Project Wittenberg

The Nature and Implications of the
Concept of Fellowship

Part II

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
April 1981

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Part II




Although the Scriptures have much to say about the spiritual unity which binds all believers together in the body of Christ and with one another and despite the exhortations of the inspired writers that the church shot seek to manifest its given unity externally without endangering the means which the unity of the church is created, God's Word does not prescribe specific procedures for carrying this out in each particular case. St. Paul, example, writes to "the churches of Galatia" that he was astonished that they were "so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ a turning to a different gospel." He says to the one who preaches a gospel contrary to that which they had received, "Let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:6). But the apostle does not tell us precisely how he dealt with these Judaizers upon his arrival in Galatia. [17]

Did St. Paul continue to worship with them? Did he exclude them from the Lord's Supper? And even if he had reported how he handled this situation, this would not necessarily mean that the specific procedure which he followed in this particular instance would be applicable for all times and places. We know, for example, that on one occasion St. Paul refused to compel Titus to be circumcised so that "the truth of the Gospel might be preserved" (Gal. 2:1-5). But he also reports that in a different situation he insisted on the circumcision of Timothy "because of the Jews that were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek" (Acts 16:3). [18] The Scriptures, rather than presenting the church with specific regulations for each and every inter-Christian relationship, set forth fundamental principles which are to be applied to the unique situation in which Christians find themselves at any given point in history.


Down through the centuries, seeking to be faithful to the principles of fellowship presented in the Scriptures, Christians have developed various procedures and organizational structures which have attempted to provide orderly and helpful guidance for local congregations in their relationships with one another.

During the first four centuries of the church as Christianity spread throughout the world, it became necessary to develop ways for geographically separated congregations to advise one another regarding church membership. For the early church, church fellowship was altar fellowship, and unity in doctrine was its prerequisite. [20] In keeping with this understanding, circular letters were sent throughout Christendom reporting excommunications. "Letters of Commendation" and later "Letters of Fellowship" and "Letters of Peace" were "universally required of Christians in a strange place as evidence toward their reception by a new congregation or bishops." [21]

As a result of the Christianization of the West, membership in church was more or less taken for granted in most parts of Europe during the Middle Ages. Disruptive disagreement with the traditional teaching authority of the church resulted in excommunication. Following the Reformation, membership in Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman Catholic church was largely a matter of the faith confessed by the territorial rulers. Luther while expressly refusing to condemn "entire churches inside or outside Holy Empire of the German Nation" but "only false and seductive doctrines and their stiff-necked proponents and blasphemers" (Preface to The Book Concord, p. 11), [22] taught that external unity in the church was not a matter of ceremonies but of agreement "in doctrine and in all its articles" and in " right use of the holy sacraments" (FC SD, X, 31). With the rise of "denominationalism" in the 19th century, confessional Lutherans sought to apply these same Scriptural principles of fellowship through declarations of altar and pulpit fellowship with those church bodies with which they were in doctrinal agreement and by the repudiation of church fellowship with adherents of false doctrine. In recent years other models for achieving external unity in an increasingly splintered Christendom have been advocated.

In an attempt to provide guidance to the Synod today as it relates other church bodies, we shall examine three of these proposals which, more frequently mentioned in addition to the more traditional ecclesiastical declaration of altar and pulpit fellowship, and evaluate them on the basis the Scriptural principles of fellowship presented in the first section of this report. [23]



In the first part of this report the Commission on Theology and Church Relations has attempted to present the nature of fellowship on the basis of a review of what God's Word has to say about this concept. Our study has reached the conclusion that in the Scriptures fellowship is understood in the sense of its root meaning as having part in a common thing. [72] Contrary to the understanding of fellowship prevalent in Christendom today as relating to "matters about which men are free to make their own arrangements" and that "whether fellowship is granted or withheld depends on the good or ill will of those concerned," [73] the writers of the New Testament use this term to refer both to spiritual unity in the body of Christ and to external unity in the church. Each of these relationships, therefore, may properly be referred to by the use of the English word "fellowship." But neither of them is the result of human achievement, nor "are they matters about which people are free to make their own arrangements."

Christians are not in spiritual fellowship with their Lord and with each other in the body of Christ because they have voluntarily decided to "get together." God's holy Word reveals that believers are brought into a spiritual relationship with Christ and with all fellow believers by virtue of their incorporation into the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace. Having been made one in Christ, members of His body are exhorted to be what they are. Christians therefore seek to be faithful to what the Scriptures teach about manifesting their unity in Christ externally. Forbearing one another in love, they are eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace on the basis of agreement in the confession of the faith through which they have already been made one in Christ.

