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Already a Defeat

Pastor Robin Fish
Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church  
Laurie, MO

Sun, Aug 1, 2004 

The title above is a reference to 1 Corinthians 6:7.  Although the verse is in the context of Christians taking one another to court (going to law), I think that the principle is applicable to the Synod as a whole in the face of how we approach our conventions.  Mind you, I think we need conventions, and I believe that we must work for the sound and faithful confession of the faith by our Synod and every member of her.  I believe that how we approach conventions today is roughly analogous to the problems of the early church taking one another to court.  We are not living out our faith.

I think that the Synod would have faced a terrible time of conflict in the next three years, no matter who won the election.  I would have personally preferred seeing many of the elections turn differently, but the end result would have been deep frustration for some, and years of dissent and turmoil and politics even with wholesome leadership.  The problem, as I see it, is that we have begun to believe that we can, or should be able to, deal with the issues confronting our Synod with a political solution.  If we just elect the right people, many appear to think, or pass the right resolutions, we can get the Synod united and moving forward again.  That attitude is a big part of the problem.  When we try to win the war politically, it is already a defeat.  We are already 'playing the game' on the devil's terms.

The problems in the Missouri Synod are theological.  The political division exists because we are theologically divided.  The battle-cry from the 'Left', as I will identify the President and the "Jesus First" wing of the Synod, is that we all believe the same things, and that we really do have doctrinal unity.  The problem is just some evil conservatives who want to run the show.  The disingenuousness of that platform was illustrated at the convention by the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA as he attempted to demonstrate for us how the LC-MS and the ELCA are united in doctrine so closely - that we really believe much of the same things.  His confession may have been personally sincere, but he misrepresented the public position of the ELCA on almost every point, and was careful to avoid even a passing mention of any of the issues which divide us.  The 'Left' and the 'Right' in the Synod have theological, doctrinal, that is to say, "What does the Word of God say, and what does that mean to the life of the Church?" issues that divide us.  Pretending that it is not so will not make them go away.

Neither does duplicity about the other side in the doctrinal divisions among us, or managing to amass a hair-fine majority at the convention.  We have a division of the house, and we (the Synod) don't want to deal with it as a theological problem.  So we call it "political", and assign motives to what others do that we do not appreciate, and build stereotypes of our 'opposition' that can be easily caricatured and used to diminish them.  This is instead of "speak[ing] the truth in love" and seeking the "unity of the Spirit", and "regard[ing] one another as more important than himself".  Many on either side of the Synodical divide have forgotten that the weapon of the Church is the Word of God, "the sword of the Spirit", and not the power of the political process.

From my perspective, the election of the entire presidium was unfortunate.  Dr. King was re-elected, but is outnumbered by those whose vision for the Synod is markedly different from that which he had so faithfully supported in the past.  In the sense that the presidium now stands united in vision for the future of our Synod, it is probably good, in some sense.  For the future of the Missouri Synod as a theological enterprise, confessing the faith delivered to us by generations of Lutherans gone by, it appears to be a singularly unfortunate turn of events.

There are voices making a great deal out of the fact that this resolution or that resolution passed.  Our Synod in convention tends to pass nearly everything that comes to it from the committees.  This year, 68 resolutions (by my count) were adopted, and two were rejected, and 55 never came to a vote.  In fact, 53 never came to the floor of the convention for consideration.  A number of resolutions were voted on without discussion or debate, as someone 'called the question'.  Resolutions were passed to give the Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) authority over even the Board of Directors.  Several resolutions gathered more authority into the hands of the Synod President.  Controlling the convention became easier, by virtue of limiting some nominations from the floor - so now nominating committees can eliminate choice, if they are so minded.  The party that cried so loudly about the centralization of power during the tenure of President Barry cheered and 'high-fived' one another at the success of their plan to centralize power under their candidate.

Good things happened, to be sure.  We took a firm stand by resolution against the teaching of Evolution in our Synodical schools.  We will have to wait to see if it is implemented in the reality of the life of our Synod.  We voted, not quite unanimously, that marriage is rightly the union of one man and one woman.  We voted to affirm pastoral ministry, but that is in a church body where "clergy-killers" are running rampant and often with the tacit approval of the administrative bureaucracy.

On the other hand, we also voted to affirm diversity in worship styles and practices.  We voted to encourage the service of women in any office or position which did not involve "public accountability for the functions of the pastoral office."  That phrase was explained at the podium by the Executive Director of the Commission on Theology and Church Relations to mean that a woman could serve in any position as long as the congregation did not define it as accountable for the functions of the pastoral office. In short, we didn't do anything radical to change the direction of our Synod.  The one exception was when the convention adopted a resolution which declared "evangelistic outreach" the highest priority of the Synod, instructing us to make our congregations grow "as the Lord intended."  That resolution, which contradicted both Scripture and the Confessions in the language of the resolution was adopted by a 66.2% positive vote.  When it was challenged before the vote on the basis that it contradicted the Word of God and the Confessions, the President of Synod did not blink, did not pause to consider the question of this conflict, and neither did the assembly.  The chair simply called for the vote.

