Herb’s Posts

We Are Brothers and Sisters in Christ – Part Two

[Note:  This two part article was originally written as a portion of a larger piece prepared in 2002 for a joint meeting of the seminary faculties and Council of Presidents. Yet it is still just as relevant today and is offered for prayerful consideration by all.]

YOU GO! That’s what Jesus says we owe the brother or sister when we discover differences and offenses. You go to seek to be reconciled in Christ. You go to hold each other accountable to the Word of God. You go, so that repentance and forgiveness of sins are at the heart of our life together.

Now some may ask at this point whether the steps of Matthew 18 actually apply in the case of a doctrinal offense, particularly a public one. When it comes to doctrine, don’t we have the obligation to point out error and speak the truth? Of course, we do. But do you read anything in Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 or Matthew 5 that excuses us from going first to the brother when the difference is public doctrine? No. Love demands it – both our love for the truth and our love for the brother. When you become aware of a problem – you go!

I understand here that our confession on the basis of Scripture makes a distinction between public and private offense. The reference in the Large Catechism is well known:

“Where the sin is so public that the judge and everyone else are aware of it, you can without sin shun and avoid those who have brought disgrace upon themselves, and you may also testify publicly against them. For when something is exposed to the light of day, there can be no question of slander or injustice or false witness. For example, we now censure the pope and his teaching, which is publicly set forth in books and shouted throughout the world. Where the sin is public, appropriate public punishment should follow so that everyone may know how to guard against it” (LC VIII, Kolb/Wengert, p. 424).

In his Pastoral Theology, John H.C. Fritz also uses the example of Paul confronting Peter before the whole group because Peter had given public offense to the Gospel (Galatians 2). So yes, there are times when that must be done, particularly when the Gospel is clearly at stake.

However, I fear we too often have rushed to bring an offense to further public notice among us, when what would have been more helpful should have been further brotherly discussion under the Word of God instead. Listen carefully to the Lord’s apostle,

“Brothers, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1).

There are several things to note in this Scripture:

  1. It refers to “any trespass.” I hear no distinction between doctrine or life, public or private.
  2. Go to each other in a spirit of gentleness, not pride.
  3. Watch out, because the devil has a trap laid for you, too.

Again I fear, my brothers, that too often we have come to each other in a spirit of pride, not gentleness. We want to stake out the rightness of our own position rather than win our brother back. We want to defend ourselves rather than do what is good for the whole body.

JHC Fritz, who has much to say regarding dealing with public offense, also gives this fascinating caution:

“The highest law, however, is under all circumstances the law of Christian charity (love). If Christian charity therefore demands that a public offender be spoken to privately, it would be unjust at once to proceed against him publicly; for the purpose of church discipline is to bring a sinner to a knowledge of his sins and to true repentance. By bringing the case at once to the attention of the congregation (although according to the letter of Matt. 18 we would have the right to do so), we might keep the sinner from confessing his guilt…” (Fritz, Pastoral Theology, CPH, 1936, p. 237).

We have to be careful that before we bring public charges against someone that we have first exhausted all avenues to speak to the brother in love, as a brother.

Let me put it another way. Luther used the Pope as an example in the Large Catechism reference. That should lead us to be extremely careful in how we invoke this passage of our confession to justify immediate public exposure or condemnation of the faults of fellow pastors in the Synod. You see, within the Synod especially we are talking about BROTHERS, brothers by Baptism, brothers in office, brothers who have taken the same vow. Should not love for the individual brother (as well as love for all the sisters and brothers) lead us to be very careful when we proceed publicly against another BROTHER? To do so only after every other avenue has been exhausted?

Of course, the converse is also true (and this has been forgotten by many as well). Because we are BROTHERS, we are concerned about one another. When we see a brother doing something that may/will lead him or others away from the truth, we cannot stand idly by. He is a brother in Christ and must be approached with our concern – because he is a brother. We do not just let him go his own way.

So, because we are brothers, we must be quick to go to one another in private. And then slow to take a matter public even when we may believe we have the right to do so. Why? Because we are brothers who are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Ephesians 4:3).

So, now, how do we do this? When we recognize differences and when we go to one another, how can we really work to resolve these differences?

  • We are called to come together in a spirit of humility under the Word of God. Hear Peter’s admonition concerning humility – “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” Remember what he says next: “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
  • That humility has two sides – 1) We must be ready to put everything we think under the Word of God. And 2) We must be willing to listen to our brothers, for God has given them to us to help us listen to the Word of God.
  • We must each come with a desire to hear and confess together God’s Word, no more, no less.
  • In so doing, we must listen not only to ourselves, but to the testimony of our Church in her confessions.
  • It is important to define our terms and clarify what is really at issue – what are the questions? What are the real problems? What are people really saying?
  • Then, we must listen carefully to the Word of God and to each other. A good exercise is to ask each group to state in non-pejorative terms the position of the other side – that way we are sure we understand what others are really saying. Even more, we must let the Word of God be just that – God’s Word and the final authority. Remember, God’s Word does not allow for a diversity of doctrine or a deviation from sound practice.
  • That means we must be ready to put aside our own opinions and be ready to say together what God says. And if we conclude that God’s Word is not clear on an issue, we must be ready for that also.

