Thoughts by a Concerned Layman on the Diaconate…

Here’s a submission from a Concerned Layman:

Before I begin in earnest, let me say that I am not a pastor, nor am I an expert in theology, Lutheran or otherwise. I am simply a layman in the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod). However, I have done a few things that might put me “beyond the mean” in terms of my experience: I’ve read the Book of Concord, not once but several times; I’ve been a member of five different LCMS parishes from the Pacific Northwest to the Mid-Atlantic to the Midwest; lastly, I have kept an ear to the ground of LCMS church politics over the last three decades. Maybe I’m wrong, and my experience actually locates me squarely “within the mean”, not beyond it. In any case, what I write here today I write simply as a concerned layman.

In 1989 while in convention in Wichita, KS, the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) passed a resolution which effectively rescinded a portion of its own “canon law”, the Book of Concord of 1580. Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession stipulates that “no one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called”— in other words, no one is to do the work of a pastor except a pastor, i.e., a man who has been called and ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry. Guided by some strange Geist, the LCMS read this most blessedly short and clear article and said “Nein!

Why did this happen? The proximate cause was a shortage of pastors, or more likely a shortage of placements of pastors in areas that needed them. Dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of LCMS parishes in rural and remote areas were without regular, full-time pastors. Synod heard their cries and responded by sending them…laymen. Thus the Unding of the LCMS “Wichita diaconate” was born. Geist, nein, Unding— that’s basically all the German I know.

Fast-forward to today and some good news: as most BJS readers surely know, in 2013 while in convention in St Louis, MO, the LCMS swallowed hard and passed Resolution 4-06A, which, among other things, authorized a special task-force to examine potential ways forward from the illicit (again, per our “canon law”) practice of having laymen do pastoral work, i.e., the “Wichita diaconate” described above. The report of said task-force was slated to be released one full year prior to the 2016 Synodical Convention.

Well, look at your calendars— we are past that one-year countdown mark. The report was released in July. You can find it here in all its glory in convenient PDF form: “2013 Resolution 4-06A Task Force Report to the Synod” (go to “Read Task Force Report”). But that’s not all that happened this summer: about a month after Synod released this report, the Southeastern District President, Pr. John Denninger, announced his district’s intention to keep the “Wichita diaconate” alive and kicking. At least that’s what it seemed like to me the first, second, and third times I watched and listened to Pr. Denninger’s video pitch, which you can access with the video to the right.

My education and work experience are in semiotics and textual analysis, so I think I can say without tooting my own horn that I know something about close reading. In this piece, I am going to marshall these skills and use them to the best of my ability to parse Pr. Denninger’s comments. Call it my attempt to “make a good shoe.” In what follows, I have tried to do two things: (1) put the best construction on Pr. Denninger’s words, and, at the same time, (2) take them at face value.

As an aside, and for whatever it’s worth: when I was a lay-delegate at the 2012 Southeastern District Convention, I did in fact vote for Pr. Denninger, because he was the only candidate that was outspokenly pro-life. I’m not saying that the others weren’t (I assume they were), only that you wouldn’t have known it. While I’m thankful that Pr. Denninger is pro-life, I felt at the time like it was a pretty low threshold to clear. It was sad that my pastor and I had to use this as the basis for our votes, but there it was. In any case, I bear no personal animus towards the man, even though I am quite concerned about some things that he has said and done.

Let’s get started with a close reading of Pr. Denninger’s comments.

Pr. John Denninger: Good morning, my friends! Today I wanted to talk with you, because there’s a very special opportunity that’s come to us almost immediately, and the opportunity is one that is like a flash in the pan, that’s here and then gone. So the topic is theological training for laypeople through Concordia Bronxville.

Speaking as a layman who enjoys learning about theology, this sounds good so far.

JD: This is a [sic] education program, online, coming to you from Concordia Bronxville right to your home, and this would be an opportunity for theological education for laity [sic] of the Southeastern District. There are ten courses offered over two years on Tuesday evenings. Each course costs two-hundred dollars; two-thousand dollars for the entire cost.

