The ministry statement adopted by the ELS in 2005 had been scrutinized by a number of ELS pastors and laymen by that time. Questions and misunderstanding abounded, and there were few satisfying answers. Some wondered if there were really contrary doctrines in play among us, but a greater problem was that some elements of the ministry statement go beyond the purview of holy scripture, describing instead the tradition and sensibility of the ELS. Such things can’t be scripturally defended as doctrines, though there may be nothing wrong with them as local traditions.
Compounding that problem, there has been disagreement about what “the office of the holy ministry” is all about. Is it essentially an activity, or is it essentially a position to be filled, which performs the activity? The adopted ministry statement attempts to say it’s both, but the success of this attempt is a matter of debate. Some say it favors one point of view, and vice versa. Some say that there is really no scriptural support for one point of view, and vice versa. This is another one of those important, but unanswered questions. An answer will require some public exegetical work from both sides, and agreement upon terminology.
The ministry statement was brought to the convention for adoption prematurely. It had enough votes for adoption, but 3/8 of the synod opposed it. Since the implementation stage began, we have seen some effects of these undesirable circumstances. I’ll point out a few that have been brought to light in the report of the Commission on Appeals, formed to deal with the suspension of Pastor P. from the ELS.
### Uncertainty at Certain Times
First, the Commission on Appeals noted that the reason the synod president gave for the suspension was “Sowing seeds of discord among the brethren (Proverbs 6:19).” What he meant by that was apparently that Pastor P. had written things likely to engender schism between the pastors and churches of the synod. It may be argued elsewhere whether Pastor P.’s words or the schism came first. For now, we simply note that the Commission on Appeals settled upon this as the charge against Pastor P. It was not the only possibility.
The synod president had published his initial announcement of the suspension on January 26, 2006. His report began by saying, “On January 19, 2006, a meeting was held with Pastor [P.] to help me as president of the synod determine if a charge of false doctrine has been made by Pastor [P.] against our Evangelical Lutheran Synod.” After listing the witnesses of that meeting, he proceeded to describe how he arrived at the conclusion that Pastor P. should be suspended. It hinged upon two related elements. The first, as a question: “Has Pastor P. accused the synod of false doctrine?” The second, “Will Pastor P. retract his paper?” The implication is that a “no” answer to the second question requires a “yes” answer to the first, regardless of how Pastor P. wishes his writings to be understood.
Based upon this announcement, the Commission on Appeals could have chosen the reason for suspension “that Pastor P. has accused the synod of false doctrine.” This is supported by the president’s longer explanation of the suspension, in which he wrote, “certain statements were made that were equivalent to charging the synod with false doctrine.” And later, “[The] paper was inflammatory and caused many in the synod to assume he was making the charge of false doctrine.” And later, “charges of false doctrine must be taken seriously. This is especially true when the synod has desired to resolve a controversy by officially adopting a doctrinal statement expressing faithfully what Scripture says on a subject.” The Commission on Appeals would have been well justified in finding here the charge against Pastor P.
The Commission could have been even more specific, based upon this sentence from the president’s longer explanation: “Even to this day, the president has expressed a willingness to lift the suspension of Pastor [P.] if and when he retracts his ‘Clarifying the Issues’ paper.” So the charge against Pastor P. might easily have been “Refusal to retract an inflammatory paper assumed to have been a charge of false doctrine against the synod.”
Under the heading The suspension, the president included the paragraph that the Commission on Appeals decided to use as the central charge against Pastor P.
Some have questions and concerns about the adopted statement, “The Public Ministry of the Word.” That is entirely appropriate. But it is a different matter publicly to berate and to denounce what the synod has adopted by labeling it “unscriptural,” “unconfessional,” “not in keeping with sound doctrine,” and to state boldly that the adopted document has no authority over a pastor in so far as he is a voluntary member of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. To make such a charge is “sowing seeds of discord among brethren” (Proverbs 6:19).
Setting aside the question of where Pastor P. used the quoted words “unscriptural” and “unconfessional,” it’s a little mystifying how the Commission could have concluded that this is the actual charge, when “accusing the synod of false doctrine” is the one that had been repeated so often, that had been the sole subject of the president’s decisive inquiry, and that many of the synod’s members understood to be the actual charge. Yet I must say that the Commission had a difficult job here. In the final analysis, the actual charge against Pastor P. was not perfectly clear. I can hardly blame the Commission for playing it by ear, though I’m disappointed that it settled upon such a vague and far-reaching charge, rather than the more obvious one, which would have been logically simpler and less prone to injustice.
