Before other presenters dive into the financial questions, I beg your indulgence as I exposit classical Lutheran ecclesiology (i.e., what Lutherans thought about what the church is, how it is put together and works, and why it exists). Of course, one may object, “What’s that got to do with anything?” No small part of the financial discussion is directly related to the viability of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod. This is not new. Treasurers’ reports have, for the past several years, hinted at this. It was part of the conversations held throughout the second year before the 2015 episcopal election. Synod Council has discussed it numerous times since the mission support decline that began ten years ago, and Finance Committee discussed it even before that. So, this discussion of finance has implications for the synod remaining a synod or, at least, doing business as usual. Thus, ecclesiology is not only a related subject, it is the matrix of assumptions that, either consciously or unconsciously, informs our response to financial questions.
A second objection may be raised to any consideration of the specifically classical corpus of Lutheran ecclesiology, the classical corpus including both Confessional material of the 16th century and the work of the dogmaticians of Lutheran Scholasticism who taught from the mid-16th century through the early 18th century. Here, I point to both my ordination vows and the doctrinal basis found in our synodical constitution. We are a specifically Lutheran church, and my ordination is into a specifically Lutheran church. Lutheranism is not an undefined system; it is, in its nature, “confessional,” and those Confessions are found in The Book of Concord. We have, as a denominational body, claimed subscription to those Confessions, and that claimed subscription roots us in and binds us to a particular historical theological foundation. The Dogmaticians, in my judgment, have exposited those Confessions in a manner consistent with the Confessions and, while there are some things about our modern American context not addressed therein, still applicable to ecclesiastical life. Most of the folks I know who dismiss the work of the Lutheran Scholastics actually know little or nothing of their body of work, relying instead upon third person accounts or merely the assumption that anything written before the mid-twentieth century must, by definition, be irrelevant. Well, to be honest, most of the folks I know have never even heard of the Lutheran Scholastics, and, thus, we cut ourselves off from a body of theology that would, in my opinion, prove most salutary in our present reflections.
There has been a fair amount written about synods (as we have them in the ELCA), beginning with the work of the Commission for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC), the multilateral body that brought together representatives from the Lutheran Church in America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches. We rarely talk about the difficult task the CNLC faced. There were significant differences of opinion as to what the ELCA should look like and how it should function. One might argue that these differences of opinion were unconsciously rooted in diverse notions of the purpose of the church and even what we mean by the term, “church.” The historian would point out that such differences should not surprise us given the diverse historical, ecclesiastical, and cultural backgrounds of those embarking upon the venture that became the ELCA merger.
To say that all those entering into the CNLC negotiations were Lutherans would be to claim something about commonality, but whether that commonality was in much more than name would be a worthy conversation in itself. There was and continues to be a lack of agreement even with respect to the Confessional basis upon which the ELCA stands, some factions preferring relatively equal subscription to the entire Book of Concord and others preferring subscription to the Augustana alone. We have witnessed those disagreements among the clergy of this synod most publicly in our periodic sparring over the Third Use of the Law. Good-natured as such polemic has been, it is, nevertheless, indicative of divides that cut across the ELCA on a variety of issues, some esoteric and disconnected from daily church life, others popular and quite consequential. What else might we expect? Well over one hundred of the Lutheran church bodies that have existed in the history of America going back to the colonial period have gone into the making of the ELCA, a mongrel church if ever there was one.
A call for unity without uniformity still depends upon some shared “stuff.” The old maxim, often attributed to Wesley, “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity,” depends upon some common understanding of what exactly is essential and what is non-essential. As an aside, the maxim’s earliest form appears to be by Lutheran theologian Rupertus Meldenius, who penned c. 1627,
Verbo dicam: Si nos servaremus IN necesariis Unitatem, IN non-necessariis Libertatem, IN UTRISQUE Charitatem, optimo certe loco essent res nostrae.” [In a word, I’ll say it: if we preserve unity in essentials, liberty in non-essentials, and charity in both, our affairs will be in the best position.](http://faculty.georgetown.edu/jod/augustine/quote.html)
Rather delicious that a Roman Catholic scholar would point out that the Methodists are indebted to the Lutherans for this as well as Aldersgate.
