Implications of the Advisory Nature of Synod
Rev. Dr. Norman Metzler
Emeritus Professor of Theology
Concordia University, Portland
The Daystar Journal has recently published three articles explicating the congregational polity of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) and its advisory nature.[i] They have made clear that while the Synod was organized around the concept of local congregational autonomy, that autonomy has been increasingly challenged and ignored in recent decades, in favor of a hierarchical, legislative style of governance. Building upon these very helpful articles, I will first review and interpret some relevant aspects of the Constitution for understanding the autonomy of members of Synod and the advisory nature of Synod, and then explore the implications of this congregational polity for a number of issues facing our church body today.
One aspect of the LCMS Constitution that bears emphasizing, because it plays such a significant role in unpacking the advisory nature of Synod, is the matter of who is included in membership in Synod. The article by Prof. Repp points out very clearly that while Bylaw 1.09 (b) “speaks only of congregations, the Constitution itself in Article V makes no distinction whatever between the relationship of congregations to the Synod and that of individual pastors to it.”[ii]
When the LCMS Constitution was formulated, all pastors and teachers were called to serve local congregations and their schools – and that is still the case today for the most part. Thus when Article VII says “with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body,” it includes all “members” of Synod, namely pastors and teachers (and other professional church workers) who are related to and derive their authority from individual congregations. When Article VII states what Synod is NOT, namely, “In relation to its members Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers,” that statement complements the statement following in Article VII about what Synod IS, namely that Synod “is but an advisory body.” Therefore Synod is NOT a legislative or coercive ecclesiastical government; it IS advisory to its pastor and teacher (and other professional church worker) members as well as their local congregations.
A current interpretation of Article VII that compromises its clear declaration of the advisory nature of Synod, is the assertion that members of Synod give up some of their autonomy in becoming members of Synod. In reality, nothing in the articles of the LCMS Constitution provides any basis for this assertion, nothing that mitigates the members’ right of self-government. On the contrary, the Constitution makes perfectly clear that Synod mainly serves its members by establishing programs that meet needs which individual members cannot accomplish by themselves, such as operating seminaries or sending missionaries. By serving its members in this way, it takes away none of the autonomy of those local members of Synod. According to Article VII Synod is strictly advisory to its member congregations and workers; it is explicitly NOT intended to operate in any way as a “legislative or coercive ecclesiastical government.”
Furthermore, Article VII states explicitly that it is the members of Synod (individual congregations and their professional church workers) and NOT synodical structures that are authorized to evaluate whether the resolutions, opinions, and rulings of Synod are biblical and/or expedient for the functioning of its members. Bylaw 1.7.1 includes both “congregational and individual members of the Synod” in explaining the applicability of the Constitution, Bylaws, and other rules and regulations of Synod to its members. Therefore, when Bylaw 1.7.2 says that Synod recognizes “the right of the congregation to be judge of the applicability of synodical resolutions to the local circumstances,” it affirms the autonomy of its members. However, it fails to clarify that this includes pastors and all professional church workers, along with their congregations, in determining the biblical applicability and/or expediency of resolutions for their particular situations.
Bylaw 1.8.1 of the LCMS Constitution, in the section dealing with “Dissent,” acknowledges that members of Synod retain “the right of brotherly dissent.” However, the manner in which it prescribes in Bylaw 1.8.2 that dissent from doctrinal resolutions and statements “is to be expressed” first within the fellowship of peers, definitely sounds hierarchical and legislative. Moreover, it is expressed in a fashion that envisions “dissent” coming from individual members of Synod, in effect envisioning individual members dissenting from the hierarchically-established doctrinal positions of Synod which they are otherwise obligated to espouse. By framing dissent in this way, Bylaw 1.8.2 obscures the fact that because Synod is advisory, its members have the prerogative of simply rejecting the advice of Synod embodied in a particular resolution, without ever needing to register their dissent according to the hierarchically-prescribed steps of airing it with local fellow clergy, submitting it to the CTCR, or proposing it as an overture to a convention.
