The Unit Concept of Fellowship
How does God want it Applied to Student Participation in Lutheran Schools?
no denomination in the history of Christianity has written more on the doctrine
of fellowship than has the
close fellowship we experience in the
A scriptural close fellowship practice also includes disfellowship of those who could endanger the preservation of the pure gospel in our midst. And so we have the policy of WELS-only preachers in our pulpits, WELS-only teachers in our schools, and usually WELS-only coaches for our athletic teams. And we generally understand that close communion and WELS-only sponsors at baptisms express the will of God. Practicing a close fellowship which includes closed fellowship in some things is not hard to understand and agree with as being scriptural.
Nevertheless, there are fellowship issues which are not so easily understood: Prayer with non-WELS family members privately in our homes, a non-WELS singer at a wedding who would sing a doctrinally sound song, and a non-WELS student at our Lutheran school being allowed or not allowed to sing in one of our churches. And despite all the writings and scripture passages cited by our stricter WELS theologians, something deep inside of each of us is uncomfortable with an interpretation of fellowship principles that always says “verboten!” in each of these circumstances.
reason there is a difference of opinion on how the fellowship principles found
in scripture should be practiced in our schools is because there is a
difference of opinion among us as to why God has given us fellowship
principles. There will never be uniform
practice until there is a uniform understanding of the purpose of the
fellowship principles. And so through
this paper I submit what I believe God’s purpose is in having fellowship principles
We believe that throughout history, God has had one set of unchanging directives for mankind. From the time of the Fall until the present, God’s purpose in his dealing with humanity has been the same. Ezekiel expressed it in 33:11: “Turn from your evil ways and live”, Jesus expressed it in Luke 13:3,5 “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” And in Luke 24:47, Jesus commands us to teach this message of repentance and forgiveness to people of every nation.
Our Lutheran heritage summarizes the message of repentance and forgiveness as the “Law” and the “Gospel”. The Law breaks down our pride and shows us our sin, and leads us to repent, the Gospel lifts us up and shows us Jesus our Savior, who has forgiven us. And so when we Lutherans fight so vigorously to keep clear the doctrine of Law and Gospel, we are fighting to preserve the central message from God to fallen mankind.
Why mention this unchanging directive in a discussion about fellowship? Because it is so contrary to the natural understanding of a sinful human mind. We fallen creatures can easily see that we are sinful, and deserve the wrath of the Almighty. What we don’t see is the solution. Our reason would convince us that standards of behavior could be established by which we could live, and when we die, our eternal reward would be meted out according to how well we lived up to those standards. And so the world is filled with natural religions and philosophies which basically say the same thing in different ways – “Be as good as you can be, and God will reward you.”
encountered this wrong ‘natural philosophy’ idea about how to please God when
he walked the earth. Jesus could not
help people who came to him thinking their good works earned God’s favor. “I have not come to call the righteous, but
sinners” they were told. A rich man came
to him, but was sent away empty (Mark -23). The people of
But this wrong idea was not very prevalent in the minds of the lowest of society’s people, in the ‘have-nots’ of Jesus’ day. We find the prostitutes, the Samaritans, the tax collectors, the lepers, the blind, all coming to Jesus, understanding that they are helpless in God’s sight, and begging for his help. Jesus welcomed them with both physical help and the forgiveness of sins.
Jesus tells us that the most disturbing place where he found the ‘natural philosophy’ idea of pleasing God was in the minds of the religious leaders of God’s people. The Pharisees, who worked so hard to make themselves as holy as possible, were condemned by Jesus as the ones who “shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces,” not entering themselves, and not allowing others to enter (Matt -14). How could this be? How could the men charged with leading God’s people to see God’s love, receive this type of condemnation?
Perhaps a short history lesson about the Pharisees is in order to help us see how this damning philosophy had become so prevalent in Jesus’ day. Assuming the Westminster Dictionary of the Bible has it reasonably accurate, the sect of the Pharisees has its origin “in a reaction against the Hellenizing spirit that appeared among the Jews and manifested itself in the readiness of a part of the people to adopt Greek customs.” (under the entry “Pharisees”) The name ‘Pharisee’ may not appear in Jewish literature until about 100 B.C., but the philosophy to remain separate from Greek influence and keep the faith handed down from Moses was alive and working to keep the people of God distinct through the persecutions of Antiochus Epiphanes, the resulting Maccabean revolt, and the time of relative peace which preceded our Lord’s earthly life.
Personally, I can sympathize with the Pharisees. When faced with increasing secularization of society, what more natural way is there but to look into the Word of God and endeavor to keep it faithfully? When asked by devout members of God’s family, “How shall we react to this, or to that?”, what would be more natural than for the religious leaders to make a scriptural suggestion to help them. And the Levitical laws surely have as one of their purposes to keep God’s people separate from the influences of the unbelieving world. The problem (we can easily surmise) is that suggestions eventually become norms of behavior for the faithful, which eventually become laws which must be enforced if one is to remain a certifiable child of God. This was the Pharisee-ism that Jesus encountered.
