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So my question is about churches (or more specifically the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church) which bar all forms of fellowship (to include prayer) unless all points of doctrine are agreed upon. For example, two Lutherans, one from WELS and one from LCMS, have very similar doctrines. The LCMS Lutheran believes in limited fellowship, but will pray with non LCMS Lutherans. The WELS Lutheran will not pray with the LCMS Lutheran however.

This makes me wonder: How is it possible to help someone grow in the faith when you cannot even pray with a person until you agree on all points of doctrine? How can they even learn all points of expected doctrine without having a community they are in fellowship with?

Do they make an exception when someone is growing in the faith? Do they not bring people to worship services until they're ready to be baptised - and agree to believe all points of doctrine? (So do they discourage parishioners from bringing friends to church?)

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  • Being born into it is one way to enter the church and may be the easiest way. :)
    – Double U
    Commented Oct 13, 2013 at 1:42
  • Well, I know they do proselytize. (At the very least, they have a website.) I'm just not certain of their exact method to stay consistent with doctrine - or if there's an exception (and reasoning for it).
    – Paul
    Commented Oct 14, 2013 at 8:23

5 Answers 5

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I am a WELS Lutheran. The idea that we refuse to pray with other Christians is a caricature of us. It is not totally accurate. My pastor says that public prayer is always off limits but private prayer is something that requires a bit of discretion.

I have a good example of something that happened in our church. The parochial school that is attached to our church was getting ready to play a basketball game against a Baptist school. The Baptist school asked us if we wanted to have a prayer before the game started. We had to decline. It is not that we think that the Baptist Church is not a Christian church. It is that we are concerned that we would be giving a false appearance of unity with the Baptists (or whatever other church we are referring to). There are doctrinal differences between Baptists and WELS. We have great respect for our Christian brethren in the Baptist church but we feel that they error in many different ways. We feel that by praying with them we are sending them a signal that we are in doctrinal agreement with them.

Private prayers are a bit different. Each situation has to be discerned. My pastor says that if I am inviting my friend to my house and we are going to have a meal in my house that I should say to my friend "I like to pray before my meals. If you want you are welcome to join me or if you do not want to you are not required to". We leave it up to the individual. In that situation I am in control of the situation. It is my house and it is my prayer so I am controlling the message that goes to God. Now if I go to my friend's house and my friend wants to pray then I am told that I should sit there quietly while my friend says his prayer. I am to be very respectful and not cause a scene as I have a great deal of respect for my friend. I just happen to have some differences with him. It is an act of love because I am letting my friend know that he is in error in his ways.

We do not believe that other church bodies are not Christian or that we are better than anyone else. We just believe that their beliefs are different and deserving of the same respect that ours are. Like if a Charismatic Christian is praying I do not think that my Charismatic friend that is a Christian would appreciate his or her prayer to God being diluted by a person like me that hold a Cessationist theological position (this is an example). My Charismatic friend has a right to have a pure prayer sent to God with a clear signal of what he wishes to pray to God for. It would be very disrespectful on my part to pray with him or her and dilute his or her message to God.

There are situations where this does not apply. Like if I am praying for a family member that is not WELS who is sick and dying with some other non WELS family members. Or like say if I am praying with someone that is hearing about Christ for the first time and is interested in learning more. In those situations my praying with them would not be diluting the message or giving a false impression of doctrinal unity.

As WELS Lutherans we are told to make our own judgment in each and every situation as to if it is appropriate or not to pray with someone else. Not each and every WELS member is going to agree on each and every situation each and every time. There are differences in practice but that is OK. I have seen some WELS pastors that will say that it is OK to make the dinner prayer in every situation as they do not believe that blessing a meal is showing doctrinal agreement. They disagree with some others but that is ok. We do have the general concept in line.

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    – user3961
    Commented Feb 18, 2015 at 6:09
  • Worth noting: this isn't limited to WELS. The issue of public prayer with other denominations (the technical term for this sort of thing is "unionism") is also contentious within LCMS and ELS. (In fact, unionism is expressely forbidden by the LCMS constitution... which hasn't prevented the occasional notorious incident from occurring anyway. For further reading, consider this (lengthy) article.
    – Matthew
    Commented Oct 13, 2023 at 17:57
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From the WELS website:

If anyone is willing to sit down and talk with us, we'd be happy to explain what we mean and what statements of the Bible are involved...If we find that the other people are ignorant or unaware of the errors in their churches, we would never avoid or refuse to encourage them or possibly even worship with them on occasion.

