Matthew 18:19-20 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.”
“What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!”1 Through prayer people approach God either to “call on his name in time of need, or praise and thank him in time of prosperity.”2 These two purposes for prayer are summed up very nicely in Psalm 50:15: “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you will honor me.”
But how do we obtain this privilege? Who may address God? Will God always answer prayer? Prayer is commanded by God. In Luther’s Small Catechism we learn the meaning of the Second Commandment: “We should fear and love God, and so we should not use his name to curse, swear, practice magic, lie, or deceive, but in every time of need call upon him, pray to him, praise him, and give him thanks.”3 Prayer is also commanded in other places throughout Scripture, e.g. Ps. 32:6; Eph. 6:18; 1Th. 5:17; etc. We know that by nature we cannot keep any of God’s commands, although we must keep them all perfectly if we are to inherit eternal life. How was this problem solved? “When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father’ ” (Gal. 4:4-6).
We were not able to approach God on our own. But God, out of his infinite mercy, sent His Son to live and die in our place. Christ fulfilled the law perfectly, and that includes the Second Commandment. He alone could use God’s name perfectly. Faith, which the Holy Spirit works in our hearts, says, “Yes, I believe!” to God’s promise of salvation through Christ’s merit. Through faith, God clothes us with Christ’s righteousness. With this righteousness, which comes from the forgiveness of sins, we not only have eternal life in Heaven as our inheritance, but also are able to approach God’s throne of grace in prayer while here on earth. We can come to Him as a son comes to his father. “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their cry” (Ps. 34:15). Thus we now come to God in prayer, “not of [our] own accord or because of [our] own worthiness, but at [God’s] commandment and promise, which cannot fail or deceive [us].”4
“I tell you the truth, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name … Ask and you will receive, and your joy will be complete” (Jn. 16:23,24). From what has been said, we see that prayers are only heard by God and honor God if they come from a heart of faith. They are based on obedience to God’s Word and will, not on our merit. For this reason He promises not only to hear and listen to our prayers, but also to answer every single one of them.
The opposite is also true. “The face of the LORD is against those who do evil” (Ps. 34:16). “The LORD detests the sacrifice of the wicked … The LORD is far from the wicked but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (Pr. 15:8,29). God neither listens to nor answers prayers that do not arise from a heart of faith, or are based on anything other than obedience to God’s Word and will.
This brief summary of the Biblical doctrine of prayer is necessary for a proper study on prayer fellowship. It is also necessary for us to remember that although we “were called to be free” (Gal. 5:13), we should “stand firm, and not let [ourselves] be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Though we are free to do everything, we will not out of love for Christ, who set us free from sin. We will rather serve Him by obeying His Word. Let us now look to see what that Word tells us.
True prayer fellowship is described by Jesus in the passage above (Mt. 18:19,20). In the first verse of the chapter, we learn to whom Jesus is speaking. “At that time the disciples came to Jesus …” Also note that, in verse 20, Jesus assumes that the two or three, who have gathered together, have done so in His name. Thus in verse 19, when Jesus says, “two of you,” he means two of His twelve disciples, or, in a broad sense, any believers in Christ who gather together. We also note that Jesus uses a future-more-vivid protasis in the Greek language when He says, “if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for.” In other words, He expects this kind of prayer fellowship to take place among believers. The apodosis also follows the future-more-vivid construction. It is as though Jesus is saying, “If two of you should gather together for prayer on earth, agreeing with each other in the cause or reason for which you are praying, (and I expect that this will happen among you), then rest assured that my Father will answer your prayer.”
But just because Jesus is telling his disciples that, should they pray together, His Father will hear them, does that mean that the disciples cannot pray with unbelievers? If Jesus wants us to “pray for those who persecute [us]” (Mt. 5:44), does He not also want us to pray with them? No, He does not. As was mentioned before, prayer is a privilege we are allowed to use only through faith. Will we then be so bold as to abuse this privilege by trying to go around God’s means of giving it? The Holy Spirit implants saving faith in us through the Gospel in Word and Sacrament, and only after He has done that are we able to approach God in prayer correctly. (This is the logical order; in reality God gives us faith and teaches us to pray to Him simultaneously. The point is that we cannot pray before we have faith.) Any “prayer” that an unbeliever offers up tries to go around the Means of Grace. Thus, knowingly or unknowingly, it is based on the worthiness or merit of the unbeliever, and for that reason it is addressed to an idol, and a blasphemous prayer.
