Dr. Ralph A. Bohlmann
There is a great deal of concern within the LCMS about the proper relationship between the synod and its members. Just a few months ago, the chairman of the synod’s Task Force on National/District Synod Relations (Rev. Eugene Oesch, May 2000 Reporter, p.3) publicly expressed his surprise “at how little some church workers and congregations seem to understand their commitments as members of the synod.” “A lot of pastors and congregations misinterpret Article VII,” he claimed. “They think the synod is advisory on everything,” he continued, “but we have committed ourselves to upholding Scriptures and the Confessions and have formed a Synod for very specific purposes.” Just a few weeks after his complaint appeared in the Reporter, the preliminary report of the task force was released to the synod. Although its focus is on national-district relations within the synod, the report is clearly intended to counter what it perceives as the diminishing cohesiveness of the synod in its efforts to preserve “the unity of pure confession” and to guard against “separatism and sectarianism” (TF 7). In other words, a concern for maintaining the synod’s orthodoxy and guarding it against error evidently underlies the work and recommendations of the task force.
Because this is not an insignificant point, please permit the somewhat parenthetical observation that the synodical administration frequently seeks to motivate us by telling us that there are doctrinal errorists at work within our synod. President Barry’s October 2000 Newsletter (p.3) is a case in point. After commending Lithuanian Lutherans, the president claims that “there are some Lutherans in our country, and yes, even some within our own Synod, who would shy away from such a clear and open witness to the truth and instead work to undermine the position of historic, confessional Lutheranism within our Missouri Synod.” Those are very strong and disconcerting words!
How then does the task force propose to achieve greater confessional unity among us? Chiefly by providing a stronger practice of synodical visitation and supervision of congregational doctrine and life, largely through the office of circuit counselor. But it should also be noted that no fewer than three of the report’s six appendices remind synod members, quite explicitly, of our duty to uphold synodical resolutions: (1) App. B: a CCM ruling from September 1999; (B) App. C: A paper by Dr. Samuel Nafzger urging synod’s members of our obligation to observe our “covenant of love” with the synod; and (C) App. D: 1971 Resolution 2-21, “To Uphold Synodical Doctrinal Resolutions.”
But while Task Force Chairman Oesch and others worry that synod members are not honoring their constitutional commitments, thereby weakening the synod’s confessional stance, others among us, equally desirous of confessional unity, are expressing quite another concern. After observing a number of official actions, comments, articles, statements and resolutions in recent years, they see evidence of an effort to give the national synod greater central authority and control over its members—an approach which, they believe, militates against both confessional unity and the mission of the church. They have criticized certain task force proposals and the attitude that seems to underlie them, even calling their emergence a “constitutional crisis” for the synod. Articles in Jesus First, a publication of LCMS Lutherans seeking to develop and support Gospel-centered leadership throughout the synod, have again and again championed the cause of responsible freedom under the Word of God, while cautioning the synod not to forget its advisory character over against its members.
It’s time, then, to explore more closely what the synod means when it describes itself as “an advisory body” (2.39b; Article VII), particularly in the context of synodically adopted doctrinal resolutions and statements. We will note how the synod officially describes itself, then examine the historical development of constitution Article VII from the founding of the synod in 1847 to the present. Along the way, we’ll look particularly at the meaning of certain phrases in Article VII, as well as developments and questions from our last 30 years. Near the end, we’ll offer some observations and advice on key issues. For easier reference and continued study, a number of constitutional and other references are grouped together in an Appendix. Please bear in mind that when I talk about the synod, even critically, I think of the synod as a “we,” not a “they,” and I invite you to do the same.
What is a “synod” anyhow? Over the years, as I was asked that question again and again, usually by non-Lutherans, I early on concluded that the word “synod,” even without “Missouri” attached, was confusing enough to warrant changing our name. In southern Missouri, when you hear it mentioned on the radio or TV, you easily assume they’re talking about the state legislature, that is, the “Missouri Senate.” Roman Catholics and Orthodox and some who know about the older Reformed traditions sometimes think we’re talking about an ecclesiastical council or meeting, like the Synod of Dort (1618–1619, the Dutch Reformed gathering on Arminianism), or a meeting of the cardinals called by the Pope but not quite on the level of an ecumenical council. In some Presbyterian polity a synod is a medium-sized organizational dimension of the denomination. And for the ELCA a synod is one of the 65 regional dimensions or expressions of the national church body, what we call a “district” and others call a “diocese”; that’s why some inexperienced news writers think we’re a part of the ELCA! In Washington and in other world contacts we have found it necessary for many years to use a boilerplate description of ourselves as an international church body with more than 2.6 million members, etc., etc., in order to help identify ourselves. Community programs and numerous evangelism calls in many areas confirm the problem: few people outside our church body and other denominations know what the Missouri “Synod” is.
