Reformation Irony

Robert Schmidt

While the Synod celebrates the 500th anniversary of Reformation, its president, his curia, and supporters are acting far more like the sixteenth-century Roman Church than the Luther they honor and extol. The celebration includes President Harrison leading “The Lutheran Mile,” an informative tour of the sites of the Reformation. The Luther film is to air. New Reformation resources are available to “Follow in Luther’s Footsteps.” The Luther Center in Wittenberg, supported by the Synod, welcomes tours. The seminary produces a video, highlighting how the Reformation surrounds us today through religion, politics, and society.

How ironic!  Look at what is happening to the Synod.

Our Own Pope?   

Kenneth Hennings, the chair of the Synod’s Council of Presidents recently spoke out against the centralization of power given to the president of the Synod.  He wrote: 

The Board of Directors of the Synod has adopted bylaw changes that give the ultimate responsibility for your (and your congregation’s) ecclesiastical supervision to the president of the Synod. In other words, if charges are brought against you or your congregation in the area of doctrine or practice, the president of the Synod has been given ultimate authority to determine whether those charges can be substantiated and whether suspension is warranted. (http://congregationsmatter.org/cop-chair-challenges-ecclesiastical-supervision-decision/ June 7, 2017)

John Denniger, President of the Southeast District concurs when he writes:

At President Harrison’s request and Secretary Sias’ hand, the United List majority of the Synod Board of Directors (BOD) wrested the constitutional, historic responsibility of ecclesiastical supervision from District Presidents.  Without vote or action of the Milwaukee Convention, the BOD gave this responsibility to one man.  The President of Synod now is the de facto ecclesiastical supervisor of the LCMS.  Harrison has taken ecclesiastical supervisory decisions away from our 35 District Presidents.  He relocated those life-changing decisions to his own desk inside the secretive International Center in St. Louis….” (info,congregationsmatter.org/ June 14th)

Larry Stoterau, President of the Pacific Southwest District, wrote to congregations in his District saying that it was the most difficult letter he ever wrote.  He writes:

In my opinion and that of several district presidents, this bylaw violates the constitutional articles listed above. The bylaw stands unless/until amended by the Synod in convention. I have great concern for the new direction of the Synod as we become more hierarchical, concentrating authority in the President of the Synod.” (info@ psd-lcms.org/June 23)

Luther defied the pope and the pope’s pretensions as being the final arbiter of  God’s truth.  Yet, as the Synod celebrates Luther’s defiance, President Harrison’s curia, the Board of Directors, and the Committee on Constitutional Matters, make him a new pope. How ironic!

Church Teachings Rather than Scripture?

Luther asserted the authority of Scripture against the authority of popes and church councils. Yet, the Synod, under the leadership of President Harrison, went against the clear teaching and example of the Scripture on “lay celebration of the Eucharist.”  In  2013 the LCMS Convention established a Task Force to study the use of licensed lay deacons in the Synod. The Task Force published a report in 2015 that led to passing Resolution 13-02A by the 2016 Convention.  It resolved to end the regular use of licensed lay deacons for pubic word and sacrament ministry.

Key to the resolution was the assertion that ordination to the pubic word and sacrament ministry was to be done by the entire church, not merely a local congregation and its neighbors.  How absurd!  In Acts 14:23 Paul appointed (ordained?) the ministry of elders and entrusted them to the Lord in whom they had come to believe.  Here the ministry of word and sacrament would be done by what we would call “lay elders,” no seminary education then. Nor was this done with the approval of the whole church, what about the approval of Thomas working in India, or James in Jerusalem?

By ending the regular use of licensed lay deacons, to say nothing of local elders, the Synod under its present leadership is depriving many congregations that cannot afford their own pastor, of ready access to the sacraments.  In addition new congregations in rural areas, in inner cities, and among small ethnic groups cannot be started unless there is money to pay pastors.  Has money then become a new “means of grace?”

While celebrating Luther, has anyone really read what he wrote? After doing the Formulae Missae and the Deutsche Messe, Luther said:

The third kind of service which a truly Evangelical Church Order should have would not be held in a public place for all sorts of people, but for those who mean to be real Christians and profess the Gospel hand and mouth.  They would record their names on a list and meet by themselves in some house in order to pray, read, baptize, receive the sacrament and do other Christian works. (Martin Luther, Works of Martin Luther, vol. 6 [Philadelphia: A.J. Holman Co., 1932], 173) 

Based on biblical examples, how would such small communities be served if not by the non-university, non-seminary trained pastors then currently serving in the midst of the Reformation?  (A. C. Piepkorn, CTM 38, No 1 [January, 1967], 54)

Agents of Orthodoxy –  Dominicans

After Luther penned the Ninety-Five Theses, he also wrote Resolutions Concerning the Virtue of the Indulgences.  In the latter document Luther insisted that he would accept no other authority than the Bible. Here he also expressed the position that even popes and councils could err.  Shorty thereafter, the Dominicans  met in Rome to denounce Luther and his writings because the authority of the church and pope had been called into question. The Dominican theologian Silvester Preirias answered with a Dialogue Concerning the Powers of the Pope. Thereafter, Luther was summoned to come to Rome within sixty days to face censure if not death. (Schwiebert, Luther and His Times [St. Louis: Concordia, 1950], 337-339).

