Why I will not commune at the upcoming ELS General Pastoral Conference

I attended the communion service at the synod convention in June, but refrained from communing. I also may attend the communion service at the General Pastoral Conference, but I will refrain from communing. Lest anyone jump to conclusions or speculations, it is important that I give the reason for this.

Communing together with other Christians is an expression of unity in the faith as the body of Christ. Though I may think that some of my brothers in Christ are mistaken about various things, I do not believe any of them are truly opposed to the doctrine that has united our synod for 88 years, including Pastors Rolf Preus, Joseph Abrahamson, Steven Brockdorf, Rob Lawson, and Les Lanier. These pastors have not persisted in any false doctrine that I know of, and neither has the rest of the synod. (If you disagree, please bring a charge and prove it appropriately.) So my decision not to commune is not based upon a lack of Christian fellowship between me and any part of the ELS (including Pastor Preus and his parish).

So why not commune?

Because some of my brothers have been misled by our true enemy into a sectarian point of view, believing that a man who questions the scriptural authority of a synod doctrinal statement should be excluded from our fellowship, rather than that he should receive the answers he seeks, or that his point be well-taken. This is sad for those whom they are excluding, who are bearing the cross of unjust rejection even as their Savior and the first Christian martyr, Stephen, did. It is even sadder for those who have given their assent to this new sectarianism that has arisen in our midst under the guise of Christian fellowship. Yet even Saul, who held the robes of those who stoned Stephen, found complete forgiveness and received a godly vocation when our Lord finally corrected him.

Yet I do not regard my misguided brothers as false teachers. They are misled, and I pray that they will come to see things better through our mutual study of God’s Word. In the meantime, I do not wish to offend an erring or ill-informed conscience by exercising my right as a fellow member of the body of Christ. I can only speak for myself. Again, my decision is not to separate from anyone, but to protect those who have been misled into unjust sectarianism, and hopefully to help them see the influence of our true enemy, who seeks to divide the ELS.

Someone may wonder if I subscribe to our synod’s doctrinal statements, based upon the foregoing explanation. In a sense, yes. We can call it the wider sense of the word “subscribe.” You see, our synodical doctrinal statements are not the same as the symbols of our church. They are not, strictly speaking, confessions of the evangelical catholic faith. Rather, they are expressions and applications of doctrine addressing particular, contemporary, parochial issues. They are meant to apply in the context where our synod finds itself. The Norwegian Synod statements on slavery are one good example, and the doctrinal statement just adopted last year is another. Such statements are not written for all Christians, nor even for all Lutherans to adopt, though they aim to agree with the Bible and symbols (creeds and confessions), and as such, express universal principles of Christian doctrine. Moreover, they are completely subject to testing and examination, even after they have been adopted, with the understanding that if they are found to contradict the norm of our faith, they must be rejected. The Confessions, on the other hand, while likewise subject to testing, have already been proven to a degree that they may be assumed a priori to be in agreement with holy scripture. Just see which doctrinal statements are mentioned by name in our church constitutions! Accordingly, I reserve my full, unqualified, a priori, quia subscription for the Book of Concord of 1580, since it has long ago been proven true beyond a doubt. I’ll call that the narrow sense of the word “subscribe.” In the wider sense, I also subscribe to our synod’s doctrinal statements, with an a posteriori subscription. Like this post, some of them may later need to be changed to remain accurate confessions of faith. See my explanation of the PMW statement as a possible example.

3 thoughts on “Why I will not commune at the upcoming ELS General Pastoral Conference

  1. What is the difference between attending the service and “communing” in the spoken Word of the liturgy, and “communing” in the visible Word of the Lord’s Table? Do you not in both cases commune with the brethren who are there? I wonder if this doesn’t send mixed messages.

    Bruce Gee

    – – –

    my reply:

    Thanks for asking this question. If my decision not to commune had been based upon a real *break* in fellowship between myself and the other pastors at the conference, then my mere attendance at the service would send a mixed message.
    I do not recognize a break in fellowship.

    If we can welcome visitors to attend our divine services, then surely I can attend a service held by those with whom I share the bond of fellowship. From my point of view, I am there to worship with them. If someone else thinks he has broken fellowship with my other brothers in Christ, then he can consider me to be a visitor, and our worship will still be edifying.

    However, if I were to exercise my right to receive the Lord’s Supper in that company, then such a person might be led to sin against his own conscience by communing alongside of me, knowing that I recognize doctrinal fellowship where he does not. I do not want to give the devil an opportunity to create yet another division among us. Instead, I will gladly call attention to the wrongful division that already exists, so that it might be corrected.

