Saturday, May 08, 2010

A brief response to Enroute . . . to Increased Harmony

One can hardly look at the report in the Reporter concerning the “Task Force on Synodical Harmony” without recognizing that it first and foremost illustrates the progress of error as outlined by the sainted Dr. Charles Porterfield Krauth, and that our Synod is well on it way between step two and step three. As a member of Synod, and therefore having a stake in the condition of our Synod, I find it difficult to trust the neutrality of the Task Force based solely on its origin. The contents of the abbreviated report in the Reporter appears to justify that lack of trust.

The first error of the report is the tacit assumption that the disharmony in the Synod is wrong, that is, that it is not as it should be in the light of the Synod as it exists today. One might effectively argue that the conditions in which the Synod finds itself is unfortunate, and in need of remedy, but that the consequent disunity and discord is viewed as a problem to be addressed independent of the causes of that disharmony is simply as symptom of the precarious condition of the Synod. The assumption that the Synod as it exists should not have sharp divisions and consequent discord is a demonstration of both the futility of the mission of the task force and that the task force itself is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Discord in the Synod is not destructive of our unity in Christ or our concord in doctrine and practice, as asserted in the report. It is, in fact, that lack of unity in doctrine and practice that is creating the discord and disharmony. Far from being the cause, it is the symptom. Since the report views the situation from precisely the wrong perspective, it cannot help repair the problem, but will only serve to deepen the divide. Lip service to the potential blessings arising from conflict cannot disguise the faulty foundation upon which the effort proceeds. Discord is the symptom of the underlying disunity, not the cause of it.

The report is correct in noting that the problem is not merely that we are divided, but that many times those involved in the disputes of our church body conduct themselves in ways that are unbecoming the children of God and unhelpful to achieving the results that one must assume they hope to achieve, if one puts the best construction of everything as Luther so wisely counsels Christians to do. Polemical language is often strident, and emotions run deeply, but it is the part of Christians to eschew judging the heart of the other and addressing the problems clearly, taking no offense at the casual weaknesses of others as they struggle with issues that divide us and are of such significance in the faith of the disputants. Forgiveness and charity are proper starting points even in a debate. The battle will not be won, after all, by human chicanery, but by the Word of God, and not always immediately, but in God’s good time and order.

I will briefly address the seven ‘aspects’ of disharmony as reported in the “Board Briefs” contained in the Reporter mailed to members throughout the Synod. Regardless of the intention of the individual members of the task force, the report both lays bare the nature of the problem and explains, unintentionally I believe, why the effort to find unity and concord in the Synod by this methodology is doomed to failure. First on the list is “Inability to Deal with Diversity”. It notes that “most (not all) presenters agreed that our church is blessed with amazing concord in matters of doctrine”. The standard applied, however, must be measuring our agreement in doctrine against the diversity of doctrine throughout the spectrum of what calls itself “Christianity”. By that standard, any agreement is significant. The historic position of our church body is not to seek a minimal amount of agreement, but total agreement in doctrine. Against the more rigorous standard of our forefathers, we do not possess “amazing concord” in doctrine, but striking disunity on all but the most fundamental of doctrines, and some uncertainty even there within our Synodical ranks.

Our concord is further tarnished by the relegation of such things as admission to the Holy Communion, worship substance and style, the Office of the Public Ministry, the role of laity, and the “service” of women in the church to the realm of “practice” as opposed to doctrine. The report appears to gloss over the significant disunity in our midst over the understanding of the relationship and connection between doctrine and practice. Every controversy in our Synod appears to be categorized as an issue over practice, and assumed to be “non-doctrinal” (however that may be variously understood). The issue is acknowledged in the report, but appears clearly to be viewed by the Task Force from the perspective on those who do not stand with the historic doctrines and practices of our Synod in these controversies.

Second is “A Lack of Civility”. It is unfortunate that the analysis is couched in the terms of the unhelpful characterizations of only one element in the controversies of our Synod. There is no doubt that commandments have been breached by members on all sides of the questions in our Synod, but the official response from elements of the leadership of the synodical organization has often been to mis-characterize sincere and honest efforts at addressing the issues amongst us as violations of this or that commandment with no possibility of debate or discussion concerning those judgments, let alone the issues in question. To hear the charge repeated without a frank acknowledgment that it applies to all parties in the disunity of our Synod is disheartening and counter-productive.

The third point is spot on. The Synod is becoming politicized because the problems in our Synod are increasingly addressed from a political rather than theological foundation. Power trumps, and it does not appear that which “side” is in ascendancy changes that element of the equation – to the frustration of many who are not fighting for a team, but for the Synod’s well-being and for the Word of God to hold sway.