It appears from the New Testament that the law the Pharisees had the hardest time interpreting was the law which made the Children of Israel most unique, and did the most to keep them a separate people. This was the law to honor the Sabbath Day. Doing any work – even gathering sticks – on the Sabbath was punishable by death (Num -36) according to scripture. In addition, every seventh year was a Sabbath year in which crops were not grown. But the Pharisees missed in their understanding of the purpose of the Sabbath. Scripture taught that the purpose of Sabbath observance was not in being obedient to a day of resting. The purpose was to focus on their God of love. In Dt they were told to observe the Sabbath day specifically as a time to remember how God had personally and miraculously saved them. In Ex 31, the Sabbath is said to be a sign to remember that it is God who makes his people holy (v 13), and God who is the Creator of the heavens and the earth (v 17). The purpose of the Sabbath was supposed to be a time to reflect on God, not on the resting from work.
(The same thing can be said of all of the Old Testament laws. The Old Testament form of worship, with its daily sacrifices, was not a form designed to instill in the minds of God’s people that if they do these prescribed things, then they will be acceptable to God. No! Rather, God’s love for his people showed in the sacrifices they were to make – an innocent lamb received the punishment, not they themselves. Furthermore, once a year, their sins were symbolically put onto an innocent lamb, which was led out to the desert, showing how their sins had been taken away. This Atonement ritual demonstrated that it was not their adherence to rules which removed their sins, but their loving God who removed their sins.)
so Jesus entered Jewish society in about A.D. 30. Because the purpose of God’s laws had been
forgotten, and the nation of
Matthew 12:1-14 illustrates this: Jesus’ disciples walked through a grain field on a Sabbath, picked the heads of grain and ate them. When the Pharisees objected, Jesus had the opportunity to correct their misunderstandings. He uses an example from Scripture which at first may seem disconnected from the situation. The law said the Bread of the Presence belonged to and was to be eaten only by Aaron and his sons (Lev 24:9), that is, the priests. But David understood that this law could be broken, and the bread could be eaten by soldiers in time of need. The law said that no work was to be done on the Sabbath, but the priests regularly worked on the Sabbath in making offerings in the temple. Therefore, they too, could break the Sabbath. What thread of reason connects these examples? Simply put, human needs are more important than following laws.
Later that day Jesus reminded them all that if one of their sheep was in danger of dying on a Sabbath, they themselves would break the Sabbath regulations, and go to rescue their sheep. Even they would make exception for a sheep, surely Jesus could make an exception for a human being.
Jesus summarized his understanding of the Sabbath day by declaring God’s purpose in making the Sabbath – it was made to serve man, not to be served by man (Mk ). A higher law can supersede the Sabbath law. That higher law is the law of love. It is always acceptable to do good and show love to others, even if it means breaking the Sabbath law. Jesus regularly broke the Sabbath by healing those in need on that day. He did this deliberately, to drive home the point that acts of love supersede adherence to written rules. Jesus was sent to establish a kingdom based on the law of love, not on a set of rules which include some and exclude others, depending on the degree to which the set of rules is followed. The new wine of the Gospel would break open the skins that held the old wine of the Law.
Galatians 3:24,25, Paul tells us that the rules and regulations which dictated
daily life from the time of Moses to the time of Jesus were designed to be temporary. The Old Testament law was like a baby sitter,
guiding God’s people for a time, until they would be considered adults in their
understanding and no longer needing the law to be over them. A child needs laws
to govern his behavior, because his reasoning skills are not yet fully
developed. An adult, however, can be
expected to conduct himself properly using basic guidelines and his mature
reason. Ever since the day of Pentecost, God’s people are considered to be
adult enough to live for him without a strict set of laws. Jesus came to set us free (Jn ), he freed us by canceling
the written code of laws, nailing it to the cross (
Laws do not draw God’s people closer to him. When the Sabbath observance stopped being an expression of the Gospel (a time to reflect on God’s salvation of the nation) and became instead an expression of the Law (a work that had to be done to remain in God’s favor), the Sabbath was no longer serving its intended purpose. What the Pharisees had done was set up two classes of people, those who outwardly follow God’s Laws (and are therefore better in God’s eyes) and those who don’t. But Jesus brings the true Sabbath rest to us in a way that a weekly physical resting cannot bring.
