The Advisory Nature of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod

Pr. Eugene Brueggemann

Pastor Eugene Brueggemann served in parish and campus ministries as a member of the Missouri Synod for fifty-five years. He has an abiding interest in the history of that Synod and has written extensively on its historical development since the 1973 New Orleans Convention. Ed.

One of the most important questions before the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod today is the question about the relationship of Synod to its members. When is the Synod advisory to its members? Is it advisory only when non-doctrinal resolutions are passed, or is it advisory even when the issues are doctrinal in nature?

First we should answer the question: “Who are the members of Synod?” The answer given by Synod’s Constitution is that the members of Synod are the congregations and the ordained and commissioned ministers who have signed the Constitution of Synod. The congregations and the ministers who have met the criteria for membership sign the Constitution at a District convention, with the lay delegate of a congregation signing on behalf of the congregation.

Next we need to ask: “What does it mean to sign the Constitution?” To sign the Constitution means that the members of Synod accept its articles as the basis for working together to advance the mission of the church. Most importantly, it means to pledge unconditional acceptance of the doctrinal basis as defined by Article II, namely, the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as “the only true norm of faith and practice” and all the symbolical books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as “a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God.” The symbolical books are the three catholic (or, ecumenical) creeds and the Lutheran Confessions.

Signing the Constitution establishes a covenant relationship between the members of Synod. When Synod was founded in 1847 it had to make clear where authority in the church is ultimately located. As Lutherans, the men who met in Chicago that year had in mind the radical Reformation principle enunciated by Martin Luther: “popes and councils can err.” (It helps to remember the words “council” and “synod” are synonymous.) The Saxons among them were determined to learn from their own bitter history. They would not subject themselves to the kind of consistory church government they had left in Germany and they would never again swear obedience to a bishop like Martin Stephan, the charismatic leader who led them to Perry County, Missouri. One of their pastors, C. F. W. Walther, had convinced them that all powers of the church reside in the congregation and they were not about to cede them to any synod, not even one of their own making.

Because church governments, like governing bodies everywhere, tend to centralize power and use it to enforce their decisions, the founders of our Synod included two very important articles in the Constitution to make sure that the German Evangelical Synod of Missouri, Ohio and other States would not do that. Trinity Church in St. Louis, pastored by Dr. Walther, refused to join the Synod unless Article VII was included—and it was. Article VII defines the relation of Synod to its members in these words:

In 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 a congregation is concerned.

That seems clear enough. In fact, it was so unambiguous that some in the newly-formed Synod feared that the Synod lacked sufficient authority to be effective. At the next convention of Synod in 1848, Dr. Walther addressed these concerns with these words:

Perhaps all of us, the one more, the other less, are filled with concern by the thought that our deliberations might easily be unproductive; I mean the thought that, 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 the 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 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, excepting nothing but the word of God, faith, and charity. According to our Constitution we are not above our congregations, but in them and at their side.

The power of the word is the only real power the church of Jesus Christ has and all it needs to carry out the Great Commission. This power is given to the believers who gather in congregations and all qualified persons to fill the public office of the word. The congregations of Synod have not delegated to the conventions of Synod the right and responsibility of deciding what the word of God teaches when there are differences of opinion as to its meaning. Hence Article VII.C is included in the Constitution to guard against any attempt on the part of the Synod to usurp this authority. It reads: “All matters of doctrine and of conscience shall be decided only by the word of God. All other matters shall be decided by a majority vote…”

“Matters of doctrine and of conscience” keep coming up in the life of the church. Who decides these matters and on what basis? According to our synodical Constitution, the members of Synod decide what the Scriptures and Confessions say about these doctrinal questions and they are to do it on the basis of the word of God. No hierarchy decides for us. No ministerium has that responsibility. No convention is permitted to make the decision by majority vote.

