Doctrinal Supervision and the Becker Case

This article was written by Rev. Dr. Martin R. Noland, and was first published in the The Lutheran Clarion, a publication of The Lutheran Concerns Association. You may download the entire May issue of the Clarion here, and previous editions of the Clarion here, as well as free subscription information.

 

What is the real business of the synod? In Chapter IV of its 1854 Constitution, the Missouri Synod stated that the business of the synod is:

1) watching over the purity and unity of doctrine within the Synod; 2) supervision over the performance of the official duties on the part of pastors and teachers of Synod; 3) common defense and extension of the church; 4) giving theological opinions and judgments; also settling disputes between individuals or whole parties in congregations, but the latter only in cases in which all interested parties have applied to Synod [for arbitration], etc.1

Although some folks may be unaware of them, these are still the most important duties of the synod and its officers today.

At its March 6-7, 2015 district convention, the Northern Illinois District (hereafter NID) of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (hereafter LCMS) adopted resolution 1-05,2 which calls on some who “teach or publicly advocate for positions” contrary to the public doctrine of the LCMS to “repentance and to reform their actions immediately.” The same resolution listed the doctrines of the LCMS at issue, namely, concerning “women’s ordination, homosexuality, creation and evolution, the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture, and proper methods for Biblical interpretation.” It also requested that the LCMS Commission on Handbook review the existing procedures for doctrinal dissent, for doctrinal discipline, and for “removing those who refuse to repent or who refuse to call others to repentance.”

Who is being talked about in NID resolution 1-05? The person who disagrees with the LCMS doctrines that are listed above is Dr. Matthew Becker, an LCMS pastor and an Associate Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University, formerly a professor of theology in Concordia University at Portland, Oregon. Dr. Becker has a blog called “Transverse Markings”3 which includes his public advocacy for positions contrary to the public doctrine of the LCMS. He is also the Managing Editor for the “Daystar Journal”4 and has frequently published articles at their website.5 The Daystar articles he publishes have been on a variety of topics about theology, church practice, and church history. Such articles have included his criticism of the doctrinal authority of the LCMS,6 advocacy for women’s ordination,7 criticism of the traditional doctrine of creation held by the LCMS,8 and approval of homosexual unions.9 The person who has not exerted doctrinal discipline toward Dr. Becker is his present LCMS district president, the Rev. Paul Linnemann, District President (hereafter DP) of the LCMS Northwest District.

How did DP Linnemann fail to exert doctrinal discipline toward Dr. Becker? In a recent case in which doctrinal charges were brought against Dr. Becker, DP Linnemann formed a Referral Panel according to the procedures in Bylaw 2.14.5.10 This was really an abdication of responsibility. DP Linnemann should have brought forward charges himself (Bylaw 2.14.4) in such an obvious case of doctrinal error. The Referral Panel decided to terminate the case, even though Dr. Becker has expressed significant and manifold disagreements with the public doctrine of the LCMS, and continues to publicly advocate against that doctrine.

Dr. Becker’s dissent from certain public doctrines of the LCMS, which doctrines are listed above, has been known for a long time. He recently expressed such dissent in 2011 to the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations (hereafter CTCR). The responses of the CTCR to Becker are definitely worth reading in order to understand this case (see endnote).11

Many people have expressed frustration that this case gives evidence that doctrinal supervision is not functioning in the LCMS. If doctrinal supervision fails to bring Dr. Becker to repentance, or to bring about his removal from the LCMS clergy roster, how can it be expected to work in lesser cases of dissent from the public doctrine of the LCMS?

The Becker case proves that there are faults in the doctrinal supervision system of the LCMS, but it does not prove that there is no doctrinal supervision at all. So there is a problem and it needs fixing. In order to fix the system, through revision of bylaws, we first need to ask about the nature of doctrinal supervision. What is the doctrine being supervised? Who does the supervising? And how does doctrinal discipline proceed?

What is the doctrine being supervised? It is the doctrine found originally in the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testament, and then later summarized and explained in the Lutheran Book of Concord. It is the same doctrine that has more recently been confessed by The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod through its doctrinal resolutions and doctrinal statements. The LCMS cannot establish Scriptural doctrine, but only confess and explain it.

