A Waltherian Moment

By Robert Schmidt

The last gavel has been struck.  The Synodical convention is over.  A district president was overheard saying that it was the most peaceful convention he had attended.  In an interview with the Lutheran Witness, President Harrison remarked, “I think the biggest thing accomplished, number one, was really to have a convention that was civil and positive. I don’t know how many hundreds of people came up to me, thanked me and said they had been at previous conventions that were rancorous affairs and that this was totally different from anything they’d seen before. That was really important.”[1]

Though some might see the lack of controversy as the healing of old wounds, others of us find our bloody gashes lightly covered over with synodical spin. Children are leaving our churches over strictures not found in the confessions, like a six-day creation, closed communion, penalties for praying with other believers, and communing with other Lutherans. Never mind the subordinate role of women. (Don’t even mention their ordination!)

There is another explanation for a more “peaceful” convention.  There was no “Gospel First” organization. Jesus First was not present.  The few members of Daystar that were present were ill equipped for a major confrontation.  Above all, so many issues were decided before the convention even began that opposing them with vigor at the convention would have been simply useless.  So….

What Are Moderates To Do?

What about another Evangelical Lutherans In Mission (ELIM)?  Begun after the purge at Concordia Seminary and the International Mission Staff,  ELIM  was needed to support those whose jobs and careers were at stake. Were there enough congregations willing to support Seminex and place their graduates?  Many asked, what about our retirement?  After the first flush of success, ELIM was not able to maintain itself. Seizing the opportunity for joint Lutheran conversations between the ALC and LCA, folks from ELIM joined in (later forming the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches after that mid-70s schism), and the rest is history.

Would another ELIM work today?  Some have asked whether we now have the leadership capable of forging a new organization.  Others ask whether we have the same conditions, lacking a Seminex faculty and the same overriding concern for foreign missions. Still others, observing a popular disdain for much of organized religion, wonder whether now is the time for another organization draining away money and energy from our Gospel mission. Reviewing its history, it is safe to conclude that another ELIM could only come about if there was a significant crisis involving a considerable number of people.

What about just joining the ELCA?  Some of the best from Missouri have already done so and they seem quite happy.  Some display a new convert’s enthusiasm and others have taken important leadership roles. After leaving one of our Concordias, a professor and his entire extended family had a great party celebrating their leaving Missouri for the ELCA.  It is simple, direct, and it opens the door past the conundrums faced daily in the LCMS.

But for some it is not a “struggle free” choice.  Friends and family are still in the LCMS. Then there are the struggles within the ELCA itself.  Why is there a North American Lutheran Church (NALC)?  Why did the 6 million Mekane Yesus Church of Ethiopia break fellowship with the ELCA?   If Missouri is known for being against gay marriage and gays in the ministry, the ELCA is merely viewed as being for them.  Often lost in the headlines is the Gospel itself.

What about helping form a new Lutheran church body that would occupy the Lutheran center, like the ALC did in the past?  Lutheran CORE began to bring together Lutherans from a variety of synods in opposition to where they saw the ELCA going. The North American Lutheran Church (NALC) has organized itself into what is looking like a church body.  Then there is the Lutheran Church in Mission for Christ (LCMC), seeking a similar position, more conservative than the ELCA but less conservative than the LCMS. Noting that the conventions of CORE and the NALC are meeting together in Pittsburg this summer, one wonders whether a new Lutheran body is being shaped as an alternative to the ELCA and the LCMS. Were moderates in Missouri to form a new ELIM as a stepping stone to something larger, such a new Lutheran church body might be the way to go.

For many folks in Missouri who just want a fine local church where they can worship with their family and friends and don’t want to involve themselves in “church changing,” there is the other option chosen by the majority of moderates in the LCMS. It is just keep your head down, your mouth shut, and pray for change, knowing that human beings have erred and will err again. Why spend time and effort trying to change what apparently doesn’t want to be changed? For these folks the overriding question is, “Will any effort in Missouri, or in building another church body, or even joining any existing church body, be worth the effort?”

Is Changing the Church in a Post-Denominational Society Worth the Struggle?

This is the question to ask, when we see our children and grandchildren leave our church to try out other congregations, denominations, or para-church missions.  Here is a simple test:  You might  ask your children and/or grandchildren whether they might get excited to begin another church body.  A few who have seen their parents suffer in the LCMS might be interested.  However, the far majority of millennials and even their parents will get that glossy look in their eyes and change the subject.

