This series of articles was included in successive issues of “Der Lutheraner” in the year 1884, under the title “Welches sind die vornehmsten Kennzeichen eines gesunden und kräftigen Gemeindelebens in der lutherischen Kirche hiesigen Landes?” The author is Wilhelm Sihler, who was instrumental in the founding of Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne in 1846 and also a longtime instructor there. He was also elected vice president of the Missouri Synod at its founding in 1847.
I offer these translations not as rigid prescriptions for Missouri Synod congregations in the year 2020, but as a window to a blessed past and useful guidance for those pastors and congregational leaders who want to see their congregations thrive. – R.L.L.
What Are the Primary Indications of a Healthy and Strong Congregational Life in the Lutheran Church of this Land? (Part 4 of 4)
The fifth indication of a healthy and strong congregational life is this, that in the truly Lutheran congregations one finds brotherly admonition and orderly church discipline as Christ teaches in Matthew 18:15-17.
Concerning this private brotherly admonition, considered apart from coarse public offenses, much is dependent on it for the spiritual welfare and flourishing of the congregations. It is certainly the case, that in older and bigger congregations, far fewer times must the ban be implemented, when this brotherly admonition and warning is a regular practice.
To be sure, it must be exercised according to the pattern and model of Galatians 6:1, with friendly seriousness and brotherly love, mindful of one’s own weakness and infirmity. It must be exercised without rage or fleshly intent, without fear of man, with resolution and application of the Divine Word in kindness and seriousness. The burden should not lay on the admonishing brother, if the admonished does not receive a powerful impression of the other’s brotherly love, especially if the admonished has been opposing him for some time.
Do all members of a congregation notice it, if one of their number begins to step outside the narrow way and for example becomes addicted to drinking or gives too much room to strong drink? Or when one steps onto crooked ways of avarice and the pursuit of filthy lucre? Surely not; but even so it is certain, that this departure from the graded incline of the divine commandments becomes apparent to certain members of the congregation who stand in closer connection to the affected brother, whether it be a relation, friendship, or business connection.
It is incumbent upon a man’s heart and conscience, in keeping with the love contained in brotherly admonition and warning (Leviticus 19:17), to urge a brother to hold himself back from the way of destruction. The familiar words should steadily ring in one’s ears: “lest you incur sin because of him.” For if a member of the congregation is not admonished in a brotherly way and is eternally lost, so he is not without fault, who neglected to give brotherly admonition at the proper time. Even if the congregational assembly attempts to apply discipline, this brotherly admonition is necessary nonetheless.
The sixth indication of a healthy and strong congregational life is the diligent attendance of the congregational meetings.
It is an unspeakable benefit and blessing of God to have separation of church and state in this land, which unfortunately in other places is so hopelessly confused. In the Middle Ages the pope’s church ruled over and oppressed worldly princes and their people. Now the reverse is taking place, for the so-called evangelical “land-“ or united “state-churches” are only obedient servants of the almighty state, which holds them in a straightjacket, binds them, and puts the gag on their mouth. The worldly sovereign as prince-pope rules through laws, edicts, and regulations his so-called “Evangelical” or “Protestant” church. In Bavaria even the Roman-papist prince is the head of his church too. His servants are literally called “Royal-Bavarian Clergy.” In their collects for heathen-missions, for example, they first pray for the “highest approval of his majesty.” In the Lutheran state churches it is hardly better.
We are fortunate as Lutherans in this land, that we as congregations can rule ourselves on the basis of the Divine Word and according to our confession, and we can undertake our inner and outer affairs according to the same! This glorious freedom of the church from the iron and icy grip of the state and its prince-popery should spare us many evils and abuses, yes great corruption and offenses, which take pace in the secular sphere.
So where do Lutheran congregations care for their inner and outer affairs? Answer: in their congregational meetings.
So what sorts of business do these congregational meetings have to address? Great and small, items more or less important, but all of which must be ordered in the spirit of brotherly love, led by the eye of wisdom.
Among these items of business includes the calling of servants in church and school and the compensation for their bodily support. Possible errors in teaching are handled and decided according to God’s Word. Here manifest sinners are disciplined, and in the case of persistent unrepentance, impenitents are declared unbelievers, to be regarded as tax collectors and sinners. Through the unanimous judgment of the congregation they are excluded from the congregation or placed under the ban.
Here other matters are handled, which for the outer life of the church are necessary, but in the way of the Christian faith are subordinated to Christian freedom. For example, here belongs the order of the Divine Service, the changing of churchly ceremonies, the use of orthodox agendas, hymnals, and Catechisms, reading- and school-books, the upkeep of church and school buildings, parsonages and teacherages, the care of widows and orphans, the selection of elders as helpers of pastors, and other officers like trustees. In these congregational meetings is also handled the support of synodical teaching institutions, needy students, and circuit riders. It will also make recommendations of magazines, good books, tracts, etc.