Given the diversity within the Lutheran household, we often find that the writings about synods in ELCA circles are largely around practical matters supplemented with vague references to unity in Christ. While the theologian might lament this, the ecclesiastical politician may well admire the way in which political pragmatism, the thing that makes American representative democracy work (most of the time), becomes a substitute for doctrinal ecclesiology. I have heard it said, “If you want to know what Lutheran ecclesiology is, look at the Constitution, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the ELCA.” In short, political pragmatism allows us to take collective action despite holding different ideas about why the given action should be taken. This works just fine so long as the conditions that prevailed when the action was debated and agreed upon don’t change. When the conditions on the ground do change, the diverse rationales might lead to a lack of agreement about action. To put it another way, the people who established our synod may have had differing rationales for doing so and differing hoped for ends, but they could, at least, agree on the action itself. Thirty-two years later, we may be in a situation where diverse rationales and hoped for ends no longer justify a common act.
The question must be tested: Shall we be synod? Note well, I framed this as action without basis or end. To include basis and end, I might state it this way: Despite our differing foundations and our differing hoped for ends, is there sufficient alignment in action that we can take such action together (because I really don’t care why you want to do what I want to do so long as we both want to do the same thing)? That’s political pragmatism laid bare. Again, this works perfectly well in many situations, especially for short-term relationships of convenience. This would not work well as the sole political framework for a marriage. We should be able to anticipate that there are some issues upon which a couple should really have a shared philosophy and a shared dream. Despite protestations that church life is a union similar to marriage, I think it more honest to say that we, as an institutional church, are, de facto, more like a temporary alliance. History bears this out if we consider the number of mergers and splits that have taken place among Lutherans on this continent. Keep in mind, “temporary,” might be three decades, but it is not forever. Some, in this synod, are now in their third Lutheran denomination without ever changing their congregational membership.
The Basis from which I Work
So, I need to be transparent about the basis from which I work. I do not see a synod (generally) as indispensable. I also do not see WV-WMD (specifically) as indispensable. With three exceptions, our congregations pre-date WV-WMD, ELCA. It’s hard to make an argument for indispensability when fifty-six of our congregations were places of Word & Sacrament, faith and fellowship, instruction and care without the WV-WMD Synod. Sometimes we have used rhetoric that implies our indispensability, and I believe that we have done so thinking it to be true. Sober reflection, however, reveals it to be a confusion of utility for necessity. I will get back to this.
The Lutheran [LWF]-Roman Catholic Joint Commission, in The Church and Justification (1993), identified a key difference in ecclesiology with respect to synod/diocese. For our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, the diocese is the local church (ecclesia localis), and the bishop is the pastor of the local church, making all diocesan congregations extensions of the diocese. Thus, the congregation does not exist apart from the diocese. For Lutherans, the congregation is the local church. Thus, the synod does not exist apart from its congregations. The Roman Catholics have a better claim to antiquity on this point than Lutherans do. The early church is, for the most part, the story of episcopal congregations (that is, a congregation with a bishop) located in a major city setting up outposts in smaller towns and the villages, the bishop deploying presbyters (priests) to serve in those communities on the bishop’s behalf and under the bishop’s authority. During the age of Lutheran Scholasticism, it is already evident that Lutherans were thinking of the congregation as the local church. Additionally, it must be admitted that some Roman Catholic scholars use ecclesia localis to refer to the congregation. We note all this to locate “synod” within the Lutheran ecclesiological matrix.
