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(Note: The following letter was written to the editor of the Austin {Minn.} Daily Herald, July 15, 1998 by the Rev. Stephen Kurtzahn; it was a response to an article by a Roman Catholic priest titled “Christianity must be a force for unity and forgiveness,” which had previously appeared in the Austin paper. — Ed.)

There are Christians who honestly disagree with Father N. when it comes to the subject of ecumenical organizational unity. Such people sincerely believe that before there is organizational unity and fellowship among churches, there must be agreement in what is taught and confessed. Without “pride” and “arrogance,” without “the power hungering search to be right” (terms Father N. used in his article), they take at face value the words of the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:10, “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”

There exist between churches and denominations real differences of belief that are not just “position statements” or “creedal interpretations,” as Father N. refers to them. These differences are more than just denominational emphasis. For example:

* Is the Bible the very Word of God in all its parts, inspired by the Holy Spirit and without mistake or error, or is the Bible simply the compiled words of mere men that describe for us what the ancients believed?

* Is the Bible the only source and norm for Christian faith and life, or are the decrees of church councils and popes to be placed on an equal level with Holy Scripture?

* Does God infuse us with grace so we can perform the good works that are necessary to be saved, or did Christ Jesus do everything for our salvation by His perfect life and sacrificial death as the Lamb of God?

* Is Holy Communion a sacrifice by which the priest offers the Body of Christ over and over again to atone for the sins of the people, or is it the means by which Christ gives us the forgiveness He earned once and for all upon the cross of Calvary?

* When a person dies, does his soul go to heaven or hell, or does he spend time in purgatory to pay for the sins he couldn’t pay for on earth?

* Does Mary hear our prayers and intercede with Christ on our behalf, or do we have direct access to the heavenly Father through Jesus Christ Himself?

* Is the pope the vicar of Christ on earth, or does Jesus Christ shepherd His Church directly through His Word?

The point I want to make — without judging motives, or using strong negative adjectives — is that these foundational differences between churches are more than just “position statements,” “creedal interpretations,” or “denominational emphasis.” These differences define the very essence of our respective confessions of faith.

It must also be mentioned that the 16th Century Reformation, especially the Lutheran Reformation in Germany, involved much more than a mere reaction to “the corruption and greed of the structural church,” as Father N. puts it. The Roman Catholic Martin Luther was indeed distressed over the sale of indulgences for the financing of St. Peter’s in Rome, which was under construction at the time. But the very heart of the Reformation centered around the question of how a person is saved. On the basis of the clear Word of Holy Scripture, Luther brought to light once again the Gospel-truth that we are reconciled to our heavenly Father and declared righteous in His sight solely because of the life, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The blessed results of His work are then made our own personally through faith. To ignore the question, “How can I be at peace with God?” is to ignore the primary motivating force behind the Reformation. “Corruption and greed” were side issues.

Father N. properly laments the fact that “structural Christianity is losing its clout,” and that this is why many people are not inspired by our structural churches.” The reason for such a lack of inspiration is not denominational division, however, but the fact that the Bible is no longer viewed by most mainline churches as the very Word of God. The Gospel then changes from the proclamation of “Jesus Christ and him crucified,” as the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 2:2, to a vague and indefinable “gospel.” Without the absolute truth of God’s Word, the church simply becomes another social club in a world filled with all sorts of other social organizations.

Jesus of Nazareth — who not only “claimed to be God’s Son,” but who actually is God and man in one Person — said this: “If you abide in My Word, you are My disciples indeed,” John 8:31. There are many sincere and humble Christians who take their Lord’s words seriously. They are not about to compromise the eternal truths of Holy Scripture for ecumenical unity. They are not about to sweep foundational doctrinal differences under the carpet for the sake of organizational oneness. This is not “pride” or “arrogance” or the “power hungering search to be right.” It is the sincere and humble desire to be faithful to the Savior, who has been so faithful to us. If there is to be God-pleasing unity among churches and denominations, it must be based on honest agreement in all the teachings of Holy Scripture.