Every Christian Congregation Is Perfectly Free In All Things…Which Is Why Unity Ought To Be Mandated
I want to begin this article by stating that I fully accept the full autonomy of every congregation out there. Each body of believers has the freedom to do what it wants, when it wants, how it wants. Nobody has any authority to tell them otherwise.
That being said, unity should be mandated.
Now how can that be? How can I say that a congregation is free but that unity should be mandated? It’s really a lot easier than most people would have you believe. Here’s how it works:
Let’s say that there is a brand new congregation by the name of St. Wilgefortis Lutheran Church. When St. Wilgefortis establishes itself it falls under no synodical jurisdiction. They are entirely independent, a free Lutheran congregation.
But then in her Christian freedom, the members of St. Wilgefortis decide that they want to join a synod and “walk together” with the other congregations of that synod. Let’s say that they apply to and are accepted into The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod. Without any coercion from anyone else, St. Wilgefortis exercised her Christian freedom to join a synod.
But having joined the LCMS, now what? Does she continue to have Christian freedom? Absolutely. She may exercise her freedom to stay in the LCMS or she may exercise her freedom to leave the LCMS whenever she wishes.
But so long as she remains a member of the LCMS, how she walks together with the other LCMS congregations ought to be–and, indeed, is–mandated. That means that she does not ordain women into the pastoral office, even though she is free to do so. That means that she does not teach her people transubstantiation, even though she is free to do so. That means that she does not sacrifice live goats upon the altar, even though she is free to do so. (For the record, she would be wrong to do any of these things, but she is still free to do them.) But it also means that there are other mandates, exhortations, and even restrictions as to how she worships, who may be members, who may teach in her school, and the like. Like any neighborhood association, theoretically there could even be rules pertaining to how her lawn is mowed and what color and type of siding she may use for the exterior of her building. (It would be stupid, yes, but it would be permissible for such mandates to exist.)
If St. Wilgefortis Lutheran Church is going to “walk together” with the people to whom she has bound herself by joining a synod, then for the sake of unity she must be willing to withhold exercising her freedom however she wants, whenever she wants. She must be willing to say, “I really want to do <insert practice here>, but none of my sister congregations in the LCMS do this, so I won’t, either.” Or, “I really want to do <insert practice here>, but it is against the rules and tenets and constitution of the LCMS, so I won’t do it.” And if she is unable to say either of those things, that’s fine. That is absolutely acceptable. For she is then free to leave the LCMS so that she may go exercise her freedom without compromising her confession and without offending her sister congregations.
Within a denomination, unity ought to be mandated. When unity in practice is not mandated (or, as we have in the LCMS, when such mandates are not enforced), total chaos ensues. When nearly every practice under the sun is accepted there is no unity. There is only disunity to the highest degree.
But of course, these mandates are not for the sake of meriting forgiveness. That’s what the Reformers fought against. That’s what AC VII was actually about. It wasn’t about establishing a minimum requirement for altar and pulpit fellowship, but about declaring that they, too, were the Church, even though they rejected the mandates of the papists. They were tired of having their consciences bound to rites and ceremonies and practices that merited nothing. But they still had no qualms about mandating unity for the sake of unity. In fact, that’s what they expected from their leaders.
Every organization in the world has a code of conduct. If you want to be a member of that organization there are rules and procedures and patterns of behavior which must be followed if you wish to continue in that membership. Within a synod, the leadership is perfectly free to say, “If you want to be a part of us, this is how you will act.” In fact, Article 6 of the LCMS’ constitution (the most ignored article of the synod’s constitution) demonstrates this point. Yes, that’s right; there are conditions on synodical membership (including the infamous “exclusive use” clause). If congregations are expected to exercise their full autonomy and freedom in all matters, even as a member of the synod, then that article never should have been ratified. But, as I mentioned earlier, when conditional mandates are not enforced (such as Article 6 is not enforced) then chaos becomes the norm.
