Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Sad Case of Pr. Robert Stuenkel Revisited

My colleague in the pastoral ministry, Pr. Robert Stuenkel, is facing expulsion from the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod because he has communed with his wife at her parish, a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. For the details of Bob's situation, see Pr. Arnie Voigt's article, "Restoring the Brother," which was originally published in the July issue of Forum Letter and was reprinted by permission of the publisher on my blog (July 18, 2011).

One of the issues in Bob's case involves the interpretation of section 2 of Article VI ("Conditions of Membership") in the LCMS Constitution. That section states that one of the conditions for membership is "renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description, such as serving congregations of mixed confession, as such, by ministers of the church;" and "taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or of congregations of mixed confession."

What does this mean? "Unionism" is a term unique to the Missouri Synod and is intimately connected with its pre-history and early history. It has never been carefully defined. Originally the term described the forced "union" of Lutheran and Reformed congregations by royal decree in nineteenth-century Prussia and by voluntary decision of German Protestants in the United States. In practice, the term has also been applied to situations where a member of the synod has expressed "church fellowship" with church groups that have not accepted the panoply of LCMS doctrinal resolutions. Only those who share completely every doctrinal resolution of the Missouri Synod meet the condition of church fellowship with her, that is, altar and pulpit fellowship. Not surprisingly, the charge of "unionism" has been frequently leveled against military and hospital chaplains, foreign missionaries, and campus pastors, but the synod has historically (at least until the last couple of decades) granted exceptions to the general rule in these situations. (Pr. Stuenkel is a retired campus pastor.)

At its best the synod has balanced the desire to have a common confession of faith and uniform practice that reflects that faith with the more important need to remain an evangelical, non-coercive fellowship whose true focus and heartbeat is the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone. At its worst, the synod has broadened the definition of unionism so much that some used to say that a Missouri Lutheran must not have a common table prayer with anyone else but another Missouri Lutheran. In the early twentieth century, a synodical missionary who prayed with some other Protestant missionaries on the way to India was disciplined and recalled. (Later the synod publicly apologized for such loveless legalism against this missionary.)  Too often synodical leaders have applied the narrowest letter of LCMS canon law in the harshest way. More recently, the synod has been unwilling to embrace a totally legalistic definition of "unionism" and has acknowledged that praying with other Christians, or even worshiping with them, is not necessarily "unionism." After all, there are many examples of LCMS forebears and others attending divine services in "heterodox" congregations who did not come under the accusation of "unionism." (Even that strict German-Lutheran confessionalist, Claus Harms, regularly snuck into the Dreifaltigkeitkirche to listen to the great Schleiermacher preach!)

Article VI's description of "unionism" is ambiguous but it seems to be oriented toward LCMS clergy who serve as a liturgist or celebrant in a congregation that does not confess the regula fidei, the rule of faith. It can't possibly refer to members who confess their sins, sing psalms and hymns, hear the Holy Scriptures, confess the ancient ecumenical creeds, hear the gospel in the sermon, and pray with other Christians in a divine service.

A little book that has had a negative impact on the understanding of "church fellowship" in the LCMS is Abendmahl und Kirchengemeinschaft in der alten Kirche hauptsaechlich des Ostens by Werner Elert. The book was translated by my teacher, Norman Nagel, as Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries (St. Louis: CPH, 1966). I have great respect for Elert and his scholarship and this book is very informative, but how it has been used in both Germany and the United States has led Lutheran congregations away from true Koinonia (communion) and to a sectarian practice of church fellowship.

Elert's little book on patristic Eucharistic fellowship in the eastern churches needs to be understood for what it was, an initial descriptive study in his Dogmengeschichte (a multi-vol. history of dogma), a project he never finished. (A portion of his study of eastern Christology in the 4th-6th centuries was published posthumously.) So the volume is a historical study and not a normative, dogmatic treatise for the contemporary evan-Luth. church.

