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/