One specific issue that has exercised the Synod over the years is the interpretation of the biblical accounts of creation. The Synod in convention and on its website has asserted that the world was created is six normal twenty-four-hour days. It makes this assertion as if it were the only correct interpretation of the biblical accounts, and therefore all members of Synod must adhere to this view. Indeed, Synod “orthodoxy” is pre-modern in denying that it even “interprets” Scripture; it presents itself as simply taking Scripture “at its word,” while those who hold a different view are “interpreting” Scripture along “historical-critical” lines.
Synod is obviously not content with its members subscribing only to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, as provided for in the synodical Constitution, Article II. Synod now asserts that its members must adopt the current position of Synod on creation and disavow “godless atheistic evolution.” The unavoidable conclusion of this insistence of Synod that its members adopt its particular stance on creation is that in the view of the Synod its members – individual congregations and their professional church workers – are NOT authorized by the Constitution to assess whether this position of Synod is in accordance with the Word of God or whether it is expedient as far as the specific circumstances of the members is concerned. Despite the constitutional stance of Article VIII that all issues of doctrine and conscience must be decided only by the Word of God, as that Word is understood by the individual or congregational members (see the treatment of Article VIII by Eugene Brueggemann in his article, “The Advisory Nature of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” published in the 2015 Winter issue of the Daystar Journal), the Synod in effect is “legislating” a particular understanding of creation for its members and “coercing” them to adopt this position, in addition to their subscription to Scriptures and the Confessions. The recent case of Professor Matthew Becker is an instance of Synod “coercing” a member to affirm the synodical position articulated in a convention resolution or be removed from the Synod.
Another specific issue with implications for the advisory nature of Synod is the role of women in the church. The reality of the Synod having taken a variety of successive positions on this issue over recent decades demonstrates Synod’s gradually-evolving interpretations of the relevant biblical passages, primarily 1 Corinthians 14:33-35 and 1 Timothy 2:11-15. The trend in these successive synodical interpretations has moved from a very restrictive role for women in the church (women should not vote, teach adult males, chair congregations, assist in public worship, or serve as elders) to allowing women to serve in all positions except that of pastor. Nonetheless, synodical expectations are that all members of Synod must agree with this current position and reject any notion of women serving as pastors — or risk ejection from Synod. This preempts the prerogative of members determining whether the synodical view is biblical and/or expedient as far as the condition of those congregations is concerned.
The issue of homosexuality has revealed a consistent failure of Synod to exercise thoughtful and nuanced pastoral care and sensitivity toward those with this special sexual condition. While Synod now acknowledges that orientation is not a choice that homosexuals make, it still categorically condemns gay intimate sexual behavior as sinful. Granted, for most of church history Christianity has proscribed gay behavior. However, the crucial insight into homosexual orientation as distinct from homosexual behavior has appeared relatively recently, and should cast the Christian conversation regarding homosexuality in a much more nuanced light.
Generally overlooked in discussions of this issue is the fact that homosexual behavior is always addressed in Scripture in the context of pagan religious practices (Lev. 18 and 20) and the broken human condition (Rom 1). The Bible nowhere speaks directly to gay Christians and how they should behave sexually, given their special and rare sexual orientation. The Synod still promulgates the notion, widely rejected in society and by gay Christians, that through faith in Christ and conversion therapy, gay Christians can “convert” from “gay” to “straight” sexual preference. In relation to our focus on the advisory nature of Synod, on this issue as with other issues, the Synod expects its members to espouse its official synodical position. There seems to be no room for autonomous members of Synod weighing this synodical position and deciding whether this stance of Synod is biblical and/or expedient as far as their situation is concerned.
Still another issue which directly challenges the autonomy of the members of Synod is the recent “requirement” that all support of international missions must be channeled through synodical headquarters, rather than sent directly to a given mission field. Synod leadership will make the case that such a centralized financial clearinghouse for international missions will protect LCMS member congregations and their professional workers from involvement in international mission projects that might be suspect legally or morally, especially in third-world settings where financial resources are so limited and the danger so great that local international mission personnel and organizations might be tempted to mismanage contributions given in good faith. While there is some validity to this concern, it is also the case – and perhaps even primarily the case – that this centralized synodical control over all financial support for international missions allows Synod to monitor any funding of “heterodox” or doctrinally-suspect missions, and to insure that funds are sent only to synodically-approved “confessional” mission workers and projects.
