There is an old joke about a cowboy who fell from the roof of a ten story building.  He had never seen a ten story building before, and after having become amazed and impressed by the strength and majesty of the edifice, our poor cowboy just had to go to the roof and look over the edge for a better perspective of the wonder and majesty of the building.  As he looked over the edge, he found himself drawn to leaning farther and farther away from the safety of the building and his view of the world from such a height.  Sure enough, our poor cowboy finally leaned out so far that he fell.  As he was falling, he passed another cowboy who was looking out the window on the fifth floor.  The second cowboy was also headed up to the roof following the footsteps of his cowboy buddy.  As his buddy fell past him, the second cowboy yelled to the first, “How is it going?”  Our falling cowboy responded with, “So far, so good.” 

The joke leaves it to us to know the ultimate fate of our falling cowboy, but perhaps the question is, “What really killed the cowboy?”  Was it only that he crashed into the ground below, which was inevitable when he fell?  Or, was it when he finally began to truly fall from the roof?  Or, was it when he let his curiosity, amazement and senses entice him to lean beyond the security of the building itself?  Also, did the first cowboy’s “Progress Report” tempt his friend to his death as well?

            As I hear discussions and arguments that address Unionism and Syncretism, I can not help but consider the poor cowboy. We can learn much from his fall. 

For the purposes of this article, I work with the following definitions:

  • Orthodox Churches - churches that preach and teach the Word in all of its purity and administer the Sacraments as instituted by Christ
  • Heterodox Churches - religious bodies who hold themselves out as Christian but, publicly  preach and teach doctrines contrary to the Scriptures
  • Unionism - the public recognition and endorsement of Heterodox Churches by Orthodox Churches, whether by express statement or by obvious implication
  • Syncretism - the public recognition and endorsement of religious bodies that deny the Triune God revealed in the Scriptures as the one true God.  These are religious bodies that are probably considered non-Christian even in the eyes of the world.

            I propose that even dividing the definitions of Unionism and Syncretism into two separate definitions may be the first step toward falling away from true Christianity.  My study would indicate that the separation of the two into completely separate terms is a recent device, and that the activities now included within Unionism were considered a part of the definition of Syncretism up until the Twentieth Century.  I propose that the separation into two terms, with separate definitions, dangerously reduces the perceived threat of Unionism.

            I further propose that Orthodox Churches should expect the same end result as our poor cowboy if they allow Unionism to entice them away from the safety of the Gospel revealed only in the Scriptures.  The inevitable conclusion of the journey will be passing into and through Syncretism to being damned by God eternally for such idolatry.

            Many congregations within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, if not Districts and Synod itself, are way too casual about the dangers of toying with the practices of heterodox churches, the very churches with whom the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is not in altar and church fellowship because of their denials of Scripture. 

I further propose that all that is required is not being done to insure that

1)      a firm foundation in the truth of Scripture is always maintained,

2)      the connections back to that firm foundation are always at work, and

3)      the danger of being deceived by the practices of these other church bodies is not consistently and publicly recognized and declared. 

Like the cowboy, the fall begins with the first loss of connection to the firm foundation.  The fall only ended at the bottom, even though the ultimate conclusion of the fall no doubt was more visible to the eyes of man and dramatic to the senses.  Satan, the deceiver, entices us to become impressed with the practices of these other church bodies.  We are impressed by what the world calls successful or loving.  We forget that these bodies deny what God’s Word teaches, if not completely, at least in part.

            For the purposes of this article, I must add a further definition.

  • Confessional Lutherans - those persons who acknowledge and accept all the canonical books of the Old and New Testament as the revealed Word of God, verbally inspired, and acknowledge and accept without reservation all the Confessional writings of the Evangelical Lutheran Church contained in the Book of Concord of the year 1580 to be the true and genuine exposition of the doctrines of the Bible.

             Accordingly, in no way would I assert that all who call themselves “Lutherans” are included within the above definition of Confessional Lutherans.  Their beliefs and practices suggest otherwise. I do believe that historically the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has been a Confessional Lutheran Church.  I also believe that there are Confessional Lutherans within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod today and that there will always be Confessional Lutherans, whether or not the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod survives as a visible organization.  I also believe that those who believe in, acknowledge and accept the same teachings as are contained in the Book of Concord and accept all canonical books of the Old and New Testament as the revealed Word of God as verbally inspired, are within my definition of Confessional Lutherans, even if they do not acknowledge the Book of Concord of the year 1580 itself.  By definition, the specific teachings and beliefs are the critical question.

            Confessional Lutherans have always publicly taught that any deviation from the doctrines as clearly stated in the Scriptures, on any point, inevitably will lead to a denial of the central doctrine of the Scriptures, justification by grace alone, through faith in Christ Jesus alone and revealed in the Scriptures alone.  Any study of false teaching that has arisen within the visible church over the millennia since the first Gospel message of Genesis 3:15 only supports that conclusion.  We repeatedly find a fall from the eternal safety of God’s Word to eternal death by the progressive loss of the Truth and the worship of false gods.  Christ Jesus is the Truth and the sole Mediator.  He is revealed to us only in the Word of God, given to us through the inspired writings of the prophets and the apostles in the Scriptures.