Even though eastern churches tied confessional orthodoxy (maximally understood) and even church polity to Eucharistic fellowship, Elert himself limited Eucharistic fellowship solely to the confession of the mandatory and essential content of the church's kerygma, i.e., to what is truly essential for the church's unity ("all the factors that sustain the church"), which, of course is summarized in the creeds and evangelical confessions--although these need to be re-examined again and again to [re]-discover what this "essential kerygmatic content" is for the present church. Elert never tired of stressing a minimalist interpretation of Article VII of the Augsburg Confession: the one, holy Christian church "is the assembly of all believers among whom the gospel is purely preached and the holy sacraments are administered according to the gospel."

Significantly, Elert placed his discussion of the Lord's Supper after "the person of the reconciler" and "the work of the reconciler" in the fifth part of his Glaubenslehre (his dogmatics), the part entitled "reconciliation." His reasons for doing so centered on the catholic-orthodox-evangelical claim that what one confesses of Christ has implications for what confesses of Christ's Supper and vice versa. (In other words, Luther's debate with Zwingli was a Christological debate, not merely or even centrally a debate about the Lord's Supper.)

(Baptism is addressed in part two of his sixth section, "the changed existence" [Der Existenzwandel], after his analysis of "the church" and before his analysis of "Encouragement [paraclesis] and justification." Elert held that "baptismal fellowship" is already a reality among most western and eastern Christians, since they acknowledge each other's Baptisms as valid. But interestingly, he does not treat the Lord's Supper under "the church.")

The final paragraphs in Elert's discussion of the Lord's Supper (trans. by Martin Bertram as The Lord's Supper Today [CPH, 1973], 46-47) are most helpful for correcting the notion that there must be complete theological agreement in all matters of scriptural doctrine before there can be church fellowship: "It is precisely in the situation of the local congregation that the Lord's Supper fulfills its function as synaxis [participation in Christ and Christ's body, the church] most meaningfully," a synaxis that also has "an eschatological character." This "synaxis" "depends on the Lord's own call--and since it achieves its reality through the food received in this meal--this synaxis is practiced to the extent that Christ's call is obeyed and this food is received... Here, as in the Eucharistic prayer of thanksgiving, God is being asked to grant the synaxis of His church. What this says, first of all, is that the synaxis in the Lord's Supper is not achieved by the mere assembling of Christians. Rather it is the work of Him who calls them together and makes of the many one body."

Pr. Stuenkel and his wife have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ. They publicly confess their sins and their need for Christ's forgiveness in the divine liturgy of their local congregations (LCMS and ELCA). They publicly confess the faith that is defined in the Apostles' and Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creeds. They have been taught and they regularly confess the regula fidei that is summarized in Dr. Luther's Small Catechism. This regula fidei is identical in Pr. Stuenkel's LCMS congregation and in Mrs. Stuenkel's ELCA congregation, and this despite the theological differences that do in fact exist between these two church bodies. Pr. Stuenkel and his wife regularly hear the promise of Christ who calls them to HIS table to receive all that he has to give them, his body and blood for the forgiveness of their sins. In that promise they discern the body of Christ in their local congregations. In that promise, they hear that the Lord is calling to them and speaking to them: "Take and eat, this is given for you… Take and drink, this is shed for you…" In the synaxis of their local congregations, both LCMS and ELCA, Bob and his wife, Julie, join the faithful in proclaiming that "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." They are in fact "confessing the Lord's death until he comes." 

The same regula fidei exists in both congregations. The same confession exists in both congregations. To somehow think that there is "an LCMS confession" and a different "ELCA confession" is to go against the divine word of faith that is confessed publicly in both congregations. When a member of the LCMS confesses the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, he or she is not confessing Missouri Synod doctrinal resolutions or statements; he or she is confessing the faith of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church, the regula fidei, that is, the doctrine of faith in Christ alone.

Is it not time that the LCMS stop putting itself in the position of rightly discerning for others the body of Christ? While the Synod has occasionally moved in this direction with other all-too-human convention resolutions, it has not proscribed reception of the Lord's Supper in ELCA congregations. The synod has called other church bodies names ("heterodox") and propped itself up as the true visible church of Christ on earth, but it cannot rightly put itself, human organization that it is, between the Lord's Supper and individual conscience.

