Unionism and Syncretism

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WHAT CAN WE DO?
CHURCH & SOCIAL FELLOWSHIP IN THE LCMS

The recent Board decision to rent space to a Liberian congregation of a Pentecostal bent has brought about the question of whether this is proper or not. Aren’t we only supposed to allow people of the same confession into our church building?

Many who ask this question were brought up under the pounding of a member of the Missouri’s Synod isolationist party. These were the ones who sought to keep Missouri’s confessional purity so that Missouri received the reputation that we taught we were the only ones going to Heaven.

This has never been the official position of the Synod. While we do believe that our confession is the closest to the Bible, we have never said that no one could be saved outside the Missouri Synod. We leave this claim to the Roman Catholic Church and the various cults that make this claim.

However, we do officially seek to have a strong agreement with church bodies and organizations with which we have fellowship. This comes out most prominently in the Synod’s Constitution. I’ll read a couple portions from it so that we may discuss our questions.

Article VI Conditions of Membership
Conditions for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod are the following:
2. Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description, such as:
a. Serving congregations of mixed confession, as such, by ministers of the church;
b. Taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or of congregations of mixed confession;
c. Participating in heterodox tract and missionary activities.

After we get past the acceptance of our confessional stance, we come to two words that have undergone some change since the Synod began in 1847. Actually, they has undergone a lot of change in my own lifetime.

What is “unionism”? Do we still have it around us today? Of course we do. It’s taken on a new name, but it is still the drive to combine all people and faiths under one banner despite the confessional differences between the church bodies. Today, unionism is referred to as ecumenism. As with most rebranding of ideas, it was done to give a more positive, politically correct connotation.

Unionism refers back to the Church of the Prussian Union. This was the state Church from which the Saxon immigrants were fleeing, just in case it crossed the border from Prussia into Saxony. The Prussian Union was established on October 31, 1817, by King Frederick Wilhelm III of Prussia. It was the merger of the Lutheran and Reformed church bodies in Prussia. No longer would there be religious liberty in that you could go to the church of your choice. There would be only one church to attend.

This is the end goal of today’s Ecumenical movement. Let’s get rid of the denominations and just be “the Church.” The pastor can preach and teach whatever he or she wants. Their training in theology will be absolutely generic. The music will also be generic, likely love songs with Jesus’ name in them that could easily be interchanged with your beloved’s name and not lose any meaning. The Church will become simply a social club where people attend whenever they desire. This sharing can be done on the local level, where we at Redeemer worship together with an ELCA, Baptist, Pentecostal or other congregation with the pastors sharing roles in the service.

What is “syncretism”? Syncretism takes unionism to the next level. Syncretism is the sharing of worship services between different religions. It is the basic worldview of the Coexist bumper sticker. This is done when we worship with Muslims, Jews, Hindus, etc. in the same service. Many of these popped up after 9/11, and the LCMS was not immune from their influence.

Anyone remember the “Prayer for America” service at Yankee Stadium, co-hosted by Oprah Winfrey and James Earl Jones? I will try not to get too political with it because this is a divisive incident in our recent past. The Synod nearly split over it and still hasn’t healed from it.

So, what does it mean for us? What can we, as a congregation, do with other Christians? What can we not do? Can we worship together with other Christians in their congregations? Can we invite other Christians or non-Christians into our worship?

We certainly can worship together. We can invite the Reheboth congregation to join us for our services, but their clergy can’t participate in leading our service. Likewise, they can invite us to join them for worship, but I won’t participate in leading their service. It’s a simple statement of the fact that we have a different confessional understanding than them.

We can rent them space in our building so that they have a place to worship. We can join them for their Bible studies and prayer times. They can join us for our Bible studies. But we must confess the difference between us.

There is a bit of a gray area when it comes to renting space in the church building. Does our stance against unionism and syncretism ban them from the sanctuary? If we aren’t using it at the time, is it “off-limits” to another congregation? Churches used to share the same space in towns because there was only one building to hold worship services. Lutherans and Reformed and non-denominational churches all used the same building until they were able to build their own. They met at different times but used the same space.

The Bible doesn’t tell us much about unionism. There weren’t many denominational differences back then. In fact, the Bible stresses the need that there be no divisions among Christians. Thus we have a large thrust for ecumenism, especially among the Evangelicals. Read 1 Corinthians 1:10-16 and 3:1-9. Paul is adamant that there be no divisions among the congregation.

However, he also understands that the congregations must be wary of strangers coming into their midst. After all, they were practicing an illegal religion according to the Roman Empire. Members from one congregation needed a letter vetting them when they went visiting. This is where the idea of being a “card-carrying Lutheran” came about. You would ask your pastor for a church in the area you were going on vacation. He could give you the name of a congregation or two in the area and give you a card saying that you were a member in good standing of this congregation and should be welcomed as such in the congregation you were visiting. Read Ephesians 6:21-22 and Colossians 4:7-9. Paul writes to these congregations to vet Tychicus as truly coming from him and being his messenger. Read 1 Corinthians 16:10-11. Paul does the same thing for Timothy. Read Romans 16:1-2. Paul also commends Phoebe to the Roman congregation.

The Bible often and vehemently condemns syncretism. Read 1 Kings 18:20-40. It looks like Elijah is having a joint worship service with the prophets and priests of Baal and Ashtoreth, but it is an evangelistic contest to see who the real God is. We cannot duplicate this because we have not been inspired by the Holy Spirit like Elijah. God hasn’t promised to send down fire from Heaven onto our sacrifice. However, we can join in discussion with non-Lutherans and non-Christians about our faith.

Read 2 Kings 17:6-18. God sends Israel into exile because of their syncretism. They were claiming to worship YHWH through and alongside all sorts of other foreign gods.

But how does this affect us as individual Christians? Are we, as individuals, allowed to participate in pan-denominational activities? This question was brought up because of my comment last week of going to the March for Life in St. Paul. Can we, as Missouri Synod Lutherans, participate in such a thing? Absolutely! The main barrier is the isolationist mentality that we could only do things with other Missouri Synod Lutherans, even on a social level. But that was always most impractical.

How many of you married someone who wasn’t a Missouri Synod Lutheran? How many of you worked for someone who wasn’t a Missouri Synod Lutheran? How many of you live next door to someone who isn’t a Missouri Synod Lutheran? These may sound like silly questions, but where do we draw the line socially?

Yes, our confessional stance isolates us from other Christians. And well it should! Do we isolate ourselves from everyone so that we have our own little secret club that no one else can know about? Of course not! That’s definitely not what God wants from us.

As Missouri Synod Lutherans, we cannot duplicate for ourselves everything that Christian organizations do. Why reinvent the wheel? Can we participate in:

  • The national/local March for Life?
  • The Lion’s Club?
  • Kiwanis?
  • The Rotary Club?
  • Focus on the Family?
  • Local food shelfs?
  • Anything that doesn’t violate our confessions? (Good Samaritan – Luk e10:25-37)