Where does fellowship come from?

Unlike some other posts, this one is short, because I’m inviting your responses. Pastor Rolf Preus, in his paper The Word of God and the Church, states, “Fellowship does not come from agreeing with each other, but from agreeing with God.”

True? False? It seems like a “watershed” sort of statement. (For the record, I believe it’s true.)

But… but… but how do you know what God teaches? Again, I invite your responses. Be forewarned: email responses to this will be considered fair game for posting here.

Added February 9

Have a look at the quote over at διαθηκη from Walther’s Law and Gospel. I think it relates closely to the present question about the source of fellowship. Do you agree? Here’s an excerpt:

When a theologian is asked to yield and make concessions in order that peace may at last be established in the Church, but refuses to do so even in a single point of doctrine, such an action looks to human reason like intolerable stubbornness, yea, like downright malice. That is the reason why such theologians are loved and praised by few men during their lifetime. Most men rather revile them as disturbers of the peace, yea, as destroyers of the kingdom of God . They are regarded as men worthy of contempt. But in the end it becomes manifest that this very determined, inexorable tenacity in clinging to the pure teaching of the divine Word by no means tears down the Church; on the contrary, it is just this which, in the midst of greatest dissension, builds up the Church and ultimately brings about genuine peace. Therefore, woe to the Church which has no men of this stripe, men who stand as watchmen on the walls of Zion, sound the alarm whenever a foe threatens to rush the walls, and rally to the banner of Jesus Christ for a holy war!

10 thoughts on “Where does fellowship come from?

  1. I recognize that statement very well! After spending too many years in “Bible” churches and fellowships, I can immediately recall similar statements by my self-appointed pastors.

    Consider how similar that statement is to “Deeds, not creeds.” No offense meant to Pastor Preus; I haven’t read the rest of the piece. To state that fellowship isn’t about agreeing with each other seems to indicate that he wants to eliminate that pesky third party, the historic confessions. The historic confessions came to be, over much time and trouble, was to create confidence in our fellowship with each other.

    As an evangelical, it would be frequently announced that it doesn’t matter what our individual beliefs are as long as we are right with God. For a long time, that plan worked (sort of) because everyone assumed that being right with God automatically created that fellowship, that oneness of confession. I think we can easily see now that there is great dis-unity among the evangelicals, to the point of accepting certain kinds of sins as OK with God. How does anyone know if they agree with God with out meeting to discuss various points of scripture? The historic confessions is the tool to do that, right?

    I realize Preus is not calling the BOC into question, but his statement doesn’t reflect my understanding of fellowship. I also think that his statement is not a good summary of his paper which seems to be yet another rant on Moldstad. I’m not belittling his situation; I’m just tired of hearing the same thing over and over. There seem to be two points of view and neither wish to be reconciled to each other, apparently. That’s this layman’s take. I’m still learning on this issue and will gladly read others’ responses.


    ### Response from J.J.

    Wow! Such a use/misuse of this statement is quite dangerous. In light of that, your point is well-taken that our fellowship must be firmly grounded in the Confessions. Here are a couple of questions flowing from that:

    * When we base our fellowship in the Confessions as Lutherans, are we basing our fellowship in anything more than holy Scripture?

    * What do we mean by “the Confessions?” Just the Book of Concord of 1580, or whatever local *corpus doctrinae* may also be in effect? The Book of Concord was put together to be *the* pan-Lutheran *corpus doctrinae* (and a truly catholic confession beside), so how do our newer, local ones relate to the Book of Concord?

    I sympathize with your weariness at the ongoing battle over the Preus suspension. As I see it, the best way to know who is right/wrong is to examine their arguments in the context of our confessional Lutheran faith, though it’s tempting to lay the blame simply on those who “won’t let the matter rest.” So, I think your comment is very helpful! Thank you.

  2. I was just going on my gut impression of that sentence in isolation. I didn’t meant to imply that Preus is rejecting the BOC. 🙂 I am taught that the BOC sits on top of the Holy Scriptures; that is to say, the BOC is an accurate summary of scripture. It sits on top of scriptures. The BOC means nothing without the scriptures. By historic confessions, I meant to refer to the 3 creeds: Apostles, Athanasian and Nicene. For any Lutheran, we should use the BOC to determine fellowship.