            So in this world of numerous religions, but only one true religion, namely the Christianity as presented in the Scriptures, what should scare us?  Heterodox Christian churches or non-Christian religions? Will the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod congregations lose more members to the non-Christian religions or to the false teachers of other purportedly Christian denominations?  I contend that typically Satan will not be able to pluck  Confessional Lutherans out of the pews and dash them upon the rocks of idolatry and false gods.  Satan will work first within visible Christianity to draw people to some authority other than the Scriptures and then to some form of works righteousness that falsely proclaims itself as Christian.

  It is easy to avoid public association with non-Christian religions. It is easy to reveal their false teachings.  It requires greater effort to disavow the false teachers within heterodox churches and alongside that endeavor to make a clear and public presentation of the sound teachings of Scripture.

            In everyday life, I assume that most mature adults understand that “fools and total idiots” require little attention.  However, false teachers who hold themselves out as trustworthy, caring, and responsible stewards over the lives of the people around them must be dealt with strongly and openly.  I joyfully acknowledge that not all the visible members of a heterodox church body may believe according to the public teachings of that church and, based upon their beliefs, may well be within true Christianity.  Heterodox preachers,, however,  may not be so blessed. They are breaching their ultimate fiduciary responsibility[1] to the eternal detriment of their beneficiaries  Scripture commands us to examine the public teachings of these heterodox teachers, to test their teachings against Scripture and, if they persist in false teaching, to conclude that their teaching is a candid reflection of their beliefs and to judge accordingly.  We are also commanded to judge the public teachings of church bodies in the same manner. 

            It is important that the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and its member congregations minister to all the people of this world, since all are subject to the influence of Satan and Satan’s instruments, false religions and false teachers within visible Christianity.  But the leaders and teachers who would intentionally lead people away from the Truth of the Scripture must be dealt with under Galatians 1:8,9:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!

We must let those instruments of Satan be  so eternally accursed.

            The scope of this article does not allow for an expansive treatment of the public teachings of all the various major denominations within visible Christianity.  Accordingly, I am forced to use terms that have been given specific definitions within the public teachings of the various denominations.  Bear with me. For purposes of this article, I must add two more definitions.

  • Formal principle of theology - the source and norm of all doctrines. 
  • Material principle of theology - the central theological idea or teaching to which all other doctrines or teachings connect.

            The formal principle of Confessional Lutheran theology is that the Holy Scriptures are the sole source and norm for all teachings and practices within the church. Is that formal principle readily apparent today?  We of the Missouri Synod must ask ourselves several questions.  Have we properly assisted our members to recognize that human reason is being added to the formal principle by the Roman Catholic church, as well as the reformed Calvinist[2] and reformed Arminian[3] churches?  Do our members recognize when the concept of the “inner Word” or immediate revelation has been added to the formal principle, as in reformed Calvinism?  Have we assisted them to recognize the inclusion of subjective experience within the formal principle in reformed Arminianism?[4]

            The material principle of Confessional Lutheranism is our doctrine of justification.  All the doctrines of Confessional Lutheranism either point forward to the doctrine of justification or flow out of the doctrine of justification.  Is that principle also readily apparent today?  Have we been adequately clear in assisting our members to recognize the material principle of reformed Calvinism, especially their teachings on the concept of the Glory of God, irresistible grace for the elect, and God’s absolute sovereignty?  Have we helped our members recognize the material principle of reformed Arminianism concerning the “perfected man”?[5]

            Congregations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, as well as its Districts and Synod itself, must clearly proclaim, both within and without, what Confessional Lutheranism believes, teaches, confesses and practices.  We must teach both what is affirmed and what is rejected.  If we do not, should we not expect many of our members will join in the fall with our poor theological cowboy? I suggest that every congregation, through its pastors and lay leaders particularly, is obligated to teach clearly, publicly and boldly and to proclaim to its members and as well as its community, all the teachings which we affirm and all the false teachings which we reject.  In so doing, the teachings affirmed must show their basis in Scripture.  Reasons for rejecting falsehoods must also be clearly shown to be based upon the Scripture.  People can not truly know the basis for a belief if they do not know why it is true and if they can not recognize falsehood.  Knowing only the “labels,” while not knowing the definitions, is eternally dangerous!

            Satan tempts us to chose between closing in within ourselves and going out to love the world.  He tempts us to hold to the truth for ourselves, but neglect concern for precision in the vocabulary and concepts we use in our teaching.  Confessional Lutheran teaching requires us both to preserve purity and to proclaim that pure word to the world in which we live.  It is never either-or; it is always both-and.  We are called to hold to the truth and to proclaim it with love.

