Pr. Joel Nickel
Joel Nickel is a pastor in the NW District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He is well known in the area for his ecclesiastical art. In this article he addresses the ruling of the Committee on Constitutional Matters (CCM) which is printed after his response.
This scholastically reasoned opinion effectively elevates LCMS convention resolutions to the level of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, thus changing the subscription standards required of all members–congregations and workers alike. It also renders null and void the advisory nature of the synod, a caution which is mandated by the constitution.
Prior to the Preus years, synodical resolutions, if they did not receive unanimous approval, were, on the one hand, indicative of the present-day theological stance of the synod, but were, on the other hand, also indicative of the fact that not everyone in the synod agreed with those resolutions. In those days, when the synod was of calm judgment, a tolerated minority view was respected as the position of the loyal opposition. Prior to the Preus years the synod understood that such opposition indicated that the issues in question were not finished or resolved–that not everyone had been evangelically persuaded. The synod could set aside its impulse to set theology in a concrete absolute and recognize that we are instead on the journey of faith, and that we belong to each other, rather than to try to purify the faithful by inquisition. Persuasion is the only evangelical tactic open to the synod; anything more extreme places the synod in the category of the Pharisees and under the condemnation of Jesus (Matthew 23). It is because I care about the welfare of the synod that I oppose the use of this CCM opinion in response to the questions posed.
In the present discussion regarding the issue of women’s ordination, theistic evolution, close/closed communion, and unionism, the real core issue is the interpretive handling of Scripture texts. There may be an alternative understanding, contrary to LCMS resolutions and CTCR essays. The synod would be wise to pay attention, rather than making these issues a matter of political maneuvering. Theology cannot be determined by convention votes! While the synod advises dissenters to file their dissent within the provided channels, dissenters know that the channels are politically arranged and manipulated and that outcomes are pre-determined, and that these channels will not allow for an open, dispassionate discussion of the texts, their interpretation, or an evangelical resolution of the issues. The synod has unfortunately built its identity falsely on some of these issues. Institutions do not admit mistakes. Has the synod ever rescinded its stance against life insurance?
As a human construct in an age of the declining importance of denominations, the LCMS needs its minority voices more than ever, to restrain, caution, and evangelize the majority so that it doesn’t fall into the camp of neo-Pharisees. The LCMS as a denomination is neither commanded nor forbidden in the Scriptures, so it falls into the category of adiaphora–and needs to be reminded of this status in order to prevent arrogance and pride from compromising and corrupting its mission. The synod would also be well advised in its governance to rely on the third article of the creed rather than on the third use of the law; such a Spirit-inspired cooperative mission would encourage participation and creativity.
In terms of governance, those in leadership positions at the national, district, and congregational level must be reminded that the only legitimate authority in the church is the authority of the servant. Enforcing compliance with synodical resolutions, while an exercise in authoritarianism, is inimical to the health and well-being of the congregations who happen to join together in a synod so that they might carry on ministry beyond their limited parochial arena. The only evangelical tactic available to such leaders is persuasion in the name of Jesus Christ. Nothing more. An increasing number of congregations have been decimated by “wolves in sheep’s clothing”–pastors who insist on their own authority and demand compliance with their decisions, and who end up scattering the flock and emptying the sheep-fold. Thus the issues outlined above infect the whole synod. It is time for repentance and renewal, and this must begin with the leadership of the synod and its committees.
COMMISSION ON CONSTITUTIONAL MATTERS
Crowne Plaza Airport Hotel, St. Louis
June 13–14, 2014
36. Call to Order / Opening Devotion
Chairman George Gude called the meeting to order, provided the opening devotion, and reviewed the agenda for the meeting. All members of the commission were present for the meeting.
37. Constitutional Questions re Advocacy of Doctrinal Positions Contrary to the Synod’s Stated Positions (13-2694)
In an email dated December 6, 2013, the President of the Synod asked the commission if open and repeated advocacy of theological positions contrary to the Synod’s stated positions were violations of Article II and Article VI 1 of the Synod’s Constitution. He also posed specific questions about the public rejection of “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (1973) and about the filing of formal dissent from such theological positions.
Response of the Commission
Unity of doctrine and practice were primary reasons for the formation of the Synod and are key to its continued existence. This unity is expressed internally as we walk together and externally in witness to those outside the Synod. Subscription to the stated confessional position of the Synod is both a precondition for acquiring membership in the Synod and a requirement of those who wish to continue to hold membership in the Synod (individuals and congregations) (Constitution Art. II; III 1; XIII 1; Bylaw 1.6.1).
