An Improvement between Doctrinal Statements

Some time in the 1970s or so, my synod published a very nice color pamphlet entitled The Evangelical Lutheran Synod: Character, Doctrine, History, Mission. Inside there are 17 doctrinal points or theses on various subjects. This pamphlet was replaced later by one called We Believe, Teach, and Confess, which is also available online at the ELS web site.

In the ministry controversy, someone has pointed out that the newer statement is a little weaker in its statement on the ministry. I don’t want to get sucked into the ministry debate right now, so we’ll leave that for another time.

However, I would like to point out a place where the newer statement improves upon the older one. The subject is Church Fellowship. Here’s the older statement:

We believe that the Scriptures require that church fellowship shall be acknowledged and exercised only on the basis of confession of and commitment to the pure Marks of the Church, the Word and Sacraments. John 8, 31.32; 1 Cor. 1, 10; Eph. 2, 19.20; 4, 3-6. Deviation from the teaching of the Word of God is not to be tolerated in the Church. Matt. 7, 15.20; Rom. 16, 17; Gal. 1, 6-9; 2 John vv. 9-11. We reject unionism because it tolerates error in doctrine in the Church.

The only authority in the Church is Christ who teaches His Church through the Word. Matt. 23, 8; John 8, 31.32; 1 Pet. 4, 11.

Everything this statement says is spot-on true. It still applies fully to the ELS. Of particular interest at the moment are these two parts:

  • “Deviation from the teaching of the Word of God is not to be tolerated in the Church.” This derives partly from an earlier thesis which says, “We believe that the Bible not only contains the Word of God, but that it is the Word of God.” From this, we learn that any person in the synod must not tolerate any teaching in the synod that deviates from the Bible. One can only suppose that this means we should even be wary of official doctrinal summaries that the synod may have adopted.

  • “The only authority in the Church is Christ who teaches His Church through the Word.” This confirms that the authority of God’s Word stands above all offices in both congregation and synod.

The newer statement is not dramatically different, but in one particular way, it adds something very important. It says:

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. 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. 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. We also reject participation or membership in religious organizations which have features that are in conflict with the Christian faith, such as the Masonic Lodge and similar organizations. At the same time we also condemn separatism, i.e., the refusal to acknowledge and practice fellowship when there is agreement in doctrine. 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.

Notice that this is stated much more positively: “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.” The importance of this positive aspect of Church Fellowship is reinforced at the end: “We also condemn separatism, i.e., the refusal to acknowledge and practice fellowship when there is agreement in doctrine.”

So it is clear that there are two ways that we may sin in this area:

  • Through unionism, which is “church fellowship with adherents of false doctrine, and ecumenical endeavors which compromise the pure doctrine of God’s Word.”

  • Through separatism, which is “the refusal to acknowledge and practice fellowship when there is agreement in doctrine.”

I might add another pitfall: that someone may join or separate in a way that fails to show Christian love toward others, for we may have all the doctrine and practice letter-perfect, but if we have not love, then we are nothing.

How can we tell when it’s time to recognize Church Fellowship? When it is apparent that we have a mutual confession of and commitment to the pure Marks of the Church. This repeats part of Augsburg Confession, article VII: “It is enough for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings be alike everywhere. As Paul says [Eph. 4:5, 6]: ‘One faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all . . .'”

In our synod’s ministry controversy, I wonder if we have not fully distinguished between those parts of our doctrinal position that pertain to “the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments” and those parts that do not pertain. If our disagreements center on those parts that do not pertain, then they should not be divisive of church fellowship.

Why I will not commune at the upcoming ELS General Pastoral Conference

I attended the communion service at the synod convention in June, but refrained from communing. I also may attend the communion service at the General Pastoral Conference, but I will refrain from communing. Lest anyone jump to conclusions or speculations, it is important that I give the reason for this.

Communing together with other Christians is an expression of unity in the faith as the body of Christ. Though I may think that some of my brothers in Christ are mistaken about various things, I do not believe any of them are truly opposed to the doctrine that has united our synod for 88 years, including Pastors Rolf Preus, Joseph Abrahamson, Steven Brockdorf, Rob Lawson, and Les Lanier. These pastors have not persisted in any false doctrine that I know of, and neither has the rest of the synod. (If you disagree, please bring a charge and prove it appropriately.) So my decision not to commune is not based upon a lack of Christian fellowship between me and any part of the ELS (including Pastor Preus and his parish).