I particularly like what Rev. Dr. Rick Stuckwisch had to say on this matter in a recent post over at Gottesdienst: “The truth is, because God has left so many of the specific details ‘free,’ there must be some insistence upon adiaphora if there is to be any sort of ‘community.’ Rules of conduct held in common within each particular household and family, as well as broader rules of mutual engagement within the larger fellowship of the Church, enable brothers and sisters in Christ, and brother pastors and sister congregations, to live and work together in faith, hope, and charity, each person and each parish according to his, her, or its particular place. The freedom of faith in the Gospel does not prohibit but permits and makes possible such rules or ‘rubrics’ of familial life. The Church on earth necessarily makes these decisions, as she always has and always will, in one way or another. Some forms of ecclesiastical polity and governance work better than others, and that may vary according to time and place, but there must be some such polity and governance in place. Ideally, at ground level, the pastors will care for their own respective congregations in the way that responsible, God-fearing and law-abiding fathers care for their own families, within the context of the communities in which they live.”
So also our own Associate Editor Rev. Joshua Scheer had some very insightful comments in his article, “Doctrine means nothing when Practice can mean anything” and the ensuing discussion.
Now, I would propose that within this concept of mandated unity there are five classes of mandates:
- that which you MUST do;
- that which you SHOULD do;
- that which you are FREE to do or not do;
- that which you SHOULD NOT do; and
- that which you MUST NOT do.
That is, there are the things that are outright commanded (1) and forbidden (5); the things that are encouraged (2) and discouraged (4); and the things that are accepted practice if you wish to do them (3). People love number three. People want everything to be under number three. But there is no unity if that is the biggest category. Very few people want numbers one and five to have anything in them at all. But those two are the ones that need the most items in them.
A synod can only “walk together” if congregations are willing to actually WALK TOGETHER. Congregations and pastors must be willing to set their own preferences aside and say, “Yes, I will do things in a similar”–not exactly the same in all places, but similar–“manner as everyone else for the sake of love and unity.” Otherwise the synod is nothing more than an insurance and retirement plan. Which, if that’s what a synod wants to declare itself to be, that also is just fine. I have no problem with that. A synod has the freedom to do that. (It’s a bad idea, but a synod has the freedom.) But then don’t be surprised if congregations start excommunicating each other. (As if that isn’t already happening.)
So it’s okay to have matters of adiaphora mandated. They are still neither commanded nor forbidden by the Word of God, and they certainly are not mandated for the sake of meriting grace and mercy. For the sake of unity, however, they are commanded or forbidden by the word of men. And that’s okay. Because if you don’t like what the word of men says, you are free to leave and operate under your own word of men. We can still (theoretically) have altar and pulpit fellowship with one another, provided one’s practice does not compromise one’s doctrine and confession. We will simply recognize that we do not have unity in practice. We will simply recognize that we do not walk together but apart, but still toward the common goal.
But don’t just take my word for it. Here’s what the Lutheran Confessions have to say on the matter (none of these lists are intended to be exhaustive):
Unity in rites, ceremonies, etc. not necessary
We believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and every time has, according to its circumstances, the good right, power, and authority to change and decrease or increase ceremonies that are truly adiaphora. They should do this thoughtfully and without giving offense, in an orderly and appropriate way, whenever it is considered most profitable, most beneficial, and best for good order, Christian discipline, and the Church’s edification. [FC SD X, 9]
Unity in rites, ceremonies, etc. should be sought
This topic about traditions contains many and difficult controversial questions. We have actually experienced that traditions are truly traps of consciences. When traditions are required as necessary, they torture in terrible ways the conscience, leaving out any ceremony. The repeal of ceremonies has its own evils and it own questions. [. . .] Still, we teach that freedom should be so controlled that the inexperienced may not be offended and, because of freedom’s abuse, may not become more opposed to the true doctrine of the Gospel. Nothing in customary rites should be changed without a reasonable cause. So to nurture unity, old customs that can be kept without sin or great inconvenience should be kept. In this very assembly we have shown well enough that for love’s sake we do not refuse to keep adiaphora with others, even though they may be burdensome. We have judged that such public unity, which could indeed be produced without offending consciences, should be preferred. [AP XV (VIII), 49, 51-52]
Binding consciences in rites, ceremonies, etc. forbidden
Yet, the people are taught that consciences are not to be burdened as though observing such things was necessary for salvation. [AC XV, 2]
Unity in rites, ceremonies, etc. may be mandated
What, then, are we to think of the Sunday rites, and similar things, in God’s house? We answer that it is lawful for bishops, or pastors, to make ordinances so that things will be done orderly in the Church, but not to teach that we merit grace or make satisfaction for sins. [AC XXVIII, 53]