Because of what the Pharisees did with God’s Word, the term ‘Pharisee’ today is a byword for anyone who is concerned only with a person’s outward behaviors, not with the attitude of his heart. And even though Jesus roundly condemned the Pharisees, we must admit they helped preserve the scriptures till he came. I confess I feel a certain kinship to the Pharisees -- they honestly wanted to keep God’s Word pure, unmixed with the prevailing philosophy of the day. And they truly wanted to spread the truth of God’s Word to others, Jesus himself said so (Matt ). I could easily be a Pharisee. Maybe I am without realizing it.
Just because Jesus canceled the Law, it does not mean his Church today will join the rest of the world. It is still God’s will that we join together with like-minded believers, and send away those who would undermine the proper understanding of the Law and Gospel message. Paul exhorts us with these guidelines: to meet together regularly, encouraging one another (Heb ) to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3), and to be “perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor ). But also to “test the spirits” (1 Jn 4:1), watching out for false prophets (Matt ), having nothing to do with people who continue to be divisive on doctrine (Titus ), keeping away from them (Rom ). These are the New Testament principles which – if followed – will ensure that the message of repentance and forgiveness will be proclaimed until the Second Coming of our Lord.
in the story of the Pharisees is a lesson we in the
the 1950’s it became necessary for the WELS to formulate statements of protest
against the ways the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod was practicing church
fellowship with the more liberal Lutheran synods. The 1959 document called Church Fellowship became the basis for our termination of
fellowship with the LCMS in 1961. The
revision of this document in 1970 serves as the basis for our present policy in
dealing with people of denominations not “in fellowship” with the
"Church fellowship should therefore be treated as a unit concept, covering every joint expression, manifestation, and demonstration of a common faith" (Appendix to Church Fellowship, by John Brug, NPH 1996, p. 166)
the same statement Jesus had to make about Sabbath regulations -- “The Sabbath
was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark ), can also be made for the
way some in our fellowship apply our synod’s fellowship statement. Brug recognizes this weakness in our
we routinely see wholesale criticism if not condemnation of the innocent by
some of our
principle of the early Church was that “we should not make it difficult for the
Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts ) In contrast to this principle, the fellowship
policy being proposed for
When Jesus condemned the Pharisee’s application of Sabbath laws, he referred them to the higher law of love (Matt 12:1-14; Mark -27). Citing 1 Samuel 21:1-6, Jesus allowed David and his men to break the ceremonial law of not eating the showbread, even though there was no immediate danger of their starving. Jesus’ own healing of people on the Sabbath certainly could have waited till the next day. But Jesus wanted to make a point to those caught up in legal righteousness – acts of love are more important than strict obedience to laws. As Paul later wrote, “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Gal 5:6)
How does this apply to the issue before us today? Are there situations when we can break the ‘unit concept’ in the name of love? Can a non-WELS person sing God’s Word to us in a worship setting? The example of Jesus urges us to look beyond the unit concept, drawn from scripture though it is, and ask the question “Which is the response of love?” The 1970 document itself says in Thesis B, Part 4: “Weakness of faith is in itself not a reason for terminating church fellowship, but rather an inducement for practicing it vigorously to help one another in overcoming our individual weaknesses. In precept and example, Scripture abounds with exhortations to pay our full debt of love toward the weak.”
Both WELS and non-WELS students come to our high school for a variety of reasons, not only to sit at the feet of teachers who teach from a scriptural viewpoint. The education we offer is not only that of studying scripture and absorbing a Godly view of academic subjects, but the education we offer also includes opportunities to practice our faith – through various acts of service, through joint worship, and through the opportunity to lead worship. How do we best grow God’s people – by making barrier laws which treat non-WELS students as second class citizens during worship services, or by welcoming and inviting them to praise God with us as we together experience the love God has us? The question before the governing board of any Christian school is “What policies should we have at this school which will best allow the Gospel to work in the hearts of our students?” It should not be “What policies should we implement to make sure that people with an incomplete understanding are not getting the impression that an incomplete understanding is acceptable to God.”
principle we must keep in mind is how the Church grows, and what our function
is in the growth of Christ’s kingdom.
Paul admits “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it
grow.” (1 Cor 3:6) God’s power is in the
gospel (Ro ), not in the people who proclaim it. God makes faith grow as the gospel is
preached. God-fearing people have always
struggled with the temptation to give the gospel some help by using some human
rule to help make people more holy. Such
regulations have the appearance of wisdom, but are worthless in bringing people
closer to God. The Church grows as God
causes it to grow (
condemned the Pharisees because their interpretation of Sabbath laws had
erected a barrier between them and the people they were to serve. God wants people to come to him to have their
burdens lightened. What the world saw in
the Pharisees was a burden that no one could carry (Matt 23:4), which drove
people away from God instead of to him. We
must be careful that the scriptural principles of fellowship which we term the
unit concept are not becoming a barrier which hinders people from hearing about
and experiencing the love God has for them.
