What is Harrison’s Koinonia Project and Why is it Different? by Pr. Rossow

About two years ago the Southern Illinois District of the LCMS asked Matt Harrison to give his response to the then burgeoning Blue Ribbon Task Force efforts to change the basic structure of our denomination. That request resulted in the document It’s Time which has at its heart the Koinonia Project. The Koinonia project is a discussion and decision vehicle intended to unite the synod around common doctrine and practice. What makes it different than past efforts at dialogue is the decision component. Before getting to that it will be helpful to understand It’s Time a little more.

The basic point of It’s Time is that structural change is not the real issue in the synod. The guts of the structural changes were passed by the delegates in Houston even though they made history by replacing the incumbent with Rev. Harrison who spoke out against the changes proposed by the Task Force. In It’s Time Harrison identified differences of doctrine and practice as the real issues in the synod. The structural changes are what they are and will help the synod save a few dollars but more importantly, the Koinonia project will help the synod get at the heart of its most pressing concerns: disunity of doctrine and practice.

Here is the description of the Koinonia Project from page 12 of It’s Time.

The goal of the first year would be simply to identify the issues that trouble—to begin to formulate the “status of the controversy.” The dialogue must agree that there are two texts which must be dominant in dealing with the issues: the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions, in that order. Given the near confessional authority granted several writings of Luther by the Lutheran Confessions, and the official status of some of C. F. W. Walther’s writings in the Missouri Synod, these documents would also have to be dealt with…

The second year would simply be devoted to formulating the “affirmatives” and the “negatives.” What in fact can be, and actually is affirmed and or rejected by all, or nearly all parties at the table? As the affirmations and the status of the controversy (points at issue) are identified, so also then the points of disagreement will become all the clearer. A yearly report (via an inexpensive, Web-based delivery) would present to the Synod the progress of the dialogue for critique. The national effort could seek input from local efforts and find the best work on the local level. The goal would simply be to come to a point of doctrinal agreement which is God-pleasing and sufficient for both God-pleasing Christian freedom and also God-pleasing uniformity of doctrine and practice: Unity in and for Mission.

As we consider the description of the Koinonia project from It’s Time we need to remember that it is not set in stone. Harrison lays it out in if’s and what’s. It is a working proposal. Exactly how he will work it out remains to be seen but he has also made it clear in the document that it is somewhat open-ended and is not closed to grass roots expressions of its goal.

The Koinonia Project is different than past efforts at dialogue in the LCMS because they were exactly that – efforts at dialogue, mere dialogue. Plato teaches us that through dialogue comes truth but in Platnoic dialogue there is always a knowledgeable interlocutor who is guiding the discussion and some end is achieved. Past synod dialogues have ended up being a mere flapping of gums with no end product. Harrison’s Koinonia project is different. It has a leader – Rev. Harrison and it has a codified end to the dialogue – the theses. It is important to note that Harrison does not see himself as Socrates in this project. As a matter of fact, one iteration of the plan does not even have him in the discussions. But he is the “Koinonia Socrates” at least in this sense, that he has laid out the plan and he has done us a huge favor, by defining the plan with a specific end product. He is already functioning as the invisible interlocutor if he chooses not to take an active role.

The other difference in this project compared to the past is far more significant – a finished product of theses to which one says “yea” or “nay.” That is refreshing and is necessary if we want to have a true expression of Biblical unity. I have sat through previous synod dialogues being very frustrated that they were going nowhere in the end. It is so refreshing that we have a true leader in Harrison who will not settle for mere dialogue but instead will lead us to dialogue that ends in truth.

Harrison says these theses need not be a confession. I beg to differ. I am fine if they are not elevated to the level of confession but also invite folks to consider the fact that we are facing issues of Pietism (Rick Warren like pragmatism) and Romanticism (emotive based worship and preaching) in Lutheranism that may not have received sufficient confessional rebuke. These issues are certainly addressed in the Lutheran Confessions but it seems no one has been able to lead and  teach us out of the current malaise based on the Confessions and so it may be time for a clearer “yea” and “nay” on these matters. Harrison’s Koinonia Project will not rise or fall on this issue of confession but it is a helpful question to consider to better understand the intended result of the project.

What ought we all to do then? First read or re-read It’s Time. I am not totally clear on what Harrison means when he describes local, grass roots versions of the Koinonia Project. I am not sure who those groups are or what they would look like but I guess it would not hurt to start lining up people on the local level of different persuasions and have them start talking. I belong to the Northern Illinois Confessional Lutherans. We have some local, good friends on the “other side” that we have become chummy with and have at least enough respect for that we should be able to carry on helpful dialogue. At the very least, we can identify the issues and see how far or close we are to coming together in doctrine and practice.