But the bottom line is that we are called to deal with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. We have one Lord and Master. Christ died for each of us. So we don’t each go off on our own. We confess together. We bear witness together. We show mercy together. We seek to live together in Christ’s love, holding onto each other under the Word of God.

+Herbert C. Mueller
First Vice President

We Are Brothers and Sisters in Christ – Part One

[Note:  This two part article was originally written as a portion of a larger piece prepared in 2002 for a joint meeting of the seminary faculties and Council of Presidents. Yet it is still just as relevant today and is offered for prayerful consideration by all.]

How do we work with each other when we have differences we ought not ignore and divisions we must not allow to stand? The answer is at one and the same time simple, yet also impossible for us – apart from Christ and His Spirit.

The simple fact is, we are called to deal with each other as brothers and sisters in Christ.  Pastors, you are brothers in Christ and brothers in office. Brothers who live by and live under the same Word of God. Brothers with one teacher, one master, one confession, one Lord.

And WHEN we must deal with diversity and differences among us, we must do so as brothers. This is not an option, not an opportunity. This is the only way – for Christ has made us – pastors and lay people – brothers and sisters in Christ.

Now let’s review some specifics of what this means:

  1. We must be careful how we speak of one another – because we are brothers in Christ. We must be careful what we call one another because each of us is someone for whom Christ died. We must not call each other names or demonize those who are opposed to us. Even as we discuss differences, we must be careful to protect the reputation of a brother, because that’s what he is – a brother.
  2. We are mutually accountable to one another and are called to live as brothers in a relationship of trust under the Word of God. When we hear something about a brother, we are called to “put the best construction on everything.” We are not to spread rumors but when we have a question about someone, we are to go to the brother and speak with him privately. This also means that when a brother approaches us with a concern about something we have done or said, we do not ignore or belittle him because “we know we are right.” Instead we go together to the Word of God to examine the issue and find our answer. We must all recognize that just because we have God in mind when we are taking a course of action does not mean that we are right. We realize instead that we need one another to help us remain faithful to the Word.
  3. When one of us develops an idea that may be different from what has been commonly accepted doctrine or practice, we do not simply go forward on our own, but we bring it to our brothers, remembering we are committed to the same confession and remembering how easy it is to develop blind spots. We are not alone. God has given us brothers. And here it is disingenuous to go only to brothers we are sure will immediately agree with us.
  4. We are to be very careful about taking stands of conscience.  George Wollenburg, in an unpublished essay prepared for the Council of Presidents in 1975, writes, “It is therefore a most serious matter to say, ‘My conscience impels me to do this.’ A person who says this lightly or without the most agonizing searching of his own heart and the will of God as it is expressed in Holy Scripture is guilty of blasphemy in the most serious meaning of that word. By such a statement he is also seeking to persuade others to agree with him for he seeks to instruct their consciences as well as his own. To appeal to conscience can only mean that it is out of the fear of God’s judgment and out of terror before God that one acts in order that there might not be uncertainty and doubt about salvation.” (George Wollenburg, 1975 unpublished essay, p. 4)
  5. When we do believe a brother has given offense, we are called to go to that brother with the purpose of working to win him back, to be reconciled to him. In just a little bit of light heartedness, I have called this the “You Go Principle.” Compare with me Matthew 18 and Matthew 5. In Matthew 18 we read, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother” (Matthew 18:15). And the implication is, keep on going until you are reconciled or until it is abundantly clear that you cannot resolve it without help from others to discuss the issues in good faith. And if you recognize that you are the one who has given offense, Jesus in Matthew 5 instructs, “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24). Why? Because you have a brother or sister with whom you need to be reconciled. There are a couple of things I want you to notice about these two Scriptures. What does the Lord tell you? How do you treat a brother with whom you have a difference or who has given offense? YOU GO! In Matthew 5 you are the offender – so you go to be reconciled to your brother. In Matthew 18, he has sinned against you. No matter. YOU GO! Why? He’s your brother and you need to be reconciled to him. You need to gain him back as a brother.

There is much more that can be said on this, more than we have time for here. However, the basic point is very simple. Whenever we deal with diversities and differences within our synodical fellowship – whatever the arena, whatever the relationship – we pastors are called to treat each other as brothers, men who have one Lord and master – Jesus.

Continued in Part Two