So what does the word “synod” really mean? Ecclesiastical cheerleaders like to tell us it means “walking together” in the original Greek. Perhaps that kind of popular etymology can be helpful in some contexts, even though it’s technically inaccurate if you want to be “picky,” for hodos means “road” or “way,” not “walking.” But etymology is much less important than usage in clarifying meaning. Since dictionaries are usually based on common usage, we can also turn there for help, but dictionary meanings are usually no better than the period or area whose usage they describe. Thus, for example, Liddell and Scott can point us to classical Greek usage where it sometimes meant a “coming together” or “convergence”; the Oxford English Dictionary can show us not only how various English churchmen have used “synod” but also that it has been used in astronomy for the “coming together” of two heavenly bodies; Grimm’s Woerterbuch, often helpful in deciphering obscure Old German words, details some ecclesiastical usages of “Synode” or “synodus” in the 19th century, usually pointing to a decision-making gathering of clergy and perhaps others; and the more recent Deutsches Fremdwoerterbuch, by Schulz, Becker, and others, is even better in tracing various usages in German from 1150 to 1970, including four references to Luther and one to Melanchthon! [Thanks to my son Paul for sharing that last reference with me after checking a shelf full of German dictionaries in Harvard’s Widener Library!] But when all is said and done, etymological and lexicographical searches help very little to understand what our synod is (or should be, as the case might be). Generally speaking, in ecclesiastical circles outside of Lutheranism the word “synod” refers to a meeting, assembly or council—not to an organization. But it can also be said that European and American Lutherans have used the word “synod” since the early nineteenth century simply to refer to an association or organization of congregations.
[For those of you who like word studies, please note that two New Testament references might also provide homiletical handles. One is Acts 9:15, where Luke uses sunhodeuontes (from the verb sunhodeuo) to refer to the men who were “travelling with” Saul at the time of his conversion. The other is Luke 2:44, when Jesus’ parents were returning home from celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem and were unaware that the 12-year-old Jesus had remained behind. Luke tells us they traveled on for a whole day, thinking Jesus was “in their company” (en tee synodia). A synodia is a “caravan” or “group of travelers,” and a synodos in this frame of reference is a “traveling companion” or “fellow traveler” (see Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich, p.798). We could do more homiletically with this image of the caravan of God’s people traveling together to their homes after celebrating the Paschal Feast than with simple “walking together” talk, especially since the latter often comes off as advocating correct precision marching in lock-step uniformity rather than the kind of joyful, less structured journeying together that would have characterized the post-Passover trip home!]
But I have digressed too much! What does it mean to be a “synod” as the LCMS understands itself? Let me paraphrase some of our official language (Bylaws 1.01, 1.03, and 1.05) that attempts to answer that question. Synodical congregations have joined together in the synod “to support one another in carrying out their commonly adopted objectives.” The synod functions both “in support of” and “on behalf of” congregations and is regarded as “an extension of the congregation to the extent and for the purposes determined through the congregations acting through conventions.” Congregations together establish the requirements for membership and obligate themselves to fulfill such requirements, to uphold the confessional position of the synod and to help carry out the objectives of the synod. Thus, while congregations of the synod are self-governing, they, and also individual members, “commit themselves as members of the synod to act in accordance with the synodical Constitution and Bylaws under which they have agreed to live and work together and which the congregations alone have the authority to adopt or amend through conventions” (1.05e). In that last sentence, we may raise a question about our commitment to synodical bylaws, but by and large the language here is well done, in my opinion, because it clearly attempts to respect the primacy of the congregation with respect to authority in the synod, while casting the synod in a servant role and expressing our commitment to the mission of the church.
Another Bylaw (2.39) addresses an important aspect of the relation of the synod to its members when it states that “the Constitution, Bylaws, and all other rules and regulations of the synod apply to all congregational and individual members of the synod.” (I take it, though, that the formulation, “all other rules and regulations of the synod,” refers to organizational and structural matters and not to doctrine.) That bylaw continues, in words clearly based on constitution Article VII (to which we will turn in a moment), by addressing congregational members. It states: “The synod expects every member congregation to respect its resolutions and to consider them of binding force if they are in accordance with the Word of God and if they appear applicable as far as the condition of the congregation is concerned. [IMPORTANT] The synod, being an advisory body, recognizes the right of the congregation to be the judge of the applicability of the resolution to its local condition. However, in exercising such judgment, a congregation must not act arbitrarily, but in accordance with the principles of Christian love and charity.” While the foregoing paragraph of the bylaw addresses only congregational members, the concluding paragraph addresses individual members, assuring them of their right to dissent from synodical resolutions and expressing, in rather bare and general terms, the procedures for doing so (moving from peers to the CTCR to a convention overture), a process we can talk about later if you are so inclined, but one that offers at least a small measure of relief and integrity when a member disagrees with a doctrinal resolution.
