Monday, April 20, 2020

Few but many. . .

In the midst of this corona virus pandemic, most congregations and pastors have been searching for creative ways to serve their people.  Some of the more creative ways have shown that there are ways to be faithful and as well as adapt to the restrictions of government and medical advice.  Others have actually proven to come at the cost of faithfulness.  Let me give but one example.

One of the worst ideas has been the do it yourself sacraments in which live streamed or video Words of Institution consecrate the elements at home.  While the numbers of Lutheran congregations trying this has been few, the numbers of people involved have been significantly more.  If you added up the membership of several of these larger LCMS congregations that have done this, the end result is  shocking.  Add up an LCMS mega congregation in Texas, Indiana, Illinois, Washington and a few others and you have the equivalent of a small district of our church body or even more.  That puts an entirely different spin on this.  It would be as if an entire district decided to depart from the historic and catholic practice of the Church and go against the judgment of our church body.  Instead of one congregation here and another hundreds of miles away and another a thousand miles away, the decisions of these pastors and their congregations has been of much greater significance to our church body.  And this will not simply go away once things have returned to normal.  Exceptions have a track record of becoming an acceptable normal. This points up the soft underbelly of a church structure which is both synodical and congregational. 

In theory, doctrine and its practice are not free for each individual congregation and pastor to determine.  In theory, when you join the Synod you agree to not go it alone.  If you disagree with the Synod, you are obliged to abide by a process of dissent that requires you to publicly preach and teach in conformity with the confessional standard of the Synod and with its doctrinal resolutions as that process unfolds.  In theory, the congregational part means Synod does not interfere in congregational governance and does not tell the congregation how to spend its money or whom to call (as long as you call from the roster of pastors Synod maintains).  In theory, you agree to use only doctrinally pure worship materials (that really means those with the formal imprimatur of Synod and not simply local judgment).  In theory, your membership means you agree to be under the ecclesiastical supervision of the individual District President and the Synod President as a the final level of supervision of doctrine and practice.  You can refer to the Synod's constitution, by-laws, and convention resolutions to flesh this out in detail.  My point here is to describe a general perspective.

In reality, some congregations and pastors too often act as if the Synod is merely advisory in every capacity and membership in Synod does not mean all that much.  In reality, some congregations and pastors presume that anything beyond the actual wording of the Lutheran Confessions is mere adiaphora and they are free to act however they choose.  In reality, some congregations and pastors often view the Confessions as being descriptive of what was in the sixteenth century and not necessary prescriptive of what ought to be today.  In reality, some congregations and pastors act as if convention resolutions, even doctrinal ones, are mere suggestions which they are free to accept or reject and still be good and faithful members of Synod.  In reality, some congregations and pastors believe that ecclesiastical supervision means that their supervisors can suggest things but have no power to do much else.  In reality, some congregations and pastors regularly stretch the limits of what it means to walk together.

Let me remind you that I do not mean that this is true of all or even most but it is especially true of some.  I do not mean to say that our rules do not matter or that those who break the rules have no regard for them.  But the oddity of our structure means that so often we defer to the local congregation and pastor and this has created some false ideas about what those on the ground locally are free to do or not to do.  I would never suggest that those who act in this way intentionally have disregard for the rest of their sister congregations or brother pastors.  But that is the effect of making their own judgments in areas where we have clearly spoken together.  This is compounded when public actions are met with private counsel by those who are their ecclesiastical supervisors (our term for the essential episcopal function). 

My point is to appeal to us to slow down, pay attention, consider the impact of our decision to go it alone, and to be much more careful about the way we innovate in exceptional times.  The same should be true for regular times also but for now we need to heed the call to walk together and not walk alone. 

1 comment:

Carl Vehse said...

In reality, the thirty-one pages of Bylaws (2.14 - 2.17) that directly deal with expulsion of heterodox congregations or members from the Synod are
• such an onerous labyrinth of regulations,
• so cumbersome to confessional Lutheran congregations and individuals who want to help the Synod maintain some semblance of "walking together" in doctrine,
• so time-consuming, financially expensive, laborious, and potentially career-threatening for the "Accuser,"
• so filled with legalistic secrecy,
• so subjected to abuse by the Accused,
that essentially no convention voting delegates can become knowledgeably aware of valid ways to improve such ecclesiastical supervision, and end up simply rubberstamping whatever recommendations may come from the CCM or from some "blue ribbon task force."

As a result, heterodox congregations and pastors can largely flaunt the Synod's doctrinal position, knowing no one is likely to risk calling them out by name. One has only to look around to see whether confessional Lutherans or those involved in the Yankee Stadium or Newtown heresies have fared better since then.