Monday, December 7, 2009

Bursting the BRTFSSG Bubble, Part 5: Is This What “Mission” Sounds Like?

You back out your driveway, and head down the road. At first you don’t notice it, but as you round the corner and pick up speed it intrudes upon your consciousness. The faster you go, the more intrusive it becomes, the low frequency “thump, thump, thump” of an out of balance tire. As you accelerate, the sound becomes louder and more insistent and the car starts to shudder, so you hurriedly find a place to pull over and reconsider your options. That trip to the store no longer seems quite so important. You’re now so focused on the tire that you’ve got tunnel vision.

The recommendations of the LCMS Blue Ribbon Task Force on Synod Structure and Governance (BRTFSSG) are like that out of balance tire – the harder you look, the louder the “thump, thump, thump” becomes, until you think these recommendations are about to fly off their rim.

What is it about the Task Force proposals that are so out of balance? Consider the following quote from President Gerald Kieschnick’s original assignment to the Task Force:

Our work together as a Synod should enhance and enable achievement of the mission that God has given His church, a mission clearly articulated in many places, including especially the first two objectives in Article III of our Synod‘s Constitution:

Article III. Objectives
The Synod, under Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, shall—
1. Conserve and promote the unity of the true faith (Eph. 4:3–6; 1 Cor.1:10), work through its official structure toward fellowship with other Christian church bodies, and provide a united defense against schism, sectarianism (Rom. 16:17), and heresy;
2. Strengthen congregations and their members in giving bold witness by word and deed to the love and work of God, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and extend that Gospel witness into all the world;

These are certainly worthy objectives. Without the conservation and promotion of unity, and the constant vigilance against schism, sectarianism, and heresy, there can be no witness by word or deed, only discord and failure. Yet the Task Force has no balance, emphasizing “mission” to the near exclusion of unity and defense, to the point where the “thump, thump, thump” is deafening. The word “mission,” or a definitional derivative thereof (like “missions” or “missional,” excluding “commission”) is used 206 times in the searchable portion of the Task Force Final report, whereas “unity” is used only eight other times, and “defense,” none. Thump, thump, thump. There is something radically wrong with the hermeneutic of the Task Force. (The searchable portion of the Task Force report includes the main body of the report and all appendices, with the exception of Appendix 1, which is the Constitution and Bylaw changes.)

In an effort to put my finger on the root cause of this imbalance, I spent some time reading through old essays from Synodical conventions in the first half of the twentieth century, a time when the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod experienced rapid growth. Specifically, I read those essays related to “mission” and Synod structure. There was certainly no lack of Synod officials who emphasized “mission,” yet their understanding of it included a more balanced hermeneutic. In many of these essays, there was much more talk of sound catechesis and the pervasiveness of Word and Sacrament in the life of the congregation, with mission being the consequence of the power of the Word. There was a great deal more discussion of unity and sound doctrine. By comparison, these BRTFSSF suggestions seem a bit empty. Thump, thump, thump.

The LCMS of today is enamored by a plethora of programs and gimmicks to “grow” the church, the Task Force report mimicking how little stock we place in the Gospel. For all the times “confessional” is mentioned in the report, it doesn’t have a confessional ring to it. Forgiveness is mentioned once in the searchable portion of the report. The words sin, repentance, and atonement aren’t used. The word “sacrament” is mentioned three times. The cross is mentioned once, justification, three times. Communion (or its synonyms) and Baptism are not mentioned, nor is vocation.