Obviously, the charge against Pastor P. was related to the 2005 ministry statement. That much is certain, but not much else. There are many who agree with Pastor P. on the doctrine of the ministry. At the 2005 General Pastoral Conference, a number of them had presented a request with statements similar to his “accusation of false doctrine.” There was genuine disagreement about what the doctrinal statement actually says. No wonder the president did not express a consistent or clear reason for the suspension.
The ambiguity and uncertainty that has followed is a result of the way the ministry statement was adopted: prematurely, and by only 5/8 of the convention. Cause and effect.
Inability to Cope with Substantive Doctrinal Objections
The report of the Commission on Appeals summarizes the offending statements in his paper as follows:
I cannot accept the PCM Document.
I will not permit it to be a standard for my teaching.
I do not acknowledge it as having any authority over me whatsoever.
When it talks about being in the office of divine institution to this or that extent it is not presenting the biblical and confessional doctrine, but the representative ministry notion for which there isn’t any support in the Scripture or the Lutheran Confessions.
It falsely claims that a synod president by virtue of being a synod president is an incumbent of the pastoral office.
There was a time when members of the Norwegian Synod had to deal with official documents that they could not accept, such as the infamous “Madison Settlement.” Consider that the Commission concluded that the above statements amount to “Sowing seeds of discord among the brethren.” If that is the case, then how should any of our pastors deal with an official document that is objectionable? Let’s briefly look at each of the offending statements.
First, “I cannot accept the PCM Document.” The reason for this is found in the fourth and fifth offending statements. Permit me to paraphrase. Pastor P.’s reading of the ministry document found that it teaches as doctrines the traditions of men (Matthew 15:9). This is doctrinally unacceptable.
Now, since such a thing is unacceptable, consistency demands that points 2 and 3 must follow. Which of us would permit human tradition to be a standard for our teaching? We condemn that in the Roman Catholic Church. Which of us would acknowledge the traditions of men to have any doctrinal authority over us, whatsoever? None, I hope. Thus, all of the offending statements hinge upon the doctrinal understanding of Pastor P. — that is, how he understands the doctrine of the ministry statement. His paper was not about rebellion. It was about doctrine. Yet the synod president did not engage the paper on a doctrinal level, but instead used it as a reason that its author should be ejected from the entire dialogue.
The Commission on Appeals followed the same pattern. By adopting as the charge against Pastor P. that he was “Sowing seeds of discord among the brethren,” the Commission side-stepped every question of doctrine, and framed the appeal upon an inexact and subjective claim, without giving Pastor P.’s offending statements the benefit of their original context. This allowed the substance of Pastor P.’s reasoning to be completely ignored and eliminated, never again to see the light of day. As soon as that happens, then it’s only natural that his refusal to bend the knee before the ministry document should be seen as “sowing seeds of discord among the brethren.”
The Commission demonstrated an incapacity to handle substantive doctrinal objections. This had been previously demonstrated in the suspension itself, and is probably a systemic problem in the synod. In this case, a large part of the problem was the premature and poorly executed adoption of the 2005 ministry document.
The question remains: in the present atmosphere, how can anyone in the ELS raise substantive concerns about official expressions of the synod? If the concerns would render the official expressions doctrinally unacceptable, then those concerned would be “sowing seeds of discord among the brethren.” It could be argued that they should be patient, bearing with others as they learn about the problem. But is the need for patience one-sided? The Lutheran church should be better at Reformation than this!
In its second Conclusion, the Commission on Appeals stated its opinion that “the synodical president’s handling of the situation was orderly and Biblical and consistent with his responsibility as president of the synod” despite that he did not attempt to follow the synodical guidelines on discipline. The Commission determined that the guidelines did not apply, and gave this reason: “The ‘Clarifying the Issues’ statement was inflammatory.” That was the same word used in the president’s longer explanation of the suspension. The Commission wrote, “Immediate action needed to be taken.”
The Commission considered Pastor P.’s statement to be inflammatory. Unfortunately, the Presidium’s Response to Circuit 8, which precipitated the ‘Clarifying the Issues’ Paper, was beyond the scope of the Commission, because the Commission would have found that to be inflammatory by the same measure. Instead of addressing the substance of the Circuit 8 Revision, the Response mischaracterized its statements and deemed them to be unscriptural, like so many straw men in a shooting gallery. Hence, “Clarifying the Issues.”
