Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Fellowship of All Believers

I was raised in the Episcopal Church, and my friends were mostly Baptists and Methodists. I volunteered with a youth group at a local Methodist Church, and the fact that they so warmly welcomed me into their church was so special. I learned and experienced things in that church that I hadn't found in my own church. Later when I traveled to Ireland in college, I worshiped at Catholic and Presbyterian churches, and those experiences were also very meaningful and beneficial to me. At school I worshiped and prayed with friends from all walks of Christianity. Some were so new to the faith that they hadn't claimed any denomination at all. Every one of them enriched my life and supported me in my faith.

Before I moved to the Midwest and met my husband, I didn't know much about Lutherans, and I knew nothing about WELS—the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. I was completely unprepared by how different their approach to Christianity was from mine.

I got my first lesson when my husband and I were planning our wedding. Everyone in his family was WELS. I only had a vague idea of what a big deal it was that he was marrying me even though I wasn't WELS. It all became clear to me when I suggested that we ask his grandfather—a WELS pastor—to marry us. I suspect my husband already knew what the answer would be, but we did ask. We didn't get very far—when it came out that the friend we had asked to play the organ at our wedding was MLS (Missouri Lutheran Synod) instead of WELS, my husband's grandfather indicated that that would pose a significant impediment to him performing the service. It is WELS policy that all worship leaders (including musicians) must be WELS if a WELS pastor is to lead the service. My organist was the wrong kind of Lutheran. I didn't even bother mentioning that I had a Baptist and two people who went to the Metropolitan Community Church (a gay church) slated to sing at my wedding.

I had known from childhood that I wanted a wedding mass—when my husband asked me why while we were planning the wedding, I told him that I wanted the first act we performed as husband and wife to be taking communion together and sharing the meal with our assembled friends and family. My wish almost came true. Only half of the family participated. My husband's WELS family would not accept communion from the Episcopal priest who married us. They would not celebrate the sacrament with anyone who did not belong to their own church. According to my husband, they aren't even supposed to pray with Christians who aren't WELS. They sat firmly in their seats while we celebrated our unity in Christ with the rest of our family and friends, and later when I visited their churches I was informed that I would not be permitted to receive communion there because I was not a WELS member. I sat through one or two such communion service in which I was excluded, fighting back tears all the time, and then I refused to ever go to their churches on a communion Sunday ever again for fear that I would make a scene by sobbing uncontrollably in the middle of the service. It rent my heart that I wanted so much to worship fully with them and yet was denied, and even more that they were denying themselves the love and friendship of millions of other Christians besides me who could have helped them in their faith and mission.

I was so upset that my husband's family would not participate in my lovely wedding mass that I chose a communion hymn that would drive home my opinions on the matter:

I come with joy to meet my Lord,
forgiven, loved, and free,
in awe and wonder to recall
his life laid down for me.

I come with Christians far and near
to find, as all are fed,
the new community of love
in Christ's communion bread.

As Christ breaks bread and bids us share,
each proud division ends.
That love that made us makes us one,
and strangers now are friends.

And thus with joy we meet our Lord.
His presence, always near,
is in such friendship better known:
we see and praise him here.

Together met, together bound,
we'll go our different ways,
and as his people in the world,
we'll live and speak his praise.

This is what I envision as the Fellowship of All Believers, the Body of Christ. I believe that all Christians are united through Christ and that He intends for us to live as brothers and sisters, not divided up into factions that exclude one another. 

I have yet to be satisfied with an explanation that justifies refusing to pray with other Christians or excluding them from communion. The members of WELS claim to follow Martin Luther's teachings, but in his large catechism, even he argues for the need for all Christians to receive communion frequently and for only a very few—who do not desire the forgiveness promised by Christ in the words of institution—to be turned away from the table:

"Those who are shameless and unruly must be told to stay away, for they are not fit to receive the forgiveness of sins since they do not desire it and do not want to be good. The others, who are not so callous and dissolute but would like to be good, should not absent themselves, even though in other respects they are weak and frail. As St. Hilary has said, 'Unless a man has committed such a sin that he has forfeited the name of Christian and has to be expelled from the congregation, he should not exclude himself from the sacrament,' lest he deprive himself of life. No one will make such progress that he does not retain many common infirmities in his flesh and blood. People with such misgivings must learn that it is the highest wisdom to realize that this sacrament does not depend upon our worthiness. We are not baptized because we are worthy and holy, nor do we come to confession pure and without sin; on the contrary, we come as poor, miserable men, precisely because we are unworthy. The only exception is the person who desires no grace and absolution and has no intention to amend his life. He who earnestly desires grace and consolation should compel himself to go and allow no one to deter him."

