Cooperation in Externals

by Joshua Zarling

The capacity of the Old Adam within us all for committing the most disgusting of atrocities is evident in the entire world. One merely glances through history, and he immediately sees an almost incalculable number of wars. However, as Christians grounded in the Word, this should neither surprise nor alarm us. As Christ tells us in Matthew 23:22, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.” Again, in the following verse, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” These are examples of Satan and the Old Adam working in obvious ways. On the other hand, Satan is not as dumb as we might wish. His attack on the pure doctrines of the Word, and consequently those who hold to them, are done in subtler, sometimes almost invisible ways. Again, one needs look no further than to our own Church history and he observes with horror the vicious war that our orthodox Lutheran Fathers waged with the so-called “Crypto-Calvinists” over the doctrines of the Lord’s supper and the Person of Christ. However, in our own day, Satan has chosen a different path for our souls’ destruction.

In the so-called unionistic movements of the nineteenth and twentieth century, his inroads have been aimed at the visible Lutheran Church, with the attempt being made to destroy it from within. Since a more than adequate discussion of the orthodox position of the doctrine of fellowship has already taken place in the previous two articles, it suffices to reaffirm a few very brief points that will come into play in our discussion of cooperation in externals. First and foremost, the doctrine of fellowship is expressly commanded by our Lord in various places (I refer you back to the preceding articles for the pertinent Scripture passages). Second, it must be borne in mind constantly that this doctrine is applied not only for the protection of ourselves from poisonous doctrine, but out of love for the erring brother. Third, it is not simply out of these that this doctrine is upheld, but out of our undying love for the Word of God, which must be kept in truth and purity. These principles must be constantly refreshed if we are to proceed in a God-fearing manner.

When we use the term church externals with proper discrimination, we are simply talking about organizations or groups in which a God-fearing, conscience and Scripture bound Christian can participate without a violation of the doctrine of fellowship. Examples of these would be a welfare organization whose purpose is to distribute clothes and food to people ravaged by war or famine, or Lutherans banding together to defend the religious rights, which we have under the Constitution1. These are perfectly fine, being in line with the teaching of God’s Word. To explain it further, an orthodox Christian will not participate in education and missions with other churches, as these are not externals, but the actual work of the church. However, many modern American denominations have a much different perception of the above-mentioned term. They malign the term to include activities in which the Gospel is proclaimed in order to evangelize to others. This is actual church work, commanded by Christ, and should not be confused with externals. The importance of differentiating between the two is well illustrated:

It will be nothing short of disastrous for the cause of Lutheranism (and consequently the Gospel) to fail to distinguish properly between externals and actual church work, and as a result, to mistake spiritual essentials for mere “externals”. What many casually call externals” in the work of the church are not at all separate and distinct from the real work of preaching the Gospel.2

This twisting of the term is done by those who seek a unity in the Lutheran Church, as well as the Christian church as a whole, in order to better preach and proclaim the Gospel. They excuse their actions with various reasons, all clothed in human eloquence. They fall back on the claim that because of original sin, all human attempts to explain the doctrines of the Bible have failed. God and His Word are too complex for human thought, and the assumption by a single church that it has “got it all right” is both foolish and arrogant.

The Gospel is so exceedingly rich that no section of Christendom can claim a full and exhaustive grasp of its richness. One Church has grasped more of it, another less. In this respect the churches can learn from each other and help each other to arrive at a simpler, richer, and deeper understanding of the Gospel.3

Again, George Lillegard (author of “Modern Ecumenism and Cooperation in Externals”) points out that a certain Dr. John R. Mott, (the apparent leader of the ecumenical movement) assumes that,

(the Gospel) is like a diamond with many facets. One church sees one facet of the truth; another church sees another facet of it; a third church still another facet, and so on. In order to get the whole truth, the whole diamond, we must combine all the churches with all their distinctive teachings into one comprehensive body.4

This philosophy seems right on the mark when it comes to spreading the good news to all nations. While it is most assuredly true that God has called us to win people to his flock, it is not, I repeat, NOT true that we are supposed to simply throw it around carelessly and ally ourselves with whomever we please. The Gospel is the precious means through which we win souls, and it is accordingly attacked on all sides by Satan and his cohorts. We must also keep in mind the commands of our Savior in Matt. 28:19, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But let us never forget the following verse, “And teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” In only two verses, Christ lays down for us the importance of both evangelism and confessionalism. In Christian maturity it is realized that you cannot have one without the other, and they are in point of fact the same thing. However, here some may object that this does not repudiate the unionists, but in fact reinforces their position. They point to the fact that the unionists are trying to arrive at the full confessional truth in order to minister more effectively.

The unionists, however, do not stop there. When we attempt to confront them with their error, by means of our Scriptural doctrine of fellowship, they throw it in our face. We are accused of being advocates of “Pharaisaism” and “legalism,” and our church of “separatism” and “isolationism.”

In response to the unionists, we stand on Scripture. With a mere glance at their argument the stupidity of their claim is recognized. While Dr. Mott tries to sugarcoat the validity of his claim, Lillegard sees it for what it actually is:

The Churches have separated from each other because they at some point or other departed from the standards of true Bible teaching, which is the only truly unifying power in the world. The Lutheran church alone, in its public confessions, the Book of Concord, sticks to the whole truth of God’s Word, letting every facet of it shine with the brilliance which belongs to it. Thus, for example, when the Reformed churches call the sacraments mere signs of grace, while the Lutheran church calls them means of grace, they are not emphasizing different facets of the same truth; but one denies a Bible doctrine which the other affirms.5

And again he points out,

It is a demonstration of the superficiality and shallowness of modern man in religious matters that so many people, including prominent theologians and church leaders even in Lutheran circles, should adopt this theory that each church has the right to its distinctive doctrines, no matter how contrary to Scripture they may be.6

As is made apparent by the topic of discussion, unionism reaches its climax in its use of externals. Because of its maltreatment of the Word, many honest Christians are easily led into their false notion of what is allowable for inter-church relations. This unionist philosophy hits much closer to home, however. For over fifty years in the Lutheran churches of America the attempt has been made toward a unified Lutheran church, so as to present a solid Lutheran front. The trap here must be recognized.

And yet, there is a growing chorus of voices in our circles in favor of the proposition that all Lutherans can cooperate in various phases of church work where it would not be proper to unite with other Christian churches.7

In other words, we are supposed to accept them as “closer to the truth” simply because these certain denominations carry the name “Lutheran.” Although the rest of the paper could be taken up in a pointing out of the errors of these so-called “Lutheran” churches, I trust that many of the readers have already come into contact with them. However, the fact remains that just because someone may call himself a Lutheran, he is indeed not one of our brothers if his doctrine is in fact opposed to both Scripture and Luther. Lillegard shows,

The people concerned may be Modernists of Lodge members, who deny the inspiration of Scripture and question every important article of the Christian faith; and yet, by some strange alchemy, their calling themselves “Lutheran” is supposed to make them fit company for orthodox Lutherans.8

And it is also pointed out, “The fact that a church calls itself Lutheran, or that once in its history the Lutheran confessions were its confessions, does not make it genuinely Lutheran.”9

In activities such as the Lodge and Boy Scout groups, it is easy to see that the Scriptural doctrine of fellowship is not upheld when they ask us to join in their activities. It is no different with any organization that wishes “to develop better understanding among all Lutherans, and to encourage fellowship and cooperation in externals among Lutherans.”10 We must keep in mind that they are not using the term “externals” as we use it. They have shown by their ecumenical ways that they consider “externals” to extend to almost all branches of church work. This is simply not what the Scriptures say. Matthew 7:15 and Titus 3:10 stand in direct contrast to this usage of externals. We also read the warning in Romans 16:17, “I urge you brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned.” But look even to the next verse, were Paul again restates their means of corrupting, “By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.” In the second part of verse 18, the term “such people”, found earlier in the verse, is the antecedent of “they.” This obviously refers back to the “those” in verse 17. Again, Paul is here not only warning us of these people, but telling us their means of operation. When one compares the passage to heretical eloquence of the unionists shown above the connection is immediately drawn.

Again, we must remember the differences that exist between their meaning of the term “externals” and ours. By their unionist tendencies, they have shown that they consider organizations which work to preach the Gospel (and which involve numerous church groups) to be a viable use of church externals. However, note Lillegard’s Scriptural admonition: “We need, then, to become clear on the principle that joint church work involves unionism just as much as joint worship does when there is no agreement in doctrine.”11 Again we look to Scripture in 2 John 10: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him.” If (out of love) we are not to even welcome an erring brother, then why, I wonder, do the unionists consider it proper to join in evangelistic organizations with church groups whose doctrine opposes their own? Theirs is truly a fallacy of the human mind.

When we look around, the testimonies of the evil of our sinful flesh are abundant. When we see the liberal, ecumenical climate of modern America, it is more than tempting for our sinful flesh to just jump right in. However, we must stand firm on Scripture: “If you hold to my teaching, you are truly my disciples, then you will know the truth, and the truth shall set you free” (John 8:31). Any effort to evangelize with false doctrine is like giving a poisoned apple to a starving man. Let us give the nations what they really need, God’s Word, in all its truth and purity, as it stands confessed in our Symbols.

Endnotes and Recommended Reading
1 Lawrenz, Carl J. “Cooperation in Externals” Essays on Church Fellowship, (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 381
2 Ibid., 384
3 Lillegard, George O. “Modern Ecumenism and Cooperation in Externals” Essays on Church Fellowship, 182, as quoted from Nyrgen, Dr. A., N.L.C. News Bureau Release, 1947
4 Ibid., 182, as quoted from Mott, Dr. John R.
5 Ibid., 183
6 Ibid., 183
7 Ibid., 188
8 Ibid., 187
9 Lawrenz, 380
10 Lillegard, 189, as quoted from “Aims and Objects” of the Lutheran Men and Women of America
11 Ibid., 192