Again, the Commission’s “inflammatory” judgment highlights the systemic inability to cope with substantive doctrinal objections. It appears that this condition was exacerbated by the premature adoption of the 2005 ministry document.
Prevail through Selective Hearing
In the deliberation of the Commission on Appeals, it “determined that the pertinent issues before it were: 1. Were the charges brought against Pastor [P.] justified? 2. Was the due process followed consistent with the Constition and By-laws of the Evangelical Lutheran Synod?”
The Commission did not consider any other issues. Everything else was discarded as outside the scope of the Commission. Note that the choice of these particular issues was closely related to the charge against Pastor P. that the Commission had chosen to consider, that he was “sowing seeds of discord among the brethren.”
Now, compare that to the Commission’s summary of Pastor P.’s appeal.
The president falsely accused me.
He applied a double standard.
I have not charged the synod with false doctrine.
The president and not [Pastor P.], has sown seeds of discord among brethren.
The president has disobeyed the synodical bylaws.
The president has acted contrary to the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions.
The president violated the divine call of [Pastor P.].
The president led brothers into sin.
I have emphasized points 4 and 5 because they are the only ones that the Commission on Appeals considered to be pertinent, according to their own description of the deliberation! You can see it yourself. First, compare points 4 and 5 to the list of pertinent issues. They are the same list, when you realize that the Commission was dealing only with “sowing seeds of discord among the brethren.”
You ask, “what about points 1 and 2?” Well, in those points, Pastor P.’s appeal was defending against the charge that he had accused the synod of false doctrine. All of that was not pertinent, in the judgment of the Commission. Certainly the same applies to point 3. And points 6, 7, and 8 were also outside the scope of the two “pertinent” issues. The same can be said for the Appeal Appendix from July 24, 2006: it was deemed not pertinent.
Now, one hopes that the Commission on Appeals did its work impartially, despite objections that had been raised concerning its election and concerning bias that had been shown by some of its members. I suppose wisdom would follow the saying, “I trust you, I just don’t trust your sinful nature.” In any case, it has now become apparent that the Commission considered the issues quite selectively, and that it also had quite a different perception of what the issues were, than Pastor P. (and many others, for that matter) had.
This pattern of selective hearing reflects the larger synod in the time since the adoption of the ministry document. Objections are raised and largely ignored, or the objectors are given a quotation from the ministry document. All sides of the debate are trying to frame the debate themselves, and in the process, fail to hear their opponents accurately. I grant that this pattern existed before the adoption of the ministry statement too, but instead of improving since, it has worsened.
Pretensions of Resolution
In its first conclusion, the Commission on Appeals writes, “The statements of the appellant printed above make it clear that the appellant is not willing to accept and teach certain doctrines of the ELS.”
I understand that sentence just fine, but something still requires clarification. When the Commission writes “certain doctrines of the ELS,” does it mean that Pastor P. should teach that ministers are “in the office of divine institution to this or that extent,” according to the Bible? Does it mean that Pastor P. should teach that the synod president is in the pastoral office by virtue of being synod president, without regard to the definition of that position? The problem is that not everyone in the synod finds these teachings in the ministry document. Some may. Others certainly do not. If I thought that the ministry document required such teaching, then I would also deny it that authority. I have long since made myself clear about these things.
The point is, “certain doctrines of the ELS” are not yet resolved, because there remains substantial disagreement about what the ministry document actually teaches. To condemn Pastor P. for refusing to teach those doctrines is a mere pretension that they are resolved. This pretense began when the statement was prematurely adopted in 2005.
Cause and Effect
The premature adoption of our ministry statement in 2005 has caused certain ill effects in our synod, and some of them are illustrated by the Report of the Commission on Appeals. If we wish to improve the situation, the first step is to create an environment where the doctrine of the ministry can be discussed and debated without the complications of having an “adopted statement.” Last October, even exegesis from another point of view was unwelcome to many at the General Pastoral Conference. If the ministry statement can be reassigned to the role of a study document, then its contents will be retained for further use, while the door would be opened to God-pleasing and fraternal debate, based first and foremost upon public exegetical work in the holy scriptures.