Great Stuff — The Proper Use and the Inappropriate Abuse of Ecclesiastical Supervision
The latest email from the ACELC
Properly speaking ecclesiastical (churchly) supervision happens primarily within the context of a Christian congregation. In this fundamental unit of the Church, it is the primary responsibility of the divinely called pastor to be the ecclesiastical supervisor within the congregation. It is the pastor’s first responsibility to supervise himself – his doctrine and life. As a called servant of the Word, the pastor is obligated by his sacred ordination/installation vows to preach or teach nothing that is not in accord with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, and to adorn his life with holy living with the help of God.
It is the called pastor’s sacred responsibility to ensure that no false doctrine be presented in any venue within the congregation whether it be in his sermon, the hymns, the choir anthem, the Bible class, and especially in public worship. But what if the pastor (who is also a sinner), fails in this responsibility? Who is to provide churchly supervision for him? Primarily this must fall to the members of the congregation. This is one reason Lutherans have always thoroughly instructed catechumens prior to becoming adult members of a congregation. God’s sheep must be able to know the difference between true and false doctrine and, if necessary, judge the doctrine of their shepherd if he should stray into error.
But doesn’t all this talk about “supervision” and “judging” sound legalistic, loveless, or intolerant? First, there is absolutely nothing loving about error! False doctrine or teaching is simply the most loveless thing that can occur within a congregation. Why? Because false teaching always “profanes the name of God among us” (1st Petition meaning, LP, SC), diminishes the believers’ assurance of his salvation, and always points to something or someone other than Christ crucified and risen for the confidence that our sins are fully forgiven. That is the nature of false teaching (heterodoxy). Therefore, it is the most loving thing to do to help a fellow Christian understand the truth of the Gospel of Christ and to avoid the false teaching that diminishes Christ’s teaching. There is really no virtue in error! There is no benefit to false teaching and it does not deserve to be tolerated within the Church.
As St. Paul says in I Corinthians 13:4-6: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.”
A phenomenon that is far too often seen within our beloved Synod is that some folks falsely pit the retention of pure doctrine against Christian “love”. This is a false division. Christian love rejoices and insists in the truth of God’s Word being preserved. Christian love helps a brother or sister see their error clearly so that they may rejoice in the truth and preserve the unity of the one, true faith and the unity of the Church. In reality, false teaching/doctrine divides us and erodes our assurance of forgiveness and salvation. Love rejoices in the truth, and does not rejoice in error!
So, what about ecclesiastical supervision within The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod?
While Synodical ecclesiastical supervision on paper has the very same goal spoken about by St. Paul in the text cited above: Loving correction to prevent losing the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life so as to preserve the unity of the Church; in our day ecclesiastical supervision has evolved into being primarily concerned with maintaining or forfeiting membership in the Synod.
Perhaps it would be well to remember the very first objective of the Synod in our Constitution: “The Synod, under Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, shall – 1. Conserve and promote the unity of the true faith (Ephesians 4:3-6; I Cor. 1:10)…and provide a united defense against schism, sectarianism (Rom. 16:17), and heresy…” (Constitution of the LCMS, Article III – Objectives)
The first objective of the Synod is the first objective because it is the most important objective. After all, a Synod is formed so that those of like mind might gather together to retain and promote biblical, Confessional theology purely so that the fullness of the Gospel is not hindered by error. Therefore, ecclesiastical supervision is most grievously abused when it is not done!
Those who have been elected to serve our Synod as ecclesiastical supervisors have demonstrated rather consistently, that they frequently make their judgments based on the Constitution and Bylaws. The problem with this is that Churchly (ecclesiastical) supervision must be based primarily on Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions and if the Constitution – and if the Bylaws do not conform to Scripture and the Confessions, then no judgment contrary to them is to be considered. Time and again we have witnessed our elected ecclesiastical supervisors make determinations on the basis of the best interest of the institution of the Synod, rather than be primarily guided by Holy Scripture and our Confessions. Therefore, ecclesiastical supervision is grievously abused when the institution is given precedence over Scripture and the Confessions.