Aspect number four suggests that this is primarily a clergy problem. Two truths stand out that argue against the assertion being made here. First, pastors are supposed to be shepherds who protect their flock against the wolves. When error is openly tolerated and practiced, pastors are supposed to speak up. Viewing this as a “problem” is false and unhelpful. This is a clergy problem much like sound Biblical doctrine is inconvenient. It is only a problem if the clergy are leading away from the Word of God and sound practice, unless the one making this judgment is inconvenienced by the truth and unwilling to conform to the “sound words”, as in 1 Timothy 6:3.

The second truth which argues against this “aspect” is that when a congregation changes in new and unsettling ways, the laity who find the changes robbing them of the comforts of the Word and the familiar commonplaces of the liturgy (for example), often find that there is no alternative available for them. They have no congregation to flee to, no safe-haven of Word and Sacrament when the congregation at which they have been worshiping takes it upon itself to divest itself of the familiar and strike boldly out in a new and diverse direction. When the preaching is corrupted, when the hymns are taken away and replaced with less substantial songs, when creeds are discarded as too confining or “not visitor friendly”, the problem is not a clergy problem, it is a laity problem - they have, in many cases, no adequate alternative, and no champion to speak for them or fight for them.

Pastoral formation is supposed to prepare men to stand on the battlements and endure all odds for the sake of the truth and to protect and defend the sheep of the flock. To question pastoral formation because there are occasionally men who will actually take up the task to which their vows of ordination commit them - rather than because there are so many who will not and claim the right to be called ‘pastor’ while they fail to shepherd the flock in the pastures of the Word - is misguided and appears unhelpfully partisan.

Poor Communication across “party lines” (#5) results as often as not from commitment to different positions. Children often assume that communication is the same as capitulation. You haven’t ‘heard’ them unless and until you agree with them. The same mind-set afflicts many in the controversies of the church. Until we can understand that someone may disagree with us who truly understands us, we will continue to talk past one another. The task force needs to understand that what is lacking is the humility to be corrected, not the ability to listen.

When a veteran of the controversies of the Synod hears someone talking about holding pastors accountable for causing disharmony, the nearly-automatic reaction is suspicion (#7) that someone wants to solve the controversy by eliminating the other side. What the Synod suffers from is not the lack of an enforceable code of conduct, but the lack of commitment to true concord and doctrinal unity. We have become unwilling to wrestle the big issues down, and as an organization, we have relinquished the authority to require our members to participate in resolving the divisions. In blunt terms, the Synod has surrendered doctrinal discipline, and error is treated as the equal of the truth in our Synod. In many places, error has the upper hand, and tolerates the truth no more. But our Synod is formally unwilling and unable to face that fact honestly. It is our inconvenient truth. It has been so since the Behnken solution to the shattering controversy of the Chicago Statement - the Statement of the 44 in 1945.

The result is distrust. (#7) The problem is not the loss of “the system” which served our Synod for so long, and finally betrayed our Synod in the twentieth century. Pastoral formation through high school and college and Seminary with those holding strikingly different theologies learning to treat each other as good buddies created the mess we have. Somehow, they learned not to fix the problem by addressing the theology but to be kind to one another as each “team” tried to out maneuver the other in controlling the Synodical apparatus. Truth became something like a game, and the truth lost when holding hands with one another became more important than standing for what is true.

The Task Force wants to understand how to go back to the days when “churchmanship” (#6) was more important than confession. If there was a real hunger for concord and unity, it would be sought in the Word of God, and addressing the questions before us frankly on the basis of the Word. Reading the history of the Synod shows us that there was a time when standing together on the truth was more important than standing together as buddies. Back then, when someone wanted to hold fast to something no one else agreed with, he left the Synod - willingly or not. If we want “Synodical Harmony”, we need to find our way back to that sort of commitment to truth and sound doctrine - and church practice that reflects both sound doctrine and our unity in it. This is called the church militant for a reason! As long as our commitment is to diversity in practice, which is also diversity in doctrine, we cannot and will not find concord and harmony. The most we can look forward to is the day when error is ascendant, as Krauth describes it, and drives out all who stand on the truth so that there is no one causing controversy left.

If that is the goal of the Task Force - a church without controversy - Charles Porterfield Krauth set forth the recipe back in 1871 in his book, The Conservative Reformation and Its Theology. All they need to do is open their copies and follow the directions.