Does this mean that the Synod has no role in determining what the word of God teaches on any doctrinal issue? Of course the Synod has a role—a most important one. It has the role of advising and persuading its members on doctrinal matters. It calls professors of theology to serve in its seminaries and colleges. They have a very important role in defining the Scriptures, the Confessions and the tradition of the church. In articles and papers delivered at conferences and conventions they help mold the mind of the church. The Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) combines the expertise of theological professors with the experience and insights of pastors, teachers and lay people as it addresses the issues which the Synod assigns it. The conventions of Synod on both national and district level pass doctrinal resolutions which are a measure of the (sometimes slim) majority opinion of the delegates at any particular convention.

All of this is well and good. And all of this is advisory to the members of Synod, who are obligated by the covenant they made with Synod to test every resolution of Synod to determine whether or not they are “in accordance with the words of God” (Article VII). Our synodical fathers had such faith in the power and clarity of the word of God that they dared to leave the unanswered question, “How exactly does this work in practice?” They assumed that the office of the word would be carried out in each congregation by its called pastors and teachers, and that the theological faculties and pastoral conferences would provide direction and counsel.

So when Synod meets in convention it should have no illusions as to its supreme authority to settle doctrinal questions on behalf of its members by majority vote—which is specifically proscribed by Article VIII.C. It can–indeed, it should–advise and urge its members to agree with its doctrinal resolutions, and there are occasions when a clear consensus on doctrinal issues can be recognized and celebrated. Such doctrinal resolutions are meant to be an act of thanksgiving for the clear consensus on doctrinal statements which the Holy Spirit has effected through the ministry of word and sacrament which lie at the very heart if the church’s life. They should be the result of a thorough process of study and fraternal dialog on the part of the Synod’s members, the congregations, pastors and commissioned ministers who have signed the synodical Constitution. They emphatically should NOT be the result of a narrow victory achieved by a vote of a severely divided convention.

There were two noteworthy incidents in the history of Synod in the nineteenth century when its conventions affirmed doctrinal consensus. In 1851, at Milwaukee, the Synod overwhelming approved Dr. Walther’s Theses on Church and Ministry. And in 1881, at Fort Wayne, the Synod approved his Theses on Predestination. These actions were preceded by the study and approval of the pastoral conferences and seminary faculties. A pastoral conference was always part of the convention, where issues were discussed before sessions began and consensus determined. The important point is this: the consensus was arrived through study of the word prior to action of the convention. The word of God produced the consensus. The consensus was recognized, celebrated and made a formal part of Synod’s public doctrine. The members of Synod who disagreed with the overwhelming consensus in 1881 were asked to reconsider or to leave because the truth of the gospel itself was at stake. Historians can debate this judgment. Suffice it to say that both the principle of the centrality of the gospel set forth in Articles VII and VII.C were honored.

When consensus on other doctrinal issues began to break down, roughly fifty years ago, the strategy of those who would force conformity to their point of view led them to promote an essentially political strategy of deciding doctrinal questions by majority vote at conventions of the Synod and its districts and doctrinal resolutions began to proliferate. It was a legalistic approach to solving doctrinal controversies, by bypassing the process of patient study, fervent prayer and dialogue with the brothers and sisters who have another opinion. It showed a lack of faith in the promises of Christ to send the Holy Spirit who will lead the church into all truth.

The effort to make synodical doctrinal resolutions conscience-binding on it members produced the infamous Resolution Number 9 of the San Francisco convention (1959) which required pastors and teachers of the Synod to conform their preaching and teaching to the Brief Statement which Synod had affirmed in 1932 as a summary of Synod’s positions in discussions with Ohio, Iowa and Buffalo Synods. The Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) decided that the San Francisco resolution was an unconstitutional attempt to amend the Constitution by giving the Brief Statement confessional status. Article II of the Constitution lists the confessional writings of the Lutheran Church. If another article is to be added to that list, ruled the CCM, it must be done according to the procedure laid out in Article XIV for amending the Constitution. That would require a two-thirds majority vote by both the convention and the congregations of the Synod. The Cleveland convention in 1962 accepted the CCM ruling and the principle of Synod’s advisory relationship to its members was sustained.

