Monday, August 31, 2009

What's the Difference?

A little over a week ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) made big news when, during their Church-Wide Assembly (CWA), they voted to allow men and women in "same gender committed relationships" to serve as pastors.  The media reaction was along the lines of, "It's Okay to be Gay in the ELCA."  That's true.  It is okay, according to their recent decisions.  But, what many people missed is that it is also okay not to be gay in the ELCA.  According to the ELCA's newly adopted position(s), individual congregations have the right to decide whether or not they wish to be served by a homosexual pastor.  If a congregation believes homosexuality is sinful and contradictory to God's Word, it can refuse to call a homosexual pastor.

So, what the ELCA really decided was to allow those congregations that choose to ignore God's clear Word regarding homosexuality the right to do so.  The result is that ELCA Congregation A can call a gay pastor, while ELCA Congregation B can refuse to call a gay pastor, and yet, somehow, these congregations can remain in full fellowship with one another, even while holding contradictory positions on what Scripture teaches on this issue.  How can this be?  "Bound conscience" is the key.

In order to sell the idea that congregations can live together in the same fellowship while holding contradictory views on what Scripture teaches about this or that issue, the ELCA theologians went to work on developing a new and improved doctrinal definition of "bound conscience."  Cutting through all the sophistry and eloquent poetic waxing, essentially what this new and improved doctrinal definition of "bound conscience" teaches is that individuals and congregations within the ELCA must respect the positions of others within their fellowship, even if those positions contradict one another according to God's Word.  Thus, in the example above, ELCA Congregation B, which believes God's Word condemns homosexuality, must respect, and live in peace with, ELCA Congregation A, which believes homosexuality is okey-dokey.  Neither congregation can infringe upon the other's "bound conscience."

This is nothing but the schizophrenia of post-modern thought applied to theology.  Everyone gets to define truth as they see fit, and this person's truth is no truer than that person's truth, even if the truths of both are completely contradictory.  Actually, in this case, we should say that everyone gets to interpret the Bible according to their own sinful human reason (and personal agenda) and whatever personal truths result are, well, "true," and must be respected by those whose personal truths are contradictory.

Of course, those in the ELCA would remind us that there is a limit to all this post-modern, "bound conscience" stuff.  For example, they would be quick to point out that some doctrines of the Bible are non-negotiable, like the doctrine of the Trinity - All member congregations must confess belief in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  But, what if I don't believe in the Holy Trinity?  How will they be able to make me go against my "bound conscience" on this doctrine, when other doctrines are protected under the "bound conscience" rule?  Well, that's easy.  It all depends upon what is decided by the majority of the church-at-large when they gather together for their CWA.  If your "bound conscience" tells you that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is false, you should go to work at getting this issue brought before a future CWA, and maybe, just maybe, it will be decided that you are free to reject belief in the Holy Trinity and that all others must respect your "bound conscience" on this doctrine.

Anyway, all of this got me to thinking about my own church body, the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS).  I wonder how we can speak out against the ELCA's recent decisions, based upon their new and improved doctrine of "bound conscience," when we already follow this same faulty methodology, even if we haven't sophisticated it to the point the ELCA has.

At our 2004 Synodical Convention, the delegates decided to pass a resolution which allows for congregations to employ women in various offices and roles which were formerly forbidden.  Women may now serve as elders, lectors, communion assistants, presidents (or chairpersons) of congregations, and in any other lay role or service, so long as that role or service doesn't infringe upon the pastoral office.  But - and here's the point, so pay attention! - But, congregations may choose NOT to employ women in these offices and roles if they believe doing so violates God's Word.  Thus, LCMS Congregation A may have female elders, lectors, communion assistants, presidents, and so on, while LCMS Congregation B may refuse these offices and roles to women.  Each congregation is permitted to determine whether or not women serving in these offices and roles is Scriptural, and all congregations are expected to respect, and live in peace with, one another, even though they hold contradictory views on this issue.

So, my question is:  What's the difference between the methodology of the ELCA and that of the LCMS?  It seems to me that the only difference is that the ELCA's boundaries are currently a lot wider than the LCMS' boundaries.  But, the methodology is the same, isn't it?  And, consider this:  Both church bodies determine how wide their boundaries will be by majority vote at their national convention/assembly.  One wonders where the LCMS will be twenty years from now if it continues to employ this methodology.  There are some who believe that women's ordination will never make it into the LCMS, but I wonder how we'll be able to stop it.  After all, we already allow contradictory doctrinal positions to exist among us.  What, really, is to prevent us from passing a resolution which states that it's okay for congregations to choose to call women as pastors, while, at the same time, congregations may choose not to call women as pastors if they believe doing so violates Scripture?  Maybe I'm paranoid, but I don't see how we can prevent this (or other things) from happening unless we rid ourselves of this faulty methodology, which allows congregations to hold contradictory doctrinal positions.  So long as we follow the slippery slope of this "agree to disagree" mentality, there's no telling how far we will slide.  When the argument is focused on how narrow or wide our boundaries should be, instead of on what God's Word teaches, I believe we have truly lost our way.