The Scriptural Gospel is the voice of Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who laid down His life for His sheep. Since this Gospel is the means through which Christ calls, gathers, and keeps His flock in the one true faith, God has commanded the church to preserve the truth of His Word. Error in doctrine threatens unity in the body of Christ. Christian love, therefore, requires members of Christ's body to admonish and even to separate themselves from those who compromise or distort the Scriptural Gospel. "Speaking the truth in love" (Eph. 4:15), members of the body of Christ seek external harmony in the church by following "the pattern of the sound words" which they have learned from the prophets and apostles and by guarding "the truth that has been entrusted" to them "by the Holy Spirit who dwells within" them (2 Tim. 1:13-14). They desire to be faithful to the apostolic injunction "that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10).

In the second part of this report the Commission has discussed the implications of this understanding of the nature of fellowship for church body-level relationships by reviewing four contemporary proposals for seeking to manifest external unity in the church. Three of these models have been shown to conflict in one way or another with certain aspects of the nature of fellowship as it is presented in the Holy Scriptures. Conciliarity, reconciled diversity, and selective fellowship all violate at least some of the principles of fellowship and cannot therefore be regarded as viable models for interchurch relations at the church-body level today.

Of those models for external unity in the church which have been examined in this report, only ecclesiastical declarations of altar and pulpit fellowship offer at least the possibility for being able to take into account all of what the Scriptures have to say about the nature of fellowship. The Commission on Theology and Church Relations, therefore, while recognizing that this model is neither divinely ordained nor Scripturally mandated, is convinced that The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod should continue to seek to carry out the Scriptural principles of fellowship at the church-body level by means of ecclesiastical declarations of altar and pulpit fellowship based on agreement in doctrine and practice. [74]

In making this recommendation, however, the Commission also finds it necessary to point out that the adoption of ecclesiastical declarations of altar and pulpit fellowship is by itself no guarantee of a church body's automatic faithfulness to the Scriptural principles of fellowship. Two church bodies, for example, may formally agree in a confession of faith which compromises the Holy Scriptures as the only norm of the Gospel (Thesis 3). An overemphasis on the spiritual unity of the church can serve to obscure the Scriptural mandate to seek to manifest this unity externally (Thesis 9). A loveless "concern for the truth" and a pharisaical pride in the rightness of doctrine, which tears down rather than edifies the body of Christ, can develop (Thesis 5).

Moreover, the Commission is also aware that there are certain problems, such as fellowship triangles, [75] which can and do arise with the implementation of this model. It may even happen occasionally, in this age of "ambiguous denominationalism," that an individual congregation may temporarily find itself to be in closer doctrinal agreement with a congregation belonging to a church body with which it is not in altar and pulpit fellowship than it is to a sister congregation in its own synod. It is also happening with increasing frequency (as a result of the high mobility that characterizes life in our society) that individual church members find themselves moving their membership back and forth between church bodies not in altar and pulpit fellowship with one another, with the result that any number of special problems arise. There is the problem of terminology and levels of agreement. Through the use of the word "fellowship" almost exclusively to refer to a formal altar and pulpit fellowship relationship established between two church bodies on the basis of agreement in the confession of the faith, some have been given the impression that no fellowship relationship other than spiritual unity in the body of Christ can or should exist among members of Christian churches not in altar and pulpit fellowship. The fact that the LCMS is closer doctrinally to a church body which at least formally accepts the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions than to those denominations which do not is often obscured by the "all or nothing" approach that frequently accompanies ecclesiastical declarations of altar and pulpit fellowship. Finally, it is sometimes overlooked that, although the Scriptural principles of fellowship remain constant, the specific results of their application at the individual level may differ from that at the church-body level. The principles of fellowship are not rules of casuistry.

Because of these factors the Commission recommends that the Synod continue to study the topic of fellowship during the coming biennium by giving special attention to the implications of the principles of fellowship presented in this report for relationships and activities between Christians at the congregational, pastoral, and individual levels. Although it is neither desirable nor even possible to develop guidelines which will answer every case of casuistry, it will be helpful if the Synod can develop greater understanding and consensus regarding the implications of the nature of fellowship also at these levels.


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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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