The object of the Synod, as stated in Article III 1 of the Constitution, is (1) to conserve and promote a unity in which all are “united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10), and (2) to avoid schism caused by contrary doctrine (Rom. 16:17). This purpose of the Synod is defeated when individuals are permitted to teach in accordance with their private views, for then there can be no such thing as a synodical position, and a meaningful corporate confessional commitment is impossible. Formal commitment of the Synod to a confessional base is pointless unless the Synod has the right as a synod to apply its confessional base definitively to current issues and thus conserve and promote unity and resist an individualism which breeds schism. [1971 Res. 2-21]
The confessional position of the Synod is set forth in Article II of the Constitution:
The Synod, and every member of the Synod, accepts without reservation:
1. The Scriptures of the Old and the New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice;
2. All the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God, to wit: the three Ecumenical Creeds (the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed), the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles, the Large Catechism of Luther, the Small Catechism of Luther, and the Formula of Concord.
The Synod, while acknowledging the unique status of the Scriptures (norma normans, “the norming norm”) and the Lutheran Confessions (norma normata, “normed norm”), also acknowledges that the Confessions are not exhaustive in their confession of biblical doctrine but “speak primarily to the articles of faith in controversy in the days of the Reformation” (Constitution Art. VIII C; 1971 Res. 5-24).
The Synod has retained the right and obligation to re-affirm the confessional position of the Synod in time of controversy, to clarify its witness, to set forth the confessional position of the Synod against new and urgent challenge, and to refute error, as long as such statements are in harmony with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. The Synod does so in line with the confessional principle of the Formula of Concord [FC SD Preface, 4–10], such that in making such resolutions and statements it does not go beyond the confessional basis of Article II of the Constitution, but merely defends its existing confession against new misinterpretations. The Synod holds that its confessional base is “as broad as Holy Scripture, and that provided a doctrinal resolution is in fact in harmony with the Word of God, which is ‘the only rule and norm of doctrine,’ the content of such a resolution is intrinsic to the Synod’s confessional basis” (1971 Res. 2-21).
Some historical examples of Synod stating its position in controverted matters include the adoption of C.F.W. Walther’s theses on church and office (Kirche und Amt), the “Thirteen Theses on Predestination,” the “Brief Statement,” and “A Statement on Scriptural and Confessional Principles.” The adoption of the “Thirteen Theses on Predestination” resulted in several members of the Synod leaving because they could not agree with this position of the Synod. The Synod has always expected and required that its members teach and practice in accordance with these resolutions that state its public position regarding the teaching and practice of the Scriptures (1971 Res. 2-21).
The Synod refined the process by introducing a bylaw distinction between doctrinal resolutions and doctrinal statements (1977 Res. 3-07). This change did not in any way alter the authority and status of resolutions establishing the position of the Synod that were adopted prior to this 1977 distinction. These prior resolutions remain what they always were, the official position of the Synod in the matter being covered (1977 Res. 3-07).
Since 1977, the Synod has distinguished between doctrinal resolutions which “may be adopted for the information, counsel, and guidance of the membership” (Bylaw 1.6.2 [a]) and doctrinal statements which “set forth in greater detail the position of Synod especially in controverted matters” (Bylaw 1.6.2 [b]). “[Doctrinal] resolutions come into being in the same manner as any other resolutions of a convention of the Synod and are to be honored and upheld until such time as the Synod amends or repeals them” (Bylaw 1.6.2 [a]). Doctrinal statements have a much more elaborate process of submission, evaluation, refinement, and approval but “shall be regarded as the position of Synod and shall be ‘accepted and used as helpful expositions and explanations’” to be honored and upheld as the standard of teaching and practice “until such time as the Synod amends or repeals them” (Bylaw 1.6.2 [b] ). Doctrinal resolutions and statements both have binding force on all congregational and individual members of Synod until it can be shown that such are not in keeping with the Word of God or the Lutheran Confessions, not as an individual judgment but when the Synod in convention by overture is convinced from the Word of God to overturn or amend them (1959 Res. 3-09; 1962 Res. 3-17; 1973 Res. 2-12 and 3-01; 1977 Res 3-07).
The Synod is not infallible and has established a formal dissent process for doctrinal statements when challenge arises (Bylaw section 1.8). Such formal dissent, however, cannot be used as a substitute for the Synod’s stated confessional position and does not permit a member to teach or practice contrary to the position of the Synod. It does not free one from the responsibility to “honor and uphold” doctrinal resolutions or “to abide by, act, and teach in accordance with” doctrinal statements until such time as Synod “amends or repeals them” (Bylaw 1.6.2). This also includes doctrinal positions adopted by the Synod prior to 1977 (cf. CCM Opinion 13-2677). The burden of proof lies upon the dissenter to convince the Synod in convention that it has erred and that a statement is in violation of Synod’s own confessional position. The Bylaws maintain the right of the Synod to interpret its own confessional article (Bylaw 1.6.2 [b]).
