Church and … Fellowship

Paul McCain has announced a new blog, the “Blog of Concord”. The newest post this evening calls attention to the Lutheran conception of Church. We have tried to say the same as the Confessions in our local doctrinal expressions, but with varying success. It seems to me that if we can hit this one square on the head, we’ll have a much healthier confession and conception of church fellowship. Nicht wahr?

Yeah, I suppose that was a sly allusion to the ELS. If anyone can hit it square on the head, it should be us.

9 thoughts on “Church and … Fellowship

  1. Good description of Church there, thanks. The catholic character of Church necessitates that it be the same Word & the same Sacrament on offer at every church. This, in turn, necessitates that there be real oversight of the local congregation. In the case of the ELS, who would fulfill this role if not Synodical authority expressed most often through the Synod President?
    That’s what I took from this posting.


    ### Response from J.J.:

    Are you serious? Or are you making a clever and slightly sarcastic statement about doctrinal oversight based upon an ironic pun of the word “catholic?” If it’s the latter, I agree with you.

    On the same subject, it might be enlightening (for me, especially) to read through some of what was written about authority in the church while the Bishop of Rome was still ascending in power. Then again, it’s probably all been summarized for us in the [Treatise](

  2. Are YOU serious? 🙂 To me it’s pretty obvious. Sure, doctrine is our pope, but who is in charge of seeing to it that false teachers are properly identified? Everybody? If that’s the answer, then it is no answer.
    As it said on that blog entry, relationships in the church “transcend the congregation” but are still part of the Church. We are “not many local assemblies, but ONE assembly.” Now, who’s the pastor of that larger organization? To say “Jesus” is to beg the question in the manner of a congregationalist.


    ### Response from J.J.:

    It may be a good idea for both of us to give a fresh reading to the Treatise. It seems to me that this is one of the main points therein.

    Or, are you speaking of a convenient arrangement for some outward Church organization, *de jure humano?* If that’s the case, then I might agree. However, I would not agree that we absolutely *need* such an arrangement, or that it occurs by divine right.

  3. The Treatise it is, then!
    Also good reading is Acts 15.1-33, the first eccumenical Church Council. It was called to offer the divine resolution (vs. 28) of a dispute that arose in a congregational setting. Specifically, a missionary (Paul) and some pseudo-clergymen (vs.24) disagreed about doctrine. Therefore, obviously (or at least I certainly hope that it’s obvious), something had to give. Paul and a few others were sent “to the Apostles and elders” to get the answer. Peter and James then spoke authoritatively on behalf of “the whole Church” (vs. 22). Although it’s true that they “all agreed” (vs. 25) on the resolution that was arrived at, we can assume that that doesn’t include the Judaizers, who were tried and convicted (as it were) of false-teaching.
    So, by way of conclusion I’d agree that having a Synod President is by human right, I would say that it’s by divine right that decisions come from somewhere in the Church (meaning the larger group of congregations) and not just everywhere. Somebody’s gotta’ be in charge.


    ### Response from J.J.

    OK, now we’re getting somewhere. If it’s by divine right that decisions come from somewhere in the Church, so that *someone* is in charge, then that must be provable in holy scripture. You can’t legitimately claim *jure divino* for something when it is not established by God’s Word. Would you say that Acts 15 *proves* (and I mean deductively, not inductively) that this is by divine right? I don’t see it. If it’s not in Acts 15, then where is it?

  4. Well, Acts 15 does say it, although I don’t know if it will rise to your deductive standards of proof. At the very least, I can say that the Apostles and elders certainly thought divine authority was there.

    They accepted the question, which they would have been wrong in doing if it was a purely congregational matter, and then they not only presumed to announce a decision of the Council which would then be binding on everyone else — especially the Judaizers — but they also claimed divine authority for that decision, saying “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).

    What is that other than divine authority given to, and being exercized by, the ecclesiastical government of the Church? I suppose it’s just common sense then to say that authority must be executed by an individual or a smaller group. Somebody’s gotta’ say the final word.

    Like I say, I don’t know if that’ll be good enough for you to admit that it’s “proved.” And certainly it’s more of an example than an institution. Myself, I’d say it’s “indicated and presupposed,” but that’s just me.


    ### Response from J.J.

    That was a worthy effort, but it doesn’t quite get there. After re-reading that part of Acts and mulling it over, I realized something of first importance. The question to ask is this: why does the decision in Acts 15 have authority in the church? We’d like to know if it’s *de jure divino* or *de jure humano.* You have argued that it’s *de jure divino,* and that the account serves as evidence that *someone* has to be in charge of determining the group’s doctrine, by divine right.

    From what I can tell, you are partially right. The decision in Acts 15 is empowered *de jure divino,* by divine right. I can accept that. However, the reason is included in the common name for this meeting: the *Apostolic* Council. It carried the authority of the apostles. The same authority, I might add, as carried by holy scripture.

