Thursday, March 31, 2011

A Response to the President's Koinonia Project

President Matthew Harrison and First-Vice President Herbert Mueller have issued a report of their Koinonia Project to address the disunity and schisms in the LC-MS. On the surface this plan is nearly indistinguishable from every other plan to unite the synod of the past 10 years. It proposes the creation of discussion groups and urges everyone to be nice. Below the surface, there is something distinguishable: the tone. Mueller’s report oozes piety and sincerity. He knows there are problems. I suspect, though he leave it unstated, that he knows this process, if seriously engaged, will cause departures from the synod. But he isn’t instituting a purge, nor is he engaging in a bureaucratic cover up for false doctrine. He wants to win the brother and he is willing to look at the log in his own eye first. Gottesdienst serves the synod as a kind of think tank. And while I don’t speak for all the editors or readers, I think the Gottesdienst crowd needs to follow Mueller’s example. In short, everybody needs to calm down.

Those who are tired of the fighting and wish we would all just get along need to calm down. We live in the Church Militant. The Church has always fought within itself. Iron sharpens iron. It is good to care about eternal things. It is good to care about the details, about the lost, and about how we interact with each other and the world. Our fighting is caused by sin but refraining from fighting does not remove the sin. It only hides it. Our Lord does not call us to ignore the speck in our brother’s eye but to love him enough to take some risks and to try and help.

Next, if we are going to do this, we need some nomenclature. We have to drop “liberal” and “conservative.” They are not only pejorative, they are inaccurate. I like the label “confessional.” This doesn’t mean that I think I am the only one confessing. It simply means that this is my focus and identity. I suspect that this self-chosen description rightly fits and is comfortable on about 51% of the synod. The other side, the roughly 46% who supported the reelection of President Kieschnick, seem to have chosen the term “missional” for themselves. Just as I don't think that I am excluding others from confessing by calling myself a confessional, I do not think that the missionals are accusing me of being disinterested in missions, lazy, or complacent. They simply understand this as their particular focus and identity. If indeed this is the adjective they wish, I promise to use it respectfully. If this is the wrong term, or not accepted by all, I am sorry. For the time being at least, it seems to me to be what they have chosen - and it also seems accurate. When I am corrected and given a better self-description, I promise to use it. But we can’t impugn one another with conservative and liberal.

For years I have heard complaints from Jesus First and other proponents of the missional camp that there is a terrible danger and mis-emphasis among the confessionals on doctrinal purity. I think, in part, they are right. This charge has been too easily dismissed, as though being accused of being obsessed with doctrinal purity were akin to being accused of loving too much, having too much money, or being too good looking. We have been called to doctrinal purity. This is what God desires and demands. But it is not true to think that doctrinal purity trumps all else. Doctrine was made for man, not man for doctrine. David ate the showbread. The Lord’s disciples plucked grain and Jesus healed on the Sabbath. St. Paul allows the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. Love is the ultimate principle behind the Law. So also, love is the ultimate principle, both in content and application, of doctrine. If doctrine does not serve love, or if it serves pride, it is false.

Some might rejoin that these are Law examples not Gospel examples. These are, however, ultimately arguments about the Law. The Law commands we evangelize. To fail to confess and witness is a sin. The Law also commands that we teach pure doctrine. False doctrine is a sin. It is possible to love a system of doctrine for its own beauty and reasonableness apart from its actual content. That was the sin of the Pharisees. The missionals do well to warn us of this danger.

We, the confessionals, need to calm down. We should not be issuing ultimatums. We should not be setting ourselves up as the judges of Israel. We should not be operating out of fear as though it is our duty to cleanse and purify the Church. And we should be careful in our language and criticisms so as not to hurt the feelings of our brothers.

We, the confessionals, need historic perspective on doctrinal purity. We sometimes speak and act as though there was a golden age in the Church to which we must return. There was no golden age. The history of the Church is a history of disunity, confusion, heresy, abuse, and schism. The history of the liturgy is equally messy. St. Gregory did much to foster unity but even then there were local customs and variances in almost every locality. Those who waited for and expected the Messiah at the time of Christ were divided between the Pharisees, the priests, the Essenes, the zealots, Gentile proselytes, and the quiet in the land. The Lord has provided amazingly clear and articulate voices from time to time. Athanasius was such a voice at the Council of Nicea. So also were Luther and then the Lutheran fathers in 1580. But they are few and far between. They are the exception. There does not look to be a great, charismatic, theological mind and voice in our age.