With all that said, the LCMS speaking out against the ELCA's recent decisions is, I believe, an exercise of the pot calling the kettle black.  Our rebuke is rather bite-less when the veil is lifted and it is revealed that we follow the same methodology, albeit on a much smaller scale (at least, for now).    


Unknown said...

Rather well thought out and written in a precise manner; for you truly articulate the common thread of methodology utilized withing both denominational parties. Yet, I'm left to wonder about the statement, "At our 2004 Synodical Convention, the delegates decided to pass a resolution which allows for congregations to employ (this does NOT encompass women voting) women in various offices and roles which were formerly forbidden. Women may now serve as elders, lectors, communion assistants, presidents (or chairpersons) of congregations, and in any other lay role or service, so long as that role or service doesn't infringe upon the pastoral office."
Does this statement then concur with the stance that congregations should not have women voters as well?
Confused in CID

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


Your confusion is understandable, since what I think you're hinting at is the fact that our newly adopted position in 2004 follows quite nicely upon the precedent we set in regards to women's suffrage, for the same faulty methodology was applied there as well. We said the same thing then that we're saying now, namely that congregations can decide for themselves whether or not women's suffrage is embraced.

I can see a valid argument being made for women's suffrage (although I appreciate greatly the arguments made against it, too), but our newest capitulation, per 2004 Resolution 3-08A, of allowing women to read the lessons, serve as elders, distribute the Sacrament, serve as congregational president/chairperson, clearly violates God's Word. How anyone can possibly argue that women are not "infringing upon the pastoral office" when they're vested and standing up front handling the mysteries of God is completely beyond me. Likewise, I fail to see how allowing women to serve as congregational presidents/chairpersons is not a matter of usurping authority over men.

But, as it stands currently, I'm permitted my view on this issue while the brother down the road is permitted to hold the opposite view. And the question I have is how long can we live together in this way?

IggyAntiochus said...

"How long" is my question, too. The 2004 resolutions on women in the church are troublesome at best. A pastor or lay leader tries to stem the tide in their own congregation when the neighboring LCMS church is allowing it.

Suffice to say the 2004 resolutions weigh on my conscience to the point where I will not commune at churches with women communion assistants.

Yet that does not solve the problem, because I am still in fellowship with these congregations whether I go forward for the distribution or not.

I am hoping for signs of change in the LCMS at the 2010 convention. Actually, I will be deciding whether to remain in the synod after this convention.

These practices are not new as of 2004, they just received formal permission in that year, and by a slim margin at that.

It has taken until this year for me to see the repercussions of the 2004 convention.

Now that many congregations have taken the steps to change their constitutions, it will be even more difficult to reverse the 2004 resolutions.


Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


You are most correct when you point out that these practices are not new as of 2004. Many congregations simply ignored our official doctrinal position on this issue and did what was right in their own eyes. Now they have the blessing of synod to ignore God's Word.

It's kinda like the whole contemporary praise movement. Many congregations ignored the LCMS Constitution and bylaws, which requires the "exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks, and catechisms," and did their own "get down with Jesus" thing. Now they have permission, granted by our CoW, to use doctrinally impure worship "styles" and songs. They still ignore the requirement to use doctrinally pure catechisms, but nobody seems to care about that, so they're rather safe in doing their own thing there, too.

What amazes me in all this is that those who chose to ignore our positions on these, and other, issues for years are now the most adamant in demanding that we honor these recent capitulations (permission slips) and abide by our "covenants of love." You get a lot of, "You may disagree, but synod has spoken in Convention, so you have to live with it." It is amusingly ironic that those who did their own thing are now the first ones to demand compliance from others.

In any event, I'm with you. What happens next summer will play a large role in determining whether or not I remain a member of this synod. I pray for signs of change in the right direction, but, currently, I'm not very optimistic. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

Unknown said...

OK; style points are rewarded for your response. Yet, while I agree with your position (which is mine as well!) as our task is to equip the saints (notice no gender bias) are we not to do all that we can possibly do to in the words of PK, " Share the precious message of the Gospel" BTW, where or where are my baseball gloves, oh where oh where can they be? I've seached the world over and thought they would be returned; but you met another and poof they were gone!
On another note, my brother of the same mother, i.e. the Church; where do YOU think you will go if the synodical party (parity) oops, popular vote takes us beyond what we expect? Borrowing a semi-platonic metaphor; are the shadows on the wall real? Or are they the substance of all things now and forever? For if they are; I will follow you, my dear friend, but in the meantime; perhaps, simply perhaps, we CAN hold the high road while the low one is being re-built. BTW, Iggster; no females in this congregation participate in the proper presentaion of DS. T; is the Iggster a paid employee? ;)

IggyAntiochus said...

