By Matthew Becker
Daystar began in 1999 as a small online network of individuals in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS) who were concerned about theological issues and problems in and beyond their church body. Organized by Professor Robert Schmidt and Professor Matthew Becker, along with the help of two other LCMS members, the network grew to include a wide assortment of people: a past synodical president, current and former district presidents, synodical officials, seminary professors, university professors, teachers, directors of Christian education, deaconesses, missionaries, licensed deacons, seminary students, military chaplains, leaders in the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League (LWML) and the Lutheran Laymen’s League (LLL), and other lay leaders. All have shared an abiding concern about the direction of the synod, which over the past forty years has been oriented partly toward the enforcement of “Old Missouri” doctrinal rigidity, as articulated in the dogmatics of Franz Pieper (1852-1931) and the Brief Statement of 1931, and partly toward a form of American Evangelicalism that takes many of its cues from Protestant Fundamentalism. A principal focus of Daystar has been the question, “Is there a more promising way?”
At first there were only four of us, but gradually the network grew. People who had participated in earlier LCMS-related online discussions, such as “Wellspring” and”Voices/Vision,” soon joined, as did those who were disturbed by charges of “false teaching” that had been leveled against a few synodical professors by individuals who are best described as contemporary examples of Eric Hoffer’s notion of a “true believer.” The actions of the LCMS President at the time and his advisors to attempt to define “what it means to be Lutheran” also increased the ranks in Daystar, since many within the synod took exception to their definitions, descriptions, and prescriptions. Rumblings about a paper on Holy Communion that had come out of the Florida-Georgia District and support for the practice of lay leadership in the Northwest District also contributed to interest in the online discussion group. Later there would be other reasons for people to get involved, such as when one of the group’s participants, Atlantic District President Dr. David Benke, came under attack due to his involvement in a civic event following the September 11th attacks. Questions about that case and others, such as the earlier one against a district president for officiating at the wedding of his niece that included family members from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), helped to enliven Daystar conversations. These online discussions stimulated further analysis of the larger problems and issues facing the synod. Three national conferences brought participants face-to-face for further dialogue.
The organization has thus served over the past decade to connect a few thousand individuals within and beyond the LCMS who have wanted to explore and discuss theological topics and perspectives that many think have not been adequately addressed or understood within the synod, but which if discussed in some places could invite retribution and attack from others who think differently. These matters have included such issues as the appropriate principles for interpreting the Bible, the basis for church fellowship with other Christians, the exercise of church discipline, the variety of appropriate liturgical forms and music in the life of the church, the conditions for membership in the synod, proper eucharistic practice, the service of women in the church, the ministry of the baptized, lay leadership within congregations, civic engagementwith the gospel, the doctrinal basis of the synod, homosexuality, and the relation of scientific knowledge to Christian theology.
Dr. Schmidt came up with the name, or rather, he took it from an antilegomenon text in Holy Scripture: “You do well to be attentive to [the prophetic message] as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the day star rises in your hearts” (Second Peter 1:19). Despite the rather tenuous status of this epistle within the biblical canon, the text is apropos to the purpose of the group: to serve as a forum for shining the prophetic and apostolic word on topics that many within the synod have avoided, misunderstood, or incorrectly criticized. Sometimes the LCMS itself has seemed a rather dark place. Too often compassion and decency have been absent in the synod, where chauvinism has frequently been confused for synodical loyalty and meanness of spirit has been mistaken for contending for the faith.
Those who participate in Daystar hold to the primacy of the gospel in the life and mission of the church. We are united in the defense and confirmation of that good word (Philippians 1:7), and we join the confessors at Augsburg (1530) in defining the essential unity of the church as the assembly of all believers among whom that gospel is preached in its purity and the holy sacraments are administered according to it (CA VII). We seek to be faithful and obedient to the admonition of the author of First Timothy: “Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us” (1:13-14).
Looking backward, participants in the Daystar online discussions have received important insights from the gospel-centered theology of the synod’s first president, C. F. W. Walther (1811-1887), and his noncoercive approach to pastoral care and church governance. His lectures on the proper distinction between the law and the gospel, his first presidential address that highlights the sole sufficiency of Christ’s word, and his important essay on the synod as a liberal church body have been particularly instructive. We underscore the positive influence that J. K. W. Loehe (1808-1872) has had on the development of the Lutheran church in North America, particularly his innovative mission work, his development of diaconal ministries, and his liturgical scholarship. Likewise, the witness of missionary and catechism writer H. C. Schwan (1819-1905) has been helpful, particularly his words from 1862 against unevangelical practices that were harming the synod already then.
Other important figures for us include such pioneers in city missionary work as Johann Buenger, Fredrick Herzberger, and E. Buckley Glabe, and those involved in breaking down racial barriers, such as O. H. Reinboth, Joe Ellwanger, John Ellermann, Karl Lutze, and Andrew Schulze. Then, too, there is the example and vision of the courageous “44,” who spoke “the truth in love” against legalism in the synod in the mid-twentieth century. Their witness continues to have relevance, as does that of others, particularly those who served on the faculty of Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, in the 1950s and 1960s, who also spoke out against legalistic attitudes and practices in the synod. Like these earlier gospel confessors, those involved in Daystar have been troubled by understandings and actions that limit “the power of our heritage” and that confine it to human traditions that are less than gospel.
