Wednesday, January 21, 2015



These are reflections from doing practical theology as a sole pastor and observing how others relate in the same work.  The work of theology does not admit of error, laxity of application, or personal preference.  These are the standards to which men are called and ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry.  Like the one Church, the Office is one in service to her and thus in Christ an organic unity.  Of the following pastoral lapses, I have been guilty of all.  What is intended is that pastors and congregations pause to re-assess their identities in Christ’s Church.  

Rev. Dr. Kenneth Korby (deceased), observed of LCMS (paraphrase), that despite all her faults he would not leave the “old biddy”.  I adopt the same attitude; nor am I inclined to listen to complaints about LCMS from outsiders.  Still it is disturbing, the extent we in the LCMS don blinders and glance only obliquely into a self-reflecting glass. 

Apropos, former insiders abandoning LCMS, is the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America (ELDoNA).   Why did these pastors (deacons) and congregations leave LCMS?  Given that the defining difference between the two church bodies is their respective governance, it is no stretch to conclude, that general dysfunction and disunity within LCMS was problematic for those leaving for their own polity. 

There is irony here.  When the German-Saxons arrived in America, they assumed the only form of Church governance they knew, an episcopal model.  In the macro setting of Europe that model broadly “worked”.  There are many reasons why, with the right leadership, episcopal governance would have benefited the small Saxon church in a strange Protestant landscape.  As it turned out the episcopal model was found wanting in the new circumstance. They had one Bishop (Martin Stephan) unaccountable to an immediate counter-veiling synod of co-equal bishops for brotherly corrective.  The Saxons had put all their eggs in one basket, and when their bishop was deposed, they believed themselves bereft of churchly identity.

C.F.W. Walther’s proffered solution, no doubt gaining from a surrounding Protestant congregationalism, was grounded in the promised presence of Christ where two-three gather in his name.  The Saxons re-assessed the nature of congregation and discerned inherent authority in a baptismal identity, specifically to Call a man to the Office of Holy Ministry.  (It would be wrong to equate Lutheran congregationalism with the religious hoi polloi of western American Protestants who eschew Lutheran real-presence, sacraments as gospel, and communion of saints as body.)  No doubt, also of influence with the Saxons was the pastoral Ministerium of Eastern Lutherans (Pennsylvania and NY) exercising church governance through pastors in area synod for doctrine, practice, calls, and publications.

For the Saxons, and other Lutherans eventually drawn to them, what developed was a new counter-veiling structure; a sort of super-ministerium, now consisting of both pastors and congregations, called “Synod”.   The bonding glue of doctrine and practice amongst pastors and congregations was outwardly expressed in the nebulous notion of “walking together”.  Then, Synod could trust in its “walk together” given a beginning xenophobic separatism, practically exclusive outreach to German speakers, high degree of theological education of both pastorate and laity, a united liturgical tradition, and theological/catechetical precision.

Today, ELDoNA seems to have perceived in LCMS a state of disintegration; the fabric of Synod becoming undone in liturgical dysfunction, inconsistent and competing notions of mission, and loss of theological and practical unity through the Office of Ministry so as to even compromise the gospel entrusted to the Church.  Thus alarmed and doubtless with no little sense of historic irony ELDoNA opted for return to the traditional episcopal model of Church governance, rather than to continue in a hypocritical “walk”.  Now factionalized LCMS seems to have morphed into another thing (“This is not your grandfather’s Church”).  Whatever Synod is, at the essential congregational level, it only “walks together” erratically or in name only. 

The above are generalized conclusions; but now a look at 1) Synod, 2) Pastorate, and 3) congregations through the stereoscopic lenses of Lutheran gospel comprehension; and corollary insight into the nature of Holy Ministry.

Synod: For “conservatives” who cheered the elevation of Matt Harrison, it must be recognized that as the position of Synod President has evolved it is now a relatively impotent office for assuring the purity of the gospel and unity in Synodically confessed doctrine and practice.  In this regard Bishop James Heiser in his (ELDoNA) diocese is a more authoritative personage in these regards.   To be sure, we should not belittle the benign power of SP for conservatism.  As long as Pres. Harrison remains in office it might be expected that “Ablaze” with its “Igniter Events” advancing neo-evangelical visions of “mission” will remain unfunded and un-promoted of a COP Synod restructuring agenda.  Still the present abatement of liberization is just the calm before a more concerted effort at changing the face of LCMS Lutheranism from within.  Anything more than passivity by SP would require acts tantamount to falling on his political sword.  All this is to say, that as “conservative” a politician as Pres. Harrison is, we do well to remember not to put our faith in princes.