A prayer which gives [God’s] name to a false god, or which is based on false premises that are an abomination to him, not only becomes worthless but invokes a curse on the head of him who thus takes the name of God in vain. His prayer stands condemned by God as blasphemy. And anyone, although himself a true Christian, who joins in a blasphemous prayer makes himself guilty of the same offense.5
“I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not give my glory to another or my praise to idols” (Isa. 42:8).
The immorality of prayer with blatant unbelievers, with those who worship false gods, is not very difficult to understand. But what about praying with people who belong to other Christian denominations? A Wisconsin Synod member may find himself in a Missouri Synod worship service. When the pastor of that congregation offers up prayers to the Lord, may that WELS member join with the members of that congregation in prayer? After all, the members of the Missouri Synod confess that Christ died for the sins of all. They believe that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Ro. 3:23,24). This is a more difficult question to answer, and the answer is more difficult to accept. Let us now look to the inspired Word of God for guidance in this matter.
“Prayer is a vital exercise of our faith.”6 Therefore, in order for prayer fellowship to exist, there must be a common confession of faith. This also implies unity in doctrine, since Scriptural doctrine, read and understood through our God-given intellect, is what nourishes the faith implanted in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. However, to what extent must there be unity in doctrine? Must there simply be agreement in the doctrine of objective justification, or must the agreement run deeper than that?
In Paul’s second letter to the Thessalonians, he corrects them regarding some of the false ideas they had about Christ’s second coming, and he also instructs them in the doctrine of the Antichrist. Further along in the letter, Paul writes, “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of him. Do not associate with him, in order that he may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2Th 3:14,15).
Regarding church life his instruction is very definite: have nothing to do with him—no pulpit and altar fellowship, no prayer fellowship, nor even an occasional joint prayer. And this in spite of the fact that the break has not been consummated and they still regard him as a fellow believer. In this way … they will show how serious his error is in their estimation, while an occasional joint prayer would, to say the least, take the edge off their testimony. By a conclusio a minore ad maius [i.e. conclusion from the lesser to the greater], apply Paul’s instruction to a case where a separation because of doctrinal differences has already taken place and has been perpetuated through opposing church organizations.7
The apostle John in his second letter writes to a Christian woman and her family, who are dear friends to him in the faith. It is a general letter of exhortation to continue in the true faith. Towards the end of the letter, John writes, “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God … If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not take him into your house or welcome him. Anyone who welcomes him shares in his wicked work” (2Jn. 9a,10,11). Note that John does not qualify Christ’s teaching.
We note that John warns against a formal brotherly greeting, not against ordinary civility in manners. By a conclusio a minore ad maius: if we are to deny an adherent of a false doctrine a brotherly reception, what about arranging a joint prayer?8
We also would be very presumptuous of and reckless with God’s Word to assert that the pithy “Keep away from them” in Romans 1:17 did not apply to prayer fellowship. “Do not take him into your house or welcome him” and “keep away from them” cannot and do not mean “join with them in prayer.”9
God has not said that the degree or the seriousness of the error determines our prayer relations. If we can pray together with one whom a “small” error separates from us, we can pray together with one whom a “great” error separates from us. No one will dare to vouch for oneness of mind and judgment in cases of “major” disagreements. But, who will prove that “minor” errors do not affect oneness of mind and judgment in praying together? Error, not degree of error, settles the question.10
If we truly believe that the doctrine of the WELS is the doctrine of Scripture, as we should, then dare we be so defiant to come to God in prayer with a person with whom we have at best questionable unity? May we have more respect for every precious doctrine of God’s Word than that!
Referring once again to Matthew 18:19,20, when we pray together, we are gathering in the Lord’s name and giving glory and honor to God by our obedience to His command. Joint prayer is therefore worship. Thus “joint prayer calls for the same unity of doctrine as any other act of worship.”11 Let us also remember that we do not follow these principles because we hate outsiders and want to shut ourselves away from the world. These are not laws that everyone who wishes to enter the church must follow. But we do preach the Gospel, which creates faith that naturally will follow these principles out of love for our Savior and His Word (2Co. 7:1). We therefore set up these Biblical principles for the purpose of establishing true spiritual and Biblical unity.