It’s time baby! Harrison’s Koinonia Project is different. Let’s start talking and let’s start working toward a series of theses that will express our Scriptural unity.

About Pastor Tim Rossow

Rev. Dr. Timothy Rossow is the Director of Development for Lutherans in Africa. He served Bethany Lutheran Church in Naperville, IL as the Sr. Pastor for 22 years (1994-2016) and was Sr. Pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran in Dearborn, MI prior to that. He is the founder of Brothers of John the Steadfast but handed off the Sr. Editor position to Rev. Joshua Scheer in 2015. He currently resides in Ocean Shores WA with his wife Phyllis. He regularly teaches in Africa. He also paints watercolors, reads philosophy and golfs. He is currently represented in two art galleries in the Pacific Northwest. His M Div is from Concordia, St. Louis and he has an MA in philosophy from St. Louis University and a D Min from Concordia, Fort Wayne.

Comments

What is Harrison’s Koinonia Project and Why is it Different? by Pr. Rossow — 14 Comments

  1. I am a man of action and so am ready to start talking now. I want to add however, that Harrison has not even been installed and I have no idea how he and his team intend to work out the details of the Koinonia Project if at all. It may not be until next Spring, once they have had a chance to get settled in the office.

    In defense of “Mr. Impatience” I will say this though. I have already noticed the conversation beginning and there is nothing that ought to hold that back. It is priceless to have a leader who cherishes and plans for theological discussion with a clear “yea” or “nay” end in sight. Having such gives many on both “sides” hope that the dialogue is actually meaningful.

    TR

  2. I have suggested to our circuit counselor that we study “It’s Time” in winkels this fall. I believe that we should prepare ourselves ahead of time for what great possibilities lay in conversation with those of varying theological viewpoints among us in the LCMS.

  3. The goal of the first year would be simply to identify the issues that trouble—to begin to formulate the “status of the controversy….”
    The second year would simply be devoted to formulating the “affirmatives” and the “negatives.”

    As we remember from what we learned at our catechist’s knee, all this has been done previously in 1580, and repeated in the Missouri Synod specifically on the doctrine of church and ministry in a book published in 1852 (and re-affirmed in 2001).

    In defense of “Mr. Impatience” I have already noticed the conversation beginning…

    The conversation, among Missouri Lutherans, has been going on since Dr. Carl Eduard Vehse’s Protestation document in 1839, and the Missouri Synod’s responses to Grabau and Loehe and other synods in the 1840s – 1870s, the various issues of Der Lutheraner (now being translated into English by Rev. Joel Basely), the Brief Statement of 1932, the discussions on Seminex, and for the last 20 some years on countless Lutheran listservs and blog sites. So I think we can skip the steps of “identifying the issues” tour and report by a Blue Ribbon Synodical Task Force on Reinventing the Doctrinal Wheel.

  4. “Carl,”

    This the first time that I know of that the issues of the last generation will be addressed by a formal process proposed by the Synod president with a goal to establish theses that people are then either “for” or “agin.” That to me is what is unique about Koininia Project.

    The past efforts have been Herculean and ought not to be ignored, but the process here is unique and that is what makes me support the idea of starting with more discussion. It is discussion aimed at a clear and helpful goal.

    TR

  5. I, too, am eager for this to begin.

    From “Its Time,” it looks like the Koinonia group can be self-formed, and that it need not be an official committee formed by the Synod. If this is the case, there would be no need to wait until Harrison is ready.

    What is really important in the formation is that the group include people who lead (if informally), the major factions in our church body so that if the group is able to reach agreement on a point, so should the whole LCMS. I sincerely hope that no side tries to stack the committee, as that would defeat the purpose. In addition, we should seek the most theologically astute and well-read minds for this purpose, be they Seminary professors or others.

  6. So what should be the process for forming this group? How do we select 12 people representative of the whole Synod in a fair way?

  7. Matt Jamison :
    So what should be the process for forming this group? How do we select 12 people representative of the whole Synod in a fair way?

    There isn’t any “we” or any central process.

    The leader has proclaimed some basic facts and it’s on individuals to respond.

    The principal is you hear and respond. So, do what you can. You can’t organize anybody else to do it. You can only pitch in.

    That’s how it seems to me, anyway.