We are insignificant men in an insignificant synod in an insignificant time. The history of the Missouri Synod is not the history of great preachers, scholars, or obedient Germans. We are not a sleeping giant. We are a raging, self-important mouse. Our history is the history of fools plodding along without really knowing what they were doing. Pastors taught false doctrine from their ignorance. They got caught up in politics and culture. Missionaries instituted crazy practices. The synod grew by immigration and inertia. Members insisted on acting and looking like their neighbors. They stuck to the truth out of nostalgia as often as conviction. Yet the Lord provided. Babies were baptized. The Word of God was read. The Absolution and Body and Blood of Jesus were bestowed, and the half-hearted, confused prayers were heard by a gracious God. Sometimes the best thing we ever did was stick the name “Lutheran” on the sign. If nothing else, it forced us to use the Small Catechism and keep a copy of the American Edition of Luther’s Works and the Book of Concord on the pastor’s shelf. Then sometimes, somebody, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, no doubt, read them. The Lord doesn’t need us to purify or unite or fix or do anything to the Church. It is His Church. We confessionals need to calm down and stop acting as though every time a pastor does something stupidly or chooses a weak practice or even commits an unintentional heresy the walls are going to come crashing down. So what if they do? Calm down.

The line between doctrine and practice is blurry. That is because practice matters. It confesses and witnesses. But it is hard to talk about it, hard to critique. Just recently, I had a brief and casual exchange with a confessional brother in a theatre while we waited for Garrison Keillor to appear. He has switched, for many reasons, from the historic lectionary to the three year lectionary. He complained that some of the proponents of the historic lectionary, of which I am one, went too far and were dogmatic about its superiority. I thought that was a straw man and said so. I asked for an actual name and example. He named another confessional brother whom he claimed had denigrated the three-year lectionary. Then the curtain came up and the man in the red shoes began his shtick, so I never got to respond. If I had, I would have said that denigrating is not dogmatizing. We might well denigrate the three year lectionary and praise the historic lectionary. That is the way argument works. There are three possibilities: the three year lectionary is superior to the historic lectionary, the historic lectionary is superior to the three year lectionary, or they are completely equal in every way. If they are completely equal, then it is stupid to talk about it.

If we are to debate practices, and we must, then we will denigrate. This might be slightly painful, but it should be no surprise. Consider the matter of LSB hymnody. We must all surely know that its hymns are unequal. They all passed doctrinal review. Thus we trust that they are all free of blatant false teaching. But some are abysmally weak, have to be explained away from their original context, and do little to actually teach the faith. Others are confession, praise, and catechesis of the highest order. We may not agree on which hymns fall into which category, but we all know that some hymns are stronger than others. We all choose hymns in context. We don’t use the strongest hymn in the hymnal each Sunday. We vary hymns week to week. So also, not every hymn, regardless of its merits, is necessarily immediately accessible, while some hymns, weak as they are, are simply congregational favorites for sentimental reasons and for the sake of love we sing them. We don’t dogmatize the hymns of the day. But we certainly should teach both our pastors and laity to practice theological discernment in hymn choice and also encourage them to strive for stronger and stronger hymnody as they are able. A congregation or pastor without discernment, who chose hymns merely for entertainment or emotional value, deserves rebuke.

We confessionals need to admit that we all live with some level of compromise. No one has perfect practice. We need to stop trying to force our brothers into orthodoxy through legislation. It’d be blessedly nice if everyone in the synod would limit himself to the confines of our hymnals, but they don’t and they won’t, and we have to give a better reason than simply “we make the rules.” We need to be able to talk about what is allowable but weak, what is strong, and what is right out. We cannot pretend that everything the Commission on Worship has produced is equal.

The point of this is simply that we have to be careful in our speech and careful in our listening, and we have to be honest. This debate must center on practice. That is where our doctrine hits the road, where our confession and witness is actually made. But we can’t have real discussion and debate without denigration. We have had synodical attempts to brush over our real differences in the past. We have been told they are not real or significant, and we know that is not true. That fantasy didn’t create unity. It didn’t create trust. It was a waste of time and money. If all things are equal, then we are worse than fools to debate them. If this is all just splitting hairs, then those who determine that is the case ought to give in for the sake of us weaker brothers. But they won’t, will they? That is because these things are important. So they need to be not just discussed, but actually debated. And we have to take the risk that such debates could lead to division. It could well turn out that debating practices leads to the realization that we cannot abide one another’s doctrine and aren’t actually in fellowship.