This isn’t going to be the main thrust of my critique, but why can’t these classes be free? If you’re just trying to educate women and laymen so that they can know more about what we believe, teach, and confess as Lutherans, why can’t you put stuff out there for free, like the Concordia seminary professors do? There’s all sorts of stuff on iTunes-U from both seminaries, and it’s all free! If you’re merely seeking to provide theological education, why not let it be one of those things that we have and hold in common? Let’s make good Lutheran theology available to the poor people in our midst.

Now that I sound like a communist, let’s continue.

JD: So we’re looking for people that would be lifted up, affirmed by the congregation, who not only receive the theological education, but also can serve in significant ways in ministry.

First of all, the language here is needlessly ambiguous. Denninger says that the SED is looking for (a) “people…who not only receive…theological education, but also can serve in significant ways in ministry.” There’s a problem here, though: the LCMS, following the Scriptures, does not permit generic “people” to serve in ministry— this should read “men”, not “people.” If the good DP told us the at the District was looking for “people who not only attended Lamaze classes, but also can give birth to babies,” we would say, “Wait, don’t you mean ‘women’, not just ‘people’?”

Secondly, if you want to go duck hunting, go where the ducks are. If you need people to “serve in ministry”, consult the Lutheran annual for the current list of rostered LCMS clergymen. Find a man on CRM and call him. Get on the horn with one of the seminaries, and find out which of their young bucks is eligible for placement. Simply picking one of the “laypeople” to “serve in significant ways” might work for the Plymouth Brethren or some other sectarian group, but it for darn sure doesn’t work for us.

This is more evidence of that eight-hundred-pound ape of problem: our Lutheran understanding of what constitutes “ministry” has gotten terribly muddled. When we talk about “ministry”, we sound like American evangelicals, not Lutherans. Everything is a ministry, and everyone is a minister of their own ministry. If you refuse to get on board with this, you’re some holier-than-thou clericalist who denies the priesthood of the baptized— which, we are to understand, means that every baptized person is a priest!

In fact, we’ve gone beyond even that: according to the group FiveTwo (which is a registered service organization of the LCMS), everyone is not only a minister, but a sacrament. According to the presenters at this year’s SED Fall Regional PCW Conference, Christians are called to “incarnate Christ’s Real Presence” in their neighborhoods. It should go without saying that to transfer this sort of language, which we Lutherans have only ever used in reference to the unique reality of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Sacrament of the Altar, and apply it to Christians in vocation is irreverent and foolish. It is a confusion not only of language but of doctrine. It confuses Law and Gospel. It confuses vocation and salvation. It confuses the work of man with the work of God. But the worst in this video is yet to come, sadly.

JD: In the Southeastern District, we have some circuits where we don’t have pastors, enough retired pastors, to serve vacancies. We need laypeople to be helping out in that way.

The second sentence here is one of the most colossal non-sequiturs I’ve ever read, and I’ve read some doozies. Here’s how this statement should read:

“In the Southeastern District, we have some circuits where we don’t have pastors, enough retired pastors, to serve vacancies. Therefore the Southeastern District is prepared to reach into its ample coffers to pay modern-day circuit-riders a living-wage to help meet these needs until full-time pastors can be found for these churches, or until congregational mergers can be orchestrated and arranged. The Southeastern District realizes that this would be a far more sensible use of its money than any of the dreamt-up mission-initiatives it has on offer. To facilitate the flow of District funds to where they are most needed, all SED employees will be taking a significant cut in their pay, effective immediately.”

A man can dream, right?

Let’s grant, for the sake of argument, that the Southeastern District is actually working with the proverbial “desert-island” situation. The laity in question who would be eligible to serve as a pastor would be men, not generic “laypeople.” (I know that it’s hotly debated by pastors and theologians, but this layman here is convinced by Dr. David Scaer’s argument that women are not only not authorized, but not even able to serve as pastors, in the same way that Chicken McNuggets are not only not authorized, but not able, to serve as the Body of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, even if the Words of Institution are spoken over them.) “The laity” is not comprised of “laywomen” and laymen; it’s comprised of women and laymen. “Laywoman” is redundant, and to say so is not an insult to women. Quite the opposite!