So why not commune?

Because some of my brothers have been misled by our true enemy into a sectarian point of view, believing that a man who questions the scriptural authority of a synod doctrinal statement should be excluded from our fellowship, rather than that he should receive the answers he seeks, or that his point be well-taken. This is sad for those whom they are excluding, who are bearing the cross of unjust rejection even as their Savior and the first Christian martyr, Stephen, did. It is even sadder for those who have given their assent to this new sectarianism that has arisen in our midst under the guise of Christian fellowship. Yet even Saul, who held the robes of those who stoned Stephen, found complete forgiveness and received a godly vocation when our Lord finally corrected him.

Yet I do not regard my misguided brothers as false teachers. They are misled, and I pray that they will come to see things better through our mutual study of God’s Word. In the meantime, I do not wish to offend an erring or ill-informed conscience by exercising my right as a fellow member of the body of Christ. I can only speak for myself. Again, my decision is not to separate from anyone, but to protect those who have been misled into unjust sectarianism, and hopefully to help them see the influence of our true enemy, who seeks to divide the ELS.

Someone may wonder if I subscribe to our synod’s doctrinal statements, based upon the foregoing explanation. In a sense, yes. We can call it the wider sense of the word “subscribe.” You see, our synodical doctrinal statements are not the same as the symbols of our church. They are not, strictly speaking, confessions of the evangelical catholic faith. Rather, they are expressions and applications of doctrine addressing particular, contemporary, parochial issues. They are meant to apply in the context where our synod finds itself. The Norwegian Synod statements on slavery are one good example, and the doctrinal statement just adopted last year is another. Such statements are not written for all Christians, nor even for all Lutherans to adopt, though they aim to agree with the Bible and symbols (creeds and confessions), and as such, express universal principles of Christian doctrine. Moreover, they are completely subject to testing and examination, even after they have been adopted, with the understanding that if they are found to contradict the norm of our faith, they must be rejected. The Confessions, on the other hand, while likewise subject to testing, have already been proven to a degree that they may be assumed a priori to be in agreement with holy scripture. Just see which doctrinal statements are mentioned by name in our church constitutions! Accordingly, I reserve my full, unqualified, a priori, quia subscription for the Book of Concord of 1580, since it has long ago been proven true beyond a doubt. I’ll call that the narrow sense of the word “subscribe.” In the wider sense, I also subscribe to our synod’s doctrinal statements, with an a posteriori subscription. Like this post, some of them may later need to be changed to remain accurate confessions of faith. See my explanation of the PMW statement as a possible example.

Wolf Time

Yesterday I finished reading Lars Walker’s book Wolf Time. Previously, I read his book Blood and Judgment. Both were worth the time to read. They may be categorized under something like science fiction or fantasy, but they are unlike anything I’ve read in either genre. Walker is a Lutheran living in Minnesota, and it shows. Though the stories are somewhat gritty in places, sin is not glorified. Instead, villains often receive appropriate consequences for their villainy, and the triune God is glorified as the story unfolds. In this age of pluralism and spiritual confusion, Walker sifts and sorts through many religious alternatives, letting their merits and weaknesses show in realistic fashion. Yet somehow he manages to distinguish Christianity from the rest mainly on the basis of the Gospel. It’s a refreshing thing to find in paperback.

These two books are also based upon some detailed scholarship mixed with a generous dose of creative license. Wolf Time particularly, reminded me of several things in Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and got me thinking that it would be interesting to read up a little on Norse mythology. That topic may not interest everyone, but I’ve been intrigued, now that these two Christian writers have put their gifts to work in a way that seems to reverberate between them. I probably won’t have the time to look into it, but Lars Walker’s book has proven stimulating.

Defining a Controversy

Here are some observations from a layman of logic, and a question. Responses from the better educated are welcome.

