by Megan K. Mertz
For biblical Christians, the world is becoming a cold and lonely place.” These words come from the Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, president of the Lutheran Church—Canada, a partner church of the LCMS, and reflect what he says is the present reality.
In a world where the culture is openly hostile to the Church, with open season on the persecution of Christians and many who call themselves Lutheran abandoning the truths of God’s Word, faithful, confessing Lutherans are compelled to join others of the same mind both far and near to find encouragement in a life together. Seeking a strong bond through the unity of faith, many Lutheran church bodies are looking to walk together with The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS).
Throughout its history, the LCMS has made it a priority to seek out and cultivate partnerships with diverse Lutheran bodies. Currently, the LCMS is in altar and pulpit fellowship with 34 partner churches across the globe — in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America. Some of the partnerships grew out of the LCMS’ early mission work while others started through the mission work of other groups who later approached the LCMS seeking fellowship. Although the outward trappings of these churches may differ, they are all united in one confession and one shared hope in Jesus Christ.
“There are tremendous opportunities now because we hold to teachings and values that some of these other churches desire,” said the Rev. Dr. Albert B. Collver III, the Synod’s director of Church Relations, who receives several requests from other church bodies requesting fellowship with the LCMS each month.
For Mutual Benefit
Partner churches strengthen and encourage each other in many ways. The LCMS provides its partner churches with resources, guidance and sometimes even mediation during times of internal disagreement.
However, for many churches around the world, the greatest gift the LCMS can give is theological education. For instance, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Ghana has about 29,000 members in 200 congregations and 800 preaching stations, yet it reports only 60 pastors and some 50 evangelists. Ghana’s situation may be extreme, but it is not unique. Many LCMS partner churches face a shortage of well-formed and educated pastors and often even lack the faculty and educational resources necessary to train and nurture them.
“Our partners don’t need missionaries, they need theological educators to train their pastors,” said Collver.
But the advantages of church fellowship go both ways. The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY) recently opened the door to future fellowship discussions with the LCMS. This large Lutheran church, which has about 6 million members, makes up for its lack of resources through a great passion for a faith that has been tried by fire.
“Much of the strength of the EECMY … comes from the experience the church has undergone during the communistic government,” said the Rev. Berhanu Ofgaa, general secretary of the Ethiopian church.
“That experience we had during those horrible times has strengthened and trained us. Even during the occupation, the energy was from the laity. Not from the leaders, the laity went beyond and stood for the truth and said, ‘This is not right, we stand for what is right and face whatever it costs us.’ ”
One Big Church
Although separated by culture and location, the LCMS and its 34 partner churches make up one large Lutheran church that can accomplish more together than any of the individual church bodies can do on its own, Collver said. Our partnerships with the Lutheran Church—Canada and others have been a blessing when political tensions kept the LCMS from working directly in areas like Cuba or Nicaragua. Working together with European Lutheran partners is furthering the spread of the Gospel across Europe and into formerly communist countries. When earthquakes and tsunamis struck in Haiti and Chile, the LCMS worked with South American partners to respond with Christ’s mercy.
Paul and Timothy’s words to the church at Philippi sum up the importance of establishing partner church relationships around the world: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Phil. 1:3–5 ESV).
Altar and Pulpit Fellowship
What does it mean to be in altar and pulpit fellowship?
Altar and pulpit fellowship allows church bodies to partake in the Sacraments together. Full doctrinal agreement is required for this form of fellowship in order to preserve the integrity of the witness to the Gospel of Christ as it is revealed in the Scriptures and confessed in the Lutheran Confessions.
What are the criteria for entering into fellowship with another church body?
Altar and pulpit fellowship is a relationship based on agreement in both doctrine and practice between two institutionally viable church bodies.
What is the process?
Entering into altar and pulpit fellowship is not a decision that is made lightly. It involves a lengthy process of formal doctrinal discussions between the two church bodies and input from other involved parties. Following this, if the president of the Synod and the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations are in favor of the agreement, the issue is forwarded to the next LCMS convention for final approval.