What we have granted for the sake of argument, however, we must deny for the sake of what is actually the case: the Southeast District is not anywhere near to being in the proverbial “desert-island” situation. Yes, the SED does have a significant need— for pastors! Laymen are not pastors, and the ministry is not a mere function (if it were, we could join the WELS in allowing women to serve as celebrant at the Lord’s Supper). “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?” (Matthew 7:9) Which one of you, if a church asks for a pastor, will give him a “layperson”? Unfortunately, the answer to both these questions just might be, “The Southeastern District of the LCMS.”

Martin Luther has a memorable quotation about this from his early commentary on Romans. Some people say that the was still a Catholic when he wrote it, but it makes perfect sense to me:

If a layman performs all the works of a priest, celebrates, confirms, absolves, administers the Sacraments, dedicates altars, churches, vestments, vessels, etc., these works are certainly in every respect similar to those of an actual priest, nay, probably they are more fitting and perfect than the genuine works. But because the layman has not been consecrated and ordained and set aside (sanctificatus), he is actually doing nothing at all; he is merely playing and deceiving himself and his people…. The layman referred to does not become a priest by such works; but by ordination he can become one, nay, he will become one entirely without these works. (Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans 3:20, Walch Ed. Vol. 56, 248ff; cited in What Luther Says: An Anthology, Vol. IIed. Ewald Plass; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House; pp. 720-721) 

What the SED faces, and what other districts and circuits face, is an inconvenient situation, yes, but it is not an emergency situation. If you want an emergency situation, look at Africa, South America, New Guinea, etc. Ironically, the Lutherans in those places are often more orthodox than we, and they would sooner wait for several months for a pastor to come and celebrate the Lord’s Supper with them than arrogate the functions of the ministry to themselves. In the meantime they pray and read Scripture together. Nothing wrong with that. But what Denninger proposes here is very wrong. No one should publicly teach in the Church or administer the Sacraments unless he be regularly called.

Also, as we would seek to re-seed the whole Southeastern District with new church starts working through iNeighborhood, we need people with theological education who are going prepared with that kind of background to be helpful and even leading those ministries.

Again, these “people” who are called and ordained to “lead ministries” are called pastors. It’s not rocket science. The “kind of background” you need to be a pastor in the LCMS is a seminary education, a mediate call, and ordination. Again, you also need to be male. We’ve gone over this already.

It sounds like President Denninger is very mission-minded. That’s good. Honestly, though, from the look of things (certainly in this video, but not only in this video) it sounds like he might be seeking to bring people into the LCMS under false pretenses. This is the old Gospel Reductionism trick of the 1970s. If “the Gospel is all that matters” then we shouldn’t be too worried about the more specific content of what’s being preached and taught, so long as it’s “the Gospel.” Just get them in the door, and do what it takes— short of denying the Gospel— to do it. Let’s keep in mind, though, that this was the project of the ELCA from the outset, and guess what? They have indeed denied the Gospel. 

Denninger’s missional intentions aside, he is acting on them in a way which is not only misguided, but profoundly un-pastoral. If the Southeastern District wants to support mission and outreach, they should strengthen the existing LCMS churches which are in need of support. That should be the top priority, not “re-seeding” the District with new “church-starts.” Surely Pr. Denninger knows that such church starts are superfluous and will almost certainly take away membership from churches that are already situated to evangelize and serve those areas. I suspect that he does know this, and that he is taking his cue from FiveTwo to “start new to reach new.” The plan is to make “church” a sort of DIY community-club where people get together for lay-led “small groups”, get down to some contemporary Christian “Praise & Worship” music, share their personal experiences, and sacramentate the presence of Jesus to each other in as-yet unforeseen ways.

A look at the Southeastern District Convention

Just look at the SED convention resolutions from this year. The common theme is not difficult to discern: get out there and save people. One paragraph (from Resolution TP 05-15-06A “To Give Gospel Witness to Our Neighbors”) reads like an ominous threat:

WHEREAS, the church dare not sit on the sidelines but must enter into all phases of the world’s life as a suffering servant if it is to fulfill the mission and ministry which the Lord as committed to the church in every age (OM-01-68-11)…

One wonders what this could possibly mean. It sounds dangerously close to the liberal Hegelian theology of men like Paul Tillich and Jurgen Moltmann. If we don’t do our bit, we will foil God’s plan. God needs us! We are so great, so strong, and so mighty, if we were to “sit on the sidelines”, there’s nothing our God could do. Sadly, it’s not hard to see that “sit on the sidelines” means “demur from the SED philosophy of missions.” (In my opinion, the best rejoinder to the latter is still this four-part workshop by Pr. Heath Curtis, “Freed from the Shopkeeper’s Prison.” And what a rejoinder it is! I don’t know if it’s well known or not, but it should be.)

