University Lutheran Chapel and the Law of Love

For at least twenty years I have been puzzled about the place, or function, of ecclesiastical law (i.e., synodical constitution and bylaws) in the theology of the Lutheran church.  When there has been controversy in the church in which ecclesiastical law, or church governance, has played a role, I have often wondered, “How can such action be justified in a Christian church?”  The almost universal answer I have received from church officials is, “The duly elected church officers followed the bylaws and didn’t violate state law, therefore it is right, moral, and legal.”  In other words, shut-up and don’t think about it.

Today I read through a new book that answers many of my questions on these subjects:  Johannes Heckel, Lex Charitatis:  A Juristic Disquisition on Law in the Theology of Martin Luther, tr. & ed. Gottfried G. Krodel (Grand Rapids, MI:  Wm B. Eerdmanns, 2010).  Many LCMS Lutherans will recognized Krodel as the distinguished professor of church history at Valparaiso University, recently deceased in June 2011.  The back cover includes a recommendation of the book by Robert Kolb, recently retired professor of Reformation history at Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis.  The book is in the new series “Emory University Studies in Law and Religion,” edited by John Witte, Jr.  This book is sure to become a standard resource on the subject for all future Luther studies.

Heckel’s greatest contribution to the literature is his paying attention to categories and definitions in Luther’s discussion of the Law.  I won’t go into all of that, just apply what Luther says to the situation today at University Lutheran Chapel in Minneapolis.  That situation has been reported in detail on this website, so I won’t repeat it here.

Luther saw the law of the spiritual government which applies to the Christian as the law of love (lex charitatis).  This was distinguished from the law of civil government, whose purpose was to force people to live together in a modicum of peace.  Both governments and both laws are approved by God and necessary.  But the Christian submits to the laws of civil government out of love for the neighbor, not because they are forced to do so.  This is the meaning of Luther’s famous epigram in “The Freedom of the Christian Man” (1520):  A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none; a Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

Heckel argues, from Luther, that ecclesiastical law is valuable as an aid for educating Christians, but it is full of imperfections, because it is derived from civil law.  “This imperfection constantly admonishes the church to use the standard of the spiritual law of love for examining and correcting its law. Such a reform becomes necessary when the man-made ecclesiastical law contradicts the divine positive law (for instance in the matter of the sacraments) or is not in harmony with the three spiritual basic rights of the Christian estate,” (Heckel, 201), which are Christian brotherly love, Christian equality, and Christian freedom.

Here is where there is application to the case of University Lutheran Chapel.  The existing statutes of LCMS ecclesiastical law say that the Minnesota South Board of Directors are fully in their rights in selling the property and buildings of University Lutheran Chapel out from under its present occupants.  LCMS ecclesiastical law is based on civil property law, which gives full and unimpeded powers to Board of Directors to purchase and sell properties.  But in this particular case, the application of LCMS ecclesiastical law is contrary to the spiritual law of love.

But note this very carefully.  It is not just offending the members of University Lutheran Chapel.  It is offending all the members of Minnesota South and Minnesota North Districts, plus any other members of the LCMS who may attend the University of Minnesota, or whose children do the same. The Board of Directors of Minnesota South are violating the three spiritual basic rights of the Christian estate, which are love, equality, and freedom:  Love, because they assume they know what is best for those affected by their decision; Equality, because they are using their office to “lord it over” members of those districts; Freedom, because they are denying the District Conventions the opportunity to make a free decision in this matter, even though the Pastoral Conferences have begged the Board to change its mind and delay its decision until the conventions have spoken.

The President of the Synod has met with the MNS Board.  I am not privy to his conversations with them, his reactions, or theirs.  But they have been visited, and I suspect have been urged to act according to Christian love, and bring the decision before the MNS District convention.  Yet I have seen no response on their part.  They seem determined to continue forward with their violations of the spiritual law of love and close the sale before the convention convenes.

What should we, then, do with this board?  The members are obviously incompetent to serve in matters of the church, since they don’t understand how the rights they have under secular laws of property need to be moderated by the spiritual law of love, in light of the basic rights of their fellow Christians, whom they have been asked to serve, not lord it over.  I am thinking that not only should they be deposed at this next convention, but that, for their own sakes, they should be asked to repent of their sins to their brothers and sisters in those districts.  And if they refuse to apologize, which apology is not at all difficult to do, then they should be treated as unrepentant sinners by all the pastors in the district, by direction of a district resolution.  Of course, this will not be necessary if they delay the sale closing until the district convention has had a chance to discuss, resolve, and direct the board’s action.

I am thinking that this may be an important step in our Life Together in the synod.  It may be an important way to teach all church officers, including pastors, teachers, and congregational officers, that their office is one of service, not lordship, and that actions that they take which are legal according to civil law need to be moderated by the spiritual law of love.  We can expect nothing less of leaders who claim to be Lutheran.  What a better place to start than Minnesota!




University Lutheran Chapel and the Law of Love — 16 Comments

  1. Thank you, Pastor Noland, for explaining this sad issue so even I can understand it.

    Professor Kurt Marquart made the same point, when he said voters assemblies should not govern by majority rules, but by love. He told us this heart-warming and memorable illustration: A congregation had a chalice with a curled lip that often caused a dribble on the communicant’s chin. The voters decided, nearly unanimously, that they could finally afford to replace it with a brand new gorgeous chalice that did not drip. An old geezer in the congregation announced that he had received from that chalice the Blood of Our Lord first at his confirmation, later at his marriage, recently at his wife’s funeral — and nearly every Sunday in between. If the congregation dares to stop using that chalice, they would never see him in that church again.

