ACELC — Potholes, Potshots, and Perpetual Vigilance

The latest email from the ACELC

“Perpetual vigilance was necessary for the preservation of the integrity of altar fellowship.”

ACELCThese words, penned by Werner Elert in his classic work, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries, come from the chapter entitled, “Keeping Altar Fellowship Intact.” For several months I have been in the midst of a re-read of Elert’s book and have been amazed at how often and how much it reminds me of our Synod’s quest for peace in the Church. We recently witnessed such an effort by President Harrison when he took responsibility for the troubles that came to the Synod over the Newtown, Connecticut incident, saying (among many other things): “I’ve had so many opportunities to participate in the great moments of the Missouri Synod; now, I have participated in one of the worst moments of the Missouri Synod” (LCMS Video Archive, 1:01-1:12 minutes).

In the vernacular of the title, I would call this a “pothole.” Potholes are not just an irritant to drivers, they are damaging to vehicles. Cities, counties, and states spend millions of dollars each year in repairing them on our nations roads. It is a necessary expense for the public good. Without it? … Well, visit any third world country and the question will answer itself.

History will determine if President Harrison’s participation in the Newton incident is “one of the worst moments of the Missouri Synod.” Considering the saga of our Lutheran forefathers in this land, and in Luther’s land, I rather doubt it. This incident needs to be viewed for what it is: a “pothole” – a bump in the road that garnered the attention of the media world for a few days. Truly in the grand scheme of God’s salvific history, and the history of His Church, it is far more a “pothole” than a “sinkhole.”

In his video appeal to Synod, Harrison said: “I exacerbated the problem. I caused greater offense. I caused trouble for Pastor Morris, and difficulty for the congregation, an offense there in the midst of their suffering. Please forgive me” (LCMS Video Archive, 4:33-4:52minutes).

In the midst of President Harrison’s attempts to deal in an evangelical manner with the Newtown incident there were those within and without the Synod who took “potshots” at him, personally, and at his efforts to bring peace. Criticisms from the world are to be expected, for they neither understand nor accept the message of the Gospel – the message of Christ crucified. To them, as St. Paul reminds us, it is either “foolishness” or “a stumbling block” (I Cor. 1:23). As to the “potshots” from within, though disappointing, they too ought not surprise us, for as Jesus warned His disciples regarding those leaders in the church that were criticizing Him:“[T]things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies” (Matt. 15:18f).

“Potholes” and “potshots” remind us that we live in a broken world, a world where “there will be no lack of sin and trouble as the Scriptures say in John 15 and 16; I John 2 and 5. (Small Catechism, Christian Questions with Their Answers, question #20). For this reason, “perpetual vigilance” is an essential quality, a peculiar trait which Christ’s Church is constrained to uphold in its quest for faithfulness and peace. How that relates to our Synod I wish to discuss within the context of two other things which President Harrison mentioned in his video appeal to Synod.

“One thing’s sure, in retrospect, I think at certain key points I could have done things in a way that would have shielded the Synod from such negative criticism, and I take credit for that” (LCMS Video Archive, 5:18-5:50 minutes).

“I make an appeal to the Synod for unity, for repentance, I appeal to those who post so much on the internet, to watch your words, for us to watch one another, for us to care for one another, and to do so in a way that doesn’t allow egregious things to be said about people, questioning motives and other things. We’ll never get through this without Christ. I have been humbled, completely humbled, in fact, brought to nothing” (LCMS Video Archive, 6:00-6:36 minutes).

“Perpetual vigilance” in Elert’s quote dealt with a necessity. The necessity was “the preservation of the integrity of altar fellowship.” The objective for the Church, from the Apostles forward, was altar fellowship, for it denoted publicly the unity which Christ prayed for in His high priestly prayer on the night of His betrayal. He prayed for unity so “that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me” (John 17:23). The preservation of that unity was critical for Christ. It was critical because He knew “the world” needed to know Him and the one who sent Him, for it was the one thing necessary to save them from their sin, which damned them! Unity in Christ’s Church has everything to do taking the Gospel to “all nations.” To the extent that the Church (or Synod) is or appears divided to the world by disunity that effort is severely hampered.

The problem which has exacerbated President Harrison’s desire for peace in the Synod is the very disunity that exists in the Synod at the point of “altar fellowship.” We may not want to hear it, but Synod has lost “the integrity of altar fellowship,” and, like it or not, it has been superseded (in the mind of many within the Synod) with the preservation of the current confusion of language that has supplanted Synod’s historic clarity of thought on the matters of altar fellowship as set forth by Scripture, The Lutheran Confessions, Walther, Pieper, Sasse, and others.

Again, the world will never understand this quest for peace in this matter of altar fellowship, and they will criticize us. And, until Synod seeks once again to follow through with Elert’s advice that “Perpetual vigilance [is] necessary for the preservation of the integrity of altar fellowship,” those within Synod who opt for the confusing language of today will continue to push the envelope and they will not hesitate to take advantage of the world’s criticisms in their pursuit.

C. K. Chesterton is credited with having written: “the great tradition has not been tried and found wanting; it has been tried, found difficult, and duly abandoned (Imprimis, Vo. 42, No. 1, January 2013, Jason Barney {winner of the 2012 Salvatori Prize for Excellence in Teaching}, “We live in a culture of Peter Pans”).

As I continue in prayer for the Synod and continue in the work of the ACELC, I cannot help but wonder if Chesterton’s words do not accurately reflect the Synod’s floundering in this matter of altar fellowship. If not, then I am at a total loss in understanding and explaining why the ACELC has not received a rash of membership applications from congregations and pastors in every district!

Luther reminds us of the importance of “perpetual vigilance” in matters dealing with Christ in one of his 1523 letters. “Neither is it of any help if someone would say, ‘I will gladly confess Christ and His Word in every other article, except that I may keep silence about one or two that my tyrants may tolerate, such as both species in the Sacrament and the like.’ For whoever denies Christ in one article or word has denied the same Christ in that one article who would be denied  by [denying] all the articles, since there is only one Christ in all His words, taken all together or singly” (WA Br 3:81 ff – Letter written by Luther to Graf Albrecht von Mansfeld on June 3, 1523.)

Pastor Bruce G. Ley
Documents Chairman, ACELC

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.