"I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them." - Romans 16:17
Traditionally this verse has been used to support the fellowship practice of Communion, especially as observed within conservative Lutheran circles. Not that that its use in this way has escaped challenge, especially among those who wish to open the practice of fellowship in as wide a way as possible.
The argument no doubt concerns the fact that the average communicant from outside our fellowship has no intent in "causing divisions" or "putting obstacles in our way." He or she merely wishes to commune and nothing more. Perhaps. In many cases the casual 'drop in' simply passes through with hardly a sign of their presence left behind. Yet, is not their very presence already a sign, in itself, of the toleration of division? By opening up the altar to those who by their regular membership stand for teachings which directly contradict our own, do we not indirectly allow them to bring "divisions" in our midst (thereby encouraging further doubt and questioning from within)? Because we do not talk of these differences as openly as we ought, they nevertheless remain. And for those who vocally insist that it is their inherent "right" as Christians to commune at any altar they desire by virtue of their self-identified worthiness, is this not also a way of "causing divisions" as well by challenging the rights of the congregation to exercise true scriptural discipline?
That being said, there remains an additional topic that arises from this verse, but this time from within the fellowship. Admittedly, any church possesses a spectrum of views from staunch agreement to open rejection of many things the church and its affiliated synod represent and teach. Some of these views remain hidden in the private minds of their proponents and thus removed from our jurisdiction to handle. Yet some are far more open. To what degree do we tolerate open disagreement with what the church teaches and practices?
Every pastor must wrestle with this at some point in their ministry, walking a fine line from being too harsh with the law, on the one hand, and being too tolerant with the Gospel on the other. One must first take into consideration the weak in faith and those who are simply voicing their confusion or frustration, yet are open to learn and be taught. This last point is important. Some people may appear rebellious in their disagreement, but truly are still open to teaching. Another group exists that rebels with a firm conviction that they are right and refuse to be taught or corrected. This second group, I believe, comes under the warnings of Paul in Romans 16:17, especially as it concerns "the teaching you have learned," namely the doctrine we proclaim. I make this last point to differentiate between foundational doctrines of the Faith and the whole host of policies and practices that go into running the church's business. Too often wars are created on the turf of policy in a completely unnecessary way. Sane people can and will differ on the way to run an organization. Yet, when the discussion impacts the core beliefs of our faith, here we make a stand.
During my two plus decades of ministry two issues have arisen most frequently that wandered into this difficult terrain. One was worship, the other was the Close(d) Communion policy. Each of these, in my view, impacted what the church believed and taught in a very public way. Unfortunately, many within the Synod today would consider these issues to be places of adiophoristic compromise, rather than battle grounds of disagreement. That, in itself, is a place of division and continues to cause untold anxiety in our midst these days. However, both of these issues ultimately strike at the heart of the community of faith, and both of these, if disregarded, will ultimately spell the demise of a church's faithful commitment to our Lord's mandate to proclaim the Gospel.
Only a few truly relish conflict within a church. As a pastor I can say that it do not like it and spend much energy avoiding it. However, that being said, I have tried to recognize that sometimes avoiding conflict is as unhealthy as creating it. Also, overlooking those who cause divisions within the church that ultimately impact the teachings we hold dear, is also not responsible. Romans 16:17, therefore, may have as much to say to us within the fellowship and outside of it.