Some may be familiar with the history of the ELS and her relationships to the LCMS. After the LCMS began talks exploring fellowship with the American Lutheran Church, the ELS, concerned about the ALC’s loose practice on communion practice as well as her position on predestination, finally severed fellowship with the LCMS in 1955. This was the first manifestation of the end of the Evangelical Lutheran Synodical Conference, formerly made up of the LCMS, the ELS, and the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. The WELS finally broke from the LCMS in 1961. To this day, the ELS and the WELS remain in fellowship without the LCMS.
I bring up this brief history simply to demonstrate that fellowship isn’t always so clearly identified if we try to determine it according to synodical membership. To this day, I know pastors and laymen of congregations in the LCMS, WELS, ELS, and other even smaller synods who are interested in God’s Word, not afraid to talk about it, and earnestly desire to be faithful to the Scriptures’ doctrine clearly laid out in the Lutheran Confessions.
With all this said, I want to discuss confirmation in light of the synodical structures and dynamics. I was confirmed on May 26, 2002. The congregation in which I was confirmed is in the Evangelical Lutheran Synod because my dad left the LCMS in 1997 to join the ELS. Since my dad was removed from the ELS over the ministry debate in 2006, my whole family, whether as pastors or hearers, have ended up in congregations in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. There is nothing my dad teaches now that he didn’t teach when he was a pastor in the ELS, and there was nothing he taught in the ELS that he didn’t teach when he was originally a pastor in the LCMS. As far as the doctrine went, I had the exact same instruction as my older brothers who were confirmed in an LCMS congregation. We had the same 122 examination questions drawn up by my dad. Of course, I’m not saying that there are not repercussions in being in the ELS, WELS, or LCMS. A pastor has a responsibility toward the other pastors in his synod, whether to admonish them, rebuke them, encourage them, teach them, learn from them, or debate them. But that is an issue for another time.
The main issue I want to address in this post is whether we are confirmed into a synod. I have come across a Confirmation certificate once in a while, which either has the LCMS cross logo or even says something to the effect of “confirmed into the LCMS.” Sometimes we speak this way colloquially, “I was confirmed LCMS.” Or in my case, “I was confirmed ELS.”
But I was taught at my confirmation not to say that. I remember my dad and pastor specifically teaching us that we are confirmed in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. And he explained that this Evangelical Lutheran Church refers to the true, biblical confession, known among us as Evangelical and Lutheran. This is because we have learned it from Luther’s Small Catechism, which is a true summary of the saving Christian doctrine revealed in Scripture.
This gets to the heart of what we believe is the church. The church is marked and identified by what she receives from her Lord. She receives a true confession in the Word, in Baptism, and in the Lord’s Supper. When she receives the absolution and the instruction from God’s Word, she is receiving the true confession which identifies her as her Lord’s church. As St. Paul says, she is built on the foundation (the doctrine) of the apostles and prophets, Christ being the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20).
To be sure, it isn’t as if the synod has nothing to do with the church. It serves to represent the church so that the church can work together in providing ministers to deliver faithfully the things her Lord has given to her. In the same way, a call committee, elders, and council serve the local congregation, helping care for the external needs of the church in that place. And their primary concern should always be that which gives the church her identity. It should be that the Word is taught and confessed faithfully, that the Pastor has the funds to do his duty, and that parents, Sunday school teachers, and other teachers have the resources and guidance to instruct the youth. But, of course, we wouldn’t confirm anyone into these things.
Now, I understand that people think of the synod and can’t help but think of the doctrine and practice attached (or at least, which should be attached) to that particular synod. But again, this reflects a shallow understanding of our doctrine. It creates an expectation that our club got it right, so we should be loyal to the club. It resembles a sort of synod as a rite, which works faith simply by the doing of the act (ex opere operato), becoming a wall between faith and the doctrine it is meant to serve. And while we shouldn’t be promoting suspicion among one another, we must also heed the Psalmist’s admonition (Ps. 146:3), “Trust not in Princes, in a son of man in whom there is no salvation.”
I also realize that some people love to emphasize that the synod isn’t church so that they can justify being in a synod, which has a host of false teachers and tolerates unfaithful practices in the congregations. I have used this argument myself. But I must admit that this is a cop-out. We should be very much concerned about these things, recognize that they do affect us, even if we are in an orthodox congregation, confess in every opportunity God gives us, and give thanks for any strong leaders who attempt to deal with these issues in a faithful way according to God’s Word. Do what God has given you to do in your own station. He who is faithful in a little is also faithful in much. So make friends by means of imperfect synodical structures so that when they fail you will be received by them into everlasting habitations built by God’s Word.