The “spirit of the 44” has been detected in other developments during the “moderating” years between 1938, when fellowship with the old American Lutheran Church was seemingly at hand, and 1973, when a synodical convention condemned the teaching of a majority of scholars at Concordia Seminary. One thinks of the formation of organizations such as Associated Lutheran Charities (whose early motto, “Keep on Kicking,” could also be a motto for Daystar), the Wheat Ridge Foundation, the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau, the LWML, the LLL, the Lutheran Deaconess Association, the Walther League, and Valparaiso University. Others may point as well to key individuals whose pastoral leadership has been exemplary: people like Lawrence Acker; August “Gus” Bernthal; Walter Boss; Harry Coiner; E. J. Friedrich; Herman Frincke; Otto Geisemann; Oliver Harms; Carl Heckman; Oswald Hoffmann; Paul Jacobs; Emil Jaech; Melvin Kieschnick; David Koch; William Kohn; Arnold Kuntz; Martin Koehneke; Herbert Lindemann; Dean Lueking; A. Meyer; Henry Nau; Frederick F. Niedner; Martin Poch; George Rode; Omar Stuenkel; Walter Stuenkel; Eldon Weisheit; Henry Wind—and hundreds more. Female exemplars are on that list, too: Florence Montz; Jean Garton; Rosa Young; Martha Boss; Betty Duda; Marie Meyer; Gertrude Simon; Marva Dawn; and many more.
Of course there have also been the “Wunderkinder” whose intellectual depth has been unmatched in the synod’s history and whose influence has extended well beyond the church body: people like Martin Marty; Jaroslav Pelikan; Arthur C. Piepkorn; Richard Caemmerer; Walter A. Maier; O. P. Kretzmann; A. R. Kretzmann; Mickie Kretzmann; Alfred Fuerbringer; William Danker; Frederick Danker; Edgar Krentz; Edward Schroeder; Martin Franzmann; Robert Bertram; Richard J. Neuhaus; Arthur Simon; Robert Schnabel; Richard Baepler. The life, works, and ideas of these scholars are frequent topics of conversation in the online listserv.
Equally important for other reasons have been those innovative foreign missionaries, campus pastors, military and hospital chaplains, deaconesses, school teachers, and lay leaders who have engaged in and supported ground breaking, creative outreach and ministry. These have often been the same ones who have fostered inter-Lutheran and inter-Christian ecumenical cooperation and who have helped to form worthy organizations and endeavors such as the Lutheran Church Charities Committee and theNehemiah Project. The vision of the Mission Affirmations, approved by the synod in 1965, has also been frequently commended as of abiding significance, though many have noted with a measure of lament that there was in that era a greater openness in the synod toward other Lutherans and Christians than is the case today. That openness is perhaps best exemplified by the formation and activities of the Lutheran Council of the USA and by the cooperative work among American Lutherans to develop a Lutheran hymnal.
Those involved in Daystar want to work together prayerfully to help the LCMS to strengthen its evangelical soul and to sharpen its mind, and to move into the future armed with the gospel-centered word of God which, St. Paul teaches us, is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith (Romans 1:16). The scope of that salvation is enormous and the power of that gospel is immeasurable.
A premise for Daystar discussions is the belief that all church bodies are always in need of reformation (semper ecclesia reformanda), that even apparently settled matters ought to be revisited and reexamined, and that some theological differences among Christians need not necessarily be regarded as a cause for division.
The approach cannot be simply to repeat the all-too-human questions and answers printed in the back of an LCMS catechism or to appeal to this or that synodical resolution or document. These approaches would not settle much, especially for Lutheran Christians who instinctively know that synods, commissions, theologians, and popes are prone to error and have erred. Nor is the answer to assert that only a certain group of men–and ultimately only one man–serves as the magisterial teacher(s) and catechetical answerer(s) for the whole church body. A source of doctrinal authority in the synod certainly cannot be a book that summarizes “what the synod has said on topics of particular interest today.” To produce such a book is to create a kind of LCMS “canon law.” That whole approach ends up substituting a very human organization, along withits commissions and conventions, for the prophetic and apostolic writings of Holy Scripture, which alone are the rule, norm, and judge of Christian faith and practice.
A better approach is one that intentionally invites continual theological reflection for the sake of seeking consensus in the gospel and its application to doctrine and practice. This way strives to articulate the right questions in service to gospel answers. Finding the right questions, inviting further dialogue and discussion, seeking consensus for the sake of the gospel and Christian love and ministry—this is a better approach than “top-down” articulation and enforcement of all-too-human synodical statements and resolutions.