Is it not of the highest importance, that these meetings are diligently attended by all voting members and not habitually neglected by a significant number out of laziness and indifference? Are we able to accept that these neglectors are living Christians? Is there not a disdainful unthankfulness in them against God for the sublime freedom of the church in this land? Is it not a sinful indifference for the congregation and a visible absence of brotherly love, as men neglect the meeting in order to take it easy at home?
It is very true, that not all members of these meetings are equally capable of participating in the same way. There are differences among the individual members, partly in their natural gifts, partly in the recognition and experience for congregational issues; not all have the same practical reason and good counsel in matters which are subject to Christian freedom; still fewer have a mature recognition to judge correctly over points of doctrine or to admonish and be persuasive in cases which may involve church discipline. At the same time, the members who act more passively, they serve the common good when they endorse good counsel and suggestions, and they therefore give their approval. If they remain faithful attendees of the congregational meetings, they will undoubtedly increase in good recognition and learn to give good counsel themselves.
In any case, the overarching generous attendance of these congregational meetings is a decisive sign and witness of a fresh and strong congregational life. The reverse is also true, a sign of a lukewarm, weak, feeble, and soft congregational life is this – when the meetings are attended on the average by only half or a third, even only a quarter of the voting members – when the meetings are attended by the minimum required to make valid decisions.
The seventh indication of a healthy and strong congregational life is this, that the congregation decidedly resists the pressure and penetration of worldliness. “Do not be conformed to this world” (Romans 12:2). This goes for individuals and the congregation as a whole.
It is impossible that only the servants of the church and their helpers, the elders of the congregation, can afford a sufficient defense. It is therefore necessary that the congregation also stand up against the penetration of wordliness.
It is clear that the two great streams of lucre- and pleasure-addiction always pull deeper and wider. So it is true for the congregation, that it should not allow the ways of this world to penetrate and in the end gain the upper-hand.
Therefore the following are true Christian points of honor in a congregation:
First of all, that none of its members “conform to this world,” to seek after dishonorable profit from crooked ways, to take advantage of his brother in trade, to practice usury, to sell strong drink as is common in this land, etc.
Second of all, that the house-fathers exercise their appropriate oversight over their sons and daughters, whether these are still in their houses or not. The Fourth Commandment remains valid before God, even when children are no longer minors in the state’s eyes and are considered mature. If the fathers have raised them in the discipline and admonishment of the Lord from childhood, supervision from farther away will not prove unfruitful when they are young adults.
Nevertheless it is their duty, along with their mothers, with parental love and necessary seriousness, to keep an eye on them, to warn them of social interaction with unbelieving, unchurched, or careless peers, and to keep them away from drink-houses, balls, theaters, etc. The congregation in its meetings should by the same token reprimand and discipline, when fathers permit worldly dancing of young folk at weddings or other family occasions. And if unmarried young men and women have no parental home in their locale, so it is the duty of the congregation, where they are members, to give them motherly care and oversight. Apart from the official duties of pastors towards the young folk, it is at the same time a concern of the congregation and a proof of their love for their young members, to care for their souls with and according to God’s Word.
This matter is not closed through simple warning and admonition. The young people are social, after all. Therefore it is a good idea, if the congregation offers a helping hand with the boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, even music clubs, for their edification and retention. If music clubs are able to offer quality performances, it is very fine and lovely if the congregation members participate as audience. A monastic separation and barricade of the sexes is surely evil. And as it is the Christian duty of the congregation to withstand the penetration of worldliness in the social amusements and frolicking of its young folk, and to maintain the salutary and necessary discipline, so at the same time a congregation must take care to promote that social interaction between the sexes happens in discipline and honor.
A few examples: Schoolchildren should be able to enjoy their recesses in freedom, where they can play various harmless games with one another. Congregations should provide opportunities for the young folk to gather and have fun in the company of parents or other honorable people from the congregation. Music concerts are a good opportunity for this, and there are many other possibilities.
For example, young people can perform tasteful plays, sing folk songs, solve riddles and play charades, discuss a book, etc. Surely every congregation has a young person or two, who can organize these things and keep them in order.
It should redound to a congregation’s joy when many house-fathers in a similar way correctly understand how to facilitate social interaction of the sexes in a narrower circle. This type of mutual exhilaration between the sexes is a good thing, and such fathers make their houses trusted homesteads for their children, relatives, and friends.
These would be the primary indications of a healthy and strong congregational life in the Lutheran church of this land. God be gracious to us, that the congregations of our synodical federation, especially the older and bigger congregations, are able to find these indications after genuine self-examination. So far as they are present, with heartfelt thanksgiving they must give God alone the glory. So far as they are lacking, they themselves have the sin, so long as faithful teaching, discipline, and care from their teachers and shepherds is present. May God in his grace bring it about, that in all our congregations we are always going in the right direction!