Of Winkels, Sermon Recordings and Church Polity

Here in northern Oregon, our few ELS churches have had the pleasure of starting a “local” winkel (small pastor’s conference). So far, it has only taken a maximum of 2.5 hours to travel to the winkel, making it much easier for me to budget my time than when I was traveling to Tacoma. That was usually about 4 hours each way. We’ve also had the pleasure of several pastors from outside our synod attending with us. I consider this an important aspect of church activity: that we always seek others with whom we may agree in doctrine, and thus eventually might recognize the existence of outward fellowship.

Besides our ELS attendees, we have had one pastor from the Association of Confessional Lutheran Churches attending and two pastors in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Our ELS pastors have been encouraged (by the ACLC pastor) to attend the Wisconsin Synod winkels in Portland too, but as beneficial as it might be, I can’t justify taking another day every month away from my parish.

We recently rejoiced to hear that the ACLC has recognized fellowship with the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America. Both of those organizations are relatively young. The ACLC was formed mainly by congregations removed from the ELS over a matter tangential to the adoption of a doctrinal statement on the Office of the Ministry. (For those who want to know, they took issue with the way another ELS pastor was deposed from his congregation, attempting to treat the matter as a case of church discipline by invoking the “lesser ban” against a synod official. This was deemed to be “selective fellowship,” and thus contrary to the ELS doctrinal position on fellowship, notwithstanding that their action was not meant as a declaration of church fellowship.)

This winkel has been a blessing for those involved, though at times we have wondered how best to engage our fellow Christian brothers with whom we do not (yet) recognize outward fellowship. With the outward fellowship now recognized between ACLC and ELDoNA, the time has probably come to look more closely at ELDoNA’s doctrine. While our winkel discussions seem to show that fundamental agreement still exists between our pastors and the ACLC (and at least some LCMS pastors), the ELDoNA has an origin mostly separate from the ELS. It’s possible that even though the ELS has a much different background than the ELDoNA, we might be in agreement on the substance of our doctrine. Both subscribe to the Lutheran Confessions because (quia) they accurately confess the doctrine of Holy Scripture, so the possibility of finding further agreement is high. In addition, the exercise of examining the doctrine of another church body will force us to a better understanding of our own, and perhaps put a finer point on it.

Apparently, ELDoNA has existed since 2006. The most outstanding distinction between ELDoNA and the ELS is not in doctrine, but in the polity (outward organization) of the church body. There is much on their web site describing the reasons for organizing as a diocese, and explaining what that means. In our ELS seminary, I recall learning that polity is not something divisive of fellowship, and usually determined by the historical roots of the particular denomination in question.

The ELDoNA subscribes to two sets of theses, not intended wholly as doctrinal statements, but also statements of good practice and mutual understanding. They are meant to address various controverted issues among Lutherans in our day. There are many things to consider from these statements, but I’ll just mention one here as an example. In the “Malone Theses,” Thesis number 3, on the “Office of the Ministry,” says:

Laymen ought not preach or read sermons at the divine service. Laymen are not to administer the sacraments of the Church. Emergency baptism is the only exception to this rule. (AC 14)

In ELDoNA’s response to questions from the ACLC, this was expounded a bit. After citing several relevant passages from the Book of Concord, the response says:

“Necessity” must not be confused with “convenience.” In our age of technological conveniences (such as CDs and tape recorders) and relatively inexpensive, fast transportation, circumstances such as pastoral vacations and vacancies can be dealt with in a means which is consistent with our Lutheran Confessions.

A pastor being gone for a Sunday or two may be considered “inconvenient,” but it does not become a matter of “necessity.” It would certainly be the preferable practice that the pastor leave a recorded message, if no other orthodox Lutheran pastor is available on that occasion. The congregation could also consider gathering for singing hymns on such an occasion, without having a sermon on that particular Sunday.

While this seems not to be considered so much a doctrinal matter as a matter of good practice, it’s still interesting, because we have had the practice of an “elder” (a lay position assisting the pastor) or designee reading the sermon when the pastor cannot be present on Sunday. My only observation is that a message from the pastor might be recorded on tape or CD, or on paper. I don’t see a lot of difference between a layman pressing “play” and a layman reading the pastor’s words. Neither is ideal. What did our Lutheran fathers do in remote parishes?

Christian Anderson Speaks to the Present

Fed up with church politics? Then here’s something you should appreciate. I may have blogged about this before, but re-reading it impresses upon me the importance of what this ELS church father wrote. Please read the whole thing at ??????? (diatheke). It contains wisdom for every Lutheran church body today, even districts, circuits, and congregations. This is from the end of that post:

Since the Church Council had gradually become such a strong influence in the Synod, when its power was taken into service of the liberal element, it was something which was not easy to resist. Woe to the poor pastor who dared to oppose this Council and come into its disfavor! And because this institution had so long been highly respected by the majority of the members of the Synod, the culprit could not count on much support.

