More Q & A

Q&A set 15

What are the main doctrinal differences between the WELS and the Russian Orthodox Church?

The doctrine of the Russian Orthodox church is basically the same as that of the Roman Catholic Church except for obedience to the pope. The key issue, of course, is that Orthodox churches see the works we do as part of the cause of our salvation. Their use of icons of the saints often becomes a form of worship though it may be rationalized as simple intercession. They also insist on a hierarchy of bishops in succession to the apostles. They have a more mystic approach to religion which makes it hard for people used to a Protestant way of thinking to understand their viewpoint.

There is no distinctly WELS book on the Orthodox. A recent evaluation from an evangelical perspective is Donald Clendinin's Eastern Orthodox Christianty: A Western Perspective. It contains much useful information but the evaluation is weak. A standard reference book on denominations would have material on Orthodoxy.

Catholicism Today

Why do we celebrate a festival called Easter? "Easter" is the name of a pagan spring goddess. If we are going to celebrate the festival we should call it "Resurrection" and get rid of this pagan leftover.

In many European languages the name of the festival of the resurrection is some form of the word Pesach, the Hebrew name for Passover. The name Easter apparently originated in the Germanic languages and was carried to England and into the English language by the Anglo-Saxons. The idea that this word derives from the name of a pagan goddess of the spring equinox is a very old one, traced to the Venerable Bede, an 8th century scholar. Recent scholarship, however, suggests that this notion is wrong.

In the Frankish church the name of the festival of the resurrection included the Latin word alba, "white," because of the white garments that were worn during the festival. When this was translated into German, alba was mistaken for a Latin word for "sunrise" which also was alba. For this reason alba was translated with the old German word for "sunrise," which has come to us in the form "Easter" (German, Ostern). In many languages the word for east means "rising." It appears that the English word "east" also has this meaning. Although the evidence is unclear and there are competing theories, it appears that the festival of the resurrection already has the name "Rising" since this seems to be the original meaning of "Easter."

It is possible that Bede was not entirely wrong and that there was also a goddess named "Dawn" since many pagan religions have a god or goddess of the sunrise. It seems highly improbable, however, that the church authorities would have allowed the chief festival of the Christian year to be named after a pagan goddess. They might have been tempted to keep something heathen and call it by a Christian name. They would hardly have taken something Christian and given it a pagan name.

Even if the etymology of the word "Easter" were the name of a pagan goddess, which is doubtful, this would not be a reason for alarm. The majority of our day and month names, the names of the planets, and such diverse things as mercury and cereal are all named for pagan deities, and we refer to them all of the time without being concerned about (or even knowing) their etymology.

There is, however, a larger issue involved here. Much of the anti-Easter sentiment comes from an anti-festival attitude that is promoted by fundamentalist publications, radio and TV shows. Easter and Christmas are often condemned because they are celebrated at key astronomical points of the year at which the heathen also celebrated seasonal festivals. If anyone is going to find fault with celebrating the festival of the resurrection at the spring equinox, his quarrel is with God since God is the one who placed it there. In celebrating Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring, the church is simply acknowledging the fact that God chose the Passover, celebrated at the first full moon of spring, as the time for the death and resurrection of his Son. The Old Testament festivals like Passover and Pentecost, which were commanded by God, were tied to events of the astronomical and agricultural years. The Christian festivals simply followed them.

To pass harsh judgments on fellow Christians on the basis of alleged pagan etymology of festival names or alleged pagan origin of festivals is at best "passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1). All too often it crosses over into passing legalistic judgments on fellow Christians (Romans 14:1-23, 1 Corinthians 8:4-8). It is not too much different than the spirit of the politically-correct school board which would not allow Valentine's Day because it would introduce a Christian saint's day into the public school, but did allow "Special Person Day." We do not want to adopt the habits of those who make harsh judgments on the basis of sketchy, uncertain historical evidence and long-forgotten origins.

What is the WELS feelings on displaying the flag on the casket during the funeral service ? also the playing of TAPS at the cemetary does it matter if played before the last rites or after?

There is not any objection to veterans receiving military honors. A chaplin of another faith could not participate in the religious service. Military honors like TAPS are a separate thing from the Christian burial. At the grave side it does not make an essential difference whether the religious rite or civil ceremony is first or last.

