Question of Union Services


(From Disputed Doctrines [Burlington, Iowa: Lutheran Literary Board, 1933], pp. 80-82.)

On this subject there is a great variety of opinion in our Lutheran Church. Some Lutheran bodies are quite strict, and will hold fellowship only with those with whom they are in full doctrinal agreement. Others are more lax and are ready at least occasionally to hold united services with those who do not see eye to eye with them upon certain doctrines. Which is right?

This is not a new question in the Church. The Reformation of the sixteenth century took place because of the conviction of the Reformers that the outward, organized Church of their day had departed in many respects from the teaching of the Scriptures. If the formal principle of the Reformation is correct, viz., that the Scriptures are the only source and standard of faith and life, this principle ought still to hold good.

Luther held firmly to this principle and carried it out consistently. When Zwingli and his co-reformers, without full agreement, offered to him the hand of fellowship, he rejected it saying, “You have a different spirit from us.” And it is agreed by Church historians that by this attitude Luther saved the Reformation from degenerating into rationalism and splitting up into sects. By this action he exalted and glorified the Word of God and assigned to it its rightful position in the Church.

But there are many in the Lutheran Church today who would reverse his action. Zwingli was magnanimous in their eyes and Luther was narrow-minded and obstinate. They are ready to acknowledge the Reformed as their brethren and to join with them in special services and in the observance of “weeks of prayer,” and even to admit them to their own pulpits and altars. Whether this is right or not, the Word of God must decide.

Let us see what is the sort of union that our Lord desires. Is He interested in a big Church in which are found all sorts of doctrines or opinions? He says, “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” [John 8:32]. His idea is not union, but unity. In His High-priestly prayer for His own He prays, “That they all may be one as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be one in Us: that the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me” [John 17:21]. This is certainly not a prayer for outward union, but for such a union in faith as characterizes the union between the Father and the Son in the Holy Trinity, where no differences can possibly exist. Further, He says, “And ye also shall bear witness” [John 15:27], and again, “Ye shall be witnesses unto Me” [Acts 1:8]. He thus designates the Church as His witness-bearer.

Now the Church cannot be true to Him or bear effective witness to Him and deny any truth that He proclaims or compromise that truth. When it does so it is departing from the Word of the Lord and is teaching in its stead the doctrines and commandments of men.

Against such action the New Testament utters frequent warning. We are urged to “try the spirits whether they are of God” [1 John 4:1]. We are admonished to be on our guard against perverters of God’s Word: “If there come any unto you and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him godspeed” [2 John 10]. We are admonished to “contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” [Jude 3].

St. Paul tells us expressly, “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other Gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” And, lest this should not be sufficiently impressive, he repeats the injunction in the very next verse in similar words: “And as we said before, so say I now again. If any man preach any other Gospel unto you than that which ye have received, let him be accursed” [Galatians 1:8-9].

And in the last book and the last chapter of our Holy Bible, stern warning is administered against adding to or subtracting from the Word [Revelation 22:18-19]. The Word is the Lord’s and must prevail. It has been entrusted to the Church to keep it and preserve it, not to alter, compromise or change it. The Church has no right to withhold confession of any revealed truth. It is nothing short of spiritual adultery to reject any known truth of God’s Word. We may be very liberal in our estimation of rites and ceremonies and all other matters of purely human institution; but we must ever bow to the authority of God’s Holy Word.

It is not in vain that our Augsburg Confession says that for the true unity of the Church there must be agreement on the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments. And if the differences between the Lutherans and the Reformed in Reformation times were sufficient to prevent fellowship between them and to justify the organization and perpetuation of different Church bodies, these differences still hold good and should prevent all union between them, whether permanent, or occasional.

Faithfulness to the one and only standard, the Holy Word of God, should be the determinative factor in all fellowship. Some may call this “narrow”; but it is no narrower than God’s Word. The Church that does not stand for definite teaching has no right to separate existence, and it dare not keep silence or compromise or yield its definite teaching. “To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” [Isaiah 8:20].

Carroll Herman Little (1872-1958) was the son of a Tennessee Synod minister and a native of Hickory, North Carolina. He graduated from the General Council’s Mount Airy (Philadelphia) Seminary in 1901, received the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity from Lenoire-Rhyne College in 1914, and in 1928 received his Doctor of Sacred Theology degree from Chicago Lutheran Seminary. Little served pastorates in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and from 1917 to 1947 was professor of theology in the Evangelical Lutheran Seminary of Canada in Waterloo, Ontario, an institution of the United Lutheran Church in America.

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