The central doctrinal question in the ELS flap

Some appropriate questions have been asked by a reader of Norman’s Demesne about the controversy in the ELS. I’ll try to address the first one here, as briefly as I can.

What is the doctrinal point at issue? The 2005 doctrinal statement says much that is good, but some of its assertions are supported by their “proof texts” in a way that we haven’t seen or used before, to my knowledge.

Consider Martin Luther’s famous speech at Worms. He stated (from Wikipedia), “Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God.” For Luther, the only norm of doctrine was Scripture and “plain reason.”

Sometimes our doctrine is not explicitly written out in scripture, just the way we state it in our dogmatics textbooks or catechism classes. How do we know that these statements are true? By what Luther called “plain reason.” He was speaking of deductive logic. Simply put, it allows us to make conclusions about things that scripture does not say explicitly, based upon what it does say explicitly. For example, Deuteronomy 6:4 says that there is only one God. Other places, such as Matthew 28:19, attribute divine character to three persons, while maintaining unity between them. “Plain reason” leads us to deduce that God is “trinity:” three persons in one essence.

The ELS doctrinal statement, based upon texts like Ephesians 4:11, 1 Corinthians 12:5 & 28, Philippians 1:1, and 1 Timothy 3:8, asserts, according to the ELS President’s explanation, that God has instituted every office that the Church may use for teaching His Word or administering His sacraments. Some ELS pastors have disagreed with this conclusion, especially when it is made on the basis of these passages. The passages do not explicitly support the conclusion of the ELS doctrinal statement.

The question at issue is this: does the doctrinal statement’s support of this assertion (and others) qualify as “plain reason?” If the assertions are supported by scripture and “plain reason,” then we must accept them. If they are not, then we must not say that they are part of God’s doctrine.

The problem with the assertions in controversy is that they do not use deductive logic. Instead, they infer what they say from the cited scripture verses using inductive logic. If the logic is in fact deductive, then those who defend the assertions will have to state their premises, defend them if necessary, and show how they inevitably lead to the controversial assertions in the doctrinal statement. Lutherans do not use inductive logic as the primary support for their doctrinal assertions. (Perhaps that statement is at the center of the controversy.)

As I understand it, the logic of the doctrinal statement (according to the explanation of the synod president) runs as follows:

  • Several titles are given in scripture for those who publicly teach God’s Word and/or administer the sacraments.
  • None of the titles are called “divinely instituted” in preference to others.
  • It appears that the various titles refer to different aspects of the work.
  • It appears that a distinction is made between some who work with God’s Word and some who do not.
  • It appears that a distinction is made between two groups of titles which work with God’s Word.

There may be other observations someone might make in defense of the conclusion. The conclusion is then:

This divinely instituted Public Ministry of the Word includes both a narrower and a wider sense.

… meaning that all of the offices the Church uses to administer the Word are divinely instituted, whether they fall under the narrower or wider sense, and

The extent to which one is authorized by the call of the church to exercise the keys publicly is the extent to which one is in the Public Ministry of the Word.

… meaning that some of these offices are not entirely “in” the Public Ministry of the Word. Some are further “in” than others.

The controversy is that some people accept this doctrine and others do not. Of those who do not accept it, quite a few read the ELS doctrinal statement differently, so that the context of these assertions determines that they do not mean what the the ELS President’s explanation says they mean.

In addition to this central doctrinal question, there has also arisen a more pressing situation. The ELS president has been called upon to admit that he erred in judgment when he suspended one pastor among many who strongly opposed these assertions in the doctrinal statement. Some pastors have demonstrated that they still recognize fellowship with the suspended pastor. Others, with their churches, have entered a “state of confession” which insists that the president should not be communed as long as he does not repent of this error, which they consider to be sin. It appears that the ELS could even split, but not over the doctrinal statement itself. Rather, the split could come because of the treatment that doctrinal concerns have received since the adoption of the doctrinal statement. Instead of addressing the concerns with “Scripture and plain reason”, the prospect (and use) of synodical discipline has altered the controversy and made a breach of fellowship not only possible, but likely for many and already a reality for some.

Higher churchly vocations than those of pastors and preachers.