I hardly think that a visiting Christian who desires to receive communion could be automatically assumed to be so unruly and sinful that he/she has utterly turned his/her back on Christianity. Quite to the contrary—anyone who desires to receive the sacrament in remembrance of Christ is worthy, according to Luther. Why then was I turned away? Why then did these people refuse to take the sacrament with me and my family and friends at our church, after the priest had dutifully proclaimed the words of institution which Luther writes is what differentiates Holy communion from a regular meal? Is it because I don't belong to right sect, don't have the correct label: 'Lutheran'? The folly of that idea is laid out in the third chapter of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians:

For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings?  What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task. I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow. So then, no more boasting about human leaders! All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God. (1 Corinthians 3:3–7, 21–23)

Why then segregate ourselves based on whose teachings and theological explanations we follow? Are we not all disciples of Christ? Do we not all believe in the salvation he offers through his death and resurrection? If so, why can we not focus on this important commonality and on the two great commandments—to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves—without separating ourselves based on every single detail of our faith? Why do we quarrel and break ranks when we should be supporting and learning from each other? Why do we pretend that the foot can function independently of the hand when we are all meant to be one body in Christ? 

I have used the WELS church as a specific example here because of my own personal experience, but this is not a diatribe against one particular denomination. I believe that to some degree, almost all Christians are guilty of this standoffishness. We are wary of those whose worship practices differ widely from ours—those from liturgical backgrounds want to know why others are clapping and dancing in the aisles, and those with more free-form practices want to know why others are standing in their pews like statues with no sign that their hearts are moved at all. We segregate ourselves based on many things—theological opinions, worship preferences, even race or economic class—and we rarely cross those boundaries. 

I want to feel comfortable worshiping in any church with any group of believers. I want to be able to pray with any Christian anywhere. I want to be able to support any person—even someone I do not know well—in his or her faith whenever I have the opportunity. I do not want to always focus on what I think each person is doing wrong and which opinions I disagree with. I would rather celebrate our common faith in Jesus and build up each believer's hope in the salvation of our Lord and the promise of blessings to come. By working together and supporting each other, we make the entire body of Christ stronger and more effective.

It is important that the Christian Church is not simply a scattered confederation of Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and dozens of other denominations. We must strive to become a Fellowship of All Believers so that we might stand united for Christ.

5 comments:

Mel Bowman said...

I think it's a terrible thing to deny Communion to a follower of Christ, regardless from which sect he or she originates.

I didn't have the same troubles as you when I married because Chad and I are both Roman Catholic. I have taken Communion at many different churches - probably plenty where I shouldn't have - because I do not think denying a fellow Christian Communion was what Christ had in mind when he first invited us to his table.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.

I am in a similar page as you. I was raised as a Christian under United Church of Christ.

My boyfriend however was raised Wels.

As we talk about our future and possible marriage, there is so many rules and regulations that I'm not used to.

All of his family is Wels, as my family is spread amongst Catholic, United Church of Christ and Methodist.

It is very difficult on me because I want to marry in his church, but I don't know if "the lord" expects me to change my beliefs and how I was raised just to conform to what someone else is telling me.

As Christians, we all believe in the higher almighty, creater of heaven and earth, we also know to love thy neighbor and yourself.

Was is God's intention to have humans act like our beliefs are governments (right or wrong amongst each others beliefs) or was it his intentions to unite and welcome each others tables and believe what the Bible lessons teach?

There a a lot of un-answers in the world but love and faith always guides us all in the correct direction.

Breezy said...

I happened to stumble across this while googling a similiar situation. Someone I love refuses to take communion when at my church, even though we both view ourselves as Christians and our denominations as Christian. -It hurts. I just wanted to say that I loved how well written this is and that I fully agree with you. I too believe it is not how Christ intended it to be. We should feel comfortable worshiping him in any Christian church together with the ones we love.

Breezy said...

I happened to stumble across this while googleing a similiar situation. My husband refuses to take communion at my church. Even thou we both are Christian and view both or denominations as Christian. It hurts.
I just wanted to say That I love how well written this is. And that I too believe that is not how Christ intended it. We should be able to worship our Lord with our loved ones, no matter the Denomination.

Anonymous said...

Agree wholeheartedly! Well put.
I too grew up in the Episcopal Church and maintain my membership there although I have visited many other churches, grew up in a Catholic school and now my children are attending a Catholic school (not because it is Catholic, but because it was the best option for their education). I regularly attend mass at Catholic churches, which also (in most places) exclude non-Catholics from communion, and that makes me sad.

Christopher in Texas

 
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