This “directive” from Synod is once again actually only ADVISORY to local churches and workers, NOT legislative. Sadly, members of Synod have become so acclimated to the “ecclesiastical government” style of functioning under synodical leadership that those involved in direct funding of international mission projects are actually questioning whether they have the right to continue to do so, or whether they are “legally” bound to obey this synodical “directive.” Furthermore, if they choose to continue direct funding, they approach the matter as if they must continue this direct funding surreptitiously. This scenario only serves to exemplify the extent to which Synod has become “legislative” and “coercive,” and its members have accepted and acclimated to this hierarchical “ecclesiastical government” manner of synodical operations.
Ever since the Preus law-and-order takeover of the LCMS and the Seminex purge of the early 1970s, the Synod has moved decisively from an advisory relationship with its members to a hierarchical legislative stance, prescribing positions and practices and demanding compliance on pain of expulsion. During the time period since that Preus takeover, there has been no meaningful challenge to this practice, despite Prof. Repp’s 1971 article revealing the unLutheran and unconstitutional nature of Preus’ efforts to make synodical resolutions dealing with doctrine binding on members of Synod.
The current style of synodical leadership only reinforces that legislative/coercive understanding of the relationship of Synod to its member congregations and professional church workers. The fundamental question facing our Synod at this time is: will we continue to operate as if our LCMS Constitution permits the Synod to legislate for and coerce its members? Or will the members of Synod finally begin to assert their autonomous status and treat all actions of Synod as advisory? It should be more than obvious that Synod will continue to control and coerce its member church workers and congregations as long as the members fail to exercise their constitutional prerogative of treating synodical resolutions/opinions/etc. as advisory rather than as legislative. It may only be a matter of time before Synod proposes modifying the LCMS Constitution so that it achieves permanent constitutional legitimacy for its present de facto legislative/coercive practice in relation to its members.
[i] See Eugene Brueggemann, “The Advisory Nature of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod,” http://thedaystarjournal.com/the-advisory-nature-of-the-lutheran-church-missouri-synod/; idem, “Heresy in Missouri,” http://thedaystarjournal.com/heresy-in-missouri/; and Dean Lueking, “The Anatomy of a Court Case: Grace Lutheran Church vs. the LCMS,” http://thedaystarjournal.com/the-anatomy-of-a-court-case-grace-lutheran-church-vs-the-lcms/
[ii] See Arthur C. Repp, “The Binding Nature of Synodical Resolutions,” Concordia Theological Monthly 42 (March 1971), http://thedaystarjournal.com/the-binding-nature-of-synodical-resolutions-2/
6 thoughts on “Implications of the Advisory Nature of Synod”
Norm, there is a church body that would welcome you and your ilk with open arms: it is called the ELCA.
I will say this, though, thank you for finally “coming out” and being honest with your points of view. It is good to see you and people like Marie Meyer coming clean, after lying for decades about where your stand on issues like homosexuality and the ordination of women.
Brother Greg, I have been a member of the LCMS all my life, I am a doctor of the Church, and have no reason to leave my Synod, where I have just as much right and freedom under our congregational polity to hold the interpretations that I do and disagree with/refuse some of Synod’s current positions, as you do to defend and espouse them. (Or perhaps you would be more comfortable in the Wisconsin Synod, where you would not have to share membership with me and my ilk?) As you should know and as I indicated in my article, Synod has changed its “official” position on issues over the years, and we (congregations and church workers) as members are authorized to assess whether a given current position of Synod is biblical and/or expedient relative to our situation. As long as this remains the case, and I am bound only by Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, I will continue to remain a loyal, financially contributing member of our Synod.
