Reaffirming the Mission Affirmations: Were the Mission Affirmations Ever Disaffirmed?

Robert Schmidt

The hope was to reaffirm and re-energize the vision for mission that has historically been a hallmark of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The planners for Daystar’s January 11-12, 2004, conference at Chesterfield, MO, near St. Louis, felt that the Mission Affirmations, adopted by the synod’s 1965 convention, would be a very fine and fitting resource around which to center discussion.

Daystar’s critics immediately jumped on the renewal-seeking group for this use of the Affirmations. They have tried to insinuate that sometime, somehow, the Affirmations came to be abandoned by the synod. True, in the years following their 1965 adoption certain concerns about them were raised and further study was made of them. This, so the objection goes, must mean that the Affirmations became “disaffirmed.” Thus they may no longer serve as a valid and useful statement of synod’s vision for mission.

The detractors point to one document in particular, a study prepared by the synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) in 1974 entitled “The Mission of the Church in the World: A Review of the 1965 Mission Affirmations” (hereafter “Review”; copy on the website of Concordia Seminary, Ft. Wayne, at www.ctsfw.edu/library/files/pb/381). The implication appears to be that this “Review” rebutted and virtually repudiated the Affirmations. This supposedly accounts for the allegation that Daystar’s use of them is not legitimate.

This assumption, however, is a distortion of the actual facts of the matter and indeed, somewhat of a fabrication.

The reality is that the 1974 CTCR “Review” was never officially acted upon or adopted by synod. In fact, the 1975 convention, the next one after the CTCR completed the “Review,” did not even get around to commending it for study.

The “Review” may have raised questions about portions of the Affirmations and made suggestions for improvements, but the simple fact is that in no way did the “Review” reverse, rescind, reject, or in any way annul the essential ideas or the major mission thrusts of the Affirmations. Its purpose, if anything, was to strengthen, reinforce, and to improve upon what the Affirmations had declared the mission of the synod essentially to be.

 

Some Historical Background

But first a little history. The Mission Affirmations were not without their critics from the beginning in 1965. Resolutions complaining that the Affirmations were ambiguous and might be misinterpreted were brought before each convention in the years following (e.g., Res. 2-20 of 1967; Res. 2-34 of 1971) and efforts, involving the CTCR among others, were made to clarify them. The 1971 convention in an omnibus resolution placed study of them in the hands of the Board of Directors, who in turn asked President Preus to refer it to the CTCR, asking them to make a thorough study of the Affirmations, clarifying those parts which appeared to be ambiguous and supplementing the document where such was needed in view of recent developments in Christendom.  The result was the “Review,” adopted by the CTCR in September 1974

1974 had been a tough year in the Synod.  After the 1973 New Orleans convention condemned the St. Louis Seminary faculty, leading to the suspension of President John Tietjen in early 1974, the faculty left the seminary campus, joined by most of their students.  That same year the Board for World Missions dismissed Jim Mayer, the area secretary for India; they had let go Martin Kretzmann two years earlier.  On January 17th the staff of the Board of Missions protested the firing of Mayer and Kretzmann saying that the dismissal of Dr. Kretzmann and Rev. Mayer were symptoms of a much deeper problem.  The Board was virtually reversing the forward thrust of missions which had enjoyed the blessing of God in many fields.  Representatives of overseas churches also protested the Board’s actions.  On April 10th the executive secretary of missions, Bill Kohn, resigned followed the next week by four other members of the mission staff.

 

A Review of the “Review”

The fact that the “Review” was never acted upon by a convention should be more than enough to rule it out as support for the claim that it invalidated the Mission Affirmations had been rescinded. More than that, in the opinion of this writer, himself a missionary in Nigeria during these years, the “Review” as such was not without its serious flaws. Its objectivity and fairness, for one, must be questioned.

The “Review” frequently imagined worst-case scenarios as the outcome of the Affirmations. Rather than putting the better construction on what they were intended to say and to lead to, worst-case scenarios were projected as possible outcomes. Combining this alarmism with a technique of guilt-by-association, the Affirmations were imagined to be leading to an alliance with various undesirable trends perceived to be at work in the world mission enterprises of the day.

The whole introduction was focused on the theological climate of the day rather than any discussion of the Affirmations themselves or the missionary situations out of which they arose. A major consideration was that “there had been significant developments within the World Council of Churches and within Christendom in general with respect to the mission of the church.”  These “recent developments,” reinforced by expressions such as “there is a growing tendency” or “there is a strong emphasis in certain parts of Christendom,” rested on “assumptions” being made by some in the offending church bodies implying that the mission is mainly to improve people’s condition on earth.

The “Review” accepted the first Affirmation, The Church is God’s Mission, but wanted it to articulate more fully God’s plan of salvation.  It also wanted the Affirmation to state clearly that it did not agree with the World Council of Churches emphasis on helping the poor and underprivileged as being a mark of the church.  Further, it asked for clarification that faith is only created by the Holy Spirit through the means of grace.

But what the 146 missionaries who helped to write the Affirmations wanted to say loudly and clearly was that they were faced with people who wanted to hear the Word of God and, in some cases, also needed food and medicine so their kids would not die. Here they wanted to affirm that bringing the Gospel and simple help to hurting people (Matt. 25: 35f.) was not an optional activity of the church but part of its very nature.

