Wisdom from Walther

Norman Metzler, Dr. Theol.

Prof. Emeritus, Concordia University, Portland

January 2017


The LCMS faces the prospect of an increasingly hierarchical exercise of church authority that betrays the congregational polity explicitly enunciated in the Constitution of Synod.  Previous Daystar articles have discussed various aspects of this congregational polity and the advisory nature of Synod. In this essay we will explore the historical background and underpinnings of the LCMS decision to organize according to congregational polity and the crucial role of CFW Walther in those historical developments.

The organizational structure of most of Christianity for most of its history has been admittedly hierarchical rather than decentralized or even democratic.  At the same time, the dynamic of Christian mission has worked most effectively at the local indigenous level.  CFW Walther was both committed to Christian mission and knew from bitter personal experience the serious problems associated with hierarchical structures in the church. It was the forced unification of Lutheran and Reformed church bodies, despite their differences in doctrine and practice, that motivated the Saxon Lutherans to emigrate to the United States, “…for there, as nowhere else in the world, perfect religious and civil liberty prevails” declares the “Emigration Regulations” of the Saxon pilgrims in 1839.  Those signing this document were committed to “the pure Lutheran faith as contained in the Word of God…and set forth in the Symbolical Books of the Lutheran Church.” They felt duty bound to emigrate because they could “see no possibility of retaining in their present home this faith pure and undefiled, of confessing it and transmitting it to their posterity.”[1]

Walther and his compatriots also were very negatively affected by the leadership of Pastor Martin Stephan and his “Romanizing tendencies.” Stephan held a very hierarchical view of the church and its ministry; he had “prevailed upon most of his followers to make him their bishop and to sign a document in which they vowed obedience to him in all religious matters and even in the business affairs of the community.” [2] One can only imagine the confusion and hurt of his followers when Bishop Stephan was charged with moral unfitness and deposed from his office and expelled from the settlement.

Walther was obviously intent upon maximizing the missional moment and negating the hierarchical dangers of church organization by establishing congregational polity as the structural order of the Missouri Synod. He knew very well that America was a mission field, and that local congregations and pastors needed to be empowered and supported in their local mission and ministry. Regional and national/international church structures function appropriately when they support and enhance local, indigenous mission.

Walther and the framers of the Synod were very explicit in formulating the role of the larger body relative to local congregations and their pastors and teachers. The seat of authority is properly located in the local congregation with its local pastor (and other called church workers).[3] These local members voluntarily band together in Synod to assist and support one another. They accomplish this through initiatives such as: training and care for church workers; developing resources for churches and schools; strengthening local congregations in their witness and human service efforts; encouraging uniformity and respect for variety in church practices; and conserving and promoting the unity of the true faith.  These are initiatives which congregations cannot accomplish very well on their own; they are developed and provided by Synod to serve the local congregations and workers.[4]

Walther and his congregation, Trinity Lutheran St Louis, submitted an amendment to the original draft of the Synodical Constitution (subsequently included in the Constitution) “that Synod, in its relation to the individual congregation, is to be merely an advisory body, and that its resolutions have no binding effect until adopted by the congregation as not contrary to the Word of God and suited to its condition.”[5] The Constitution explicitly states, and the Bylaws reiterate, that Synod stands in an advisory relationship to its members, rather than in a compulsory or legislative role.[6]

Behind the position of the LCMS Constitution and Bylaws stand the strongly critical views of Walther as he examined the constitution and practice of the Iowa Synod. He was appalled as he read, “…the synod holds ecclesiastical control over all its pastors and congregations and has the final decisive word in settling any disputes that are brought before it…’Here it is written,’ they will say.  ‘The synod is the supreme court,’ so be quiet…”[7] Walther surely had in mind the kind of hierarchical ecclesiastical authority exercised in his native Germany; hence his strong reaction to the hierarchical approach embodied in the Iowa Synod Constitution.

Walther affirms, “with respect to the individual congregation’s self-government the synod is but an advisory body, i.e., the synod can impose nothing [emphasis added] on the congregation. In its self-government the congregation is free to do anything that it can defend before God, and the synod has no say in the matter…but [the synod] has the duty to give advice when asked.” Again,

“According to our constitution, no synodical resolution is binding on the individual congregations. No resolution. Mark that well! What we resolve here in convention the pastors and lay delegates must report to the home congregations and say, ‘This is what the convention resolved.’ But they cannot say, ‘Now you must also observe the contrary the congregation can say, ‘As soon as it is a matter that has been left free for us as Christians, we can disregard the resolution of the convention,’ and the synod can say nothing against that.”[8]

The authority of the local congregations and their workers is explained with crystal clarity in Walther’s statement,

