Monday, July 18, 2011

Restoring the Brother?

Below is a recent article by my colleague in the ministry, Pr. Arnie Voigt. It appeared in the most recent issue of Forum Letter, which is published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. The article details a sad tale about another LCMS colleague, Pr. Bob Stuenkel. I have been given permission to share the article here.

Restoring the Brother?
by Arnie Voigt
 Bob Stuenkel is a retired pastor of the Lutheran Church-Missouri
Synod. His wife, Julie, holds membership in a congregation of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Therein lies the problem that
gives rise to this tale of law and grace.

In 1978 Stuenkel was called by the Colorado District LCMS (now the
Rocky Mountain District [RMD]) and University Lutheran Church to an
inter-Lutheran ministry at the University of Colorado. By then
inter-Lutheran cooperation was rapidly decaying, and Stuenkel faced a
determined group of very conservative Boulder area pastors who
challenged him in areas which still today trouble any cooperation
between the LCMS and ELCA. The RMD withdrew from Lutheran Campus
Ministry of Colorado in 1981, and this exacerbated the criticism of
Stuenkel. Even his call was questioned, as was the congregation's
status as a member of Synod, its use of the Lutheran Book of Worship,
and even the wording on the church sign.

Stuenkel retired in 2003. Wounded by years of attacks on her husband,
Julie Stuenkel (raised in the former American Lutheran Church) joined
Atonement Lutheran in Boulder, an ELCA parish. With deep family roots
in the LCMS, Bob Stuenkel desired to remain on Synod's clergy roster,
so he transferred his membership to Redeemer Lutheran in Ft. Collins.
But their faith, a deep part of their commitment to one another,
brought Julie and Bob together to share Bread and Cup, at times at
Atonement, at times at Redeemer.

Concerns enacted

Retirement did not end the harassment Stuenkel endured during his
active ministry. After the conclusion of one meeting, a pastor asked
him outright if he communed with Julie at her church. Stuenkel, in
honesty, said yes. In the fall of 2008, the pastor carried this
information via the circuit counselor to the Rev. Randy Golter,
president of the RMD. Conversations ensued. On Christmas Eve 2008,
Stuenkel received a letter from Golter in which the President gave
him until May 1, 2009, to declare he either would discontinue
communing with his wife and thereby "taking part in the . . .
sacramental rites of a heterodox congregation" (Article VI of the
LCMS Handbook) or he would resign from the LCMS clergy roster.

In April 2009, a number of RMD pastors met with Stuenkel. After that
discussion sixteen pastors signed a letter on April 27 asking
President Golter to delay a decision to give time for discussion both
with brother pastors and "on the Council of Presidents level."
Questions were asked: Where in the Handbook of the LCMS is "taking
part" defined? Does this phrase mean "private communing" or "public
officiating" or both? How about pastoral care for Julie? No response
was received.

More talk

On April 30 Golter, rather than enforcing the May 1 deadline,
suggested three meetings for "one to one" discussions, to be held in
June, August, and October. In these meetings Golter described
Stuenkel's communing at an ELCA parish as "a concern of [Stuenkel's]
circuit," a "violation" of Article VI, a "misleading of the flock,"
and a sinful "offense."

In the October meeting Golter told Stuenkel that he had asked the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) to address what
the phrase "taking part in" meant.

After the LCMS national convention in July 2010 (in which Missouri,
in the view of some, moved further in a conservative direction) the
process resumed. On August 26 Golter imposed a restricted status:
Stuenkel could no longer function in pastoral capacity in a
congregation. Stuenkel appealed the ruling, which resulted in a June
8 hearing before a panel of three LCMS district presidents.

The hearing

The hearing's alleged purpose was "to seek the restoration of the
brother." President Golter framed the charges in terms of "unionism,"
a time- honored word in Missouri's lexicon. He stressed that Stuenkel
was "making two confessions," LCMS and ELCA, and (as Stuenkel puts
it) "that my 'confession' at the ELCA altar is a confusion of the
truth [of God's Word]."
Stuenkel asked his questions: "Does my communing with Julie at
Atonement Lutheran Church (ELCA) disqualify me from my vocation in
LCMS ministry? Is this what our Synod requires according to Article
VI of the Constitution? Where is this clearly stated in Holy
Scripture and in the Lutheran Confessions?"

