The other day I posted a comparison of Walther’s six duties of the church with The Alley’s Manifesto written as a guide for how they would form the congregation. They are drastically different. I mentioned six differences that were striking and promised to use future posts to elaborate. Because there was so much interest in my assertion about small groups and because we received a telling testimony about leaving small groups, I have decided to make that sixth point the first one for elaboration.
Before getting to the testimony we need to look at Walther’s quote about small groups. It is from paragraph 25 of his pamphlet on the six duties:
25. In order that the Word of God may have full scope in a congregation, the congregation should lastly tolerate no divisions by way of conventicles, that is, of meetings for instruction and prayer aside from the divinely ordained public ministry, 1 Cor. 11:18; Jas. 3:1; 1 Cor. 12:29; 14:28; Acts 6:4; Rom. 10:15: “How shall they preach except they be sent?”
There is a difference between conventicles and small groups (for example, the men’s club or knitting group at church is an acceptable small group) but the “traditional” small group meets for exactly what Walther speaks of and what Steve describes in the testimony below – prayer and instruction. Notice that Walther’s concern is not so much that people are meeting privately but that they are receiving instruction apart from the office of the ministry. (For more on this see my comment #28 on the post mentioned above.)
The Alley not only allows and promotes small groups, they have built the very foundation of their church on small groups and these are not for knitting or pinochle. These are for discipleship – the very thing Christ commanded the apostles and the pastors following in their shoes to do in last words before ascending.
In addition to Steve’s great testimony you may also want to read a paper I wrote on this subject for my congregation. We had some questions in our church about this very issue and so the elders studied the issue and I wrote and presented this paper.
Here is Steve’s testimony. It was first posted as a comment (#29) on the first post concerning The Alley’s manifesto.
I was active in small group Bible studies without pastoral supervision for many years. These groups often used materials from popular Evangelical and Baptist writers. Other times it was directly reading the Bible as a group and basically discussing ‘what does this mean to me.’ At the time I thought these small group studies were more important than the Divine Service itself as they were more personal and hence more ‘meaningful.’ I also was ‘evangelical’ in trying to get more members of the congregation involved in these Bible studies, thinking this was the way to make us better Christians and a way to bring more people into the church – those two points seeming to be the main reasons to belong to a church (not to receive the Sacraments) – so if small groups without a pastor were more ‘effective’ than the Divine Service with a pastor, then clearly that was the wave of the future for the LCMS. I’ve since learned that this idea was not a ‘wave of the future’ but a ‘blast from the past’ – as it says in Ecclesiates, ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’
The turning point for me was when I did sit down to talk with my pastor privately about something I’d been thinking about from one of these ‘what does this mean to me’ Bible studies. I don’t remember about what exactly, more than a decade later (I was probably arrogant enough to think I was going to teach him something he didn’t know). What I do remember is his response after hearing me out (gently but firmly and directly), basically: “Well, that is in interesting way to think about it. But you’re wrong, and here’s why.” It was the first time I can recall seeing a Book of Concord opened. And he proceeded to show me the explanation of that point of doctrine along with the verses that supported it. Basically, my error was not understanding the context of the chapter I had read, nor how it fit with the rest of Scripture. In short, I misunderstood what I read in the Bible because I didn’t understand the context or how it was to be interpreted in light of the rest of the Bible. In other words, I didn’t understand Lutheran doctrine on that point: doctrine being the interpretation of Scripture made upon viewing Scripture as a whole, and not as a collection of verses or chapters viewed in isolation from the Bible in its entirety. My pastor proceeded to direct me to a number of orthodox Lutheran books and periodicals (previous pastors had as well, but for whatever reason I hadn’t taken them up on it). Over time upon reading such things, I found out that the novel insights I thought I had about God and the Bible, including how the Divine Service should be structured, were either not novel (i.e. I was correct, but I had forgotten or just not realized that I’d been taught that already from the pulpit) or else I was wrong. Since then, my attitude has become more like that of the eunuch asking Phillip to explain to me the meaning of what I’ve read in the Bible.
Purging the Evangelical heterodoxy I’d picked up from ‘conservative’ Christian friends, books and media from my college days (including attending ‘contemporary’ Lutheran worship services with soft rock bands and innovations like ‘clown ministries’) has been a process that has occurred gradually over a couple decades. For orthodox Lutheran pastors, I know your challenge is how do you convert your heterodox (who don’t realize this) LCMS members into orthodox Lutherans, especially when it appears that Synodical leadership does not seem to think it is important to try.
The final point I’d like to add is a reason from a lay perspective why establishing fellowship in doctrine is important. I’ve moved enough that I’ve been a member of a number of LCMS parishes and I’ve had perhaps a dozen pastors. The pastor I referred to above I had for less than a year. But despite my personal heterodoxy, I heard consistent theology preached over the years. Each pastor was moving me in the same direction. And that’s why, when the pastor pulled out the Book of Concord to show me my error, that I did not just leave his office thinking ‘well, that’s just your opinion.’ What he was telling me was consistent with what I’d heard before from pastors, and I’d been catechized properly in the Office of the Keys to take my pastor’s comments to heart. Now if I had come into his office having previously been taught by LCMS pastors who delegated their pastoral authority to laypeople or who had encouraged ‘innovations’ like small group studies and or made use of non-Lutheran materials (though I had this experience, it was apart from my pastors’ direct involvement), I don’t know that I would have listened to him with an open mind and heart. After all, I thought I WAS a faithful LCMS Lutheran and did not realize I was heterodox, so if I could have pointed to other LCMS pastors who allowed such things (even if they did so reluctantly) I would have thought my pastor was the one being difficult and who needed to change, not me.
Why I think it matters that I’m now a Lutheran in an LCMS church instead of an Evangelical in an LCMS church is for another time. But basically, God in the Sacraments is always there, regardless of what is happening in my life at that time, regardless of how I close I feel to God or what I think I am accomplishing for God. Why the Holy Spirit has directed me in this path I don’t know, but I am eternally grateful that He has.
Comment by Steve G â€” June 20, 2009