For Americans, a practical problem reinforced what might seem like abstract ecclesiology. With the exception of the New Sweden Colony, Lutherans never had a landed state-church presence in what would become the continental United States. The German Lutherans who arrived after the Swedes settled here without benefit of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Congregations and pastors were on their own. As the number of congregations grew and the need for pastors increased, interest in a super-congregational structure intensified. This interest was further flamed by issues arising out of the presence of the Zinzendorfian imposters and periodic issues related to misconduct by both clergy and laity. The German Evangelical Lutheran Ministerium of North America (more commonly known as the Pennsylvania Ministerium) was formed in 1748 under the leadership of Henry Melchior Muhlenberg. Thus, the formation of first Lutheran synodical polity in the Americas set the constitutional pattern that congregations come together to form super-congregational bodies. It should be noted that the rationale for such a move was rooted in practical necessities and perceived benefits without much appeal to theological constructs.
In order that aid might be given to several congregations, even if only one preacher could be sent, it has been thought advisable to ordain to the ministry Mr. Kurtz and Mr. Schaum, who until now have been assistants, since they have been very faithful in the matters entrusted to them in the congregations, and have gained not only more and more experience and ability for the ministry, but have also won the love and confidence of the congregations. For this purpose, as well as for the closer union of the preachers of the United Congregations, and for mutual consultation and agreement in matters concerning all the congregations, a meeting of the preachers, elders and deacons of all the frequently mentioned congregations was arranged to be held in Philadelphia, August 15 [O.S.], 26 [N.S.], 1748.
And, again, from Muhlenberg’s opening address at the first meeting of the Ministerium:
A twisted cord of many threads will not easily break. There must be unity among us. Every member in the congregations has children. The deacons would have great responsibility, if they were negligent in helping to create good order, especially in behalf of the children, who, if they were neglected, would help to condemn their parents.
We are here assembled for this purpose, and, if God will, we shall assemble yearly; this is only a trial and test. We preachers who are here present, not having wandered hither of our own will, but called and necessitated, are bound to give an account to God in our conscience. We stand in connection with our Fathers in Europe. We must provide not only for ourselves, but also for our posterity, etc., etc.
Notice the reference, “We stand in connection with our Fathers in Europe.” Here Mulhenberg appeals to the continuation of the Lutheran theological commitments of the past, which, though laced with Halle Pietism, were still more Confessional and Scholastically informed than most admit. The problem facing the Lutherans was lack of support from Germany. No principality was funding the church in America like the church in Germany. These new American Lutherans would have to shift for themselves, and they believed that unity would advance the planting, maintenance, and expansion of the Lutheran movement in America better then independence.
Muhlenberg and his confreres framed their cooperation along the lines of a synodical representative church, the doctrinal basis of which is found in the Lutheran Scholastics’ ecclesia representativa, a basis which the pastors, at least, shared because of the dogmatics curriculum found at German universities. Not surprisingly, the ecclesia representativa is still there in the substructures of the ELCA. The formation of synodical polity that took place in Philadelphia in 1748 would be repeated over and over again throughout the colonies and the states of the early Federal Republic. Successive waves of immigrants, often, though not always, had similar experiences, as they figured out how to do things without a state church. The Tercentennial of the Pennsylvania Ministerium is less than three decades away. I doubt that there will be massive celebrations. Still, underneath our polity is their work, even down to the expectation that the membership of the synod be two lay members from each congregation and the pastors.
I must also explain that I draw a distinction between institutional or political unity of the church and the spiritual or real unity of the church because the term, “church,” is not used the same way in both phrases. In the Augusburg Confession, a distinction is drawn between the church as the set of all those who have heard the Gospel and believe it and the church as the set of all those who have heard the Gospel and claim to believe it. Dogmaticians refer to the former as the ecclesia invisibilis, at one time translated as “invisible church” but “hidden church” is now the preferred rendering, and the latter as ecclesia visibilis, or visible church.
The hidden church (ecclesia invisibilis) is also known as the communion of saints (communio sanctorum) and the congregation of the faithful (congregatio fidelium). It is the church to which the credal affirmations are predicated: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church (una sancta catholica et apostolica ecclesia). This oneness is a gift of the Holy Spirit. It transcends geography, race, language, etc. and even unites those who still fight here (eccelsia militans) with those victorious there (ecclesia triumphans). This unity is not something we manufacture; it simply is. When we talk about church unity, we rarely talk about this unity which is more real than the unity we might see.