Who among us LCMSers can state with absolute confidence that one has NOT rightly discerned the body of Christ when one eats and drinks the Lord's Supper in a congregation of the ELCA? How could the LCMS as a political institution ever make that kind of judgment for an individual without at the same time lording over
the individual consciences of others, frustrating the invitation and promise of Christ, and doing violence against his body?

For someone to rule/demand that another Christian (who is not under the restrictions of excommunication) must refrain from communing in such and such a congregation does violence against the body of Christ, does not preserve the communion of all who belong to Jesus Christ, and is an offense against the responsibility of communion that has its basis in the very nature of the Lord's Supper.

The invitation of Jesus that a pastor issues when he/she says the words of institution in Jesus' stead is for all of Jesus's disciples, and no bishop or district president or church body on its own may insert itself between this invitation and those who respond to it in responsible faith.


  1. Additionally Elert in his dogmatics stresses the fact that before there was a teaching about the Lord's Supper there was the Lord Jesus' invitation and command and promise to "Take and eat..." first. This quid pro quo would help all of us understand that the priority is Jesus' command and not the church's reflection on the eucharistic dogma. Fellowship is through Christ's invitation alone to others regardless of prejudice and it is through the calling of the Gospel that we have fellowship in Him. This fellowship is created by Jesus through his Word and the sacraments.

  2. Those who are trying to hijack the LCMS and turn it into a type of purity cult (if they went back in time) would not be able to have Eucharistic fellowship in the patristic church - as none of the early fathers had the same exact theology.

    The Lord's Supper is meant to be Gospel for sinners and not a reward for being pure.

  3. What is responsible faith? That is the question. (Apart from the he/she drivel.) I'm sure Becker will speak for the church throughout the ages, and read everything in his systematic matrix as validating his error. I suppose this anonymous will not be posted, but those, like the above and the "hijacke the LCMS" comment will be allowed to stay. Amazing the sophistry becker yields and those who post like the above. Hmmm... Control of the media! Truth seekers or fascists?

  4. Professor Becker,

    Thanks for being a breath of fresh air in the LCMS!

    It is time to open up the windows and let a 21st century wind of renewal blow through the internet. At first many of your young LCMS readers will need to be anonymous, as the possiblity of persecution is very real. However, in time the movement will grow and a new day will dawn.

  5. I remember in the early 1970's a powerful anecdotal story was told of a Jewish person who came up for Holy Communion at a Lutheran Church (LCMS in fact), out of a desire to be friendly towards Christians and ended up coming to faith in Jesus as the Messiah at the precise occasion of receiving the Sacrament! It reminds me of the passage in John where they noticed Jesus in the breaking of the bread.

    As an LCMS pastor, I also have no problem giving Holy Communion to sexually immoral people, because I believe the power of grace in the Eucharist is precisely what they need to be set free. In the sacrament they are given sanctifying grace to overcome their problems – which, by definition, also includes a heightened awareness and sensitity (i.e. repentance as a gift) for the negative things they are doing to their spiritual life. There is power in the blood! Let’s make our Eucharistic Altar calls count for the Kingdom of God in reaching the non believers and weak in faith.

  6. What I find amusing about those who want to make Holy Communion available to only “card carrying” LCMS Lutherans is how inconsistent they are within their own movement. They will selectively hold back from distributing Holy Communion, to those with whom they disagree with, even in the LCMS – e.g. the Keller Resolution is as a case in point. Yet, in their own purity cult they still allow theological differences for the time being – like whether it is permissible for women to vote, whether the consecration is where the real presence begins, etc. If the purity cult people are allowed to get their way it will be a never ending purge – all in the name of sacred koinonia – i.e., fight, fight, fight and “who can give we boot out and get rid of?” The purity cult movement in the LCMS is like little children playing king of the mountain on a mound of grass and dirt in a park. They are a bunch of child like bullies who need to grow up.

