Sunday, February 14, 2010

The Sad State of Congregationalism in Missouri

Missouri's weakness has always been its congregationalistic structure and mentality -- more than anything else this has contributed to her divisions and problems and prevented resolution of those divisions and problems. It was on the plains (swampy land, actually) of Missouri that this congregationalistic bent was invented as a fledgling group of Pastors, candidates, and people found themselves without a Bishop and unsure if they should have ever left Germany in the first place. It was an unlikely partnership with democracy and congregationalism from a people whose roots in Germany bore no resemblance to the democratic idea of voting and majority rule and whose churchly character from Germany would not have sanctioned any sort of anarchy called congregationalism -- were it not for the emergency situation before them.

But... I digress... it is not my point here to rehash the old history which has people on both sides of the congregational issue claiming truth. My point is to relate this congregationalism to the current situation in Missouri and how it has wounded us and will keep us bleeding because of it.

When it comes to fellowship at the Lord's Table, we talk the talk about close(d) communion but since we are structured congregationally, we allow each parish and its Pastor to ultimately determine who communes from outside the formal fellowship. When we were culturally and collegially more unified, and probably theologically as well, this worked well. What was not an order from Synod was certainly its regular practice -- for more than its first hundred years -- without complaint or embarrassment. There may have been a few hiccups along the way but the homogeneous character of the clergy, the interrelationships of people that made Missouri a large, if somewhat unruly, family, and the fact that Missouri was off the radar screen for most of American religion helped. Now we are in a strange position where we try to enforce close(d) communion by convention resolution and by-law from a Synod deemed advisory to congregations which are the only real "church" in all of this and who are allowed to determine which resolutions are expedient in their own circumstances.

When it comes to contemporary Christian worship (the so-called Bapticostal forms that predominate the American landscape today), we talk the talk about using hymnals, agendas, and liturgies that are doctrinally pure but since we are structured congregationally, we allow each parish and its Pastor to ultimately determine what is done on Sunday morning. Again, until the late 1950s when we were more or less culturally and theologically unified and the clergy rather collegial (and mostly related to each other in one way or another), we did not have the problem of people doing the weird they deemed wonderful and forsaking the hymnal sanctioned by Synod. Sure we had a ripple in the German to English language issue but we weathered that pretty well and by 1960 nearly every parish in Synod looked alike and worshiped alike (ala' TLH 1941) on Sunday morning. Now we face the odd situation that we have Pastors insisting that it is only the content that is governed by "doctrinally pure" and you can fix this with a good sermon and this justifies borrowing from whomever (always Protestant sources) the rest of the Sunday morning experience. We have had convention resolution after convention resolution, conference after conference, and debate after debate on this but the reality is that since we are congregationally structured, not much can really be done by parishes and Pastors who choose to act like "Bapticostals" on Sunday morning.

I could go on with issue after issue that unravels before the great altar of congregationalism. But I won't. And, I am ashamed to say, that it is this very congregationalism that allows me and my parish to be an evangelical and catholic oasis amid a District of Pastors and parishes clearly headed in different directions than we are. So when it comes down to is, this very congregationalism which I detest and which has crippled our Synod so, becomes my recourse when those who say "you cannot grow a church using a hymnal or liturgy" tell me I am wrong...

I hate it that I have become what I detest about the Missouri Synod... a catholic of the Augsburg Confession who is reduced to clinging to the sectarian congregationalism of Missouri for my life preserver...

9 comments:

William Weedon said...

Bingo...

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain...but have bishops kept the ELCA and the Episcopal church from going wayward?

We need to teach our congregations back to unity.

Rev. Josh Sullivan said...

Now that we are making pastors via SMP our clergy will become less homogenus as well. A neighboring parish has an SMP vicar. When asked what his 'specific ministry' was, he answered, "assistant pastor basically." The gap is widening, if that is possible.

You're also right about synodical resolutions. Top-down governance will never go over in Missouri. So the episcopate is out (although I'd argue we already have one based on how our call process works). So really the answer is a unified clergy. Thanks Pastor, you've gotten my gray matter stirred already today.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer said...

While I understand what you mean, and feel much the same way you do, it must be said that the sectarian congregationalism of Missouri is NOT your life preserver . . . I'm sure you mean what I know. :)

Carl Vehse said...

"Missouri's weakness has always been its congregationalistic structure and mentality -- more than anything else this has contributed to her divisions and problems and prevented resolution of those divisions and problems. It was on the plains (swampy land, actually) of Missouri that this congregationalistic bent was invented as a fledgling group of Pastors, candidates, and people found themselves without a Bishop and unsure if they should have ever left Germany in the first place. It was an unlikely partnership with democracy and congregationalism from a people whose roots in Germany bore no resemblance to the democratic idea of voting and majority rule and whose churchly character from Germany would not have sanctioned any sort of anarchy called congregationalism -- were it not for the emergency situation before them."

This is a deceptive and utter lie! It is a lie in its contemptuous and continuous reference to a "congregationalistic structure and mentality" of the Missouri Synod. It is a historical lie because the events and uncertainties described in the quotes, which occurred in the first 2 years of the Missouri Saxons immigration, were addressed initially by Dr. Vehse's Protestation document, recognized by Walther and the Missouri Saxons at the Altenburg Debate, and were well resolved before the Missouri Synod and its congregational polity were established, not in "the plains (swampy land, actually) of Missouri)" (as falsely claimed), but in the city of Chicago, Illinois, in 1847. It is a doctrinal lie as explained not only in Walther's Kirche und Amt but also in C.F.W. Walther's "First Presidential Address-1848" (see At Home in the House of My Fathers, Matthew C. Harrison, Lutheran Legacy, 2009) and in a series of his articles published in The Congregation's Right to Choose Its Pastor (trans. Fred Kramer, Concordia Seminary Publications, 1997). It is doctrinal lie exposed by the stand Walther and the Missouri Synod took in opposition to the heterodoxies of Grabau and Loehe. These heterodoxies were also recognized by Friedrich Brunn, who sent over 230 preseminary students to the Missouri Synod for two decades starting in the early 1860s. Brunn was also instrumental in starting the Lutheran Free Church in Saxony.