“We see this same danger asserting itself in other synods, even if the vehicles of power may be called by different names.”

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.

When a Synod Errs…

Can an orthodox congregation remain part of that synod? Can an orthodox pastor?

Speaking to that matter is Thesis II of the document “Communion Fellowship” in volume 1 of Essays for the Church by C.F.W. Walther.

A fellowship in which the Word of God is fundamentally falsified, or in which a fundamental falsification of it is tolerated, is not a true orthodox church, but a false, heterodox church or sect.

I’ve read this before, and intend to read the section again when time permits. It serves as an excellent basis for discussion of several different circumstances in present-day Lutheranism.

LCMS Gets Tough on Fellowship

If you read this blog, you probably already know that today, the radio show Issues, Etc. was canceled by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. Christians all around the globe are wondering why. I’m not, because it seems rather obvious. I could be wrong. What do I know? On the other hand, I can see a church by daylight.

It’s not that Issues, Etc. had fallen into some grave doctrinal error, and was unwilling to be corrected by holy scripture.

It’s not that Issues, Etc. was bad-mouthing or embarassing the historic identity of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, or any of its historic values.

The problem is one of fellowship. The doctrinal and practical principles guiding Issues, Etc. are deemed by someone to be no longer compatible with the doctrinal and practical principles guiding the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

How can that be? The LCMS has changed, over time. It’s not so surprising, because most things change over time. In the case of the LCMS, change has been happening for a long time already. Some of the confessional frogs have already left the simmering pot behind. (syncretism, anyone?) Others have not. I write this not to denigrate them. I respect them deeply, though I may have chosen differently. Issues, Etc. was having a profound cooling influence on the pot, and someone didn’t like it. Well, now the LCMS can really turn up the heat. Watch out, CPH, or you’ll be ablaze before you know it.

I’m admittedly ignorant of LCMS politics on the whole. Doctrine concerns me more than politics. Yet we’ve had our share of politics in the ELS, too. What a waste.

However, the great thing about being a Christian, and being a Lutheran, is that the biblical doctrine we treasure really is all that. It is the only genuine basis for unity, and if we give it more than lip-service, we will find that we are not alone — even when we are.

The dirty little secret is that all synods change over time. Practically speaking, an orthodox synod is a myth of modern Lutheranism. When someone claims his synod is orthodox, it would often be more accurate to say that his synod has become the measure of orthodoxy. These days, “orthodoxy” is seldom meant the way Walther meant it. It’s relativized in the ELS, in the WELS, in the LCMS, and anywhere else that the word orthodox has more than historic relevance (that does not include the ELCA, unfortunately; watch for its disappearance in the LCMS too). That’s why we should constantly learn the meaning of fellowship, as it is defined in the Lutheran Confessions. It’s a good antidote for the myth of the orthodox synod (HT: RDP), and it’s encouraging for those who are martyred by “orthodox synods.”

Kudos to Issues, Etc. for your faithful work. Perhaps we will soon be able to recognize church fellowship with each other. You are a witness for confessional Lutheranism.


Comment to “Analysis of Appeals Commission Report”

This is a comment submitted by Shawn Stafford, in reply to this post. I’m including it in its own entry because the formatting available in comments is so limited that it doesn’t do the comment justice. Also, the post was so long ago, the comment could easily be overlooked. Without further ado…

Perhaps a memorial would be in order here. I was thinking along the lines of:

Whereas the 2007 ELS Convention elected an appeals commission to hear the appeal of the suspension of St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Williamsburg, Iowa, and

Whereas by doing so the synod acknowledged that a suspension had taken place and that an appeal should be heard in this case, and

Whereas, the appeals commission reported that there was no suspension in this case and therefore no grounds for an appeal, and

Whereas the 2007 ELS Convention floor committee on membership rejected a memorial by the Florida circuit winkel stating that there was no suspension in this case and therefore no grounds for an appeal,

Therefore, be it resolved that the synod in convention reject the conclusions of the appeals commission in the case of St. Timothy since it has rejected its purpose given at the 2007 convention, namely to hear the appeal of St. Timothy’s suspension, and further,

Be it resolved that another appeal commission be elected to carry out the directive of the 2007 ELS Convention in hearing the appeal of the suspension of St. Timothy Lutheran Church, Williamsburg, Iowa.

What do y’all think?


What defines? What divides?

