Synod and Congregation

Ulrik Vilhelm Koren was one of the chief fathers of the Norwegian Synod, now the Evangelical Lutheran Synod. In 1899, he wrote The Right Principles of Church Government, which has been included in the book Faith of our Fathers. There, we read what Koren wrote about the relationship between synod and congregation, found on pages 134-135.

If we hold fast to what we have taught above, from the word of God, about the essence of the Church and the independence of each congregation, it will not be difficult to understand how a body of free congregations must be governed. Such a church body cannot have any government “by divine right.” But that there must be some government follows from the fact that all things shall be done decently and in order, which is what God demands; but the government itself can belong only to the congregations, and it can be carried out only by the men who are sent and empowered by the different congregations for that very purpose. Some of these delegates are pastors and teachers, others not. The division that is often made of the accredited delegates of the congregations into pastors and laymen, as if they represented two different classes in the church, is not correct. A pastor is a member of the congregation just as much as anyone else who belongs to it, and there is no such thing as a special clergy class (as the Catholic Church teaches.) All Christians are priests. Those whom we in ordinary speech call priests (pastors) have only a special office, an especially important ministry to which they are called by God, but they do not constitute a special class.

Now when such an assembly gathered from all the congregations is to search out and carry out what will best serve the interest of the Church, it is clear that this can be accomplished only by conferring together; and that there first of all must be an agreement about the composition of the whole body, about its aims, and about how it will arrange its affairs and carry out its resolutions. This agreement is the constitution of the body. This agreement of constitution must not conflict with the concept of the Church developed above nor with the liberty of each congregation under Christ.

The Synod, then, dare not have any authority over the individual congregation. It cannot impose anything upon it, cannot demand anything of it which God has not demanded, cannot levy taxes upon it. Since the basis on which the union into one body has been built is unity in the faith, the first point in the agreement must be that the individual congregation will not let its confession or its rules conflict with the word of God or Christ’s will. This is not a power that the Synod assumes. It is God’s demand and not men’s, and this demand receives no more authority by the fact that the church body, the Synod, expresses it than if an individual presented it, although the common testimony might be a source of strengthening for one in need of it.

How a Synod Functions

In order to preserve unity in faith and to make progress in Christian life, a body of orthodox congregations will, indeed, find it necessary to establish a special overseer’s office for the pastors and congregations, such as has been the case from the earliest periods in the church. But at the same time the church body must take care to learn, from church history, how necessary it is that the execution of this office does not conflict with the principles given above. The bishops were not elected to rule. The Lutheran Church testifies to this in the Augsburg Confession, in the Apology, and in the Smalcald Articles. We elect these overseers or presidents, as we call them, not to rule but to remind us of our Savior’s rule and His royal word, and, by supervision, admonition, encouragement, and advice to help us use and obey the word of God. They have no other power than that of the word.

[ paragraph re. common goals like schools, “educational institutions, distributions of books, missions, charitable institutions, and everything that can serve the kingdom of God.” ]

Since the Church has been given no other rules with regard to all those things than that all things be done decently and in order, it becomes the task of the church body to leran how all such matters can best be arranged. And since there is no authority established by God to command in such matters, it follows that the church body cannot command or force anything upon the congregation either. Even if a congregation has through its representatives taken part in one or another resolution about such matters, it does not necessarily follow that the congregation must approve the resolution. Love will, indeed, render it necessary for the individual congregation not to reject such resolutions, if they do not conflict with the conscience, but it must be a free matter, since love is free. No compulsory commandment can be given. From the fact that God has set the pastor to be the overseer and guide in the congregation, it follows that a Christian congregation will also in such things want to hear its pastor’s opinion and counsel. But the decision rests with the congregation.

Just for the reason that God has not commanded us anything with regard to the arrangement of all such matters, we must here, as it were, feel our way and try as best we can to learn what will benefit the kingdom of God most, e.g. we must not think that all the regulations in the constitution which we have prepared are so good that they dare not be changed or could not be improved upon. However, it is important here to remember that a passion for novelty must not be allowed to rule; that we do not seek our own but what is to the benefit of all; that we do not consider ourselves wiser than others, so that we will want to force our way through or gain our end by stealth. We should not be blind to the danger that political arts and tricks may be brought over into our consultations and the resolutions of the Church, and then seek comfort in the fact that our end is good, while the means we use are objectionable. The situation is the same in the Synod as in the congregation, — everything would go well, if all weretrue believers; but as there are also nominal Christians and unconverted people in the visible church, many dangers arise. When the evil passions which are not entirely dead even in the children of God get an opportunity to come to life again and to make themselves felt; when suspicion, jealousy, backbiting, opinionatedness, vanity, ambition and lust for power rule more or less; and when restless characters who became angry because they do not get their own way work to sow discontent, suspicion and strife, then the dangers can readily result in distress and misery.

[ Short paragraphs re. the dangers of anarchy and “that worst of all tyrannies, mob rule, where individual demagogues usurp the power, drawing the crowd after them,” and the way to deal with such dangers. ]

So if there is a question of evil or good, of something which God has commanded or forbidden, there we do not ask either about majority or minority, there the conscience is concerned, and there we shall not be the slaves of men whether they be many or few. But where God has not settled the matter, there we shall submit and put up with what the majority agrees on, even if we do not get things as we would wish or as we believed would be to the benefit of the Church. There is one thing in which we shall seek our comfort and strength, and that is the truth that our Lord Jesus governs His Church. He does not need us. He often directs it wonderfully. But if we believe what He Himself has said, that all power is given unto Him in heaven and in earth, and that He is with us always even unto the end of the world, and that He is the king in His kingdom, then we will become confident and hopeful, willing to obey Him and to serve Him according to His word and to “cast all our care upon Him, for He careth for us.” (I Peter 5, 7.)

In light of Koren’s distinction between the things that God’s word demands and other matters, consider this question. It’s more of a thought and discussion question than one that has an easy answer. Yet you are welcome to answer it too, if you wish.

How much of the material addressed by the ELS’ parochial doctrinal statements deals with what God’s word demands, and how much of it deals with human matters? To ask it another way: do all of these short summaries, in all their parts, qualify as something that congregations must accept, or do they also address things that should not be forced upon congregations, “even if a congregation has through its representatives taken part in one or another resolution about such matters?”

And since it’s my blog, I’ll carry it a step further. If you answer that some of these doctrinal statements are indeed fully demanded by God’s Word in all of their parts, must we not also demand unqualified agreement with them as a precondition for any inter-church fellowship? Does that not equate them in status with the Lutheran Confessions, the accepted Lutheran corpus doctrinae? I should look into the way variations between parochial corpora doctrinae were handled during the run-up to the Formula of Concord.

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