Just what and where is the synod?

I apologize for not providing any earth-shaking conclusions in the last post. My conclusion about the office of synod president: “It depends.” Probably not satisfying to most readers. But if two out of the three of you can accept it, we’ll move on.

I actually received an email from a reader about this post. I won’t divulge the author without permission, but he made a good point. My question, “Just what and where is the synod?” was unfair in presenting only those two, briefly stated alternatives. In fact, it looks a lot like a false dilemma, though he was too polite to write that out loud.

After thinking a bit about this email response while working on various parts of our house this New Year’s Day, I have concluded that the question deserves a lot more attention: Just what and where is the synod?

Here’s part of what my responder wrote:

I would say that neither of the options you present is a fully accurate description of a “synod” (even though each of the options you present contains a part of the answer). A “synod,” properly speaking, is not so much the congregations that walk together, but it is the walking together of the congregations. It is a verbal noun, as it were. The synod is the cooperative efforts of the congregations, and by extension the institutions that exist for the purpose of such cooperation.

I can see how this could be true. The synod is not only a collection of congregations but is also their acting together as a body. Thus, the home and foreign mission endeavors, the seminary, the administration, the various boards and committees, and even the college may be understood “verbally,” as ongoing cooperative acts of all the ELS churches.

That would mean that the synod is manifested by the cooperative works of the congregations. The synod is the working together. But does it bring us closer to answering our question? Just what and where is the synod? It may. In fact, I think it does. But like so many things, it leads to more questions.

Here’s a complicated one. Is synod church? So far, I’ve come up with two ways to answer this: Yes, and no.

As much as the synod exists to confess the Gospel in the world, it has a sort of churchly character. But what sort, exactly? A congregation is gathered by the means of grace and manifested as church by its use of the means of grace, God’s Word and sacraments. These are the marks of the Church. So say our confessions, and so say we all. But what does this mean? We’re talking about the Holy Christian Church, the oft-called “invisible” Church, “the congregation [or collection] of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered” (AC VII). So the synod also has a churchly character because it teaches the Gospel. Or perhaps more accurately, because the synod is the cooperative Gospel-teaching of its member churches.

But like our congregations, the synod is not entirely invisible. It’s organized and administered, from a temporal point of view, in temporal ways. It has temporal assets. While it may be acknowledged that the synod has a sort of churchly character, but it is not The Church. Of course, neither are the congregations. Both are organizations existing in the world, associations made by human beings.

It’s profitable for us to compare and contrast synod and congregation in terms of their churchly character, because this should help us figure out how to regard the authority of the synod and its administration, over against the authority of each congregation and pastor. What is churchly character? That’s hard to say, and inevitably will be a bit subjective. I’m going to say it involves a flock and shepherd, gathered around the means of grace in some regular, identifiable context. Here are a few points of comparison, in no particular order.

In respect to the flock

The Smalcald Articles III, XII states, “For, thank God, [to-day] a child seven years old knows what the Church is, namely, the holy believers and lambs who hear the voice of their Shepherd.” The “believers and lambs” are the Shepherd’s flock. The Shepherd is Christ.

Wherever the Word is rightly taught, we may be sure that the Church is there, that is, the Holy Christian Church. Does that always mean that an instance of “visible” church is also present? Not necessarily.

But how are we to define an instance of “visible” church? We might define it such that every Christian family that prays and hears God’s Word around the dinner table is an instance of “visible” church. I don’t know of any biblical reason not to define it so, but we are not accustomed to that. For some reason, we have reserved our recognition of “visible” church to those assemblies which have a public minister to preach God’s Word, and preferably also to administer the sacraments. We have also said that a person can be a member of only one Christian flock at a time. Without scriptural support, it all seems a bit arbitrary, but there it is. I should look at Pieper again when I get the chance.

