Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reflections on the confessional Lutheran "spirit"

Fact: In order to hold membership in the WELS, all pastors, teachers and congregations must subscribe to the Book of Concord of 1580, not insofar as (quatenus), but because (quia) they are a correct presentation and exposition of the pure doctrine of the Word of God.

From the WELS Constitution:

Article II

Section 1. The synod accepts the canonical books of the Old and New Testament as the divinely inspired and inerrant Word of God and submits to this Word of God as the only infallible authority in all matters of doctrine, faith, and life.

Section 2. The synod also accepts the confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church embodied in the Book of Concord of 1580, not insofar as, but because they are a correct presentation and exposition of the pure doctrine of the Word of God.

Article III

Section 3. Membership in the synod shall be restricted to congregations, pastors, and male teachers who agree in doctrine and practice with the confession referenced in Article II.

Fact: Every WELS pastor’s ordination vows include a subscription to the Book of Concord of 1580.

From the Ordination Rite in Christian Worship: Occasional Services:

    M: Do you accept the three Ecumenical Creeds – the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian – as faithful testimonies to the truth of the Holy Scriptures, and do you reject all the errors which they condemn?

    R: I do.

    M: Do you believe that the Unaltered Augsburg Confession is a true exposition of the Word of God and a correct presentation of the doctrine of the Evangelical Lutheran Church and that the other confessions in the Book of Concord are also in agreement with this one scriptural faith: the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Small and Large Catechisms of Martin Luther, the Smalcald Articles, and the Formula of Concord?

    R: I do.

    M: Do you solemnly promise that all your teaching and your administration of the sacraments will conform to the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions?

    R: I do.

So what do you do when you read through the Lutheran Confessions and wake up to the reality that your church body, while still a great blessing from God and filled with many, many faithful Christians, is looking less and less like the church described in the Book of Concord, in spite of our subscription to the same?
  • You rejoice, because you don’t think the Book of Concord is terribly relevant for the world of the 21st Century.

  • You mock and ridicule those who have erred.

  • You do nothing, pretending that it doesn’t matter, since we’re still “united” on the Scriptures themselves.

  • You do nothing, not wanting to interfere in “other people’s business,” pretending you don’t actually belong to a synod.

  • You do nothing, because you believe our synod is already too far gone.

  • You do nothing, wringing your hands and bemoaning the situation in private conversation, but crippled by fear of the consequences – for yourself or for the synod – if you should take a public stand.

  • You do nothing, because while you value the Confessions, you’re afraid of being called (or of actually becoming!) a “Pharisee” or a “Legalist.”

  • You try to do something, because you recognize in the Lutheran Confessions the very faith of the apostles and martyrs, and the Church that has grown out of that faith. And you mourn, because you detect a different spirit, a spirit of the age, a secular spirit, a sectarian spirit creeping in and threatening the unity that once existed around the Lutheran Confessions. So, admittedly weak and frail, yet unable and unwilling to yield to this spirit, you try to do something, including much prayer and intense study of the Scriptures and the Confessions; including conversations in private, at pastors’ conferences and at district conventions; including writing letters to circuit pastors, congregations and district presidents; and yes, perhaps even starting up a little blog to highlight areas of concern and create a forum in which clergy and laity alike can openly discover and discuss if, how and where our practices have drifted away from the norm of the Confessions, in order that we might return to walk together under that light.

It’s this final path that many have chosen, including a few of us who, a year ago, started up this website of little consequence called Intrepid Lutherans, a name not intended to boast of what we are, but instead to remind us of what we wish to be.

We do not concede that our efforts have been inflammatory, loveless, unbrotherly, pharisaical or legalistic. We find it almost comical that some (not all!) of our leaders see Intrepid Lutherans as the gravest threat to our synod, and in some cases, the only evil which must be speedily and handily dealt with. And when we are labeled as “Pharisees,” it says much more about the person making the accusation than it does about us. We do admit that our blog is reactionary: it is reacting to this “other spirit” that is blowing in the wind. In any reaction there lies the inherent danger of overreaction, which we are sincerely trying to avoid. Kyrie, eleison!