As useful as such bylaw statements are for understanding the advisory nature of the synod, the most basic and most important statement is Article VII of the constitution (see Appendix for the text). This article has an interesting history, which we will detail as briefly as we can, noting key phrases as we proceed. The history begins in 1839 in Perry County, Missouri, with the Saxons’ negative experiences of Bishop Martin Stephan’s autocratic rule over the Saxon colony, followed by a brief period of hierarchical rule by a clergy committee (one of whom was C. F. W. Walther). Then came the near uprising of many of the laity (led initially by Carl Vehse, then by Adolf Marbach) against clergy rule. (Even young Pastor C. F. W. Walther was removed as pastor of his parish in Perry County!) This was followed by the Altenburg Debate and Theses (April 1841), which resolved many of the issues and helped Walther emerge as the leader. Later, when he became pastor of Trinity Congregation, St. Louis, and the congregation found itself looking at the possibility of joining in the founding of what was to become the Missouri Synod, Walther made it clear that he strongly disapproved of a top-down, consistorial, autocratic synod in which the only the clergy ruled. (See, for example his August 21, 1845, letter to Pastor J.A. Ernst, in which he gives some of his ideas about characteristics of a possible synod, one of which was that “the synod should be not so much a plenipotentiary judicial body but much rather an advisory body to which a congregation in need of advice might have recourse” [Moving Frontiers, p. 143].) But if possible, his parish, Trinity, St. Louis, was even more outspoken on that point and in 1846 voiced considerable skepticism about the proposed synodical constitution. After all, one of the most respected men who was active in the proposal to form a synod (remember, too, that there were far more Loehe men than Saxons involved in that effort!), namely, Wilhelm Sihler, who later became synodical vice-president and president of the Fort Wayne seminary, had proposed a very top-down organization. (According to W. G. Polack’s note in Mundinger, p.175, Sihler did not believe a synod should be merely advisory, “but it should be a body, or corporation, which would in the name of the Church, i.e., the whole number of the adult and confirmed members, direct, watch over, and administer the church.” The synod would consist of the clergy and a select number of congregationally elected laity. The synod’s task would be to “regulate, direct, and administer all matters pertaining to the doctrine, life, worship, and discipline of the Church”—a concept that Polack understandably describes as “radically different” from Walther’s.) But the persuasive powers of Pastor Walther, just as had also been the case in the critical Altenburg Debate, carried the day, not only with the Loehe men like Sihler but also with the founding convention at St Paul Church, Chicago, in April 1847 as it adopted the proposed constitution.
Interestingly, the adopted constitution did not contain our current Article VII. After the adoption of the constitution itself, the 1847 convention received various amendments, the most prominent of which came from Trinity, St. Louis, Walther’s congregation, and eventually became the predecessor of our Article VII (see Appendix for text). The convention adopted it with little debate, but the new constitution provided for unanimous ratification by the congregations before it could be considered part of the document. Amazingly, that ratification did not take place, probably because of the simple oversight of the delegates when they returned home, and it was so reported at the 1850 convention.
In just a few years the rapid growth of the synod made it necessary to form districts, which in turn entailed revising the constitution, a process completed in 1854 when a new constitution was ratified by the congregations. And there you find the Trinity Amendment, the original version of our Article VII, in the constitution for the first time (to be sure, not as a separate article as we find it today, but as Point 9 of Article IV titled “Business of the synod”). [See Appendix for the Trinity Amendment and identical 1854 text.]
In 1914 World War I and the synod’s somewhat reluctant transition from German to English, coupled with the continuing growth of the synod, necessitated another constitutional revision process (under the leadership of a committee consisting of Ludwig Fuerbringer, John Fritz, and J. W. Boehne). A new constitution, written in both German and English and without the word “German” in the synod’s name, was adopted by the 1917 convention, was ratified by the congregations, and took effect in 1920. Here our Article VII appears as a separate article for the first time, and its language is noticeably different from the 1854 text. (See appendix for text. NB: The first sentence, denying legislative and coercive powers to the synod, is new, and it is addressed to all members, not just congregations. However, the former sentence about congregational adoption of synodical resolutions has disappeared. In the last sentence, the word which we translate “inexpedient” is there translated as “unsuited” (German: ungeignet), while the construction of the sentence makes it clear that the individual congregation, not the synod, is the judge of what is unsuitable (German: “oder ihr fuer ihre Verhaeltnisse ungeeignet erscheint,” 1917 Proceedings, p. 88, and English: “or that to such congregation appears unsuited to its condition” [Lutheran Witness 36:88]). Since 1920 the text of Article VII has remained virtually unchanged with the exception of the aforementioned change from “unsuited” to “inexpedient” (a change that appears to have been made by some scribe, not by formal constitutional revision!) and the omission of the adopted 1917 words, “to such congregation.”
Before looking at the later history of this article, it may be useful to emphasize at this point that when it is said that the synod is “advisory,” this does not have reference to everything the synod does, nor does it mean the synod is without authority. For example, the synod is not simply “advisory” over against its districts, officers, boards, commissions, staffs, faculty members (although that’s a very complex relationship) and employees. Article VII and most of our early literature uses the “advisory” concept specifically with reference to congregations in their self-governance (which some see as a further limitation). However, since 1920 the first sentence of Article VII addresses all individual and congregational members in asserting that the synod “is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers”—words that are seldom addressed in our literature (and never interpreted in our bylaws, as far as I know), even though they clearly have important implications.
Before looking briefly at some of the post-1920 developments in the concept of an advisory synod, it is important that we also understand that the founders of the synod, at least in some respects, balanced their emphasis on the advisory character of the synod by placing a heavy constitutional emphasis on the supervision of synodical members by the officers of the synod (Mundinger, 185–90). Originally vested in the synodical president, the responsibility to visit every congregation and to do so often and thoroughly finds considerable attention in the original constitution. To this day it is important to note that Constitution Article XI vests considerable supervisory authority in the office of synodical president. Not only shall he “see to it that the resolutions of the synod are carried out” (XI 4, but presumably not doing this when the last sentence of Article VII is followed by a congregation), but he is also responsible for “the supervision of the doctrine and the administration” of all officers of the synod, all employees of the synod, the individual districts of the synod, and all district presidents” (Article XI, 1) But it’s important to note that the constitution grants the president the right to admonish, advise, reprove and report but says nothing about a right to suspend or expel. That right was first conferred (with reference to the possible suspension of district presidents) by the 1998 synodical convention in Resolution 7-06A, and it is now incorporated in Bylaw 2.27 g. [In my judgment this action goes beyond the authority granted the synodical president in the constitution and should therefore be challenged. If, God forbid, a serious offense occurs in the office of a district president, it would be better for the synodical president to investigate, report and recommend appropriate action to the district board of directors.] At any rate, much of the initial supervisory power of the synodical president was later vested in district presidents (see, for example, Article XII, 7) and then in circuit counselors, and this has had the practical effect of weakening if not countering the advisory character of the synod over against many of its member congregations. It’s worth asking whether current task force proposals for expanding congregational supervision by circuit counselors will have the same effect if enacted.