These continuing revisionist lies need to cease whether they come from seminary faculty or the seminarians they contaminate. Such revisionist lies need to be confronted and recanted. We do not need the infectious and episcopist pus of Stephanism spreading through the synodical polity at a time when the Synod must maintain its original purpose as it is endangered by the doctrinal STD (syncretically transmitted diseases) of the CEO/PLI/CGM/UsFirsters/BRTFSSG spiritual adulterers.

Past Elder said...

"Congregationalism" per se cannot be a structural flaw in the Missouri Synod even by the arguments of the article itself, wherein it is described as working fairly well so long as there was a cultural and theological unity.

That is the real flaw, that that unity, especially theological, is no longer there. "Congregationalism" has nothing to do with it.

Not only, as has been pointed out above, have "bishops" not prevented a wholesale slide into heterodoxy in other church bodies, even in Rome itself it is no guarantee what one will find just because the word "Catholic" is in the parish's name, or even from service to service in the same parish.

What is wrong with the "Numbers First" (as I like to call them) crowd and others is primarily theological. And that is a problem across the board, not just with our synod, even where there are "bishops" or other more authoritarian structures.

Pastor Peters said...

Well... to be declared a liar on my own blog... but I think Mr. Vehse misses my point again. I said nothing about bishops in my post. I did not speak about specific individuals who may or may not have encouraged this congregationalism. All I did is point to the fact the Missouri says congregation is church. Period. That is NOT something they carried with them from Germany. It is less a structural issue of constitution and by-law than it is an attitudinal one of the parishes and Pastors of this Church. It is the underpinings of the continuation of theological conflict and the means that prevents us from reigning in excesses.

To Mr. Vehse... I did not learn this from professors at seminary. I do not know any professors that teach this. I wonder if you do not presume too much here. I have been a pastor for over 30 years and my conclusion was based on years of observation about how we work in this Synod -- from the tempestuous moments of our split to the various theological issues which have occupied our conversation since. Congregationalism is an attitude as much as it is an institutionalized pattern of constitution and by-law.

For whatever reason, this has hit a nerve and methinks that when we hit a nerve we expose our weakness... congregationalism -- the attitude as well as whatever structures support that attitude in constitution and by-law -- is our weakness and it is also part of our history. We may dispute but surely we cannot deny this.

Chris Jones said...

... have bishops kept the ELCA and the Episcopal church from going wayward?

No, they have not. But that only shows that an episcopal polity is not a sufficient condition for doctrinal and practical fidelity; it does not show that it is not a necessary condidition for such fidelity.

As Fr Peters noted, he said nothing about bishops in the original post, nor did he offer an episcopal polity as the "fix" for the problems he is lamenting. I should say that the problem Fr Peters is pointing out is not a congregational polity per se, but congregationalism as a mind-set or an ideology: the attitude that "nobody can tell me (as a pastor) or us (as a congregation) what to do" because the congregation is Church and answers to no higher ecclesial authority.

The difficulty is not a lack of bishops (after all, every congregation has one!) but an unwillingness of congregations to submit to one another in mutual accountability. We could set apart bishops if we wanted to, but if the bishops themselves are not accountable to each other for their fidelity to the Church's rule of faith, then we should be no better off than we are today.

That is the trouble, BTW, with the episcopal polity in the liberal denominations (at least in the case of ECUSA). The unraveling of ECUSA as an orthodox Church body did not begin with the nonsense the "progressives" are coming up with now; it began in the 1960s when bishop James Pike denied the Trinity and the Virgin Birth and his brother bishops (though themselves orthodox) refused to hold him to account in any meaningful way for his heresy. (They did pass a toothless resolution of "censure," but they refused to try him in Church courts for heresy ("a heresy trial? That would be positively mediaeval!") and depose him. Pike was allowed to continue in office as a bishop in good standing.) From that point on it was clear that liberalism in theology would never be disciplined. Neither an episcopal polity nor any other polity will be effective if the will is not there to call wayward clergy and congregations to account for their errors.

If no one in Missouri is ever called to account for failing to use "doctrinally pure" hymnals and agendas, then that Synodal standard has lost all meaning and force. That is not a failure of the congregational polity, it is a failure of the will and the triumph of the spirit of congregationalism.

boaz said...

I don't see how a Lutheran can detest congregationalism.

I like the attitude that "nobody can tell me what to do" because the congregation is Church and answers to no higher ecclesial authority." It's the attitude that led to the Reformation. It's the attitude that led to the rejection of the Prussian union and the formation of the LCMS. It's the attitude that will lead to Pr. Harrison's election and the rejection of Pr. Kieschnick's blue ribbon power grab.

The congregation must decide how it is to relate to other congregations, and as confessionals often point out, though we have freedom on some matters, like our synodical structure and ceremonies, some forms are better than others. Congregationalism is better than any alternative. And so is unity among Congregations. But we are sinners, so we rely on the Congregations with the Truth to correct those that have compromised it. Any non-congregational form more greatly risks stamping Truth out.

Besides, congregationalism is more important than ever, as Orthodox and Catholics rely on the "need for authority" argument to obscure their many doctrinal mistakes. If you concede that human authority is needed beyond the pastoral office instituted in Scripture, you'
re on the road to Rome.