Given some of the previous discussions on BJS regarding the Koinonia Project, thanks to a reader for pointing out this article written by Pastor Petersen over on Gottesdienst Online talking about the project.
President Matthew Harrison and First-Vice President Herbert Mueller have issued a report of their Koinonia Project to address the disunity and schisms in the LC-MS. On the surface this plan is nearly indistinguishable from every other plan to unite the synod of the past 10 years. It proposes the creation of discussion groups and urges everyone to be nice. Below the surface, there is something distinguishable: the tone. Mueller’s report oozes piety and sincerity. He knows there are problems. I suspect, though he leave it unstated, that he knows this process, if seriously engaged, will cause departures from the synod. But he isn’t instituting a purge, nor is he engaging in a bureaucratic cover up for false doctrine. He wants to win the brother and he is willing to look at the log in his own eye first. Gottesdienst serves the synod as a kind of think tank. And while I don’t speak for all the editors or readers, I think theGottesdienst crowd needs to follow Mueller’s example. In short, everybody needs to calm down.
Those who are tired of the fighting and wish we would all just get along need to calm down. We live in the Church Militant. The Church has always fought within itself. Iron sharpens iron. It is good to care about eternal things. It is good to care about the details, about the lost, and about how we interact with each other and the world. Our fighting is caused by sin but refraining from fighting does not remove the sin. It only hides it. Our Lord does not call us to ignore the speck in our brother’s eye but to love him enough to take some risks and to try and help.
Next, if we are going to do this, we need some nomenclature. We have to drop “liberal” and “conservative.” They are not only pejorative, they are inaccurate. I like the label “confessional.” This doesn’t mean that I think I am the only one confessing. It simply means that this is my focus and identity. I suspect that this self-chosen description rightly fits and is comfortable on about 51% of the synod. The other side, the roughly 46% who supported the reelection of President Kieschnick, seem to have chosen the term “missional” for themselves. Just as I don’t think that I am excluding others from confessing by calling myself a confessional, I do not think that the missionals are accusing me of being disinterested in missions, lazy, or complacent. They simply understand this as their particular focus and identity. If indeed this is the adjective they wish, I promise to use it respectfully. If this is the wrong term, or not accepted by all, I am sorry. For the time being at least, it seems to me to be what they have chosen – and it also seems accurate. When I am corrected and given a better self-description, I promise to use it. But we can’t impugn one another with conservative and liberal.
For years I have heard complaints from Jesus First and other proponents of the missional camp that there is a terrible danger and mis-emphasis among the confessionals on doctrinal purity. I think, in part, they are right. This charge has been too easily dismissed, as though being accused of being obsessed with doctrinal purity were akin to being accused of loving too much, having too much money, or being too good looking. We have been called to doctrinal purity. This is what God desires and demands. But it is not true to think that doctrinal purity trumps all else. Doctrine was made for man, not man for doctrine. David ate the showbread. The Lord’s disciples plucked grain and Jesus healed on the Sabbath. St. Paul allows the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Love is the ultimate principle behind the Law. So also, love is the ultimate principle, both in content and application, of doctrine. If doctrine does not serve love, or if it serves pride, it is false.
Some might rejoin that these are Law examples not Gospel examples. These are, however, ultimately arguments about the Law. The Law commands we evangelize. To fail to confess and witness is a sin. The Law also commands that we teach pure doctrine. False doctrine is a sin. It is possible to love a system of doctrine for its own beauty and reasonableness apart from its actual content. That was the sin of the Pharisees. The missionals do well to warn us of this danger.
We, the confessionals, need to calm down. We should not be issuing ultimatums. We should not be setting ourselves up as the judges of Israel. We should not be operating out of fear as though it is our duty to cleanse and purify the Church. And we should be careful in our language and criticisms so as not to hurt the feelings of our brothers.
We, the confessionals, need historic perspective on doctrinal purity. We sometimes speak and act as though there was a golden age in the Church to which we must return. There was no golden age. The history of the Church is a history of disunity, confusion, heresy, abuse, and schism. The history of the liturgy is equally messy. St. Gregory did much to foster unity but even then there were local customs and variances in almost every locality. Those who waited for and expected the Messiah at the time of Christ were divided between the Pharisees, the priests, the Essenes, the zealots, Gentile proselytes, and the quiet in the land. The Lord has provided amazingly clear and articulate voices from time to time. Athanasius was such a voice at the Council of Nicea. So also were Luther and then the Lutheran fathers in 1580. But they are few and far between. They are the exception. There does not look to be a great, charismatic, theological mind and voice in our age.
We are insignificant men in an insignificant synod in an insignificant time. The history of the Missouri Synod is not the history of great preachers, scholars, or obedient Germans. We are not a sleeping giant. We are a raging, self-important mouse. Our history is the history of fools plodding along without really knowing what they were doing. Pastors taught false doctrine from their ignorance. They got caught up in politics and culture. Missionaries instituted crazy practices. The synod grew by immigration and inertia. Members insisted on acting and looking like their neighbors. They stuck to the truth out of nostalgia as often as conviction. Yet the Lord provided. Babies were baptized. The Word of God was read. The Absolution and Body and Blood of Jesus were bestowed, and the half-hearted, confused prayers were heard by a gracious God. Sometimes the best thing we ever did was stick the name “Lutheran” on the sign. If nothing else, it forced us to use the Small Catechism and keep a copy of the American Edition of Luther’s Works and the Book of Concord on the pastor’s shelf. Then sometimes, somebody, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, no doubt, read them. The Lord doesn’t need us to purify or unite or fix or do anything to the Church. It is His Church. We confessionals need to calm down and stop acting as though every time a pastor does something stupidly or chooses a weak practice or even commits an unintentional heresy the walls are going to come crashing down. So what if they do? Calm down.