Back to Article VII. The content and meaning of this article has received attention from time to time throughout the synod’s history. Let me call some notable examples to your attention. First and of special importance is Walther’s first presidential address to the 1848 synodical convention (which, it’s worth noting, was held in Walther’s home parish, Trinity, St. Louis, whose amendment had not yet been ratified by the congregations of the synod and who continued to care deeply about the issue). Often quoted, it remains a classic explanation of the advisory character of the synod in its relationship to its congregations as well as a ringing endorsement of the synod’s conviction that only the Word of God, not majority vote, can decide a matter of doctrine or conscience, as all synodical constitutions from 1847 to the present Article VIII C have consistently and clearly affirmed (see appendix for citations from Walther and the text of Article VIII). Another Walther treatment of the matter, more than 30 years later, is often overlooked (although there is one passing reference in the current task force report, p. 7), namely, his essay to the 1879 convention of the Iowa District. Here an older and more seasoned Walther repeats his basic convictions about the advisory character of the synod toward its congregations as well as the primacy of the Word of God in the life of the synod. (See appendix for the theses and a delightful quotation from this essay.)
Let me mention two other points in our synodical history where questions have been raised about the advisory character of the synod. One was in the early 1930s when a pastoral conference of the Northern Nebraska District expressed its concern that the synod might be losing sight of its advisory character (see 1932 Proceedings, pp. 160–61), and the convention responded by asking the official periodicals to publish an explanatory report. That article, written by Dean J. H. C. Fritz of the St. Louis seminary and appearing in the May 9, 1933, issue of the Lutheran Witness, consists largely of a lengthy citation from Walther’s address of 1848. On the one hand, Fritz assures his readers that the synod “has no other power than that of the Word of God and that it would never attempt to exercise any other power in its relation to its members, individually or collectively” (pp. 163f). On the other hand, Fritz pleads that congregations which call upon the synod to supply it with pastors and teachers and which have joined with other congregations in voting to send out missionaries ought not then disregard synodical resolutions or withhold support from colleges, seminaries and missionaries. Congregations form a synod, he exhorts, in order that they may jointly and more efficiently do that work which every congregation is called upon to do, to wit, “the building up of Christ’s kingdom in this world” (p. 164). “Whenever, therefore, a congregation joins the synod and through its representative signs the synodical Constitution, it declares that it agrees to join its sister congregations affiliated with the same Synod in carrying out the very purposes for which the synodical organization exists. It must mean this if it means anything at all” (p.165). Fritz’s eloquent plea, it should be noted, encourages our working together but does not address the question of a congregation’s response to synodical doctrinal resolutions.
Again, the question of the synod’s advisory character was part of the issue raised between 1959 and 1962 as a result of the 1959 San Francisco adoption of so-called “Resolution Nine.” That resolution stated that “every doctrinal statement of a confessional nature adopted by Synod as a true exposition of Holy Scripture is to be regarded as public doctrine (publica doctrina) in Synod” and that “Synod’s pastors, teachers, and professors are held to teach and act in harmony with such statements” (1959 Proceedings, p. 191). After considerable debate within the synod, including notable articles by Dr. A. C. Repp and overtures from the English District (whose secretary at that time was Pastor Dan Ludwig, father of Mary Todd and of my classmate, Garth Ludwig), the synod’s Commission on Constitutional Matters finally ruled on the eve of the 1962 Cleveland convention that Resolution Nine was unconstitutional because it had the effect of amending Article II of the synodical constitution without following the constitutional provisions for doing so. This action was then upheld by the 1962 convention, which also did a number of other notable things, including the election of Dr Oliver Harms as president to succeed the retiring Dr. Behnken, acceptance of the apology of Dr. Martin Scharlemann for disturbing the synod, pleading with the synod’s members “by the mercies of God” to “honor and uphold” synodical doctrinal statements and creating the CTCR (chosen in a careful manner to ensure that it would be microcosmic of the synod itself) to discuss controverted issues and to involve the synod in their study through reports issued to the synod at large. Such actions have had an important bearing on the concept of an advisory synod, but that question was not the specific focus of the Cleveland debate or decision on Resolution Nine and the Brief Statement.
The most recent period of major concern about the advisory character of the synod occurred in the 1970s, specifically between 1971 and 1977. For those of us who were directly involved in the painful events of those years, they seem like yesterday in some respects. But for the many pastors and laity who were born since 1960, there is little more than stereotypical knowledge of those years and their issues—and those stereotypes and occasional caricatures are often quite naïve! So we need to address the 1970s, however briefly, to remind ourselves why the nature of an advisory synod is such an important issue for so many. On that question, ignoring many others, let me at least indicate and comment briefly on the most important documents and actions from the ’70s.
