Walking Together Down Different Roads: Is Synod an Oxymoron? by Pr Kurt Hering

Pastor Kurt Hering wrote this back in 2006 on his blog and has since posted it on his newsletter site. Many of the points  are still matters of controversy yet today.

Luther RoseHere follows something of a 21st century manifestation of the 95 Theses. I haven’t counted the number of theses in this document, but regardless of number they are intended to be one in spirit with our namesake — the good Dr. Martinus Luther. Please accept them as a call to wrestle with ourselves and rejoice in our distinct and common identity.

Walking Together Down Different Roads . . . Is Synod an Oxymoron?

As members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, we are blessed and glad to call one another brothers and to work together in the service of the saints God has seen fit to gather together in our congregations. The saints at the congregation which has called me to be their servant of the Word once chose and continue to be called by the precious name of Trinity — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — three persons yet One God. These saints have been and continue to be called, gathered, enlightened, and sanctified along with the whole Christian church on earth, and kept with Jesus Christ in the one true faith by the Holy Spirit working though Word and Sacrament. While going by a wide variety of names befitting and reflective of local considerations, the saints of all our LCMS congregations share this same calling, gathering, enlightenment, and sanctification. [See also THE MOTIVES AND QUALIFICATIONS OF A GENUINE CHURCH MEMBER: Walther’s Words of Welcome to New Members by C.F.W. Walther]

This being the case, it is troubling, confusing, and detrimental to the unity of faith that there are so many different teachings and practices among us regarding such things as the liturgy of the Divine Service, the office of the ministry, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, church discipline, et al. We pledge to walk together as a Synod, yet behave as if the vows we make are some ethereal, idealistic chimera subject to individual interpretation lest they preclude Christian love and prevent Christian mission. Our synod seems to have become an oxymoronic “walking together” down different paths with the assumption that the good intentions of individual pedestrians are sufficient to deliver them to the same destination in the end. It is precisely such “good intention” that prompted Jesus to rebuke His closest of friends and disciples, Peter, saying, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.” [Matthew 16:23]

It seems to me that our synodical problem is that, when it comes to our walking together, we are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men.

All of Scripture is about bringing us into unity in Christ to walk and talk together on the same path with the same mind.

  • In John 14:6 Jesus tells us, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.”
  • Jesus high priestly prayer entreats the Father on behalf of His church, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” [John 17:20-21]
  • In 1 Corinthians 1:10 the Apostle Paul calls for the saints there to walk together in their confession and practice: “Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.”
  • This synodical agreement finds its culmination at the table of our Lord, as Paul continues his exhortation of the people of the church at Corinth: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” [1 Corinthians 10:16-17]
  • This agreement is no different for the saints in Rome: “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [Romans 15:5-6]
  • It extends to the Philippian Christians as well: “Only let your conduct be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of your affairs, that you stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel.” [Philippians 1:27]
  • Paul goes so far as to connect the work of the Holy Spirit Himself to such agreement: “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” [Philippians 2:1-2]
  • And therefore the very presence of God demands such agreement: “Finally, brethren, farewell. Become complete. Be of good comfort, be of one mind, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” [2 Corinthians 13:11 ]
  • Peter joins the chorus as he shows that unity does not proceed from our compassion for each other, but compassion for each other proceeds from unity in Christ: “Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this, that you may inherit a blessing.” [1 Peter 3:8-9]

Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who calls and sends His under-shepherds to gather His flock together – i.e. to unify them according to the teaching of His Word. To be a pastor, by definition, means to be a shepherd. A shepherd, by definition, gathers sheep into a herd or flock. This is so in order to feed them all in the same pure and nourishing pasture, water them all at the same clean and quiet stream, examine and treat them all for vermin and disease, bed them all in the same guarded fold, and lead them all along the same safe paths from pasture to stream to fold. He has a rod to tap the nose and hind quarters of sheep and direct them back to the path when they step off it, as well as to fight off predators who would take the sheep off of the path. He also has a staff with a crook to rescue sheep stuck in muddy pits or fallen into dry cisterns when they strayed too far from the path to look for greener pasture.

The world disdains dependent, obedient sheep. The Lord loves them. The world loves independent, mountain climbing goats. The Lord disdains them and will cast them aside on the last day. We are called out of a world that walks many different paths in many different directions, and into a fellowship that walks the same direction on the same path.

Our path is the path of Christ and Him crucified. The goal of the church is not to walk *to* the cross, but to walk *with* it and the One who died upon it. We do not have to get to the cross, the cross has come to us, and so has the One crucified upon it. We are not many people each trying to find our own way to the cross, we are one people baptized into the cross of Christ. The cross is the path we are on, not the destination to which we are headed.

The same cross leads through every nation and every people, and as it does it gathers them around the crucified One and makes them one with Him on the same road. That is why the early church was called “The Way.” That is why the baptized are called the “body of Christ.” That is why we are called the communion of saints. That is why we are called a congregation (gathering together). That is why we are called church, which from the Greek means to be called out from varying places into an assembly in one place. That is why we are called synod, which means “walking together.”Book of Concord 1580 That is why we have a “Book of Concord” which means to be in agreement. That is why that book is also referred to as “The Lutheran *Confessions*,” which means to say the same thing. That is why we have a constitution, which is a document setting policy so that we can operate together.