Unless you happened to be paid by a church, most folks under thirty have so much on their plates making it in the economy and keeping the family together they have neither the time nor interest to worry about somebody else’s organization.  Few have any ongoing loyalty to a denomination.  The traditions of music, liturgy, doctrines, and history are something in the past for those people who have the luxury to treasure those things.  Life is serving up far bigger questions than these and only congregations that are answering these big questions, whatever their brand, deserve their loyalty.

Even in the synodical schools, where loyalty to the institution was inculcated in the past, there is a thinning of tradition.  Most of the synodical schools have less than 50% LCMS Lutherans attending. Some have less than 20%. Here the struggle is to communicate the basics of the faith, not the sometimes quirky teachings of the LCMS. Even if synodical officials have the final say on theology profs, it is not going to change the playing field.

Within our current culture, making a big deal about church organizations has a hollow ring to it.  In theological language, organizations and their rules are law, law, law, and trivial law at that. Unless your income is at stake, who cares all that much?  What then is the alternative?

Exercising Christian Liberty

Neither the reform of the LCMS nor the creation of a new church body, and…maybe not even pulling up roots and going to the ELCA is worth the effort. Only living the Gospel, practicing the Gospel, and spreading the Gospel is worth the effort.  Justification by grace, through faith alone in Christ is the article by which the church stands or falls. It is really what we are all about, regardless of which church organization we are members.

Being justified by grace we are free from the law, especially synagogue and church laws that are used to anchor our group identity.  This was the message of Paul and the message of Luther.  It also is the unmovable foundation, the rock on which we base our message, our behavior, and our hope.  If Christ is for us, who can be against us?

For Paul the Gospel was not only about how sinners can be saved.  In both Galatians and Romans justification by grace through faith was the path to fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians.[2] In Missouri, fellowship is once again the issue in joint worship in time of tragedy, communing with family members of other church bodies, open communion, and welcoming the ministries of women in our midst.  Synodical rules, supposedly created and enforced to bring unity to the members of the synod,  have really had the effect of breaking up the body of Christ and of continuing to destroy fellowship in the Missouri Synod.

When necessary to witness to the Gospel, the love of Christ constrains us to practice fellowship with those outside the LCMS, to commune at their altars, to preach and pray together to witness to our common faith in Christ.

To serve congregations that cannot afford a pastor, the love of Christ and the practice of St. Paul impel us to call qualified elders, deacons, and deaconesses to preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments.

Demonstrating the love of Christ we will share the body and blood of Christ with all believers who, with us, have confessed their sins and received Christ’s absolution.  Thus, we will discern the true body of Christ in our fellowship as well as in Christ, the bread of life.

Recognizing the outstanding gifts of women in our midst we will call on them for their many ministries including, when appropriate, ordination for the ministry of word and sacrament.

In our message to the world, we will not just plead for the freedom of our religious rights but rather for the people of the world to be free from hunger, oppression, poverty, and lack of medical care.

The Advisory Role of the Synod

As congregations exercise their Christian liberty they can expect criticism, outrage, discipline, and threats of expulsion.  This should be expected.  This is why Paul was imprisoned and beaten.  This is why Luther barely escaped Worms with his life. This is ultimately not a “synodical matter.” This has to do with the preaching and practice of the Gospel.

A “synodical matter” is whether or not those who would curtail our liberty understandand live according to Article VII of the synodical constitution.  Article VII states:

In its relation to its members the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an  advisory body. Accordingly, no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.[3]

Events leading up to the adoption of Article VII were not insignificant. At its very beginning the immigrants from Germany had to wrestle with the clerical pretensions of Bishop Martin Stephan. When he was expelled from the colony for moral reasons and all formal ties to the church in Germany were broken, the question arose whether or not a valid ministry of word and sacrament was possible.

In the Altenberg Debate, Walther convinced the immigrants that the rights and treasures of the word and sacraments belonged to the congregations which Christ won for his church. From God’s word, the Lutheran Confessions, the writings of the pure teachers of the Lutheran Church and from Augustine and Ambrose.[4]

In his 1848 Presidential Address Walther spells this out very clearly:  He writes:

According to the constitution under which our synodical union exists, we have merely the power to advise one another, that we have only the power of the Word, and of convincing. According to our constitution we have no right to formulate decrees, to pass laws and regulations, and to make a judicial decision, to which our congregations would have to submit unconditionally in any matter involving the imposing of something upon them. Our constitution by no means makes us a consistory, by no means a supreme court of our congregations.  It rather grants them the most perfect liberty in everything but the Word of God,  faith, and charity.[5]

In recent years decisions of the Synod have almost buried Article VII. Statements, bylaws, and resolutions have taken precedence over the liberty of congregations to make decisions based upon the Word of God.  The Synod in Convention has sought to declare what the Word of God teaches.  No longer is the accent on “convincing.”  Now in 60 – 40 votes congregations must abide by the decision.  This is a travesty on what the founders of the Missouri intended the Synod to be. If Article VII has been buried, it is time for its resurrection.