- In 1971, the first convention after Dr. Preus’s 1969 election, two important resolutions were adopted. Resolution 2-21 (1971 Proceedings, pp. 117–20) contains a lengthy preface explaining why members should uphold synodically adopted doctrinal resolutions and asking those who object to such resolutions to present their concerns to the CTCR. Interestingly, the current task force on synod/district relationships includes this resolution as Appendix D (pp. 73–75). Also adopted in 1971 was a companion resolution, Resolution 5-24 (1971 Proceedings, pp. 163–65), which affirmed the right of the synod to adopt what it called “more formal and comprehensive statements of belief” which could be adopted after study and discussion throughout the synod, and which members of the synod are to regard “with special seriousness.”
- Two years later, in the 1973 New Orleans convention, the synod adopted such a formal statement of belief called “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (Resolution 3-01, 1973 Proceedings, pp. 127–28). The same convention adopted a resolution which the late synodical secretary and constitutional expert Herbert Mueller has described as “one of the most important resolutions of the synod in its history” (unpublished essay, p. 13), because he felt it demonstrated a rationale for the synod’s settling doctrinal controversies in a way that does not add to its scriptural and confessional base and does so as an explicit and binding convention interpretation of constitution Article II. Since that time, the argumentation of the preface to this resolution has provided the usual rationale, based largely on confessional references, that the synod has the right to adopt binding statements of doctrine. Comment: It does have that right, but the “binding” comes from a statement’s use of Scripture and the members’ subscription to it—not simply from convention adoption.
- In early 1974 the CCM issued an opinion on this matter that bears repeating: In order to give witness to its faith in the face of contemporary issues and in order to settle controversies within its own midst, the synod has the right to adopt doctrinal resolutions and to ask its members to uphold them. In doing so the synod cannot and does not establish new doctrines but merely gives joyful assent to what in its conviction is taught in the sacred Scriptures. Indeed, insofar assuch resolutions are in accord with the Scriptures they are binding on those who accept Article II of the synod’s constitution (1975 Convention Workbook, p. 206; italics added).
In the next convention, Anaheim 1975, in response to many overtures expressing concern about various actions in 1973, as well as a specific recommendation from the CCM, the synod called for the appointment of a special committee to deal with the question of synodically adopted statements of belief. The committee (consisting of Mueller, Suelflow, Eggold, Niedner, Olsen, Troyke, Bohlmann and Nafzger as staff) solicited input from the synod, met several times and submitted its report to the 1977 Dallas convention (1977 CW, pp. 71–73). The report of the special committee was adopted (after the convention amended the proposal to require a two-thirds, rather than a simple, majority of voting congregations to adopt a formal statement of belief; see 1977 Proceedings, pp. 129–30). The new bylaw provisions have been in effect since that time (see Bylaws 1.03 and 1.09). They provide for a rather elaborate process with strong input from the entire synod and a two-thirds vote of reporting congregations before another formal statement of belief can now be adopted. Since that time, none has been adopted or even proposed, as far as I know. The new 1977 bylaws also addressed the status of doctrinal resolutions (see current Bylaw 1.09 a and b). Since that time, the bylaws have expressed a clear hierarchy of doctrinal authorities in the synod, beginning with Holy Scripture at the top, then the Lutheran Confessions, then formal doctrinal statements adopted in the manner stated, and finally, for somewhat limited purposes, doctrinal resolutions. The common thread running through all of them is Holy Scripture, for only the Word of God can decide matters of faith and conscience (Constitution VIII). [It goes without saying that confessional Lutherans regard the Gospel as the primary content and “central exegetical criterion” (Piepkorn) of the Scriptures.]
This bylaw also states the “honor and uphold” expectation of synodical members, so important in the synod’s thinking since 1962, but it is not presented as a disciplinary measure so much as an expectation that dissenters, together with their peers and supervisors, will study, discuss and possibly resolve points at issue in a fraternal and respectful manner. In any case, if that process should regrettably lead to the consideration of separation, the final step—expulsion—should only be carried out on the basis of Article II and /or other provisions to which members have subscribed.
One should also note the somewhat restricted way in which doctrinal resolutions are described in Bylaw 1.09. First, like formal statements of belief, resolutions are to be in harmony with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions (note that the 1974 CCM ruling said that resolutions are binding on those who accept Article II “insofar as” such resolutions are in accord with the Scriptures, see 1977 CW, p. 72). Second, Bylaw 1.09, based on the committee’s recommendation and the 1977 convention action, states that doctrinal resolutions are adopted “for the information, counsel, and guidance of the membership”—nothing is said about discipline, control or other stronger purposes. Members are asked to honor and uphold them “until such time as the synod amends or repeals them,” but this has reference primarily to the public statements and actions of members (see point 9) and clearly does not intend to limit constitution Article VII.
Much more work needs to be done on the status and role of doctrinal resolutions, and that effort might well begin with attempts to clarify what is meant by “doctrinal” in this context. This is true in a general way, I believe, because the synod’s official position on some aspects of controverted issues among us, such as close communion, the service of women and inter-Christian relationships, is based on synodically adopted resolutions and not on explicit Biblical or Confessional statements. The question of what is or is not “doctrinal” has become especially important in view of the September 14, 1999, CCM opinion, which holds that the phrase in constitution Article VII, “inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned,” does not refer to the constitution and bylaws of the synod and is restricted to resolutions adopted by a convention of the synod which are non-doctrinal in nature (text in Appendix). [Please note that the CCM’s rationale is historical, not theological or constitutional. In offering four areas where congregational self-government has been recognized—calling of pastors and teachers, congregational property, church discipline and congregational administration of program and finances—the ruling borrows almost word for word from a 1977 article by the late Dr. August Suelflow. But neither Suelflow nor the CCM offers any documentation for specifying these four areas, while omitting any possible examples in the area of doctrinal application (seeConcordia Journal, November 1977, pp. 261–69). It might be helpful for the synod to revise the key sentence by deleting the last part and then stating “nor to doctrinal resolutions that simply restate the teaching of Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.”]
