Tuesday, August 20, 2013
Talking Points about Doctrinal Authority in the LCMS
This summer marks the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of a controversial and divisive document at the 1973 Convention of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). "A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles" appeared in 1972 and was adopted by a slim majority of LCMS convention delegates a year later.
When "A Statement..." was published, many synod members found it deeply flawed. A few wrote public articles that criticized it. When it was adopted by convention resolution, people throughout the synod lamented. Hundreds of LCMS clergy and congregations registered their formal dissent to it. Many thousands more simply dismissed it or ignored it. Of course those in agreement with the synod president at the time, Dr. J. A. O. Preus, welcomed the document and its implementation throughout the synod. Their chief target was the so-called "faculty majority" at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, forty of forty-five faculty members, many of which had been teaching at the seminary for decades (e.g., Richard Caemmerer, Arthur Carl Piepkorn). Those forty were deemed "false teachers not to be tolerated in the church of God." That was the verdict rendered by the same slim majority of delegates at that '73 convention that had earlier adopted "A Statement..." As a result of the "Preusian" implementation of those specific convention resolutions, the forty faculty members and many dozens of other synodical workers eventually lost their official synodical positions. The forty--and the seminarians who remained loyal to them--continued to be Concordia Seminary, but they did so "in exile." Later, they were forced to change their name to "Christ Seminary--Seminex."
While "A Statement..." has been "on the law books," so to speak, since '73, people have not drawn much critical attention to it after the Seminex "trouble-makers" and their supporters--some 200,000 people--had left the synod in the mid-1970s and formed a new church body. A lot of people avoided the document because it simply brought back painful memories of the events that led ultimately to schism in the synod. Other people who remained in the synod after the 1970s refrained from voicing their theological concerns about the contents of the document, perhaps out of fear that if their reservations became known they too might lose their positions. Surely some thought to themselves, "I best keep my head down and just focus on the specific ministry that is before me. I won't rock the boat." Then, too, why publicly discuss a controversial document if it appears that a majority within the synod take its teachings for granted and do not give them a further thought? Why stir up trouble by criticizing an accepted piece of synodical legislation? (And "legislation" is the right word.) Certainly many 1000s saw no need to discuss the document after '73, since they fully agreed with its contents and the implementation of the convention legislation.
I do not remember discussing "A Statement..." in any of my classes when I was a student at the institution that was formed in the wake of Seminex on the grounds of the old Concordia Seminary, St. Louis (1984-88). I read the document, but I also read articles by synod members who had criticized it. The document and its contents did not surface in the two oral theological examinations I undertook with seminary faculty in advance of my authorization for ordination (1988, 1989). I suspect that many LCMS laity today are unfamiliar with the document. I wonder how many LCMS pastors have actually studied it carefully.
Despite the lack of attention given to it by most synod members today, "A Statement..." still shows up in some synodical settings. It is available on the synod's webpage as "an official doctrinal statement" of the synod. As such, it is simply taken for granted. Some have continued to use it coercively against other synod members. For example, reference to it has been made in the course of official proceedings against me for allegedly teaching false doctrine, but no discussion of the document's contents has occurred. Instead, those who have used the document in this way treat "A Statement..." as if its adoption by that slim majority in '73 has settled the pertinent doctrinal issues for all time.
In preparation for my meeting with several members of the synod's Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) last year (2012), to discuss my formal dissent against the synod's insistence on "six-day creationism" and its insistence that women cannot be ordained to serve as pastors, I was invited to re-read "A Statement..." and to identify a number of "talking points" that could be discussed with those CTCR members. What follows here is a summary of those talking points. What better way to observe this fortieth anniversary of "A Statement..." than to take it seriously and to engage it critically?