Yet our sinful nature struggles to the end: Can we not at least pray with other Christians for that same unity? Two Biblical and common-sense tests must be passed. There must be “true agreement of purpose among those who join in such prayer,” and “all other unionism [must be] ruled out in their joint prayer.”12
In the focus passage for this topic, Matthew 18:19,20, Jesus tells us that the condition for a God-pleasing prayer, a prayer that God answers, is that those believers who are gathered together to pray must agree with each other. The Greek word translated as “agree” is literally a musical word meaning “to harmonize with.” If two people are singing together, one person needs only to go the tiniest bit flat or sharp for the music to grate on the ear. Similarly, without true unity of the heart and mind in prayer, the conglomeration of purposes and ideas—some God-pleasing, some not—grates on God’s ears so much the more, since He is a perfect and jealous God. “Do the [two groups] want union for the same God-pleasing reasons? Are both groups equally concerned about a union of hearts? Do both approach the Word of God in the same completely selfless spirit, putting aside all human considerations?”13 In most cases where doctrinal differences have already been established between the two groups, at least one of these questions will most likely have a “No” answer.
Is all other unionism ruled out?
Unionism is characterized by these marks: It fails to confess the whole truth of the divine Word; it fails to reject and denounce every opposing error; it assigns error equal right with truth and creates the impression of church fellowship and of unity of faith where they do not exist.14
If two separate Christian denominations join together for prayer despite their obvious doctrinal differences, have they not already given the impression of the unity of faith where it does not exist? They may say to each other, “Let’s pray for true unity in every doctrine, fundamental and non-fundamental,” but then by their very prayer they are showing that such a thing means nothing to them, since they feel they can practice fellowship with each other before they have established unity of faith. They are hypocrites.
Regarding prayer fellowship, how ought we treat the brother who is weak in faith? (“Faith” here does not mean saving faith—one either has that or does not. Rather, it means faith that takes all the promises of God and applies them in day-to-day situations.) First of all, we ought to realize that we all are weak brothers. Not one of us is perfect; we are convalescents at best, slowly, ever so slowly, on the road to spiritual recovery after our baptism. For now we can only look forward to the abolition of our sinful nature and earthly body on the Youngest Day.
One example of weak faith is found in Matthew 6:25-34 and Luke 12:22-34. There the disciples show a lack of faith in God’s ability to provide. Did this lack of faith disrupt the unity between them and Jesus? Certainly not. “[Jesus] rebuked them sharply, charged them with mammon [i.e. material wealth or possessions] service, and blamed them for having a Gentile mind. But he also patiently and tenderly instructed them how to overcome their weakness [in Mt. 6:33].”15 Similarly, the disciples show a lack of faith in God’s ability to take care of them in Matthew 8:24-26, Mark 4:37-40, and Luke 8:23-25. Once again Jesus rebukes them, and asks them, “Why are you so afraid?” (Mt. 8:26). With this question He brings to their attention all their past experiences, in which God has taken care of them, and thus He shows them that they have no reason for worrying. In both cases the unity is not disrupted.
A slightly different kind of weak faith is found in Romans 14-15:6 and 1 Corinthians 8. The circumstances are similar in nature. In Rome, there were Christians who were either so upset by the gluttony that was well known there that they ate only vegetables, or “unwilling to give up the observance of certain requirements of the law, such as dietary restrictions and the keeping of the Sabbath and other special days.”16 Paul says that the faith of these Christians is weak (Ro. 14:2). However, does he tell these Christians to get over it? No, rather he tells the rest of the Roman congregation to treat these brothers with special care: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves” (Ro. 15:1). In spite of the presence of weak brothers, Paul blesses them with these words: “May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus” (Ro. 15:5). Weaker brothers do not disrupt the unity of the church.
In Corinth, where there was immorality of all sorts, including idol worship, some believers’ consciences were troubled when eating food that had been sacrificed to idols. While they had the knowledge that idols were nothing (1Co. 8:1), they did not yet have the conviction of the heart and of the conscience to freely partake of this kind of food. Paul knew that these people needed tender love, and so he gives a warning similar to the one he gave to the Roman Christians: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1Co. 8:9).
