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.There were those who wondered if Synod had any real purpose since it had no power or authority over a congregation. Walther himself confronted such concerns in 1848:
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.It is here that some have presumed a radical congregationalism in which the congregation is supreme and Synod is little more than a cooperative structure for the sake of some common purposes. So we hear much about the Synod's power merely to advise with the congregation determining whether or not such advice is salutary in its own self-understanding or even perhaps conscience. Such matters were not at all what was addressed either by Walther or the early voices of Synod.
Advisory was clearly a term applied to the congregation's right of self-government. The Synod cannot tell a congregation how to direct their offerings, the shape their church building must have, or impose itself in the ongoing governance of the congregation's life. Synod was created in the backdrop not only of Stephan but in the backdrop of a German territorial church that had arbitrarily decided the differences between Reformed and Lutheran no longer mattered. Advisory was clearly a term chosen in view of the perceived authoritarian nature of Stephan and of the union church in Germany and not a term to prevent creed and confession from reigning supreme among those who called themselves Missouri.
The power of the Word is no small power and each congregation was not given the right to decide for itself what that Word said. This was in the backdrop of a confessional renewal in which Word and Confession were rightfully seen as not only public witness but the articles of faith to which all who were members of the Synod were clearly accountable. The members of Synod did not possess individual conscience to go against the Word and the Lutheran Confessions -- not in faith nor in practice. Such would violate the unity and create an impossible situation in which there was no unity at all. If the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions bound us, then Synod was no longer merely advisory but had the power to challenge dissent and, absent repentance, to remove members who violated Scripture and the Confessions.
The word expedient has been often seen as a way out of those things for which a congregation or other member of Synod might disagree. Expedient means convenient and practical; if a parish did not have a school, then a synodical resolution regarding a school would be inexpedient. But inexpedient cannot be applied to doctrine or practice that flows from doctrine. A parish cannot decide that it is inexpedient for them to practice close(d) communion or to reject the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar. Inexpedient means the resolution cannot apply. For example it is inexpedient for a congregation to apply the Synodical resolution to weekly Holy Communion if they do not have a Pastor there to preside at the Lord's Table but once a month. There is no ground in this term for a congregation or Pastor to say "I don't think that doctrine would work here so I am going to ignore it."
The Synod's unity is no small thing and we live at a time when there are constant fractures of our walking together and many seek the comfort and consolation that Synod is only advisory or that each parish can decide if a resolution is expedient for them or not. Perhaps since the 1960s and 1970s some have sought cover for their dissent after Synod's own procedures did resolve in their favor. Perhaps we have all learned to distrust and therefore ignore centralized authority. In any case, the kind of advisory body and the nature of what is expedient or not did not mean a radical congregationalism that would render structure of the LCMS into a glorified Lutheran version of a Southern Baptist national structure. We do not merely cooperate. We are united in doctrine and practice. We try in every case to work together and do not automatically presume otherwise. We are accountable to each other and we are open to the supervision of those on whom such supervisory office is conferred. Period.
Some fear a "glacier like" movement to reinvent the Synod as a hierarchical body. Look around you. Is this fear real? We are more diverse in practice and in faith than we have ever been -- so diverse, in fact, that many wonder is membership in the Synod actually means anything at all with respect to doctrine and faith. As Synod President, Walther himself acted to remove pastors and congregations when the situation required. The difference between the situation in Walther's day and today is largely one of size and relationship. We are big enough that no one of us knows what goes on everywhere. In terms of relationship we sometimes forget that the chief role of the Visitor and District President (officers of Synod and not representatives of a local constituency) is to supervise doctrine and practice and not merely counsel, put out fires of conflict, or raise money. Synod has worked hard to maintain a careful balance between Synod and its inherent powers granted by constitution and by-law and the congregation's right to self-government. The balance has hardly shifted but the stresses on that unity are certainly trying their darnedest to tilt it toward a radical congregationalism in which districts are representative of their congregations and Synod is merely an amalgamation of districts cooperating in certain areas. That is certainly not what Walther envisioned!
At least that is the individual position of this member of Synod....
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