…According to our constitution the congregations have also this right, that they can reject and disregard all resolutions that are not in harmony with the Word of God or that they find inexpedient for their circumstances. Note well! It does not merely say: those that are ‘not in harmony with the Word of God’ – that is self-evident and is granted even by the papists – but it says: ‘or are inexpedient for their circumstances.’ Therefore, as soon as a congregation sees that a resolution presented and recommended to it is unsuited to it, it can say, ‘We do not adopt it.’[9]

It is critical to recognize the proper order of authority according to this last quote from      Walther, the founder of the LCMS and the framer of its constitution. Conventions may adopt resolutions and offer them for the “information, counsel and guidance of the membership,” [10] but ultimately these are received by local congregations and workers to consider whether the given resolution is in harmony with the Word of God and (even if it is) whether it is applicable to that congregation and its workers. If it is not, then the local congregation, as per Walther, simply does not adopt that resolution for its own use, regardless of how many other congregations may find that same resolution expedient and useful for their purposes. The actions of Synod are strictly advisory in nature, subject to acceptance or refusal by local members.

Given Walther’s uncompromising stance on the self-government of local members and the advisory nature of Synod, we can only imagine how he might react to the tenor of certain elements in the current LCMS Bylaws regarding the relationship between the LCMS and its local congregations and professional church workers. Consider the following:

(1) While the Bylaws continue to affirm the advisory nature of Synod, and cite the Lutheran Confessions in commenting that duly adopted and ratified doctrinal statements shall be “accepted and used as helpful expositions and explanations” [FC SD], Bylaw 1.6.2 (b) (7) goes on immediately to declare: “They [i.e. doctrinal resolutions of Synod] shall be [emphasis added]honored and upheld (“to abide by, act, and teach in accordance with” [1971 Res. 2-21]) until such time as the Synod amends or repeals them…”[11]  The latter statement certainly gives the strong impression that once such doctrinal resolutions are passed in convention and ratified by the requisite number of responding congregations, all members of Synod (congregations and professional church workers) are obligated publicly to agree with and support these doctrinal statements.

Walther would have bristled at the blanket statement that resolutions “shall be honored and upheld” in the sense of being abided by and taught in accord with, apart from the individual member’s judgment regarding the applicability of that resolution to its particular local condition. In his Iowa District address Walther stated explicitly, “The synod can NEVER say, ‘You must obey, even when you don’t want to’ [emphasis original].” [12]


(2) Bylaw 1.7.2 “Agreements” does reiterate that Synod is advisory and “recognizes the right of a congregation to be the judge of the applicability of the resolution to its local condition.” However, 1.7.2 leads with the statement, “The Synod expects every member congregation of the Synod to respect its resolutions and to consider them of binding force,” and follows the acknowledgement of the congregation’s right to judge the applicability of the resolution to its local condition with the serious caution that “the congregation must not [emphasis added] act arbitrarily, but in accordance with the principles of Christian love and charity.” [13]

Now certainly Walther would have agreed that congregations (and their professional church workers) should be “respectful” of synodical resolutions; they should act soberly, in Christian love and charity, and not arbitrarily or whimsically when judging such resolutions. But he very likely would have rejected such compulsory-sounding language, given his clear and decisive statement, “The synod can NEVER say, ‘You must obey…”[14] It is the place of the congregation and its workers to determine whether they choose to adopt and use a given resolution; it is not the place of Synod to impose compliance in blanket fashion upon its members.

(3) Most telling is the appearance in the 1973 Synodical Handbook of a new section in the Bylaws dealing with “dissent.”  Under Bylaw section 1.09 “Relation of the Synod to its Members” part (e) states: “While retaining the right of brotherly dissent, members of the Synod are expected as part of the life together within the synodical fellowship to honor and uphold the resolutions of the Synod. If such resolutions are of a doctrinal nature, dissent is to be expressed first within the fellowship of peers, then brought to the attention of the CTCR before finding expression as an overture to the convention calling for revision or rescission.”[15] This new section[16] arose from convention discussion regarding seminary issues and the prerogative of professors in the LCMS institutions to express publicly their disagreement with certain doctrinal resolutions of the Synod[17]

There is no mistaking the fact that this was precisely the period in synodical history when Synodical President JAO Preus was attempting to “clean up” the St Louis Seminary and enforce doctrinal compliance among all theology professors of the Synod. There is also no mistaking the fact that this new provision for “dissent” flies in the face of the constitutional locus of authority in the local congregation and its professional church workers. The clear presumption of this section on dissent is that, except for specific disagreements among individual members with a given resolution of Synod, all members accept, support and publicly agree to teach and act in accordance with that resolution.

