The Distinction Between Orthodox & Heterodox Churches
by Dr. Franz Pieper

Thesis III

It is, therefore, not a matter of indifference which church group a Christian joins; but he has God's earnest command strictly to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches, and, avoiding all church fellowship with the heterodox, to adhere only to the orthodox Church.

If, as we have seen in the Second Thesis, it is true that God wants only orthodox churches, and if the existence of heterodox churches is to be traced back to Divine permission only, then, as stated now in the Third Thesis, it is "not a matter of indifference which church group a Christian joins."

Many Christians suppose that it makes no difference which church group a Christian joins, and they act accordingly. When they come to a place where any kind of Protestant church is found, they join it as members. There are people who were successively Reformed, Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, depending upon the place where they lived. And we should not be surprised when this happens among the sects, for they are not certain about their distinctive doctrines, because they are not grounded in God's Word.

But even such who want to be Lutherans, and who confess that the doctrine which they have learned from the Lutheran Catechism is the correct one, often have few misgivings about joining heterodox congregations. They, therefore, also act accordingly, as though it makes little difference to which church group a Christian belongs. But this is altogether wrong. Only then would this be a matter of indifference if, before God, there were no difference between orthodox and heterodox churches. But, now, there is a great difference, as we have seen in our Second Thesis, — a difference so great that God wants only the orthodox Church, and, on the other hand, in His Word clearly condemns heterodox churches. Therefore, it is the duty of every Christian who wants to be guided by God's Word alone to distinguish strictly between orthodox and heterodox churches. Before he joins a church group, he must answer the question: Is this church orthodox or not?

God also expressly requires that of Christians. "Beloved," we read in I John 4:1, "believe not every spirit, but try the spirits; whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world." And the Lord Jesus exhorts all Christians (Matt. 7:15): "Beware of false prophets." So, those Christians who do not want to distinguish between true and false prophets, and, consequently, also not between orthodox and heterodox churches, are disobedient to an express command of God.

In our day, people either do not make this distinction at all, or at least not in the right manner. They not only fail to declare it the Christian's duty to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox church bodies, but they even declare it to be a Christian virtue when people pay no attention to the doctrinal differences. Yes, they call it presumptuous when a church body maintains that in all articles of Christian faith it has the revealed truth of God's Word. Thus, we are ridiculed in the General Synod, yes, even in the Council, because we make a strict distinction between orthodox and heterodox churches. The sectarians, indeed, also speak of the "orthodox," that is, right-teaching preachers and church bodies. These, however, are not people who adhere to all doctrines of the Christian faith, but such who, in the general falling away, at least still confess a few important doctrines. They call such church bodies "orthodox," which perhaps still believe that the Holy Bible is God's Word, and that Christ is God's Son; also that through conversion man comes to God, and through faith in Christ can be saved, even though they at the same time deny other doctrines clearly revealed in God's Word. But that can never be called the right manner of distinguishing between orthodox and heterodox church bodies. Whoever judges on the basis of God's Word can call only those teachers and church bodies orthodox which are obedient to God's command, adding nothing to His Word and taking nothing away from it.

If you therefore ask on what basis a Christian must distinguish between heterodox and orthodox churches, the answer is: On the basis of beliefs, on the basis of doctrine. Only on that basis can a true judgment be reached; not on the basis that outwardly a Christian life appears to prevail in a congregation or that the minister gives the impression of being a pious man. That can all be sheep's clothing which conceals the errorist, as Christ the Lord says in Matt. 7:15: "Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep's clothing." Moreover, you cannot judge on the basis that a man appeals to Scripture and quotes Scripture; but Christians must examine whether the doctrine of Scripture is really also being taught. The devil, too, in the temptation of Christ, quoted Scripture.

