January 8, 1998
My dear brothers and sisters,
I write to you about a matter concerning our Lord's Church and our congregation.
Yesterday in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was suspended (removed) from the ministerium of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The reason given for this action was that my doctrine and practice of Christian fellowship are different from that of the WELS.
The purpose of the meeting in Ann Arbor was not to study Biblical teaching regarding fellowship. The Michigan District Praesidium (district officers) felt that sufficient study had already taken place on the level of the Southern Ohio Circuit. Rather, the purpose was to bring charges of error against me. Essentially, I was charged with disregarding passages of Scripture which call upon Christians to separate from those who promote error and dissension within Christ's church. I was also charged with teaching that errors in nonfundamental doctrines do not break Christian fellowship. I responded to those charges, presented by Circuit Pastor Tom Westra, as follows:
1.) In my personal life and in my ministry I have always sought and continue to seek to be faithful to my Lord Jesus and his holy Word.
2.) In my personal life and in my ministry I seek clearly to confess all of the truths of God's Word and to refute error.
3.) I recognize as fellow believers even those who are captive to some nonfundamental error, and I desire to learn God-pleasing ways to express the Christian fellowship which we share.
4.) I reject 'unionism,' which is the compromise of Biblical teaching for the sake of outward church unity.
5.) I desire to be shown any errors in my teaching and practice, and if shown I will repent.
6.) I recognize that there are differences in the doctrine and practice of fellowship between myself and the WELS, but I do not regard them as divisive of our fellowship.
Of the above responses, the biggest point of conflict was number 3. One member of the Praesidium said, "Pastor Schroeder, I sympathize with your desire to recognize [those outside of our WELS fellowship] as fellow believers. But what you desire is simply not Biblically possible." And yet the Word declares: "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). I praise God that he has called countless people beyond the WELS into the light of his grace. And I believe that as people of God we have both the privilege and the duty to express our fellowship with one another, even as we confess and uphold the truths of his Word as we have come to know them.
Following my responses, President John Seifert, 1st Vice President Gerald Schroer, and 2nd Vice President Paul Naumannn concurred in my suspension or removal from the WELS ministerium.
Their action saddens me deeply. I had hoped and prayed that this matter would come to a mutually agreeable and God-pleasing conclusion. Yet I am confident that our Lord Jesus is with his Church and will continue to bless and prosper his Church.
I bear no ill will to my brothers in the Southern Ohio Circuit and the District Praesidium. They are men of God and men of integrity truly seeking to honor and serve the Lord Jesus. I pray for God's grace and blessing upon their ministries.
I am concerned about the impact of the Praesidium's action on our congregation. In the first place you should know that I have not been removed as your pastor. I serve Prince of Peace on the basis of your divine call to me, which remains in effect. Nevertheless, in his responsibilities as District President Pastor Seifert will inform Prince of Peace that I am no longer eligible to serve a WELS congregation, and he will expect the congregation to replace me.
You, the members of Prince of Peace, will need to make a decision. If you believe that I have departed from God's Word, you should act to rescind my call. If you believe that my ministry remains faithful to the Word, and if you uphold my call, your support of me and the position I have taken will result in our congregation's removal from the Synod.
Please consider this matter seriously and prayerfully. Do not follow Marc Schroeder. Do not worry about Marc Schroeder's (or my family's) personal needs. Prayerfully consider the will of God as he reveals it in his Word, and seek wisdom and courage to follow God's will only. If we all do that, the Lord Jesus, who cares for his whole Church on earth, will also continue to care for Prince of Peace.
I am more than willing to listen to any questions or concerns you may have. The same holds true for our President, Randy Ames; Head Elder Andy Schut; and Elder George Skestos, who accompanied me to the meeting in Ann Arbor. Feel free to call or speak with any of us at any time. Also, I am willing to present additional Bible studies and thoroughly discuss the disputed issues at any time.
Brothers and sisters, challenges lie before Prince of Peace which require mature Christian thought and leadership and love. Let us keep our eyes on Jesus; listen humbly and obediently to his Word; and seek to follow him alone in all things. May our church truly be his church. May he richly bless and keep us all. And may our life and ministry give great and everlasting glory to his name.