            Within our communities, it may certainly be entertaining to study the false religions and cults.  While that is certainly information that is required to proclaim the Gospel to those trapped in that falsehood, I suggest that in most of our communities it is more important to know and to recognize the often subtle dangers of teachers who present themselves as Christian. We are exposed to them in the bookstores, on radio stations and television programs, in movies, on the internet, in gospel music, through social programs and the like. All too often the teachings presented deny the Word its place as the sole source and norm of all teachings and practices within the Church.  As indicated above, any teacher that teaches a doctrine of justification contrary to the Scriptures in any way is not of Christ.  He is of the Antichrist.  Any addition to the doctrine of justification, whether through any kind of merit within man, or through any works of man, whether past, present or in the future, is a denial of the one way of salvation worked by God.  Such teaching, therefore, is not Christian at all.

            Pastors of local congregations of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod have been called by God to publicly affirm that which is true, refute that which is false, and to insure the doctrinal purity of the life of the congregation as a visible body.  That requires the testing of all public activities, whether they occur within worship services, classes, worship bulletins, newsletters, bulletin board material or publicity of any other form.  To test all public communications in a manner that publicly affirms the truth and rejects falsehood will undoubtedly require every Pastor to seek the assistance of the congregation’s staff and at least some lay leaders.  It may well require that the Pastor train others to recognize falsehood within that which this world labels “Christian.”  The pastor should also seek the assistance of pastors in sister congregations, district officers, seminary professors and Synod staff. He should make full use of their gifts to test everything that might enter into the congregation and to recognize any falsehoods that may be subtly hidden within.

            I in no way mean to suggest that the study, effort, and discipline required both to preserve and to proclaim God’s Word properly is simple or easy.  God, according to His grace, intends to work through His Church.  His people are His instruments for the distribution of His means of grace, even while those same people remain both sinners and saints who live in a world completely corrupted by and under the curse of sin, Satan and death.  I simply propose that no other activity, emotion, thinking or allegiance can be allowed to subvert that effort. 

            Long ago, I had the opportunity to be trained to rappel down cliffs and structures.  There is a world of difference between the proper techniques of rappelling and the peering over the edge of the building as was done by our poor cowboy.  Every time I rappelled, I first checked the stake at the top to which my ropes were secured.  I checked all clasps and connections.  I checked the rope.  I checked my harness.  I investigated who was continuing to oversee the equipment at the top of the cliff.  I had someone with more experience than me recheck the knots I had tied, the equipment I had placed, and everything else that was involved in my proceeding safely over the edge into the void below.  I checked on who would be handling my belay or safety line while I proceeded down into the void.  I strongly recommend that Confessional Lutherans and pastors particularly, peer into the teachings and practices of known heterodox churches, in the same manner as one seeking to safely rappel only as far into that void as necessary and not as just another poor risk-taking cowboy.

            Lastly, if we approach our sinfulness, the sin of the world, the power of Satan, and the true work of the Gospel with this separatist view of “religion,” should we expect the world around us to agree with us?  Absolutely not!  Should we expect to be considered outcasts, or fools, or prejudiced?  Absolutely yes!  After all, “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom” (1Cor. 1:22, NRSV), but the culture of the United States wants both.  We seek that eternal Truth revealed only in the Scriptures.

Romans 1:16,17

1 Corinthians 1:18-25


Mr. Harvey is an attorney practicing in Houston, Texas, USA, a member of Zion Lutheran Church, Tomball, Texas and the lay representative on the Committee on Constitutions and By-laws of the Texas District, LCMS.

[1] “Fiduciary” is a “term derived from the Roman law, and means (as a noun) a person holding the character of a trustee, or a character analogues to that of a trustee, in respect to the trust and confidence involved in it and the scrupulous good faith and candor which it requires…. A person having duty, created by his undertaking, to act primarily for another’s benefit in matters connected with such undertaking…. As an adjective it means of the nature of a trust, having the characteristics of a trust; analogous to a trust; relating to or founded upon a trust or confidence.”  Black’s Law Dictionary, by Henry Campbell Black, M.A., Revised Fourth Edition, West Publishing Co., 1968, p. 753.

[2] Reformed Calvinist churches today would include the Presbyterian bodies, the Baptist churches, and the Protestant Episcopal Church, for example.

[3] Reformed Arminian churches today would include the Methodist bodies, the Pentecostal churches, and the Salvation Army, for example.

[4] An excellent resources for the study if the Formal Principle of the various church bodies in the United States is The Religious Bodies of America, 4th edition, by F.E. Mayer, © Concordia Publishing House, 1954, 1956,1958,1961.

[5] F.E. Mayer, ibid., also provides an excellent examination of the Material Principles of the various church bodies in the U.S.A., and the significance of the differences between the church bodies.


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