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 for his
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.” We commonly refer to this error using the term ‘legalism.’
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 apparently was not as 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.
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 – where righteousness was defined
as separating oneself from Greek influences and adhering to the traditional
rituals of the people of
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). 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 does not teach that the purpose of Sabbath observance was in being obedient to a day of resting. The purpose was to focus on their God of love. In Dt God’s people 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). See also Ez 20:12. The purpose of the Sabbath was supposed to be a time to reflect on God, not on the resting from work.
We Lutherans recognize that God gave the Law to show us our sinfulness and our need for a Savior. But when he gave his people the Sabbath commandment, he did this also to show them who that Savior is – God Himself! The same thing can be said of all of the Old Testament ceremonies. 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. The Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread reminded them of how God had quickly rescued them from slavery and made them his people. Pentecost gave them opportunity to thank God for the harvest, etc. More examples could be given. For the sake of argument in this paper, I will use the term ‘gospel purpose’ to mean the intention that God had in establishing the Sabbath and the ceremonies – he wanted his people to look to him as their only Savior (Is 43:11).
And so Jesus entered Jewish society in about A.D. 30. The purpose of God’s prescribed way of worship had been forgotten, changed by well-meaning theologians from a gospel purpose to crass legalism. The teachers of the law saw a strict adherence to the ceremonies as the path to righteousness before God. One of the main lessons Jesus had to impart was to correct the false ideas about Old Testament worship, especially about serving the Lord by observing the Sabbath.
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 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 strict observance of laws. The Sabbath and the ceremonies were designed to impress on God’s people how much he loved them, how dare they be used as an excuse to prevent God’s people from showing love to each other! 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. Since 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 ). The Sabbath and the other Old Testament feasts and ceremonies served God’s people by gathering them together and impressing on them that they had a loving God who cared for them, forgave them, and saved them. When the Pharisees added rules to ‘protect’ the observance of the Sabbath, the effect was to make the people serve the Sabbath, obscuring the gospel purpose.
was sent to establish a kingdom based on a higher law which supersedes Sabbath
and ceremonial observances. That higher
law can be called the law of love (based on Mt 22:35-40, , and Gal 5:14). Actions which distribute to others the love
God pours out on us are more important than observing written rules. Jesus demonstrated this several times by
breaking the Sabbath and healing those in need on that day. He did this deliberately, to drive home the
point that acts of love trump written rules.
The new wine of the Gospel breaks open the skins that held the old wine
of the Law. 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 a time to reflect on God’s salvation of the nation (the gospel purpose) and became instead a work that had to be done to remain in God’s favor (legalism), the Sabbath was no longer serving God’s people as he intended. What the Pharisees had done was to use the Sabbath day to set up two classes of people, those who outwardly followed God’s Laws (and were therefore better in God’s eyes) and those who didn’t. The Pharisees made the Sabbath a burden to the people (Lk ), but Jesus brings the true Sabbath rest to us in a way that a weekly physical resting cannot bring (Mt -30, followed by Matthew chapter 12).
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 philosophies 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 at times 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 10:25) to “keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph 4:3), and to be “perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Cor 1:10). But also to “test the spirits” (1 Jn 4:1), watching out for false prophets (Matt 7:15), having nothing to do with people who continue to be divisive on doctrine (Titus 3:10), keeping away from them (Rom 16:17). These are the New Testament principles which – if followed – will ensure that the unadulterated message of repentance and forgiveness will be proclaimed until the Second Coming of our Lord.
But in the story of the Pharisees is a lesson we in the WELS must take to heart in our day.
In 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 WELS.
The WELS Statement on Church Fellowship – 1970 interprets scriptural principles for us in a way which allows the WELS and its ancillary institutions to operate in our pluralistic and ecumenical society to preserve the truths of Law and Gospel. It draws us together as a unique people holding to absolute truths in a society where absolutism is rejected. It allows us to demonstrate our commitment to sound doctrine, to witness the importance of adherence to Bible teachings. Its application is not unlike how the Old Testament Sabbath observance brought the nation of Israel together as a unique and united people. We are, just as they were, given the opportunity to declare that we are God’s chosen people, called out of darkness into his light (2 Pt 2:9). It is from our dealings with the LCMS during the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s that our present day term ‘unit concept’ was born. It became part of WELS doctrinal statements in the 1970 document:
"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)
Unfortunately, the same statement Jesus had to make about Sabbath regulations -- “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27), can also be made for the way some in our fellowship apply our synod’s fellowship statement. Brug recognizes this weakness in our WELS brethren as he makes the statement: “We shouldn’t forget that fellowship principles were made for man; man wasn’t made for fellowship principles. If we remember that God desires ‘mercy, not sacrifice,’ we won’t condemn the innocent (Matthew 12:7).” (p 119 of Church Fellowship)
However, we routinely see wholesale criticism if not condemnation of the innocent by some of our WELS leaders. Anyone who has not formally joined a WELS or ELS congregation is regularly spoken of as being “heterodox.” While a non-WELS child in our Lutheran elementary school may be considered as “weak in faith,” we are told that a child confirmed by a non-WELS church cannot be so considered. Membership in a denomination is considered to be the ultimate expression of faith in the heart of a person, and so we all too often sacrifice mercy as we label others with the term “persistent errorists.” We all need to ask ourselves if we are using God’s fellowship principles in a way that best shows God’s love and mercy to others.
A principle of the early Church was that “we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” (Acts 15:19) In contrast to this principle, the fellowship policy adopted by the Federation of Manitowoc Lutheran High School in May 2005 actually demands more of non-WELS students than we ask of our own WELS students. Now it is certainly proper for us to require non-WELS parents to attend a WELS Bible information class, but we require nothing of our WELS parents, even when we may not have seen the parents in our church since last Easter. We do not consider the enrollment of WELS students on a year-by-year basis, even if they have not attended church since their confirmation day. Surely this treatment of non-WELS vs. WELS students is not in line with the spirit of what Jesus said in Luke 12:48, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” The policy, however, asks more of those who have been given little, and asks little of those who have been given much.
When Jesus condemned the Pharisee’s application of Sabbath laws, he referred them to the higher law of love (Matt 12:1-14; Mark 2:23-27). 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) and “Love is the fulfillment of the law” (Ro 13:10).
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 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.”
What debt do we owe the non-WELS people around us? Paul says we have a “continuing debt to love one another” (Rom 13:8). Is this only to those of our own fellowship, or to non-WELS people also? We know the answer.
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.” Let God work on the incomplete understanding of his people, he looks into their hearts and knows what they need most. We cannot.
And there is another principle we must keep in mind. How does the Church grow? And what is our function 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 1:16), 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. But the temptation to add human rules to ‘help’ the gospel springs from the ‘natural philosophy’ of the human heart, not from the gospel. (Doesn’t this temptation summarize the common error of both the Roman branch and the Reformed branch of the visible church?) Such regulations have the appearance of wisdom, but are worthless in bringing people closer to God (Col 2:23). The Church grows as God causes it to grow (v 19), and only through the gospel message. The kingdom is God’s field, not ours. Can we be sure that when the Holy Spirit leads a non-WELS person to attend our school, that his purpose is to have the student become WELS before the passing of one or two years, if ever? If not, why should we have a policy which flows from that assumption?
Jesus condemned the Pharisees because their misuse of Sabbath laws had effectively made the Sabbath a barrier between God and his people. God wants people to come to him to have their burdens lightened. What the world saw because of 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 WELS organization is an action that in some way brings us closer to God.
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 worship as part of our school’s choir or band. A phrase that has been used is they can ‘worship with us from the back of the church, but not from the front of the church’. But I submit that our new school policy is trying to motivate them with the Law, not the Gospel -- and not unlike the way the Pharisees tried to get the people of their day to draw closer to God by requiring them to strictly follow their man-made rules. 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.
No 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 May 2005 policy goes beyond what is written in scripture. The policy takes a student who agrees with our doctrines, who is being blessed by our fellowship, and tells him that his faith is not mature enough because he has not yet left his denomination. It is no longer enough to show a love for the Gospel of Jesus by attending our classes, no, he must also make a stand for the WELS. Until he does so, he may not sing in our choirs or play hymns in our band during worship.
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.
The common response in the WELS is to say that since we cannot see a person’s heart, we must rely on his denominational membership to determine the beliefs in his heart. After all, Scripture says that “man looks on the outside, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7) In this way we often excuse ourselves from any more responsibility toward non-WELS students. But Scripture also says “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16), and tells us that a person’s actions show us the thoughts of his heart (Matt 7:16,20). I ask this question: Why not see the request of non-WELS parents who come to us and ask us to teach their children as being a fruit of their faith? Why not help them grow closer to Jesus by affording their children all the blessings of a Christian education? Why does this policy say that we must bar their students from every role in worship except listening? Scripture does not tell us to do this.
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. When we add our man-made rules to God’s fellowship principles, we obscure the gospel purpose of those principles in the same way the Pharisees obscured the gospel purpose of the Sabbath observance.
Old Testament ceremonies were called ‘Feasts’ for a reason. They were festival opportunities for God’s
people to celebrate that they were called out of Egypt into the Promised
Land. Our fellowship principles give us
reason to celebrate as well. Because we
have broken fellowship with Christians who in some way or another hold up
reason higher than scripture, we have been called out of the ‘
Getting away from a legal understanding of our 1970 fellowship document and adopting a Gospel-motivated understanding 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.
But 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, WELS and non-WELS, are equally impure in the eyes of God. It is the message which we must keep pure. Indeed, it is the message which makes us pure (Jn 15:3). How can we Lutherans (who pride ourselves on having the one, true doctrine) accept a practice which gives the impression that if a non-WELS student in our school is in some way involved in leading during worship, this will make that worship less acceptable to God?
Now 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 WELS worship leader has chosen the music, made sure that it is doctrinally acceptable, and a non-WELS person sings it as part of a larger choir, or plays the song on an instrument, no impression of a compromise on doctrine is given. Certainly scripture directs us to keep away from those who cause divisions and put obstacles in the way of pure doctrines (Ro 16:17). But in the setting of a Lutheran school, where daily instruction in pure doctrine is given, the worship of God is not adulterated by having students who have come to us, and agree to submit to us, also sing God’s Word back to us. We must not through our policies give the impression to others that this is the case. But a policy which allows students to attend our classes, but not stand before us in our worship service, will surely give that false impression.
We 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. LCMS and WELS leaders had been working together in leadership positions, expressing their common faith through the operations of these organizations. This had to cease. No longer could we work together jointly with those who tolerated the teaching of error.
But is that the situation we have in our Lutheran school today? The operation of Manitowoc Lutheran High School is entirely in the hands of WELS leaders. The worship services are planned entirely by WELS pastors and teachers. There is no joint expression of faith which comes from the LCMS, or any other denomination. How can we say that when a person comes to us to learn God’s Word from us, his being in a choir is now somehow a joint expression of faith between the WELS and his denomination? Yes, he or she is jointly expressing the true Gospel with us, but to say that we are somehow making a statement of one-ness with his denomination is not correct. No layman has ever expressed to me that he felt a non-WELS student singing in his church gave the impression that we are watering down our stand on God’s Word, and joining with the heterodox. Somehow, in the years between 1970 and today, the understanding of the unit concept in the minds of some pastors has grown, and now forbids situations which our predecessors did not intend and which God’s Word does not forbid.
I 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 WELS and non-WELS people thought he was misguided. His actions gave only a false impression of what the unit concept is all about. The unit concept is about preserving the pure Gospel -- how God loved us first, forgave us, and makes us his people as we believe in him. The unit concept is not about erecting barriers which hinder people from growing in God’s Kingdom. We must withdraw from false teachers, to be sure. But we must give the Spirit freedom to grow his people. When false doctrine is not the issue, we can give false impressions to others by separating from people in situations where God has not told us we must separate from them. Indeed, we may be guilty of disobeying God, if we go beyond what is written in scripture and make policies which God has not told us to make (1 Cor 4:6).
A 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 Manitowoc Lutheran High School. “Oh no,” was the reply, “that school is just for members of their own sect.” I dare say that this opinion of our high school is shared by many non-WELS people in Manitowoc. MLHS is not seen as an institution which invites people to come and learn about Jesus and the teachings found in scripture. It is a school just for our own denomination.
I guess by this time I have pretty much explained why I think the May 2005 fellowship policy change is wrong. I realize that not everyone who reads this paper may be able to follow my line of reasoning. Let me summarize what I have just tried to say:
1. In all our preaching, our practices, and our policies, the gospel must be clearly proclaimed. We must guard the central message that we are saved freely by God’s grace towards us, not by things we do for God. Our salvation is not made more sure because we have withdrawn from groups who are not as careful as we are about sticking to God’s Word alone, or about proclaiming the gospel of salvation through God’s grace alone.
2. Fellowship principles are given to God’s people to preserve the message of God’s grace. Fellowship principles were not given so we could use them to help make people more holy, any more than following Sabbath rules made OT believers more holy. Using fellowship principles to bar weak Christians from singing in the choir or playing sacred music in the band confuses the message of God’s grace as much as Sabbath regulations confused the message of God’s grace, and deserve the same condemnation.
3. The scriptural principles from which the unit concept is drawn speak of withdrawing from false teachers. They do not tell us to push away or put obstacles in the way of people who are drawn to us to hear the Gospel.
4. Our purpose as Christians is to welcome sinners to hear God’s Word of grace to mankind. We are charged to welcome all sinners, not showing favoritism to those who follow unit concept fellowship principles. Jesus welcomed all, not at all favoring those who followed Sabbath regulations.
5. The Holy Spirit is the one who causes his Church to grow, not us. It is not our responsibility to place a time table on the Holy Spirit’s work, denying certain people certain opportunities to grow in faith if their faith is not maturing as fast as we determine it should.
How 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 Manitowoc Lutheran High School becomes more than just a tool for WELS members to strengthen the faith of their children. I hope and pray that if the Holy Spirit moves young Christians of other denominations to attend our school, that they can also be strengthened in their faith, and that we can bear witness to the importance of pure doctrine to all who enroll their children here. But I do not believe this will happen if adopt a policy where our first consideration will be the restricting of non-WELS students to only certain, non-“joint-expressions-of-faith” activities at our school.