Love, in Jesus,
Pastor Marc Schroeder
Thoughts Regarding the Fellowship of Believers
"If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin." 1 John 1:7
I. WHAT IS CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP?
God in his grace and mercy has brought all believers into a blessed relationship with him and one another. In Scripture this relationship is called "fellowship." See, for example, 1 John 1:3, 7. "Fellowship" is the English translation of the Greek word koinonia, which means a sharing or having in common. The word "fellowship" is appropriate, because there are many and wonderful blessings that believers share or have in common: "one body and one Spirit...one hope...one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all" (Ephesians 4:4-5).
Scripture depicts this fellowship relationship in various ways. For example: Believers are said to be members of one body, the body of Christ, of which Jesus is the head. Like members of a human body, members of Christ's body are dependent on one another. No more than a hand can detach itself from the body saying, "I don't need you," can a believer detach himself from a fellow believer saying "I don't need you." Like it or not, we are stuck with one another. See 1 Corinthians 12:12-27; Ephesians 4:15-16. Believers are referred to as living stones in God's holy temple, that one glorious Spirit-filled edifice resting on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Jesus Christ himself the chief cornerstone (1 Peter 2:5; Ephesians 2:20-22). As living stones we are "joined together" and "being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit" (Ephesians 2:22). Believers are referred to as fellow citizens in God's kingdom. Apart from the redeeming work of Jesus we were strangers and foreigners, alienated from God and from one another. But through the redeeming work of Jesus we have been brought together into one united, glorious and eternal kingdom (Ephesians 2:11-19). The New Testament frequently speaks of believers as brothers and sisters in Christ, members of one family. Jesus said, "Whoever does God's will is my brother or sister or mother" (Mark 3:35). St. Peter writes: "Love the brotherhood of believers" (1 Peter 2:17). St. Paul teaches: "Be devoted to one another in brotherly love" (Romans 12:10). And again: "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers" (Galatians 6:10). The term "brother" indicates a close and intimate relationship: the Greek word adelphos literally means "from the same womb." All brothers and sisters in Christ are indeed born from the same womb of our Father's amazing grace. According to Scripture fellowship is not merely a status. It is a living relationship which is expressed in a great variety of ways. Paul indicates some of those ways in these words to the believers at Colosse (Colossians 3:12-17): "Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him."
This fellowship relationship is shared by all believers. There are not two classes of subjects in God's kingdom: citizens and illegal aliens. There are not two kinds of people in God's family: brothers and distant cousins. By God's amazing grace, all who trust in Jesus as Lord and Savior have been brought into fellowship with him and with one another: all are fellow citizens, all are brothers. "You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed your selves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Galatians 3:26-29). "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
So the answer to the question, "With whom am I in fellowship?" can never be: "I am in fellowship with certain Christians, but with others I am not." Such a statement is fundamentally self-contradictory. It is as much as to say: "I am brother to some brothers but not brother to other brothers." Rather, the answer to the question, "With whom am I in fellowship?" is simply this: "I am in fellowship with fellow believers." This is not a relationship we have established. It is a relationship God created when by his grace he made us his children in his family.
II. WHO IS MY FELLOW BELIEVER?
Since, according to Scripture, all believers have fellowship with one another, in order to express or practice Christian fellowship it is necessary to answer the question, "Who is my fellow believer?" Scripture teaches that only God has full and perfect knowledge of who his believers are, because only God can look into the heart where faith dwells (1 Samuel 16:7; 2 Timothy 2:19). But God gives many signs which indicate the presence of saving faith--outward fruits, to use the Biblical metaphor, of inner faith. These outward fruits are signs by which we and even unbelievers are able to see and recognize those who belong to God.
First and foremost among these signs is a simple confession of faith. Paul wrote: "No one can say, 'Jesus is Lord,' except by the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 12:3). So when someone says, "Jesus is my Lord," it is natural and proper to accept that confession as the true expression of a Spirit-born faith. The Apostle John wrote, "This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God" (1 John 4:2). Do you have a friend who professes faith in Jesus as the Son of the living God who came to this world to save sinners? Then you know the most important thing you'll ever want to know or need to know about that friend: You know that he is a fellow believer, a brother with you in God's family, a child of God in whom the Spirit of God dwells.
Another indicator of who God's people are is the fruit of Christian love. "All men will know that you are my disciples," Jesus declared, "if you love one another" (John 13:35). Finally, by God's grace the whole life of a Christian becomes a clear and compelling witness that this person is indeed a child of God. Consider what Paul wrote to his fellow believers in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 1:4-10): "Brothers, loved by God, we know that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction. You know how we lived among you for your sake. You became imitators of us and of the Lord. In spite of severe suffering, you welcomed the message with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia--your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what kind of reception you gave us. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead--Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath."
