I’ve just had a complex thought, but I’m not sure I can express it in words. BTW, that’s one of the great values of writing those thoughts down. When you try to express them, as happens on a blog, they tend either to crystallize or evaporate. Please be patient, and we’ll see what happens this time.
A key part of the context of my thoughts on fellowship is the Werner Elert book Eucharist and Fellowship in the First Four Centuries. It shows how Holy Communion as an expression of fellowship was practiced so differently in the early church than it is practiced today — even in the ELS — and yet there are so many parallels and similarities. Read it if you have the chance.
Is there any such thing as Fellowship? What an odd question to ask. But I ask it anyway, for the sake of discussion, because our doctrine and practice of fellowship seems to be self-contradictory.
On the one hand, we teach with Holy Scripture that God wants us to recognize fellowship with those who teach as we do, and practice accordingly. On the other hand, all recognition of fellowship across our synod is centralized in terms of group membership. For example, if I want to know whether I’m “in fellowship with” a particular Christian, the only question I’m supposed to ask is whether the ELS recognizes fellowship with his church body. In fact, our practice seems to reduce Christian Fellowship to something more like club or gang membership. Is he a Crip or a Blood?
How about the other way around. I can look around at our pastoral conferences and I know that I’m “in fellowship” with all the other pastors there. In fact, we have a communion service at many conferences that further illustrates the fellowship. But one day, a memo comes from “the synod” stating that one of those pastors is no longer in fellowship. Dare I even ask the question? (Why not?) From what I’ve seen lately, the reason runs like this: “So-and-so has a problem with the way our synod is, but we all know that this is the way our synod is (and we assume it’s biblical — it’s our synod, after all). We can’t tolerate dissent from the way our synod is, especially because the synod’s right. Therefore, with great sorrow, we must announce that so-and-so is henceforth out on his can.”
What am I supposed to do with that, in terms of fellowship? We’ve managed to replace biblical doctrine with an assumption of biblical doctrine. We’ve replaced a defense of the synod’s doctrine and practice with an a priori assumption that the synod’s doctrine and practice are impeccable. We’ve replaced scripture itself (and the confessions too, for that matter) with the synod’s current take on scripture as the measure of doctrine that each of us is supposed to be using. In a way, it appears that we’ve even replaced Justification as the material principle for our theology, with the synod itself. What’s missing here?
The best I can tell, a few things are missing. These are things that don’t come easy, for anyone in the Church militant. We have them only by God’s grace, and only through much repentance and prayer. Things like humility before the Word of God, love for each other, and pastoral patience. I’m sure that I’m to blame for this situation as much as most. So for now, I’m just asking the question. Is there any such thing as Fellowship? Of course, I believe that there is. But I also hope we can confess it in practice better than we have.