    ### Response from J.J.

    I sense that my previous response put you on the spot. Sorry about that. I’m not trying to trap you, and I think your gut reaction is both valuable and accurate, in the limited context of my post.

    I’d like to focus upon the fellowship idea here, rather than any possible implications about Preus and the ELS controversy. (We can get to that later, if we want.) His sentence merely provides a thought likely to kickstart the discussion.

    Actually, your observation that our fellowship should be based upon our confessions (Book of Concord and ecumenical creeds) is spot-on, and critically necessary in this discussion. I still wonder how our “local” confessions compare to the Book of Concord in that regard.

  3. I thought that was a very nice dissection of Preus’s maxim. It sounds just like something he’d say, where it’s pithy and powerful but not necessarily helpful. It’s not a reason, it’s a rallying cry.


    ### Response from J.J.

    OK, but instead of saying it’s typical of Preus, which is beside the point whether true or not, why is the statement unhelpful? I think it’s a statement that needs a context, particularly the confessional context that TK pointed out. I admit that I originally read it in that context, because I think that’s how the original author intended, but …

    (1) Do you agree that the Confessions are the means by which we can know if someone is in harmony with God’s Word? (2) On that basis, does this statement become helpful or relevant? And finally, (3) how would you compare the Confessions in this regard, with local doctrinal statements — for example, something adopted with a congregation’s bylaws?

  4. 1) Yes. *[J.J.: I agree!]* 2) No, it’s a red herring. Nobody believes that fellowship with people is more important than fellowship with God. (although I’ll say that it would be no less of a sin to treasure the fellowship of one person over fellowship with God than it would be to stick with a large group) *[J.J.: You’re speaking to Preus’ paper here, and assuming that he’s contradicting someone with this statement. I think he’s just setting up his later presentation, but that’s beside the point. But let me reparaphrase my question: Do you believe that church fellowship between us humans is created by our individual agreement or disagreement with God’s Word? (And can you see how it’s different from the question you answered?)]* 3) I don’t know. All confessional statements serve the same purpose. They’re all a bookmark for orthodoxy. We speak of Scripture as the “norming norm” and the Confessions as the “normed norm.” If the PMW wound up having as much longevity and usefulness as, say, the Apology, then we’d probably put it up there in as venerated a spot (not that that’s very likely since the PMW is so limited in scope). And, sure, the fact that it is still a little baby as far as confessions go makes a difference. However, it doesn’t follow that we should be ranking true confessions in terms of their theological weight. One was adopted in 1530, the other in 2005. Does that mean that they are looked at differently? Sure. Does it make them qualitatively different? You tell me. …but please drop the word “catholicity.” It sounds so silly in this context. No Lutheran confession has ever been even close to catholic (meaning that “Lutheran” has never described even close to half of Christendom). Obviously, nothing that a Syndod the size of the ELS says is in any way “catholic” (which is yet another aspect of Preus’s actions that should cause us all to sigh. …just what the world needs — another Lutheran Synod!) But that doesn’t mean that we can’t still confess the truth and expect each other to live according to that truth. *[J.J.: Thanks for your answer. BTW, I don’t think we are using the term “catholic” the same way. When I use the word, I mean it the same way the Athanasian Creed uses it, to describe the timeless doctrine we still confess. (And where did I write “catholicity?”)]*

  5. If we were to establish agreement with one another on a topic where the word of God is silent, would such agreement be the foundation for Christian fellowship with one another? Of course not. So then, we listen to God. When we teach and confess the divine doctrine together we are in fellowship with one another, not just because we agree with one another, but because we agree with God.

    Our fellowship with one another exists only as we are in fellowship with God. What we think doesn’t matter. What God says is what matters.

