Bursting the BRTFSSG Bubble, Part 1, by Scott Diekmann

(Scott’s posts are archived on the Regular Columns page under the title “Apologetics – Apply Lberally.” He has also posted this story on his blog “Stand Firm.”)

The LCMS Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance Report — where to start? First off, let’s thank the Task Force members for the work they’ve put into their recommendations in service to the Synod. Their task was not an easy one. They’ve spent countless hours arriving at this point and they should be commended for the time and effort they’ve made.

Of necessity, I’ll mainly address areas where I disagree with the Task Force counsel, although there are areas where I agree as well, and will touch on some of these spots in the future. My comments are in no way meant to reflect personally on the members of the Task Force, whom I’m sure have done what they feel is in the best interest of the Synod. You may have other ideas as well, and I encourage you to share them here and discuss them with your peers. Some of these areas are adiaphora and some of them are not. None of them are unimportant. God grant us the wisdom to walk in His Word, as He preserves His Church through Word and Sacrament.

What’s Going On?

Looking at the broad landscape that has been sculpted by the Task Force, there are a few thoughts that initially come to mind. First, there is hardly a convention hall or dust-filled closet of the Synod that hasn’t been reengineered by the changes that the Task Force endorses. This truly is a “new way of doing ‘church,'” to turn an overused phrase that shouldn’t be uttered in the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (not that we would confuse the Synod with the Church).

Second, what the Task Force has wrought is a top down structure where, like the yellow eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, nothing moves in Synod without the watchful gaze and consent of the Synod President. The report’s attestations to the congregational nature of this new structure are hollow promises, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Third, there are a number of characteristics of the Task Force proposals that contain the hallmarks of a Church Growth Movement mentality. Some of these characteristics include an overemphasis on church growth (often called “mission”) at the expense of doctrine, a dubious view of the function of the Office of the Holy Ministry, a “bigger is better” theology of glory, a two-fold de-emphasis on the liturgy (both in terms of use of the liturgy itself in the Divine Service and in terms of the Sacramental life of the Church, which should be one and the same), and a reliance on worldly methods instead of the Word of God. While this list is not all inclusive, it illustrates where we are headed as a Synod if we do not carefully scrutinize the Task Force endorsements and reject those which are unsound.

Finally, and by far most importantly, there are changes and additions that deliver a serious body blow to the doctrinal integrity of the Synod. If these Task Force ideas come to fruition, we will have curved in on ourselves, reserving the haughty right to rule over and create doctrine through our own resolutions. Like the grinding weight of a glacier trekking down its appointed slope, the doctrinal bedrock of the LCMS will be gradually and unrelentingly reduced to glacial till, solid rock crushed to gravel and silt, carried away to an awaiting pool of doctrinal indifference and heterodoxy. Though these changes may seem small, they reflect the same steps other Synods have taken on their way to apostasy. This, we cannot allow to happen.

Whose Doctrine Is It?

A good metaphor for the Task Force handling of doctrine can be seen in their question on page 49 of the report: “What benefits do they [the recommendations] offer for carrying out the mission and vision of the church?” The Task Force seems to believe the one doctrine of Christ is plastic — it can be molded and changed as we see fit and as our “vision” becomes more enlightened. Yet the Church has no vision of its own. The Church’s doctrine was built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. It is the same doctrine of the apostolic Church. It is the same doctrine of the Church Fathers, the same doctrine of the Lutheran reformers, and the same doctrine of our grandfathers. It does not change.

Another example of the this plastic concept of doctrine is found on page 36, discussing the preferred path for overtures: “Convention of the Synod exercising the responsibility to advise the members of the Synod by the power of the Word with respect to the collective will and understanding of the Synod (resolutions).” The Word has now become subservient to the “collective will and understanding of the Synod.” It is not our will that must be done, but that of our heavenly Father.

There is no doubt that this report is paving the way for doctrinal “creep.” In 1977 the bylaws required doctrinal resolutions to “reiterate the corporate position of the Synod,” meaning that any doctrinal resolution must faithfully repeat the articles of faith as they have been established in our Confession. In 1986 that language was weakened, requiring that doctrinal resolutions “conform” to the confessional position of the Synod (ref. Issues, Etc. transcript of Dr. Ken Schurb, 6-3-09). We are now attempting to throw off the yoke of doctrine by creating doctrinal resolutions of special significance, defined as a resolution which “initiates, modifies, or repeals specific doctrinal positions or practices of the Synod” (p. 37; ref. proposed Bylaw 1.6.3, Appendix 1, p. 1.15). Doctrine itself is now up for grabs, to be created, modified or repealed by a simple two-thirds majority of the delegates present. (These doctrinal resolutions of special significance are a new category of resolutions. While by definition they may carry the weight of a doctrinal statement, which involves a much higher standard of scrutiny (ref. proposed Bylaw 1.6.4, Appendix 1, p. 1.16), the only requirement for passage of doctrinal resolutions of special significance is a two-thirds vote. Of further significance, it is the floor committee of the National Convention who determines which resolutions are doctrinal resolutions (which only require a majority vote) and which are doctrinal resolutions of special significance, greatly increasing the opportunity for political mischief by moving resolutions viewed as favorable or unfavorable back and forth between the two categories like a hockey puck on ice.) Constitutional Articles which call on us to decide all matters of doctrine and conscience only by the Word of God (proposed Article VII C 2, Appendix 1, p. 1.7) cannot coexist with Bylaws which allow us to initiate, change, or repeal the doctrine of the Church any more than light can coexist with darkness.