This was elucidated by the LCMS at its 1971 convention through Resolution 2-21 “To Uphold Synodical Doctrinal Resolutions.” The same resolution was recently reprinted as an appendix to the document CTCR Response to Expressions of Dissent (2004-2006), during the administration of President Gerald Kieschnick. I highly recommend that you read Resolution 2-21 in order to understand the LCMS position about its own doctrine (see endnote).12

What are the doctrinal resolutions and statements of the LCMS? They can be found in a single collection on CD-ROM from the Concordia Historical Institute.13 All German resolutions in that collection have been translated into English. Lutherans know, of course, that councils—and that includes synods–may err, so the LCMS provides for a process of correction of the synod’s position through Bylaw 1.8 and its procedures of dissent.

Who supervises doctrine? In the LCMS, the synodical president (Constitution Article XI, B.1-B.3), the district presidents (Constitution Article XII.7-XII.9 (a)), and the circuit visitors (Bylaw 5.2.3 (a)) supervise doctrine. What if the doctrinal supervisors disagree about a contested doctrine or how to handle a particular case? If that happens, the synodical president must report such cases to the synod (Constitution XI.B.2), and may even do so while a case is being heard (Bylaw 2.14.7.8 (g)).

Which district president supervises Dr. Becker? Now here we have a real problem. The assignment of church-workers to districts is explained in Bylaw section 12.12. Valparaiso University is not an agency of the LCMS, so Bylaw 2.12.1.5 does not apply. For some time now, at least since August 2008, Dr. Becker has been an inactive, non-candidate ordained minister, according to the Lutheran Annual. His district assignment was determined, apparently, through Bylaw 2.12.1.8, since no other bylaw in that section fits his situation. That means that doctrinal supervision was supposed to be carried out by his DP, who lives in Portland, Oregon, while Dr. Becker lives and works in Valparaiso, Indiana.

Does the LCMS want to have some of its clergy in full-time vocations as professors in universities or colleges that are not part of the Concordia University System (hereafter CUS)? If so, it needs to fix this problem. I propose a solution here by inserting between present Bylaws 2.12.1.6 and 2.12.1.7 this new bylaw: An individual member of the Synod who is a full-time professor at a university or college that is not part of the Concordia University System shall hold Synod membership in the geographical district in which the member resides or the non-geographical district in which he/she holds membership. You may put this bylaw revision in the form of an overture and send it to the 2016 convention. If this is passed at the 2016 convention, Dr. Becker will immediately become a member of the Indiana District.

Finally, how should doctrinal discipline proceed? Here there are multiple problems that extend far beyond the case in question.14 Barring a wholesale revamping of the system, I recommend four sets of bylaw changes and one general recommendation that could bring some semblance of order to the Becker case and others like it.

First, the bylaw section on dissent (Bylaw 1.8) should not be used as a way of avoiding doctrinal discipline. I propose an addition to that section, labeled Bylaw 1.8.3: Dissent from doctrinal resolutions and statements does not excuse or relieve a member of synod from doctrinal discipline under the Bylaws of Synod. If a member of synod has expressed doctrinal dissent in conjunction with complaints or accusations brought against him/her, when the matter has been concluded by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations the case will return immediately to the synodical official supervising the case, who will move forward with the case on the basis of the judgment of the CTCR. You may put this bylaw revision in the form of an overture and send it to the 2016 convention.

Second, the district president supervising the case should not be allowed to terminate the case arbitrarily. In the pre-1992 bylaws of the synod, the district president had to “decide whether the information concerning the matters which could lead to termination of membership preliminarily appear to be able to be substantiated” (1989 Bylaw 2.27b).15 So under the 1989 bylaw, in the case of Dr. Becker, DP Linnemann would have had to investigate whether Dr. Becker was truly advocating for women’s ordination. If that was in fact true, and could be substantiated, then the case would have to proceed. If Dr. Becker was not advocating for women’s ordination, then that investigation would terminate the case.

I propose, then, an addition to the bylaws by inserting between present Bylaws 2.14.5.1 and 2.14.5.2 this new bylaw: The determination by the district president to initiate formal proceedings shall be made solely on the basis of whether the information concerning the matters which could lead to termination of membership preliminarily appears to be able to be substantiated. Analogous amendments should be made to Bylaw sections 2.15, 2.16, and 2.17. You may put this bylaw revision in the form of an overture and send it to the 2016 convention.