Norman Teigen highlights an address from ELCA bishop Mark Hanson. Bishop Hansen notes that the issue of (homo)sexuality might be seen as the defining issue for the ELCA, but instead, he wants “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” to define the ELCA.

My first thought is to wonder what he means by “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” For Hansen, does this include Christ as an historical person, as described historically throughout the second article of the Nicene Creed? Does it include His virgin birth and bodily resurrection as historical facts? I only ask because numerous teachers in the ELCA deny these things. See this book for a well-documented, 15-year old snapshot of those teachings in the ELCA. News reports since that book was published have not shown that things are any better.

But Hansen raises two important questions about fellowship. What does define a body like the ELCA? What does divide it?

In the ELS, we hold that the unity of a church body is (ideally) defined by its unity in doctrine. God-pleasing unity occurs when different people believe, teach, and confess what the Bible says. It’s up to us to figure out who they are by comparing their teaching and their practice to the teaching of the Bible. For us, the teaching of the Bible is critically important, since we apply Proverbs 4:13 in all seriousness: “Take firm hold of instruction, do not let go; Keep her, for she is your life.” For us, doctrine is life. (I make bold to speak for the entire ELS. If its members disagree, they may do so publicly.)

However, a church body like the ELS and the ELCA is really established by articles of incorporation, not found in holy scripture. That means that the body can exist without regard for God-pleasing unity. (In the case of the ELCA, I see many points where its members disagree about fundamental points of Christian doctrine — like the historic points listed in the Nicene Creed.)

So neither the ELCA nor the ELS is really defined by biblical doctrine. They are both church bodies that exist by the will of mortal man. The difference is that the formation of the ELS has (theoretically) bound the synod to observe the biblical principles of church fellowship by requiring that its members and those formally “in fellowship” hold strictly to the biblical teachings. This is accomplished by means of the Lutheran Confessions, which agree completely with holy scripture. The Confessions serve as a means of comparing doctrine to discover whether God-pleasing unity exists.

What defines a synod or “church” like the ELS or ELCA? The answer can be anything, because they are organizations of human origin. Officially, they are defined by their incorporation. In my mind, the ELCA is defined by its sad history of mergers and compromises of biblical teaching. To Bishop Hansen, the ELCA is defined by “the Gospel of Jesus Christ” — whatever he means by that. To others, it is defined by its stance on homosexuality.

Despite the disagreement between these points of view, the ELCA and the ELS are both really defined to the world in general by the aggregate of their words and deeds. They are equally fallible and open to criticism for their faults. The responsibility remains with individuals like you and me to examine their words and deeds in the light of holy scripture. (1 John 4:1, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world.”) That is how God-pleasing unity is discovered.

Bishop Hansen is concerned that if homosexuality defines the ELCA, there will be corporate division. Yet outward division can occur for a multitude of reasons, both good and bad. If some wish to depart from the ELCA about the issue of homosexuality, it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with Hansen’s “Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Lutherans in the ELS accept the Bible’s perspective on homosexuality: that such practices are sinful, so that homosexuality challenges and ultimately can destroy faith in Christ. For anyone who agrees with the ELS, it would make perfect sense to separate from the ELCA, which has contradicted what the Bible says about homosexuality. It would uphold the Gospel.

Appeal Commission Report 2

I’d been asked about this report, and what was its connection to the previous Appeal Commission report. This report relates to a second appeal from a different appellant, in a different case.

Four congregations and their pastors have publicly entered a state of confessional protest against the way the synod president handled the confrontation between himself and Pastor Rolf Preus. (If you don’t know anything about that, this might not interest you. If you are part of an ELS church, you may want to educate yourself.) All four have subsequently been deemed to be separated from the fellowship of the ELS. The fourth entered its state of confession after the other three, and upon learning of its fellowship status, appealed its suspension to the synod convention.

What follows is the text of the Appeals Commission report. I include it here for information only. My analysis will follow, later.

Continue reading “Appeal Commission Report 2”

Appeal Commission 2 Report is Out

I’m not going to repeat the findings here, yet. I can see how the conclusion makes sense, but I deeply lament that it brings our synod no closer to a peaceful resolution of the divisive spirit that began working in earnest at the 2005 synod convention. We have not figured out what is the proper course of action when a congregation perceives that an influential synod official has committed some grave error or public sin. Certainly, any impenitent sinner should not be communed. But how can this be applied when the person in question is a member of a sister congregation, and his own pastor disagrees that he has committed public sin? This is a poorly defined area of casuistry, which we have unwisely been expecting appeals commissions to deal with. I understand why the appeals commissions prefer not to do so, yet the door is open for the schismatic spirit in our midst to wreak further havoc.

You can see what I have written before on these matters in other posts.