    The congregation decided unanimously that it could not, after all, afford to replace that chalice. The old geezer was wrong, no doubt about it, but the congregation loved him anyway. Their church was not guided by majority rules, but by love rules.

  2. Thank you, Pastor Noland, you have shown by the highest scholarship the wrong that has been done by these men. But the many tears from Gods Children in that congregation have truly done a better job.

    In Christ



  3. Therefore, as a fellow elder and witness to the sufferings of the Messiah and also a participant in the glory about to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you: Shepherd God’s flock among you, not overseeing[a] out of compulsion but freely, according to God’s will;[b] not for the money but eagerly; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. (I Peter 5:1-4)

    a.1 Peter 5:2 Other mss omit overseeing
    b.1 Peter 5:2 Other mss omit according to God’s will

    “Not for the money”…..”not lording it over those entrusted to you” The forced sale of ULC seems like a clear violoation on both counts.

  4. Rev. Noland,
    Thank you for this insightful post. If the board members do not repent of this very public sin shouldn’t they be put under christian discipline by their pastors and if they still won’t repent be excommunicated by their congregations? If the board members are pastors and they refuse to repent how is the Office of the Keys carried out?

  5. More than a few have now accused the MNS-District BOD of sin in its dealing with ULC. The MNS-BOD could respond in three different ways, as I see it:

    1) Deny wrongdoing, either by silence or by asserting innocence. Deflect the issue by discrediting complainants.
    2) Justify actions by appealing to civil law and majority votes. Take comfort in the fact that a human judge would find no wrongdoing according to the law.
    3) Confess this sin and receive Holy Absolution. Go and be reconciled to the brother.

    Only one of these ways actually serves as a remedy for sin and a path towards healing.

  6. Does this, or could it apply to CGM, TCN, or it’s like, also? I think, & most likely am wrong, that the ULC issue, would not & could not have occurred, if CGM, Emergent, CoWo, etc, had not been welcomed, voted & protected. Not so much in LCMS, but now, as President Harrison’s train analogy, proves, in WELS? Crossroads, CrossTrain, Grace in Action?

    Or is that wrong?

  7. Confession and absolution is always stronger than an apology for what is given through it. I have seen apologies coerced in our church gatherings which caused everyone to breathe a sigh of relief and even sing the doxology. But such coerced apologies did not deal with the root problem and it wasn’t long before that problem surfaced again. It was like Red Green used to say at his lodge meetings: “I’m a man. I can change. If I have to. I guess.”

  8. Thank you Pastor,
    Any chance of me reading this again from the glossy pages of the Lutheran Witness (perhaps following a richly illustrated article describing the vibrant ministry currently using the ULC facility?)

    Pax Christi+,
    -Matt Mills
    ULC Class of ’85

  9. That is my daughter and her husband in the foreground of that picture. Dana Kind and her son are in the background, along with other faithful members of ULC. My heart, and many others, have been broken as this whole fiasco has unfolded. I dared to hope that our dear Synodical President would take the spiritual lead and call this thing what it is, and call our “brothers and sisters” on the MNS BOD to repentence for the good of their souls. Instead we saw only some marginal scolding and hand-slapping along with a plea for generosity toward ULC and her members. Many defended that approach, but for me, I felt deep disappointment at a POTS who would not expend his political capital to say, and do, the right thing. God is not mocked! Rev. Mark Preus had the courage, and the faithfulness, to do what our POTS failed to do. Many of us have written letters to the MNS BOD urging them, both before and after the deal to sell was signed, to relent, and to repent. Their silence speaks volumes. Based on a private email I was privy to see, I daresay that they do cling to their “right” to do what they have done.

    Thank you, Pastor Noland, for this fine essay. I pray that those in the MNS District who have the jurisdiction to rise up against this evil action will have the courage and the ability to do it, by the grace of God, at the upcoming Convention. I also pray that we as a synod, repent of our own reliance on political structures which hurt and damage the Church and martyr our faithful. And may we continue to keep ULC at the forefront of our prayers as they continue to battle the enemy and prepare for the upcoming eviction which will surely come save a miracle from our Lord. May God have mercy on us all!

  10. The President of the Synod has met with the MNS Board. I am not privy to his conversations with them, his reactions, or theirs. But they have been visited, and I suspect have been urged to act according to Christian love, and bring the decision before the MNS District convention. Yet I have seen no response on their part. They seem determined to continue forward with their violations of the spiritual law of love and close the sale before the convention convenes.

    See the approved minutes from that meeting:
    See also the unapproved minutes from the December BOD meeting:

  11. “Today I read through a new book….” Apparently a little light reading during the break at the Confessions Symposium eh Dr. Noland! :>) Excellent post – thanks.

  12. Thank you Dr. Noland – nice to know that we are not all out in left field.

    Sadly, there is a tremendous lack of love in our Synod. Diversity is lovelessness, uniformity is a fine expression of love for example. Far too many have ruled by “right” rather than love.

  13. Feet o’ Jesus

    At the feet o’ Jesus,
    Sorrow like a sea.
    Lordy, let yo’ mercy
    Come driftin’ down on me.

    At the feet o’ Jesus
    At yo’ feet I stand.
    O, ma precious Jesus,
    Please reach out yo’ hand.

    by Langston Hughes

    1926 “The Dream Keeper and Other Poems”

  14. From the Save ULC website ( ):

    ULC is holding a Silent Auction and Craft Sale on Saturday, February 18, 2012 starting at 7:00 p.m. with bidding until 10:00 p.m. There will be lots of items to buy or bid on, some donated from local businesses, many crafted or donated by our own chapel members.

    There will also be wine and appetizers served, live music, and free babysitting.

    All funds raised will go to the Save ULC effort.

    You can download and print a flier to give to your friends or post on your church’s bulletin board:

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