Monday, February 17, 2014

Confessional or Constitutional

Is there a difference between a confessional church and a constitutional one?

That was a question raised innocently enough yet with profound consequences.  We Lutherans, in particular the LCMS, like to call ourselves confessional.  It means something more than we have confessions.  It means that these confessions actually speak to the life of the church, define who we are, and shape our practice.  Yet at the very same time we acknowledge the church as an institutional identity, incorporated, holding assets, and being governed by the rules adopted by and for this body.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the institutional life of the Church, Inc., may not be exactly the same as or, perhaps, in concert with the identity and aims of the church confessing.  I do not have example in mind here but am thinking of the large book that just came in the mail called the Handbook 2013 of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod and how easy it is to govern our life by legalities and rules instead of by the Word of the Lord.  I am not even suggesting that we dispense with constitutions and by-laws or even the standard operating procedures that translate the rules into consistent processes.  What I am suggesting is that there are time when rules must give way to what it is that we Confess, when we must deal with issues and problems and challenges less on the basis of our institutional identities and more on the basis of our confessional identity.

When we disagree about doctrine and practice, such disagreement is not simply about violating institutional rules but about forsaking what it is that we believe, confess, and teach.  When we are tempted to use by-law and convention resolution as the real power of the body assembled, someone would do well to remind us that the power is the Word, that doctrine is not established by majority vote, not even two-thirds majority, and that the diversity of our practices cannot betray what it is we say is the very catholic and apostolic faith handed down by the saints before us.

I write these words having gotten back our parish constitution from the District Committee that reviewed our little rule book.  I write these words as I look back on a triennium of restructuring in our national church structure.  Rules are good.  But that which defines us is our confession.  Rules are necessary.  But we dare not imply that faithfully abiding by our commonly held rules is a legitimate substitute for faithful believing, confessing, and teaching.  We are a confessional church that uses a constitution and by-laws to help us be  that confessional church body.  Unless we get this right we are merely modern day Pharisees who delight more in the intricacies of our holy by-laws than the evangelists who speak the Word of the Lord that endures forever.

Canon law is not necessarily a bad thing and it is good to have canon lawyers who can read and apply the rules we have adopted for our life together but theology dare not be sacrificed on the altar of expediency.  Neither can we forget that what marks and shapes us as Lutherans are the Confessions to which we bind congregations as the condition of joining and to which our Pastors pledge to preach and teach in conformity at their ordination.

Just a few thoughts as I make my way through February. . .


Carl Vehse said...

Being a "confessional Lutheran" (a somewhat redundent phrase, since a Lutheran is, by definition, quia confessional, compared to, say, a Lufauxran) is a reference to one's membership in the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Being a "constitutional Lutheran" may refer to a Lutheran's membership in a organized congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Nowadays, and with the release of the 214-page 2013 Handbook (vs. the 145-page 2001 Handbook vs the few handwritten pages of the 1847 LCMS Constitution), an accurate description of a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod would be an "institutional" or "bureaucratic" Lutheran.

The Missouri Synod is still lagging behind the Roman Church with their seven volumes of Canon Law, or the Easter Church with their 30 volumes of 1,540 canons.

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters said, "...that doctrine is not established by majority vote, not even two-thirds majority, and that the diversity of our practices cannot betray what it is we say is the very catholic and apostolic faith handed down by the saints before us."

Amazing words from an LCMS source! In my time as a Lutheran, most of it in the LCMS, I saw "truth" established by a majority vote in the Voters Assembly time and again. I was always amazed at the process, and recalling it to mind brings back that sense of stunning disbelief from long ago.

The principle value of canon law is to maintain uniformity of practice, so that similar situations are dealt with in like manner through the ages. This helps to minimize the influence of passions and personalities that may be more inflamed in one case than in the next. If the facts are comparable, the results should be likewise.

Fr. D+
Anglican Priest

Carl Vehse said...

"someone would do well to remind us... that doctrine is not established by majority vote, not even two-thirds majority..."

Someone would also do well to remind us that the LCMS Constitution clearly states in Article VIII,C: "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. In case of a tie vote the President may cast the deciding vote."

Furthermore, Bylaw1.6 notes that, contrary to the inference that doctrine is established by majority vote, even two-thirds majority: "The Synod... shall have the right to adopt doctrinal resolutions and statements which are in harmony with Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions."

Anonymous said...

You forgot to mention . . . you write these words as a newly appointed member of the LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters! :)

Anonymous said...

Pastor Peters wrote
While explicit wording carefully distinguishes that doctine is not established by vote, that does not prevent the popular conception. BTW I did write this prior to serving but withheld posting until now.