To illustrate possible problems with “non-doctrinal” limitations in the CCM ruling, let’s consider some hypothetical questions. (1) If the synod were to adopt a resolution affirming the Biblical/confessional teaching on the Real Presence in the Lord’s Supper, we would obviously have a “doctrinal” resolution that all members would accept and no congregation would consider “inexpedient.” But is it a doctrinal resolution if the Synod, absent explicit Biblical/confessional warrant, were to state that only persons of LCMS congregations or congregations of churches in fellowship may be communed at our altars? (2) Questions can be framed in a similar manner about any number of matters: e.g., moral and ethical questions not directly or explicitly addressed in the Scriptures, like gambling, right to die, in vitro fertilization or genetic issues or certain actions (like voting) or offices to be held by women in the parish and/or synod or participation in certain types of inter-Christian activities, e.g. after a community disaster (as happened in South Dakota, as I recall reports from the last synodical convention). Etc, etc. Are such resolutions or other resolutions that are applications of “doctrine” to the life of the parish doctrinal or non-doctrinal? Some members of the Synod might call them doctrinal, but I would not. And if they are not strictly speaking “doctrinal,” then they are not addressed by such bylaws as address “doctrinal resolutions”—nor by the September 1999 CCM ruling.
Even if I’m mistaken in my understanding of which resolutions the synod might consider doctrinal, I believe that a congregation clearly has the right under Article VII, even after the CCM ruling, to find one or more of such resolutions “not in accordance with God’s Word” or one that appears “inexpedient” as far as its condition is concerned. If that were to occur, synodical officials might well want to counsel with the pastor and other leaders of the congregation, but such a congregational action would not be a basis for discipline unless such discussions demonstrated a clear disavowal of the Scriptures themselves. [Note: 1971 Resolution 2-21, included in the current task force report, says that a congregation can never find a “doctrinal” resolution inexpedient and that “doctrine” does not belong to the area of a congregation’s self-government. The validity of this argument depends entirely, it seems to me, on what is meant by “doctrine”—a question the synod has struggled over for many decades. And in any case, the congregation would retain the right to reject the resolution if it finds that it is not “in accordance with the Word of God” (Constitution Article VII).]
When the synod passes a formal statement of belief (following the careful process spelled out in Bylaw 1.09 c) or in certain circumstances an appropriate resolution, it does in fact establish or express its “corporate position” by so doing. But such a statement of its so-called “corporate position” should not per se be used as a basis for discipline. This concept has been employed in CCM opinions since the ’70s, was discussed at length by the special committee of 1975–77 and is hinted at in Bylaw 1.09, c, 7. Although no member formally needs to subscribe to such a statement as his/her personal position, he/she should also be free to disagree with it (even in public if he/she has first talked with supervisors and peers) if in his/her judgment the statement is not faithful to Article II (Scripture and Confessions), but meanwhile treating it with respect and fairness and making it known to the people they serve as appropriate. We should expect to see the position expressed in synodical educational materials; quoted in public relations and promotional statements; reflected in the elections of officers, staff people and faculty members (when pertinent); and perhaps used to enable certain corporate action, e.g., on public social policy issues. But we should not expect to see fellow members who responsibly disagree with such resolutions subjected to anything more than fraternal discussions by supervisors or peers and in no case subjected to discipline or discrimination on that account (regular dissent procedures, Bylaw 2.39 c, should of course be followed with so-called formal doctrinal statements). I am realistic enough to acknowledge that many, some of them in high places, are uncomfortable if not negative toward such an approach. But I firmly believe that it is compatible with our constitution and bylaws and certainly with our freedom under the Gospel, and I pray that the Lord of the church will hasten the day when we can consistently deal with each other in that way.
Concluding Observations and Advice
- Historical. In terms of the relationship between the synod and its members, the early years of our history, 1847–1879, are marked by a strong emphasis on the advisory, non-autocratic, non-consistorial character of the synod and on the self-governing character of the congregation. The middle period, 1880–1955, dominated by the influence of Pieper (with his very restrained understanding of the authority of the ecclesia repraesentativa; see his Dogmatics, 3:427–35), quietly maintained this emphasis; the synod’s advisory character was a given. In contrast, the modern period, 1955–present (with the exceptions of 1962–1969 and 1981–1992, the years of the Harms and Bohlmann administrations), has been characterized chiefly by efforts to legitimize and expand the synod’s right to adopt doctrinal statements and resolutions that bind members (to some extent, at least) and with minimal emphasis on congregational self-government. This period has also witnessed the development and growth of a strong element in the synod which opposes legalism in every form. Advice: It’s time for a non-partisan effort to rethink, then clearly re-state, our church-synod-district-congregation relationships, drawing from the best of our tradition but relying more on Gospel-Mission-Church imperatives that are Biblically based and confessionally faithful.