    During the course of the meeting, men who had been taught directly by Christ, and some even whom He had sent as ministers participated. It appears that when the council reached an acceptable level of consensus, James summarized their common position as the “Bishop of Jerusalem,” and so the first ecumenical council was concluded. However, its authority *de jure divino* did not exist because it was an ecumenical council. (Recall Luther’s speech at Worms.) Rather, its authority *de jure divino* came from its apostolic character.

    It all means that we haven’t yet found scriptural proof that by divine right, some human entity other than Christ has the power to decide the doctrine of His Church. Not so?

    (BTW, I should point out, just so we’re not misunderstood here, that the Apostolic Council did not introduce any new laws or require any new traditions. If I recall correctly, the Apology covers this point.)

  5. True or false: the church has the right, and the responsibility, to expel false teachers from her midst.


    ### Response from J.J.

    You know how tricky T/F questions can be. I’ll need some clarification on your question.

    First, when you say “expel,” are you thinking of the sense of Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, or the sense of Romans 16:17, or both? (I guess Romans 16:17.)

    Second, when you say “the Church,” are you referring to the Church as the timeless assembly of individual Christians, as in the McCain blog entry, or to the church as an entity of its own, which individuals join or leave? (I guess the latter.)

    And finally, what identifies a false teacher?

  6. (sigh) I thought this would be pretty straightforward…oh well.

    The answer to your first question is “both.” The answer to your second question is, I suppose, “the church as an entity of its own,” although that wording is kind of odd. I’m thinking of the visible church.

    And, finally, you asked what identifies a false teacher. My answer is: whatever, you name it. When the doctrine or practice of some teachers is found to be heretical (as happened in Acts 15), does a larger gathering of congregations have the right and duty to expel from fellowship those found to be teaching falsely? Again, the emphasis in my question is on the larger gathering. Another way of asking is: do you think excommunication should ever happen on a Synod level?


    ### Response from J.J.:

    I’d hoped to assemble a coherent answer, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and just spout off a few things, because it’s a busy season. Doubtless I’ll get myself into trouble.

    The question you asked is this: does the Church have the authority and responsibility to remove false teachers from its midst? The answer is yes. Romans 16:17 says exactly that. (This is not the same thing as excommunication, described in Matthew 18:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:4-5, though it’s related because false teaching is a particular sin.) Yet it uses the word “urge,” so maybe “responsibility” is a little strong here.

    The Church should remove false teachers *who have been shown their error from the clear scriptures and sound reason, have been given ample opportunity to repent, and who refuse to accept the correction that comes from God’s Word.*

    But before any of those steps can be taken, the Church must recognize that someone is a false teacher. How? Certain things are clear. Since false teaching is a sin, Matthew 18:15 may apply, yet only when the false teaching is private. When there are many witnesses, then they all have the responsibility to confront the teacher. (We often screw this part up miserably.) But at this point, the teacher also has the opportunity to defend the teaching.
    You can’t get out the sticks and matches yet.

    All of this will easily descend into chaos, if every man is his own pope. So, it seems that you are arguing toward the notion that someone must have the final say about who is a false teacher, and speak for everyone else. It sounds a bit like saying “To avoid the chaos of everyone being his own pope, we all should submit to a single pope.” You probably see the problem.

    The Church as a whole is really the assembly of all those who believe the Gospel. It’s the “invisible Church,” a creation of the Holy Spirit. As such, it can’t do much to exclude false teachers. But Romans 16:17 isn’t addressed to the Church as a whole. Neither is it addressed to visible churches. It’s addressed to individual Christians on earth. Certainly, they may do this as a group, but they carry the authority and responsibility (urging?) individually.

    So individual Christians are urged to “watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned” — the Gospel. Individual Christians are told to “keep away from them.”
    So the question is this: *how does a Christian identify false doctrine when he hears it?* The obvious answer is by comparing it to God’s Word, the teaching we have learned. If a teacher claims that his teaching comes from God, but a Christian doesn’t see it in the Bible, then it must be false.

    It would be sinful for the Christian immediately to conclude that the teacher falls under Romans 16:17. There must be some open-minded clarification, and an opportunity for teaching. If the teacher can’t produce the biblical support, he must have an opportunity to repent. Those who break the 8th commandment are just as wrong as those who break the 2nd.

    But to claim that one person should speak authoritatively for a whole group of Christians to identify false teachers is to deny the royal priesthood of all believers (and ultimately the Gospel itself) and reinvent the papacy. Before God, *every* Christian has that right and responsibility.