    This is why it is crucial when dealing with matters of church fellowship that we always rely on the clear Scriptures. The painful but necessary task of breaking fellowship with persistent errorists must follow the clear directive of God’s written word. When we “mark and avoid” someone it must not be merely because he has disagreed with us. It must be because he has disagreed with God.


    ### Response from J.J.:

    Thank you for writing, Pastor Preus. One of the reasons I believe this point is so important is the postmodern atmosphere that seems to pervade every church body these days. If fellowship is not based upon our agreement with God’s Word, then it becomes whatever we say it is, and maybe even several different things at once!

    I’m reminded of something C.P. Krauth wrote, to the effect that if a Christian church is not convinced that what it believes and teaches is universal truth for mankind, then it is not really a church anymore, but a mere social organization. Here, we’re concerned with *Church* Fellowship, which is not to be confused with fellowship between individuals who may happen to be Christians. The latter is fine in a mere social organization, but it is necessary for Church Fellowship to find one’s doctrine clearly taught in the Bible.

  6. My problem with Rev. Preus is not primarily in the area of ministry (although we might’ve gotten there if he had allowed debate to continue in the Synod *[J.J.: Tango.]* ). It is fellowship. We live in the church militant. We can’t see who’s in fellowship with God, and so it is useless to try and decide earthly fellowship on that basis. Fellowship with God is established by faith in the heart (i.e. trust in the heart that one’s sins are remitted for Christ’s sake), which is given by the Holy Spirit and manifested in “groans which words cannot express” (Ro. 8.26). Fellowship with people, on the other hand, is based on their clear confession of God’s Word, and is broken by those who “cause divisions and put obstacles” in the way of Christian teaching (Ro. 16.17). So, a person may be a Christian in their heart and all the way down to their socks and yet exclude themselves from a God-pleasing earthly fellowship if they cause such division.
    *[J.J.: I suspect we have different ideas of what we’re talking about here. To wit: you used the expression “a God-pleasing earthly fellowship.” But how many of these actually exist? I maintain there is only one, which is founded completely upon the objective revelation of God’s Word, and nothing else. We can identify those whose outward confession agrees with God’s Word.]*
    Division is a de facto reality if doctrine, which governs fellowship, is not binding on the members of that fellowship.
    Furthermore, I don’t know of anyone in the current debate (or, indeed, any Christian period) who would claim that fellowship with God is unimportant. But Rev. Preus is the only one saying that what people say is unimportant. It is not. It’s true that our word doesn’t establish doctrine. It does, however, establish earthly fellowship.
    *[J.J.: I disagree, unless by earthly you mean “of this world.” What agreement between men does establish is a human relationship. But church fellowship is an aspect of the holy Christian Church, and is not of this world. It can only be established by God, and we identify it in reference to His Word alone.]*
    Therefore, I conclude that the use of the term “fellowship with God” (above) is a rallying cry, a slogan, and an assertion. It is not a reason, nor is it convincing, except for those who choose to see it that way.
    *[J.J.: Thanks for your comments! If I’m misunderstanding you, please feel free to correct my misunderstanding.]*

  7. Dan, you might want to consider my comments on fellowship in my paper, [“The Centrality of the Central Article,”](http://www.christforus.org/Papers/Content/CentralityOfTheCentral%20Article.html) available here:

    This will help you to understand my comment under discussion in this forum. I don’t believe we can properly understand fellowship except within the context of justification.

  8. Well, I don’t think we can understand fellowship except within the context of justification either. So what? Romans 1:17 is Gospel. Romans 16:17 is law. Like all of God’s laws, it is good, it must be followed, it shows our sin, and it is fulfilled and perfected only in Christ. In your paper, you seem to want to skip to the last part at the expense of infinitely obscuring the other three to the point that they are practically ignored. …which sounds like a pretty good description of what’s going on in the LC-MS right now. *[J.J.: Pastor Preus can respond to this part directly, if he wishes.]*

    Pastor Jacobsen, I don’t deny that it takes two to tango. That’s a valid point. But what I’m saying that Rev. Preus has much experience in this particular dance, perhaps to the point that it’s the only one he knows. *[J.J.: What dance is that? Cutting off debate? That may be your impression, but I haven’t seen it. Saying that something is not scriptural if it has no scriptural support *is* debate. But then, it takes at least two for debate to work as well.]* You also said, “[Fellowship] can only be established by God, and we identify it in reference to His Word alone.” Fine, but there is no escaping that “we” there. This is where the rubber finally meets the road, and the resulting relationship is the one I’m talking about. It is finally Christians who identify fellowship (which, btw, is exactly what doctrinal statements are for, and if they are not binding then they are nothing but a waste of time and paper). I hope that answers the question and clarifies my comment.

