Part V of Martin Noland’s Essay on Laymens’ Rights — Contemporary Challenges to Laymen’s Rights in the LCMS: The Blue Ribbon Proposal

(Editor’s Note: for an introduction to this essay and for Part I  click here. For Part II click here  and for Part III cilck here  for Part IV click here. This part of the paper completes the section on  “Contemporary Challenges to Laymens’ Rights” and the “Conclusion” of the paper.)

E.   “Transforming Congregations Network”

I believe that the most serious challenge to laymen’s rights in congregations since the Buffalo Synod is the program known as “Transforming Congregations Network” (hereafter TCN).   This is part of the Ablaze movement, under the auspices of the LCMS Mission department.   You can find more about it at the TCN web-site; or go to the synod’s web-site and type its name or TCN in the search window.[i]   TCN has also been known as the “Transforming Churches Network.”

The most objectionable feature of TCN is that it recommends to a congregation that it suspend its constitution and bylaws.   The new bylaws, which replace the original constitution and bylaws, have in every case made the pastor the real authority over all affairs of the church, both temporal and spiritual.   Under the TCN constitution, the congregational voter’s assembly no longer functions as the legal authority for the church, and certainly not as the court of final appeal.

This is a doctrinal issue for Lutherans, because the voter’s assembly is the horizontal dimension of the public activity of the priesthood of all believers.   The vertical dimension of the public activity of the priesthood of all believers is lay participation in worship, such as hymn-singing, confessing the creed, confessing our sins, the prayers of the church, etc.  

TCN convinces its clients that abandonment of their old constitution is necessary in order to bring about growth, especially if the congregation is small or declining.   The threat of decline is usually enough to bring along the skeptical members in the congregation, and if they don’t, they are welcome to leave.

The TCN program does not, of course, depict its features in this way.   The change in constitution is nestled inside a consultation with paid experts on church growth.   Consultation, in itself, is not a bad thing and is often very helpful.   The other recommendations made by the consultation are usually salutary. But every case of consultation that I have heard about, so far, recommends that the old constitution be completely replaced, at least for a mandatory three years.   Farmers would call this deception a “pig in the poke.”

The defenders of TCN, which include some district and synodical officials, will argue that the pastor is “accountable” to the Board of Directors who works with him.   But they don’t tell you that the pastor handpicks the directors, who are the legal authority in the congregation.   He is the only person who can nominate persons to be directors.   The voters then get to “select” which of pastor’s favorites get to be directors.   The handpicked nominees of the pastor will support him at first.   But what if they don’t agree with him?   Why would he put their name on the nomination list when their terms expire?   This structure really makes the directors nothing more than the pastor’s “stooges.”

“Selecting” is not “electing.”   This is a deception intended to undermine democratic procedure and all of laymen’s rights in a congregation.   Political scientists recognize that control of the nomination process in this way is a favorite strategy of dictators, tyrants, and fascists.   And our national headquarters is promoting this!

  Why would any LCMS pastor in his right mind want to undermine laymen’s rights and democracy?   Those who adopt TCN are, in my opinion, not in their right mind.   Either they are completely ignorant about the basic principles of American democracy and laymen’s rights, or they are so scared by decline that they will do anything, even if it is wrong and harmful to their flock.  

There is a third possibility, namely, that some of these pastors who adopt TCN are “wolves in sheep clothing.”   They agree with Baptist minister Paul Borden, the TCN mastermind, who wrote:

Our churches have also assumed [traditionally] that a shepherd functions like a chaplain, caring for a group of sheep.   The biblical model, however, portrays a shepherd as an entrepreneur, who led sheep by still waters and into green pastures so that he could eventually shear them or kill them.[ii]

If that is not the mind and spirit of a wolf waiting to devour sheep, I don’t know what is.