It looks like they are willing to talk to and worship with people who don't agree with them. It's just that fellowship has to be on their terms and not on the terms of the person from outside the church.

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In the WELS statements "Fellowship" means cooperating and working together as Christians. Their doctrinal statement means they will only cooperate (including as you say, praying with) Christians who completely agree with them. It does not mean that they cannot eat, work, play hockey or discuss theology with those that disagree with them - including Christians of differing view and atheists.

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I am not WELS but my children have attended a WELS school for the last six years. The pastor and staff are completely aware that we are not WELS. We are invited to every event (including pot lucks, Bible studies, church services, etc.) and have also been invited to their homes for meals. We are always included in the prayer, meals, etc. completely. They have no qualms about praying with us, discussing theology, even including us in school event decision-making.

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    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 15, 2015 at 14:50
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    This answer matches my experience during a time when my wife was a member of a WELS congregation. I am not a Lutheran but I was included in all sorts of WELS events, including Sunday services. Commented Mar 12, 2016 at 21:21
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In the Ken Burn's Documentary, The Prohibition Years, there's this great quote:

"Baptists do their praying in public and their drinking in private.

“Lutherans do their drinking in public and their praying in private”

This captures the essence of this discussion. There are some things you engage in after you have proper understanding and proper appreciation.

Years ago I asked my Baptist friend why, when he goes out in public, he doesn't order a drink, like the rest of us. His answer surprised me. I thought it was an overbearing, legalistic tradition. He taught me some of the history of that practice. There was a harsh history of alcoholism within that church body. And it hit them so hard that they didn't want to cause someone to relapse back into alcoholism. So, in public, they chose not to drink so as not to put a stumbling block in someone's way. However, in private, they all drank. From the outside, it seemed very unloving and unsociable. But, at its heart, it had the care of souls in mind.

Historically, most Lutherans (including the LCMS) have had the same sort of approach when it comes to prayer. The WELS explains their practice this way. If you were to sit down with a WELS pastor he would point you to: “Therefore, I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.” (1 Timothy 2:8 CSB17)

Prayer is a form of worship. And one of the sure-fire ways of not being united in our prayers is having conflicting teachings. In that context it would not be appropriate to pray, since you're not on the same page. Let me illustrate this with two stories:

  • Years ago there was a Lutheran guy who was going through some difficult times. He had a Catholic friend in the community that he shared this with. She said that she would keep him in her prayers. A month later, she followed up, asking how he was doing. He shared that he was doing much better. Gushing with joy, then, she mentioned that she had been praying to the blessed virgin every day for a month. And she was happy to hear that Mary heard her prayers.

  • Years ago, there was a young man who was new to his university. And before him were two groups of people: 1) The beer-guzzling fraternities, and 2) The Campus Crusade for Christ group. He didn't want to lose his faith. So he thought that making friends with the Christians would be a better choice. Every time, though, the CCC folks got together they prayed a lot. And it didn't take long for them to ask the young man if they could pray for him. He thought, "what could go wrong? Don't I want Christians to pray for me?" So he agreed. About a month later one of his new CCC friends asked him how his faith was doing. The young man said that he had his struggles, but was doing 'ok.' The friend then told him that he had been praying for him for a month, asking Jesus to convince him that since he was baptized as a baby and not immersed, then there was no way he could be sure of his salvation. Instead, he had to make decision for Jesus and get rebaptized. Imagine the young man's shock at learning that, to them, his salvation was in doubt simply because he was baptized a slightly different way at a slightly different time than they were.

Now can you begin to see from these two examples why the WELS does this? It's not because they have distain for other Christians. It's simply because they want “to pray, lifting up holy hands without anger or argument.” (1 Timothy 2:8 CSB17). If prayer is an act of worship (as the Bible tells us), then it would be wise to be united before we pray, not after.

Finally, please let me close with this encouragement: SE isn't always the best place to answer this question. There's a reason, at the top right of this screen, it says:

Like any library, Christianity Stack Exchange offers great information, but does not offer personalized advice, and does not take the place of seeking such advice from your pastor, priest, or other trustworthy counselor.

So much of the confusion would fade away if we were just courageous enough to talk to people face to face.

For my own part, I definitely gained an appreciation of my Baptist friend's point of view when I crossed the bridge and actually asked him directly why he didn't drink in public.

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