- Covenant of Love. The task force report includes as Appendix C a 1996 pastoral conference essay by Dr. Samuel Nafzger, respected executive director of the CTCR since 1974, because it “addresses in a positive way obligations and privileges that membership in the synod entails for congregations, pastors, and other rostered church workers” (Report, p. 7). Prominent in this essay is the argument that honoring the “covenant of love” (a concept heavily indebted to a 1970 statement by then First Vice-President Roland Wiederaenders; see Task Force Report, p. 67) which all synodical members have freely entered into with each other will enable us to preserve our Scriptural and Confessional heritage. The essay argues persuasively that because of this “covenant of love” members of the synod are not free to teach and confess whatever they please. And even when we disagree with a synodical statement, Dr. Nafzger reminds us, our mutual covenant with one another means that “we will conform our public teaching to the officially adopted doctrinal stance of the synod. Not to keep this agreement,” he continues, “is a violation of the law of Christian love” (Report, p.71).
I have great love and respect for Dr. Nafzger and for this presentation, particularly his six-point summary statement of the basic ingredients of our “covenant of love” (see Task Force Report, pp. 71-72). But there are two dimensions of his “covenant of love” concept that need to be addressed more completely and clearly. One is the identification of precisely what is meant by “the officially adopted doctrinal stance of the synod” to which we members are committed by our covenant. Is it that we will “believe, teach, and confess in willing and joyful harmony with Article II” ( namely, Scripture and Confessions), as Dr. Wiederaenders understood and stated it, or does it embrace all doctrinal statements and resolutions? At one point (p. 69) the Nafzger essay even identifies the covenant of love with the synodicalHandbook, a concept which obviously includes far more (or far less, depending on your perspective) than what Nafzger calls “the officially adopted doctrinal stance of the synod.” However, as we have seen, the identification we have given over the years to the content of this stance is quite nuanced, and not to identify those nuances may do us all a disservice. A second concern with the Nafzger “covenant of love” concept is of equal importance, namely, that it does not strongly enough remind us that the other party in that covenant, namely, the synod itself, must live up to its considerable responsibilities toward its members. The Nafzger essay does indeed quote Article VII but without emphasis or elaboration and in the context of reminding us of the importance of the synod’s procedures for dissent. To avoid a one-sided understanding of our “covenant of love,” must we not also emphasize that the synod, too, has covenanted with its members that it is an advisory body over against congregations in their self-government, that it is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers in relation to all its members, that decisions made only by majority vote but not convincingly demonstrable from the Word of God may have our respect but do not have binding authority, that the synod will provide protection and care for its members and their rights (Constitution III, 8–9) especially in the face of unjust attacks or the abuse of power, and that the synod will do everything it can not only to conserve but also to promote the unity of the true faith, with the Gospel of Jesus Christ always at its center, both among us and in our relationships with other Christians (Constitution III, 1). Advice: Synod leaders need to understand, teach and demonstrate the synod’s covenant relationship to its members—and not simply encourage members to be confessional—and do so in the context of our Gospel mission.
- Word of God. We cannot say enough about the synod’s heritage of commitment to the Word of God. It dominates the language of Walther and other founders of the synod on virtually every subject. Their confidence not only in the truthfulness of that Word but also in its power as its Law-Gospel message is used explains their confidence in developing a church structure which does not depend on power or legislation or coercion to achieve its objectives. The power of that Word, under the working of the Holy Spirit in Word and sacraments, is indeed great and indeed enough for the unity of Christ’s church (AC VII). On the other hand, human ceremonies, including many details of church government, are human traditions and adiaphora which may be desirable for various reasons but are not binding on God’s people, not even when adopted by a convention (see Task Force Report, p. 6, lines 6–11). Many of our most seriously controverted questions in the synod today (e.g., close communion policies, the service of women, inter-Christian activities and the limits of pastoral authority) occur in areas where we tend to rely more on our own traditions than on clear and convincing exegesis of the Scriptures. Advice: We need to recommit ourselves to our Gospel-centered confessional sola scriptura principle in our doctrinal statements as well as in our individual lives and ministries—while also taking care to avoid the historicist, fundamentalist and neo-allegorical hermeneutics that often tempt us.
- Confessional Fidelity. A constant thread of discourse throughout our history has been our continuing commitment to confessional faithfulness. From the decision to emigrate through the struggles over church and ministry and other issues to the present day we have emphasized the importance of knowing, accepting and following the doctrinal content of our symbolical writings. It is because we take the confessions so seriously that we have usually not found it necessary to go beyond the application of constitution Article II in order to express our viewpoint and conviction on contemporary questions.
In our recent history, we have also come to recognize that our confessions do not close the door on the need for the church to issue new statements of conviction from time to time, as long as the confessional “pattern of doctrine” is maintained. Not surprisingly, during the last 25 years of our discussions of this topic, the following statement from the Formula of Concord has been quoted often, even in our bylaws: “Everything must be totally subject to God’s Word. This does not mean that other good, useful, pure books that interpret Holy Scripture, refute errors, and explain the articles of faith are to be rejected. Insofar as they are in accord with this model [pattern] for teaching , they should be regarded and used as helpful interpretations and explanations” (FC SD Rule and Norm 10; Bylaw 1.09, c, 7, applies these words to “adopted and ratified doctrinal statements”).Advice: Let’s continue to be both a confessional and a confessing church with the Gospel at its center while avoiding enclavistic, fundamentalist and historicist ways of using our Symbols.