Where does this “other spirit” manifest itself? It is most clearly evident in worship practice. Why? Because the whole of our theology is present in corporate worship. Every article of doctrine comes into play when the Church is assembled around Word and Sacrament. (The fact that the Church gathers so frequently without the Sacrament is itself evidence of this “other spirit” than the one described in the Confessions.)

It is a “different spirit” that rejects the liturgy of the Church – including the public, weekly celebration of the Sacrament in worship – for being “inhospitable” to unbelievers or “irrelevant” to believers. It is a different spirit that seeks to offer a man-centered, buffet-style worship in order to pander to human preference. “Casual or formal? Traditional or contemporary? Organ or electric guitar? What kind of music can you relate to? How would you like to worship the Lord today? What would be most meaningful (or comfortable or enjoyable) for you?”

The Lutheran Church actually does have a doctrine about worship, and it is not that “it’s all adiaphora.” Are there aspects of corporate worship that are truly matters of adiaphora? Of course. In those cases, Christian love, wisdom and sound judgment must guide our decisions. Are there aspects of corporate worship that are not matters of adiaphora? Of course. The Gospel must be rightly taught and the Sacraments rightly administered – and that includes maintaining the integrity of the sacramental confession in the Divine Service: that we come together, as the Church, for the purpose of being served by God through the public ministry ("leitourgia" - "liturgy”) of Word and Sacrament. It includes using ceremonies that foster unity, piety, Christian discipline, and reverence. It excludes all frivolity and offense. It excludes the introduction of a secular or sectarian spirit into the Church, no matter how pure one’s motives for introducing them.

Where else is this “other spirit” seen? It’s seen in all the talk about the “effectiveness” of the Means of Grace as if all depended on us presenting the Gospel in a certain way or with the right delivery mechanism. Some have called this a “functional Arminianism.” I think I agree.

It’s seen in those who imagine that the “real” growth of Christians takes place, not in the Divine Service, but in “small group” gatherings during the week.

It’s seen in the fascination with the means, methods and ideas of heterodox churches and teachers, especially those that ascribe free will to man and that deny the necessary and always-effective role of the Means of Grace in conversion, justification and sanctification.

It’s seen in a change in preaching emphasis, away from the sacramental, Gospel-oriented focus that preaches Christ and him crucified for the forgiveness of sins as the goal of the sermon, toward a law-oriented, how-to focus that presents our works (or our good feelings) as the goal of the sermon.

It’s seen in the paradigm shift away from pastor as shepherd of souls and toward pastor as CEO, as well as the shift away from pastor as minister of the Word toward every member as a minister of the Word.

It’s seen in the postmodern redefinition of “Lutheran” to mean “anything that I, as a Lutheran, or that we, as a Lutheran synod, happen to believe or do.”

It’s seen in those who view our Lutheran Fathers as antiquated, irrelevant, tactless and just plain “stuffy,” while others of us have no greater aspiration for our ministry and life than to emulate the likes of Luther and Chemnitz.

It’s seen in the philosophy, “I’m a Christian first, Lutheran second,” while others of us see the relationship as it really is, “I’m a Lutheran because I’m a Christian.”

It’s seen in a misuse of Christian freedom that leads us to change things simply because we can, “and you can’t tell us we can’t.”

It is seen in the bare Biblicism that disregards the history of the Church, that elevates synodical statements above the Confessions, and that effectively relegates the Church Fathers and our Lutheran Confessions to irrelevancy. “You keep your fallible, human-authored Confessions. I have my Bible, and that’s all I need.” This amounts to a functional quatenus (“insofar as it applies to us”) subscription, and is not what the Lutheran Church means by Sola Scriptura. But this “other spirit” plays off the arrogance and the ignorance that dwell in us all, and would happily lead us to introduce novel changes in doctrine and practice, in areas like worship, church and ministry, the roles of men and women, and fellowship, and even in the area of justification.

It is seen in the fact that many no longer subscribe to the Confessions as a description of who we are as Lutherans and Christians: what we believe, what we do and what we reject. To some, it is merely a rule book: what you can and can’t get away with and still call yourself Lutheran. The evangelical spirit of the Confessors is thus lost and replaced by a legalistic spirit, and that which is supposed to serve as our commonly agreed-upon starting point as Lutherans becomes instead a burden that must either be carried, discarded or ignored.


