About two years ago the Southern Illinois District of the LCMS asked Matt Harrison to give his response to the then burgeoning Blue Ribbon Task Force efforts to change the basic structure of our denomination. That request resulted in the document It’s Time which has at its heart the Koinonia Project. The Koinonia project is a discussion and decision vehicle intended to unite the synod around common doctrine and practice. What makes it different than past efforts at dialogue is the decision component. Before getting to that it will be helpful to understand It’s Time a little more.
The basic point of It’s Time is that structural change is not the real issue in the synod. The guts of the structural changes were passed by the delegates in Houston even though they made history by replacing the incumbent with Rev. Harrison who spoke out against the changes proposed by the Task Force. In It’s Time Harrison identified differences of doctrine and practice as the real issues in the synod. The structural changes are what they are and will help the synod save a few dollars but more importantly, the Koinonia project will help the synod get at the heart of its most pressing concerns: disunity of doctrine and practice.
Here is the description of the Koinonia Project from page 12 of It’s Time.
The goal of the first year would be simply to identify the issues that trouble—to begin to formulate the “status of the controversy.” The dialogue must agree that there are two texts which must be dominant in dealing with the issues: the Bible and the Lutheran Confessions, in that order. Given the near confessional authority granted several writings of Luther by the Lutheran Confessions, and the official status of some of C. F. W. Walther’s writings in the Missouri Synod, these documents would also have to be dealt with…
The second year would simply be devoted to formulating the “affirmatives” and the “negatives.” What in fact can be, and actually is affirmed and or rejected by all, or nearly all parties at the table? As the affirmations and the status of the controversy (points at issue) are identified, so also then the points of disagreement will become all the clearer. A yearly report (via an inexpensive, Web-based delivery) would present to the Synod the progress of the dialogue for critique. The national effort could seek input from local efforts and find the best work on the local level. The goal would simply be to come to a point of doctrinal agreement which is God-pleasing and sufficient for both God-pleasing Christian freedom and also God-pleasing uniformity of doctrine and practice: Unity in and for Mission.
As we consider the description of the Koinonia project from It’s Time we need to remember that it is not set in stone. Harrison lays it out in if’s and what’s. It is a working proposal. Exactly how he will work it out remains to be seen but he has also made it clear in the document that it is somewhat open-ended and is not closed to grass roots expressions of its goal.
The Koinonia Project is different than past efforts at dialogue in the LCMS because they were exactly that – efforts at dialogue, mere dialogue. Plato teaches us that through dialogue comes truth but in Platnoic dialogue there is always a knowledgeable interlocutor who is guiding the discussion and some end is achieved. Past synod dialogues have ended up being a mere flapping of gums with no end product. Harrison’s Koinonia project is different. It has a leader – Rev. Harrison and it has a codified end to the dialogue – the theses. It is important to note that Harrison does not see himself as Socrates in this project. As a matter of fact, one iteration of the plan does not even have him in the discussions. But he is the “Koinonia Socrates” at least in this sense, that he has laid out the plan and he has done us a huge favor, by defining the plan with a specific end product. He is already functioning as the invisible interlocutor if he chooses not to take an active role.
The other difference in this project compared to the past is far more significant – a finished product of theses to which one says “yea” or “nay.” That is refreshing and is necessary if we want to have a true expression of Biblical unity. I have sat through previous synod dialogues being very frustrated that they were going nowhere in the end. It is so refreshing that we have a true leader in Harrison who will not settle for mere dialogue but instead will lead us to dialogue that ends in truth.
Harrison says these theses need not be a confession. I beg to differ. I am fine if they are not elevated to the level of confession but also invite folks to consider the fact that we are facing issues of Pietism (Rick Warren like pragmatism) and Romanticism (emotive based worship and preaching) in Lutheranism that may not have received sufficient confessional rebuke. These issues are certainly addressed in the Lutheran Confessions but it seems no one has been able to lead and teach us out of the current malaise based on the Confessions and so it may be time for a clearer “yea” and “nay” on these matters. Harrison’s Koinonia Project will not rise or fall on this issue of confession but it is a helpful question to consider to better understand the intended result of the project.
What ought we all to do then? First read or re-read It’s Time. I am not totally clear on what Harrison means when he describes local, grass roots versions of the Koinonia Project. I am not sure who those groups are or what they would look like but I guess it would not hurt to start lining up people on the local level of different persuasions and have them start talking. I belong to the Northern Illinois Confessional Lutherans. We have some local, good friends on the “other side” that we have become chummy with and have at least enough respect for that we should be able to carry on helpful dialogue. At the very least, we can identify the issues and see how far or close we are to coming together in doctrine and practice.
It’s time baby! Harrison’s Koinonia Project is different. Let’s start talking and let’s start working toward a series of theses that will express our Scriptural unity.