- Church-synod. A major reason for the continued tension and division within the LCMS is ecclesiological: We are unclear and sometimes divided on what it means to be the church and therefore on what it means to be the synod. Church and synod are not the same thing, but we are often both at the same time, in the same place and in the same action. At other times the two must be carefully distinguished. Even our name is a reflection of some ambiguity, for we are, since 1947, “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod.” We can spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on many synodical questions, such as trying to understand the advisory character of the synod—and we do so because we owe that to each other, to those we serve and to our children. But we ought not do that while isolating ourselves from the rest of the church or virtually ignoring important churchly issues all around us. (Think, for example, of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, celebrated by Roman Catholics and Lutherans one year ago today in Augsburg; unfortunate as President Barry’s newspaper ad was, the even greater shame is that Missouri, with its rich theological heritage, has seen fit to offer its criticisms as a spectator, not a participant.) Imagine! We can hear the task force calling us to “the unity of pure confession” and urging us to “guard against separatism and sectarianism” (Report, p.7), yet hear it as a challenge for the synod and its members without even considering its implications for our primary responsibilities as members of Christ’s church—and they are considerable! And all too often we get our priorities misplaced. It is as church that we have created a human organization called a “synod” in order to act on our behalf (when we request it) and in our support as we carry out our mission as church—not vice versa!
A pastor friend of mine whom I have known since his student days at the seminary recently asked me to critique an excellent comprehensive theological study he has done on the parish practice of Holy Communion. One of his footnotes caught my attention and is applicable here. He wrote:
By elevating the synod to the level of an intermediate “church” between the one holy Christian church on earth on the one hand and the various local gatherings of that church on the other, we have learned to speak of a kind of intermediate “corporate dimension” of the Lord’s Supper that in actuality deals with only a part of that corpus. In the process, we have applied [sic: taken] Scriptural teachings that deal with divisions between that which is church and that which is not and applied them to tensions and divisions within the church itself. In striving to be faithful to the Lord and His Word, to the Scriptures and the confessions, we may have stumbled on to a new way to divide the church. (BC, p. 72)
What an astute and intriguing observation! But there is little time to comment on his point, or on other dimensions of Missouri ecclesiology, beyond suggesting several questions for our ongoing study and work: (1) Why are we so fascinated with the visible/invisible distinction and in particular with the concept of a “true visible church”? (2) Why do we tend to focus the concepts of orthodoxy and heterodoxy more on churches than on teachings, especially since the church is made up of people who are simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously saints and sinners)? (3) Has our rightful concern for pure doctrine sometimes led us to make faithful confession a mark (nota), if not the mark, of the church itself, that is, to find the church present only where we find an absolutely pure confession? (4) Assuming that the CTCR was correct in reminding us that denominational declarations of fellowship are “neither divinely ordained nor Scripturally mandated” (CTCR, Nature and Implications of the Concept of Fellowship, 1981, p.42), and I believe that the CTCR was correct, and, second, given the ambiguity of denominational confession and membership today, what are responsible and acceptable ways for members of the synod to express our spiritual unity with other Christians today? (6) While observing any possible Biblical and confessional limits on congregational self-government, how do we help congregations become more, not less, active in their self-government without becoming excessively congregationalistic? (7) How are our questions about an advisory synod related to the larger question of authority in the church, currently being addressed in many places and ways by Christian churches and theologians around the world? Hard questions, indeed, but I hope and pray that we will find the courage and the confidence of the Spirit to address them together.
Advice for the LCMS? Of course! We all need to become involved in all such questions and not just assign them to a badly divided CTCR or wait for the synodical president’s office to send out little booklets to the synod. While doing that, all of us need to try harder to live out our synodical covenant of love and our even higher calling as the people of God. But while studying and amending and fixing what is broken in the synod in order to help the synod become the most effective servant of the church and its mission that it can be, we especially need to be the church, faithful to our Lord and to His mission, and to recognize that being church is ultimately more important than being synod. Do we need a new task force on synodical relations, perhaps conducted in part on the internet, but this time focused differently in two basic ways? (1) Proceeding from the congregation to the church at large, it would ask what kinds of synodical/district structures would help congregations most (instead of the opposite approach of asking how congregations and other members should relate to the synod). (2) Its chief operating question would be what kind of synodical/district structures would best enable us to carry out the mission of the church at all levels, not simply asking how to achieve greater synodical cohesiveness for the sake of combating error—important as that obviously is.
Should we continue walking together? Absolutely! But not in some forced lockstep pattern devised by us! For the hodos, the road, the Way for our journey is Christ Himself, who always reminds us, “I am the Way (hodos), the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). The people of the Way (hodos: several times in Acts , e.g. Acts 9:2; 18:25 & 26; 19:9 & 23; 22:4; 24:14 & 22) who are traveling together and with our Lord Jesus Christ toward the Paradise He restored for us and all humankind are the people of His Body, the church, the people of God. The synod is but a small company or caravan ( a synodia, Luke 2:44) of all those fellow travelers of the one Body, created and nourished by the One Spirit. Our little but faithful synodical caravan has promised not only to help one another on that journey but especially to travel in such a way that we always seek the lost and invite them to take part in it, too. And at its best, when Christ and His Gospel are exalted, the synod is a very good traveling caravan indeed, and we have been blessed to be a part of it!