Bursting the BRTFSSG Bubble, Part 2: Conscience-Bound

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.”

You can’t help but notice the proposed constitutional changes in the final report of the LCMS Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance (BRTFSSG). Some of these changes contain new and novel language requiring subscription to the Constitution of the Synod and upholding the “collective will” of the Synod. For a document that repeatedly emphasizes the advisory nature of the Synod, it’s starting to sound less and less “advisory.”

The most dramatic change related to subscription is found in Article VII of the Constitution. Previously this Article contained three simple sentences delineating the relation of the Synod to its members (which are defined as congregations, pastors, and commissioned ministers such as teachers and DCEs). The recommended changes add an entire section, delineating the relation of members to the Synod (Appendix 1, p. 1.6), and reads as follows:

B. Relation of the Members to the Synod

In their relation to the Synod, all members of the Synod, by voluntarily subscribing to the Confession (Article II) and the Constitution of the Synod, make a confession of faith, a joint commitment to God’s mission, and a mutual covenant of love. In so doing, they

  1. Bind themselves to the confessional basis of the Synod (Article II);
  2. Agree to abide by, honor, and uphold the collective will of the Synod as expressed in its Constitution, Bylaws, and convention resolutions;
  3. Pledge their active involvement and support of the Synod’s efforts to carry out its mission and purpose; and
  4. Promise that, if they find themselves to be in disagreement with the Synod’s actions or positions, they will so advise the Synod in a loving and evangelical manner, and if necessary follow the Synod’s authorized procedures for expressing dissent.

This addition (as well as the addition of Constitutional subscription as one of the Requirements of Membership in proposed Article VI, p. 1.5) insists that members of the Synod subscribe to the Confession and the Constitution. But what does “subscription” mean? According to The Book of Concord, “Confessional subscription is a solemn act of confessing in which I willingly and in the fear of God confess my faith and declare to the world what is my belief, teaching and confession. This I do by pledging myself with my whole heart to certain definite, formulated confessions. I do this in complete assurance that these confessions are true and are correct expositions of Scripture. These symbolical writings become for me permanent confessions and patterns of doctrine, according to which I judge all other writings and teachers” (redacted from Dr. Robert Preus’s article “Confessional Subscription”).

From that short explanation, it’s obvious that subscription to the Constitution isn’t going to work – at least not in the same sense. No one is going risk their hide to confess the entire Constitution of the LCMS, let alone Bylaws and convention resolutions by extension. In large part they contain no doctrine, and what little doctrine is present, as we saw in Part 1 of this series, may be subject to change. Walther had this to say about Lutherans who want to play with the doctrine of the Church:

A doctrine does not become an open question when supposedly loyal Lutherans are not in agreement. And whoever permits such doctrines to be treated as open questions surrenders the fortress of the confession of our Church and is in reality no loyal Lutheran. (Matthew C. Harrison, At Home in the House of My Fathers (Fort Wayne: Lutheran Legacy Press, 2009) 130.)

Is it possible that the constitutional subscription that’s being demanded is meant in a different sense than that of the subscription to the Confession? That would make sense, but yet the word “subscribing” in the proposed new wording is used only once and attaches itself to both of the words in the sentence, “Confession” and “Constitution,” indicating it has the same meaning for both words. The wording indicates that subparagraphs 1-4 define what that subscription entails: “…In so doing, they …agree to abide by, honor, and uphold the collective will of the Synod as expressed in its Constitution, Bylaws, and convention resolutions.”

No person is going to subscribe to resolutions as though they were heaven-sent, whose birth pains occur on the floor of a convention. Resolutions are totally at the mercy of the floor committee and the prevailing political winds and ideology of whomever appointed them during that particular convention cycle. At any moment the resolution might read one way, and the very next moment have a completely different meaning attached to it in helter-skelter fashion.

Walther had something to say about resolutions as well:

According to our constitution, no synodical resolution is binding on the individual congregations. No resolution. Mark that well! What we resolve here in convention the pastors and lay delegates must report to the home congregations and say, “This is what the convention resolved.” But they cannot say, “Now you must also observe this.” No; on the contrary, the congregation can say, “As soon as it is a matter that has been left free for us as Christians, we can disregard the resolution of the convention,” and the Synod can say nothing against that (Harrison, 271).

None of this discussion, however, should be interpreted as a repudiation of the reasonable agreements that we make together as a Synod, or that we can disregard these things as being trivial and unworthy of our commitment. The present Bylaws read “Thus, while congregations of the Synod are self-governing (Art. VII), they, and also individual members, commit themselves as members of the Synod to act in accordance with the Constitution and Bylaws of the Synod under which they have agreed to live and work together and which the congregations alone have the authority to adopt or amend through conventions” (Bylaw 1.3.4, p. 1.14). At best, the recommended change is unnecessary, because a general commitment to the Synod’s endeavors is already in place in Bylaw 1.3.4. At worst, it’s a change that enslaves us to the caprice of synodical bureaucracy.

In large part the Constitution (and the Bylaws and resolutions) are a byproduct of the kingdom of the left, and therefore shouldn’t be subscribed to. It’s unlikely there are large numbers of members who feel a compelling need to subscribe to the Duties of the Vice-President-Finance—Treasurer (Article XI, E.). This constitutional subscription may be as much about giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s as an attempt at unity.