Rev. E. S. Husman in 1939 had this to say about mission:

In order, then, that men may be born in Zion, in order that the Church may increase in numbers, be built, preserved, and established, the Word of God must dwell richly in its midst.
And the more richly this Word dwells in a congregation, the richer will its members be in Christian knowledge and spiritual life. …The Word of God is never void of fruit; it accomplishes that which the Lord pleases, it prospers in the thing whereto the Lord hath sent it. …So the prime duty of a Christian congregation is to see to it that the Word of God richly dwells and has full and free scope in its midst. A true Christian congregation has no other program than this. …Christians are a royal priesthood and should exercise the privileges and power of their priesthood. “In their homes, among their brethren and neighbors, in their contacts with the world, they should by word and deed ‘show forth the praises of Him who hath called them out of darkness into His marvelous light,’ 1 Pet. 2:9. They should be witnesses to Christ, confess Him before men, teach His Word, reprove sin and error, admonish and comfort, pray and intercede for, others; in cases of necessity they may also baptize and absolve” [quoting Koehler].

The Task Force emphases are contrasted with the more evenhanded comments of Rev. Wm. H. Dale, made in 1912: “The congregation which has no longer a live, ardent, and active love for mission work has to that degree lost the influence of the pure Gospel from its midst.” He goes on to describe “the means, divinely ordained, which a truly Lutheran congregation holds to be the only right method of building up a Lutheran church.” These are a) “Teaching and preaching the Word of God”, b) Church discipline (which he describes as “a method of administering the Word deserving particular notice”), c) A congregation that “must be set as a flint against all enemies of the truth,” d) “A firm opposition to Institutionalism, which places the Word in a secondary position,” and e) “A firm opposition to the substitution of ethical and moral reform movements.” He quotes Rev. Courtland Meyers: “All church-machinery must be run by the Spirit of God.” Rev. Dale continues, “It is because the Institutional Church subordinates the grace of God in Christ, and the means by which a conveyance of grace to the heart of man is effected, to its activities in accomplishing external results, that we oppose it. It not only inverts the relation of antecedent and consequent, cause and effect, but invalidates the cause, the Holy Spirit working with and in the Word of God.” (All italics in original)

In 1925, Rev. K. Kretzschmar repeatedly incites us with the words “Lutherans, up and about your mission!” He tells us “the mission of Lutheranism is, in general, the propagation of the saving Gospel and the repudiation of all error; in particular it is the affirmation of the fundamental teachings of Christianity in protest against the denials of Popery, the errors of Reformed Protestantism, and the unbelief of the world around us.”

Later on, he asserts:

Finally, it is not the mission of Lutheranism to cultivate mere bigness, to seek glory in its rank as one of the largest Protestant denominations in the New World, to aspire to the position of being known as the National Church of America.
While the desire that multitudes, tribes, nations, be won for Christ is certainly laudable and the joy over the ingathering of great numbers is legitimate, the arithmetic of the kingdom of God on earth usually deals in units and digits (ones and twos), rarely in thousands and millions. It must not be forgotten that great numbers are usually associated with the broad way, which leadeth to destruction, and that concerning the size and prestige of the Church it is written, 1 Cor. 1, 26, 29: “For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called; but God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise, and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty, and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to naught things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.”
Let the Lutheran Church concentrate on the never-ceasing winning of one, and its size, position, and prestige in this world will take care of themselves.
…There can be no doubt that the mission of Lutheranism will never be fully accomplished unless Lutherans themselves are familiar with that mission and are thoroughly imbued with its importance. Lutheranism in the world will be exactly as strong or as weak as its adherents.
The Lutheran Church, therefore, turning its eyes inwardly upon itself, must first of all see to it that its members individually possess such information about their Church as will enable them to work with and for their Church intelligently and efficiently. A Lutheran who knows little or nothing about his Church will not be interested in its mission nor cooperate in its work.
…In many Lutheran circles people with only the most meager knowledge of their Church, its teachings, and its affairs are expected to support the work of their Church with ready hearts, hands, and purses and are criticized for any lack of interest which they happen to show. No one can be expected to be interested in anything the nature, purpose, and excellency of which are unknown to him. Lutherans who know will do anything for their Church; Lutherans who do not know will do nothing.
“Teach them to observe all things….”
All this requires ceaseless and intensive educational efforts…

He also remarks that “the best place to begin is among the children,” and emphasizes parochial school training and continued training of youth after their graduation.