When there is a question in controversy, each party will have its own point of view about how the controversy ought to be defined or described. In our present culture, this might be taken to mean that everyone’s wrong, and the controversy is therefore pointless. This environment favors any party that seeks to escape culpability, or having some sort of power, wishes to retain it. After some amount of time, the mass of people lose interest in the “pointless” controversy, wishing only that it would go away. Without interest, the controverted question passes into oblivion unanswered. This makes it possible for those who should be held accountable to simply outlive the problem. Later, they can help write the history books about what happened and say anything they like.

Certainly, some controversies are pointless. The proper way to open an egg comes to mind. That does not mean that every controversy is pointless. The Council of Nicaea comes to mind, as well as the Reformation, the election controversy in the Norwegian Synod, and the battle for the Bible in the 20th Century. Yet in every controversy, there are those who say it’s not worth fighting about. The fighting itself, they say, is worse than living with the disagreement.

Lilliput is a long way from here. Maybe that’s why I don’t care about the opening of eggs. But Nicaea is also a long way from here, in both time and distance. I care deeply about that controversy, and would hope to suffer great pain and even death before retracting my confession that Jesus Christ is of one substance with the Father. So, distance alone does not account for apathy.

What may explain our reactions to various controversies is simply how they are defined. Was Athanasius arguing about a single letter and nothing more? That’s how some defined the controversy. So the Formula of Concord, which settled a number of controversies among Lutherans, was careful to define each one in a fair and accurate way. It avoided unnecessary embarrassment to those who had been wrong, but did not hesitate to repeat the Bible’s judgment upon all of the controverted questions, or to leave undecided what did not already have an answer in holy scripture. We can learn a lot from the Formula.

Now for the question.

When someone is making an argument in a controversy, he wants it to be understood. So he describes the context for his argument, which includes a definition of the controversy itself, from his own point of view. That’s fair enough. His opponents owe him the courtesy of hearing the argument in its proper context, and evaluating its merit accordingly.

When someone is trying to win a controversy with a weak argument, he will expend great energy trying to redefine the controversy in a way that favors his own argument. In this way the weak argument may eventually prevail upon the strength of the skewed understanding of the controversy that has saturated the minds of most participants, instead of upon the strength of the argument itself. So how does one tell the difference between this strategy, when you see it, and the regular practice, which simply expresses an argument in its proper context?

This is a question that deserves some attention. One way to tell the difference is to observe how the participants in the controversy treat their opponents, and how they handle the arguments of their opponents. If the strategy, in responding, is to distract others from the opponents’ argument (perhaps with an attack on the opponent himself), then the party may plan to redefine the controversy to hide a weak argument. Likewise, if one party tries to shout his opponent down, perhaps by controlling or manipulating the media outlets, he may intend to redefine the controversy to help his weak argument. If one party tries to exclude or disqualify or otherwise to remove his opponent from the debate, then he may intend to redefine the controversy in favor of his weaker argument.

I’m sure that others can think of even better ways to answer the question.

Severing Christian Fellowship Without Just Cause

The letter of confessional protest I included in the previous article included this statement:

… it is sinful to sever Christian fellowship without just cause (1 Corinthians 10:16-17; Ephesians 4:3) …

Is that true? You be the judge.

1 Cor 10:16-17
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.
Eph 4:3
… endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Maybe you can think of other pertinent passages.

News: Pastors and Churches Enter a State of Confessional Protest

Our synod office announced today that it received a letter from several pastors and two congregations. I’ll include a both the announcement and the letter itself below. Careful readers will notice that they do not agree about one important thing. The letter says that this state of confession makes it impossible for the signers to commune with those individuals who persistently act contrary to God’s Word. The letter does not apply to anyone else. The announcement has a different point of view: that the state of confession makes it impossible for the signers to enjoy altar and pulpit fellowship with the entire synod. Which is correct? Also, what does the synod administration hope to accomplish with its different point of view?

Perhaps the second question can be answered from the announcement, which informs the synod of a certain implication of the state of confession. The implication is that “they are in a protest doctrinally against the ELS since doctrine and practice go hand in hand.” Note the logic.

Major Premise
Certain pastors and churches have entered a state of confession against certain things persistently done contrary to God’s Word.
Minor Premise
Doctrine and practice go hand in hand.
(Intermediate) Conclusion
These pastors and churches are protesting the doctrine of the ELS.