What does this mean?

His questions were received without feedback. The crux of Golter's
charge and the hearing panel's conclusion lies in the phrase "taking
part in." How is one to exegete "taking part"? Does it mean a pastor
of Synod receiving communion at a non-Missouri Synod altar? Or does
it refer to a pastor serving as celebrant for communion or assisting
in worship in another denomination?

Synod itself has never answered this question clearly. In 2002, the
Commission on Constitutional Matters (CCM) was asked to explain the
"taking part" phrase. The CCM declined a response, referring the
question to the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR).

The CTCR also refused an outright answer. In a request to the CTCR
dated September 7, 2009, an unnamed district president [actually
Golter] asked, ". . . [Is] the reception of the Lord's Supper by a
pastor of Synod with a congregation . . . not in church fellowship
with LCMS . . . a failure of the membership requirement of
'[r]enunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description' as
that phrase is used in Article VI, Section 2 of the Constitution?"

Theological uncertainty

The CTCR concluded that it "does not believe it can interpret
theologically [emphasis in original] with any certainty" how the
phrase "taking part" is used. And then, to complete the circle, the
CTCR returned it to the CCM: "Its particular usage . . . is a
question . . . that can be rightly decided only by those who are
charged with the responsibility for such interpretation, the
Commission on Constitutional Matters."

On June 18, the decision came. Synod's confusion did not deter the
hearing panel. Admitting "that there is not universal agreement . . .
concerning the interpretation of the words 'taking part'," the panel
nonetheless upheld Golter's action of placing Stuenkel on restricted
status. It saw its duty as purely administrative: determining "that
the proper procedure was followed and the matter described by
President Golter is factual."

Falling back on administrative authority

So the panel threw the issue back in Golter's lap, noting that "what
constitutes appropriate responsible pastoral care be determined in
consultation with the rostered member's ecclesiastical supervisor,
namely, the district president." The one who categorized the issue as
"offensive" is now the one designated to determine the consequence of
the offense. There is no appeal from a restricted status.

To further cloud its conclusion, the panel grounded its opinion in
what it said are "corresponding serious issues." What exactly these
might be the panel did not say, but these unnamed "issues" still
hover above this case, and indeed above the Synod.

The restricted status is for one year. By August 26, 2011, Golter
must (1) continue the restricted status for another year; (2) remove
the restricted status designation; or (3) permanently remove Stuenkel
from the LCMS clergy roster. The panel instructed Golter to have
"immediate and intentional conversation" and "to seek the restoration
of the brother."

Examining private lives

For Stuenkel the meaning is evident: "It becomes clear to me," he
said "that greater priority is being given to 'ecclesiastical
supervision' than to the theological concerns or pastoral care in our

And more. Stuenkel observed an ominous subtext: a district president
sets a dangerous precedent in using a pastor's private worship
decision as a reason for expulsion. Another bylaw (1.2.1.g) states
that "Ecclesiastical supervision does not include the responsibility
to observe, monitor, control, or direct the day-to-day activities of
individual members of Synod, whether in the conduct of their work or
in their private lives." Does Golter exceed this limit when pressing
his concerns? The CCM and the CTCR both have refused to define
"taking part," and yet the panel has upheld Golter's action. This
suggests that at least this district president is free to impose his
own standard of doctrine and practice where no agreement exists-even
against a pastor eight years into retirement.

The Gospel or the Law?

The Missouri Synod binds participation in the Eucharist to the
"Gospel and all its articles." "Articles" are the jots and tittles of
LCMS doctrinal statements, the LCMS seeing participation in the
Eucharist as making a doctrinal "confession." By-laws empower a
president to suspend membership of those who are found guilty of
"persistently adhering to false doctrine or for having given offense
by an ungodly life."

But can communing with one's wife or husband or children or parents
in an ELCA congregation really be stamped "an ungodly life"? In this
case the object of "restoring the brother" has degenerated into
binding him to rulings and resolutions which do not resolve this
issue rather than to the gracious invitation of the Savior who
invites sinners to the feast of forgiveness.

For Stuenkel, the matter is one of Law and Gospel. Ecclesial pressure
continues. Will ambiguous bylaws coldly trump the simple words that
bring husband and wife together at the Lord's altar: "That one is
truly worthy and well prepared who has faith in these words, 'Given
and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins'"? Will law or grace
prevail in "the restoration of the brother"?