                      When the TCN program was first introduced to the LCMS districts, some LCMS district presidents posed the question whether or not congregational constitutions can be suspended temporarily.   The LCMS Commission on Constitutional Matters gave an answer in its reply #08-2519, June 6-7, 2008.   It told the inquirers that unless existing constitutions provide for a suspension, a suspension is in fact a complete amendment.   It told the inquirers that the question of a suspended constitution’s effect on its tax and non-profit status would have to be sent to the IRS and the office responsible in each state.   So the effect on non-profit status and taxes is still, to my knowledge, unknown.

                      I am glad that our district presidents and that Commission followed procedure, but I am disappointed that, to my knowledge, no synodical or district official raised the issue of laymen’s rights in TCN.   I am disappointed that, to my knowledge, many of our synodical and district officials have so casually accepted the TCN program, in which there are no checks and balances in a congregation.   The only reason that a pastor and his handpicked cronies might want to change their constitution is because they want to make changes that would not be accepted by a majority of the congregation.   This is what the TCN program is really all about.

F.   The Church Growth Movement

                      TCN has intruded itself into our affairs, because the Church Growth movement paved its way.   Many leaders in our synod judge everything now by statistical growth and decline.   Many pastors now neglect their visits to hospitals, nursing homes, and shut-ins, because these aging and sick people will never contribute to growth.   Of course, a rich man and his family will get immediate attention, because that man’s resources will contribute to “growth.”   Catechism in the traditional manner of one or two years is drastically shortened, because it can be daunting to potential members.   Sermons, worship, and prayers are revised in order to avoid offending potential members.   Anything contributing to growth is accepted; anything potentially lessening growth is rejected.   For many, growth is their idol.

                      Of course, we do want the church of believers in Christ to grow. I do too, and the Missouri Synod has always been aggressive in its outreach.   Historically the Missouri Synod has been more aggressive in its outreach than any other Lutheran synod in America, and has been envied by the other synods for its growth.   But it is wrong for the church to grow at the expense of ethics or laymen’s rights.   The Church Growth movement is antithetical to laymen’s rights, because it was invented and developed by men who were trying to satisfy the egos of pastors.   For such pastors, laymen are not fellow priests to be worked with and cared for, but sheep to be fleeced, as TCN mastermind Paul Borden aptly says!

The Church Growth movement has given many people the impression that the Missouri Synod did not understand “mission” or “pastoral leadership” before it came along in the 1980s.   The truth is that good outreach, pastoral leadership, and church administration has been with the Missouri Synod for a long time.   Our forefathers were no dummies, as is obvious in any of our congregational histories!   Even as late as the 1970s, many congregations were following programs devised by Pastor Guido Merkens of Saint Antonio and his “Living Lutheran Leadership” program for laymen.   Merken’s programs are still useful, in my opinion.[iii]

The Church Growth movement has been responsible for the wide acceptance of “contemporary worship” in our synod, as well as other church bodies in the United States.   Change in worship is the way in which the movement has most publicly manifested itself.   The worship topic is another lecture in itself.   But you have a right to know where I stand on this topic, since you may think my real complaint about the Church Growth movement is worship.

In my theology of worship, I am neither a traditionalist nor a modernist.   Traditionalists say that we can only use the forms of worship inherited from the Lutheran past.   Modernists say that we can use those old forms, but they are not effective among the modern generation, and will contribute to decline.   I follow the position of Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Article Ten, Church Usages.   This confessional position, to which all our pastors and congregations subscribe, states that worship practices must meet the criteria of “good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edification of the church.”[iv]  

What does this mean?   “Good order” means that laymen can follow along and participate.   “Christian discipline” means that the congregation is instructed about their faith.   “Evangelical decorum” means that God’s gifts in Word and Sacraments, as also the prayers of the congregation, are treated with respect.   “Edification of the church” means that those in the congregation who are the true believers should be comforted and encouraged by the Word, Sacraments, and prayers, even if many of those attending worship think these things are “boring.”   If a case of contemporary worship meets these criteria, then I will be for it.   If a case of traditionalist worship fails these criteria, then I will be against it.   My experience is that congregations that follow our synodical hymnals and agendas are on firm ground in meeting these criteria, while those that don’t are frequently entertaining the world, not edifying the faithful.