Currently, if pastors or theologians question synodical doctrinal resolutions on the basis of another interpretation of the Scriptures, they open themselves up to being investigated, accused, and denounced by agents of orthodoxy, our own Dominicans.  The Committee on Constitutional Matters, like the Roman curia, has stated,

Doctrinal resolutions and statements, including those adopted prior to 1977, have binding force on individual as well as congregational members of Synod, which is defined by the confessional articles of the Constitution and any doctrinal positions to amplify, clarify, and apply its theological position in time of question, challenge, and conflict. (Minutes, Commission on Constitutional Matters, June 13-14, 2014).

Coupled with the papal powers now conferred on the president of Synod, champions of orthodoxy, contemporary Dominicans,  can immediately report violations, real or suspected. If the teachings of the accused are deemed contrary to the doctrinal statements and resolutions of the Synod at convention, the accused can be expelled. 

Luther was convinced that the Scripture, normed by its Gospel message, was far more authoritative than any pope or council (convention?) What an irony that our church body, bearing his name and celebrating the Reformation, should move so actively against Luther’s example and convictions.

The True Church?

While defending himself from the Dominicans  Luther wrestled with the subject of the church. In replying to the Dialogue by Preirias, Luther went back to the New Testament.  He said that the church is really present only in Christ.  He could not identify the true church with the Catholic Church and the Roman hierarchy.  He concluded that the visible church could not be represented in any group other than a universal council. (Schwiebert, 340).

In view of the debate about whether Luther thought of the church as the total community of believers or as a visible group where true doctrine is taught, one should note that Luther constantly affirmed that the church is a body of believers whom Christ has gathered to himself who are in a vital life-giving relationship with their Lord. Schwiebert writes,  “Even though Luther recognized the need  for a German Landeskirche, or territorial Church, which had to provide the outward organization for his  followers, he was never willingly to dignify his body with the title of Church.” (Schwiebert, 459). Only later did Melanchthon in his Loci identify the Lutheran Church with the true visible church on earth.

What a contrast between Luther’s vision of the church and the sectarian (confessional?) emphasis of the Synod today! Among us Luther is not championed as the one who stressed the unity of all Christians in the body of Christ through justification by faith in Christ. Instead Luther becomes the hero of our denomination and is used to instill loyalty to the institution. If that is not enough, the Synod hopes to be a leader of partner Lutheran congregations around the world, seeking to keep them from joining with other Christians in their lands.

Echoing Luther, William Schumacher writes:

The LCMS. or any other denomination, is not coterminous with the kingdom of God. It is no good quoting Biblical promises about the permanence of Christ’s Church in order to prop up unconditional confidence in the human institution called the LCMS.  Christ’s Church was alive and well long before the LCMS was founded in 1847, and will endure even if the LCMS  disappears everywhere except in a few dusty files in the archives. (Schumacher, “Demography and Mission in the LCMS,” Lutheran Mission Matters, vol. XXV, no. 1 [May 2017], 24)

With regard to coercing Lutherans in other lands to reflect LCMS perspectives, is Victor Raj speaking of the LCMS when he says?:

In today’s mission context, mission boards have a tendency to willfully intrude into the partner church’s territory and dictate administrative policies to the overseas partners. This attitude only escalates the dependency syndrome and dwarfs  the partner church’s potential. (Raj. “Missiology of Recontextualization,” Lutheran Mission Matters, vol. XXV, no. 1 [May 2017], 14)

Perhaps the best way of celebrating the 500th year of the Reformation would be to seek reconciliation with all of Luther’s spiritual descendants in the Body of Christ.  These will include not only those who call themselves “Lutheran” but also all those Protestants and  Roman Catholics who have learned much from the good news that we are justified by grace through faith in Christ. Then joined with Christ, we are free people, subject to none that we might, at the same time, be servants to all.

Dr. Robert Schmidt is the Emeritus Dean of Theological Studies at Concordia University, Portland. He earlier taught at the Lutheran Seminary in Nigeria.

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