There has been much debate over the course of the history of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod over the relationship between members to Synod (both member congregations and clergy). Some believe that the Synod is not advisory at all but above its congregations and that all doctrinal resolutions and statements are binding and enforcable upon all member congregations. Others claim that our congregations are autonomous (like those of the Southern Baptists) and all congregations are therefore free to disregard or reject the actions of the Synod, including those that deal with doctrine and practice.
We like to talk about the advisory nature of the Synod to its member congregations but the romance of this independence is not the reality of the relationship between Synod and its member entities. The truth is that members willingly forego their ability to act independently with respect to doctrine and practice and take upon themselves a binding relationship in which they accept the oversight of Synod and its duly elected officials and submit to its constitution, by-laws and convention resolutions.
I do not say that as one advocating but because this is the reality of the relationship and not the romance of independence (which is also part of the American persona that is a component in all of this).
The constitution that every member congregation signs on to and that every clergy member signs on to says:
1. In its relationship 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.
2. Membership of a congregation in the Synod gives the Synod no equity in the property of the congregation
In the 1920 Constitution, the “advisory body” paragraph appears as a separate Article VII for the first time, and its language is noticeably different from the 1854 text.8 Three significant changes should be noted:
1. The first sentence of the 1920 text, denying legislative and coercive powers
to the Synod, is new, and it is addressed to all members, not just congregations.
2. The sentence requiring congregational adoption to make a synodical resolution
binding on the congregation, in force for more than 65 years, is gone.
3. The last sentence is different, but still provides that it is the congregation, not
the Synod, who may determine that a synodical resolution is unsuited to the
condition of the congregation.
Editorial changes made in Article VII in 1923 resulted in our present wording. Most of those changes were stylistic, but two were more substantive. In one, the word “inexpedient” replaced the word “unsuited” to translate the word “ungeeignet” in the official German text of 1920 and its 1847-1854 predecessors. (When a congregation asks about the application of a synodical resolution to its condition, under Article VII, inexpedient may mean something quite different from unsuited.) The other 1923 change is that the text no longer explicitly states that it is the right of the individual congregation, not the Synod, to determine whether or not a synodical resolution is suited to the conditions of the congregation, a right that has been a part of the Synod’s self-understanding since its 1847 beginning.
In other words, the congregation (or clergy) do not have the freedom to reject or revoke resolutions and statements of Synod -- the only allowable "advisory" situation is if and when the resolution is not applicable or expedient (unsuited) to the condition of the congregation. As an example, if the resolution regards a parochial school and the congregation does not have one, the resolution is not applicable to the condition of Synod. If the resolution regards a DCE, for example, and the member is a Pastor, then the resolution does not apply to the Pastor because of the condition of his membership. Noteworthy here is the distinction also between matters internal to the congregation (property and self-government, for example) and external matters (doctrine and practice). Internal matters are not the domain of Synod resolution but external matters are retained as part of the scope of our free association.
This is a far cry from the advisory understanding that some herald as the freedom to do whatever you please. This is also a far cry from the essentials of agreement that some use to distinguish certain kinds of resolutions from others.
The point of this is not to suggest that we need someone to inform against the congregation or clergy. The point of this is to suggest that if the Synod as a whole (and we have countless Synodical resolutions which speak of weekly Eucharist, acceptance and use of the Hymnal, encouragement and use of private confession, etc.), Synod would be within its powers to advise congregations to work toward the implementation of these salutary resolutions.
We had a circumstance where the Synod used its lawful power to remove offending District Presidents (the issue was illegal ordination of those uncertified by Synod). Nobody liked it because we lived in the romance of a strictly advisory Synod in which each congregation had the right to determine which resolutions to accept and which to reject. In reality this was within the power and perogative of the office of Synod President. So if the Synod President wanted to challenge some of the more substantial and eggregious violations of worship and practice in Synod, he could. Whether he should or would, that is another matter entirely.
Let me be perfectly clear -- though I lived through this era I am not in any way advocating whether the actions taken then were right or wrong. I am simply pointing out that the Synod is not nearly as advisory and distant as some choose to think or champion. I am also not advocating that what we have enshrined upon the constitution all members (both congregation and clergy) signed, is what should be the language or relationship between Synod and its member entities. I am merely pointing to our self understanding of what advisory means (check out the Synod website for more pages on this).
John Fritz noted, “Correctly understood, it must stand and is beneficial in its effects; if wrongly understood and wrongly applied, it nullifies the very purpose of a synodical organization.” When a congregation joins the Synod, wrote Fritz after part of Walther’s 1848 presidential address, “it declares that it agrees to join its sister congregations affiliated with the same Synod in carrying out the very purposes for which the synodical organization exists. It must mean this if it means anything at all." Surely the very purpose of Synod's creation and existence is related to what happens on Sunday morning in the parishes that identity with the Synod. It must mean this if it means anything at all.