  2. Oh, and one other thing…
    I didn’t take communion in June, either, and I expect to abstain this time as well. I would express my reasons slightly different from the way you did, but I think we’re on the same page.
    Actually, the way you expressed it is probably better than anything I could do. The bottom line is that I see division rather than unity. Until I see unity, I think it behooves me to call it like I see it.

  3. Thanks for your consciencious decision on communing and also the explanation of your rationale. I, for one, accept and respect your decision, as well as your explanation.
    However, your analysis of the role of doctrinal statements (also expressed elsewhere on this blog) is wrong. You reserve your quia subscription for Scripture and the Confessions and give the PMW – along with, apparently, every other doctrinal statement of the Synod past and present – only some sort of squishy “wide sense” subscription that sounds remarkably like an “in-so-far-as.” (I trust that we all see the dangers that that sort of subscription leads to in terms of the doctrinal “integrity” that inevitably results)

    However, the reasons given for why you regard the two sorts of confessions
    differently make absolutely no sense. The Lutheran Confessions – along with the three Eccumenical Creeds, for that matter – were nothing more or less than
    “expressions and applications of doctrine addressing particular, contemporary issues.” (admittedly, those “expressions and applications of doctrine” were of greater importance to the Christian faith than either the question we’re dealing with now or with many that we have dealt with in our past. …but that’s not the point.)

    The point is that they did not cease to be “confessions of the evangelical
    catholic faith” even though they, too, “are completely subject to testing and examination, even after they have been adopted, with the understanding that if they are found to contradict the norm of our faith, [i.e. the Bible,] they must be rejected.” What that means is that if, for some reason, we become unsatisfied with the confession that the Nicene Creed makes, we are free – and duty-bound – to change it). That doesn’t make our previous creeds or doctrinal expressions any less binding, nor does it mean I can flout them publicly and expect to remain in good standing with either this Synod, God’s Word, or even God Himself.
    And, btw, your example of slavery goes to show that doctrinal statements can be revised if the Synod sees the need in the future (notice that they issued the ELS stance on slavery in three installments, each subsequent one defining and clarifying the previous ones). In other words, the present form of the PMW need not be the hill that one dies on (as Preus chose to do when he accused it of being unscriptural and non-binding). There is always room for discussion, emmandation, and further study. There cannot, however, be any room for ignoring or dissenting from what the Synod teaches.

    – – –

    **my response**

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Dan.

    About the practical or historical distinction between the symbols of the church and locally-adopted statements of doctrine…

    This is a debate that we need to have among us, which will hopefully help to curtail further abuses of power in our church body (if the *Treatise* is not enough to do that). To that end, I have suggested a paper to the GPC program committee about this very distinction.

    I should clarify my present opinion on the issue, so that you don’t come away with a misapprehension about that. Unfortunately, it’s an important, intricate, and large topic, and there’s not enough space to address it thoroughly in this setting.

    First, a *quia* subscription (for those who may not know what it means) says “I subscribe to this document *because* it faithfully expresses the doctrine of holy scripture.” It is distinguished from a *quatenus* subscription, which says “I subscribe to this document *insofar as* it faithfully expresses the doctrine of holy scripture.” To me, there is no point in subscribing to anything with a *quatenus* subscription.

    So I do believe that synod doctrinal statements express the teachings of holy scripture, though they still may have serious flaws. I don’t think the statement on slavery is fundamentally flawed, though it is a good example of a statement written for a contemporary (ca. Civil War) purpose, resulting in limited *usefulness* outside of that context. The recently-adopted statement *does* have certain serious flaws, which is why I had to clarify my understanding of that statement publicly, since my clarification is the understanding with which I subscribe to the doctrinal statement.

    The symbols of the Church, however, including the Lutheran Confessions are of a different character. If you read the Augsburg Confession, for example, you will see that it was *meant* to be a *catholic* confession of faith, useful for all times and places. I wish there were more space here to expand on this, but suffice it now to say that the Lutheran Confessions are somehow set apart in character from local doctrinal statements.

    Anecdotally, our synod’s practice reflects this distinction, even though we haven’t expressed it doctrinally. Synod seminarians study the Lutheran Confessions in symbolics class each semester for three years, or at least we used to. It is understood that the seminarians will read through all the Confessions during this time and become familiar with what they teach. Meanwhile for our churches, the same confessions have been available and studied as a body since 1580. Our churches should find no surprises there. All this time, the confessions have been continually tested and *have not failed.* Our latest synod document, by contrast, was developed nearly in secret, and was publicly reviewed by the general pastorate of the synod only in carefully-controlled settings. As we should all know by now, it was adopted by a mere majority over serious, conscientious objections and the alleged lack of a full answer from those promoting it. (See previous articles here on synod convention speeches.) My point is that after adoption, this statement is supposed by some to have a practical status equal to that of the Augsburg Confession, but our practice in adopting it betrays otherwise.

Leave a Reply