The Problem of the Isolated Believer
The SituationWe are a very small church body. We have congregations in few states of the Union and in but one foreign country [1996: three foreign countries]. In the states in which we are located we have congregations in but a very limited number of cities. The greatest concentration of congregations in the Church of the Lutheran Confession is in Minnesota, but even in Minnesota we have congregations in but fifteen cities and towns of the state [1996: sixteen cities and towns].
The society in which we live has been aptly described as living on wheels. People move from place to place more now than ever before in the history of our country. We have less of such activity in our rural areas, but the flow of population from rural areas to the urban centers means that most of our young people leave for the cities where they can find jobs. Most leave immediately after their high school days, some to continue their education and then to a job, others directly to a job opportunity. In addition the demands of military service take most of our men away for a period of years and some permanently, if they choose the military as a career.
An age-old social factor adds to the scattering of our young people. Our young women can find few job opportunities in our own area. So they seek and find jobs elsewhere in the larger cities. In due time they also find boy friends, fall in love, marry and settle down where their husbands have become established. Small is the chance that it will be in an area where we have a church.
When we combine these two factors, the small number of areas in which we are located with congregations and the movement of our modern society, we find the causes for the situation that so many individual true believers or family units find themselves isolated. They find themselves in an area where there is no place for them to worship and where they cannot enjoy the strengthening and encouragement of fellowship with those of the same confession.
The Problem, Not NewThe problem of the isolated believer is not new. The situation has indeed been aggravated by the necessity of our leaving our former fellowship some five years ago. But even when we were members of the much larger Wisconsin Synod, the problem of advising and counseling, aiding and helping those who moved away was a constant cause for concern. Those were the days when, in addition to warning people against other heterodox Lutherans, we also had to begin warning people against joining congregations of the formerly orthodox Missouri Synod. More than one individual and family left with a clear conception of the issues, determined to confess and uphold the Truth, but then joined a Missouri Synod congregation only to be soon absorbed in the organization and soft-talked out of their former confessional position.
But let us not for a moment think that the problem of the isolated confessor is something new in the history of the Church. Nay, rather it is a characteristic feature of confessing believers since the beginning of time. Confessional isolation or aloneness manifested itself already in the second generation of men. Abel found himself estranged religiously from his brother Cain. In that case the confession remained the same, but the Lord caused it to be known that the hearts of the two worshipers were far apart. After Abel's martyrdom a religious division developed between the Cainites and the Sethites. As time passed the Sethites became an ever smaller minority until in the days of the flood the family of Noah had become an isolated island of confessors in a world of mockers and scorners.
When the march of civilization continued after the interlude of the flood, the situation of isolation for the sake of loyalty to the Truth again became characteristic of the lives of believers. Abraham must have felt that loneliness and isolation, for the command of his God caused him to separate even from his own family. Think of young Joseph isolated by force from the fellowship of believers in his own family, even though they lived and acted contrary to their own profession. For more than twenty years he bore that isolation until he was able to develop a spiritual fellowship within his own family. There is a loneliness, an inescapable isolation from the company of the world and even from men of religion, that accompanies the child of God on his journey through this life. Think but of the lonely efforts of an Elijah as he sought to restore to Israel the true worship of the Lord.
The Problem, Therefore, CharacteristicWe should realize that the lonely isolation of a true believer, who is in the world but not of the world, who finds himself among professing Christians but alone in his confession of the whole Truth of his God, is not foreign to the status of the true believer but rather characteristic of it. The ratio of believers to unbelievers is always heavily tilted in favor of the unbelievers. Think but of the imbalance in the days before the flood when the family of Noah stood alone against an estimated world population of a billion. Think today of the teeming millions of atheistic China and Russia, Hindu and Moslem India and Pakistan, and pagan and Moslem Africa and the Middle East over against the much smaller numbers of the so-called Christianized countries. Think further of the imbalance between the ratio of heterodox churches to orthodox church (false-teaching against true-teaching) in the Christian countries. The orthodox Christian Church, whose confession in word and deed can stand the test of reflecting every Word of the Lord, has almost become extinct. Our Church of the Lutheran Confession stands alone and isolated. Because of our small numbers we are ignored by many.
"Many are called, but few chosen." So it has ever been. "Enter ye in at the strait (narrow) gate: for wide is the gate, and broad is the way, that leadeth to destruction, and many there be which go in thereat: Because strait (narrow) is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it." Matthew 7:13-14. At any given time in history the unbelievers and hypocrites outnumber the believers by a tremendous amount. At the end of time there will be a tremendous population gap between the dwellers in heaven and the prisoners of hell. How can it then be otherwise than that the believer be an isolated individual or that believers be isolated groups in this world? When one further considers that most believers here on earth are members of Christian churches that do not confess the whole Truth, one can begin to appreciate the even greater isolation and loneliness of the child of God who is determined to confess the whole Truth and avoid those who in any way or degree compromise their confession.
