THE WORD IS
It is constructive to work together when we are united by a mutual faith, based on Scripture. Christians in confessional Lutheran churches have been blessed in this way.
The ecumenical movement has promoted joint work without doctrinal unity. Its goals, however, have been difficult to achieve in practice. The leaders of the movement receive support for their thinking from those people who have been alienated from Christian faith. But the more serious-minded people with convictions do not wish to make concessions to those with contrary opinions.
In Europe the State Churches have not been able to unite the different factions within their own midst. The like?minded have founded their own organizations. A mutual faith, whether it be right or heterodox, unites people and promotes joint activity. The birth of the different factions and their continued existence already speaks against present day ecumenism. The State Churches are internally divided. The divisions are due to doctrinal differences. When modern ecumenism does not base its efforts to achieve unity on God's Word and on the unity that it brings, its supporters are continually forced to compromise their convictions in their conscience. This leads to chaos. If the various revival movements in the State Churches apply the principles of modern ecumenism as they endeavor to approach each other, they will lose even that little bit of stature that they have had.
What then did Jesus pray for when He said: "That they may all be one?" (John 17:21). This prayer has taken on the nature of a rallying cry. In the minds of people it has come to have the superficial meaning of mere togetherness. To understand the real meaning of Jesus' prayer it is necessary for us to study it in its context.
Jesus prayed: "That they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us; that the world may believe that Thou didst send Me" (John 17:21).
We must examine the unity between the Father and the Son to understand how the unity of the Church is to manifest itself. The Father and the Son are one in essence, the one and the same God. Jesus Christ spoke the Father's words and did the Father's deeds and in this way manifested the unity between the Father and Him. "Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father is in Me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on My own initiative, but the Father abiding in Me does His works. Believe in Me that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me" (John 14:10,11). According to Jesus' own words the unity between the Father and the Son became manifest in this way.
All those who in their hearts believe in Christ according to the words of the Apostles are already one. They constitute Christ's Holy Christian Church, which is one. It is not an external organization. Its members are united by faith which cannot be seen here by human eyes. In this sense the Church is invisible.
The Church, however, has identifying marks: the pure proclamation of the Gospel and the correct administration of the Sacraments. They create faith and nourish it. Where these marks are, there faith is, and there members of that Church are born and are present (Is. 55:6-11). There the true Church can be found and seen functioning. There are many other marks of the Church such as love, the cross and prayer. Also non-Christians may pray and show love and they may have to suffer because of their convictions. But only the first mentioned marks are sure and "undeceiving" ("untrüglich", Dr. C.F.W. Walther).
Jesus prayed that His own in all their activity would make known the fact that they are His Church. Then they would have the words of that Church, which is the foundation and pillar of the Truth. They would also have the deeds of that Church: the right confession, proclamation and Christian love. This means assembling in local congregations in doctrinal unity, and not just being together outwardly. This also means church fellowship, mutual love and joint work where possible with other congregations and churches of the same doctrine and confession.
What we do is not essential, but what God has done, does and will do. God's Church gathers around the Word and Sacraments and lives of the Gospel, which is the message of the completed work of the crucified and risen Christ, the message of the forgiveness of sins and eternal life in the same Christ. In seeking this, we come to Christ and find Him in the Word and Sacraments. At the same time we find each other in the same Christ, parnoned through faith. He confesses us as His own brothers and sisters. And because we are His brothers and sisters, we are also brothers and sisters among ourselves, one family, one Body of Christ, one Church. All this is the work of God, the Holy Spirit alone. It is not our own accomplishment.
When Christians understand the essence of the Church from this perspective, their activity in local congregations and church bodies, can remain correct and constructive in spirit. The main feature of all activity will be proclaiming and glorifying Christ through the Word and Sacraments, in order that the Holy Spirit may do His work when and where He pleases, "that the world may believe". Christians who undestand the essence of the Church in the above way will also carry out their activity in a spirit of love. They will strive to love their brethren, their fellowmen and even their enemies.
First be one; then be together.
Jesus' prayer helps us to reject all false opinions, to become like?minded under His Word, and proclaim His Gospel in the truth. If this were to happen, what a powerful message it would be to the world. Unity is strength.