Yes, Christians should not even be influenced by signs and wonders, for those wonders may likewise be only seeming wonders, deception, and Satanic delusion. Already in the Old Testament, God called the attention of His believers to this. In the passage already quoted, Deut. 13:1-3, it is stated: "If there arise among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or wonder, and the sign or wonder come to pass, whereof he spake unto thee saying, Let us go after other gods, which thou hast not known, and let us serve them; Thou shalt not hearken unto the words of that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams; for the Lord your God proveth you, to know whether ye love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul." This is a very powerful passage to show that in judging church bodies and teachers we should look alone at the doctrine to see whether they teach God's Word purely and clearly. Even signs and wonders are not infallible distinguishing marks. These can look outwardly like wonders, but in reality be deception, or an effect produced by the devil. Signs and wonders should influence us only then when they are accompanied by the correct doctrine. If false doctrine is present, we should call him who presents it a false prophet, even if he would show us things that are ever so astounding. The Pope's coming, according to 2 Thessalonians 2, is after the working of Satan with all kinds of lying power and signs and wonders. Of the Last Times, Christ the Lord says, Mat.24:24: "There shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." Accordingly, the Christians have the duty on the basis of doctrine to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches.

But can they do this? Certainly! For Christ the Lord tells them to do this, and this at the same time implies that by God's grace they can do it. Many suppose that only pastors are in a position to distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches. But this is altogether wrong. Precisely all Christians, and not only the pastors, are exhorted by Christ the Lord, in Matt. 7:15: "Beware of false prophets." And John says: "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1); this passage is likewise addressed to all Christians alike. Christ the Lord has so arranged it, that all His dear Christians, the unlearned as well as the learned, can distinguish between truth and falsehood in spiritual things. He has revealed all doctrines in perfectly clear passages, in passages which can be understood by the unlearned as well as the learned. The Holy Scriptures are such a testimony, that makes wise also the simple (Psalm 19:7). When, therefore, a Christian simply holds to the Word of Scripture, then he can very well distinguish between truth and error.

That the Christians sometimes are confused and imagine that they do not know which is the true doctrine, is due to the fact, that they lose sight of the Word of Scripture, that they want to judge this matter with their blind reason, and not with God's Word, which refutes all errors as soon as it is brought into the discussion. Thus, for example, there once was a dispute in a Methodistic gathering concerning perfect sanctification of a Christian already in this life. Most of them claimed that a Christian, already here on earth, can be entirely without sin. Then, one man arose and said that he had committed no sin for years! Another arose and, instead of making a long reply, simply quoted 1 John 1:8: "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us." By this one passage all were silenced. Before the eyes of all, the error was condemned by the clear Word of God. And so it is with respect to every doctrine.

The Christian who knows his Small Lutheran Catechism can defend himself with this knowledge against all errors, for the fundamental articles of Christian doctrine are the very ones against which the errorists offend.

Gerhard writes: "As the Church differs from secular associations which are outside the Church through the preaching of the Word and the administration of the Sacraments, so it also differs from heretical communions which are in the Church through the pure preaching of the Word and the correct administration of the Sacraments." (L. de ecclesia par. 131.)

We distinguish between erring churches, and the godless mass of people outside of the Church. The latter are those communions that, though they still call themselves churches, nevertheless no longer teach anything of the saving Gospel, or as our older teachers expressed it, have no essential parts of the revealed saving truth at all anymore. In such church bodies, insofar as their doctrine is concerned, nobody can come to saving faith. Such communions in our day are the Unitarian groups. These teach no Triune God. Consequently, they also do not teach that Jesus Christ is true God and as true God became man, to redeem mankind by His substitutionary life, suffering, and death. Consequently, nobody within this communion can come to faith in Christ as the Savior of sinners; accordingly, this group and similar ones no longer merit the name of "Christian fellowship." They are altogether outside of the Christian Church, as it is also confessed by our Church in the first article of the Apology to the Augsburg Confession. We do not place these wholly un-Christian groups on the same level with heterodox churches. In all these heterodox churches it is still confessed that Christ is God's Son, and that He died for the redemption of man, though indeed at the same time many errors are also being preached. But, nevertheless, souls can still come to faith in these churches. Now, we are not dealing here with the difference between the orthodox Church and the world, but with the difference between the orthodox and the heterodox Church, that is, between churches which confess the revealed truth in all articles of doctrine, and such churches which reject the truth and support error in a number of teachings.