Fifth, the church is recognized externally by the fact that it consecrates or calls ministers, or has offices that it is to administer. There must be bishops, pastors, or preachers, who publicly and privately give, administer, and use the aforementioned four things or holy possessions [the Word, the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the public exercise of the keys] in behalf of and in the name of the church, or rather by reason of their institution by Christ, as St. Paul states in Ephesians 4, “He received gifts among men, …” — his gifts were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some teachers and governors, etc. The people as a whole cannot do these things, but must entrust or have them entrusted to one person. … Wherever you see this done, be assured that God’s people, the holy Christian people, are present.

It is, however, true that the Holy Spirit has excepted women, children, and incompetent people from this function, but chooses (except in emergencies) only competent males to fill this office, as one reads here and there in the epistles of St. Paul that a bishop must be pious, able to teach, and the husband of one wife — and in 1 Corinthians 14 he says, “The women should keep silence in the churches.” In summary, it must be a competent and chosen man. …

Here the pope will object through his loudmouths and brawlers of the devil, saying, “St. Paul does not speak only of pastors and preachers [in Ephesians 4:11], but also of apostles, evangelists, prophets, and other high spiritual vocations; that is why there must be higher vocations in the church than those of pastors and preachers. What, Sir Luther, do you have to say now?” …

Now, if the apostles, evangelists, and prophets are no longer living, others must have replaced them and will replace them until the end of the world, for the church shall last until the end of the world [Mat. 28:20]. Apostles, evangelists, and prophets must therefore remain, no matter what their name, to promote God’s word and work. The pope and his followers, who persecute God’s word while admitting that it is true, must be very poor apostles, evangelists, and prophets, just like the devil and his angels. …

Just as was said earlier about the other four parts of the great, divine, holy possession by which the holy church is sanctified, that you need not care who or how those from whom you receive it are, so again you should not ask who and how he is who gives it to you or [who] has the office. For all of it is given, not to him who has the office, but to him who is to recieve it through this office, except that he can receive it together with you if he so desires. …

From Luther’s Works American Edition vol. 41, p. 154 ff, “On the Councils and the Church”

The Ministry Controversy: Status Controversiae

(Or: The view from 1,669 miles.)

There are three different perspectives on the ministry controversy in the ELS. Generally speaking, they are:

  1. One group professes allegiance to the doctrinal statement that was adopted in 2005. They are characterized by one thing in particular: when asked to defend or explain the doctrine, the most they will do is repeat the formulations and citations in the adopted statement itself, claiming that they are sufficiently clear and obvious.

  2. A second group considers the adopted statement to be acceptable on a practical level, though it must be read in the best possible light. For many of them, this is a conditional acceptance of the document, the condition being the particular understanding that they have. Some admit that the document allows itself to be understood in several conflicting ways, while others insist that it does not. Most wish to repair the document’s deficiencies.

  3. A third group considers the adopted document to be teaching things not proven by holy scripture as articles of faith. This group considers the document to be fatally flawed in those areas, though adequate in other areas. They refuse to accept the document until their rooted objections are met.

The document was adopted by 62% of delegates and pastors, most likely coming from groups one and two. Yet a number of those in groups two and three agree that the document was adopted in an immature form, not allowing the public revision process to complete. Nobody knows how long it would have taken to complete the revision process, yet most of those in groups two and three believe that process would have been preferable to the mechanical implementation and enforcement of the document that has been manifest since its adoption.

In November, 2006, there was significant agreement on nearly all points of a shorter study document that had been submitted to the 2006 synod convention. A collection of people representative of all three groups was asked to review the shorter document, to help determine where there may be disagreements. Some in group one, in keeping with their typical behavior, refused to participate, wishing to maintain the official character of the adopted statement. Some in group three expressed concern about a doctrinal point attributing a “divine” character to offices that the church creates, that it could be misconstrued as saying that those offices are divinely instituted. Except for those somewhat negative responses, all responses to the shorter statement were positive or inquisitive.

This exercise demonstrated that there is much agreement between all three groups on nearly all of those particular points of doctrine.

It demonstrated that group one does not trust the others enough to engage an open evaluation of the merits of the adopted doctrinal statement. It will neither honor nor tolerate such a discussion.

