I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Epheshians 4
One of the few failures of the Harrison Administration was the Koinonia project. I sincerely wish it could have worked. There were a number of reasons for the failure. I deeply respect Vice President Mueller and his work. But there was a doctrinal decision made early on that haunted the project and pretty much guaranteed its failure.
At the end of the previous administration, a report was issued that said the disunity in our synod was because of those who prioritized doctrine above the faith we share in Christ. Unity of faith is one thing (given by God, shared by all Christians), while concord of doctrine is another (only for those who agree in every doctrinal article.) This is not only a lie, it is a diabolical one. Doctrine is the teaching(doctrine) of the same Jesus we believe in (faith). Doctrine and faith can no more be separated than can the divine and human natures of Christ. Sadly, in an effort to be conciliatory, the report was included in the Koinonia background materials. But even that was too much. The corruption of that false teaching infected every aspect of the Koinonia project.
When my district considered going to New York to speak to the pastors of the Atlantic District, VP Mueller spoke to our pastor’s conference about it. He believed that study of God’s Word would solve the issue. It was certainly the only thing that could. And then he added, “in my time as District President, if agreement could not be reached, it became obvious what needed to happen.” He wouldn’t elaborate on that, or commit to removing anyone. Nor should he have. Everything he said was correct. The Word of God was sufficient in each case.
But then, as we began to get pre-meeting materials, the corruption of the COP report started to seep into the process. By the time our flights landed, “We must look at the Word of God, come what may” was turned into “We all took the same vows and so have the same doctrine.” But this is precisely the point that the Koinonia project was supposed to discuss. Vows do not make one faithful. Adherence to them does. Claiming Unity of faith because of an outward rite (vows) was exactly the sort of popish false teaching that the Reformation tried to correct. If Vice President Mueller is to have a legacy in this church, it must be a return to the foundational principles he brought to our district, not to the false teaching that was foisted upon him, and that he did his best to work with, but ultimately, could not salvage. No one could have. It’s easy to see in retrospect, but at the time, it seemed a necessary concession. It was poison.
Doctrine is the teaching of Jesus. Anyone who is not united in that is not united with what Jesus taught. To say “doctrine divides” is to say “The things Jesus taught divide.” This is true – Jesus said so. But to then say such division is problematic, and must be ignored or passed over, is to ignore the word of Jesus himself. As an example, we can’t be united with those who deny the word of Jesus “This is my body.” It’s painful to tell a loved one they are wrong. But the other option is to deny our Lord Jesus. And the tears we will weep if we do that will be far more bitter.
The Koinonia Project was destined to fail not because of bad motives on the part of President Harrison or Vice President Mueller. It was destined to fail because they were essentially cornered into accepting a report that made doctrine – the teaching of Jesus – less than faith in him. But faith must have an object, and if there is faith there is a confession – a doctrine. Without that, the church would have fallen away from Christ in the Judaistic controversy already during the time of the apostles. Saint Paul calls those anathema that teach any other Gospel – any other doctrine – from what Paul taught. Fortunately, the church at Jerusalem, at Nicaea, at Augsburg, at Altenbrug, and even at New Orleans all stood for the proper teaching of God’s Word. We must return to such an understanding.
We are not united in doctrine. That’s a hard truth, but it must be spoken. We don’t live up to the scriptural standard. Open communion is regularly practiced, we have significant problems with the role of men and women, our seminaries allow divorced men to be certified as pastors, we have districts that continue to push the unscriptural practice of so-called lay ministry, Intinction is regularly practiced despite the clear word of our Lord “Take Drink”, and now some are claiming that video communion can replace the scriptural principle of “the assembling of ourselves together.” We need to have serious discussions about our doctrine and practice. We can no longer continue as a house divided. I’m not suggesting a witch hunt or a series of heresy trials. We’ve had a lot of years of bad catechesis, and Pastor Harrison has, in the last decade, instructed patiently and faithfully as he has been able regarding those matters that have come before him. But at some point, we need to be honest that things are not calm. There are divisions, and we need to face those honestly from all sides. We can not limp between two opinions forever. Vice President Mueller was correct: We must submit ourselves to honest conversation under the word of God. And we must be ready to go where that word leads.
Concrete Proposal :
Confessing Christ in all we do, and looking to Scripture Alone to settle disputes.
The synod will undertake a three year study of The Augsburg Confession and the other confessional documents specifically with reference to what they teach about controverted issues. At the end of that time, a statement will be developed which addresses controverted issues in our synod, following the path of the Reformers: What is at issue, what we accept, and what we reject. The pattern for this was set by Vice President Mueller and President Harrison. But the implementation failed because nothing was ever publicly presented to the church, and the discussions were always private, there was no involvement by the wider church. This meant that no statement was ever offered to the church identifying controverted issues and speaking the Word of God to those issues. We need to publicly address our differences. Pastors of the synod, as part of the study of the Book of Concord, will be asked to identify issues which are controverted at all levels. We will study those issues under the Word of God. We will hash out our differences, stating areas where we agree, areas where we disagree, what the Word of God teaches, and what it doesn’t. In the end, the Word of God will be the basis for any decisions made.
For too long it has been true that we are a synod united by a common health and retirement plan. That must change. There must be unity of doctrine. But if we are to risk division by discussing those differences honestly, neither can we abandon workers who have labored in the vineyard in good faith with the promise of health and retirement plans. That would be an injustice. There must be a way – and this will be a difficult and fine line – to allow men or congregations who have departed from God’s Word over the years because of laissez faire discipline and lax doctrinal supervision to leave peacefully without risking the health or well being of their family. We must explore options in this regard, but then we must be honest that we are not united. Other District presidents have begun recommending peaceful division of the synod into like-minded groups, with the multiple synods remaining in fellowship. The latter is obviously a wish that can not be. But we must do everything in our power to ensure that workers are not left without the ability to care for their loved ones. This will require a high degree of sensitivity and sacrifice on the part of all. In Christian love, we owe that much to each other.
I also believe that an honest study of the Word of God will in many cases result in renewed and growing unity. This has happened to a certain extent under President Harrison at the synod level. Increasing appreciation and use of the hymnal, a return to basic principles outlined in the Small Catechism, etc. Thanks to Be to God for such results! That is the goal of any conversation we have under scripture. But however it ends up, it’s time to have a serious conversation under Scripture about issues which, even now, continue to divide us. We must stop kicking the can down the road, while pretending there is no can.