In the comments, dart pointed me to this 2000 LCMS document to explore further the LCMS mind on these matters. What follows are some casual remarks on the document and further questions. I appreciate the back and forth in the previous comments. I think there are some flaws and loops in this statement and a lot has to do with me being an outsider to these things. For instance, I have always been concerned that things are true and proper and so on. But I have usually only attached "pure" to "cane sugar" in my reflection. :-) Page numbers refer to the page in the pdf document.
Remarks on LCMS “The Lutheran Understanding of Church Fellowship”
1. Assumes that “Altar and Pulpit Fellowship” is a sufficient description of Christians or Christian churches sharing in “all spiritual things.” Thus, it does not consider other views or images of church fellowship. It hinges upon the relationship of two pastors and each pastor, each to her own church and to the confession which they share.
2. Such fellowship concerns mainly visible fellowship. There is only one church but there are two aspects to it: “The one church, the fellowship of all believers, expresses herself outwardly as the assembly around the Gospel and sacraments. The internal and external fellowship is facets of the one church. Internal fellowship is constituted by faith and the external fellowship is expressed by confession” (p. 5). Limits are drawn to both fellowships but the internal one is regulated by God alone and cannot be circumscribed by human action. The external limits of fellowship are “confession.”
3. So one of the difficulties this presents, and is acknowledged in the document, is the status of Christians outside of the true external fellowship. It seems to me that the logic here compels a straightforward identification of the one true church with the true external fellowship even though the document later gets nervous about that conclusion, just as the followup response to this document states. I assume that when one has faith in Christ then one is a member of his body. How membership in that body means that that person can get turned down at the altar is a disconnect of the logic here. The document wants to retain a sort of Christian segregation: equal in the invisible, internal church, but separate in the visible church.
4. Unless I am missing something the statement happily implies that the sacraments administered even in “heterodox” communities are true sacraments even if “tragically” screwed up by a “heterodox” confession.
5. The document assumes that the reader knows what a confession is (p.5-7). It seems to use confession, doctrine, teaching, and preaching interchangeably. As examples it utilizes the Nicene Creed, the Lutheran Confessions, Jesus’ action before Pilate, Peter’s confession, and what Paul says in Romans 10:9-10, and many more. These are not the same sort of thing even if they are all related. The Nicene Creed was originally a canonical rule and acquired liturgical status. The Lutheran Confessions were teaching tools for children, articles of incorporation of a military league, a confession for a highly specific purpose at Augsburg, the personal writing of Melanchthon, and later acquired status in various ways in various lands as legal requirements. The Formula of Concord is not recognized by all Lutherans as an essential confessional document. Peter’s confession is not the same as what Jesus did. And so on and so forth.
6. Further, the document assumes that there is an untroubled relationship between a church bodies “official doctrine” and the communicants of a church belonging to that church body. Does this document assume that the articles of incorporation or other legal documents required for non-profit status in the state of Minnesota constitutes official teaching? I do not think that there shouldn’t be something like “official teaching” but it is difficult to see what it is. This is further difficult because the document makes no distinction between false teachers, Christians in “herectical” communions and the like (p.8-9). Some are going to hell, others aren’t. You know who you are, I guess.
7. The discussion of truth and confession on p. 7ff wishes to shunt aside ideas that truth and human expression of it are fluid matters at best, difficult to capture. The document on this score seems captive to very very very very modern views of truth that is clear, distinct and unchanging. St. Louis, meet Descartes.
8. It would seem that the importance of doctrine would require a frank discussion of what constitutes the fundamental articles of faith.
9. Post-Reformation churches in the West are in the same situation vis-à-vis fellowship in the patristic age. Werner Elert’s idealistic theology of communion has been contested on many levels and this assertion of his, carried directly into this statement, portrays the ancient rejection of heresy to apply in exactly the same way to the churches of today.