Could you give me some backround information on the Anglican/Episcopal churches, and what they believe and teach from WELS point of view?

The Anglican Church is the official state church of England. We call the related church in the USA "Episcopal." Both of these churches are very liberal and allow for a wide diversity of doctrine, so it is very difficult to state their position. Theologians of these churches are among the most liberal in their view of Scripture, but there are also Evangelical parties. Even the most basic doctrines of Scripture are denied by Episcopal theologians and leaders.

The main difference as the name "Episcopal" implies is that they insist that a church must have a succession of bishops in order to have a valid ministry. This was the main reason that the recommendation that the ELCA church assembly this past summer defeated the recommendation to enter full commumion with the Episcopal church.

All views concerning the Lord's Supper (Reformed,
Catholicism Today, and Lutheran) are present in the Episcopal churches, but the main view is Reformed. For this reason, we believe it would be improper for Lutheran churches to have communion with the Episcopal churches.

I happened to turn on the radio yesterday to a Christian radio station that was discussing the topic of gays and lesbians in the ministry. Specifically, it talked about "Lutherans" accepting them into the ministry. I know that the WELS and Missouri are against this, but is this true about the ELCA church?

The ELCA does not officially approve the ordination of practicing homosexuals to the ministry, but there is very vocal support for this position in the ECLA, and some congregations have defied the church on this issue. There is ongoing study and debate of the issue. Some who oppose the ordination of homosexuals do not oppose it on moral grounds, but because it will cause strife in the church.

My pastor (LCMS) told us about "Cursillo," but was vague as to what exactly it is. He also said that WELS approves of their members attendance at a Cursillo. What is a "Cursillo", and is it true that it would be appropriate for a member of your synod to attend?

"Cursillo" is Spanish for "short course." A cursillo is a kind of a spiritual retreat. The best known "cursillo, " which owns the trade mark "Cursillo," is an evangelism movement of the Catholic Church ( Catholicism Today) (there is also an Anglican movement and others as well). The official Cursillo is a worldwide movement of the Roman Catholic Church.

The home page of the National Cursillo Movement states its goal: "The Cursillo Movement can assist each of us in developing a deeper understanding of what it means to be fully Catholic by being fully Christian." The Cursillo Movement in the United States was organized on a national basis in 1965. The Cursillo Movement has the support of the vast majority of the American Catholic hierarchy. It is joined to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops through an official liaison. The movement is a member of the International Catholic Organizations of the Pontifical Council for the Laity in Rome.

The various cursillo home pages on the Web describe its activities as spiritual activities that involve religious fellowship. Confessional Lutheran should not participate in such activities of the Roman Catholic Church. The official program of the National Cursillo Movement states that the program is intended for Catholics only.

Perhaps your pastor is referring to cursillo-like retreats sponsored by Lutheran churches. True cursillo-courses are a spiritual exercise and should be shared only by people of the same faith and fellowship. WELS members should not attend cursillos sponsored by churches with which they are not in fellowship.

I would like to know if occasional gambling is a sin. I don't spend a lot and view it as entertainment. Is this still considered a sin?

Whether something is a sin is not, of course, determined by how often a person does it, but by the character of the act. Scripture does not explicitly deal with gambling, but it does warn against greed and trying to benefit at the expense of others. In gambling there cannot be winners without losers. In participating in organized gambling Christians have to also consider the effect it has on society and especially on the weak and those who fall victim to it. A Christian should not gamble if greed or a get something for nothing spirit is involved. Isn't it very difficult to separate gambling from these motives? Is gambling even in moderation responsible stewardship of what God has given us? Even if a Christian can say that none of this applies to him or her and that gambling is only a form of entertainment, the Christian still must consider the effect on others.

For these reasons we warn against gambling. There is not, however, a scriptural basis to say dogmatically that every wager is in and of itself sin.

I have heard that the Hebrew word "forever" (olam) sometimes refers to something less than eternity. Can you give me information about this? This comes up because of people who say God's covenants with Israel for circumcision and for the land were "forever" and therefore still stand.