District Presidents, are usually hale and well-met fellows.  They smile, photograph well, and do a reasonable job in managing triennial meetings.  Still, DP’s have no organic pastoral (gospel) connection with any congregation.  Their office is solely the discretionary creation of the Church body they serve.  DP’s do more damage than they know failing to comprehend their vocation.  They are not classically “bishops”; neither are they “Pastor of pastors” (which approach has burned the fingers of more than one DP).  That said, all pastors need the gospel from another ordained man and thus should seek-out a neighboring “father confessor” in their lives, just not a DP.

DPs, fail in their churchly positions:

1) When they arrogate congregations’ prerogative of pastoral calling by loaded lists according to subjective criteria, personal preference, or political exertion.  I doubt there is a shortage of qualified ordained men available to the many vacant LCMS congregations.  There is just a lack of available candidates meeting the subjective criteria of mediating DPs. 

2) When they send call lists to please the stylistic aesthetics and “liturgical” preference of congregations in order to make a “good match”.  This assumes that congregations may optionally do what the church in her essential identity does Lord’s day to Lord’s day, i.e. the mass according to the agreed upon traditions received by Synod in our walk together (The Mass of the Lutheran Rite).  A District’s liberal/conservative dichotomy panders to the faux-doctrine, “supremacy of the Voter’s assembly” run-amok.  At some point unchecked congregational communal hegemony by the least theologically discerning is pure enthusiasm.  The pastor is not in the congregation either to be one of its members, or stylistically make a “good fit”, or continue aberrant practices of the Assembly.  To think this, fails to properly discern who the Pastor is in the congregation.

3) When DP/Circuit visitations fail to evaluate and supervise the quality of extant pastoral ministry in the congregation and take corrective action where inconsistency is found. 

4) When a pastor attempts corrective changes in his congregation as God gives the light (not being obnoxious and making reasonable attempts at catechesis), then each and every time, a DP should exercise his full churchly authority in support of the man in the Office.  If the congregation acts the “wolf”, then the DP should move heaven and earth to see the ordained man raised from the pit of an unjust rejection and the early grave of CRM status.  This is the brotherly thing to do and is good church discipline sending the appropriate message from a DP who knows his vocation.

5) When District deprecates the essential congregational underpinning of Synod by promoting masses at conferences, circuits, and conventions apart from the pastoral authority of a specific congregation and its pastor open to all the Baptized of Synod.  In so doing the impression is conveyed that the gathered pastors by virtue of an “impressed character” are granted universal license to conduct masses apart from their congregational call.

Pastors, how do we view them through the twin lenses of gospel and Ministry?  Unlike ecclesial offices (SP, DP, CV), this vocation is precisely established and circumscribed. The preaching office is of God (AC. V).  Through both lenses, the Office must be viewed according to its relational orientations; a) faithfulness to God, b) faithfulness to Christ’s sheep (congregation), and c) faithfulness to brothers in the Office.  This faithfulness is neither rocket science nor creative except as the Holy Spirit employs us to the new creation.  The rest of what is given for pastors to do is of Scripture and that which is handed-on by the Church’s tradition assented to by the Office for her well being in the presence of God.

In no place does Christ specifically command ordination to the Holy Ministry; in Scripture you will not find a dictionary definition of “the gospel”; nor therein rubrics on how New Testament worship is to be conducted in Spirit and Truth (the flesh of the man Christ crucified and risen and delivered by a man he ordains, i.e. the mass).  And yet all these things Lutherans confess are essentially implicit in the nature of God’s word delivered to his Church.

Here then is a list of pastoral malfeasances currently tolerated in LCMS breaching the Office’s “faithfulness” quotient.  (Cognate sources thereof are left to the reader of this missive).