The visible church (ecclesia visibilis), especially as it expresses itself in the ecclesiastical estate (status ecclesiasticus), or what we would think of as the institutional church, includes all those who believe the Gospel and also those who merely claim to believe the Gospel despite lack of faith. The unity of the institutional church is not a given. It is something we do, and we do it through different instruments, one of them being polity, the way we organize our institutional church and how we do business. That’s certainly not the only way we find and express unity, but it is the one that may most directly concern us with respect to the financial position of the synod.
Lastly, I hold the church to be pneumanthropic, i.e., the church is both spiritual and human. It is spiritual in as much as it is created by the Holy Spirit’s operation; we say that it is the creature of the Holy Spirit (creatura spiritus). It is human in as much as the stuff (material cause) of the church is the human creature, and that which is properly said of the human creature is properly said of the church. There is an embodiment to the church, and that embodiment is human with all reasonable human needs. The way the church works, then, is also pneumanthropic. There is a spiritual dimension to the way we do things, and there is a human dimension. With this human dimension, there are perfectly reasonable and rather mundane things that relate to the church, finance, management, politics, and organizational theory among them (alongside plumbing and HVAC).
Where Does that Leave Us?
So, given the Confessions, the writings of the Dogmaticians, and the development of synodical polity in America, I assert that synod, as the ELCA defines its shape and functions, as way of organizing the life of congregations in relationship to each other, is not an absolute necessity. In other words, congregations could be in relationship with each employing different structures. Even the Lutheran Scholastics’ ecclesia representativa does not insist on a particular structure even while it does hold that the representative church is a good and salutary thing. In fact, they thought of this representative church in terms of the councils (meetings that were held to address particular issues whenever such a need arose) rather than in terms of an institution. Even if the Dogmaticians did think of the representative church as a necessity, it was one which only did what it needed to do when it was necessary to do so. This bears no resemblance to the dark side of bureaucratic theory, namely, that an organization will eventually find ways to justify its continuation even after the original justification no longer exists. On the other hand, the Lutheran Scholastic dogmaticians did not have to worry about development of elaborate super-congregational institutional structures because they had the support of the state. The American experience of church-state separation naturally leads us into more highly developed structures to meet our perceived needs.
Recognizing that a congregation can go solo—many do—we may still rightly desire to have a synod (of some sort) because, like Muhlenberg & co., there are things we want to do that we either cannot do on our own or we can do better together. This side of the equation looks at the economies of scale that may be achieved through cooperation. There are also diseconomies of scale. Cooperation takes resources, and, sometimes, inefficiencies emerge. At its most practical, we might view the question as a matter of cost-benefit (economies vs. diseconomies). It would be a mistake, however, to do nothing more than look at the spreadsheet because not all economies and diseconomies are tangible; some are intangible, and we are not infrequently willing to expend tangible resources for intangible benefits.
Consequently, “utility” may present the best option for thinking through our predicament. Is having a synod useful? Is having the WV-WMD Synod useful? Any one of us can probably answer both these questions with, “Yes and No.” That’s because there are some ways in which having synod is a benefit and some ways in which it is a cost. Even when we consider the cost-benefit analysis to lean in favor of having a synod, we might find that having this particular synod fails to meet the test. It is also possible that we might say, WV-WMD Synod, as we now do synod in this context, fails, but, were we to do things differently and/or experience a shift in the context, it might pass.
Nothing I have said here is meant to denigrate the fellowship that we have or invalidate our accomplishments. I see this as a narrow, albeit complicated, question of the utility of this particular synod in this way, at this time, and in this place. It is not my call. It is our call which we will make through our particular decision-making processes. I do think it my job, however, to throw the question naked before us. I also think it my job to frame the question within the Lutheran theological matrix. Lastly, I think it my job to ask, “To what end?”
To what end?
