What brings churches together to form a synod? This is something that I’m sure everyone in the ELS would agree upon. It’s God’s Word. We agree on the doctrine, and this is the basis for our cooperation together. Without agreeing on the doctrine, we couldn’t have common missions, support a common seminary, or even figure out what our college should teach.
Because of this, the synod as a corporate body has an interest in preserving that unity of doctrine. So one of the tasks of the synod president, and other synod officials, is to help preserve it. How? The same way pastors work in the parish: by speaking and writing God’s Word. Pastors and synod officials do this publicly because they have been authorized to do it publicly, each shepherd to his own sheep in the proper context. The authorization may come in a variety of ways, but that’s how they have that authority.
Yet the authority of God’s Word is independent of the authority that pastors or synod officials have. God’s Word has it’s own authority. If pastors or synod officials speak what is not God’s Word, then their words do not have God’s authority. Yet if a layman speaks God’s Word to his pastor or to a synod official, then it must be heeded as God’s Word. To do otherwise is sinful. (cf. the Third Commandment)
What else can pastors and synod officials do to help preserve our unity in God’s Word? Individually, they can do nothing else.
Someone may say, “What about Matthew 18?” I say: the first steps of church discipline are indeed done by individuals, but they are still nothing but speaking God’s Word. The last step, excommunication, is a corporate speaking of God’s Word. It’s also not the same thing as removing (or suspending) someone from membership.
How is membership established? Corporately, mutually, and voluntarily. How is it terminated? Corporately, and when all is well, mutually and voluntarily. Neither establishing membership nor terminating membership is required by God’s Word. Neither one may be enacted by an individual. Membership is not identical with fellowship, though fellowship in doctrine is a prerequisite for membership. To combine the authority of speaking God’s Word together with the power to terminate membership unilaterally, either in the office of a parish pastor or synod president is contrary to God’s Word. It makes a ruler out of one who only has the authority to speak God’s Word. It confuses the ministry of the Gospel with the administration of temporal matters.