On the evidence of signs such as these James, Peter, and John "recognized the grace" God had given to Paul, and so gave him the right hand of fellowship (Galatians 2:9). Some assert that we cannot or must not recognize as a fellow believer anyone who holds to any error in doctrine. However, it is not error in doctrine that disqualifies a person from membership in God's family, but rejection of the Savior God has given. In the congregations of the New Testament many (all?) of the believers were imperfect in their knowledge and understanding, and some were captive to false teaching, yet the apostles regarded them and addressed them as saints, brothers, members of the household of God. So we, too, must regard and address even those who are captive to some error, yet profess faith in Jesus, as saints, brothers, members of the household of God.
How, then, can Christians recognize our fellow believers? According to Scripture, this should be neither a difficult nor an impossible task. Look for the outward evidences of an inner faith: If any person says, "I trust in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior from sin" (1 Corinthians 12:3); if he is bringing forth other fruit such as the fruit of Christian love (John 13:35); and if he is not living a life that blatantly and flagrantly denies his confession: then you can safely assume that he is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. He is a member of the same family of God that you are a member of. He is your brother.
III. HOW CAN WE EXPRESS OUR CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP IN GOD-PLEASING WAYS?
Once we understand from Scripture that there is only one Christian fellowship, consisting of all who believe in Jesus; and once we understand that we can recognize our fellow believers-- those with whom we are united in Christian fellowship--by the fruits of their faith; then we come to the real fellowship issue that faces Christians, namely: "How can I practice or express Christian fellowship in God-pleasing and God-glorifying ways?"
Here is a question that presents a real, and also exciting, challenge to every Christian. This challenge stems from the fact that Christian fellowship is not based on full doctrinal agreement but on membership in the Body of Christ. We "have fellowship" (1 John 1:7) even with those with whom we are not in full agreement. So the challenge is to embrace our fellow believers while at the same time giving faithful and clear confession to the truths of God's Word. The challenge is to embrace our fellow believers, giving positive expression to the ties that bind us together in Christ, while at the same time recognizing that false doctrine is harmful and speaking out against all false doctrine.
How can we do that? How can we express the great, the wonderful, the glorious, the God-established and God-given blessing of Christian fellowship not only with those with whom we are in full confessional agreement, but also with those who do not fully agree with us?
I would not presume to offer a pat, easy answer to the question. More than anything, I simply have been trying to have it recognized as a valid question. I have been saying that this is the question the WELS needs to begin asking. I have been pleading, unsuccessfully, to get it on the agenda for study and discussion. Let it be known: If the WELS and all its members were to undertake serious study and discussion of this question, I would happily participate in that study and discussion for the rest of my life.
In general, however, I believe that it must be said: God has given his people both the privilege and the responsibility to express together their common faith in the Lord Jesus in any way that does not compromise the truths of his Word.
Some will respond: "What you describe is an impossibility. You cannot share in any way with someone who is not in full agreement with you without compromising the Word." I disagree. There is nothing in Scripture to support such a statement. Not only that: it is contrary to human experience and Christian experience.
I have prayed with a Baptist brother, neither accepting his belief regarding Baptism nor conceding my belief regarding Baptism, but on the basis of our common faith in the Lord Jesus our Savior. I have sung songs of praise in Christian concert with fellow believers from many denominations, neither conceding any point of my doctrine nor accepting any point of theirs with which I would disagree, but simply giving joyous expression to our common faith in and love for Jesus our Savior.
The expression of Christian fellowship--experiencing the life of the Body--is among the most rewarding and spiritually fulfilling aspects of our Christian life. What a privilege! To acknowledge before God and man: In spite of differences that separate us, we are one in Christ! What a solemn responsibility! To give witness to the world: In spite of differences that separate us, we are his disciples and we love one another. What a challenge! To embrace in true Christian love that fellow believer who is captive to some error in doctrine, and at the same time to give a clear testimony of my faith and all the truths of God's Word. What a joy! To accept those whom Jesus has accepted, and to live in love with those whom Jesus loves.
"How can I practice or express Christian fellowship in God-pleasing and God-glorifying ways?" Perhaps it would be beneficial to close by recalling Paul's words to the Colossians. Here is divine counsel to all members of the Body of Christ. Our Father would have us know: He has brought us into fellowship with one another. He has made us members of one family. He wants us to learn to live like members of one family, to the praise of his glorious name.
"Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him." (Colossians 3:7-12)