Those members of Synod who are called to exercise the pastoral office and/or elected to exercise political office in service to congregations, districts or synod are charged with executing the agreed upon policies of the body, i.e. unified organism, which called and/or elected them. Those policies that unify us are our congregational, district and synodical Constitutions, the Book of Concord and the Scriptures — in ascending order of importance.

As I understand it, the purpose of our Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod is to take many people and guide them to walk together down the same road in a common direction. So how is it that we seem to walk so many diverse paths and take such divergent roads?

And just how can a pastor lead people who are encouraged to choose from among those different paths and roads according to the many options presented by a fractured synod? It sounds and feels like herding cats to me. It is sucking faithful pastors dry, breaking the backs of the officers of the church who call for unity in doctrine and practice, alienating confessionally orthodox congregations, and tearing the synod apart.

Among the brethren I have all too often heard the saving doctrine given by God Himself called cold, unloving and lifeless. I have heard synodical and district officials, as well as individual pastors, say that feeling the pain and burden of our people is just as important, or even more so, than being true to the doctrine Christ has given us for the salvation of souls. [1 Timothy 4:16] What have we become? Are we now saviors of our people rather than servants of the Word?

As far as I can tell, the LC-MS has largely become a bunch of people of different minds, each going down their own path according to their own profession of faith. Experimenting on our own people and courting the un-churched or otherwise-churched with the latest fad of technology, behavioral psychology or business management has become our driving purpose as meeting budgetary goals and scoreboard totes has supplanted faithfulness in preaching the Word and administration of the Sacrament for the sake of God’s elect.

It seems to me the one thing that hasn’t been tried in recent LC-MS history is to walk down the same path, having the same mind and practicing according to the same confession of faith. We have different paths in the world in order to serve others according to our abilities, and to touch a variety of people with the Cross we are blessed to carry — all with the purpose of bringing them onto the same path as us. We have different gifts and talents in order to do the different things necessary to keep the church functioning in this world. But we have the same head, Jesus Christ, who gives us the same mind that causes us to speak with one mouth; who coordinates our many hands and fingers to wield the same spiritual weapons in the same spiritual war; and who directs our legs to walk in the same direction on the same path of eternal life.

And we have but one authorized function — to tell the world that Jesus is here among us to deliver the forgiveness of sins. All of our time, talents and treasures go to make sure that there is always a place and a people able to do this. We neither worship nor give monetary offerings to please God. Our Baptism, which is one baptism common to us all, says He is already pleased with us for the sake of His Son. We worship because we need what God gives us. In worship, God reminds us that He is already pleased with us and gathers us in our common baptism to receive again the forgiveness of sins that baptism affords every day of our lives. We give our monetary offerings to support the worldly things God uses to deliver what we need for our salvation, i.e. the means of grace, and our physical service as the hands of Christ to sustain the people and things that are part and parcel of the church as it exists on earth.

As I have stated to the Church Council and the voters of the congregation I have been called and ordained to serve: I happen to have been called to lead us down one particular path, according to one mind – the mind of Christ — in one particular direction as expressed in our Lutheran Confessions. Anyone who has joined our congregation, district and/or synod has ostensibly, and by implication, agreed to walk down that same path, according to that same mind, in that same direction and confession.

Neither I nor any member of our synod should lead, or follow along with, those whose preference is to take another path, be of another mind, or practice according to a different confession. In fact, insofar as we are undershepherds of the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ, we are pledged to leave the ninety and nine to find the one or ones that deviate from it and bring them back — or to publicly remove them from the flock.

The more sheep we have running in different directions along different paths, the more we have to be leaving the flock to track down and attempt to bring back the strays if we are to remain faithful to each other. Matthew  18, among many other Scripture references, is about bringing people who have strayed back onto the same path.

My point is that we should aspire by the power of the Holy Spirit to continue to walk the same path, teach the same things, and seek after those who stray from the path that is mapped out for us in our Confessions according to the mind of Christ.

The simple and incontrovertible fact of the matter is this — one can only walk one path at a time. Therefore if some insist on walking a different path, being of a different mind, and teaching different things, they do it not as a synod but as those who consider themselves more important than the body to which they have been joined. It seems to me that a congregation, a district or synod, by definition, can walk but one path — otherwise it is not a gathering but a dispersal. As Pastor Tim Pauls conveys in his “There He Is” Lenten devotion of February 17, 2005 (published on Scholia.net), when God’s people don’t want Him around, He obliges. The results are always the same. Dispersal. The people wander around lost until they are led to repent and ask God to bring them back into conformity with Him.

The officers of the LC-MS and her various districts have been elected and pledged to lead us according to our Lutheran Confessions, to make sure that we all walk together and continue to abide in those Confessions, to train others to do likewise for future generations, and to support those who are doing so now.

I pray that we the people of The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod can still come to some kind of agreement to walk together and speak the same thing. If we cannot . . . well, God forbid it to be so, rescue us from our own selves, and lead us out from among those of different minds and paths. Let us join together in our daily devotional life and in the Divine Service to pray for unity — and in our lives of sanctified service, to practice the same.

It is very sad that so often our actions run contrary to our prayers. It is even sadder that too often it is purposely so. We publicly agree in principal at conferences and conventions (or at least that’s what our leaders are telling us), and then go off and practice as we please. If you look at the prayers of the church in our hymnal, in Scripture, and throughout the history of the church, the petition is that we may be one.

God grant that it may be so once again among the people of God in the LC-MS.

Your brother and fellow servant of the Word,

Pastor Kurt Hering
Trinity Lutheran Church
Layton, Utah

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