Therefore a Christian can and should distinguish between orthodox and heterodox churches. He should then also act according to this knowledge. While avoiding all fellowship with the heterodox, he should adhere only to the orthodox Church. This God's Word declares in all passages which admonish the Christian not to listen to false prophets, but to flee from them. For by belonging to heterodox congregations you listen to their preachers, the false prophets, and thus do the very opposite of that which Christ has commanded regarding false teachers. The passages already quoted, therefore, belong here: Matt.7:15: "Beware of false prophets"; and 2 John 10,11: "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine" - the doctrine revealed in God's Word, the doctrine of Christ - "Receive him not into your house, neither bid him Godspeed," namely, as a brother in the faith. That you should not become a member of a heterodox fellowship is set forth also in Acts 20:30,31. Here the Apostle says: "Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them." And for that time he gives the warning: "Therefore watch and remember that by the space of three years, I ceased not to warn everyone night and day with tears," that is to say, abide in the true doctrine which in the last three years I have taught you with such great labor and care, and do not adhere to those who speak "perverse things."

Then, 2 Cor. 6:14-18 says most expressly: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. Wherefore come Out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty."

Objections have been raised against the use of this passage as proof that God has forbidden fellowship with heterodox churches. The objectors claim that this passage speaks of unbelievers, and not of erring believers. But erring churches are, to the extent that they err, also unbelieving. They are unbelieving with respect to quite a number of Bible passages. And to this they add the terrible sin, that on the basis of their errors they have established sectarian communions in the Christian Church. Thereby they split up Christendom and oppose, fight against, the orthodox Church. Word for word , the passage, 2 Cor. 6, applies to the erring churches insofar as they are such.

It says: "What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness?" To preach false doctrine, and to believe false doctrine is the greatest wickedness there is, a sin against the First Commandment. Luther stresses this so frequently. He always repeats: "False doctrine is a sin against the First Commandment." Whoever sets aside God's Word, twists God's Word around, puts his own meaning into God's Word, he does not permit God to be his God, he acts unrighteously. God often says in His Word: "Thou shalt not steal." But just as clearly and even much oftener we find it said in Scripture: You shall not believe false doctrine, you shall not preach false doctrine, you shall not listen to false doctrine. Now, just as he is unrighteous who steals, contrary to God's command, so especially also is he unrighteous who, contrary to the equally clear command of God, preaches, accepts, or promotes false doctrine, and that in any amount whatever. When God says you must not steal, then you should not steal even a little bit. The same holds true in respect to hearing and preaching false doctrine. You already become a partaker of unrighteousness by spreading and advancing only one doctrinal error. The first part of Christian righteousness and Christian life is the trusting acceptance of the whole Word of God.

We read further: "What communion hath light with darkness?" But false doctrine is darkness, just as true, revealed doctrine is the light in this world. "What concord hath Christ with Belial?" All false doctrine is a work of the devil. It is lying in spiritual things against God. And the real father of this lying is the devil. Whoever supports false doctrine is doing the devil's work. "What agreement hath the temple of God with idols?" The Church is God's temple, and it is His temple for the very reason that God's Word is proclaimed therein. Insofar as man's doctrine, error, is preached in the Church, you teach the worship of a different god than the true one who has revealed Himself in Scripture. Yes, insofar as a different doctrine than God's Word is proclaimed in the Church, you really turn God's house into a temple of idols. That the coming out from among them, of which 2 Cor. 6 speaks, applies in particular to separation from the heterodox, is set forth in Rom. 16:17, where we read: "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them."

The objection is raised: "You yourselves admit that also in heterodox bodies there are still dear children of God, and yet by separating from these churches, you separate yourselves from these children of God; yes, you condemn them by avoiding these heterodox churches. In that case, isn't it better to practice fellowship with the heterodox?" First of all, we answer: No! It cannot be better, because God expressly forbids us to do this. Moreover, we do not even separate ourselves from the children of God among the sects, but from the sects as such. Rather, the sects separate these dear children of God from us. They hold those who belong to us — for children of God are determined to accept the whole Word of God — captive among themselves. So these believers must outwardly support the wicked cause of the sects while in their hearts they belong to us. These children of God would at once come over to an orthodox congregation if they were better informed. It is also for the benefit of the children of God among the heterodox that we refuse church fellowship to these churches. Thereby we are constantly reminding them that they are in the wrong camp. According to God's Word, Christians do not belong in the company of those who openly contradict some doctrines of Christ. Many a person for this reason also steps out of the wrong camp into the right one.