That principle and the principle that genuine consensus must be achieved before a doctrinal position becomes binding came under attack again at the New Orleans convention in 1973, when Dr. J. A. O Preus’ A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles was raised to become the standard by which the St. Louis Seminary faculty was to be judged. There was no clear consensus on the issues surrounding the teaching at the seminary and on the adequacy of A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles to resolve those issues. The vote in favor of the resolution was roughly 55%–a bare majority. Most of the 45% protested publicly as they walked to the podium and recorded their opposition to the procedure.

With the New Orleans convention serving as a precedent, a determined group of well-intentioned but misguided activists mounted a concerted effort to sell the idea that synodical doctrinal resolutions are not advisory and need not be the result of genuine consensus. The Synod has the authority to enforce its doctrinal resolutions, they say, because we have pledged to “walk together.” This beguiling, but ultimately foolish argument is based simply on the word “synod” and promotes unquestioning loyalty to Synod. It ignores the plain fact that our walking together is defined by the covenant we have made with each other when we signed the Constitution of Synod. Neither the military model nor the chain-gang model of walking together is what the Synod’s founders had in mind or what the members of Synod signed on for.

The current leadership of the Synod seems determined to redefine the relationship between the Synod and its members by making doctrinal resolutions of synodical conventions biding and requiring District Presidents and Circuit Counselors to be enforcers of these resolutions. Since 1998, District Presidents may be removed from office by the President of Synod for failure to follow and enforce synodical policies. It is clearly a hierarchical model designed to force agreement in doctrine and practice by a power other than the power of the word of God.

Members of the Synod must come to grips with the issue of whether the Synod is genuinely advisory or not and whether all doctrinal resolutions passed by majority vote can be enforced. The CCM has ruled on September 14, 1999, that “the phrase (in Article VII) ‘inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned’ does not refer to the Constitution and Bylaws if the Synod and is restricted to resolutions adopted by a convention of the Synod which are non-doctrinal in nature” (italics added).

This ruling gives a “show of right” to those who would enforce what Article VII calls enforceable. It has the potential of transforming the Synod into a tight-knit fellowship of “true believers” rather than an evangelical fellowship of those who subscribe unconditionally to the Scriptures and Confessions and who reserve the right and bear responsibility of judging doctrinal resolutions to see whether and to what extent they conform to Article II of the Constitution.

In brief, the ruling is based on the discovery of a loophole no one knew was in Article VII before, and which in reality is no loophole at all. Article VII says that “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 the congregation is concerned.” The CCM has “discovered” that the phrase “no resolution of the Synod” has no reference to the Constitution and Bylaws of the Synod. No reference is necessary. It goes without saying that the Constitution is not negotiable or optional. It should also go without saying that the Constitution determines the legitimacy of the Bylaws, and not the other way around. The CCM then cites Bylaw 1.09a, which says that “The Synod…shall have the right to adopt doctrinal resolutions and statements which are in harmony with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.” The CCM then concludes that this bylaw supersedes the clear wording of Article VII.

The CCM may have been eagle-eyed in spotting what they believe to be a loophole in Article VII, but when citing Bylaw 1.09a they were strangely blind to what follows in Bylaw 1.09b: “Doctrinal resolutions may be adopted for the information, counsel and guidance of the membership.” This reinforces the traditional advisory role of Synod in relationship to its members. Taken in its entirety, Bylaw 1.09 does not negate the clear wording of Article VII.

The argument that the Synod is not really advisory to its members except in non-doctrinal matters has been advancing like a glacier, little by little, for more than four decades. Now, like a glacier at the end of its long advance, it is poised to let loose and overcome us with a rush and a roar unless we stand firm on the Constitution and the historical precedents of Synod between 1847 and the 1973 New Orleans Convention. Well-meaning but over-zealous partisans of a consensus coerced by convention resolutions have made the mistake so well articulated by an army officer in Vietnam: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” Let’s not let it happen to our beloved Synod.

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