A Message from Pastor Hale
We learned at Seminary the phrase “felicitous inconsistency” or “happy inconsistency.” It is instructive when we deal with other churches and Christians who have false beliefs. While we do say that churches that teach falsely are not to be accepted or joined with in any official way – so we do not show approval of what is against Christ’s Scripture – we do not condemn Christians in other churches that hold to the same God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit that we do. How can we be so concerned about pure doctrine and following all that Christ taught us, yet not say that people in heterodox (false-believing) churches are damned, even if they hold tightly to partially incorrect religious teaching?
The answer is that people are not robots or computers. An error in doctrine endangers faith, but it does not necessarily prevent faith, depending on the error and how consistently the person carries that error through in his thinking. Most people believe what they are taught, and the false teachers of other churches bear a lot of the responsibility for misleading God’s sheep. But error can be mixed with true doctrine, because no person thinks completely rationally. The Christian churches who deny baptism, thinking it doesn’t do anything or have any benefit, thankfully do not deny the words of Baptism (the Mormons, however, do and are not a Christian church). These erring Christians can confess the name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, while denying the institution of Baptism – the only place in Scripture God’s name is fully spelled out for us (which is in the giving of Baptism in Mt. 28).
It is the same for Holy Communion. Most protestant churches think the Lord’s Supper is only a time to remember – so that the Christian does all the work in it. So they say it is not Christ’s body and blood, because it can’t be in their mind. But if they really denied the words of the Supper fully they would have no faith at all. The Supper states the Gospel: Christ’s blood was shed for the forgiveness of sins; His body was given for us. Who could argue against these words? But in denying the essence of the Lord’s Supper, they separate themselves from the gift of forgiveness in the Supper – refusing to acknowledge what Christ gives as a precious gift. But most happily, many Christians rejoice and believe in Christ’s forgiveness, even while they think Christ cannot give his body with bread and His blood with wine for us to eat and drink for the forgiveness of sins. They actually hold to words of Communion, in part, but do not want the Supper Christ gave for Christians to have. They are inconsistent, but still saved by faith alone in the risen Christ.
So how can people believe and be Christian who refuse the truth? Because doctrine is piecemeal, while faith is always whole, there can be wrong ideas and understanding mixed with true teaching. But faith is never partial. No one can believe 50% in Christ and 50% in a false god. Faith receives forgiveness from Christ. And even if someone unfortunately rejects Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the spoken and written Word of Christ offers the same exact forgiveness from Christ’s resurrection as do those two sacraments. Though, without a doubt, they have less of a foundation and assurance than we do, who hold to all the means of forgiveness that Christ gave His Church.
Not all doctrinal errors are the same. Some lie closer to the essence of our faith than others. Take the evil theory of evolution, for example. Someone who believes it sincerely and consistently should deny that we are specially made and that God would love us more than the animals or plants. Evolution puts chance in place of God’s providence. It says there is a cold, loveless, and pointless reality for mankind. But many simple Christians do hold evolution as true, in part, without connecting it to the nature of God. They still think God has called them personally out of slavery to sin to live a new life in Christ. This does not fit with evolution in the least, but many do not carry the tenets of evolution to the final conclusion. They put faith in jeopardy, since evolution goes against what God says and who He is, but many partake of a “happy inconsistency,” not fully making the connections that could be made – since evolution is a man-made theory invented to put God entirely out of the picture.
Another example is the veneration of Mary, the mother of our Lord. Many pray to her and practically worship her. If Mary is worshiped truly, that person has a different God and cannot be Christian. But it is possible to honor Mary highly and attribute more to her than one should, without denying the true God and that forgiveness and mercy are only due to Christ, rather than a sinner like Mary. Some Roman Christians misguidedly venerate Mary, while trusting fully in Christ – so that true faith does exist. So we condemn the error, while praying there is an inconsistency in a person who prays to someone who is not God.
However, just because someone can be a weak Christian who holds to error, does not mean we should partake of error or tolerate it in our midst – God forbid. Or that any particular person will withstand Satan while on a foundation of doctrinal sand. It is like saying how much poison can I ingest and still live? It depends on the individual and his body. False doctrine is poison and no amount of poison is ever good. So we should care about the teaching of Christ and keep it pure from human opinion. It is how we recognize each other as Christian, since we cannot judge faith in the heart: Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward. Everyone who goes on ahead and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God. Whoever abides in the teaching has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting (2 Jn. 2:8-10).
This is why we do not condemn Christians in awful Christian churches, but we do condemn the false teaching that these churches stand for. The cause of salvation is God’s grace and Christ’s work, not our doctrinal perfection. Perfect understanding does not save one. But our pure Lutheran doctrine preserves God’s goodness and keeps us strong against error and Satan, so faith may believe in the correct Christ – the one who forgives us. The Spirit, not our understanding, creates faith – yet a false understanding can lead to a denial of God’s grace in Christ. But it does not always do so.
An Old Testament example would be the sin of polygamy. Abraham and Jacob had multiple wives. They do not seem to have repented publicly of this sin. However, God did not condemn them, but forgave their weakness, though they did suffer on earth for their failings. It was not like people sleeping around today for pleasure. They wanted more children and saw them as the highest blessings, and did not avoid the extra responsibilities that came with them. It was not like fornication today. They had good motives, but the wrong execution. The in vitro (meaning “in glass” – a test-tube or lab-created baby) procedure falls in the same camp. Its goal is children, which are always good, but the procedure disassociates children from God’s marital union. It is not what God intended. The goal of having children can become a god just as much as not having children. Children are a gift, not a goal. But many Christians do this procedure, not trusting God to act through His appointed means, but still rely on Christ for forgiveness. But that does not make it a Christian act or good in itself. It is contrary to marriage and the unity God blesses marriage with. It is dangerous to take the matter of life into our own hands. But many unknowingly do what does not please the Lord and are forgiven in their weakness.
The example of sinful Abraham doesn’t mean that we can safely break our marriage vows today. That is a sin against God. The patriarchs saw divorce as worse than having a concubine. But it is the opposite today in our culture, which despises children, life and caring for a spouse. Their weakness is not our weakness. But we are all weak, which is why we do not judge people’s hearts, even if we must judge their un-Christian actions.
God’s goodness is greater than our weakness. We are to be patient and understanding with the weak and erring. But we do not tolerate error against Christ and what puts our faith in mortal danger. So we lovingly warn those who are going astray and confess the truth proudly.
Scripture condemns false doctrine and we do not recognize fellowship with churches that only have a little doctrine wrong. But we can safely assume that a person living a Christian life and confessing in a church that upholds the Gospel of forgiveness, for the sake of Christ, is a Christian. We leave the rest to God, knowing that even in ourselves, we have “happy inconsistencies” – since we know only in part. Amen.