None of this should be construed as a blanket condemnation of our entire synod, nor are we accusing anyone of being an unbeliever or being “possessed” when we speak of this “other spirit,” nor do we suppose than anyone has intentionally embraced it, or that we ourselves are immune to it. On the contrary, all who would be Christians must constantly be on guard against the spirits that do not come from God (cf. 1 John 4).

What solution do we propose? 1) That we all repent of everything, looking in faith to Christ alone for forgiveness for everything, 2) That we all recommit ourselves to study the Scriptures and the Confessions, 3) That we privately, but also openly, publicly and lovingly seek to identify where, individually or collectively, we have imbibed this “other spirit,” and 4) That any pastor, teacher or congregation that still cannot honestly look at every article in the Book of Concord and say, “Yes, that describes me (us). That is exactly what I (we) believe, teach and confess,” do the honest thing and, rather than try to redefine, reshape or change the WELS, simply join or form a church body that does not bind itself so comprehensively to the Book of Concord.

We don’t want to turn back the clock 30 or 100 or 500 years. We want instead to embrace in our time the Lutheranism that is described in the Book of Concord, when the Lutheran Church was not afraid of her own shadow or ashamed of her battered appearance, when Lutherans were comfortable in their own skin (though persecuted, mocked and condemned for it) and content to be both united to the historic, catholic Church and separate from the world, from the papists and from the sects. We want to stand shoulder to shoulder with all those who willingly and gladly hold this common confession and would sooner die than relinquish or redefine the name “Lutheran.” Our goal remains the same as it was a year ago: “For true confessional Lutheran unity in the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.” Kyrie, eleison!


Joe Krohn said...

Stellar, simply stellar.


Unknown said...

Superbly thought out and put to electronic pen and paper. God grant us this continued spirit as Christian Lutherans who are not ashamed of our Confessions as reflected in sola Scriptura.

Daniel Baker said...

Amen, Pastor Rydecki. Amen.

Anonymous said...

Thank you and so well said. The very fact that some in synod leadership consider this blog to be the "gravest threat to our synod" proves that there is indeed "another spirit" among us.

Scott E. Jungen

AP said...

Yes, very well said Pastor Rydecki.

Dr. Aaron Palmer

Michael L. Anderson, M.D., Ph.D said...

>> "None of this should be construed as a blanket condemnation of our entire synod ..."

Then little will be accomplished ultimately, because it is always easy and consistent with human nature to flog and scapegoaet the "other guy" ... who will be deemed quite in the wrong, while we happily choose to overlook our active or passive roles in facilitating, enabling, or fostering the mischief. Please. The state of disrepair did not happen overnight, while we were sleeping. The disrepair was somehow encouraged or permitted, while we as a community looked the other way out of fear, disinterest or frank ignorance.

Once ALL the citizens of Nineveh, in the face of impending correction from a righteous God, threw on the sack-cloth and pleaded with the God of mercy for deliverance and direction. There is no record that the leaders of Nineveh advised God that the importunings were not intended to condemn the entire city. "Some of us are okay, see. We're good, we're good."

>>"You do nothing, not wanting to interfere in “other people’s business,” pretending you don’t actually belong to a synod."

You do indeed belong to a synod, so unless you fully challenge what is painfully askew, and the wrongful excommunications, with your pensions if not your flesh on the line, with your direct communications and protests to sister congregations that are seriously straying and persecuting the saints ... then our pretty language on these pages means comparatively little. Let's be frank. It's not swaying a district president from northeren Wisconsin much, as daily reports from the front lines roll in. Accordingly, it will be safely ignored, of course, and the synod will move along as it does, with us likely tagging along and bleating all the way.

But because we are a synod, directly or indirectly, and supposedly not into the behavior of pretending, we the intrepid (sic) cannot escape a hefty portion of responsibility for the mess. Words have meaning; and we're "walking together," you see.

"And we do see, Dr. Anderson. We're good, we're good. Count on us to see that we, together, don't pray with that BoC editor McCain!"