The Coming Struggle

In recent history synodical battles were fought for seminary control, delegates to conventions, and elections.  They were waged in print, blogs, and electioneering. If the relevance of Article VII is to be resurrected, the place of the struggle will need to change. Now it must take place within congregations. Will we have closed communion? Can our pastor be part of a wedding at another Lutheran church? … at a Methodist church? May our members commune at other altars? Might we invite a neighboring woman pastor to preach at our services?  Should we commission one of our elders to celebrate the Lord’s Supper when no pastor is available?

Contrary to the position of our Synod in its outdated statements, can our pastor teach that God created the world and used evolution in the process?  Can we invite a Bible class teacher who uses historical-critical methodology to better understand the Word of God?  Shall we call a woman pastor?

Perhaps few of our congregations will be ready for such discussions, but what an opportunity for teaching, preaching, action, and putting the Gospel first in all of its beauty and power.  What if congregations and their newly minted pastor don’t agree?  Convincing takes time for both sides.  Here the study of the word and the Lutheran confessions become not only important but fascinating as well.  Better an argument about the substance of our faith than the color of the new carpet.

A bigger problem will occur if a moderate pastor is accused of going against synodical dictates and his congregation. Fully cognizant of the fact that attacks will be forthcoming and one’s position is at stake, a wise pastor will involve the whole congregation in making crucial and sometimes controversial decisions. While it might be fairly easy to discipline the pastor as a rostered member of the Synod, it becomes more difficult, given Article VII  of the constitution, to move against the congregation.  Actions against congregations exercising their Christian liberty should be widely publicized. This can once again resurrect Article VII in the consciousness of the wider church.

A Waltherian Moment

The clericalism implicit in Stephan’s investiture, and that displayed in the latest convention are similar and disturbing.  We might indeed have the setting for a Waltherian moment. However, such a moment will quickly disappear unless we can create a digital equivalent of Der Lutheraner. Walther was able to spell out his views on Lutheran teachings as well as on congregational prerogatives. Given the corporate culture of our society, congregations have been programmed to look to the organization  for  clues as to how to behave.  After the demise of the Jesus First newsletter, most pastors and their congregations have only heard the corporate line of the Synod.  Needed is a Gospel oriented, congregationally focused publication designed to reach interested congregations and rostered members of the Synod.  Featured might be the struggles of individual congregations in carrying out their mission, pastors under fire, and cogent articles on the inclusive nature of the Gospel and its meaning for fellowship, mission, and ministry.  Here the emphasis would not be on winning elections but on strengthening congregations and their leaders for ministry.

In addition to such a publication Bible Studies might be written and circulated on topics confronting congregations in areas of fellowship, communion, creation/evolution, the ministries of women, lay preaching and administration of the sacraments. In the coming months congregations may well become the best forums for such discussions.

As conflicts develop, and they will, perhaps another free conference will be necessary. Maybe we will need another statement of the 44.  But  the conflict will not be about the control of the Synod. Rather it will be about the Gospel.  That is worth fighting for.

*Robert Schmidt is the editor of The Daystar Journal. He served as a professor of theology and acting president of the Lutheran Seminary of Nigeria.  Upon his return to the U. S. he was a campus pastor at Colorado State University and later at the University of Washington. Before his retirement he was the Dean of Theological Studies at Concordia University in Portland. 

Dr. Schmidt also served as the director of the Lay Assistant Program of the Northwest District. He has been a pioneer in commissioning licensed deacons for word and sacrament in congregations too small or poor to have their own pastor. He has spoken on the Biblical precedent of the lay celebration of the sacraments around the world in Nigeria, Germany, Japan, China, Kazakstan, and India.

[1] “Harrison addresses joys, challenges for Synod,” Reporter Online. http://blogs.lcms.org/2013/harrison-addresses-joys-challenges, (accessed 8-1-13).

[2] See Krister Stendahl, Paul among the Jews and Gentiles (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976).

[3] Handbook of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod 2010. (St. Louis: Concordia Publ. House, 2010), 16.

[4] Ernst Buerger, “Memoirs” in Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (Ed.) Carl Meyer (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964), 136-141.

[5] C.F.W. Walther, “Presidential Address of 1848” in Ibid., 170, 171.

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