Are we to pray with these weaker brothers? By all means! Paul says to receive them (Ro. 14:1). “To deny prayer fellowship to the weak brother would be tantamount to ‘despising’ him, to refusing to ‘receive’ him.”17 It is persistence in error and refusal to learn from Scripture that will cause us to sever our relations with the weak brother (Mt. 18:15-17). We are not talking about people who are saying, “Lord, I refuse and despise your teaching,” but rather people who are pleading, as we all should, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mk. 9:24). Join with them in prayer to our gracious Father in Heaven.
Since we belong to an evangelical synod, a Gospel-centered synod, there will be times when it is more necessary simply to share the basic truths of the Gospel with a person than to make him confess every single doctrine we teach. In this day and age of many accidents, we may find ourselves next to an unbeliever quickly passing away, to whom we need only say, “Jesus died to take away all your sins. He is your Savior. You will not die, but live.” If he believes this, we may even join with him in prayer, thanking his Heavenly Father for His wonderful love, and committing his spirit to Him. If he is passing away even quicker, we may choose not to wait for him to confess Jesus as his Savior. We may simply tell him, and then offer up a prayer with him. As the saying goes, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” We must realize however, that this is not the norm; these are special circumstances.
Perhaps we have relatives who belong to the ELCA who have always shown a simple, childlike faith in their Lord. Yet they are not aware of the intersynodical differences and their involvement in error through membership in their synod. In the privacy of their own home, how should we put the principles of prayer fellowship into practice? There is no hard rule for these types of situations. Sound Christian judgment must be exercised. Circumstances may dictate that we do indeed pray with them. Yet we should at the same time be building up their faith by instructing them and otherwise expressing our own faith.
In summary, we draw our principles for prayer fellowship from three main sources. First, we find these principles laid out by our dogmaticians, as quoted above and quoted here:
To altogether abstain from all prayer and church fellowship with those of another faith—this alone complies with the Word of God. For in the first place, according to Matthew 10:32,33, we should confess Christ, and this confession includes everything that Scripture teaches about Him, and about His person, office, and work; and in the second place, according to Luke 9:26 and Mark 8:38, we should not be ashamed of Him and His words. This duty opposes prayer and church fellowship with those who are heterodox.18
Second, we find them laid out by our synod:
We may classify these joint expressions of faith in various ways according to the particular realm of activity in which they occur, e.g., pulpit fellowship; altar fellowship; prayer fellowship; fellowship in worship … Yet insofar as they are joint expressions of faith, they are all essentially one and the same thing … In selecting specific individuals or groups for a joint expression of faith, we can do this only on the basis of their confession … On the basis of the foregoing, we find it to be an untenable position to distinguish between joint prayer … and an occasional joint prayer.19
Third, and most importantly, our dogmaticians and our synod both draw their principles of prayer fellowship from sacred Scripture, where they are laid out in such passages as Matthew 18:19,20 and others.
“God has given us the privilege of prayer. Let us not abuse it. Let us not take his name in vain. Let us keep the privilege holy and undefiled.”20 God grant that our practice of prayer fellowship would lead us in the Wisconsin Synod to a true, God-pleasing unity of faith in His Son, our Savior.
Endnotes and Recommended Reading
1 Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1993), Hymn 411.
2 Tappert, Theodore G., ed, The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 373:64.
3 Tappert, 342:4.
4 Ibid., 423:21.
5 Jahn, Curtis A., ed, Essays on Church Fellowship, (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 95.
6 Ibid., 388.
7 Ibid., 137.
8 Ibid., 154.
9 Brug, John F, Church Fellowship: Working Together for the Truth, (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996), 115.
10 Jahn, 391.
11 Brug, 115.
12 Jahn, 390.
13 Ibid., 391.
14 Ibid., 391.
15 Ibid., 118.
16 Hoerber, Robert G., ed, Concordia Self-Study Bible: New Iternational Version, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1984), 1738. See note on 14:1.
17 Jahn, 122.
18 Hoenecke, Adolf, Ev.-Luth. Dogmatik--Band III, (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1912), 441. Translated by the author of this essay.
19 Commission on Inter-Church Relations of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, Doctrinal Statements of the WELS, (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997), 30,31,34.
20 Jahn, 147.