First: is the argument valid? That is, if you grant that the premises are true, must the conclusion always be true as well? Second: Are the premises true? I believe the premises are both true and well established. However, the conclusion is not valid. Why not? Because it is eminently possible that the actions under protest have been done contrary to the doctrine of the ELS. It is also possible that the people of the ELS do not always put its doctrine into practice in a consistent manner.

The final conclusion in this announcement is what I mentioned at the beginning of this article: that these pastors and congregations are not at this time in altar/pulpit fellowship with pastors and congregations of the ELS. This is based upon the (invalid) intermediate conclusion above.

(Note the final conclusion does not say other pastors and congregations of the ELS, which leads one to suppose that the author may have a further, unstated conclusion in mind.)

Toward the end of the announcement, a consequence is described of any pastor’s suspension from the ELS. Namely, that the suspended pastor and the parish he serves are not in a “fellowshipping relationship” with the synod. This assumes that the congregation does not terminate his call on the basis of the suspension alone — one of the acts presently under protest. Presumably, if the parish should terminate its pastor’s call, even contrary to its own constitution, then it would retain the “fellowshipping relationship.”

But an important question or two must be asked here. Does the suspension of a pastor from the clergy roster of the ELS have the same effect as an excommunication; does it effectively place the suspended person outside of the synod’s fellowship? If so, what was the sin committed by Pastor Preus in the first place? What is the “cause” for removing him, or of what sin is he supposed to repent? I have not heard that anyone has accused him of teaching false doctrine. Was it that he insisted that there must be scriptural support for an assertion in our doctrinal statement on the ministry? Is it that without such support, the assertion in question does not have the authority of God’s Word? Was he not supposed to say things like that?

Hard questions, I know. Maybe we don’t have any theologians in the ELS capable of answering such questions, so we must resort to more creative solutions. It’s easy enough to claim something in writing (I should know), but it’s sometimes not so easy to back it up with clear scripture and good logic.

Continue reading “News: Pastors and Churches Enter a State of Confessional Protest”

The Orthodox Character of a Church Body

This is from p. 423 of volume 3 of Pieper’s Christian Dogmatics:

With regard to the orthodox character of a church body note well: (1) A church body is orthodox only if the true doctrine, as we have it in the Augsburg Confession and the other Lutheran Symbols, is actually taught in its pulpits and its publications and not merely “officially” professed as its faith. Not the “official” doctrine, but the actual teaching determines the character of a church body, because Christ enjoins that all things whatsoever He has commanded His disciples should actually be taught and not merely acknowledged in an “official document” as the correct doctrine. It is patent that faith in Christ will be created and preserved through the pure Gospel only when that Gospel is really proclaimed. (2) A church body does not forfeit its orthodox character by reason of the casual intrusion of false doctrine. The thing which the Apostle Paul told the elders of Ephesus: “Also of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them” (Acts 20:30), came true not only in the Apostolic Church, but also in the Church of the Reformation and will occur in the Church to the Last Day. A church body loses its orthodoxy only when it no longer applies Romans 16:17, hence does not combat and eventually remove the false doctrine, but tolerates it without reproof and thus actually grants it equal right with the truth.

I admit that we have seen great zeal in the ELS to apply Romans 16:17, even bypassing the proper steps given in both Scripture and the synod guidelines. Does such zeal confirm the ELS as an orthodox church body? (Or is it that we have retained fellowship with our sister synod in Wisconsin? Sorry, couldn’t resist. Yet an answer may still be helpful.)

Note the basis that Pieper gives for application of Romans 16:17: “the true doctrine, as we have it in the Augsburg Confession and the other Lutheran Symbols.” This leads to the question: what is a Lutheran Symbol? At Bethany Seminary, our Symbolics class covered the Book of Concord. We did not examine the local doctrinal statements of the ELS or any other synod, except to compare their teaching with that of the Book of Concord, to see how they measure up.

A distinction between synod and church

This is worth contemplating, from The Fireside.