It must also by all means be held, that we do not cause any divisions in the Church when we avoid fellowship with the heterodox. According to Rom. 16:17, they cause divisions and offenses in the Church who teach doctrines besides the revealed truth. According to the Word of God, the situation is this: Whoever adheres to false teachers, and thereby strengthens their cause, cooperates in the division of the Church. But he that avoids false teachers and their followers, and practices no fellowship with them, is engaged in the holy work of preventing divisions within Christendom. But, sad to say, the devil has been successful here in falsifying the concepts and the language. The destroyers of unity are called the promoters thereof, and, on the other hand, the promoters of unity are called the destroyers thereof.

Now, what is included in avoiding all fellowship with the heterodox? It does not include that you avoid also all civil association with the heterodox. It also does not include that you should not occasionally, opportunely, speak with the heterodox about spiritual matters. We should rather do as St. Peter exhorts in 1 Peter 3:15-16: "Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear: having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ." From our association with them, the heterodox should also notice that we have no passion for quarreling and condemning, but that we are God-fearing, truth-loving, peaceful people who act as we do only because we respect God's Word. — By the Command of God, which forbids fellowship with the heterodox, everything is forbidden whereby we strengthen the evil work of the heterodox body.

Christians, therefore, should not become members of heterodox bodies, indeed, under no circumstances. If in a certain place no orthodox church is found, the Christian must be content with private, home worship, for God has nowhere given release from this word: "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them." Rom. 16:17. That divinely commanded avoiding of heterodox churches includes also this, that a Christian under no circumstances contribute to the building funds of sects, or even to the expenses of the Roman Church, for thereby he promotes heterodox churches. And a Christian should then, when he is approached for such a contribution, briefly and earnestly give the reason for refusing his support. He should openly state that according to God's Word he is obliged to reject the false doctrine which the heterodox church teaches and therefore cannot help to bring it into house and home. You should in such cases not brush off those who desire an offering, perhaps by saying that you have no money, etc. Then they think that you are merely too stingy to give them something. No, here is the opportunity frankly and openly to confess your faith.

The following testimonies were pointed to as a confirmation of what was set forth in Thesis III.

After the Apology makes the concession that also the Baptism performed by unbelieving pastors in the name of the Church is effective, it continues: "Impious teachers are to be deserted (are not to be received or heard) because they do not act any longer in the place of Christ, but are antichrists. And Christ says Matt. 7:15: Beware of false prophets. And Paul, Gal. 1:9: "If any man preach any other gospel unto you, let him be accursed. " (Trigl. p.243-5, par. 48.)

Smalcald Articles: "Paul commands that godless teachers should be avoided and execrated as cursed, Gal. 1,8; Titus 3,10. And 2 Cor. 6, 14 he says: Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers; for what communion hath light with darkness? To dissent from the agreement of so many nations and to be called schismatics is a grave matter. But divine authority commands all not to be allies and defenders of impiety and unjust cruelty." (Trigl. p.517, par. 41.)

Furthermore: "Because Paul, Gal. 1.7f., enjoins that bishops who teach and defend a godless doctrine and godless services should be regarded as accursed." Trigl. p.525, par. 72.)

Luther says: "Whoever knows that his pastor teaches Zwinglianism, should avoid him, and rather forego receiving the Sacrament all his life than to receive it from him, yes, rather also die and suffer all things." (Warning against Zwinglianism. XVII, 2440.)

Dr. Franz August Otto Pieper was a Professor at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri from 1878-1931.  During the years 1887-1931 he was President of the same.  From 1899-1911 Dr. Pieper was also President of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod.
He most widely used work today is Christian Dogmatics, a 3-volume work (4 with index) covering all areas of Christian Doctrine from the Orthodox Lutheran viewpoint.


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