The quotes of these pastors, spread out across the decades, are not aberrations. They represent a consonant and confessional view of “mission.” They stand in contrast to the thump, thump, thump of the Task Force verbiage.

The writings of C.F.W. Walther, the first President of the LCMS, also contain these same confessional emphases. An example of Walther’s thoughts on mission can be seen in his work “The Proper Form of an Evangelical Lutheran Congregation Independent of the State.” Front and center, the very first of his sixty-six remarks, he proclaims the Word of God “preached in its purity according to the Confessions,” and the holy Sacraments administered according to Christ’s institution. He goes on to discuss, among other things, “the duty of the congregation carefully to see to it that the Word of God may richly dwell and have full and free scope in its midst, …to care for the purity of doctrine and life in its midst and to exercise church discipline in these matters, …to concern itself also with the temporal welfare of all its members, …to see that in its midst ‘all things be done decently and in order,’ …’to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ also with all parts of the orthodox Church, and …to do its part in building up and promoting the welfare of the Church at large.

In this last category, Walther mentions five things, “that gifted boys and young men be consecrated to the service of the Church,” “that the Bread of Life be broken,” that “the congregation should zealously engage in the work of Bible distribution,” that “the congregation should join in the work of bringing the Gospel to those who still sit in darkness,” and that the congregation unite with other Lutheran congregations to promote the glory of God and the upbuilding of His kingdom. You can see in these thoughts of Walther a Biblical view of what it is a congregation should be doing, and by extension, what it is that the Synod should facilitate.

Let’s be clear about what we’re really talking about here. The Task Force, while it throws in the usual Lutheran disclaimers about Word and Sacrament at the beginning of its presentation, is in reality focused on “mission.” The entire Synod is being restructured around mission. Reaching the lost is a very important task, but it is not the bottom line around which everything else revolves. That title, our material principle, is reserved solely for justification by grace through faith.

That mission has become “number one” is readily apparent in its overwhelming dominance of the Task Force report. As mentioned, the word “mission” or its derivative being used 206 times. “The future of the LCMS centers on congregations walking together in that mission.” “…The LCMS exists as a confessional and missional community.” “The question today, however, is whether this approach makes maximum use of the spiritual gifts and authority God has given to all His people for the sake of His mission….”

The Task Force, reflecting their apparent belief that mission is more important than unity and defense of the faith (and hence more important than doctrine), have reworded and reordered Article III of the Constitution. Previously, unity, fellowship with other church bodies, and defense against schism, sectarianism, and heresy came first in the list of Synod objectives. The Task Force has moved mission to the first place in the list, putting the proverbial horse in front of the cart. Walther didn’t think much of this elevation of mission above doctrine:

It is true, brethren, as you well know, that in our day it is common for people to say, “Emphasizing doctrine so much only harms and hinders the kingdom of God, yes, even destroys it.” Many say, “Instead of disputing over doctrine so much, we should much rather be concerned with souls and with leading them to Christ.” But all who speak in this way do not really know what they are saying or what they are doing. As foolish as it would be to scold a farmer for being concerned about sowing good seed and to demand of him simply to be concerned about a good harvest, so foolish it is to scold those who are concerned first and foremost with the doctrine, and to demand of them that they should rather seek to rescue souls. For just as the farmer who wants a good crop must first of all be concerned about good seed, so the church must above all be concerned about right doctrine if it would save souls. (“Our Common Task: The Saving of Souls” in Essays for the Church, Vol. I)

When mission is allowed to rule the conversation, justification is placed on a back burner. Evidence of this emphasis can be seen in the Law-driven programs and “movements” that now dominate the Synod, and in an over-reliance on structure and institutionalism, such as the looming influence of the Transforming Churches Network, with its demand for the Accountable Leadership Model of congregational governance, and the top-down structure the Task Force is presenting. An overemphasis on church growth and numbers predominates, rather than an emphasis on faithfulness. Preachers and teachers of other denominations and theologies are embraced, experts and consultants from the business world spew forth their un-confessional worldly expertise from the podiums and convention floors of our Synod. The thump, thump, thump, gets louder and louder.