And we must be careful that the unit concept does not give our own
people the impression that being associated with the
Where are the words of scripture which tell us to draw a line between ourselves and non-WELS students, telling them that they before we can educate them in each of the ways our school offers, they must demonstrate a level of Christian maturity which compels them to leave the denomination they grew up in, and join our denomination? Our new school policy tells them if they do not display this level of Christian maturity, they cannot participate in the opportunity to lead us in worship. But I submit that this is trying to motivate them with the Law, not the Gospel. If there is any doctrine that Paul makes more clear for the Church than what Jesus did, it is this: Legalism does not grow the Church, but only the preaching of the Gospel.
where in Scripture is there a command to break fellowship with people who want
to come to us to learn. We should flee
from false doctrines and false teachers, certainly, and our school must have a
policy which, based on Titus 3:10, will remove a student who openly promotes
some false teaching. But the proposed
policy will go beyond what is written in scripture. The policy will take a student who agrees
with our doctrines, who is being blessed by our fellowship, and tell him that
his faith is not mature enough because he has not yet left his
denomination. It will not be enough to
show a love for the Gospel of Jesus by attending our classes, no, he must also
make a stand for the
This viewpoint of elevating the outward joining with us as being more important than professing adherence to the Gospel is what Paul warned against in Galatians 5:20 by the word translated as “factions”. When we become more concerned that someone has joined our denomination than we are concerned about their personal walk in the faith, then we are being factious in God’s Kingdom. This factiousness is the workmanship of our own pride in knowing that God has blessed us with pure doctrine. But every time a non-WELS family decides to enroll their child elsewhere because of our fellowship policy, it is our pride that is sending students away from that pure doctrine.
common response in the
God’s people today grow closer to him as they practice scriptural fellowship principles which allow them to reflect on how Christ has called them out of darkness into his wonderful light (1 Pet 2:9-10). It is good for us to join together with likeminded Christian brothers and sisters and praise our God. But it is not good for us to enact policies which have the effect of pushing weak Christians away. And it is not good for us to demand levels of understanding from weak Christians before we will allow them to sing back to us the very truths we have taught them. When the unit concept becomes a litmus test for how holy we are compared to our LCMS brothers (or more distant relatives in other heterodox denominations), then our fellowship principles are no longer serving Christ in helping to grow his people.
Getting away from a legal interpretation of our 1970 fellowship document and adopting a Gospel-motivated interpretation will have its pitfalls. Issues will no longer be black and white, but filled with opinions based on scripture. But this is what Jesus meant when he quoted Hosea, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” Practicing mercy is filled with opinions on what is best in individual situations. Sacrifice requires only following a regulation.
There are those among us who hold to an interpretation of the unit concept which says that if we allow non-WELS students to sing to us in our worship services, we will give them the impression that we think it is fine for them to remain in their error. So it is out of love that we bar them. But how can we assume such an opinion will result when we have clearly taught our doctrinal position in religion classes, when we refuse to allow the student to commune with us, and when we refuse to take our choir to the student’s home church to sing at their worship service? Surely these actions are sufficient to witness our insistence on doctrinal purity in our practice as well as our confession.
when we have a policy which states that students who have come to our school to
learn God’s Word, but who have not been moved by the Spirit to break ties with
their non-WELS church, cannot for that reason sing or play an instrument during
a worship service, I believe we give
the false impression. People, both WELS
and non-WELS, will come away from this policy with the idea that somehow
allowing a non-WELS person to stand before us in worship will adulterate the
worship, that the worship is more pure when the people worshipping have passed
a certain litmus test. But it is not the
people bringing us the message that makes the message pure. All people,
before anyone objects to this, let me make it clear that having a non-WELS
student deliver a message from God’s Word in our daily chapel could give the impression that we do
not care about the differences between our denomination and his, and we must be
careful to not give that impression.
But, when a
continue to draw lines between us and other denominations in certain situations
by using the phrase “activities which are joint expressions of faith.” This phrase, like the term ‘unit concept,’
comes out of the years of protest and separation from the LCMS. We had been jointly operating high schools,
foreign missions, nursing homes, etc.
is that the situation we have in our Lutheran school today? The operation of
think of my former pastor who went to the local public school one December and
declared that no student from his church would be allowed to sing songs in the school
choir if they were in any way religious.
I would be the first to say that his actions came from his sincere love
for his Lord. But his actions were
misunderstood by the entire town, both
few years ago my wife was talking with a colleague of hers about things that
happen in our local public high school.
My wife asked her if she had ever considered sending her children to
our high school applies the fellowship principles of the unit concept depends
on how we see our school. Is it a
mission arm of the Christian Church – that is, to reach out to all whom God may
call, or is it a tool only for our denomination – to strengthen its
members? It is my hope and prayer that