Third, although the Referral Panel may be useful in making recommendations, it should not be given the authority to determine whether to initiate formal proceedings, which should rest with the district president himself.

I propose, then, amendment to the bylaws in section 2.14.5 and 2.14.6. The phrase “shall make the determination” in Bylaw 2.14.5.1 should be changed to read “shall make a recommendation.” The phrase “Whether made by the district president or the Referral Panel, if the determination is” in Bylaw 2.14.5.2 should be changed to read “If he determines.” The phrase “process of making its determination” in Bylaw 2.14.5.3 should be changed to read “process of making its recommendation.” The phrase “or the Referral Panel” in Bylaw 2.14.6 should be deleted. Analogous amendments should be made to Bylaw sections 2.15, 2.16, and 2.17. You may put this bylaw revision in the form of an overture and send it to the 2016 convention.

Fourth, the Commission on Constitutional Matters (hereafter CCM) and the CTCR should not be allowed to make binding rulings that determine the final outcome of a case, either in the original hearing or in the appeal. In the pre-1992 bylaws of the synod, the adjudicating and appeal commissions could request an advisory opinion from the CCM or CTCR (e.g., 1989 Bylaw 8.51f). This was only advisory, not binding. The 1992 bylaw revisions of the adjudication chapters of the synod made the CCM and CTCR final and binding authorities (e.g., 1992 Bylaw 8.21i).16 An LCMS attorney once wrote to President Ralph Bohlmann: “CCM and CTCR rulings are rendered ex parte, without notice and hearing, and are thereby not in accord with the requirements of due process. . . . The civil courts may assume jurisdiction in church matters if they find the adjudicatory process of a church tribunal does not meet the requirements of due process.”17

I propose, then, revision to the following bylaws by changing the authority of the rulings of the CCM and CTCR from binding to advisory (e.g., from “must be followed” to “may be followed”): Bylaws 2.14.3 (a), 2.14.7.8 (l), 2.14.7.9 (c), 2.15.3(a), 2.15.7.9 (c), 2.16.3 (a), 2.16.8 (b), and 2.17.7.9 (c). You may put this bylaw revision in the form of an overture and send it to the 2016 convention.

Fifth, the synod should discuss whether it really wants district presidents involved as judges in adjudicatory matters. Since 1992, the LCMS district presidents have served not only as doctrinal supervisors, but also as judges who make the decision to expel church-workers from the synod for false doctrine, gross misconduct, and for other reasons. Prior to 1992, the decision to expel was made by either the Commissions on Adjudication or the Commission on Appeals. No officers of synod or district were allowed to serve on those commissions or influence their work. Only parish pastors, laymen, and lawyers were allowed to serve on those commissions.

At the 1992 convention, the district presidents used their influence to abolish the Commissions on Adjudication and Appeals, replacing them with Dispute Resolution Panels. At the 2004 convention, dispute resolution was separated from the expulsion process, with the latter process being administered and controlled by district presidents. Thus, since 2004, the district presidents are the judges who determine who is in and out of the synod—and they know that when they accept their job.

The case of DP Linnemann is actually a litmus test for all of the LCMS district presidents. If any defend his actions, they are actually saying that they do not intend to exert doctrinal discipline in their own districts, if that ever becomes necessary.

I am not saying that serving as a synodical judge is an easy or pleasant duty—but it is a role that the district presidents have desired, and have used their influence to obtain in 1992 and 2004. If the district presidents no longer want the job of judge in the synod’s adjudication system, then they should say so and use their influence to restore something like the independent judiciaries18 we once had in the LCMS—i.e., the Commissions on Adjudication and the Commission on Appeals.

Note: All web addresses were accessed and checked for validity on March 25, 2015 by the author.