The “Review” raised its eyebrows at the statement in Affirmation II, The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole World, that “a universal redemption” has been won through Jesus Christ.  The “Review” warned of “universalism.”  But was this a real threat for LCMS missionaries? Missionaries do not leave home, put their health at risk, leave their children’s graves in foreign lands, if they believed everyone was already saved even if they never heard the Gospel.  To preach the Gospel of Christ’s salvation was precisely the reason they went. Was it appropriate to accuse them of universalism simply because they said that “Christ died for all” (II Cor. 5:14)?

The “Review’s” treatment of the third Affirmation, The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Church, was to view it through the lens of the LC-MS’s history and documents on fellowship.  Though doctrinal discussions with other churches might be done without compromising sound doctrine, the “Review” again warned that this Affirmation is not, however, “intended to offer license for unionistic relations with other denominations.”

Little did the Review appreciate the fact that when a missionary is surrounded by non-Christians and his only associate is a Methodist brother only five miles away, there is often a wonderful sense of fellowship based upon their mutual faith in Christ. The missionaries had experienced what Lesslie Newbigin had pointed out.  On the mission field Christians were a lot closer to each other than they were in the United States.  To be a missionary one had to have a unique Gospel to express or you would not be there.  At the same time one had to be open to new ways of expressing that Gospel and living it out or you would not stay there.

Is The Church Christ’s Mission to the Whole Society, as Affirmation IV puts it? The “Review” said, Well yes, but….  It went on to say that “our Synod has ordinarily distinguished between the responsibilities of the individual and those of the institutional church.”  While individuals ought to involve themselves in working for the general welfare and social justice, the institutional church is to proclaim the love of God in Christ.  Therefore the “Review” condemns not the Affirmation but “the popular trend to substitute social involvement for the proclamation of the gospel.”

Unfortunately the Review did not really discuss the Bible passages cited in the Affirmation:  James castigates the institutional church that favors the rich over against the poor (James 2:1-17).  In Colossians Paul says that in Christ’s renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all (Col. 3:11).  Peter tells us to live peaceable with all that the gentiles my see our good works, and that Christians should accept the authority of human institutions (1 Pet. 2: 11-17).

What then is the responsibility of the institutional church toward the whole society?  The “Review” says that pastors and the church should not get involved in partisan politics.  Yet does the church really offer much help in the way of teaching its members the principles of social action so that they can make God-pleasing choices?  Does the institutional church have criteria to prioritize what types of institutions to build on the mission field?  Should it be hospitals, clinics, schools, or feeding programs?

Ironically in the same book of memorials for the 1975 Anaheim convention in which the “Review” was printed, there was an excellent report from Nigeria which showed how the hospital at Eket, begun under missionary auspices, was now being supported by various institutions without losing its Christian base.  No, the institutional church does not have to do everything to help society.  Often, its chief contribution is to begin an institution or a movement that brings to people the love of Christ and hope for a better life.  Once the endeavor has been started others might well continue the work.

The “Review” agreed that The Church is Christ’s Mission to the Whole Man (Affirmation V).  However, it did want to point out that faith only comes through the Holy Spirit working in and through the Word.  Yet the Affirmation speaks to that very concern in a wonderful way when it states, “Christians minister to the needs of the whole man, not because they have forgotten the witness of the Gospel but because they remember it.  They know that the demonstration of their faith in Christ adds power to its proclamation.”  The missionaries had followed the example of Christ in this regard and had seen the results with their own eyes.

In his message to the Synod in the 1965 convention Reports and Memorials Martin Kretzmann had put second in order what later was put sixth, The Whole Church is Christ’s Mission.  This was to have been the operative affirmation that followed The Church is God’s Mission.  This was the only way in which the Church could be Christ’s mission to the whole world, the whole church, the whole society and the whole person.  For the pastor who already was overwhelmed by his present duties, this Affirmation opened the door to mission.  It showed how the pastor could do much more than simply stay in the saddle and keep the institution running.  Pastors did not have to do all the work themselves; their task was to equip the saints for the work of the ministry (Eph. 4:12).

With regard to this Affirmation, the “Review” found itself in agreement.  With the Affirmation it “deplored any kind of clericalism” that simply sees the congregation as the means to support the ordained ministry.  It also deplores “the laicism that chafes under the shepherding by which a loving God seeks to equip His children for mission.” Yet neither the Affirmation nor the “Review” suggested what changes might be necessary in the institutional church for this Affirmation to take hold.

Nearly forty years after the Affirmations were adopted and thirty now since the CTCR’s “Review” of them appeared, we are seeing more clearly the direction the institutional church must take if it is serious about The Whole Church is Christ’s Mission.  Lay people are being trained in ministry skills in a number of districts of the synod.  The DELTO program (Distance Education Leading to Ordination) is now enabling laypeople to receive a significant part of their education for the ordained ministry in places near their home.  Special programs now exist for equipping African and other ethnic pastors for word and sacrament ministries in their own congregations. An increasing number of pastors are seeing that their most important duty is training lay people to do ministry in their own congregations and communities.

In sum:  the Mission Affirmations, far from ever being disaffirmed, are still the official position of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. The synod has repeatedly answered questions and concerns, whether justified or not, that have been raised about them. This it has done, without rescinding or rejecting them.

The dream of Martin Kretzmann and the 146 missionaries who sent him over 1100 pages of material is finally coming about.  This is why it is important to again study the Mission Affirmations for a renewed sense of mission.

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