Norm — Thanks for your insightful (and possibly inciteful) commentary on the advisory nature of Synod to its members: the congregations, pastors and teachers signing the Constitution. The hang-up I see among many members of Synod has to do with church discipline. How can Synod exercise doctrinal discipline if it is only advisory to its members? The answer, I believe, is that the doctrinal discipline exercised by District Presidents and their Circuit Visitors is based in the first instance on the received doctrine defined in the Creeds and Confessions. Signing the Constitution means accepting without question the faith confessed in the Creeds and Confessions. It does NOT mean accepting without question the many other doctrines which compose the Publica Doctrina of Synod. Public doctrine not defined by the Creeds and Confessions is the consensus arising from the healthy and necessary persuading/convincing process going on in the discussions, study and debate among Synod’s members, its congregations, pastors and teachers. The theological faculties of Synod once played an important role in that process, but that function has largely passed on to the CTCR. The influence of Walther and Pieper in the 19th and early 20th centuries was huge. Synodical acceptance of the doctrinal formulas of that era was well-nigh universal. When that doctrinal consensus began to break down in the mid-20th century, attempts were made to resolve doctrinal issues by majority votes at conventions of Synod. This blatant violation of Articles VII and VIII of the Constitution came to fruition at the New Orleans convention and had the effect of shattering the unity of Synod and defiling its evangelical character.
The advisory nature of Synod’s relation to its individual members kept the evangelical spirit alive. There were always dissenters in Synod. Pastors who wandered from the main synodical stream would be visited by the DP or a Visitor and advised to conform to synodical positions on things like lodge membership, divorce, fellowship with other Lutherans or participating in public events with other clergy at graduations, Memorial Day parades and such. It was evangelical counsel at its best. Synod was not known for heresy hunting. The closest thing to it was the dishonorable way Missionary Brux was treated by the Mission Department in the thirties. The Forty-four and the Seminary faculty were advocating change and were also afforded evangelical counsel, the faculty with supervision and examination by synodical boards. Rather than rely on the spiritual process of listening and persuading, the conservatives resorted to bare-knuckle political tactics resulting in voting out Oliver Harms, the last of Walther’s successors, all of whom were faithful to the letter and the spirit of the Missouri Synod and its Constitution. The victors at Denver then moved on to the scandalous spectacle of the New Orleans convention: adopting two new de facto confessions to Synod’s doctrinal standard and judging the majority St. Louis faculty to be heretics by majority vote, resulting in a major schism.
Synod has been living in non-compliance to its own Constitution ever since. The evangelical process of dealing with disagreement and dissent has been replaced by legalistic procedures and an official mind-set of conform or get out. “God have mercy” is our prayer; “bring a spirit of repentance and renewal to this extraordinary Synod — extraordinary in its fall from grace and extraordinary in its potential for greatness in your service.”
Thanks, Gene, for the historical backgrounds, always helpful in getting perspective. What I should have included in my article but did not is the PERSUASIVE authority of Synod in its advisory role. As you rightly mention, this persuasive rather than coercive authority has generally been exercised by District Presidents, Circuit Counselors/Visitors, and fellow pastors and professional church workers. In those contexts agreement on synodical positions may have been encouraged but was not coerced. And that’s as it should be under a congregational polity in which Synod assists and advises local congregations and workers. I wish we (you, I, others who were already in ministry during the Preus takeover) had raised this constitutional issue and rallied our autonomous congregations and workers to exercise their authority in rejecting that unconstitutional takeover. But “power perceived is power achieved,” and the Preus brothers played that so effectively that we have been reacting apologetically and defensively ever since. Is it too late to get us back on track constitutionally?
Norm — I believe that only a blessed Moment of Truth will create space for a reappraisal of Synod’s trajectory. It could be an outrageous action by Harrison, which is not beyond belief.
Gentlemen, lagging behind the times of our synod once again, I just realized the following, which to me is most disturbing. In the convention election process adopted in 2010, there is this: “In the case of the election of the First Vice-President, the President-elect will select from the list of 20 nominees (listed above) the five candidates who will comprise the ballot for the election that will take place early in the convention. No opportunity will be provided for additional nominations from the floor of the convention.” When I inquired of the office of the Secretary of the Synod because I could not believe my eyes, this is the reply I received from the Church Information Center: “In this way, they would both share the same vision for the church and can work as a team to advance to Gospel.” The president of the synod gets to choose his own vice-president. I understand in secular/national politics the need to select one’s singular v-p, and governors to choose their singular lt. gov., but to get to choose FIVE v-ps, even if they are from a pool nominated by the congregations?!