Rev. Messer,

Thank you for your response.


Where to go is the big question. One cannot, for instance, just jump over to WELS without some discernment. The divide between WELS and LCMS on the doctrine of the ministry has widened since the days of the Synodical Conference.

WELS liturgy is on the light side, and their translation of the Nicene Creed leaves a lot to be desired ("and became fully human" instead of "and was made man").

On the other side, we've got some microsynods out there who are closer to Missouri on the doctrine of the ministry yet too new to discern all the "what if" questions that a seeker has.

I don't know where I will end up, but I have started the journey now and have begun the discernment process.

Regarding your quip about me being on the payroll;) I actually don't know Rev. Messer, but I am blessed that at least one person is on the same page!

-Iggster, aka IggyAntiochus

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


In regards to synod, yes the shadows on the wall are real. The shadows on the wall were always real, as they have always reflected the image of their corresponding forms, which, as you know full well, my lover of Plato, is where their real-ness resonates. The thing is that now the things that were once merely shadows on the wall have been revealed in the light, and we can see them for what they truly are. We are no longer limited to hearing about congregations doing "methobapticostal get-down-with-Jesus praise worship," but can clearly see them doing it, as they are put forth before us as "perfect examples" of what President Kieschnick and company believe congregations in our synod should strive to mimic. What PK and friends have done for the past 8 years is release the prisoners and bring them into the light, so that they could be seen clearly and lauded for their insistence that the shadows are real. In other words, they have freed those who used to have to hide the fact that they were nothing more than Baptists who use wine in Communion; those who remove the altar to make room for the "praise band"; those who allow women to serve in ways Holy Scripture forbids, and so on. Now these former prisoners are put front and center for all to see, congratulated and praised for their willingness to adapt and their openness to explore new methods, and their shadow of confessional Lutheran theology is advertised as the real deal. O happy day! for these former prisoners. No longer do they have to lurk in the shadows. Their chains have been unlocked and they are free to trumpet their shadowy version of Lutheranism to the world.

The result of all this is that the tables have turned, my friend. Who are the prisoners now? Those who steadfastly cling to the Word of our Lord and to our Lutheran Confessions, which are a correct exposition of that Word. We are tolerated, but not seen as significant in any way, shape, or form. We are seen as those who don't love the lost, as those who care more about making sure our doctrine is pure than we do about bringing people into Christ's Kingdom. What once was the reality of confessional Lutheranism has been relegated to the realm of shadows, while the shadowy version of Lutheranism (which is no Lutheranism at all!) is touted as real and true.

Where do we go from here? I honestly don't know. As the sainted Prof. Marquart prophesied some years ago, we are heading for a divorce in our synod, due to infidelity. Can we live together with those who have committed adultery, whoring after the latest fads, pledging their devotion to the god of relevance, forsaking the vows they made to the Word and our Confessions? I don't see how we can.

As I said, I hope and pray that there will be signs of change in the right direction. Electing Matt Harrison would restore my optimism, since I do believe he is seriously intent on addressing the issues that divide us, rather than following the line of our current leaders, which is to pretend like the deep divide which exists in our synod is nothing more than a light fracture.

If things should not go well next year, I think it would be time for those among us who are serious about being Lutheran to consider other options. We could just continue on like we are, plodding along in our own little worlds, pretending like the things happening around us don't affect us, but that is a lie and a false witness to those looking in from the outside. After all, as Iggy pointed out, we are in fellowship with all who are members of this synod. Or, we could join those who are intent on fighting the perpetual, get 'em in three years, fight, but all that does is keep the conflict always on the surface and makes us look to others rather ugly.

So, I don't know. I'm confident the Lord will show us the way and hopeful that our eyes will be open to see it.

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...


Your gloves are being held ransom to ensure that you pay another visit here soon. :)

Seriously, the returning of the gloves was delegated to my lovely wife. I just asked her if she had put them in the mail and I got one of those "deer in the headlights" looks, which I concluded meant no. They will be sent first thing next week - I promise! :)

Rev. Thomas C. Messer, SSP said...

I actually don't know Rev. Messer, but I am blessed that at least one person is on the same page!


I think there are more who are on the same page as we are than we know. I guess we'll see. :)

IggyAntiochus said...


That's quite a voice you've got there! Ever consider joining the choir?

Sounds like you know both kinds of music, country and western.

-Iggster :)

... If it weren't for bad luck I'd have no luck at all. Whoa! ...