When we hear about controversies in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS), many times those controversies seem to be about things that are not related to spiritual or theogical questions, but about business and legal matters. This then begs the questions, “Is the Synod ‘Church’”? …

It seems we are of the world, after all.

Pastor Preus (the ELS one) has publicized an appendix to his appeal and also the presentation he made to the appeals commission. They are archived at, where you can also find the appeal itself and other documents leading up to the present tragic circumstances in the ELS. I will include both the appendix and presentation below, for your information.

While I was on vacation, on 9/11 to be exact, the announcement came out that the appeals commission decided to uphold the suspension. Since the ELS has no codified process after this, it may be the final official word on the suspension issue. This is unspeakably tragic, because the decision means more than an official confirmation of a particular judgment call on the part of the president. (To understand this, you should certainly inform yourself by reading the documents archived at It also means:

  1. That it is acceptable in the ELS for the president to “minister” (I prefer “interfere”) in the congregations of the ELS without the knowledge of their pastors.

  2. That pastors may be suspended from the ELS for reasons not included in [the ELS Guidelines][] on synodical discipline. This leads immediately to the question: what can a pastor be suspended for? It currently has no definitive answer, so speculation is well justified. From the 2006 Convention, it would seem that if the president should deem a pastor or congregation “unteachable,” the result could be immediate and unilateral suspension.

  3. That a suspension from the ELS (for whatever reason) places the suspended party outside of ELS fellowship.

  4. That it is acceptable for a congregation to fire its pastor (rescind his call) for the reason that he has been suspended from the ELS clergy roster. This is not the same as showing that he has persistently taught false doctrine, lived an ungodly life, or been wilfully negligent in his duties, or even that he has become incompetent as a pastor. (Check your church’s constitution to see what reasons are allowed there.)

It is sinful to practice fellowship with someone who persistently teaches false doctrine. False doctrine is defined as that which contradicts the scripture (the norma normans of Christian doctrine) and the Lutheran Confessions (our norma normata of doctrine). It is equally sinful to deny fellowship to someone who does not teach false doctrine. Fellowship is a matter of doctrine. It is a purely theological question, to be decided on the basis of doctrine, not on the basis of politics or human favor. Romans 16:17 says that we are to mark and avoid false teachers. Part of “marking” or identifying a false teacher is to identify the false teaching in which he persists. That has not been done in any part of this whole suspension controversy. Instead, it has been skipped over. Pastor Preus has been impugned and maligned as a false teacher without any doctrinal reason for it. (The reason for his suspension was that he has accused the ELS of persisting in false doctrine, an accusation which he has not made and has specifically denied making. Even if it were true, such an accusation is not the same thing as teaching false doctrine himself, a fact which should be obvious to everyone but has now been contradicted by both the president and the commission on appeals.)

So now, ELS pastors and churches are told by the synod that we are to regard Pastor Preus as a false teacher outside our fellowship. Yet no doctrinal reason has been given to do so, neither an accusation nor proof of persistent false teaching. So it seems that we are being told that we must break fellowship with someone who still teaches and confesses the doctrine of the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions, and that if we do not, we are sinning. Yet it is certain that to break fellowship with such a brother in Christ is also sinful. Should we obey God, or men?

Or, should someone at some point show a little bit of Christian love, patience, and humility? Have we forgotten 1 Corinthians 13?

[the ELS Guidelines]: Continue reading “It seems we are of the world, after all.”

A Long-Time Favorite Play

Though I went to public schools, I did learn quite a few useful things there. One that stuck with me was a play by Henrik Ibsen. I think my teacher spent more time on the play A Doll’s House, but my favorite was Enemy of the People. It’s a frustrating story to read, but I knew it for an accurate depiction of human nature as it plays out in real life. Wikipedia has a summary of the play that seems a little bit too Marxist. I liked the summary at SparkNotes better, but it’s all too brief. You can get the full text of the play (It’s not a long one.) at Project Gutenberg. I’ll copy below part of an especially poignant scene, in case you don’t have the time to read the whole play. If you read it, you may wish to read a synopsis first, so you better understand the context.

Disclaimer: Any similarity between the characters in Ibsen’s play and people in real life is no doubt entirely intentional and possibly even prophetic. Continue reading “A Long-Time Favorite Play”