It is true that the word olam often refers to a long, indefinite time which does, however, come to an end. An example is in Exodus 21:6 where a person becomes a servant "for life." The NIV usually uses a translation other than "eternal" or "forever" in such cases.

Genesis 17:6-9 uses the term "an everlasting covenant" in connection with the covenant of the land and the covenant of circumcision. We can say that circumcision and the other Old Testament ceremonial laws now longer apply to us, because the New Testament specifically says so in such passages as Colossians 2 and Romans 14. The epistle to the Hebrews is especially important in this respect because it is addressed to Jews and so it shows that they too are free from these laws.

Israel lost their land, not because God set aside the covenant, but because they failed to keep the covenant by obeying him. This covenant was conditioned on their obedience (Genesis 17:9). Those who reject Jesus are not obeying the covenant because they are rejecting the promised Seed to whom the sign of circumcision points.

As we see from Peter's confession in Matthew 16 and from other incidents in the gospels, the disciples believed that Jesus was their Savior before Pentecost, but several statements imply that they did not receive the Holy Spirit till Pentecost (John 7:39 Luke 24:49). How could they have faith without the Holy Spirit?

The statements that the Spirit had not yet been given refer to the giving of the special gifts at Pentecost like speaking in tongues, as well to as the deeper understanding of Christ's work which the apostles would need for their mission. The apostles also would be given the gift of inspiration so they could accurately pass on the truth about Christ in the books of the New Testament.

When Jesus attributes the faith of the apostles to the Father (John 6:44, Matthew 16:17), he is not eliminating the role of the Spirit since it is the Father who sends the Spirit (John 14:16, 17, 15:26). The Scripture has many passages which refer to the activity of the Holy Spirit in believers before Pentecost (Psalm 51:11, Luke 1:15, 41, 67, John 3:5).

Recent articles in Meditations seem to contradict each other concerning God's relationship to evil. One said that though God is not the author of sin, he determines how it touches our lives. It used the example of an automobile accident. Regardless of the human sin that may have been involved in causing the accident, God determines whether or not it ends an innocent person's life. Another meditation said that abortion is usurping the right of God by cutting short an innocent person's life. Isn't God equally in control in both cases?

Yes, God is equally in control in both cases. In neither case is God the cause of the sin which threatens or ends the life of an innocent victim. The sinful intent and action is the fault of the person who commits the sin. In both situations, God either permits or prevents the sinful taking of a life according to his wise judgment of what will ultimately be for the good of his people.

God permitted Satan and sinful men to take Christ's life so that this crime could serve our eternal good. He permitted the enemies of Christ to kill Stephen, but he delivered Peter and Paul from their enemies. Both outcomes served the good of the gospel. Ultimately, Peter and Paul too died martyrs' deaths. Scripture contains many other examples of God either preventing or permitting evil according to his wise providence. In some cases, we may not be able to see why God permitted a particular outcome, just as Job received no explanation for the tragedies that had befallen him.

In the statement you cite above, the first author is emphasizing the providence of God who determines the ultimate outcome. The second author is emphasizing the guilt of the sinner, who has no right to take a life. A short meditation (or a short answer to a question) cannot cover all aspects of a subject.

Christians should always work to change bad laws, like abortion for instance. Without the traders there would have been few slaves in history -- and no slave-trading from Africa to America. Is there anything in history where any Lutheran ever spoke up about the sin of trading in slaves from Africa to America? Any organization which tried to stop it? Any convention which has ever thought of apologizing to the black community regarding apathy in years past concerning the "them" and "us" approach the WELS took concerning black Lutherans. We never did anything with the sin of slave-trading. If Christians had spoken up maybe we could have stopped slavery in America.

Obviously the Wisconsin Synod and the Missouri Synods and the Synodical Conferenence could not have done anything to oppose the trans-Atlantic slave trade because that trade was abolished years before any of these church bodies existed. Protestant missionaries in Africa, who included some German Lutherans in the employ of British mission societies, took the lead in fighting for abolition of the slave trade. The Lutheran countries of Germany and Scandinavia were never engaged in slave trade and most of the first Lutherans in the US were in the north where they had relatively little contact with African-Americans. Before the Civil War African-American Lutherans were members of the same congregations as whites. The earliest record of such membership begins in 1669. Obviously not many African-Americans were going to join Lutheran congregations that conducted their services in German, Norwegian, and Swedish, languages which the African-Americans did not speak.

