The Desire for Unity that Drives Closed Communion
Unity is a gift from God. It is not created by men. All Christians rightly desire this unity with all other Christians. Apostasy is a sign of the end. It as disliked by Christians as the antichrist. But even as the antichrist will abide in this broken world until the Last Day, so also apostasy, false doctrine, and false teachers will continue to afflict the Church until the Last Day.
Our godly desire for unity, like all good things, can be twisted in our fallen flesh. Unity can become an idol. Frustrated Christians are tempted to ignore doctrine and declare unity in the same way that parents of fornicating adult children are tempted to pretend that what their children are doing is not sin.
This false declaration of unity can be seen inside denominations and also in interdenominational relations, but a declaration of unity when there is division is hypocrisy. An agreement to disagree is not an agreement but a stalemate. A declaration that doctrine doesn’t matter is, in fact, a serious doctrine which elevates getting along over truth.
St. Paul, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t tolerate claims of unity where doctrine divides.
1 Corinthians 1:10-17 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment. 11 For it has been reported to me by Chloe's people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. 12 What I mean is that each one of you says, "I follow Paul," or "I follow Apollos," or "I follow Cephas," or "I follow Christ." 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul? 14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one may say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas. Beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
Consider also St. Paul’s appeal that we watch out for those create division not by noticing false teaching but by false teaching. We are not supposed to ignore false teaching. We are, instead, to watch out for it. The division isn’t caused by noticing. It is caused by the false teaching.
Romans 16:17-18 I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. 18 For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.
Martin Luther didn’t divide the Church at the Reformation. The impenitent pope, Leo X, did. False teaching causes divisions. Right teaching only notices and responds. But noticing is not popular when we’d rather just get along. Indeed, the whistle blower often gets blamed as though it were his fault.
In fact, true love won’t allow us to just get along. Love requires us to speak the truth. We practice closed communion, as the Church has always practiced, because false teaching matters. Pretending to agree, as though the differences were insignificant, when, in fact, we know that the differences are huge and deadly, is not loving. It is simply cowardice that places one’s own temporary comfort and desire to avoid conflict above all else.
Many pious members of the ELCA have told me that they don’t believe what their church teaches. They have told me that they still believe exactly what they were taught in the LC-MS through Confirmation instruction. If that is so then they are engaged in hypocrisy. Their home churches, where their membership is, are unaware of what they really think and believe. Their home churches have the right to assume that they do not despise their teaching and think it contrary to the Bible. These ELCA members have the duty, no matter how awkward and painful it is, to stand up for the truth and to honestly tell their ELCA pastors, brothers, and sisters what they think.
Those who have been confirmed in our churches have taken a vow. Part of that vow is a promise to not join a church that does not hold to the inerrancy of Holy Scripture or that does not teach in accord with the Small Catechism. We are not free to yoke ourselves to false teachers even when it is convenient.
While some pastors may not take that seriously, according to the Bible, we must (Hebrews 13:17; James 3:1). If someone doesn’t believe what his or her pastor teaches, if the teaching is not in accord with the Bible and the Small Catechism, then that person, if he is a Christian, is bound, by love, to separate from that fellowship (1 Thessalonians 5:21-22).
Again, the temptation is to pretend that doctrine doesn’t matter, but that never helps anyone. If a man is a drunk, his wife should not pretend that he isn’t to avoid conflict. Instead she should seek to help him, even if the confrontation will mean tears and toil. In the same way, a person who is convicted that God wants women to be pastors and that the LC-MS only prohibits this out of some bigoted reading of the Bible, that abortion isn’t murder, that homosexual acts are pleasing to God, and so forth, should follow his convictions and conscience. He should strive to live his life in accordance with God’s revealed will. He should not remain in the LC-MS. We respect, indeed insist upon, the dignity of the conscience. We do not ask anyone to sin against it. But neither can we do anything against our conscience.
Our Lord does not call us to ignore the speck in our brother’s eye. He calls us to repent, to come humbly, as fellow sinners, and to assist our brother in removing the speck as those who also need specks and logs removed.
Jesus prays for our unity (John 17). He would not do so if it was here just for us to declare. He doesn’t pray for winter or for the monarch butterflies to migrate. He prays for our forgiveness because we are sinners. He prays for our daily bread because we have bodily needs. He prays for our unity because we live in a broken, sinful world.
So we wait. And we thank God that He does gives some measure of unity now even as He gives some measure of sanctification. We can be of one mind under the Scriptures even as we can be of one flesh with a spouse. It is not yet full or perfect but it is possible in an outward way. The time will come when we will not marry but will be like the holy angels. Then our unity – with every and all Christians – will be full and complete. Make it soon, Lord. Please, make it soon.