Michael L. Anderson MD, PHD

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

>>"Once ALL the citizens of Nineveh, in the face of impending correction from a righteous God, threw on the sack-cloth and pleaded with the God of mercy for deliverance and direction."

What solution do we propose? 1) That we all repent of everything, looking in faith to Christ alone for forgiveness for everything...

>>"You do indeed belong to a synod, so unless you fully challenge what is painfully askew..."

That's precisely what we're doing, and encouraging others to do.

Joe Krohn said...

Titus 1:13 This witness is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith;

14 Not giving heed to Jewish fables, and commandments of men, that turn from the truth.

The time for pussy footing around is over...all of Lutheranism is doomed unless we return to sound Biblical teachings and the BoC.

Joseph Jewell said...

What is even more troubling to me is that according to the WELS Constitution, laypeople do not even have recourse to the Synod in discipline cases, but merely the Synod's District--and as we are beginning to see, Districts may (apparently) vary quite widely.

(See Section 8.)

Why in the world should pastors and teachers have the privilege of a second appeal to the Synod if they believe the District's decision to be unjust or unscriptural, while the final disposition of a layperson's appeal rests with the District? Districts may err with respect to called workers but not laymen?

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

Well, Joseph, part of the problem is that we have this mistaken idea of "synod" as one big church. Actually, it isn't.

A synod is a human arrangement in which various churches voluntarily band together to "do together the things that we can't do separately." This is different from an episcopal system of church government. In our congregational system of church government, the congregation is "supreme."

The only "members" of the WELS, according to its constitution, are: pastors, male teachers and congregations (not individual members of those congregations). That's why only pastors, male teachers and congregations may appeal directly to the synod, because they are the only "members." A layman holds membership in a congregation, not in the synod.

So, before I became a pastor, I would say, "I'm a WELS member," but that's really shorthand for saying, "I'm a member of a congregation that belongs to the WELS."

As part of our voluntary agreement with one another as a synod, we have divided ourselves into districts, and congregations submit themselves to the oversight of a district president, who is elected to oversee the doctrine and practice in member congregations and among pastors and teachers. He has no authority over individual laymen, although he does have authority over the pastors and teachers in his district. He has no authority to excommunicate anyone. He has authority to apply God's Word to pastors, teachers and congregations, and if a pastor, teacher or congregation defies God's Word, then he has the authority to rebuke them, and if necessary, suspend them from membership in the WELS. But only within his own district.

Joseph Jewell said...

Pastor Rydecki,

So (say) a wrongfully terminated female teacher has no right of appeal to the Synod either? That's not the way I read the constitution, but I may be wrong.

"...he has the authority to rebuke them, and if necessary, suspend them from membership in the WELS. But only within his own district."

That is self-consistent insofar as it goes, I suppose (although still unjust, in my opinion, if we give pastors and teachers the second level of appeal), but the core of the problem is that we expect one district's unilateral decision to "stick" across the entire WELS--correct? In that respect, the synod *is* "one big church"--no mistaken idea about it. This is more obviously untenable (without the availability of a univeral appeal) in the case of called workers, but I believe it to be untenable with respect to laypeople as well. Or am I wrong, and a layman excommunicated in one WELS district may move to another district and happily join a WELS church there?

Rev. Paul A. Rydecki said...

I guess you're right - the constitution doesn't specify "male teachers," but simply says "pastors or teachers" may appeal to the synod board of appeals if their appeal is rejected by the district.

The thing is, even with pastors and teachers, the synod board of appeals doesn't deal with their church membership or their eligibility to receive communion at a WELS church. It speaks only to the office held by the pastor or teacher and his (or her, in the case of teachers) eligibility to be called to another WELS congregation.

As far as I understand it, there is no synod board of appeals for anyone when it comes to church membership and communion.

Joseph Jewell said...

Pastor Rydecki,

To me the present arrangement seems to be a recipe for schisms. If there is a District board of appeals for excommunicates (and the individual congregation's consent to allow this, presumably, comes from their desire to "walk together" with the other congregations in their District), I don't see why the principle wouldn't extend up to the Synod level as well. We make the assumption that doctrine and practice is consistent in the WELS between each District, after all--indeed, we teach that it must be.

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