The Synodical Conference began mission work among the black population of the South already in 1877. In the social setting of that era this work could be done only in separate congregations and schools.

Undoubtedly, the sin of racism has been present also among Lutherans, but many Lutherans have been involved in the anti-slavery movement and in mission work to African-Americans.

An account of this activity is found in Black Christians: The Untold Lutheran Story by Jeff Johnson, a Concordia publication. A review in the Spring 1992 issue of the Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly stated, "The history of Black Lutheranism is one that leaves us both proud and sad. Proud of the way our Lutheran forefathers opposed slavery, and least to begin with, and tried to share the Word with the Black community, sad because of the way these noble efforts were often stifled by prejudice and paternalism."

I know that the WELS practices closed communion as my synod does (Missouri). My question is why do you practice close(d) communion? Also I have talked with some ELCA pastors. They have expressed to me that it should be an individual's choice. What would be your response to this? Any information on this topic would be appreciated. Also might I ask that if you know some of the arguments from ELCA or any other church that practices open communion, could you explain what they base their argument on?

We should welcome to the Lord's Supper only those Christians who are properly instructed, who recognize the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament, and who are repentant The Sacrament must be closed to all others to guard them against eating and drinking judgment on themselves. Scripture warns that those who attend without proper understanding and preparation harm themselves (1 Corinthians 11:27-31). Just as a road must be closed when a bridge is washed out to protect travelers from harm, Communion must be closed to those who are not prepared to receive it beneficially.

The Lord's Supper is also an expression of fellowship between all of those who attend together. Church fellowship must be based on agreement in all of the doctrines of Scripture. To attend Communion with people with whom we are not in doctrinal agreement would be unloving because we would be failing to give a clear testimony to the truth and a strong witness against error.

Open communion is usually justified on the grounds that it is unloving to exclude anyone from Communion. On the contrary, it is unloving to allow people to attend the Lord's Supper to their own condemnation. For a pastor and congregation to allow people to choose for themselves whether or not they will attend the Lord's Supper is as irresponsible as it would be for a doctor to let his patients decide what medicine to take.

Lax Communion practices often are joined with a lax view of the real presence of Christ's body and blood "in, with, and under" the bread and wine. If people believe that all that we are receiving in the Sacrament is bread and wine, it is not very critical who attends. The ELCA now permits joint Communion with Reformed churches that deny the real presence of Christ's body and blood with the bread and the wine. Where there is no recognition of the seriousness of partaking of Christ's body and blood in an unworthy manner, laxness of Communion practice naturally follows.

A presentation of closed communion from a WELS perspective can be found in the book Church Fellowship: Working Together for the Truth, pages 118-124. A good presentation of the subject by a Missouri Synod writer is Communion Fellowship by Paul McCain.

Is there a possibility that people practicing Judaism could have died with saving faith even after the time of Christ? Since there were people in OT times who were saved by faith, does it follow that people who died even years after Christ was on earth could have had the Spirit in their hearts, despite never coming into contact with what is recognized as the Christian Church?

There was, of course, a time of transition when the apostles were going out with the gospel to the Jewish communities which were scattered throughout the world. When Paul went from town to town, he regularly went to the synogogue and presented Jesus' claim to be the Savior to those who gathered there. Often the nucleus of the first Christian congregation in a city came from the synagogue. But many from the synogogue rejected the gospel. They no longer could be considered faithful Old Testament believers after they had rejected the Messiah God had sent to them.

We can't specify a date after which it was no longer possible to be a true "Old Testament Christian," but it is likely that most if not all Jewish communities were reached with the gospel during the lifetime of the apostles.

The Holy Spirit grants gifts to believers--teaching, preaching, serving, giving, encouraging, speaking in tongues, etc. What I am confused about is this: do "gifts" refer to an ability or to a desire? To see them as "ability gifts" doesn't make much sense to me since people have these gifts naturally....and giving isn't an ability. But then to see them as "desire gifts" doesn't make much sense to me either, since many have desired to be preachers, but can't. And how should we encourage people to seek these asking them what they desire and then seeing if they have the skill?