This stands in stark contrast to Walther’s constitutional intent of congregational self-government within an advisory Synod, whereby congregations and their professional church workers receive as advice any resolutions of Synod, doctrinal or otherwise, take these resolutions under advisement, and judge whether or not they are in harmony with the Word of God and whether they are or are “not applicable” (original German: “uneigentlich”) to their particular circumstances. From Walther’s own strong statements at the Iowa District Convention, it is clear that he would not have accepted the directive of the Bylaws that members of Synod “abide by, act, and teach in accordance with” the doctrinal resolutions and statements of Synod, as if they publicly agree with them – even if they don’t! – “until such time as the Synod amends or repeals them.”[18]. In appealing to Luther on the freedom we have as Christians, Walther argued,

“…the synod can impose nothing on the congregation…synod can establish no rules, no ceremonies, nor any kind of regulations; it cannot impose taxes, not even a penny…The proverb that Luther used precisely in reference to this power [i.e., of congregations giving to the synod the power to tell them what to do] is well known: ‘Dogs on a leash learn to eat leather.’ One should give no one any power that God has not given, so that he can say, ‘You must,’ be it ever so little. The point at issue here is the great freedom that we have as Christians…”[19]

Once again Walther’s clear dictum applies: “The synod can NEVER say, ‘You must obey, even when you don’t want to’”. [20]

In short, Walther’s wisdom regarding the advisory nature of the LCMS and his strong arguments against any hierarchical form of church polity speak clearly and forcefully to our Synod today, as our church body forges ahead toward increasingly de facto hierarchical control of its member congregations and professional church workers. The saying is true: “Power perceived is power achieved.”[21] As long as congregational and professional church worker members of Synod continue to accept the hierarchical demands and control of the synodical administration, that administration will continue to exercise and expand its hierarchical control. Only by returning to the constitutional foundations as laid down by Walther and the original framers of Synod will the properly advisory nature of Synod relative to its members be reasserted and restored, and the essentially missional character of our Synod once again become the leading moment of our church body. To close with a quote from Walther:

As zealous as we should be to improve our District/Synod Walther was addressing what had been the Iowa “Synod” and was at this convention just becoming a “District” of the LCMS. in every respect, yet the well-being and the growth of the District/Synod is not to be our primary goal. Our primary goal should be to spread God’s glory, to rescue souls and bring them salvation…The moment we consider our District more important than the invisible kingdom of God, the kingdom of grace and of salvation, we begin to be a sect.

[1] As cited in “Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod,” Lutheran Cyclopedia, Concordia Publishing House, 1954, p. 607.

[2] Ibid.

[3] While Walther refers to Synod being advisory to “congregations” in Article VII of the Constitution, it is clear that the advisory role applies also to the professional church workers of the congregations, who along with congregations are members of Synod.

[4] Constitution of the LCMS, Article III, in 2013 LCMS Handbook pp. 13-14; hereafter Handbook.

[5] Lutheran Cyclopedia, p. 608.

[6] Handbook, Constitution Article VII; Bylaws, 1.7.2.

[7] CFW Walther, “Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” Essays for the Church, Vol 2, (trans. Everette W. Meier) Concordia Publishing House, 1992, Walther’s address to the 1879 Iowa District Convention, p. 32; hereafter Essays.

[8] Ibid., pp. 31-32.

[9] Ibid. p. 32.

[10] Handbook, Bylaws 1.6.2 (a), p.35.

[11] Handbook p. 36.

[12] Essays, p. 32

[13] Handbook, p. 36.

[14] Essays, p. 32.

[15] 1973 LCMS Handbook, p. 28.

[16] This is now a separate item, Bylaw 1.8 “Dissent,” in the 2013 Handbook, p. 36.

[17] Proceedings of the 1973 LCMS Convention, Res. 3-01.

[18] Handbook, Bylaw 1.6.2. (b) (7)

[19] Essays, p. 31.

[20] Ibid., p. 32.

[21] Brad Thor, The Athena Project.

[22] Walther was addressing what had been the Iowa “Synod” and was at this convention just becoming a “District” of the LCMS.

[23] Essays, p. 60.


Facebook Twitter Email

2 thoughts on “Wisdom from Walther

  1. It’s really not all that surprising that LCMS would selectively ignore its constitutional provisions regarding polity because it also has selectively ignored its constitutional provisions regarding confessions. Curiously, those who would most strenuously object to this statement would refer to themselves as “confessional Lutherans”.

  2. I don’t suppose this will ever be responded to in 2024… But I wonder how seriously C.F.W. Walther intended for his insistence on the “advisory nature” of Synod. Given the early Missourian fights with Ohio, etc. in the Predestinarian Controversy, it seems almost disingenuous to suggest that Walther really believed that nothing beyond Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions could be foisted upon the local congregation as essential for fellowship in the LCMS (surely a complete agreement with Walther’s interpretation of the Formula of Concord, is implied within adherence to our confessions).

    Again, this just seems like the dame slippery slope that leads us to the Brief Statement of ’32, the Statement on Biblical and Confessional Principles, etc etc. “We’re not establishing ‘new confessional standards’, we’re simply laying out how to properly understand the Scriptures and Confessions — which are the only authority!” Yeah, okay.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *