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“Membership in the Christian Congregation”

St. Paul the apostle writes, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment. For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or ‘I am of Cephas,’ or ‘I am of Christ.’ Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).

Times have not changed much.  Divisions abound in what is called Christendom today.  Some of the division does indeed have to do with personalities and individual conflict.  Others have to do with disagreement as to “how” something is to be done.  But the majority of conflict and division within visible Christendom has to do with doctrine, that is, the teaching.  Not all say the same thing.  This is important to note, for “not saying the same thing” indicates, not a joyous diversity, but a lamentable divide, a divide which cannot be reconciled unless doing the hard work of sitting down and hashing out the differences of content and substance.

If all churches within Christendom taught the same thing, all churches would be saying the same thing.  Then, it wouldn’t matter at all which church one attended, for they would be hearing the same Word, the same doctrine, and confessing the same Christ.

Unfortunately, such is not the case.  It seems like churches can’t even agree on what is divisive and what is not.  We don’t agree on what the chief article is, the use of the Sacraments, or the ‘way’ of doing church (Liturgical vs. ‘Contemporary’), just to name a few.  Yet, even with these disagreements, there is the overwhelming one—of Christ and His Word, the distinction between Law and Gospel, and salvation by God’s grace through faith alone (and the meaning of the all of these).

Such disunity demonstrates itself, not only in the doctrine between various congregations and church bodies, but also within the membership of a particular congregation itself.  American Christians generally have forgotten, it seems, the significance of membership in a congregation.  Some join and/or remain members of a congregation merely because of the ‘fellowship’ (not of doctrine, but of friends, family, etc.), on account of the school or programs and activities offered, or simply because that’s the only congregation that they’ve known.

Though these might be attractions and reasons for remaining a member of a certain congregation, clearly omitted from such consideration is that of doctrine.  In other words, what does the congregation believe, teach, and confess?  What does the pastor preach?  Is what the pastor preaches and what the congregation teaches and practices according to God’s Word?  If it is, that is THE reason to become a member and to remain a member of that congregation.  If it isn’t, that is reason to either try to bring about reform or to find a congregation where the preaching and teaching IS according to Holy Scripture and centered on Christ Jesus.

Contrary to what Frank Senn writes,[1] church can be the true Church.  The Lutheran Confessions (as in the Book of Concord, www.bookofconcord.org), and specifically Article VII of the Augsburg Confession, states, “1 It is also taught among us that one holy Christian church will be and remain forever. This is the assembly of all believers among who the Gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to the Gospel. 2 For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. 3 It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places. 4 It is as Paul says in Eph. 4:4, 5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”

The true church consists of all who believe in the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ (according to the Bible, not according to the ‘church’ or individual interpretation).  Thus in the Third article of the Apostles’ Creed, Christians everywhere confess, “I believe in…the Holy Christian Church, the Communion of Saints.”

Of course, the reference here is to the unseen, or hidden, church, the body of all believers in Christ, that is, those still living, as well as of those who have already died, having faith in Jesus Christ.  Yet Article VII speaks of the Gospel preached and the holy sacraments (Holy Baptism and Holy Communion) administered.  This means the local congregation, not heaven, where these very things are going on and being given.

Thus, the true church is not only a possibility, but to be sought out.  Such true church preaches the Gospel in its purity and administers the holy sacraments according to the Gospel.  To infer as Senn does that such church is an impossibility is really to forfeit the true doctrine (if he ever claims that such exists), and to decry and denounce “gathering the faithful into a community of ‘pure doctrine’” as “sectarian strategy.”[2]

But what does the Lord say?  “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed.  And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32) and, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.  He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine but the Father’s who sent Me” (John 14:22-23).

Seeking to abide/remain/continue in Jesus’ Word and keeping that Word must not be a “sectarian strategy,” as Senn postulates, but must be what the Lord Himself desires of them that He calls His children and people.  To not do so, to seek something other than what the Lord says, is to go against God, and to seek not to be His people—a sure sign that one is in error and truly does not love God.


[1] Frank C. Senn, “Lutheran Identity and Denominational Loyalty,” Lutheran Forum, 44, no. 4  (Winter 2010): 56.  Senn writes, “I am under no illusion that my denomination is the one true holy catholic Church.  Precisely because of the reality of denominationalism no one denomination can make that claim.  Even the Roman Catholic church is but one denomination among others; it is not so ‘Catholic’ as to embrace in one fellowship all Christians and it is too ‘Roman’ for many.  No church can be the true Church, or even ‘a’ true church, because it lacks some quantity or quality of the notes of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity that we confess in the Nicene Creed.”

[2] Ibid., 54.

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