I don’t say this to alarm anyone. My goal is to find the logs in my own eye. How have I failed in this process? How are the criticisms laid at my feet valid and invalid? But my desire is that everyone would calm down, speak carefully, and listen carefully. It will be hard. It will be slow. It will be frustrating. But we must try and pray God’s blessing

Now for the speck: evangelism. It seems to me that this is the over-arching principle and desire of the missional wing of the LCMS. Every offense taken by the confessionals, from contemporary worship services to unionism to bad hymnody and open communion seem to stem from the missional pastor’s self-described burning desire to reach the lost. This desire, of course, is God-given and God-pleasing. We are called to proclaim the Gospel to every creature. But fallen man can take any good thing and turn it to an idol or to his own selfish purpose. There should be no desperation or fear in us. We should and are rightly comforted by the doctrine of election. No one, except perhaps myself, goes to Hell because of my sin. None of the elect will be missing: I simply couldn't snatch them from Christ hands if I tried. Neither can we add to the number of the elect. So calm down. The Church is not called to growth or success but faithfulness. Part of that faithfulness is works of mercy, part of it is evangelism, and part of it is purity of doctrine.

The Synodical Convention in 2007 demonstrated the confusion of the missional wing of the LC-MS when one of us lost control of his emotions and grew visibly angry because the wording of a resolution was changed from making reaching the lost “the” top priority to “a” top priority. The man’s refusal of that language and verbal, emphatic rejection of the idea that there are other equal priorities in the church, such as worshipping God and taking care of those in need, both inside and outside of the Church, made evident a misplaced zeal and confusion. So also I was recently told by a very sincere and pious missional pastor that he was heartbroken because his 9-year old son didn’t know any non-Christians. Why would this break his heart unless the only good work that really matters, that which defines and makes a Christian a Christian is witnessing and saving the lost? The same pastor wasn’t in the least bit heartbroken that his 9-year old son didn’t know any starving people, any lepers, or those otherwise in need.

This must be addressed. It seems to me that my fellow Gottesdienst editor, Rev. Heath Curtis, has done us a great service with his paper, The Liturgy as Beacon for the Elect, on this topic and I suggest this as a start for missional pastors.

There also needs to be some agreement on Lutheran vocabulary. I think it is fair to expect that Lutheran pastors in the LCMS be conversant, if not completely fluent, in the Lutheran Confessions, Pieper, and the Lutheran Service Book. Words matter. Rick Warren and Rob Bell have a peculiar vocabulary that has grown out of their theology. So do we. If we are formed by their writings and use their categories and vocab, we will have their theology. At the same time, if we don’t know our own heritage and confession, how can we claim to be Lutheran?

Mueller has stated that he thinks we need to begin with a study of the first five articles of the Augustana. I admire the piety that suggests this, but fear it will be a wasted effort. Part of the problem is that the language is too familiar. The confessionals see this as a kind of trump card. These articles directly contradict the missional folks. But the missional folks stare blankly back. How is that we abhor one another's practices but think our doctrine is the same? They tell us that they love these words and agree completely. How can that be? One side or the other or both must be misunderstanding them. Obviously, we use the same words to mean different things and familiarity has made both sides deaf and unable to hear freshly. The Augustana has another weakness: it was written to be irenic. The ELCA all endorses and embraces it. It fails to get at the differences.

I suggest instead that our first step is to embark upon a synod-wide reading of the Luther’s Bondage of the Will. While every single pastor in the LC-MS has taken a vow to teach in accordance with this book, as the Formula of Concord names it as a fuller expression of Article XI, and has already read it, it is not as familiar as the Augustana. This slight distance means that we can read and hear it anew. It will give us a common authoritative text while also emphasizing and teaching a truly Lutheran though process and vocabulary.

In conclusion, calm down, pray, be nice, read Luther’s Bondage of the Will, and talk to one another. Maybe God will turn and bless us.


  1. What a wonderful response, Pr. Petersen. I must confess that I've never made it through *Bondage*. I need to do so, and I think that's a splendid place to begin. It will serve as a good Lenten discipline for me in any case. Thanks for sharing the thoughts!

  2. Wow. Wonderful words. Though the situation in LCC is different than what I gather it to be in LCMS the words here are most applicable. Thank you.

  3. How about this: Let's have every LCMS pastor subscribe unconditionally to the 1580 Book of Concord, then promise to teach and practice according to it... no, wait. We tried that already. Never mind. TW

  4. As I read this, I note a sense of humility that is refreshing. It is all too easy to see our "allies" as the justified, and our "antagonists" as the sinful. Even as we strive to "label" them, in order that discussion can occur.

    Not all that voted for President Harrison were confessional - I know a couple of missional folk didn't, and not all that voted for Rev. Kieschnick were missional. Some do not fall into either camp, some fall into both.