The surest path is to stick with the explicit commands and promises of our Lord. He told His Church to “do this” when He instituted the Lord’s Supper. He told His Church to baptize and to teach His doctrine. In the same breath, He promised (by those means) to be present with His Church. So then, what’s so special about congregations? Is it that this is our best example of εκκλησια, the regular meeting of Christians around the maximum use of the means of grace, including both the sacrament of initiation and the sacrament of, well, communion? That seems completely reasonable to me, yet still somewhat arbitrary.

In any case, a congregation’s flock is identified fairly easily. They receive the means of grace as part of that church on some regular basis.

Does the same criterion identify a flock of the synod? I don’t see it happening, unless you’re willing to overlap the synod’s flock with a congregation’s flock. You can say that the synod’s missionaries are pastors, and those who receive their ministry are the synod’s flock. Missions is a major synod activity, but really only one of many. Do you also find the synod’s flock on Brown’s Court in Mankato? At convention, conferences, board and committee meetings in Minneapolis? At mission rallies and evangelism workshops? In every case, the people there are already members of a congregational flock.

Maybe someone can identify the synod’s flock more clearly than I can, but it seems evident that wherever it may be, it’s a different sort of thing from the flock at a local congregation.

In respect to the shepherds

The Shepherd of the Church is Christ. He has also sent shepherds under Him to watch over and feed specific parts of His flock. They are easily identified in local congregations. They preach, teach, and administer the sacraments. The PMW says this much rather clearly.

Who are the under-shepherds of the synod? You could say that these are the missionaries, because they do regularly preach, teach, and administer the sacraments, as the case may be. It’s their purpose. But it’s not the purpose of the synod administration. Is it? That’s not a rhetorical question. That I know of, it’s not the purpose of the synod administration. The administration includes the officers and board members. Their purpose includes facilitating the preaching, teaching, and administering of the sacraments by missionaries and in congregations.

The president, vice president, secretary, giving counselor, mission counselor, or circuit visitors will preach as such from time to time in various places, with a special invitation. Does that make them shepherds of the synod? Not most of the time, because they often preach to local congregations, not in the context of inter-congregational synod work. But sometimes they do preach in the context of inter-congregational synod work. It would seem that during the moments when they are doing that preaching or teaching of God’s Word — in the context of inter-congregational synod work — they are shepherds of the synod.

The president also “presides” over inter-congregational synod work. This presiding requires the use of sanctified Christian judgment and the application of love, yet it’s mostly administration of the synod’s guidelines and resolutions of the synod convention. That doesn’t seem particularly shepherd-like. Who receives his presiding? Good question. Even the president doesn’t have the right to minister to members of a pastor’s flock without his invitation and full knowledge. So if presiding is pastoral ministry, then the president must be a shepherd to someone else. Is it the pastors of the synod or missionaries? No, because a formal relationship like that would violate Treatise paragraphs 7 and following, with the accompanying scriptural passages.

Sometimes pastors and others may voluntarily ask the synod president to be their father confessor. In that case, he must speak the Gospel in the role of a shepherd, just as the catechism says. But that’s unrelated to his role as synod president.

The most obvious example of inter-congregational work is at the annual synod convention. There we have devotions, worship services, and even the Lord’s Supper. Yet the flock receiving this ministry all belong to other flocks. Many of the ministers there are also regularly called to other flocks. Strangely, the synod officers who would most easily qualify as the synod’s “pastors” don’t usually participate in the administration of the means of grace. That is, they don’t usually preach or administer the Lord’s Supper. I don’t know of any baptisms that take place in that context. (Is that a key fact?)

Not that I have much of an answer here, but it’s evident that the synod, as “visible” church, differs from congregations in respect to its shepherds. Are you beginning to think that the churchly character of the synod depends entirely upon the churchly purpose of the congregations as they set out to cooperate in some of their work? So am I.

Since this is getting a bit long, I’ll post later about comparing synod to congregations in respect to the use of the means of grace and in respect to context. Hopefully this isn’t way too long already. I welcome comments on this subject, because this seems to be hard soil, so it bears tilling more than once.

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