1)   Failing to keep the Chief Service of the Church every Lord’s Day and the other festivals; thereby relegating the mass to an optional activity rather than the constitutive event of the congregation’s existence and identity.
2)   Employing non-ordained persons to the work of gospel delivery, i.e., especially the Readings and the Distribution, thus confusing the proper distinction of Ministry and congregation.
3)   Employing non-“natural wine” (SD VII: 48) as kosher wines or grape juice for host in the Sacrament of the Altar.
4)   Failing to insure a “closed” communion and repudiate so called “close” communion.
5)   Discarding, so as to make obsolete an entire sacrament, the Holy Absolution in the context of private confession.
6)   Ceding exclusive pastor (Office) prerogatives and authority to congregational committees or assembly vote.
7)   Permitting home-made liturgies/inappropriate music forms and lyrics/insertion in the Liturgy of extraneous activities (e.g. dance).
8)   Holding a self-identification that fosters pastors and congregations acting independently of other brethren especially in area localities.  (Doing what seems right is their own eyes)
9)   Receiving and not returning to a brother pastor* one “shopping” another congregation without spiritual or physical necessity.
10)                   Receiving and not returning to a brother pastor* one not a “member in good standing” in his present congregation. 

By these examples of brotherly neglect or abuse we have sown the wind and today in the LCMS we reap the whirlwind.  There was a time when area LCMS congregations would participate in joint celebrations.  Now when we uncritically hold what has in some cases become fiction, i.e., “walking together”, we wonder why the brotherly practice of uniting in joint worship Services is no longer the rule?  The answer is, orthodoxy no longer admits of joint celebrations in the Lord, except often in a limited way.   

The problems presented for the orthodox pastor participating in or conducting “joint” Services are almost overwhelming.  Assume an area with five LCMS congregations; some of whom consider the hauptGottesdienst (Communion every Lord’s Day) as simply but one option; whereas others believe the mass to be constitutive of the congregation in the Presence of God every Sunday and the other festivals.  We see the problem!  We have entered the realm of faith and faithfulness as these orientations confront the nebulousness of what it means to “walk together”.  Can all five area church’s hold a “joint” Feast of the Ascension celebration?  Maybe yes; maybe no.  Of necessity it at least depends on the objective faithfulness of the individual pastors in the Office.  If these area pastors, in regular association are in concord that what they jointly and severally believe and confess is in fact every Sunday communion and that those with “resistant congregations” are affirmatively being catechized, then there is every reason to join in unitive celebration.  The other nine iterations above may or may not be applicable to the question of “joint” Services or the extent to which inter-communion may occur.  Those issues await resolution per the Spirit as the Brotherhood faithfully attend in a communion of Office into which they have been called.  Sadly, in too many cases what passes for such local brotherly communion in the Office (circuit meetings) lacks appreciation of purpose and mentality of loving submission within the Church’s tradition.  

Congregations are accountable for faithlessness.  Liturgically it is not their vocation to speak but to listen and respond in like verbiage delivered; they swear as much at the ordination/installation of their Pastor.  It is a truism observed in pastoral practice; “everyone wants to be Pastor”.  Women desire ordination; laity the Lectern; elders to distribute the Sacrament; Sunday School teachers independence; Voters’ to direct the Liturgy; and all want their “favorite” hymns for that extra bit of uplift (which is often why they are present).  All these seek the triumph of personal preference (a temptation to which pastors also fall prey).  The impulse to be Pastor in itself is perhaps a good thing, but few are called; and so Jesus instructs his purveyors of the gospel where his peace is not rejected, to “remain in the same house, eating and drinking what they provide…do not go from house to house.”

So we come to the essential reality.  Congregations and pastors do not participate in the affairs of our Lord as individuals.  The Baptized are a corporate priesthood, not individual priests without regard to their neighbor in the pew or the next congregation over.  Neither is the pastorate a collection of individuals bishops, rather a servant ministerium in the one Office.  None of us act alone; such unity is the point of congregations, pastors, and ecclesial ministers.  Absent true concord generated from a faithful Office of the Holy Ministry all talk of “walking together” is simply nebulousness and pushing on a string. 

ELDoNA has opted-out of the hurly-burly wrought by rampant individualism extant in LCMS for the simplicity of a rather expansive diocesan bishopric.  It is a solution fraught with its own perils. 

LCMS need not despair in the apparent weakness of congregational of concord.  She need only to do what she is given to do: pastor’s and congregations each knowing, distinguishing, and supporting fidelity of their respective offices to the glory of God foundationally expressed Lord’s Day to Lord’s Day in the Church’s tradition, her mass.  In this expression of word and sacrament are found true worshippers of the Father in “Spirit and Truth”.

Festival of St. Luke, Evangelist 2013
+Peter Mills

* “brother pastor”: We can not take this to mean all pastors of the LCMS; rather as James is understood to employ the term, “…refers to a Christian who is living faithfully” (James 1:2, note 2, The Lutheran Study Bible).