    P.S. You can call me “Dave” and make this less anonymous. Thanks.

  7. It is the Lord's Supper. That should say it all in regards to who is invited to the Lord's Table. The danger of making the Lord's Supper into a LCMS meal should be apparent. St. Paul would be writing to St. Louis today to warn them of not making divisions...hmm, come to think of it, he does.

  8. Anonymous People,

    Please, at least give us your initials. Your comments are worth considering but I will not leave them up without a name. Thank you!

  9. It is the Lord's Supper. That should say it all in regards to who is invited to the Lord's Table. The danger of making the Lord's Supper into a LCMS meal should be apparent. St. Paul would be writing to St. Louis today instead of Corinth to warn them of not making divisions...hmm, come to think of it, he does.


    P.S. I don't know how to put my initials on my first post, or for that matter how to make any comments other than Anonymous.

  10. It's not right to call it persecution. Persecution is when you hold to God's word and suffer for it. In Pakistan, Egypt, etc. Christians suffer greatly for confessing Christ. It minimizes their suffering when you say that a pastor in the LCMS who is rebuked for publicly denying the teaching of his synod is being "persecuted."

    Although it isn't always said lovingly, rebukes for practicing open communion are really loving acts. When you commune a person you are acknowledging them as a Christian and proclaiming them one body with the congregation at that place. When you do that without examining communicants, or when you give the Lord's Body and Blood to members of churches that teach false doctrine, you endanger their souls. If a Baptist comes to your altar who has been taught to trust in his experience of conversion instead of the Gospel, and you commune him instead of making it clear that he belongs to a church that has corrupted God's Word, he will accuse you on the last day if his church's false teaching leads to his damnation. A member of the ELCA who is immersed in that church's hardness toward God's Word, whom you commune instead of warning about the false teaching of that church, will accuse a pastor who failed to warn them about the soul-destroying false teaching espoused by the ELCA. It is a fearful thing to be entrusted with the care of people's souls and prove unfaithful. That's why it is loving for pastors practicing open communion to be rebuked. And if other pastors in the LCMS fail to warn their brothers who have embraced an unfaithful practice, how would we answer when, on the last day, pastors in our synod accuse us of failing to love them enough to tell them the truth?

  11. Karl writes: "...when you give the Lord's Body and Blood to members of churches that teach false doctrine, you endanger their souls."

    I don't buy that line of reasoning. The only "false doctrine" that the Apostle Paul is speaking about, in his letter to the Corinthians, is related to a failure to discern the Body of Christ - which is just simple unbelief.

    Some of the Corinthians were evidently not discerning the covenant healing benefits of the sacrament (and those benefits were especially prominent in the miracles that were around in the first century). That is the real reason why some of the Corinthians were sick and dying. In other words, like Scripture says, "you have not because you ask not." Those who were not discerning the body were just not able to receive, with discerning faith, what God had for them in the Eucharist for healing and various other covenant blessings.

    Holy Communion is not meant to be like a snake handling ritual where it is a "live wire" meant to judge the faith of all but the truly true believers - who are pure as the driven snow in their doctrine.

    I'm more concerned that on the Last Day, I will have been found out to have metaphorically buried the widespread distribution of Eucharistic gifts out of a reactionary fear based theology.

    I believe that God is a good God and not some wrathful monster who delights in zapping others in hell fire and brimstone for the slightest error in their theology.

    Dave from the LCMS.

  12. Dr Becker,
    Being a former LCMS pastor, I was "inspired" by just this type of thinking in the LCMS to read and then write an essay (for Lutheran Forum) entitled "For a worthy reception, faith is necessary..." I am under no dillusion that it is convincing for any hardliner in the LCMS but for me it exposes the error of closed communion as exercised, at least, precisely in this situation.

  13. Thank you, Pr. Wandrey, for sharing the link to your essay. I fully agree with what you write there. Thanks again!