Whereas the current constitution requires the “exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks, and catechisms in church and school,” the new recommendations call for “use of worship and catechetical resources that are in harmony with the confessional basis of the Synod” (Article VI, Appendix 1, p. 1.5). Pointing out to your doctrinally wayward pastor that his program isn’t “in harmony with the confessional basis of the Synod” is an emaciated substitute for telling him his program lacks doctrinal purity, especially when the “confessional basis of the Synod” is placed on a resolution-induced sliding scale.

You might wonder about the practicality of this discussion. You might believe that these proposals are just a bunch of words on a page that don’t really have any impact on you and your congregation. Or you might very well think that it’s just nitpicking. Here’s where the rubber meets the road.

As an example, take a look at Recommendation #21 on page 47, titled “Urge the Continued Study of Pastoral Certification/Continuing Education.” They report: “The task force applauds current efforts to address pre-seminary admission requirements, uniform district interview procedures, psychological and academic testing, curriculum review, review of the vicarage program, pre-ordination pastoral formation, and readiness leading to initial certification and ordination followed by mandatory mentoring and the development of a lifelong plan of continuing professional education that holds clergy accountable in much the same way as virtually every other profession.” There has been much discussion in the Synod about the alleged shortage of pastors, and ways to overcome this shortage, and this nebulous recommendation certainly falls within that discussion. Unfortunately, there have been some highly novel ways taken to overcome this deficit. The Specific Ministry Program is one such “shortcut.” (See the transcription of the BRTF report to the SID Convention, in which pastoral certification is linked to policies “currently in use in the Specific Ministry Pastor program” for evidence that this is, in part, what this recommendation is all about.) Other shortcuts that have been implemented clearly violate our Confession, such as allowing non-LCMS pastors and laymen to practice Word and Sacrament ministry, and pressuring vicars to do the same. While these approaches do indeed fill a gap for congregations that lack a pastor, they do so at the expense of the truth, since God calls pastors, not laymen, to feed His flock through Word and Sacrament. The wording of Recommendation #21 is also replete with phrases that remain undefined, such as “psychological “testing,” “initial certification and ordination followed by mandatory mentoring,” “holds clergy accountable,” and “the same way as virtually every other profession.” These phrases are the common coin of the Church Growth Movement and of the business world — they are not the words of the Bible.

They go on to quote the Bredholt/Epley conclusion that “this is a pastor-led synod. No other change in the LCMS would have as great an impact as increasing the number of pastors capable of leading congregations in mission and outreach.” Is this another Church Growth Movement type comment? Do they believe that God makes mistakes when He calls men to the Office of the Holy Ministry — that He can’t differentiate between those who are capable of “leading congregations in mission and outreach” and those who aren’t capable of this “requirement?” They seem to be operating under a different principle than that of the Augsburg Confession, which clearly delineates that the Pastoral Office was instituted to teach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments, not to lead “congregations in mission and outreach,” and it is in this teaching and administering that the Church is formed and nurtured. Teaching/administering and mission/outreach are both/and propositions, not either/or propositions, but the latter propositions naturally flow from the former.

The point of this is not to pick on the Task Force, but to point out that these “cutting edge” approaches to ministry are done for pragmatic purposes and are based on foreign theology and/or no theology. The end does not justify the means, nor is their prescribed “end” desirable. By approving this recommendation, we would go a long way towards granting carte blanche approval for the pragmatic approach, as well as encourage the continued use of other pastoral programs that are doctrinally questionable. The only way for those who espouse these types of programs to justify them is to modify what it is we believe, teach, and confess — and the easiest way to do that is by rewriting our Confession through doctrinal resolutions, which is precisely where the Task Force endorsements lead.

We must remain diligent. While some of the these recommendations may be welcome additions or amendments for our current structure, those which turn the one doctrine of the catholic Church into a plastic toy for us to do with as we wish must be rejected.

“Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Timothy 4:16 ESV).”

Ecclesia semper reformata.

You can download a copy of this post here: http://www.soundwitness.org/misc/brtfssg_1.pdf

photo credit: rskura

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