Perhaps Dr. Laurence White comes closest to the heart of the matter:

Institutionalism is by nature a reflection of a lack of confidence in what the founding President of our church body, C.F.W. Walther, used to talk about as the power of the Word of God in convincing. We don’t need constitutions and bylaws and more power and centralization for the officials and elected officers of a denomination to draw us together, because all of those things are inherently inimical to genuine Scriptural doctrinal unity, and when we resort to them we’re indicating a lack of confidence in the power of the Word of God and convincing.

There was a time in our own Missouri Synod where, when the Synod gathered for a national convention, the major feature of the convention was the doctrinal essay that went on and on and on throughout the convention. And that was what the delegates talked about when they went home – how we as a church body discuss the truths of God’s Word together and celebrated our unity in that truth. But the less confident we are, about the truth as it is confessed in God’s Word, and the power of that Biblical truth to unite us and bring us together, the more prominent human rules and regulations will necessarily become, and the more grasping for additional authority our leaders will become because we really don’t believe any more that God’s Word and a common confession of the truth of that Word can unite us and hold us together. (Quoted from the October 23 Issues, Etc. program.)

A centralized power structure is readily apparent when you take a look at the proposed new framework for the Synod. The President of the Synod appoints the two men who are responsible for nearly the entire day to day operations of the Synod. He hand picks the Vice-Presidents. He presides over the National Convention and appoints the floor committees. The list goes on. He is accountable to no one, unless your definition of accountability mirrors the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding definition of the Task Force: “…Should congregations become dissatisfied with the performance of the officers of the Synod with respect to follow-through on the mission and ministry emphases they have established, they would have the right and responsibility to elect new leadership at the next convention of the Synod” (p. 41). So much for checks and balances.

While we’re on the subject of the centralization of power, there is a very serious warning that needs to be made, because the threat is not readily apparent. The Task Force suggested no changes to Article XIII of the current Constitution, and hence it is not reprinted in Appendix 1 of their report. Article XIII is titled “Expulsion from the Synod,” and reads in part:

Members who act contrary to the confession laid down in Article II and to the conditions of membership laid down in Article VI or persist in an offensive conduct, shall, after previous futile admonition, be expelled from the Synod.

What’s the significance of this quote? You might very well be shown the back door and given the “left foot of fellowship” for refusing to violate your conscience in regards to the Constitution, or possibly even the Bylaws or convention resolutions, if these new measures are passed. You’d not only be answerable to the Word of God by your subscription (which you should be), but also to the left-handed rules and regulations of your Synod. Perhaps a better word to use for “subscription” in this case would be “conscription.”

The Task Force offers no rationale for their constitutional subscription endorsement. Apparently their actions are based on their belief that “the suggested word changes not only eliminate cumbersome and unnecessary wording but use language that updates constitutional language without making substantive change” (p. 20). The only justification the Task Force provides for their recommendation is this: “In the feedback received from the thousands of delegates at the 2009 district conventions, the task force was encouraged by the 83 percent of respondents either agreeing strongly or agreeing with this recommendation” [#1, p. 20]. The referenced “feedback” was the delegates’ response to this statement: “Affirm in Our Governing Documents the Mission and Purpose of Our Synod” (see Appendix 6). This statement was posed with no supporting documentation beforehand or clear indication that it was linked to constitutional amendments, let alone what those amendments might be. To use a vague statement to retroactively prop up your own agenda is disingenuous.

It is noteworthy that the initial assignment given to the Task Force by President Kieschnick specifically excluded matters related to Article VI, Requirements of Membership, yet they still added constitutional subscription to Article VI (p. 7).

There’s a way to put the cherry on top of the hot fudge sundae for all of this. There is a recent opinion from the Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) which breaks the back of the Task Force’s suggested additional subscription (Opinion 06-2477). The CCM is responsible for interpreting the Synod’s Constitution, Bylaws, and resolutions, and an opinion rendered by the Commission is binding on the question decided unless and until it is overruled by a convention of the Synod. At its September 2006 meeting the CCM rendered the following opinion:

[Quoting from a 1968 CCM opinion] “The Commission on Constitutional Matters holds that Article VI, 1 ‘Conditions of Membership’ of the Synod’s Constitution requires nothing more and nothing less than the acceptance of the confessional basis of Article II,” also stating in reference to the 1966 opinion, “The Commission holds the same opinion in regard to any other doctrinal statement not listed in Article II of the Synod’s Constitution.” …[Quoting from a 2003 CCM opinion] “Members of the Synod are required to accept without reservation and subscribe to the Synod’s confessional position as set forth in Article II of its Constitution (Bylaw 1.03 [1.6.1]). Although the Synod has provided for itself the right to adopt doctrinal resolutions and statements (Bylaw 1.09 [1.6.2]), even these are not to be regarded as additions to the confessional basis for membership provided in Article II. …As noted above, other confessional statements, confessions of faith, or common confessions may in fact be correct interpretations of our Lord’s teaching and may be used for a variety of purposes, but such other confessions may not be used as a condition for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod….” (The first two sets of brackets are added.)

Thus the precedent from four different CCM opinions leaves no doubt that any further condition of subscription, including a constitutional one, is unacceptable.

Since the Task Force provides no rationale for adding their requirement for subscription to the Constitution in their report, and do not define their terms, it’s difficult to assess their intent. What is readily apparent is that this new form of subscription has no place in our Synod. Subscription to an entire Constitution, and possibly Bylaws and resolutions, is ill advised. Your conscience should be captive to the Word of God, not a changeable man-made construct. Additional subscription could very well put you at odds with you own conscience, and to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.

You can download a copy of this article here.

Download Part 1 here.

photo credit: rskura

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