The Convention did adopt the proposed hymnal, although it elected to not update the Scriptures in the Catechism printed in the new hymnal.  The English Standard Version had been recommended, but the convention elected to stick with the NIV from the 1986 translation of the Small Catechism.  I think the new hymnal might be a good thing, bringing the best of TLH and LW together into one book. 

What happened, however, is of less importance than what did not happen.  We did not discuss or debate the Yankee Stadium affair, or the "Moslems worship the same God as we do" theology, even though this convention is the single most appropriate place for such discussions.  We did not discuss the debatable, and hotly debated, CCM rulings.  There was a resolution in the 'Today's Business' which should have brought that discussion to the floor, but the convention was never allowed to consider that resolution.  Those items were the most urgent business of the convention, and yet neither was allowed to come before the convention.

President Kieschnick addressed the convention, explaining how, in his opinion, what transpired around September 23rd and Yankee Stadium was all right and proper.  He absolved Dr. Benke of any guilt as Dr. Benke asked for forgiveness for not getting his words out "more clearly or accurately or completely."  The issue of Christians in worship with pagans was not discussed.  We were simply told that everything was done properly, by the book, and no one should have been upset.

Dr. Kieschnick suggested that our consternation and concern over the events of that September might be compared to disagreements in the history of our Synod over buying life insurance, or dancing, or men and women sitting together during worship.  He correctly noted that any censure of the President's actions must come from the convention, but he did not provide the avenue for such a discussion in the business of the convention.  That omission is singularly unfortunate.

The issue that divides our Synod is theological, and we need to discuss it and debate it theologically.  Avoiding the issue doesn't avoid division, it just avoids face-to-face confrontation and the unpleasant feelings that often engenders.  The questions remain unresolved, and the division continues and even deepens because, rather than confessing the truth, the some on the 'Left" have maintained that those who raise the questions in this debate are of evil motive and unworthy of being heard.

The questions, however, are fundamental.  Was Yankee Stadium a worship service, or worship "event"?  Clearly in the minds of many who participated, and those who called the event together, it was.  Whether we can parse our words carefully enough to distinguish between what happened and "worship" is not really the question.  The question is, what was it in the minds of those who attended, and those who led the service?  After the fact, we can rationalize anything.

Another question is, did the failure of the Synod to address these issues and questions, including the CCM rulings which undergird the official resolution in favor of accepting the actions surrounding the whole controversy, have the effect of altering the confession of the Synod, even though no confessional statements were adopted?  While we consider that question, the words of Franz Pieper, the author of our Synod's old Systematic Theology textbook, seem to apply:

With regard to the orthodox character of a church body note well: (1) A church body is orthodox only if the true doctrine, as we have it in the Augsburg Confession and the other Lutheran Symbols, is actually taught in its pulpits and its publications and not merely "officially" professed as its faith. Not the "official" doctrine, but the actual teaching determines the character of a church body, because Christ enjoins that all things whatsoever He has commanded His disciples should actually be taught and not merely acknowledged in an "official document" as the correct doctrine. It is patent that faith in Christ will be created and preserved through the pure Gospel only when that Gospel is really proclaimed. (2) A church body does not forfeit its orthodox character by reason of the casual intrusion of false doctrine. The thing which the Apostle Paul told the elders of Ephesus: "Also of your own selves shall men arise speaking perverse things to draw away disciples after them" (Acts 20:30), came true not only in the Apostolic Church, but also in the Church of the Reformation and will occur in the Church to the Last Day. A church body loses its orthodoxy only when it no longer applies Rom. 16:17, hence does not combat and eventually remove the false doctrine, but tolerates it without reproof and thus actually grants it equal right with the truth.

Finally, even if we were to answer the questions above with a 'yes', there is still the question of what that means for us and how we are to respond.  Some would just ignore the questions and their answers and 'attend to business', as it were.  There are some who would stay and fight for the Synod, and others who would stay and fight for the souls of those caught in this rapidly changing church body.  Some are concerned about the assets of the Synod.  Then there are those who would flee, not wanting to be stained by the false confession of our Synod's tacit and sometimes public approval of what is, in the minds of many, a bold violation of the first commandment and an unfaithful confession accomplished by worshiping side-by-side with pagans, not to mention worshiping with those who call themselves Christian but reject the Word of God in many things they teach.

What we will do, and how we will respond is yet to be decided.  It must be a response which flows out of our theology, not our emotions, and surely not our politics.  If we do not follow the Word of God in all that we do, it is, as Paul describes it, "already a defeat".

"Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord . . ."  (Isaiah 1:18).

Yours in the Lord,

Pastor Fish

These sermons are for the Church. If you find it useful, go ahead and use it -- but give credit where credit is due. Shaped by the Cross Lutheran Church's Website can be found by clicking here.

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