But the reason it is so important to maintain that synod, properly speaking, isn’t the church, is simply so that we might recognize what our true treasure is. For this same reason, we should maintain that the local congregation, as far as its local arrangement goes, is not properly speaking the church. The church, properly speaking, is the collection of Christ’s sheep, both those who hear and those who teach, gathered by the true Word of God and the rightly ordained sacraments. We see this clearly depicted by Christ (John 10:27), “My sheep hear my voice,” and after he describes the work of his ministry in baptizing and teaching, also says (Matt 28:20), “And lo I am with you always even to the end of the age.” The church is identified by God baptizing sinners and gathering them around the apostolic doctrine and the breaking of bread and prayers (Acts 2:38-42). It is identified by the Good Shepherd sending his under-shepherds to feed his lambs (John 21:17 ff; Act 20:28). The reason why we call the local congregation a divine institution isn’t because of its locality or autonomy. The reason we call it divine is because of the divinely established ministry of Christ whereby he gives to his church a true faith and confession by his Word and Sacraments. God giving pastors to his sheep is by divine promise and arrangement (Jer 3:15; 23:4; Matt 28:28 ff; Eph 4:11, 12).
Of course, this will take place in a local place. Of course, this will include orderly representatives. When talking about disputes Jesus says, “Take it to the church,” assuming that there will necessarily exist some sort of council or representative body (Matt 18:17). So while we might loosely refer to these things as the church, this is only by synecdoche, in which a part or organization within the church is referred to as the church.
We need to teach this to our confirmands very clearly. They are not confirmed into the LCMS, ELS, or WELS!! Neither are they even confirmed into St. Paul Lutheran Church or Trinity Lutheran Church. They are confirmed into THE Lutheran Confession, which marks and identifies the church. This is why we call this church the Evangelical Lutheran Church. And this means that if St. Paul or Trinity or this or that LCMS, ELS, or WELS congregation abandons this confession, then the sheep may still know what their true confession is, and those who are genuine in this confession may be recognized (1 Cor 11:19).
This will also help people better understand what closed communion is all about. Teach the people never to say to a pastor while visiting his congregation, “I’m LCMS. Can I commune?” Or even worse, “I’m LCMS. So I’ll be taking communion.” Or even worse than this is when the parents of adult children say, “They’re LCMS.” This is a shallow understanding of why we practice closed communion. I don’t really care if you’re LCMS. Ok, I kind of care. It is an understandable place to start. After all, the LCMS, at least in theory, subscribes to the Scriptures as the inerrant Word of God and to the Lutheran Confessions as a true exposition of the Scriptures. But first of all, you’re not LCMS unless you’re a rostered church worker or you are a congregation. And I’ve never met anyone who is a congregation. Second of all, the synod isn’t meant to be some lodge with a secret handshake or membership pat on the shoulders. If closed communion is just a membership statement then we should not practice closed communion.
Instead, we should learn to talk about the things God has given us. Because that is what allows us to commune together. So what has God given you? He’s given you his Word and fellow saints to gather around that word. So where do you go to church? He’s given you a pastor to teach you that Word and care for your soul in the same. So who is your pastor? What does he teach? Is it the faithful Biblical teaching summarized in the Small Catechism? Do you agree with what he teaches? Why do you agree? Why do you want to take communion? What is the Lord’s Supper? What are you saying when you commune with us? Do you know what we teach?
This makes for awkward situations, I know. I am familiar with the painfully awkward looks on the faces of visitors and family members when you *gasp* examine them with God’s Word. It is so much easier simply to ask them (or find out from someone else), “Are you members of an LCMS congregation?” And yet, what does this teach our parishioners when we leave it at that? First of all, it confirms them and us in our sinful discomfort when God’s Word confronts us face to face. And second, it teaches them that we are basically a Masonic Lodge that just happens to have the right opinions and practices closed communion. Masonry will always be the preferred religion, even if their stupid lodges all shut down. We’d much rather identify ourselves and confirm ourselves in clubs and organizations built with hands. And the irony of it all is that we forget what these organizations stand for. We think that the revivalist hymns written by those who mocked the Sacraments are actually the good old [LCMS] hymns. We claim to honor our fathers. Yes, like Congregations Matter claims to honor Walther by promoting the autonomy of the congregation, but then they promote the worship of the sectarians who drove Walther insane and the unionists who persecuted our Lutheran ancestors.
God uses synods, just like he uses all mammon. I am thankful for what God has accomplished through all the synods of the old Synodical Conference, despite their weaknesses. But we need to remember why God ever blessed these synods and why he still continues to bless them. It is for the sake of his sheep who hear his voice. It isn’t for the sake of the scoffing world, which demands that we make some bogus statement to placate their sanctimonious, virtue signaling, social and political causes. It isn’t for the sake of hypocrites who couldn’t care less about learning God’s Word but just want more people in the pews. God blesses his church through these synods only because of his little lambs who hunger and thirst for the pure spiritual milk of his Word.
One more reason it is so important to maintain that we are confirmed into the Evangelical Lutheran Church rather than some synod is because the sheep learn the courage to confess this confession, to teach this teaching, to make use of their baptism by speaking back their Shepherd’s voice even in the face of hostility. This, after all, is what our confessional fathers learned to do as they stood on the same confession of Christ and his Scriptures. Confirmation should teach us this very thing. It is a rite instituted by the church to teach her members what God gave them in their baptism. He gave them a confession. Because he gave them his Word. May we rely on it, speak it before kings, and not be put to shame (Ps. 119:46).