The Reformation began with such an invitation to dialogue on the part of Dr. Martin Luther. He knew that the only way the church could be strengthened in its life and practice was to return continually to its theological sources, to question again and again its received traditions and practices, and to be self-critical:
Lutherans can never absolutize their own perspectives, even their theological perspectives. They must always be reassessing and rethinking, and they must always be in dialogue with themselves and with others. But there is more, for if Lutherans must always be in dialogue with themselves and with others, it is equally true to say that they are free to be in dialogue with themselves and with others. For knowledge that one is justified by grace through faith grants the Christian scholar a profound sense of freedom to question his or her own best insights, to revise them, or to discard them and start again. This is the genius of the Lutheran tradition. (Richard T. Hughes, How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2001], 88 [emphasis is in the original])
In this view, the freedom to question and probe is essential to the health of theology in a church body and, by extension, essential to the health of the church body as a whole. A theologian best serves such a church body by investigating those important theological matters that impinge on its mission and, if necessary, by raising critical questions within the church body for the sake of improving that mission. A good theologian continually asks, what is the minimum, the core content of the faith, without which the faith is no longer the faith of the Christian church? Is that faith being undermined by a theological position or an ecclesial practice? Has a synod acted in ways that are contrary to this essential faith? Is a synod continuing practices that harm this faith or do not serve it well? Has a synod or church body distorted the gospel, and thus lost the gospel? When a theologian concludes that the answer to any one of these latter questions is “yes,” then he or she must protest.
The Christian theologian—and all of the baptized are theologians, to one degree or another—must keep one eye critically focused on the church’s received dogmas and practices and one eye focused on the contemporary situation that includes people who are by nature without faith. While Christian theology ought not demolish the content of the church’s proclamation, it must at all times place the church into a position of being questioned, that is, it must question both the church’s own received teachings and practices and engage the questions that arise from an unbelieving world. Along the way, theology serves the church by differentiating between what is important and what is unimportant, between what is essential for the Christian proclamation of faith and what is non-essential. Taking cues from Paul’s arguments against the Biblicists of his day, who insisted on the Scriptural application of the whole biblical law to Gentile believers, and from Luther’s attack against legalistic church abuses in his day, contemporary theologians best serve the church’s mission of their day by arguing against similar legalism and error.
Perhaps it is time that we rethink what the word “synod” means. We all know that most define this as “walking together” or “walking with one another.” Such an understanding of the word “synodos” is one possible meaning, but there are other, more appropriate definitions than merely “walking together.” A “synod” can also refer to the place where more than one road meets with another road. Thus a “synodos” is also an “intersection,” a crossroads. In the early church a synod was a gathering where people walked from different parts of the world and met at a crossroads, at an intersection. They attempted to hammer out a consensus of the minds, to work toward agreement in the faith. That took time: weeks, months, even years. Later synods were needed to test what had been decided at previous “intersections.” Yes, there were political and even criminal shenanigans that took place at some of these synods, even the occasional murder, but on the whole, the goal was to establish consensus at the crossroads, under the cross of Christ, under the apostolic witness, while engaging matters from the surrounding culture as these were impacted by the gospel. Sometimes a synod erred or contradicted a previous synod, and this situation often necessitated a new synod to clarify and rectify the problem on the basis of the prophetic and apostolic witness to the gospel. On other occasions a synod was incapable of attaining perfect agreement on all theological and practical issues. Doubts and disagreements persisted, and thus there was the continued need for further cross-roads meetings. On still other occasions, people who had gathered under the cross at the “crossroads,” at the “synod,”recognized that when they went their separate ways and walked back on different roads toward different places, the way that synodical consensus was applied might legitimately differ from place to place. In other words, a “synod” did not necessarily imply uniformity in application or even practice. Nevertheless, sometimes it was necessary at the “crossroads” to say a clear, consensual “no!” to certain theological understandings that completely undermined the Christian faith.
While indeed there is such a thing as “persistent false teaching” (“heresy”) that attacks the very heart and center of the faith, not every theological disagreement or difference falls into this category. Luther, too, was called a heretic, but most Lutherans will argue that this was an unjust accusation. His example is sufficient to demonstrate that sometimes unhealthy institutions do not change without confrontation, heated dialogue and, when needed, even protest. Such challenges do not inevitably imply disloyalty. Rocking the boat is often necessary. The motto of “Keep on Kicking” is applicable to more than merely the first welfare agency in the synod’s history. There is always a need for an “indispensable opposition.” There is now the need to emphasize a “crossroads” understanding of the word “synod.” Sometimes one needs to point out a false kind of loyalty, that is, a loyalty to an institution and its perceived Tradition, and to remind Christians of where their true loyalty should reside.
Of course the responsibility to criticize the church is not the only or even the chief task of the theologian. The ultimate goal is to proclaim and confess the gospel, to strengthen the church’s witness to Christ in an unbelieving world, to encourage innovative approaches in the church’s ministry of love to those who are confused, hurting, and in need. The theological task is thus focused directly on God’s merciful mission to a sinful and ailing world. This mission centers on Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, and on the Holying Spirit who brings life and healing to the world today, to the glory of God the Father.