Almost immediately since the first Lutherans came to America they have been divided (or, perhaps better, divided themselves) into two camps. A great number of titles have been attached to these camps. People use words like “old” or “new,” liberal or conservative, moderate, confessional, and strict.
Whatever the words, there is an idea that one part of American Lutheranism has been more American, accommodating, ecumenical, open, broad-minded, progressive, friendly, what have you. Meanwhile, the other has been closed off, doctrinaire, reactionary, and unfriendly. The first group opens their arms to all comers, welcomes all, sees unity in diversity and is the better for it. The second group sniffs heresy everywhere, can never be pure enough, and, one suspects, feels that maybe they are the only Christians left on the planet.
Typically, C.F.W. Walther has been placed into this second camp, along with the church he helped found, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and the broader confessional organization he helped bring into existence in the late nineteenth century, the Synodical Conference (of which the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod was a part for nearly a century).
Especially is this so because Walther, the Missouri Synod, and the Synodical Conference talked about and practiced church fellowship, that is, the idea that Christians should join together in religious work (preaching, teaching, missions, the Lord’s Supper, etc.) only when there is a pre-existing unity of doctrine. This kind of thinking has become a minority position in our culture, even though it is thoroughly biblical. John writes of walking together for the truth. Paul speaks of watching out for division causers and keeping away from them. Jesus says we should beware of false prophets, wolves in sheep’s clothing. And this because a little leaven leavens the whole lump. Cancer spreads. False teachings in any area can end up causing one to wander from the faith entirely.
What’s misunderstood, misplaced, ignored, or forgotten, is that exercising church fellowship, joining together or avoiding Christians and groups of Christians based on agreement or lack thereof in doctrine, is an act of love: love for God’s Word, love for our souls, as well as love for our neighbor caught up in error. Instead, when a church insists on unity in doctrine and practice before working together, communing together, praying together, they are called the loveless ones.
This volume of essays entitled Church Fellowship by C.F.W. Walther reminds us that practicing church fellowship is not a loveless act, nor is it an invention of the nineteenth century, the Missouri Synod, the Synodical Conference, or any man, but a word from God.
It also reminds us that Lutherans called “old”, strict, confessional or what have you, are not dividers, hiders, sectarians, cultists or any such thing. Just as much as the most ecumenical of churches, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, at its best, seeks what Jesus prayed for in John 17: unity, a unity of Christians around the Word of God, the word that is truth. “Set us apart [sanctify] them by the truth, your word is truth,” Jesus prayed. The “Lutheran difference” is that the Evangelical Lutheran Church also seeks this unity in the way God desires. The Word of God and faithfulness to that Word – “if you hold to my teachings, you are really my disciples” – unites Christians, not ethnicity, culture, country, language, convenience, or any other thing.
The introduction to this collection by Dr. Gerhard Bode reminds us that C.F.W Walther did not stand aloof from the rest of American Lutheranism. He stood in the middle of it and, in fact, attempted to gather it together around God’s Word. He arrived on the scene during the time of great Lutheran immigration to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. He looked around and saw Lutherans aplenty and sought to gather them together into one Evangelical Lutheran Church.
The years 1850-1900 were really the time of Lutherans “finding each other.” So Walther looked. He published newspapers and theological journals. He promoted free conferences. He led in organizing an ecumenical organization, the Synodical Conference, which gathered together a number of like-minded (that is, doctrinally-in-agreement) Lutheran synods to work together in and for God’s truth.
Walther, then, a practitioner of vigorous church fellowship, was no hermit or monastic closing himself off from those less pure. He did not stand on the side, stick out his tongue, fork the sign of the evil eye and say, “A plague on both your houses,” while noting how pure, holy, and righteous he and his doctrine were. As the introduction notes, “Dauntless though his efforts were, Walther was not heedless of the hazards involved” (11). He knew the risks of working for unity. Hard words had to be shared where there was false or suspect teachings, whether dealing with someone he was already in fellowship with or seeking to be in fellowship with. One could not agree to disagree on paper over existing disagreements with mutually agreeable and flexible words: “false unity was contrary to God’s Word…it harmed the consciences of the weak and threatened the preaching of the true Gospel in the Church” (11). Again, “Declaring points of dissension to be ‘open questions’ among them was not a solution” (14).
