The History, Theology and Practice of Congregational Self-Governance in the LCMS
In terms of governance and order, the Missouri Synod has throughout its history balanced power between the baptized and the ordained. We have made our decisions at conventions through votes mediated by an equal representation of clergy and laity. These votes were not to be viewed as mandates, but as carefully crafted and thoroughly dialogued advice.
In a fun, tongue-in-cheek essay, the Editorial Staff of Congregations Matter has provided another brief history of the LCMS on one issue: Congregational Self-Governance as opposed to the current Synod trend towards hierarchialism. The essay reviews our history, theology, and the unfortunate, current tendency of our Synod to move from prizing the Priesthood of All Believers and Congregational Polity toward a foreign, non-Lutheran emphasis on maintaining and growing the structure itself and fulfilling its needs at the expense of the our “first love”:
Please CLICK HERE to download the complete essay. Here are some quick insights from the essay to encourage you to read it in its entirety.
Synod: An Advisory Body from the Start
Our national framework has always been advisory. We structured Synod as a visitational, exhortational, and encouraging partnership focused on the bonds of unity from our firm and loving connection to the Word of God. The relation of the Synod to its members is described as cleanly and clearly in its constitution, Article Seven, as the Augsburg Confession describes the Church in its Article Seven:
In its relation to its members the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body. Accordingly, no resolution of Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.
And no property rights to boot.
Who Serves Who — And Who Holds “The Keys”?
In our past, Walther had to steer between the poles of the more hierarchically and clerically deterministic Loehe and Grabau in Iowa and Buffalo and the congregational posturings of Vehse and Marbach. A vestige and version of our way is imbedded in Constitution Article VII. We’re left with the mediating solution of our other Uber, the Ubertragungs Lehre (the doctrine of transference of power and authority), which briefly stated looks like this:
The Keys (Churchly Authority) belong to the Church. The Priesthood of all believers holds the keys corporately; the clergy are viewed as called out of and yet part of that priesthood, as being granted authority and yet being held accountable by the priesthood. The sheep judge the shepherds, and yet the sheep are taught by the shepherds. And oversight is at its heart advisory, at its most severe a function of reproving and admonishing.
Read this essay to see how the LCMS has developed our historic way of governing from the Word of God, the Lutheran Confessions, and the experience of our early church in America. It will help the reader understand exactly what is at stake in the coming months as we consider a change in leadership. The essay will also help the reader understand how Synod has drifted away from its theological and organizational moorings to become more self-involved, self-serving and self-perpetuating as an organization.
Simply put, over the past seven years, our current St. Louis leadership acts more as a coercive parent TO congregations than a supportive, advisory partner OF congregations.
Will we choose a next leader for Synod as President who will stand with Walther or continue this decline into centralization? Walther’s view was that the Synod leadership was built to be servants of the congregations, not the masters of congregations whose work is to serve them. Let’s nominate leaders who will stand with congregations.