Case in point: Rev. Dr. Matthew Becker. Rev. Becker is a rostered LCMS clergyman who is also a professor at Valparaiso University, Valparaiso, Indiana. Dr. Becker is also an outspoken promoter of the ordination of women into the pastoral office and a staunch defender of evolution as an adequate explanation of God’s creative activity. Both these positions are patently unbiblical and at odds with the Lutheran Confessions. Despite repeated publications by Dr. Becker respecting both these errors, inadequate ecclesiastical supervision has left him on our Synod’s clergy roster and eligible for a call to any congregation, university, or seminary of our Synod. Thus, his loveless errors continue to do damage within our Synod by dividing us, lessening our Christian unity, and promoting a “theology” which erodes the authority of the Holy Scriptures.
Case in point: The toleration of open communion in many of our Synodical congregations. In accord with Holy Scripture our Synod officially holds to the practice of Closed Communion in which those who celebrate the Lord’s Supper are in agreement in every article of Christian doctrine and that this agreement is the standard of admission to the Lord’s Table.
Case in point: The continuing practice of using laymen to perform Word and Sacrament ministry within LCMS congregations which is a direct contradiction of Augsburg Confession, Article XIV which says: “Our churches teach that no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call.” (Dau/Bente, second edition, p. 39.) Despite clear directions from our Confessions, multiple districts still train and place laymen into Word and Sacrament ministries within their own districts, and our Synod still retains laymen who also serve in these capacities.
The examples noted above are just a few illustrations of the many failures of proper ecclesiastical supervision which are more thoroughly listed out in the ACELC’s “Evidence of Errors” Documents..
Ecclesiastical supervision is essential to maintaining the theological integrity of our congregations and Synod. If not done, or if done based on “Institutional” concerns rather than Holy Scripture and our Lutheran Confessions, then our Synod suffers and is in terrible trouble. If such abuses of ecclesiastical supervision continue unabated, then the only Lutheran Synod still in existence since 1840’s will either crumble or become a church body that has lot its Lutheran character altogether. There is no virtue to being Lutheran in name only.
Please join the congregations of the ACELC in continually praying for those who have been elected as our Synod’s ecclesiastical supervisors: The President of the Synod, Matthew Harrison; our five Synodical Vice Presidents, the 35 District Presidents, and the Circuit Counselors who serve under them. Pray that each of these men may steadfastly prize our doctrine and its practice over the “peace” of the institution – for institutional unity secured with the price of the inclusion of error is simply an illusion of unity. Pray that they will let Holy Scripture speak and that they will act accordingly. And if you share the concerned cited here, please consider joining our cause by becoming a member of the ACELC.
Let the words of C.F.W. Walther in the Fourth Evening Lecture of his great work, The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, serve as guidance for us all:
“When a theologian is asked to yield and make concessions in order that peace may at last be established in the Church, but refuses to do so even in a single point of doctrine, such an action looks to human reason like intolerable stubbornness, yea, like down-right malice. That is the reason why such theologians are loved and praised by few men during their lifetime. Most men rather revile them as disturbers of the peace, yea, as destroyers of the kingdom of God. They are regarded as men worthy of contempt. But in the end it becomes manifest that this very determined, inexorable tenacity in clinging to the pure teaching of the divine Word by no means tears down the Church; on the contrary, it is just this which, in the midst of greatest dissension, builds up the Church and ultimately brings about genuine peace. Therefore, woe to the Church which has no men of this stripe, men who stand as watchmen on the walls of Zion, sound the alarm whenever a foe threatens to rush the walls, and rally to the banner of Jesus Christ for a holy war!”…Let us, then, my friends, likewise hold fast the treasure of the pure doctrine. Do not consider it strange if on that account you must bear reproach the same as they did. Consider that the word of Sirach, chap. 4,33: ‘even unto death fight for justice, and God will overthrow thy enemies for thee,’ will come true in our case too. Let this be your slogan: Fight unto death in behalf of the truth, and the Lord will fight for you!” (The Proper Distinction Between Law and Gospel, C. F. W. Walther, page 28.)
Rev. Richard A. Bolland
Assistant Pastor – Emeritus
Gloria Christi Lutheran Church