Then, as now, this was not popular. Then, as now, Lutherans sought unity, sometimes feeling that bigger was better. Just as the dream of Lutheran liturgical scholars has been one hymnal for all Lutherans, so too the dream has been one Lutheran church in America, sometimes at all costs. Walther was not willing to pay those costs. If we are convinced, as we say we are at our confirmations and when pastors take their ordination vows, that the Evangelical Lutheran Church has it right, then we take doctrine seriously. Sadly, then, as now, this hasn’t always been the case. In his essay, “Taking the Confessions Seriously” (1858), Walther writes, “First of all, even a large proportion of these reveal all too clearly that they have never taken the trouble to study the doctrine of our church thoroughly and for that reason do not know it, no matter how much they praise it” (25). Walther understands that we must dig deeply, drink deeply, and dig and drink exhaustively from the sources of theology: the Scriptures, and for Lutherans, also the Lutheran Confessions.
He says things like this because he is convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church (not any particular denomination of it, even his own beloved Missouri Synod, or my own beloved Wisconsin Synod) “has and confesses altogether pure doctrine” (“Doctrinal Development” , 58). This is because the Lutheran Church is the church of the sola scriptura and “the saving truth is already completely given in Scripture” (59).
To prove this, of course, Walther demonstrates a mastery of the sources, not only Scripture, but also the Lutheran Confessions (the Book of Concord) and church history in general. Here one sometimes finds Walther charged with being a Vatertheologian, that is, practicing father theology, citing the fathers of the church over, above, or before Scripture. While there might, at times, be something to this charge, it is not unique to Walther, nor the Lutheran church. And, at least in these essays, it is not the case that he bases his conclusions on the fathers first and then finds Scripture to support what they say. Instead is you find a man who knows church history inside and out. He supports his historical conclusions with history. He demonstrates what the church has done (whether positive or negative).
In other words, Walther makes it clear, once more, that he did not invent this church fellowship about which he writes. He shows us from Scripture, the Confessions, and history, that this is what God has said, what the Evangelical Lutheran Church has practiced and confessed, and what, for centuries, was the case among the Lutheran Church. All of this leads to his conclusion: “error, no matter in what form it may arise, never has even a formal right to exist in [the Church]” (70).
To spend a little bit more time on this particular area is worthwhile. In a later essay, “The Only Source of Doctrine” (1882), Walther reminds us that it is Scripture first that norms our doctrine. All other sources serve as witnesses and testimonies, not the other way around. As good and enjoyable as it is to read the works of Martin Luther, John Gerhard, Hermann Sasse, or C.F.W. Walther, it should be Scripture first, second, and last. Walther cites Luther for precedent, “I have desired nothing in all this except a reformation according to holy Scripture” (449).
We don’t need to find our doctrine of fellowship in what Schuetze, Meyer, Brug, Walther, Pieper, or Luther said or did. Our Lutheran fathers knew this already in the sixteenth century. In the introduction to the Formula of Concord they said over and over again that the Scriptures are the source, the norm, and the origin of our teaching and theology. Lutherans sit on the Scriptures. “As such,” Walther writes,” a Lutheran is subjected in his conscience to no man, no angel, in short, no creature, but only to Christ and His Word. It is just this that makes it the most glorious church fellowship within all of Christendom on earth” (455). Woe to us, Walther writes, if we have only the collier’s faith, “I believe what the church believes and the church believes what I believe.”
Sadly, too often, that seems to be the case. It seems ever too true that pastors and people across the Lutheran synods only regurgitate what they heard or read from their professors, from conference papers and essays and online question and answer sites. A reading of this volume of essays by Walther proves that he would cringe at such a thing. He is no mere father theologian.