Everything we have is a gift of God--our natural abilities, the willingness to use them in God's service, and the opportunities we have to develop them and to use them. In addition, during the apostolic era people were sometimes given extraordinary gifts, such as the ability to do miracles or speak in tongues.

God gives different individuals different natural gifts which can be used in his service. Through the means of grace he works in us 'to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Phil . 2:13).

To render spiritual service such as preaching and teaching an individual needs natural gifts and the desire to use them. A person can also grow in the ability to use these gifts through study and training. To use those gifts publicly in the service of the church an individual also needs another gift--a call to serve in the ministry which comes from Christ through the church

Normally, individuals enter the service of the church (whether in fulltime public ministry or parttime service offered by members of the congregation) when fellow Christians notice their gifts and willing spirit and ask them to serve or to train for service. Sometimes individuals may have the desire to serve in a certain area, but in the judgment of their fellow Christians he or she does not have the necessary gifts. In such cases their fellow Christians should help the individual who has the desire to serve to find an opportunity to serve which is in keeping with his or her gifts.

"God's word cites many examples of believers fasting. Most notable, of course, is our Lord's own 40-day fast in the desert. When, how, and to what end should we fast?"

The Bible frequently mentions fasting, that is, abstaining from food for a time, as a form of spiritual discipline. God commanded the people of Israel to "deny themselves" on the Day of Atonement, which was the great day of repentance (Lev 16:29). This was interpreted as a command to fast. To this the Jews added a number of set dates for fasting, such as the day when they mourned the destruction of the Temple (Zech 8:19). Special fasts were declared at times of national calamity (Joel 1:14). Individuals also fasted on days of personal mourning or repentance.

God warned the Israelites that fasting was not a substitute for good behavior nor was it a way to earn merit with God (Is 58:2-8). Fasting was to be an expression of true repentance and a sign of devotion to spiritual concerns.

Jesus' disciples did not fast as regularly as John the Baptist's disciples did because of their joy to be in the presence of Jesus (Mt 9:14-15). Jesus condemned the fasting of the Pharisees because it was done as a show to impress people (Mt 6:16-17). But Jesus implied that his disciples will fast at the right time and in the right way. The early Christians practiced fasting in connection with special times of prayer and devotion (Acts 13:2, 14:23). Christians have no command to fast, but Luther recommended fasting as a spiritual discipline. In his comments on preparation for the Lord's Supper in the Small Catechism he stated that fasting and bodily preparation are fine outward training. On another occasion he said, "There should be a general spiritual fast for us Christians to observe. It would be a good arrangement to observe a general fast for a few days before Easter, before Pentecost, and before Christmas, to distribute fasts over the year. But on no account dare it be done for the purpose of making it an act of worship or a means of meriting something." Luther also recommended fasting as a bodily discipline. "I would also be glad if at certain times, once a week or as often as might seem best, there were no evening meal, except a piece of bread and something to drink, to keep everything from being used up with the kind of incessant guzzling and gobbling that we Germans do, and to teach people to live a little more moderately."

Christians, therefore, may fast if it helps them focus their attention on special occasions of prayer or repentance. Fasting may also serve as a reminder of the need for bodily self-discipline.

A recent question on WELSNET referred to Evangelical and Reformed groups. What is meant by these terms? In what sense is the WELS Evangelical?

Strictly, speaking the term Reformed should be used only in reference to Calvinistic churches. It is sometimes rather carelessly used in reference to virtually all non-Lutheran Protestants whether Calvinistic or Arminian. This usage is confusing and should be avoided. In recent American usage the term Evangelical has been used for a party in American Protestantism which wanted to hold a middle position between the doctrinal laxity of liberalism and the strict separatism of fundamentalism. Its best known spokesman was Billy Graham. Evangelicalism was more Arminian than Calvinistic. In recent years there has been significant doctrinal deterioration in the Evangelical camp so the label Evangelical is not longer an assurance that a person holds to even basic doctrines such as the inerrancy of Scripture. The term evangelical was a favorite label of Lutherans long before the appearance of the American Evangelicals. It emphasized the centrality of the gospel in Lutheran preaching and teaching and the evangelical, gospel-centered focus of Lutheran practice.

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