    *[J.J.: Yes, thank you. Though you have demonstrated that we recognize fellowship by means of doctrinal statements, we still can’t use those statements to recognize fellowship without a firm and obvious link between them and their scriptural basis. Even a little sophistry in the middle makes for a statement that shouldn’t pass muster. If it does anyway, then we are no longer identifying Christian fellowship in reference to God’s Word alone, but rather establishing a different kind of fellowship ourselves, based upon human criteria instead of God’s Word. That’s more of a club than a fellowship. Pun intended.]*

  9. “Well, I don’t think we can understand fellowship except within the context of justification either. So what?”

    Fellowship is established by God, not man. We can recognize or “declare” fellowship with those who confess the divine truth with us, but the church cannot establish or create the fellowship she enjoys. She enjoys this fellowship as a gracious gift from God. It is a gift that God establishes by means of the gospel. It is not established by means of submitting to any extra-biblical authority.

    “It is finally Christians who identify fellowship (which, btw, is exactly what doctrinal statements are for, and if they are not binding then they are nothing but a waste of time and paper). I hope that answers the question and clarifies my comment.”

    Before producing more doctrinal statements by which we will determine the boundaries of the fellowship it would be good to apply the doctrinal statements to which we are already bound. Please consider the theological argument I make in this little paper, “Should I Retract my ‘Clarifying the Issues’ Paper?”


    I am not quibbling over procedure here. The issue is crucial for confessional Lutherans. The Holy Scriptures are the only standard by which all teachers and teachings in the church are to be judged. This means that we must appeal to the authority of the written word of God when we break fellowship with someone and exclude him from the fellowship. When we attempt a “short cut” in the process by refusing to apply the norm that norms (the Bible) and insist on applying another norm (such as a synodically adopted doctrinal statement to which a significant portion of the synod is opposed) we end up ignoring our need to agree with God and replacing it with the sole requirement that we agree with one another.

    In my experience, both the LCMS and the ELS take this short cut. The difference between the ELS and the LCMS is that in the LCMS one may with impunity publicly disagree with a doctrinal resolution of the synod while in the ELS one may not. But surely we cannot determine our orthodoxy (or our fellowship with others) by how closely we adhere to synodically adopted doctrinal statements, but by whether or not we adhere to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.

    The issue of cutting off the debate is a serious one. In fact, I was expelled from the ELS precisely for engaging in public debate.

    Pastor Rolf Preus

  10. Pastor Jacobsen, you asked if the dance I was talking about is “cutting off debate.” That’s part of it. I’m talking generally about pastors shouting (or shouting’s equivalent in the rhetoric of theology — it’s pretty rare that somebody would literally shout on the Synod floor) so as to obstruct Synod leaders and delay undesired Synodical action. I imagine that this is how things “work” in the LC-MS. …factions and tactics.

    And, obviously, I agree with your comment about fellowship that is not based on God’s Word. I would just say that not all imprecise language is necessarily the result of sophistry. You may be comfortable ascribing that motive to those who still support the ELS, but I don’t believe that. I would say that the PMW hasn’t yet achieved the clarity that it will (hopefully) have one day. The task of clearing it up will fall to those who are in the ELS.

    *[J.J. And for my part, maybe I should clarify my use of the word “sophistry,” since it has strong connotations. It seems to me that not all sophistry is intentional. We can put together a reasonable expression of something, only to realize later that it has little scriptural basis, and is therefore… you guessed it: sophistry — at least in part. Then the Right Thing(TM) is to correct the error.]*

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