Arnie Voigt is a retired LCMS pastor who served parishes in Alabama
and Colorado. Since retirement he has worked with Bright Stars of
Bethlehem and Sabeel, organizations focused on ministries in
Palestine and on Palestinian human rights advocacy. He and his wife
live in Littleton, CO. This is his first contribution to Forum Letter.

Reprinted with permission from Forum Letter, August, 2011, copyright 2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.


  1. "a pastor's private worship

    Publicly communing in a church is not a private act. It is a confession that one shares the faith of that altar. So the Church catholic has always taught and believed.


  2. Pr. H. R.,

    According to his own public statements, Pr. Stuenkel shares the faith of the altar of the ELCA, just as he shares the faith of the altar of the LCMS. It is the same faith. By his actions Pr. Stuenkel proclaims the Lord's death until the Lord's return. Pr. Stuenkel confesses the faith of the Nicene-Const. Creed. He confesses the doctrinal content of the evangelical Confessions. Satis est.

    The sectarians within the LCMS are the ones who are guilty of needlessly restricting the catholic faith to the bylaws and statements and resolutions of the very tiny LCMS.

    Your altar and god are too small.

  3. Perhaps if we were clear on the meaning of "taking no part", the meaning of "taking part" would likewise be clear...

  4. Matthew Matthew. You write: "Your altar and god are too small."
    Make sure your altar and "god" are not alter-ed and bigger than God Himself. Are doctrinal sins not to be confessed and repented of before going to the Altar? Is it honest to commune with those you believe are sinning by either teaching falsely or supporting false teaching? Finally, may I assume due to your fastidious nit-picking of errata when you review books that you wrote "god" with small "g" on purpose--to say that Pr. H.R. does not believe in the capital "G" God? Or was it not meant to convey such? If their are specks in Missouri (by-law mentality), could their not be logs elsewhere? Rome is bigger than tiny Missouri. They must be right. No? Why not, if just being tiny would seem to damn Missouri? Satis est can be yielded in the way of the law, even as it is being proclaimed as the epitome of the Gospel. Nicht wahr?

  5. Dear Anonymous (can you not identify yourself?),

    "Nothing so big that God is not bigger...nothing so small that God is not smaller..." (M. Luther)

    "This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, teaching human precepts as doctrines."

    There is only one doctrine, the doctrine of the gospel. It is sufficient for the true unity of the church that there be agreement in the doctrine of the gospel and in the administration of the sacraments in accordance with the gospel. Satis est.

    Some congregations within the synod have insisted on additional, narrow theological agreements that go well beyond the gospel. These additional agreements fall into the domain of "human precepts" but are often set forth by some as if they are identical to the doctrine of the gospel.

    What you might consider "false teaching" may simply be a difference of theological opinion that is not destructive of the true unity of the church as grounded in the gospel.

    Tell me, does the person who receives the Lord's Supper at an ELCA altar, according to the Lord's own promise, not receive the body and blood of the Lord for the forgiveness of sins?

    Yes, I wrote "god" on purpose because Pr. H. R. seems to be making the LCMS into a god. He seems to be limiting God's promises to LCMS altars. That is idolatry.

    Pr. H. R. strikes me as being very similar to the Pharisees and some of the scribes who had come from Jerusalem and gathered around Jesus for table fellowship. They noticed that some of Jesus' disciples were eating with defiled hands, that is, without washing them. So the Pharisees and the scribes asked him, "Why do your disciples not live according to the tradition of elders, but eat with defiled hands?" The Lord continues by rebuking the Pharisees for teaching according to human tradition. "You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition... You have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!" I find it quite easy to substitute "some LCMS pastors" for "pharisees and some of the scribes" in this story.

    "Their" should have been spelled "there."

    The ELCA administers the Lord's Supper according to the promise of Christ, whereas the Roman Church is muddled, to put the best construction on its doctrine and practice. The issue is not the small size of the LCMS. The issue is all about discerning the body of Christ beyond the LCMS, of acknowledging that Pr. Stuenkel and his wife receive the body and blood of Christ when they commune at an LCMS or an ELCA altar. There is unity at the altar of Christ that is deeper and more solid than the minor theological disagreements that currently exist between these two church bodies.