It also demonstrated that group three is suspicious of language that might possibly be understood in more than one way. The group is exacting about the quality and integrity of a doctrinal statement, both internally and in relation to the accepted Lutheran confession.

Group two is hopeful that the adopted statement might be improved through the efforts of all to examine and fairly evaluate its merits. It is trying to find common ground between the three groups. Its efforts are hindered mostly by group one’s refusal to countenance any discussion that could finally alter the adopted statement, or their point of view.

Complicating the issue is the appropriation of power to remove pastors or churches from the synod when they are deemed to be significantly opposed to the adopted doctrinal statement. This has already taken place and is apparently also still in process. It fits the priorities of group one, but not groups two or three. By all appearances, it is an unintentionally sectarian policy designed to safeguard the official status of the adopted statement.

This use of power in favor of group one shows that it would rather break fellowship and split away from group three, than work to achieve a better consensus in the synod. This may be due to a conviction that changes to the present form of the adopted statement would be sinful. That conviction alone could justify the opinion that rooted dissent should be treated as false doctrine. Therefore, group one may consider the newly adopted statement to have the same status as the confessions in the 1580 Book of Concord. If that is the case, then group one’s agenda will require group two to either accept the adopted document fully or leave the synod. There would be no possibility to change the document. It is uncertain how quickly group two would have to make their decision. Some of this paragraph is speculative.

More about Common Consent

In AC article I, who is consenting together? Is it individuals? Ministers? Congregations? Whole associations of congregations, acting collectively? The wording provides the answer: individual congregations. Perhaps they were represented by their ministers, or severally by some designated representative, but those commonly consenting to the Lutheran doctrine were essentially congregations of varying size: churches, identified by the marks of the Church.

Here’s another quotation from an ELS father on the topic, distinguishing between the right and authority of a congregation, and the right or authority of a different kind of body.

We take it for granted that the joining together of congregations ought only take place by orthodox – we do not say those of identical belief – congregations. A merger like that American-Lutheran General Synod is a babel, just another organization of many disunited churches. But orthodox congregations also have to watch with the most extreme diligence that through their joining together and through their adopting a constitution for it, that while they do relinquish a portion of their freedom and independence voluntarily in love and with concern for their own as well as the common good, that they do not, however, transfer to the synod or to the joint-church such rights or such power which the Lord has not only entrusted to the congregations themselves, but whose exercise by themselves is the best guarantee for the preservation of the pure faith, for example, installing and removing pastors, practicing church discipline, and adopting hymnbooks and school books. But even less must congregations give to the joint-church or its officers such a power and authority that their decisions should be binding law for the congregations by virtue of a divine authority which should be due them as those who are over them according to the Fourth Commandment – even if their decisions do not conflict with the Word of God. Such a concession on the part of the congregations would make the synod a papacy which would be just as unchristian as the one which reigns in Rome. It would make the congregations slaves of men and would place a yoke upon them which would be heavier to bear and more difficult to remove than that which imprisons and oppresses them in the state churches.

The history of the church past and present shouts its warning! There is the papacy where the congregations, as is well known, are as good as deprived of all their rights. The church, as it is called, that is, the clergy, with the pope at the head, possesses them. As a worldly authority it demands unconditional obedience according to the Fourth Commandment.

The yoke of bondage which laid upon the congregations under the papacy, the Lord lifted through Luther, when as an angel of God this man brought the pure Gospel to light and taught believers to know the Christian liberty which Christ earned for them with his death, and the church learned to know the rights which the Lord of the church had given it in the power of the keys. And even where he agreed that certain of these rights were exercised by the worldly princes because of the congregations’ plight, there, with all the rest of the reformers, Luther is untiring in reminding both them and the congregations of the fact that they did not exercise this power as rulers but only because it was transferred to them by the congregations who possessed it as they who were looked upon as the congregations’ first and leading members because of their power and position. The power which they possessed as rulers only gave them occasion and right to serve the congregations so much more as members of the congregation.