1. See C. S. Meyer, ed., Moving Frontiers: Readings in the History of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1964), 151. The original 1847 constitution of the synod, which has a nearly identical Chapter IV, can be found in: William Gustave Polack, “Our First Synodical Constitution,” Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly 16 #1 (April 1943): 1-18.
2. To obtain a copy of this NID resolution, go to page 17 here: http://ni.lcms.org/sites/default/files/Documents/todaysbusiness030715_final.doc . The original overture can be found on pages 32 to 36 here: http://ni.lcms.org/sites/default/files/Documents/section_5_-_overtures_rev_2-26-2015.pdf The Southern Illinois District Convention adopted a different resolution on the same subject on February 14, 2015, Resolution 2-05B, available here: https://steadfastlutherans.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/RESOLUTION-2-05B-FINAL.pdf
3. Go to: http://www.matthewlbecker.blogspot.com
4. Go to: http://thedaystarjournal.com
5. For the online folder that contains all of Dr. Becker’s articles on Daystar since 2013, see: http://thedaystarjournal.com/category/article/author/matthew-becker
6. See: http://thedaystarjournal.com/talking-points-about-doctrinal-authority-in-the-lcms-2
7. See: http://thedaystarjournal.com/informal-reflections-on-women-pastors-and-theologians and http://thedaystarjournal.com/an-argument-for-women-pastors-and-theologians
8. See: http://thedaystarjournal.com/christian-theology-the-doctrine-of-creation-and-scientific-knowledge and http://thedaystarjournal.com/the-scandal-of-the-lcms-mind
9. See: http://thedaystarjournal.com/the-creators-tapestry-review-article
10. See 2013 Handbook of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (St Louis: LCMS, 2013), 73. All references to the Handbook, Constitution, or Bylaws of the LCMS refer to this original 2013 printed edition, not to the later one available only in electronic form dated Nov. 19-20, 2014, unless noted otherwise.
11. The formal response of the CTCR to Dr. Becker’s dissent can be found here: http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=1676 After his reply of January 12, 2012, the CTCR issued the following letter indicating that the dissent process was finished and that future correspondence would be forwarded to his DP and the synodical president. That letter can be found here: http://www.lcms.org/Document.fdoc?src=lcm&id=1675
12. See Commission on Theology and Church Relations, CTCR Response to Expressions of Dissent (2004-2006) (St Louis: LCMS, 2006), 34-37; available for free online at: http://www.lcms.org/page.aspx?pid=726&DocID=404
13. See Concordia Historical Institute, The Doctrinal Resolutions of the National Conventions of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod 1847-2004, CD-ROM format (St Louis: Concordia Historical Institute, 2006). ISBN-13: 978-0-9788523-0-6. $15.00 plus s/h. Order here: http://www.lutheranhistory.org/doctresorder.htm
14. My concerns about the present dispute/expulsion system have been published in the essay “Problems with 2013 Dispute/Expulsion System” published by the The Brothers of John the Steadfast here: https://steadfastlutherans.org/2014/10/problems-with-2013-disputeexpulsion-system . It includes a flow chart that explains how the system is supposed to work. My earlier essays that analyzed and criticized this system are: Martin R. Noland, “Law and Due Process in the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right,” in God and Caesar Revisited, Luther Academy Conference Papers No. 1, papers presented at the Congress on the Lutheran Confessions, Skokie, Illinois, April 7-9, 1994, edited by John R. Stephenson (Shorewood, MN: The Luther Academy, 1995), 47-58; and Martin R. Noland, “District Presidents and their Council: Biblical and Confessional Limitations,” in Church Polity and Politics, papers presented at the Congress on the Lutheran Confessions, Itasca, Illinois, April 3-5, 1997, edited by John Fehrmann and Daniel Preus (Crestwood, MO and Minnneapolis, MN: Luther Academy and Association of Confessional Lutherans, 1997), 156-172. Both Luther Academy publications can be purchased for a minimal fee here: http://www.logia.org/luther-academy-books
15. 1989 Handbook of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (St Louis: LCMS, 1989), 30-31. Other references in the text to the 1989 bylaws refer to this edition.
16. 1992 Handbook of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (St Louis: LCMS, 1992), 130. For more analysis on the subject of the binding authority of the CCM and CTCR, see my blog post here: https://steadfastlutherans.org/2013/07/whats-wrong-with-the-commission-on-constitutional-matters and my article: Martin R. Noland, “Word of God Determines Doctrine, Not Commission on Constitutional Matters,” The Lutheran Clarion 5 no. 9 (July 2013): 1-2; available for free here: http://lutheranclarion.org/images/NewsletterJul2013.pdf
17. Letter by an LCMS layman, an attorney who had served on the LCMS Board of Directors, to LCMS President Ralph Bohlmann, dated April 5, 1990.
18. On the matter of “independent judiciaries,” see my essay “Law and Due Process in the Kingdom of the Left and the Kingdom of the Right,” 54-55.

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