  7. Well, I suppose I can summon up one more “worthy effort” here…

    If the authority to decide between competing doctrines was simply an apostolic thing, then why didn’t Paul just settle the controversy himself? We learn in Acts 15.1 that he was there when it started. The answer in Acts 15.3: “The church sent them on their way” to settle the matter in the context of the larger Church. Then, “when they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and elders” (Acts 15:4).

    ### From J.J.

    How do you know that Paul *didn’t* have the authority to settle the matter himself? The apostolic council ended up validating his doctrine. What you see here is not a matter of Paul getting better authority for his position, but rather using all means possible to win over both his opponents and those in the middle. It’s the same pattern as in Matthew 18:16.

    ### Back to Dan

    As for your “acceptible level of consensus,” I don’t know what that means, but I do know that, again, those consenting did NOT include those whose teachings were rejected. That’s the point. The Church is supposed to bear with the weak brothers, but she is not to tolerate false teachers.

    (J.J.) I think in this case, acceptable consensus occurred when all the apostles and the bishop of Jerusalem demonstrated agreement. That’s my *theologoumenon* anyway.

    In Acts, “the apostles and elders, WITH THE WHOLE CHURCH” (Acts 15:22, emphasis added) sent a letter informing every church about what was right and what was wrong on the issue at hand. De jure divino, de juro humano…whatever. Inductive or deductive…I don’t know that either. What I do know is that the Church has this right and duty.

    ### From J.J.

    But you see, it *is* important to distinguish between divine right and human right here. It’s another way of saying, “Where does *he/they* get the authority to say *that?”* A mere church custom or human arrangement is one thing. A command from God is quite another.

  8. Thanks for your reply. Don’t worry, you were already in trouble as far as I’m concerned. No, seriously, I’m happy to get that “yes” out of you, even a “yes” as qualified (and milk-toasty) as that one.

    Couple questions:

    1) Are you saying that every single person who witnesses a public sin has to confront the public sinner before church discipline can be carried out on a Synod level? That’s the way it sounded from the way you phrased it.


    ### Response from J.J.

    No, but I think your question is fraught with problematic assumptions. OK, maybe just one assumption: that the synod has jurisdiction over the congregations in matters of church discipline. Does it really?

    Certainly the [synod handbook][handbook] contains guidelines for discipline in various contexts, but do those guidelines apply to circumstances within a congregation? I don’t think so. Some of the guidelines apply when the accused is a *pastor* of a congregation, but what’s confusing there is that the guidelines are an administrative procedure for removing the pastor from the clergy roster, which is not the same as “church discipline” per se. So I’m left with the impression that synodical discipline (as we implement it) is not church discipline.

    As for what I wrote before, I was writing about the responsibility of those who have been taught falsely. Every individual is responsible to deal with the teacher, and it’s wrong to let it be “somebody else’s problem.” That attitude is not only dangerous, but sinful, yet it’s prevalent anyway.

    [handbook:] “ELS Handbook”


    2) If we’re precluded from talking about discipline in anything other than the invisible Church (to the point that we’re “denying the Gospel itself” if we do so), then doesn’t that make a hash out the whole thing? i.e. that would mean that, before we could go ahead with any sort of Church discipline, we’d have to get the consent of not only our own inactive or apathetic members, but also from every “true” Christian in the whole world. This would include every Roman Catholic or Baptist who, in their heart of hearts, really believes the Gospel even though they confess allegience to the Pope or Calvinism.


    ### Response from J.J.

    Yes, it would make a hash out of it, but that’s not what I was saying. (I said the H.C.C. *can’t* really exclude anyone.) My point there was not about Church Discipline, as in Mat. 18:17, nor about “negative” Church Fellowship, as in Rom. 16:17, but about the question “who has the authority and responsibility to identify false teachers?” The answer is: every individual Christian, on the basis of scripture. When they give that up and transfer it to someone who intends to act for the whole group, they have created a new papacy.

    Your question shows why I asked what you mean by “church.” You’re talking about the visible, human organizations within the kingdom of the left, which are each imperfect manifestations of the H.C.C.: “visible churches,” right? So a distinction must be made between what these organizations do by their own, human authority and what they do according to God’s command, by His authority. The reliable way to tell the difference is to identify the Marks of the Church. We administer and receive God’s Word and Sacraments by His command and promise, but we also do many other things according to human tradition. That’s the can of worms you open when you raise the question of authority in the “visible churches.”

    Sure, we can arrange that one person publicly identifies false teachers on behalf of the group, but we dare not think that this removes every individual Christian’s right and responsibility to make that call himself. The one person does it by human arrangement only, unless he is acting in the pastoral office, within the scope of his flock. Is there a pastor whose flock is the entire synod? That’s where the Treatise is helpful.


    I mean, surely we can avoid reinventing the Papacy without creating total anarchy.


    (J.J.:) I hope so.

Leave a Reply