    Could it be the answer is not in the camps, (as if there were only two) but rather in the tension between the two? That because we have the tension between the two we don't isolate into one extreme?

    One thing for sure... any answer has to start with the fact we are Baptized sinners, quickened and cleansed by God.

  5. I agree with Pastor DtP. There are some in the Synod who consider the Vulgata an inspired translation and want to pray at least the Biblical part of the Ave Maria on the rosary. There are also those who think that the term Lutheran needs to be hidden so that it doesn't potentially turn liberals away. I think the issue is not are the camps in communion, but rather how far can either direction on the spectrum go and still be in communion with the rest of us.

    I'm too young to remember many of the complaints against it, but it seems to me a good start on this side would be to stop trying to eliminate the CTCR. A committee on how theology affects relations amongst churches certainly sounds to me like it could be useful. Unless someone can explain to me why this is manifestly bad, how about we talk about fixing the problems with the committee instead of saying we don't like it. let's get rid of it. That's vindictiveness, not koinonia.

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  7. You are my new hero. Thank you for expressing so well what I haven't been able to. Adding clarity to the conversation is always a welcome change from craziness of Synod life.

  8. Phillip,

    Regarding the CTCR: by their fruits you shall know them. It's certainly been a mixed bag. The 1998 document on fellowship in the Lord's Supper, for instance, is great (chief author: Gibbs). The 2007 document on the Beginnings of Human Life is downright wicked. And, yes, you can quote me on that. Read it and see if you disagree. And don't take my word for it: call our leading bioethicist, Dr. Bob Weise at CSL, and ask him what he thinks of it. (He was not invited to participate. . .)

    Now, talk to somebody who has served on the Committee - of whatever point on the theolgocial spectrum, or whatever position (lay, professor, etc.) and ask them how they liked it, what it was like, how effective they thought it was, how well it worked.

    After reading through CTCR document after document, looking at the cost of the committee ($750-780,000 per annum), and talking with seminary professors and laity who have served, I would vote at a convention to get rid of the CTCR and simply assign their duties to the seminary faculties. I do not think we would miss it.

    Oh, you can certainly call Issue, Etc. and ask the producer, Jeff Schwarz what he thinks of it. Tell him I sent you.


  9. I should clarify: Mr. Schwarz is currently on the CTCR.

  10. And then there is the latest document they have produced...plant a garden? Really??? Loved Speckhard's critique of that one.

  11. Thanks for articulating so well much of what I've had rattling around in my thoughts but could never put into organized thought, not to mention wisely pointing out some issues that I had never even thought about. I will be sharing this with brother pastors. And I need to re-read Bondage of the Will. Too long since I last read it.

  12. I tried the link to Pastor Curtis's paper and am wondering if the whole paper is there. It seemed to be incomplete. Is it possible to get a copy of it?

  13. Thank you for the wisdom manifested in your article.

    I would note that changing labels, from conservative and liberal to confessional and missional, is in my opinion a change with little distinction. IOW, labels are labels, and lables are means of separating oneself from others or separating others from oneself. As has been stated time and time again, the term "confessional Lutheran" is a redundancy. I submit that "missional Lutheran" is the same.

    Bottom line, there may be benefit in changing political words such as conservative and liberal to churchier words like confessional and missional, but I am not convinced of the benefit of using redundant labels to place our Synodical brothers and sisters in different camps.

  14. Donald,

    No one is "using redundant labels to place our Synodical brothers and sisters in different camps." These different camps already exist. That fact necessitates our need for nomenclature, as Fr. Petersen rightly notes. And, I disagree that changing from conservative and liberal to confessional and missional is a change with little distinction. I think it is a change with significant distinction, since these are labels each camp seems to welcome to describe themselves.

    Labels do not create division; they acknowledge that division exists.

  15. Yes, I understand that such is your position. In the context of the Koinonia Project, however, I simply do not see the benefit in perpetuating such divisions by the use of such labels. Furthermore, they are somewhat inaccurate. Moreover, as much as Pr. Petersen puts labeling in a positive light, there is still the use that sends the message of "I'm confessional, and you're not" and "I'm missional, and you're not."

  16. Donald,

    Do you think their are two or more theological camps in the MO Synod with differences significant enough to warrant calling them "camps."

    If yes, then how shall we identify them?

    If no, I think you are sadly mistaken.


  17. Janet,

    If you follow the link to the paper, and then click "download" on the right hand side of the page, you should get the whole paper.


