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“That All May Be One…”

(Adapted from the February 1995 Newsletter of Grace Lutheran Church, Sleepy Eye, Minnesota)

The pastor of the ELCA church in our city recently took his turn writing an article for the church page of the our local paper. In connection with something called “The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity” he called for all denominations to “remove the fences between us” so that we can “stand together in a common bond as we fight our common foe.” In describing this foe he adds: “We should never consider another congregation in the community as our competition. The world and all its attractions is our competition.”

We have no argument with the fact that the fallen, unbelieving world around us is a common enemy of the churches. We do, however, take exception to the suggestion that all Christian churches regardless of their doctrinal differences can and should be standing side-by-side and arm-in-arm in the battle being waged. From our vantage point much of the Christian Church, including the ELCA, has embraced a “new thinking” over against the Bible which makes them, in fact, cohorts of the enemy.

Having said that, we were not surprised at the “biblical arguments” advanced by this ELCA pastor in his support. There was the usual appeal to Christian love. If the “awesome love of Jesus Christ” is there, it was suggested, “all our (doctrinal) differences are trifles….” One wonders whether we are reading the same Bible. Where in Holy Scripture do Jesus Christ or any of His prophets or apostles call departing from the Word of the Lord a trifle? Where in the Bible are doctrinal differences minimized in the name of Christian love? To the contrary. We could list copious passages which speak against trifling with the Word of God, and any jot or tittle of it.

John 17:21

Unless one takes great care and lets the Bible interpret itself, it is possible to make the Bible say just about anything one wants it to say. The first passage the ELCA pastor refers to (which supposedly adds weight to his plea for unity across denominational lines) is the word of the Savior in His High Priestly prayer: “that all may be one…that the world may believe” (John 17:21). We note first of all that this is only a portion of what Jesus prayed. Here is the complete thought: “that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me…”

There the Savior prays that all believers might be one even as He, the Son of God, is one in essence with God the Father. The oneness or unity Jesus is praying for is nothing forced, make-shift, or superficial. No, it is a unity that is as real and essential as is the Son’s own relation with the Father. Such a deep and wonderful unity is present among Christian believers within the invisible church — the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints (see Eph. 4:4-6). Believers share a common faith and purpose in Christ — and they do so across denominational lines. “The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Tim. 2:19).

Jesus does not contradict Himself, here or elsewhere. He is hardly praying that His disciples ignore false and anti-Christian doctrines. He says in another place: “If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (Jn. 8:31). And again: “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves” (Mt. 7:15). Read the Savior’s indictment of any and all superficiality in connection with his denunciation of the Pharisees in the twenty-third chapter of Matthew.

No “Union Without Unity”

The pastor we are quoting granted that “we do not agree with each other in all things.” And he adds: “that’s why there are different denominations.” Yet his suggestion to unite regardless is the idea we have heard, and for conscience’ sake rejected, many times before. It is the old argument which says “agree to disagree agreeably” for the sake of an outward peace and unity.

Against such “union without unity” of Bible doctrine, we as an orthodox and confessional Lutheran church, continue to take our stand upon the clear words of Holy Scripture and with our Lutheran forebears who said:

“From this our explanation, friends and enemies, and therefore every one, may clearly infer that we have no intention of yielding aught of the eternal, immutable truth of God for the sake of temporal peace, tranquility, and unity (which, moreover, is not in our power to do). Nor would such peace and unity, since it is devised against the truth and for its suppression, have an permanency. Still less are we inclined to adorn and conceal a corruption of the pure doctrine and manifest, condemned errors. But we entertain heartfelt pleasure and love for, and are on our part sincerely inclined and anxious to advance, that unity according to our utmost power, by which His glory remains to God uninjured, nothing of the divine truth of the Holy Gospel is surrendered, no room is given to the least error, poor sinners are brought to true, genuine repentance, raised up by faith, confirmed in new obedience, and thus justified and eternally saved alone through the sole merit of Christ.” (The Formula of Concord, Thor. Decl. Art. XI, p. 1095)


A certain theologian tells a story that illustrates the absurdness of compromising biblical absolutes:

Imagine two schools of mathematics, one run by a wise man, the other by a fool. In the first, children are taught that 2 + 2 = 4; in the second that 2 + 2 = 3. Then along comes a teacher who says that after all, love is the most important thing. Why should there be differences between teachers of mathematics? Let them each agree to make a small concession so that both can teach the same way. Then the children can be taught that 2 + 2 = 3 1/2. Whoever refuses to accept such a loving solution is a fanatic, a bigot, and is no longer worthy to be a teacher of mathematics.

Such is the thinking in today’s churches! However, to concede one point of Holy Scripture is an act of disobedience to the Lord. Today, God’s people are asked repeatedly to compromise the Word of God, but we must be faithful and never give in to their demands.

Editor’s note: This excerpt is adapted from an article we saw in The Vine and the Branches, a publication of ELCA conservatives.

A follow-up to the above:

In May of this year the pope issued an encyclical on Christian unity. Also seizing on John 17:21, he titled it Ut Unum Sint (“That They may Be One”). In it he calls on Protestants “to engage with me in a patient and fraternal dialogue” on major doctrinal points. According to Christianity Today, while some, such as Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest and former Lutheran, call the pope’s statement “historic” and “unprecedented,” many Protestants see it as an appeal to compromise for the sake of external unity.

As far as our position on the pope is concerned, we stand on the confession of Article 43 of the Brief Statement: ” . . . We teach that the prophecies of the Holy Scriptures concerning the Antichrist, 2 Thess. 2:3-12; 1 John 2:18, have been fulfilled in the Pope of Rome and his dominion . . . he anathematizes the very heart of the Gospel of Christ, that is, the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins by grace alone, for Christ’s sake alone, through faith alone, without any merit or worthiness in man . . .”

It is not surprising that the liberal Lutherans are moving toward reconciliation with Rome. Both twist Christ’s words in John 17:21, making that passage a cloak for compromise. However, no true heirs of Martin Luther and the orthodox Lutheran Reformation will ever sit in “patient and fraternal dialogue” with the Antichrist.

–Pastor Paul Fleischer