Brainstorm: Synods and Churches

Christian organizations in the world, such as synods and churches, are subject to order in two different ways. One way we may call God’s Word, which is the expression of God’s will for us, for all time. The other we may call bureaucracy.

Likewise, two kingdoms exist in the world by the authority of God.

The Kingdom of the Right is the Holy Christian Church. It’s not to be seen upon the earth, except in its pure marks: the preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments.

The Kingdom of the Left is civil governance and organization, which is found in every country, nation, state and province.

This division between Right and Left, authority Spiritual and authority Temporal, is carried into outward Christian organizations, notably congregations and synods. Why? Because the Holy Christian Church is ruled only by the Gospel, in which we have complete freedom. It’s not suitable to organize a group of sinners, which after all, describes every synod and congregation. Temporal authority is required.

So a congregation has articles of incorporation and bylaws. It elects officers and others to carry out its business. They do so with temporal or bureaucratic authority, not with the Gospel. The same is true for synods.

It has been asked what spiritual authority a synod has over its member congregations. There are two ways to err in answering this question. We would err by saying that the synod and its officers, as such, have been given spiritual authority over the member congregations, pastors and missionaries of the synod. Note this quotation brought up at the 2006 General Pastoral Conference, from Christian Anderson in 1927:

Much less ought the congregations assign to the general church body or its officers any power and authority by virtue of their resolutions — even when not in conflict with God’s Word — could be construed as laws binding upon the congregations by virtue of divine authority, vested in them as superiors according to the fourth commandment. Such concession on the part of the congregations would make of the synod a papacy which might become just as anti-Christian as that of Rome.

Unsurprisingly, Christian Anderson agrees with paragraph 8 of the Treatise and with holy scripture (John 13:3-17 and Luke 22:25-30).

Then what are we to make of synodical discipline? It is entirely bureaucratic in nature, proceeding only under temporal authority. The reasons for it, and the manner of its implementation may be rooted in the Gospel, but it is not to be construed or understood as Church discipline.

The other way to err in describing what spiritual authority a synod has over its member congregations is to say that it has none at all. If the Synod is a churchly organization; that is, if it is composed of and for Christians, then it has the same spiritual authority that every Christian has: it may speak and publish God’s Word.

If God’s Word rebukes a congregation or pastor, then the synod may speak that Word of God in rebuke — an element of church discipline.
If God’s Word commends, encourages or exhorts a church or pastor, then the synod may speak that Word in such a spirit. Every individual Christian, and every congregation may do exactly the same, with the same authority. The synod has no spiritual authority beyond the Word of God.

Ist klar?

Now allow me to shift the subject a bit.
What ought to happen when bureaucratic necessity conflicts with the Word of God? For example, suppose a member of my congregation notices that our mission statement contains something that seems to be false doctrine, but our bylaws require that all our members agree to the congregation’s teachings. It’s a conflict between bureaucratic necessity and the Word of God. Here are some choices:

  1. Release the member from the congregation and spend extra time on evangelism with the intent of forgetting that there could be a doctrinal problem with our mission statement. Under this option, the Word of God takes the brunt of abuse.

  2. Suspend the bureaucratic requirement for membership until the mission statement can be examined and fixed, or its doctrine explained to the satisfaction of all parties. Under this option, the human and temporal organization takes the brunt of abuse.

If such a hypothetical situation ever arose in church or synod, we can predict with some certainty that the first choice would be followed. That may surprise you. But if you read enough Luther, you’ll find that he often laments that it is God’s Word and God’s name that must suffer the worst abuse in the world. If you pay attention and live long enough, you just might see this theory tested.

4 thoughts on “Brainstorm: Synods and Churches

  1. Pastor Jacobsen,
    Please devolope your thoughts in this area, as I have never seen what you’re talking about on the issue of the larger Church (of which individual churches are but examples). Specifically, I’ve never understood the difference between your view and the Congregationalist view.
    I looked up Congregationalism in F.A. Mayer’s book “The Religious Bodies of America” (which you, no doubt, have on your shelf as well), and I came up with a pretty decent definition for you to work from. The lodestar of this church seems to be the idea that “the term ecclesia applied only to an organized brotherhood of converted believers in a specific locality” (349). So, in this view, the local congregation exists autonomously from every other congregation in the world, even those congregations with which it is in fellowship. Mayer rightly gives a couple judgments upon this way of thinking, which would apply also to the ideal which you seem to be speaking of when you post on this topic. To wit: “Congregationalism was not anti-creedal. It was noncreedal. It insisted that creeds dare not be invested with a binding character, but that liberty must be granted to each local church to formulate and adopt its own confession, or, if it so desired, not to have a creed at all.” …which led inexorably to this historical judgment: “The Congregational churches were totally impotent to deal with doctrinal aberrations because each local church was considered iure divino the final authority to establish its own doctrinal platform.”
    I hope it doesn’t need to be said that this is not what Christ set up. …if it needs to be said, I’ll say it, with Scriptural citation, but hopefully you see my question.