If we emphasize “mission” at the expense of catechesis, if we keep pouring money into Ablaze! and programs like it while concurrently refusing to fund our own seminaries, this once vibrant Synod will become an archeological curiosity, a fire pit with only a ring of charred blackened stones remaining. Walther pointed to the importance of teaching in the Church, and that of justification as of prime importance: “It [the Church] makes the teaching concerning Christ, or justification, the foundation and marrow and guiding star of all teaching” (“The Evangelical Lutheran Church the True Visible Church of God on Earth”). Luther said of justification:

When the article of justification has fallen, everything has fallen. Therefore it is necessary constantly to inculcate and impress it, as Moses says of his Law (Deut. 6:7); for it cannot be inculcated and urged enough or too much. Indeed, even though we learn it well and hold to it, yet there is no one who apprehends it perfectly or believes it with a full affection and heart. So very trickish is our flesh, fighting as it does against the obedience of the spirit. (What Luther Says, p. 715; SL 9, 44 f)

At the same time, while we must guard against an unbalanced emphasis on mission, we must also guard against a doctrinal smugness that results in dead orthodoxy. Our doctrine should be something we revel in, which enlivens us to joyfully evangelize the world. Repentance and reformation must always be on the tip of our tongue if we err in either direction.

In Part 1 of this series, I mentioned that I would discuss points where I agreed with the BRTFSSG recommendations. On further review, I believe that is ill-advised. Any set of recommendations whose underlying assumptions are based on the wrong material principle should be rejected in toto. A better plan would be to decline these proposals and elect a Synod President who will appoint a committee that doesn’t elevate mission above doctrine, and that instead values both equally. Then we will be able to proceed in a more thoughtful and confessional manner to further the important business of the Synod.

In these five posts, I’ve attempted to address some of the foundational doctrinal issues that drive the Task Force recommendations. There is much more that can and should be said, but I’m stopping here. Many of these recommendations require the analysis of someone better versed in Synod history and the inner workings of Synod structure than I am. I hope you’ll avail yourselves of additional resources in your research such as The Brothers of John the Steadfast website, and the interviews of Dr. Ken Schurb on Issues, Etc. I encourage you to continue your own examination and discuss your thoughts with others. We must work towards the best possible outcome for our Synod in the 2010 Convention.

In closing, I’d like to share with you the words of Friedrich Pfotenhauer, the fifth President of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which demonstrate a confessional balance of doctrine and mission:

…We have remained in the purity of the doctrine, and the orthodox Church in America has been spread far and wide.
Now may the Lord grant that we, like our fathers, …at all times recognize the importance, the relative necessity, and the blessings of Synod dealings. Let us come together in order to deepen our understanding of the saving doctrine and not fritter away our time with unimportant matters. Let us come together in order to give counsel from the Word of God where there is need of our counsel, but not in order to put any kind of legalistic yoke upon our congregations. Let us come together in order to sit around the honeycomb of the divine Word and eat and speak there from. Oh, how sweet it is—to encourage, to carry on the work of the mission! …O beloved brothers, how very serious a matter is the truth that we live in the last hour of the world! How brief, then, is the harvest time for us! And so we cannot delay, because the field is white for the harvest. There is so much yet to harvest, and only so little time left! [Matthew C. Harrison, At Home in the House of My Fathers (Fort Wayne: Lutheran Legacy Press, 2009) 699.]

“But test everything; hold fast what is good.” 1 Thessalonians 5:21 ESV

Download all five parts of this series here.

photo credit: rskura

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