As far as I know, only Lutherans use the word “synod” to describe their larger church bodies.
It seems likely that this includes only English-speaking Lutherans. So I will take this opportunity to describe what I mean by the word. I think that most of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod would agree with me.
A synod is a collection of churches. If it had no churches, but only Christian day schools, it would not be a synod. If it had no churches, but only exploratory missions, it would not be a synod. A synod is a collection of churches.
Furthermore, churches become part of a synod voluntarily. No church can be forced to join a synod. Three factors determine whether a congregation will be part of a given synod:
- Whether the doctrine of the synod is the same as the doctrine of the church. This is the basis for membership in a synod.
- Whether the purpose of the synod is compatible with the congregation.
- Whether the culture of the synod is compatible with the congregation.
Churches belong to no more than one synod, though they might recognize a bond of fellowship with churches of other synods. So if a congregation already belongs to one synod, it will not join another without leaving the first.
When a synod acts, it does so as a cooperative collection of churches. It has no existence beyond its member churches. Acting together, the churches can support schools and missions. The synod can research and declare formal relationships with other synods. It can issue statements in response to events or needs. It can provide assistance to congregations and people. But the purpose of a synod is really an extension of the purpose of its churches, so all of its activities should be directed toward the tasks that God has given Christians to carry out together. The most fundamental purpose and use of a synod is therefore to provide ministers for its churches who will preach and teach God’s Word and administer the sacraments.
God did not say anywhere that we should have synods, but He did say that Christians should assemble to hear His Word (1 Cor. 14:26, Heb. 10:24-25) and to receive His sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper — “do this in remembrance of Me.”). Such a regular assembly has the essence of a Christian congregation, so it is safe to say that God wants us to have congregations. He does not say that we should have synods or that we should not have synods.
Congregations have the freedom to make synods, but it is not a requirement. So a church does not sin when it leaves a synod, nor when it declines to join one. Likewise, a minister has the freedom to join a synod, and to remain a member, or not. For its part, a synod has the freedom to determine the particular grounds for membership. It can not tell its churches or ministers what to do, but it can remove them from its membership when the basis for membership has been destroyed. A synod’s role in the business of its churches and ministers is merely advisory.
When is the basis for membership in a synod destroyed? When the doctrine that is persistently taught or accepted by the synod contradicts the doctrine persistently taught or accepted by a member congregation. This leaves room for temporary errors, admonishments, and corrections on both sides, but not for permanent contradictions. It is assumed that any human being except Christ himself, and any human organization is subject to errors and mistakes (Psalm 19:12).
The interesting thing about a synod is that it fully exists only when its member churches are actively collaborating. So in the ELS, we have annual conventions of delegates from every congregation to carry out the business of the synod and decide all matters of importance. This convention must follow the rules that define the synod (that is, the articles of incorporation), but in every other respect, it is the highest human authority in the synod. It is the convention that defines the constitution of the synod, and alters it when appropriate. It is the convention that defines offices and chooses individuals to carry out its will between conventions. It is the convention that reviews the performance of its standing officers and organizations, and makes corrections when needed. The synod convention follows its own rules, but can also change any of them except the particular rules that define the synod (that is, the articles of incorporation).
So if the synod in convention takes special interest in a matter that is being handled another way according to its rules, there is nothing to prevent the synod convention from bypassing those rules and handling the matter directly. In some cases, this may even be preferable because of the urgency or expediency involved. It seems likely that this should apply in this case.
I look forward to any comments, corrections, or corroborations that might be offered to this posting.