One book bears great responsibility for the current misunderstanding about the Missouri Synod’s past effectiveness and for promoting “contemporary worship.”   That book, called Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance,[v] greatly distorts Lutheran and Missouri Synod history, while promoting the basic ideas of the Church Growth “experts.” The book’s basic argument is that to grow, Lutheran congregations can no longer be Lutheran or they will die.   The author, David Luecke, says that we can still teach Lutheran doctrine, but we can’t be Lutheran or we will die.   This argument comes out of the same mold as Episcopal Bishop Shelby Spong’s book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1999).  

One organization has been particularly effective in promoting the ideas and attitudes of the church growth movement.   This is the Jesus First organization,[vi] which actively and successfully campaigns for candidates for synodical office, often in unethical ways.[vii]   In the most recent issue of the Jesus First newsletter, David Luecke unfairly criticizes the Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis faculty.   Luecke’s complaint is that our seminary faculty, in a recent issue of the Concordia Journal, [viii] encourages our congregations to uphold the common interests of the church.  

What is wrong with our seminary faculty’s counsel, according to Luecke?   His Jesus First article “Congregation-Led Entreprenuership Is Necessary”[ix] argues that congregations need to think and act primarily out of “self-interest.”   If this argument from Luecke is accepted, then the synod will collapse.   Our synod is established on common interests, not personal or congregational self-interest.   Luecke and the leaders of the Jesus First organization need to read the Missouri Synod’s Constitution, Article II, regarding the reason for forming the synod.   This article states that it is “Our Lord’s will that the diversities of gifts should be for the common profit, I Corinthians 12:4-31.”

Luecke’s article is an unusual, and perhaps unintentional, revelation.   It reveals that he, and the leaders of the Jesus First organization, apparently do not understand the meaning of Christian love.   Christian love often has to work contrary to self-interest and always works for the common good.[x]

G.   “High Priest” Idea

One other movement has intruded itself in our affairs.   Although its influence is limited, it can be disastrous when and where it takes root.   That is the Roman Catholic idea that the pastor is the authority in the church over both spiritual and temporal affairs, because of his ordination, call, or ministerial status.   I am calling this the “high priest” idea, since a high priest claims more status than a common priest.   I believe that this idea took root in the 1950s due to the teaching and influence of Arthur Carl Piepkorn.   Richard John Neuhaus, who later joined the Roman Catholic church, acknowledged that his biggest theological influence was Piepkorn.[xi]   Piepkorn was the leader of what become known as the “evangelical-catholic” movement in the LCMS, and its current journals of opinion are Lutheran Forum and Forum Newsletter.

One of the manifestations of this movement is the tendency to call our district presidents “bishops” or our pastors “father.”   Those terms carry significant freight with them, and should be avoided by Lutherans.   Another manifestation is the unilateral use of the “lesser ban” by the pastor, which our synod rejected explicitly early on its history.[xii] The term “lesser ban” is a fancy term for “excommunication,” i.e., withholding communion from a congregation member as a form of discipline.

The biblical procedure for excommunication is as follows:   If a pastor in an LCMS church is going to exert discipline, and the person being disciplined refuses to accept it, he has to bring the case to the elders.   If the person being disciplined still refuses, they have to bring it before the voters, prior to the ban going into effect.   That principle is there in order to protect laymen’s rights, and we should never abandon it.

V.   Conclusion

                      In my opinion, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is the best church option going in the United States for people who want to be real Lutherans.   Current challenges, as described in this article, do not change my assessment of this fact.   I intend to stay in our church-body until the Lord takes me home.   I am teaching my children about what is good and what is great about our church, so that they will be encouraged to stay with our church and our faith when they become adults.

