The title of this article is a direct quotation from the synod announcement concerning the three churches and their pastors who have entered a state of confessional protest. See earlier posts for a description of this protest, and an analysis of the initial response.
I’m going to present the sequence of relevant events in a brief form, as I saw them occurring from my own point of view. I believe my point of view is the truth, or else it wouldn’t be my point of view. You may certainly disagree about that.
The first event relevant to this announcement was when Pastor Rolf Preus was given an ultimatum by the synod president: either recant/retract/withdraw your paper “Clarifying the Issues,” or you will be expelled from the synod. The showdown meeting began with the president asking that Pastor Preus retract his entire paper, as the only acceptable sign that he is not charging the synod with false doctrine. The request/demand was repeated throughout the meeting. Preus’ response was to ask for biblical proof that what he had written was wrong, for without such proof, he believed that his paper was correct and to retract it would be a sin. The meeting ended with no retraction, and no serious attempt to show from the Bible that the paper was wrong.
On January 26, 2006, the announcement went out that Pastor Preus was henceforth suspended for unintentionally charging the synod with false doctrine. This decision was apparently questioned, because another document appeared to justify the action. There we learn that retraction of the paper was absolutely necessary because it “was inflammatory and caused many in the synod to assume he was making the charge of false doctrine.” Apparently, the reason for the suspension was not set in stone, because it seemed to shift slightly over time.
This is where the problem began that led to the “‘selective fellowship’ protest” and what has ensued. Even in January, 2006, it seemed obvious to me that a state of selective fellowship had already been declared. The action responsible for selective fellowship was removing Pastor Preus from the synod without a doctrinal reason. Most of the synod’s pastors were accustomed to thinking of Pastor Preus as being in our doctrinal fellowship. Many pastors actually agreed with most of what he wrote in his paper, and they still do. There has indeed been criticism of Preus, even from some close friends, but it was not cricitism of his doctrine so much as the confrontational way he sometimes presented it.
The adopted ELS doctrinal statement says at the very beginning of the article on fellowship:
We confess that Scripture requires that church fellowship be recognized and practiced where there is a mutual confession of and commitment to the pure Marks of the Church, the Word and Sacraments.
Even on January 26, 2006, a great many people in the ELS were still convinced that we shared with Pastor Preus “a mutual confession of and commitment to the pure Marks of the Church,” the president’s judgment call notwithstanding. Next, it says:
Jesus Christ is the Head of His Church, and He governs and teaches it by His Word, but deviation from the teaching of God’s Word is not to be tolerated in the church.
This casts into doubt the authority of one individual by himself to declare a break in fellowship, especially where there is still a mutual confession of and commitment to the pure Marks of the Church. Note that it says “deviation from the teaching of God’s Word,” not “deviation from our attempts to summarize that doctrine.” So it’s more important to defend our doctrinal statements with scripture (if we can) than to defend them with administrative acts of dubious authority. If we can’t successfully defend them with scripture alone, then something’s wrong with them. Next, it says:
We therefore reject unionism, that is, church fellowship with adherents of false doctrine, and ecumenical endeavors which compromise the pure doctrine of God’s Word.
What, exactly, was the false doctrine that Preus was charged with teaching? He wasn’t charged at all. Rather, he was supposed to be unintentionally charging the synod with teaching false doctrine. But what did he really intend to do? He intended to question the doctrinal accuracy of our brand spanking new doctrinal statement, the PMW, because he is committed to the pure Marks of the Church. Later, it says:
At the same time we also condemn separatism, i.e., the refusal to acknowledge and practice fellowship when there is agreement in doctrine.
The above sentence from our adopted ELS doctrinal statement is our first premise.
Second premise: Pastor Preus had not filed a charge of false doctrine against the synod. He intentionally avoided saying that the PMW document is an unscriptural or “unconfessional” document, but wrote that it teaches some things as articles of faith without scriptural proof. He denied that such claims carry the authority of God’s Word.
Third premise: Pastor Preus has not been charged with adhering to false doctrine. Instead, he was charged with unintentionally charging the synod with false doctrine. He was also accused later of sowing seeds of discord among the brethren, which is not the same as disagreement in doctrine.
Inevitable conclusion: refusal of the synod to acknowledge and practice fellowship with Pastor Preus is separatism, which we condemn.
For the sake of completeness, here are the Bible passages provided in support of our adopted ELS doctrinal statement quoted above:
See John 8:31-32, 1 Cor. 1:10, Eph. 2:19-20, Matt. 7:15-20, Rom. 16:17, Gal. 1:6-9, 2 John 9-11, Matt. 23:8, 1 Pet. 4:11, 2 Cor. 6:14-18.
So what really happened a year ago, according to our adopted ELS doctrinal statement, was separatism. We could just as easily call it “Selective Fellowship” because a part of our synod declared itself to be not in doctrinal fellowship with another “specified portion of our synod.”
Why am I pointing this out? Why dig up old bones? Maybe it’s because I’m in a “‘selective fellowship’ protest.” That is, I protest against selective fellowship. Since I’m a member of the synod, I automatically participate in its actions, by association at least. I don’t want to be a part of selective fellowship. Instead, I want to recognize and practice church fellowship “where there is a mutual confession of and commitment to the pure Marks of the Church, the Word and Sacraments.” I want to recognize God’s Word as the governing force in the Church, not administrative decisions about fellowship.
At the same time, I want to acknowledge that Pastor Preus is just as sinful as our synod president, and as myself. There were many steps leading us all into selective fellowship a year ago, and a different approach by either Pastor Preus or the synod president at any point might have forestalled or avoided the present deplorable situation. Sometimes our sinful nature is not as visible in what we do as in how we do it.
Though he certainly helped to escalate things, it doesn’t seem to me that Pastor Preus, in substance alone, wrote anything that should have resulted in a severance of fellowship. You can disagree with me, but then you must somehow explain what we are supposed to do, according to God’s Word, when we notice that a freshly adopted doctrinal statement makes claims without scriptural support. What has greater authority: God’s Word, or some majority vote at a synod convention?
I do not envy the president his responsibilities, because as a servant of the whole synod, more is expected from him than from the rest of us. A bad decision on his part can cause greater harm to God’s Church than a bad decision by Pastor Preus or myself. Still, he has the same sinful flesh that I have, and that Pastor Preus has. That makes it hard for him to be “pastoral” to all of his “flock,” including equally sinful pastors.
Thank God that Jesus Christ has obtained forgiveness! He suffered for all of our decisions and actions that contradict His Word, including those of synod presidents. He died for the times when we speak the truth without the tact and consideration that love would demand from us, including such transgressions on weblogs like this and in the writings of Pastor Preus. He died for our tendency to pass judgment in our hearts when it’s not our place. Jesus gave His life for sinners who become guilty of separatism through their own pride and obstinance, cutting off fellowship rather than repenting of their own sins against God’s Word. God’s Son was nailed to a tree also for sinners guilty of unionism because they are so tired of the battle that they will agree to read a doctrinal statement in conflicting ways. Jesus died for all of us, and His precious blood upon the cross has bought our redemption.
May we receive His grace with penitent hearts.