Yes, we put our doctrine on paper. We confess it. We write it. And we look to those who wrote and confessed before us. But we confess and write what we’ve learned from a study of Scripture. From the introduction once more:
“Throughout his career, Walther strove to bear witness to the truth of God’s Word and to work toward the establishment of true unity in the Church where possible. If true unity could not be achieved, Walther was not one to give up easily. Too much was at stake in the Lutheran project in America, and the work of reaching out with God’s Word to the world was too important. In the end, it came back to where everything began, with God’s Word” (18).
Because of what Jesus and his apostles say in his Word, this topic of church fellowship cannot be ignored. While it appears to be trivial to so many, it remains an important point for us to ponder, study, and practice, because, as the apostle says, “Watch your life and doctrine closely, persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
C.F.W. Walther understood this word of the apostle Paul. He understood that unity at all costs forsakes the Word of God, damages faith, and puts souls in danger. With these essays he lays the groundwork for a renewed study of this vital topic. He helps us see that it is not some man-made construct, but rather a teaching of the Word of God. He helps us understand the role that Scripture, the Lutheran Confessions, and the public and private writings of those who have gone before us have, how they interact with each other, as well as how we make the most profitable use of them.
None of this is to say that Walther’s words are the first or last words on the topic. Not all of his expressions are felicitous or perfect. He would be the first to acknowledge that. Occasionally, for example, when he speaks of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the true, visible church on earth, we wonder if he is blurring the distinction between the doctrine of the Lutheran Church as found in its confessions and the various Lutheran synods that exist under those confessions. A set of questions on page 62 (in the essay “Doctrinal Development”) seems to almost ignore the distinction he had just laid out, that the Church can be filled with corruption (even the Evangelical Lutheran Church), and yet remain the Church. Yet even there, he ends up making the point that doctrine isn’t developing or evolving, but rather, the Church is always in a state of reformation, because in the Church we have saints who still sin. He quotes Luther, “God and the Holy Spirit already sanctified our church through his holy word….Life (as was said above) is not lived completely according to our insights and wishes.”
While this volume probably should not become a Lutheran volume of casuistry on the topic of fellowship, the works of C.F.W. Walther cannot be ignored. He lived in a time shockingly like our own, a doctrinal time of the judges when everybody did as he saw fit. “Lutheran” didn’t always mean the same thing to different people. The Christian Church looked hopelessly divided. People sought to create unity by lowest common denominator or without regard to doctrinal distinction or division. We live in a time like that, too. As Solomon writes, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” What has been is again. A volume like this should be read by pastors and laity alike and be considered as a study document for broader groups, including congregations or pastoral conferences. These works are not the final word on the doctrine of fellowship, but because they were written over a long period of key history in American Lutheranism, they will help American Lutherans grasp their own history and see how this teaching was understood and applied at a time so similar to our own. Perhaps it will spur the various Lutheran churches on to a renewed look at their own practices of fellowship.
We give thanks for the preservation and publication of these essays. They show us how those who went before thought and acted when dealing with situations we have dealt with. They remind us Lutherans that we cannot and dare not abandon our Lutheran confessions of faith, the Book of Concord. They show us that those symbols to which we subscribe have their source and their norm in Scripture. Not any words, not those of an apostle or an angel or a Luther or a Walther are allowed to rise above or speak any gospel other than the one spoken to us in Scripture about Christ for us, Christ crucified and risen from the dead.
As the Lutheran Church confesses in the Smalcald Articles, this doctrine of justification, that Christ alone took away the sins of the world and that no works of any sinful man play any part, is the doctrine upon which all theology hangs. If a Christian or a church loses that, they lose everything and return into the darkness of their own works and merits. Reading these essays reminds us that faithfully practicing church fellowship is not a holier-than-thou way to say that Lutherans (Missouri, Wisconsin, or anyone) are the only true believers. Rather, it is the way in which the Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Christian Church as a whole keeps the Gospel pure and whole, keeps focused on Christ for us, and keeps justification pure. “If you do, you will save yourself and your hearers” (1 Timothy 4:16).
C.F.W. Walther was the first president of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.