                      That does not mean that the synod has a carte blanche as far as my support and membership is concerned.   If the Missouri Synod continues to follow the direction set by TCN, or if the synod makes it a policy, and trains its clergy, to trample on laymen’s rights, I may have second thoughts.   After all, I want to belong to a real Lutheran church that teaches and practices in accord with the Scriptures, the Confessions, and the insights of Martin Luther.   I hope that is what you want, and that you will join me in trying to keep the Missouri Synod in that faith, doctrine, and practice.


[i]   As of this date, the LCMS web-site is at:   www.lcms.org; and the TCN web-site is at:   http://portal.tcnbackup.com  

[ii]   From Paul Borden’s interview with John Mark Ministries.   Found at:   http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/8752.htm   on 3/19/2009

[iii]   See for example, Guido A. Merkens, Organized for Action:   How to Build a Successful Parish and Its Program (Saint Louis:   Concordia Publishing House, 1959).

[iv] FC SD, X, 9; see Tappert, p. 612.   See also Martin Chemnitz’s explanation of these criteria in his first volume of the Examination of the Council of Trent.

[v] David S. Luecke, Evangelical Style and Lutheran Substance (Saint Louis:   Concordia Publishing House, 1988).

[vi]   A number of years ago, I wrote an article titled “What is Jesus First?”   The organization was only about a year old at the time, and people were wondering who its leaders and members were, and what it was all about.   I did extensive research and found that many of its members had been involved in a variety of organizations, including a pro-charismatic group, a pro-women’s ordination group, a pro-Evangelical-worship group, and a more “middle of the road” group called Lutherans Alive.   Some members of Jesus First had also been supportive of the people who were involved in “Seminex” and the AELC.   But it was not evident at that time what ideas or attitudes would dominate the Jesus First group.   Now ten years later, it appears to me that the ideas and attitudes of the Church Growth movement, combined with a tolerance toward the other groups, best explains the position of Jesus First and its leaders.   I would not be surprised if some of its original supporters have since pulled back support, since their specific goals and ideas have not found resonance in the organization.

[vii] At the 2007 convention, the Jesus First newsletter slandered Secretary Raymond Hartwig in order to unseat him.   They were not successful, because their lies had no element of truth.   This is just the most recent, and most public, of many cases of unethical behavior by this organization.  

[viii]   See Concordia Journal (Winter 2009).

[ix] See Jesus First (September 2009), at:   www.jesusfirst.net     Specifically on this point, Luecke says, “[Concordia] Journal authors Erik Herrmann and David Schmitt worry that principles of self-interest are becoming too dominant.   But that is how it has always been.   Why would a congregation join and stay in a synod other than for reasons of self interest?”

[x] See also Romans 12:10, 14:19, 15:2; Galatians 5:13-14, and Philippians 2:1-5, among others.

[xi] The memorial issue of First Things included Neuhaus’ tribute to his mentor Piepkorn, see First Things No. 192 (April 2009): 94.   Confirmation of Piepkorn’s influence is seen in Jim Neuchterlein’s tribute, ibid., page 42; and of Neuhaus’ connection to the ALPB, Lutheran Forum, Forum Letter, and other “evangelical-catholic” persons and institutions, in Saltzmann’s tribute, ibid., page 59-61.

[xii]   See Walther, 23, which is Ministry Thesis IX.C.   The Missouri Synod’s first doctrinal resolution also dealt with the matter of unilateral excommunication and firmly rejected that practice, in response to a case involving Pastor L.F.E. Krause of Wisconsin.   See 1847 LCMS convention proceedings in   Synodal Berichte 1847, pages 11-13.   The text in German and English can be obtained in:   The Doctrinal Resolutions of the National Conventions of the LC-MS, 1847-2004  (Saint Louis:   Concordia Historical Institute, 2006), CD-ROM.

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