaims that these errors are a teaching of demons and of Antichrist. (Tr, Trigl. p. 517)
Moreover, since for the preservation of pure doctrine and for thorough, permanent, godly unity in the Church it is necessary, not only that the pure, wholesome doctrine be rightly presented, but also that the opponents who teach otherwise be reproved, 1 Tim. 3:9 (2 Tim. 3:16); Titus 1:9,—for faithful shepherds, as Luther says, should do both, namely, feed or nourish the lambs and resist the wolves, so that the sheep may flee from strange voices, John 10:12, and may separate the precious from the vile, Jer. 15:19. (FC SD, Trigl. p. 857)
As to the condemnations, censures, and rejections of godless doctrines, and especially of that which has arisen concerning the Lord’s Supper – that we ... had to be expressly set forth in this our declaration and thorough explanation and decision of controverted articles, not only that all should guard against these condemned doctrines. ... Thus, as it is in no way our design and purpose to condemn those men who err from a certain simplicity of mind, but are not blasphemers against the truth of the heavenly doctrine, much less, indeed, entire churches ... nay, rather has it been our intention and disposition in this manner openly to censure and condemn only the fanatical opinions and their obstinate and blasphemous teachers. ... For we have no doubt whatever that even in those churches which have hitherto not agreed with us in all things many godly and by no means wicked men are found who follow their own simplicity, and do not understand aright the matter itself, but in no way approve the blasphemies which are cast forth against the Holy Supper as it is administered in our churches, according to Christ’s institution, and, with the unanimous approval of all good men, is taught in accordance with the words of the testament itself. We are also in great hope that, if they would be taught aright concerning all these things, the Spirit of the Lord aiding them, they would agree with us, and with our churches and schools, to the infallible truth of God’s Word. (Preface BOC, Trigl. p. 19)
We warn against
all kinds of false doctrines that contrary to the Scriptures teach, for example,
– that “precise doctrinal” church fellowship is a utopia, impossible to realize (despair of the truth);
– that the communion table shall be open to all, even for those who do not profess the faith of the Church in all respects (abuse of the sacrament of unity);
– that fellowship in celebrating Holy Communion with otherwise believers is forbidden, but not prayer fellowship with them (arbitrary restriction);
– that the Scriptures only impose an inner rejection of false doctrine, not an external (pietism);
– that you should not leave an aberrant church as long as there is an opportunity to admonish and evangelize (the end justifies the means).
Oh, keep us in Thy Word, we pray;
The guile and rage of Satan stay!
Oh, may Thy mercy never cease!
Give concord, patience, courage, peace.
O God, how sin’s dread works abound!
Throughout the earth no rest is found,
And falsehood’s spirit wide has spread,
And error boldly rears its head.
The haughty spirits, Lord, restrain
Who o’er Thy Church with might would reign
And always set forth something new,
Devised to change Thy doctrine true.
And since the cause and glory, Lord,
Are Thine, not ours, to us afford
Thy help and strength and constancy,
With all our heart we trust in Thee.
A trusty weapon is Thy Word,
Thy Church’s buckler, shield, and sword.
Oh, let us in its power confide
That we may seek no other guide!
Oh, grant that in Thy holy Word
We here may live and die, dear Lord;
And when our journey endeth here,
Receive us into glory there. Amen