  18. Pr. H.R.,

    Yes, there are many groups with sifnificant differences. For purposes of the Koinonia Project, how shall we identify these groups? "LC-MS" or simply "Lutheran." That's how I identify the group I am in.

  19. Donald,

    That's a fine starting point - in the same way we start by calling everybody at the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialog "Christians." But then for a discussion of what divides us, we've got to move forward.

    Now, we could work issue by issue in the Koinonia project by using circumlocutions - "those who favor not communing Methodists" and "those who favor communing Methodists." And then on the next issue, "those who favor using the liturgy from one of our hymnals" and "those who favor writing their own liturgies each week." And then on the next topic, "those who favor women serving as congregational elders" and "those who don't favor women serving as congregational elders."

    But after awhile I think we discover that the same group of folks end up standing with each other on each issue. That calls for deeper analysis. Why are there several different issues on which we disagree, but not several different shufflings of the people involved? Why is it that there actually seem to be distinct groups of individuals who disagree with other distinct groups of individuals on *all* the questions?

    That fact - and it is a fact - calls for more than platitudes about how "we're all Lutheran" just as the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialog calls for more than platitudes about how "we're all Christians." I am willing to stipulate both statements as being true. But neither statements negates the need for more analysis.


  20. Focusing on your final paragraph: Yes, by definition that is what the Koinonia Project is about.

    So, let us rejoice in the wisdom manifested by Pr. Petersen's post.

  21. Fr. Curtis,

    The problem with these labels is there isn't one line, there are many. Some churches are conservative on one point and liberal on the other. I know "Confessional" churches that would say yes to women elders, and I know "Missional" churches that would never ever allow a non-LCMS person to take Communion. I know a "Missional" pastor who thinks there is no difference between the liturgy and pop songs about how awesome I am and who treats the Eucharist with less respect than you'd show the unconsecrated elements, but he is adamantly opposed to open Communion. What qualifies you for either camp?

  22. Phillip,

    I am not claiming that there are not outliers on every issue. I am claiming that there are at least two (probably more) clearly identifiable theological positions, mindsets, worldviews, etc., in the Synod today. I am saying that it is worth investigating why this is so down to the roots. What are the theological assumptions that give rise to each?

    Your last question is exactly what will not be answered until we admit that 1) there are different camps with different assumptions and theologies, 2) we invite folks to think about why they believe what they believe, and 3) we encourage frank discussion between the various outlooks.


  23. Thank you Pastor Petersen, you got me to read all about the Task Force and the Koinone Project. I hadn't yet heard of them. I think it'd be nicer if they'd call the Code Book an Etiquette and Decorum Book, a new kind of say the black and do the red like we already don't do it.
    I would like to see the Koinone Project take on the task of getting all the pastors in the synod to a regular practice of private confession and absolution at all their meetings. The confessors would be the same as the hosts for communion at each meeting. Every district, every school, every meeting private confession for all pastors for the next 3 years till they can do it in their sleep. Then we go synodwide. Confess our sins and give forgiveness, did I not read that over and over again in the documents??
    P.S. I vaguely remember trying to translate a few sections of Vom unfreien Willen in a Luther's Haupschriften class about a thousand years ago. I found the book still on my shelf and it's printed in fraktur script. Who was I that long ago?

  24. I love it. The “confessional” Rt. Reverend Father editors and staff of Gottesdienst:

    The Rt. Rev. Father Eckardt; The Rt. Rev. Father Fabrizius; The Rt. Rev. Father Koch; The Rt. Rev. Father Petersen; The Rt. Rev. Father Peter Berg; The Rt. Rev. Father Curtis; The Rt. Rev. Father Stuckwisch; The Rt. Rev. Father Braaten; and of course beautiful The Rt. Rev. Fr. John Berg.

    Confessionals. Hahahahaha.

    As to the essay here: What a useless ramble!

  25. cthehrenz,

    None of us are entitled to the title "Right Rev." - we're all just plain old "Rev. Fr."

    And when we laugh it is usually more like "Bwahhahahah."

    All the best,

  26. What would qualify someone for rt. rev. in the LCMS? I would assume district presidents would be most rev. Since we don't have abbots or monsignors, would anything qualify?

  27. Phillip,

    I confess my general ignorance on such titles. They are a matter of etiquette and usage in certain jurisdictions. I think that Right Rev. generally refers to bishops.

    In the LCMS, many (but not all) of the traditional roles of the bishop are carried out by DPs. The two main roles that they do bear are oversight of the parish pastors and ordaining. The main role they do not bear is confirmation. The English District officially styles its DP "Bishop" for these reasons.



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