Doctrinal resolutions and statements, including positions adopted prior to 1977, do not alter the Synod’s confessional position nor do they add new confessions which must be subscribed. Rather, they elaborate, clarify, set forth in greater detail, and apply that confessional position. As has been true throughout its history, controversy and challenge sharpen the pen for the Synod to clarify its theological position without altering the confessional article of its constitution.
Question 1: Is the open and repeated advocacy of theological positions contrary to Synod’s stated positions on (a) the ordination of women or women carrying out the functions of the pastoral office; (b) theistic evolution; (c) the inerrancy and/or the inspiration of the Scriptures; (d) church fellowship; and (e) same-sex relationships violations of Article II and Article VI 1 of the Synod’s Constitution?
Opinion: Yes, open and repeated advocacy of theological positions contrary to the Synod’s stated theological positions is ultimately a challenge to and a violation of the very confessional basis of Synod expressed in Articles II and VI 1 of the Synod’s Constitution, as are all teachings and practices which contradict Scripture and the Confessions. Doctrinal resolutions and statements, including those adopted prior to 1977, have binding force on individual as well as congregational members of Synod. Members of the Synod are required to honor and uphold the stated theological position of Synod, which is defined by the confessional articles of the Constitution and any doctrinal positions adopted by the Synod to amplify, clarify, and apply its theological position in time of question, challenge, and conflict (Bylaw 1.6.2 [a] and [b]). Acting or teaching contrary to such is therefore a rejection of the stated confessional position of the Synod and ultimately of Article II itself. This does not mean that doctrinal resolutions and statements, including those adopted prior to 1977, are equal to, or that members of the Synod are required to subscribe to them in addition to, the Scriptures and Confessions. Rather, they are adopted because they are in harmony with Scripture and the Confessions (Bylaw 1.6.2 [b] ).
Question 2: Is the public rejection of “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (1973) a violation of Articles II and VI 1 of Synod’s Constitution?
Opinion: Since “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (1973) was adopted by the Synod (1973 Res. 3-01) “to be Scriptural and in accord with the Lutheran Confessions,” it expresses the doctrinal position of the Synod. It derives its doctrinal authority not from the vote of the convention but from the Word of God, which it sets forth. Public contradiction to “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” is, therefore, in essence a violation of Scripture and thus Articles II and VI 1 of the Synod’s Constitution.
With the adoption of “A Statement,” the Synod required “that those who disagree with these formulations in part or in whole be held to present their objections formally to those who have immediate supervision of their doctrine” (1971 Res 5-24). Any dissent from the stated theological position of the Synod is to be brought to the Commission on Theology and Church Relations in accord with Bylaw 1.8.
Question 3: Does the filing of a dissent from such theological positions of the Synod prevent action from being commenced against such a member of the Synod, which may result in removal of such a member of the Synod?
Opinion: While the filing of dissent does not constitute a case for removal, the member is required to teach and practice in accord with Synod’s stated confessional position during the dissent process. If the member fails to honor and uphold the stated confessional position of Synod during the dissent process, the member becomes subject to disciplinary action due both to the violation of the doctrinal position of Synod and the offense against the other members of Synod created by such failure (Constitution Art. XIII 1). In such case it is incumbent upon the ecclesiastical supervisor of the member to exercise disciplinary action against the member who fails to teach and act within Synod’s stated confessional position, whether apart from or during the dissent process (Bylaws 2.14.4; 2.15.4; 2.16.4).
The dissent process only allows a person to bring forth a contrary view to the stated position of Synod which the dissenter believes is supported by the Word of God (Bylaw 1.8.2). Those expressing dissent “are expected as part of the life together within the fellowship of the Synod to honor and uphold the resolutions of the Synod” (Bylaw 1.8.1) and “to honor and uphold publicly the [doctrinal] statement[s] as the position of the Synod…” (Bylaw 1.6.2 [b] ). The CTCR and ultimately the Synod in convention shall consider the dissent and shall render final judgment as to whether or not the doctrinal statement is in accord with the Word of God. While the dissent is being considered by the CTCR or the Synod in convention, “the consciences of others, as well as the collective will of the Synod, shall also be respected” by the dissenter (Bylaw 1.8.2). The individual member does not have the freedom to decide what of Synod’s stated confessional position is to be honored and upheld and what is not. Once the dissent process has been concluded and if the stated confessional position of the Synod is not changed by the Synod in convention, the member is bound to teach and practice in accord with the stated confessional position of the Synod. If the member expressing dissent cannot or will not teach and practice according to the confessional position of the Synod, the only recourse left to the member is to resign from the Synod. Continuing to teach and practice in conflict with the position of Synod subjects the member to ecclesiastical discipline and finally expulsion from Synod.