    #### Response from J.J.:

    I was confused by your comment. I think the issue you raise is orthogonal to the point in my post.

    Synods have same spiritual authority that congregations have, which is also the same spiritual authority that every individual Christian has: the authority to speak God’s Word. I’m disregarding the public/private distinction, which is neither pertinent nor helpful right now. If God’s Word says yea or nay, then the individual Christian, the congregation, and the synod may (and sometimes must) say the same thing, with spiritual authority. Sometimes such a saying fits into the steps of church discipline. Sometimes it does not. But that is the extent of spiritual authority in every case.

    So far so good? Now consider what sort of animal is synodical discipline. If you start with the assumption that
    “synod = Church” then you will probably conclude that synodical discipline is church discipline, in the sense of Matthew 18:17. I challenge that conclusion. (In fact, I challenge the premise. Stated as baldly as I have done, you can see that it’s papist.)
    Synodical discipline is, essentially, a bureaucratic process. If it were not, then anyone given the boot would have to be considered *excommunicado* by virtue of impenitence. That not always being the case, I conclude that synodical discipline is essentially bureaucratic.

    Why is it different in a congregation? Sometimes it isn’t different. If we merely “clean up the rolls” and “cut out the dead wood” of families that have moved away or otherwise disappeared over the years, that’s purely bureaucratic.
    We also have the means to enact every step of church discipline in a congregation. I think we don’t excommunicate from the synod because that would transgress the pastor’s divine call. (“I think” … because I’m no longer sure the synod has such respect for the divine call of its pastors. Another topic, another day.) Is that congregationalism?

    If you want to see something really interesting on this topic, get hold of Werner Elert’s book, *Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries.*

    Or, are you disagreeing with Christian Anderson instead of me?

  2. You know, maybe I am disagreeing with Christian Anderson. You’ve always given impressive citations from ELS church fathers to show that the Synod is purely bureaucratic, as you say. What can I say, I think that’s absolutely ridiculous. I think the last thing we need to worry about in this area is Papism. Our concern should be the doctrinal anarchy that has paralyzed practically every church in the world – perhaps especially but certainly not exclusively the congregationalists.
    But, yeah, maybe I’m off your topic a little bit. That’s okay, though, you say stuff like this every once in a while, so jump on you again at some point. Thanks for the answer.


    #### Response from J.J.:

    You may have missed the point. I don’t think synodical authority is exclusively bureaucratic. When the synod expresses God’s Word, then it carries the same authority as when a child expresses God’s Word. That’s nothing to sneeze at. (“Synodical discipline” is another matter.)

    And that’s really the answer to doctrinal anarchy, isn’t it? We’d love to curtail anarchy by claiming some super-authority on earth, whether it be centered in one man or in one earthly organization. Everyone would have to submit to whatever he/it/they say. Nice, tidy solution! Only problem is that such an authority would trump God’s Word. Unintentionally, perhaps, even benevolently — but that doesn’t make it OK. No, we have to affirm that every Christian has full authority to judge all doctrine and speak God’s word.

    Chaos? Anarchy? Perhaps. But not if we conduct ourselves according to the Gospel (1 John 3:23), respecting the judgment of those divinely called to the spiritual estate (Hebrews 13:17), and insisting that all doctrine be supported by holy scripture (Galatians 1:9).

  3. Okay, wait a second. Ignore that pithy little comment I made and answer this one instead. You put as one of your guides to dealing with anarchy, “respecting the judgment of those divinely called to the spiritual estate.” (and, out of curiosity, according to your intention, is that just a long way of saying “pastors”?)

    *[J.J.: In most cases, probably. But someone might want to quibble about the semantics, so I’d leave open the possibility that “pastors” doesn’t cover it all.]*

    Let me say 1) isn’t that putting the judgment of pastors equal to Scripture?

    *[J.J.: Well, no, though it could. In my book, “respecting” is different from “obeying without question.”]*

    And 2) what do you do when pastors disagree?

    *[J.J.: First, I used the phrase “divinely called” because it reminds us that pastors are called to serve in a specific place and time. A given flock should respect the judgment of its own shepherd before that of another shepherd. Second, when pastors disagree, it’s not a crisis. (1 Co. 11:19) Either God’s Word will settle the matter or it will allow for both opinions. The only question is whether both pastors will heed and insist upon the clear and plain Word. Sometimes we ride our hobby horses instead.]*

    Your answer to #2 will probably be something like “debate and achieve consensus.” Okay, great, but what about when that’s not possible?

    And, as always, thanks for the blog. I don’t know how you find the time. You must be one of those “organized” people I’ve heard about. 🙂

    *[J.J.: I spend much less time waiting for my computer now that I’ve upgraded from my trusty 800 Mhz Athlon processor. Organized? You should have a look [at this][gtd].]*


  4. Yeah, I actually bought that book when you first did that post in January. It’s sitting on one of the flat surfaces in my house, and I’ve really been meaning to get back to it one of these days when I have the time, but…
    I think I need another self-help book on the subject of “finding time to read to read self-help books about time-maximization.”

Leave a Reply