A Wrong Attempt to Solve the Problem of IsolationLet us now confine ourselves to the problem of the isolated confessor of the whole Truth in the midst of Christians who confess a mixture of the Truth and error. The problem can be put very bluntly in this way: When one of our members moves to an area in which we have no congregation, what should he do? Should he look about and seek out the church that comes the closest to our confession - which would normally be a Lutheran church of another synod? Should he then join that church with the determination to accept, believe and be influenced only by what agrees with our confession of the Truth and to reject in his mind and combat that which opposes and contradicts the Word of God? In practice most people do this very thing - solve the problem of isolation by joining the Lutheran church that comes the closest to ours with the sincere intention of maintaining their private confessional position within such a church.
Is it possible to maintain an orthodox confession in the midst of a heterodox congregation and church body? Let us realize that in the interaction of people in a group influences both ways. Whenever we interact in society, we influence and are influenced. A believer who knows and confesses the Truth will have an effect upon members of a heterodox congregation. He may arouse the consciences of some, bring knowledge and understanding and insight to others, and even bring about certain changes in the policies and confessional position of the group. But at the same time that person is being influenced by his spiritual environment. Error, in whatever from it appears - heretical or respectable - always acts as a leaven. It never first seeks to conquer, but always first seeks to be tolerated. A heterodox congregation will tolerate, even welcome, the views and confessions of an orthodox Christian (whom, from their point of view, they consider an errorist). Why not? No one in a heterodox communion expects, hopes for, or thinks that unanimity in confession is either possible or desirable. The attentive audience that the orthodox Christian receives in a heterodox communion, the permission and even encouragement to continue in his beliefs and confessions, may suggest to the orthodox Christian that he is really making progress. But such progress is just an illusion. For it is really accommodation to an existing pattern. For most heterodox communions have these characteristics in common: a gentlemen's agreement to disagree honestly without destroying the arrangement of worshipping and working together and a basic belief that no one person or group does or can have the correct confession of all the Truth, but rather that individuals and divergent groups have special insights into the Truth, with the correct confessions of the whole Truth being a composite of these divergent and conflicting parts. When an orthodox Christian subjects himself to this atmosphere, his confessional edge cannot but be dulled, his confessional enthusiasm lessened, his will to confess worn down. And before long he becomes immersed in the organizational church, while periodically protesting his confessional independence.
So it is because of the silent, but unrelenting working of the leaven of error. So it is also because the orthodox Christian, when he joins a heterodox congregation, immediately and with the very act of joining, compromises his position. He says in effect: "I confess that doctrinal agreement and agreement in practice are necessary before I should pray with you, be instructed by you from the pulpit, and commune with you, BUT because I have no church of my own confession available, I will waive this part of my confession." Whenever a confessor of the whole Truth seeks and obtains membership in a congregation and church body which denies any part of the Truth, that person has thereby contradicted himself, become untrue to his beliefs and confession, and exposes himself to the leaven of error. What spiritual damage is done to the individual and succeeding generations may not be fully revealed until the last day - when it is too late to undo what has been done.
The Proper Solution: Accept Isolation, but Seek to Remove It by Mission WorkWhat should one of our members do when he or she finds himself or herself religiously isolated in some community where we have no congregation? Accept that isolation as part of the cross which Christ Himself lays on those who follow Him with the determination to continue faithfully in His Word despite the isolation.
There is no other alternative. The warning, "Beware of false prophets!" is clear. A false prophet is any teacher or preacher in the church who teaches or tolerates any doctrine or practice contrary to that which the Bible clearly teaches. It makes no difference whether the false prophet bears the denominational label of "Catholic," "Reformed," or "Lutheran." The dangers of error are not lessened when they bear the disarming label of "Lutheran;" they are only more cleverly camouflaged. When one of our members joins a heterodox church (usually it is a Lutheran church), that person is inviting instruction, comfort, exhortation, counsel and advice from a false prophet. The Lord says, "Beware;" the individual says, "I'll take a chance." The Lord says that error works as a "leaven" to destroy saving faith; the individual protests that his faith is strong enough to survive the leaven of error but too weak to survive the trial of isolation. It is very easy to understand and sympathize with the pressures that cause people who are isolated to join a heterodox church, but such an action has no divine approval, but is rather done contrary to clear and specific warnings of our Lord. The proper solution to isolation is to accept it.
But the individual is to accept such isolation only as a temporary necessity. He is immediately to seek to remove that isolation by witnessing unto the Truth and thus seeking to gather a congregation of those who share with him the whole of God's Truth. This is precisely the manner in which so many of the early Christian congregations were founded. When persecution set in at Jerusalem, the Christians were scattered. They moved from place to place, not with languid hearts and sealed lips, but with throbbing hearts and lips bursting to confess the way of life that they had found in the Lord. Why do people look in such bewilderment when one suggests that they do the same thing today? Possibly because today mission work is considered professional and big business. The parent body is expected to send a trained professional into a given area, pay his rent and salary while he tries to gather a congregation, and supply funds for the erection of a house of worship. Certainly, we try to and do work that same way - to the limited extent of our funds. But let no one think that this is the only way that mission work can be done. The Lord has never relieved the individual of the responsibility of being a witness and a light and a salt and shifted that responsibility entirely to the group, the church body. When what we today consider the regular ways and means for doing mission work are not available, then we must revert to the ways and means frequently used by the early Christian Church, and used successfully!