Note. In an opinion from the year 1536 which was also signed by Bugenhagen, Melanchthon, Jonas and Myconius Luther says:

The calling and electing of orthodox servants of the church is properly and primarily not the business of the civil authorities but of the church. When the civil authority is a believer and a member of the church, then he calls not because he is a civil authority but because he is a member of the church; because “my kingdom is not of this world” (Jo. 18:36).

In 1530 Luther writes to Melanchthon:

As sovereign a bishop may impose even less on the church since this would mean fundamentally to mix these two jurisdictions. Should he do it anyway, then he would really be a pseudo-bishop, and we, were we to give in to this, would likewise be guilty of this sacrilege. Against this godlessness and iniquity one must fight and die rather than give in. Of course I speak of the church as a church which has been separated from the political commonwealth. As sovereign, a bishop may impose upon subjects as subjects whatever seems appropriate to him as long as it is godly and permissible; the subjects are required to obey, since under these circumstances they obey not as members of the church but as citizens. For the church is a twofold person in one and the same man . … It is the same as if Pomer forces his Wittenberg parish to abide by his house rule … It is the same as if the emperor ordered all people everywhere to fast, then the members of the church would obey him too, since according to the flesh, the church is under the emperor, but the church does not obey as church. Luther’s Works, American Edition, 49, 385, 386.

The whole address is online.

More about Common Consent

This could as easily be under the Synod topic, but I’d like to consider it more as a look at Christian doctrine in general, as seen in the history of our synod.

I had promised to post some material from ELS history on the subject of synodical decisions and power. Here’s an interesting paragraph from Bjug Harstad just after the formation of the ELS. He’s giving an example of encroachment upon the rights that a congregation has by virtue of possessing the Keys.

Similar abuse and encroachment have evolved in more recent times even in our Lutheran free church here in this country. They have come from another direction, namely, from the Reformed church which has always wanted to have a finger in the governing of public affairs. When prosperity increased among us, it happened, unnoticed by many, that the presidents were not to have any pastoral call but were only to be presidents. In that way people got a kind of ecclesiastical prelates who were over pastors and congregations. What their right and authority are, really now consists most nearly in whatever is pleasing to that individual. In practice, some have espoused the belief that if a pastor does not want to belong to the large church body to which his congregation belongs, then the congregation is thereby either without a pastor and can only proceed to the election of another, or the pastor is to be dismissed even if there is no other complaint against him than that he cannot swear loyalty to their church body.

President Moldstad quoted from the same address in his own address to the 2006 synod convention. It was a really good quote, calling us to analyze whether we are doing well to provide for the Christian education of children. Just before the quotation that President Moldstad used is this, somewhat more pertinent to our present topic:

If one of the equal brethren is elected to be president, then everyone must know that he has only received a human appointment to the office of servant, which everyone also otherwise actually has according to the Master’s example to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the insight, knowledge and experience with which he can be equipped. At all times, however, he is only an advisor, and as other Christians, is in duty bound to point to what is written.

He himself is to guard himself against the conceit that he is now a head higher than the others and also always remember that he has no other duty or authority than diligently to serve the others in the things with which they have charged him, either in the constitution or in other mutually agreed upon arrangements. Such an office, I believe, ought to be discharged by everyone in turns, if possible.

Bjug Harstad and his contemporaries in the Norwegian Synod of the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (called the “little” Norwegian Synod) were sensitive to some things concerning synodical organization. It’s good to review these writings whenever we can.

Fun with accents

This was more interesting to me than it may be for others, since my speech was learned in both Arizona and southeast Massachusetts, two accents that could hardly be more different. I remember making a conscious effort not to pick up the Massachusetts accent, because I thought it was goofy. (No offense intended to those who speak that way or live there.) But I went to school in Mass from 6th through 12th grade.

I’ve also lived in Wesconsin and Minnesota from 1990 until last year.
See what happened:

What American accent do you have?

Your Result: The West

Your accent is the lowest common denominator of American speech. Unless you’re a SoCal surfer, no one thinks you have an accent. And really, you may not even be from the West at all, you could easily be from Florida or one of those big Southern cities like Dallas or Atlanta.

The Midland
North Central
The Inland North
The South
The Northeast
What American accent do you have?
Take More Quizzes

Thanks to Random Intolerance for the link.