You’ll notice a little logo in the footer of each page: “Stand iN Faith…Walk iN Witness…Run iN Joy; Southeastern District Convention 2015.” These are not typos— “iN” stands for “iNeighborhood“, the current darling initiative of the Southeastern District, mentioned several times throughout the minutes (just do a Cntrl-F search for it) as well as by Pr. Denninger in his video pitch. Simply put, the hope is that under the aegis of “iNeighborhood” the sacred mission-benchmarks of Ablaze!— the flame of which has been assiduously tended in the Southeastern District long since it was blown out at the Synodical level— will be met through the planting of new non-institutional lay-led communitarianist church-starts.

The verbiage of the SED convention resolutions and of Pr. Denninger’s pitch show a profound disrespect for the faithful LCMS parishes which already exist in the Southeastern District and are struggling to survive. Such open scorn for the institution of the Church in its historical and continuous form in favor of the aforementioned DIY-communitarian ideal is really starting to irritate the laity. It’s an addition of insult to injury. I have friends in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina. I know that all of these places have vacancies. I know that many of them also have small churches which cannot afford full-time pastors. If the Southeastern District would like to fill the vacancies at such churches— with pastors— and help subsidize their compensation packages, thereby enabling them to do the work of the Church, that would be great. The District has plenty of money; unfortunately, it is poorly spent.

Here ends my analysis of the text of Denninger’s comments. The rest is just shop talk.


The first and most obvious thing we see in all of this is a LCMS District President defiantly attempting to resuscitate the unconfessional— however well-intended it undoubtedly was— “lay diaconate”, right as the LCMS, under the pastoral headship of its President, is seeking to do the right thing and put it to bed quietly. That’s bad form, to say the least.

Second, we see a carelessness towards the Biblical (and natural!) distinction between men and women and their roles through the use of gender-neutral language. This is coupled with a denigration of the Office of the Ministry through an open disregard of Augsburg Confession Article IV. Pr. Denninger has encouraged women and laymen to take it upon themselves to execute the functions of the Office in non-emergency situations, and this in spite of the fact that the LCMS is arguably in a state of confession against women’s ordination and “lay ministry.”

Third, we see a district trying to usurp and micromanage work which properly belongs to established local congregations, led by their pastors— work which is itself secondary to the regular weekly proclamation of the rightly-divided Word and the administration of the Sacraments to beleaguered souls. We see the laity getting horsewhipped and cajoled by legalistic initiative-program-things to hustle forth and meet arbitrary “mission-benchmarks” foisted upon them by the benighted disciples of C. Peter Wagner and Rick Warren.

Why do the phantom dreams of the church-growth movement continue to have free play in our Synod? I can’t say for sure, although the Old Adam would like to think that he’s got all the answers down pat. Putting the best construction on Pr. Denninger’s words forbids me to try to get inside his head or read his motives. But taking his words at face value does mean calling it like I have called it thus far. This sort of thing— and I am referring to the entire M.O. of the Southeastern District, as evidenced by their convention minutes— is wrong. It’s based upon a false view of Church and Ministry— indeed false views of grace, election, and justification!— which is rightly condemned by the Lutheran Confessions. The siren-song of unionism and faux-ecumenism hums in the background of it all.

I don’t know who said it, but on the back of Hermann Sasse’s We Confess anthology (which I seem to have misplaced), the reviewer laments those who would “trade their Lutheran birthright for an ecumenical stew”, or something like that. We in the LCMS are at the point where we need to ask ourselves if the soup is worth it. And we need to answer in the negative, or we will become a byword, and the sun of pure doctrine will shine elsewhere.

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