  8. While I doubt that the outcome of the Koinonia Project will be a full-fledged confession on par with the Book of Concord, I think that a doctrinal statement along the lines of “A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod” (1932) and “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (1973) would be highly appropriate. As I have pointed out previously, the interval between those two documents was 41 years–so “It’s Time” for another one in 2014 or so.

    Per bylaw 1.6.2(b), a doctrinal statement – as opposed to a mere doctrinal resolution – must initially be submitted directly by the CTCR or to the CTCR by a national or district convention, Synod faculty, or official district conference of ordained and/or commissioned ministers. It then requires not only adoption by majority vote at a convention, but also ratification by two-thirds of congregations responding within six months. If President-Elect Harrison is correct that “It is possible to unify 85% of the Synod in doctrine, practice and mission,” then this level of consensus should be achievable.

    Bylaw 1.6.2(b)(7) currently states that “Such adopted and ratified doctrinal statements shall be regarded as the position of the Synod . . . ‘accepted and used as helpful expositions and explanations’ (FC SC Rules and Norm 10) . . . [and] honored and upheld . . . until such time as the Synod amends or repeals them.” However, Article VII.1 of the Constitution states that “no resolution of the Synod . . . is of binding force . . . if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.” Likewise, bylaw 1.7.2 “recognizes the right of a congregation to be the judge of the applicability of [any] resolution [of the Synod] to its local condition,” as long as it does not “act arbitrarily.”

    So I was wondering – has the LCMS ever discussed requiring subscription to its doctrinal statements as part of its confessional position or requirements for membership? What would be the arguments against taking such a step?

  9. I am pleased to say that Pastor/President Harrison is a member of my parish and he is fantastic. He taught our adult Bible class one Sunday morning recently giving the history of the Christian church from the first century until how we got to be our parish in our town and even in our current building. He did not pull punches about the missteps the Christian church made through the centuries but he did give us the sense that he cares so very deeply for people and especially those who claim LCMS as their church family. His vast knowledge of history given to us in one short hour was nothing short of genius. I suggest that anyone that has devoted so much time not only to knowing the history of God’s people and has reached out to His people world wide has no intention of bringing harm to either one.

  10. aletheist :While I doubt that the outcome of the Koinonia Project will be a full-fledged confession on par with the Book of Concord, I think that a doctrinal statement along the lines of “A Brief Statement of the Doctrinal Position of the Missouri Synod” (1932) and “A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles” (1973) would be highly appropriate. As I have pointed out previously, the interval between those two documents was 41 years–so “It’s Time” for another one in 2014 or so.
    Per bylaw 1.6.2(b), a doctrinal statement – as opposed to a mere doctrinal resolution – must initially be submitted directly by the CTCR or to the CTCR by a national or district convention, Synod faculty, or official district conference of ordained and/or commissioned ministers. It then requires not only adoption by majority vote at a convention, but also ratification by two-thirds of congregations responding within six months. If President-Elect Harrison is correct that “It is possible to unify 85% of the Synod in doctrine, practice and mission,” then this level of consensus should be achievable.
    Bylaw 1.6.2(b)(7) currently states that “Such adopted and ratified doctrinal statements shall be regarded as the position of the Synod . . . ‘accepted and used as helpful expositions and explanations’ (FC SC Rules and Norm 10) . . . [and] honored and upheld . . . until such time as the Synod amends or repeals them.” However, Article VII.1 of the Constitution states that “no resolution of the Synod . . . is of binding force . . . if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.” Likewise, bylaw 1.7.2 “recognizes the right of a congregation to be the judge of the applicability of [any] resolution [of the Synod] to its local condition,” as long as it does not “act arbitrarily.”
    So I was wondering – has the LCMS ever discussed requiring subscription to its doctrinal statements as part of its confessional position or requirements for membership? What would be the arguments against taking such a step?

    Then it will go to convention and someone will haggle over 1 word or omission therof, propose an amendment, the behnken rule will be invoked, said substitute motion will be defeated. Someone else will propose to amend the same two words later in the document, then it will pass 52-48, but alas it must garner 66% and so it fails.

  11. @aletheist #8
    Per bylaw 1.6.2(b), a doctrinal statement – as opposed to a mere doctrinal resolution – must initially be submitted directly by the CTCR or to the CTCR

    Have we still got a CTCR? (Sorry, I wasn’t giving the convention my breathless attention until Harrison got elected. That, I noticed!)

  12. Answer to the haggle, get 52%, thus fail problem: Make sure it’s an extra long convention, and make sure the floor committee in charge doesn’t bring it up until the last or 2nd last day. Then it will pass without much haggling at all–or at least more likely to. “Let’s just pass it and ‘MOVE FORWARD’!”

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