Why do we even do synod? It is possible that we do this because we have always done this, but that would ignore some not so distant history. Muhlenberg and his confreres looked both backward and forward. They looked back and rooted themselves in the Gospel as understood, articulated, and lived in distinctively Lutheran ways on one continent. They looked ahead to planting that Lutheranism on another continent. We too should look backward and forward. If we look only behind us, we stagnate. If, however, we look only forward, we become uprooted. Without our roots in the Word of God, we are not the church. Without our roots in the Lutheran theological tradition, we are not a Lutheran church. I suppose we could abandon Lutheranism. I’m not overly sanguine about that option. While I would not claim that Lutherans got it all right, I do think that it is the best thing on the street. If I were not as committed as I am to the Lutheran Confessions, I would become Episcopalian; the pension plan is better.
So, I have a couple of questions that I think we should consider…
- Do we want to be Lutheran? Do we care if the Lutheran Confessions (particularly the Catechisms) are taught and function as measures by which we preach and practice the faith? Or would a generic Protestantism be good enough?
- What are we willing to do to be Lutheran in Central Appalachia? Are we willing to change the way we do business, structure the synod, arrange pastor-parish relationships, etc.?
- Is the WV-WMD Synod our best option for moving forward without losing our rootedness in the Reformation?
I believe that we can change the way we do business, structure our institution, pay for the work, etc., but we will have to ask whether we are willing to pay the intangible costs in light of both tangible and intangible economies. If we are not, that’s OK. I’ve already established that synod is not an absolute necessity.
I also know that, as congregations of the ELCA, we will not be without a synod, even if it is not this one. Our national polity establishes the synods as mediating structures between the congregations and the Churchwide expression. If we dissolve, the Churchwide Assembly will amend national Bylaw 10.01.01, and each congregation on this territory will discover that it is a member of a synod. We may find ourselves being moved lock, stock, and barrel to one synod, or we may be split up among two or more synods. I hope that we are consulted in that process, but such consultation would be a courtesy. Unlike the days of the General Synod and General Council, synods do not have an existence of their own. They are creatures of the Churchwide Assembly. Thus, we are not a federation of synods but rather a national church with synods. The degree to which we are proactive will likely dictate the degree of input we have in the shaping of our future.
Whether we go together or split up, the loss of synodical identity could have significant impact upon our life. As congregations, we’ll continue to do the work of congregations. Vacancy, call process, and the handling of discipline and conflict will likely be different. Whether the change would be for the better or for the worse depends on what one values. Mission support request might change but so might pastoral compensation recommendations. Mobility for clergy would likely change as well. There might be consequences for our grant recipient agencies (camps, campus ministries, social ministry organizations, seminary, etc.). Women of the ELCA would automatically change were the synod to dissolve. There are many things to consider, and no move one way or the other should be taken without thorough investigation, analysis, and deliberation.
I’m still hopeful . That may sound strange, but I am. I stopped hoping in the institutional church a decade ago. It was a dark night of the soul, a time when I was disabused of my institutional idolatry. Like root canal, it was good for me, but I have no desire to repeat it. “My hope is built on nothing less…”—you know the rest. So, we find ourselves in the stormy gale, but it would be a mistake to give the storm greater standing than it deserves. Sure, we should deal with this for our sake and for the sake of those who come after, but we should have some perspective as we do so. First and foremost, we preach Christ and him crucified. We do this from our particular Lutheran theological matrix with all that that rightly entails. We norm our practice to that proclamation. Our aim is the advancement of the Lutheran movement (not necessarily a Lutheran non-profit corporation organized under the laws of the State of Minnesota) in central Appalachia. If we cannot do this, take some comfort: “one holy Christian church will be and remain forever.”(Augustana VII) Did not Christ promise Peter that the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it?
If, then, our aim is to advance the Lutheran movement in central Appalachia, let us ask: How might we best do it? That is a much more interesting question than “How do we keep the synod going?” Now, it may be that the best way for us to do that is to keep the synod going. That’s something we should discuss, but let us discuss it with an eye to the movement and the conviction that everybody would benefit from an encounter with the movement.
On the other hand, if we are not convinced that we and our neighbors in these mountains and valleys would benefit from the Lutheran movement, we had better stop now. There’s no reason to expend the energy. Of course, I say that as one committed to the movement.