Synodical Cowboys and Indians

Cowboys & Indians RichardsonBack in the day, it was impossible to clunk the knob through more than about five channels on your rabbit-ear-adorned monochromatic TV set without coming across a “Cowboys and Indians” shoot-em-up show or movie. Who didn’t love the raging gun battle as the scenery flew by, you sketching yourself into the scene. Horse hooves emphatically pound the soil, you with six-shooter in hand, arrows whooshing past your head, missing you of course, but taking out the befreckled neighbor kid riding next to you whom you didn’t like so much. Wailing Indians ride bareback on their Appaloosas with painted face and war bonnet, intent on you donating your scalp without a suitable recipient having been previously identified. The Western struggle between good and evil might also have been framed within the context of the scurvy gang who repeatedly held up the daily stagecoach or terrorized the local town folk. It was a time when “law and order” was a term loosely applied, justice being accomplished without a whole lot of reference to the “rules,” assuming there were any.

Times have changed since then of course. We’ve now come to a more genteel era where thoughts of cowboys and Indians, at least vocalized, might result in a civil rights investigation by the “Justice” Department. But even in the Wild West, justice did prevail, at least in the movies. The bedraggled guy swinging from the end of a rope was a bank robber or a cattle rustler named Virgil. All of this strained and metaphorical rambling was brought on by my reading of a speech given by then LCMS President Al Barry in 1998. Rev. Dr. Barry’s speech was addressed to a task force formed to study the Synod as it existed and related to itself on the national, district, and circuit levels, as well as other issues. The situations he described are eerily similar to where we’re at today – we’ve just typhlotically ridden further down the dusty trail of a Remington painting. The situations President Barry depicts sound a lot like the days of the American frontier, where the “law” was situational, and “justice” was not always just. Here’s some of what Dr. Barry had to say:

Now here is a wide-open opportunity that can create quite a temptation for an official who knows that his advice is going to be accepted in many cases without question. For example, when I was a district president, it would have been so nice if I could have simply handed each of the district’s vacant congregations a list with the names of 5 or 6 prospective pastors and said, “This is the list I have prepared for you. Call one of these.” Most of the time, they would have. Usually they were not reading the bylaw provision that while vacant congregations should seek the advice of the District President before calling, they can call and be served by a pastor — any pastor — who is a member in good standing of the Synod. It may even be, within a great many congregations, that the unwritten tradition was to take a name suggested by the district president. But I felt that all this made it doubly incumbent upon me to read the Handbook carefully and make congregations aware of their options. It is only fair that they know these things.

Fairness also means that congregations are made aware of their responsibilities as well as their rights. Once again, when I served as a district president, it would have made life so much simpler for me if I could have said to the leaders of a congregation, “If you want to fire your pastor you may certainly do so, and there is nothing I as your district president can do about it.” I knew then, and I know now, that the unwritten understanding of a great many people says exactly this. But our polity, based on Biblical and Confessional considerations in this case, made my life a bit more complicated. For it was incumbent on me to remind the congregation of its responsibilities. I had to say that if it fired its pastor for an improper reason, while I as district president could not prevent the dismissal itself, I would then be obligated to deal with the congregation as a member of the Synod. Quite possibly that congregation would end up being removed from its synodical membership….

· We have said for years that the district is the Synod in a given place. Does it follow that we alter our concept of the Synod by changing the practice of our districts?

· Do our districts view themselves as being the manifestation of the Synod where they are? Or do our districts view themselves as part of a federation, joined together with other districts to constitute what we call The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod?

Dr. Barry’s comments certainly hit home. District interference, rather than District aide, in a congregation’s call process still happens. Unscriptural deposing of pastors still happens. The toleration of Dr. Becker’s false doctrine in the Synod might make one wonder if the LCMS is riding into a Synodical “Wild West,” where the rule of law is no longer a given. Our Synod’s Constitution and Bylaws were, loosely put, designed to maintain “order” in the Synod so that the Gospel may be preached and sins forgiven. As Dr. Barry gently warned, the practices of our Districts may fundamentally alter the concept of the Synod, the Synodical version of lex orandi, lex credendiNow would be a good time to ponder these things anew, before we become the Synod our President warned us about, blowing like a tumbleweed in the winds of false doctrine, a byword from a forgotten confessional past.

Photo credit: Peter Richardson on flickr; Creative Commons license 2.0

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