The Means for Maintaining Isolation Successfully and Removing ItCan an individual child of God survive isolation in the midst of unbelieving and false-believing people? The simple answer is "Yes." Since God has made such isolation not the exception but rather the rule for His people, He has always provided the means for survival in isolation. He has always provided His Word by which He is constantly able to communicate to the isolated person and He has provided prayer as a way by which the isolated person can communicate directly with Him. So then, isolation from fellow confessors can never mean and be isolation from the Lord God who is confessed. The same Word, by which the Lord can communicate with the isolated person, provides the means for that person to communicate with others and thereby remove his isolation by gathering others who will rally around the Word with him.
The Past: More Difficult Than the PresentHave you ever thought of young Joseph, a lad of seventeen years who was forcibly isolated from his family, the only congregation of true confessors in the world at that time? What a shock it must have been for young Joseph to experience personally the chasm that existed between the profession and practice of his own brothers. Yet the Lord expected Joseph to remain faithful to the confession that his brothers professed but didn't practice. The Lord expected Joseph to be able to survive spiritually, which he did with the help of the Lord. Think of the meager means of survival at Joseph's disposal. He had no written Word of the Lord, not a single syllable. Joseph couldn't sit in his room or in his cell and read a chapter of the Bible as our isolated young people can do wherever they may be. All that Joseph had to nourish and guide his faith was what his father Jacob had taught him orally. He had learned from his father's lips the stories contained in the first half of the book of Genesis. Especially the promises made by the Lord God of Abraham, his grandfather, were the milk and meat that kept his faith alive.
Have you ever thought about the fact that the Lord expected the Children of Israel to survive for more than four hundred years in Egypt with little more than Joseph had? During those centuries they had no written Word of the Lord and no priesthood. Not even once did the Lord appear to His people during those long centuries, as He appeared to Jacob when he took his family to Egypt. Yet the Lord expected that His promises, handed down from mother and father to son and daughter, would and could keep alive saving faith in the hearts of His people. Contrast these meager means of survival with the wealth of means for survival that modern isolated child of God has. We have the entire revealed and inspired Word of God which God has given us as a light to lighten our paths. In addition, any isolated member of our congregation or of the Church of the Lutheran Confession can have weekly sermons and additional spiritual food in the form of the weekly bulletin sent to him wherever he is. The telephone, with but little cost, can bring any isolated child of God comfort and consolation, strengthening and instruction at any time, night or day. [1996: electronic mail and the world wide web are now available as well] The fact of the matter is that modern means of transportation and communication have lessened the cross of isolation to a great degree. The full revelation of God's living Word in the Bible, which is available to anyone, and the modern means for distributing the same, together with Bible-based messages, have made survival in isolation considerably easier than in days gone by.
The Lord Wills the Survival of the IsolatedIt is the Lord who imposes isolation upon His people. That is part of the cross that He lays upon us at times. But the same Lord has also provided the means for survival, and provided them most abundantly. The wide distribution of the Holy Bible together with universal education which provides the reading skill necessary to use the Bible and modern means of communication combined with the willingness of fellow believers to provide spiritual literature have provided all the aids necessary for any child of God to survive confessionally any place in the world. Behind all these means stands the will of the Lord that His confessors do survive. To that end He sends His Spirit to instruct, encourage, strengthen, comfort and cheer the isolated believer through the means that He has provided.
The Will of the Lord in Behalf of the Isolated FrustratedBut the Lord forces no one, neither a believer living in the company of fellow believers nor a believer living under isolated conditions, to remain true until his end. If the believer in the midst of fellow believers refuses to use the Word and Sacraments, he may well fall from the faith and lose his soul. If the isolated believer refuses to nourish his soul with the living waters and the bread of life at his disposal, his faith may parish. We can and do provide Bibles, if need be, and we do send spiritual literature, if and when requested; but the reading is up to the person himself. If the isolated person refuses to minister unto himself and if he ignores the warnings against false prophets and concerning the leaven of error, he tempts his God and may suffer serious spiritual harm. The will of the Lord, who would have also the isolated remain faithful unto the end and be saved, may be frustrated by them. Then it's a case of "I would" on the part of the Lord, but "yet would not."
The Will of the Lord in Behalf of the Isolated RealizedSometimes believers isolate themselves at their own peril. Sometimes that isolation is unavoidable. In general isolation is part of the cross that all believers must bear at some time or another. For that reason the Lord has made provisions for survival. We need to warn our people against unnecessarily isolating themselves - usually for purely material benefits. We need to instruct them on the methods of survival: receiving constant communication from their Lord through His Word and communicating with Him by prayer. We need to encourage them to function in their calling as witnesses for Christ. If the isolated Christian both nourishes and exercises his faith, he will not only survive but remove his isolation by gathering a congregation to join with him in confessing the whole of God's eternal Truth. So is the Lord's will done!
Paul F. Nolting 1964
Written by Pastor Paul F. Nolting for the 1964 Yearbook of Grace Lutheran Church, Sleepy Eye, Minn. Reprinted here as the article appeared in the Journal of Theology. 2/65.