Churchliness of Synod: Final Chapter

Synod has a churchly character, but what sort of churchly character is it? At this point, I’ve concluded (with help) that the synod exists as the cooperative efforts of its member churches to do certain things. I strongly suspect that it’s the nature of these efforts that lends the synod its whole churchly character, and not any independent characteristics that the synod may have.

But once I start something, I almost always do my best to finish it. So let’s finish our exploration of contrasts between the churchly character of synod and that of congregations, as touching their use of the means of grace, and as touching their context.

### The Means of Grace

Congregations use the means of grace to the fullest extent possible. They offer the Lord’s Supper as often as it can practically be offered, given the sensibilities of the members. They baptize at every opportunity. They teach God’s Word through the Divine Service every Sunday, plus extras throughout the year. They also teach God’s Word through Bible studies and other group activities. They offer countless opportunities for private confession and absolution, with the guarantee that the minister has been prepared to handle it. They offer private counseling from God’s Word. They coordinate the catechization of the young in the biblical faith. They publish God’s Word in newsletters and online. In short, they use the means of grace to the fullest extent possible.

The synod is different. Maybe it’s not possible for the synod to offer all that other stuff at once. (If so, why not?) For whatever reason, the synod’s use of the means of grace is a small subset of the congregation’s use. I’m not counting the missionaries, who are sent primarily by the synod. If you count their work, then the synod does the same thing as the congregations, but they are not the ones we generally mean by the word “synod.” Some prominent ways that the synod (minus the missionaries) uses the means of grace are:

  1. Preaching and teaching by invitation at synod-work events.

  2. Counseling from synod officials such as circuit visitors, the missions counselor, the giving counselor, and the synod president.

  3. Publications in print and online.

  4. “Presiding” by a definition that includes teaching God’s Word. This might be included under “counseling.”

For a while now, I’ve thought that time should be blocked out at pastoral conferences for private confession and absolution, but I haven’t seen it yet at any of our conferences. I suppose that would be more of an inter-church or inter-pastor activity than a synod activity, anyway. Yet synod officials are also available for this too.

I may be forgetting some important way that the synod uses the means of grace. If so, I’m sure someone will mention it to me. But you should get the picture. The marks of the church are not present as strongly in the synod as they are at a congregation. Or, maybe they are just as strongly present, but the presence is diluted over a much wider area. Either way, it affects my impression of their churchly character relative to one another. It also reinforces my suspicion that the synod’s churchly character derives entirely from its existence as the cooperative ministerial efforts of all the congregations.


The context of a congregation is determined spatially or geographically. Those limits are being adjusted by technology, a process which began a long time ago. Yet the main activity of a congregation will always be corporate worship, a gathering around the Means of Grace to receive God’s spiritual blessings through the Divine Service.

The context of the synod is quite different. It may be limited geographically (or not), but the limit would be only to the United States. Still, most activities center around the headquarters and major brick-and-mortar institutions like the seminary and college. A growing part exists in cyberspace. While the focal point of a congregation is in the weekly service, the focal point of the synod is not. I think it’s shared by the annual synod convention, the meetings of the various boards or committees throughout the year, the Lutheran Sentinel, perhaps missions, and the office at 6 Browns Court. These are the chief elements in the context of the synod’s ministry. The first four are clearly the product of cooperative efforts by the churches.

The Mankato office is harder to gauge. Is it the product of cooperative church efforts? Yes, or maybe a byproduct. But these days, it only relies upon those efforts for manpower to slog through the various things that a synod needs to do and coordinate. It doesn’t rely upon cooperative church efforts very much for its financial support any more. In that respect, it has become somewhat independent of the congregations. We may sometimes mistakenly believe that the synod office is the synod. Hopefully, our annual convention helps to counter that notion.

What is churchly about the context of the synod? Again, I’m left with the impression that it’s only the cooperative ministry, the work that the congregations set out to accomplish together, that gives the synod any churchly character at all. If we want to think of the synod as something like church, then, we need to realize that this relies completely upon the character of the congregations and the work they endeavor to do together. It means that the authority of the synod, and its officials, is limited to that work. But since we still believe that congregations undertake this voluntarily, without any necessity imposed by the Gospel, then the authority of our synod to do its work likewise comes collectively from the congregations. Just as the pastor at congregation A can assume no authority to minister to the people of congregation B, nor even to its pastor, so also the synod pastors can assume no authority to minister to the people of its member congregations, nor even to their pastors. The synod isn’t a great big multi-point parish.

Yet the work that the churches share does fall under the jurisdiction of the synod’s pastors, like the synod president. He can determine which individuals will participate in that work, and how. He can give them their synod-work assignments, and follow up on them. He can apply God’s Word to the many circumstances that may arise in the course of that shared work, but only as far as the shared work goes. He has the role of facilitating in the synod’s decisions to include or exclude churches or pastors as its members. He doesn’t have any authority to preach or teach God’s Word, or to “preside” (if that’s what it means) within congregations, including their pastors, because that is not part of the cooperative work, i.e. the synod.

Here’s a thought question for you: What do we mean by “para-church” and does that term also apply to the synod? How about “inter-church?”

Leave a Reply