Rursus in Via (On the Road Again)
A recent conversation on social media was illustrative of how we are not really a synod.
Of course, “synod” is often described from its Greek etymology as “walking together.” I think it is more accurate to think of it as the road itself rather than the act of walking. In other words, what makes us “synod” (Greek: σύνοδος) is that we are together (σύν-) using the same road (ὁδός).
In the secular world, most of us use the same roads whether we agree or disagree with each other, politically or otherwise. We all use the roads whether we are liberal or conservative, whether we walk or are driven by a chauffeur, whether we are headed to the food bank or to the diamond auction. For the most part, sharing the same road in spite of our differences is not a problem. Contention comes about when it comes to funding the roads and making decisions about them.
In other words, the road itself isn’t the problem, but rather the politics concerning its administration and funding.
Should poor people be allowed to use the roads when they don’t pay for them? Who should get to vote, and in what proportion? Should only property-owners be permitted the franchise? Should people who pay little or even no taxes have a voice in how the roads are maintained and where new roads are built?
The question of power is a vexing one. Should decisions be made by an inherited aristocracy? Should the aristocracy rather consist not of those bearing hereditary title, but rather those who have proven themselves as barons of commerce and business (that is, those who are materially successful)? Should we rather settle such decisions in a republican form, with regional representation, with checks and balances? Should we have pure democracy, where each person has an equal say?
And when it comes to funding, should it be voluntary or coercive? Should the costs be spread evenly and equitably, or rather according to ability to pay (as in means testing or the progressive income tax)? Should there be a minimum basic access to roads, but perhaps special access for those willing to pay extra (such as special lanes with less traffic for those who can buy a pass)? Or should there just be separate, privatized roads?
Church politics has been a reality since the days of Acts 15, when a “convention” of sorts had to decide the divisive issues of the day. The era of the ecumenical church councils likewise involved the forming of consensus out of diverse opinions – and did so without Robert’s Rules of Order.
Our Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod is divided between those of a more traditional bent vs. those who would like to see more change. The changes are not necessarily doctrinal, as the vast majority of us agree on the theological issues that divide other church bodies, such as how to read scripture, issues of sexuality, respect for human life, etc. Though having said that, there are often memorials to synod involving women’s “ordination.” There are pastors who blog about how the church should be more open to same sex attraction. There is at least one district with female deacons who wear albs and stoles and assist at the altar, and there are some on our roster who do not believe in a literal six-day creation. That said, I think there is a healthy bell-curve in our synod on these issues, and consensus toward the more conservative and historical positions, with disagreement being well within the mathematical definition of deviance.
However, we do find significant diversity in matters of worship. It is elephant in the parlor. This is the issue in which we find the least consensus in our synod. There are certainly other issues, such as seminary training, relationship to other church bodies, issues involving the Concordia system, the distribution of authority between congregations, districts, and synod, etc.
But these divisions often manifest themselves concretely on Sunday morning in the Divine Service, where the rubber meets the road.
Conservatives (who may prefer such terms as confessional, liturgical, or traditional) prefer the style of worship as handed down from our ancestors: the Western Mass, with weekly communion, historic hymns, and the ancient rubrics as found in our hymnals. They argue that this is the position of our confessions, that this is the time-proven best practice for Christians of all ages, that our Lutheran hymnody is theologically sound, dignified, and aesthetically beautiful, and that common worship is a source of unity and stability. They argue that this is God’s preferred form of worship as expressed in Exodus and Leviticus, and that the early Lutherans retained the Mass, only reforming elements that were contrary to Scripture or which obscured the Gospel.
Liberals (not necessarily politically, but rather those more open to innovation and change) prefer a less stringent conformity to traditional forms, whether expressing this in terms of less ceremony, reduced or eliminated vestments, or even rejecting liturgical worship for a more dynamic form that is found in other American church bodies, emphasizing contemporary praise songs with rock or rap music, skits, a more casual feel, and pastoral communication more along the lines of TED talks than sermons. They argue that the Spirit moves in every age, and that things change. Even Luther changed the liturgy to make it more accessible to the people. They argue that our confessions acknowledge adiaphora in worship, and that the Gospel is better served in our culture in this way. And they argue that the numbers are on their side.
The two diametric and polar positions each argue that seminaries should train pastors to lead worship according to each faction’s confession about the nature of worship.
There is also another difference: the role of the clergy. Conservatives see this office in the traditional role of pastor and bishop. Liberals see him more as a leader or facilitator who empowers the laity for ministry. Conservatives tend to see education as primarily theological, while liberals emphasize leadership. This is not to say that conservatives are against leadership training, and that liberals oppose theological education, but they do differ considerably in emphasis. This difference and diversity of opinion also manifest as differences over the role and authority of the congregations, the COP, the Praesidium, and the Synod President.
A recent conversation developed on social media that exposed yet another source of disunity in our synod: the division according to wealth.
A pastor of a large, well-to-do parish with satellite campuses expressed frustration that large churches are expected to bear a higher financial burden than smaller churches, but at the same time, each congregation is represented the same way at convention. In other words, like the question of voting and maintaining roads, who should have the power, and who should have to pay?
The founders of the US settled such questions by political bureaucracy and compromise, such as instituting a bicameral system in which the House is represented by population and the Senate equally by state. They also established an electoral college to assure that rural areas were not subsumed and simply disenfranchised by large urban centers. Even the 3/5 compromise regarding the enumeration of slaves was an attempt to address both representation and taxation.
This particular pastor proposed that large churches engage in activism in the mold of the Boston Tea Party (though the ladies in “Lysistrata” by Aristophanes may be a better analogy) by withholding funds until either: 1) large churches get more representation, or 2) smaller congregations pay their own way.
Another pastor, whose congregation’s members number more than 5,000, agreed and put it more bluntly, asking why they should have to listen to delegates at the microphone who disagree with them, in spite of the fact that they "paid for" those delegates’ "hotel rooms." He also repeatedly pointed out that smaller churches are comprised of “right wingers." This blunt observation is based on the fact that the large, “successful,” wealthy churches tend toward liberalism, whereas the vast majority of LCMS congregations, which are typically small, tend toward conservatism. This is not absolute, but it is a trend.
So what to do about this divide?
One is to do nothing. Rich and poor share the road. We all put “LCMS” on our churches and more or less share access to services, such as seminary-trained pastors and medical insurance and pension plans. The downside is that there is going to be increasing resentment between the economic classes in the LCMS. Why should rich churches subsidize poor churches without having a say in their theology and practice? But of course, the current model pits Christians against one another in a raw fight for power and control along the lines of wealth and class.
Another is to make political compromise. Perhaps we could create a synodical congress, with one house being apportioned by population, and the other house represented equally by congregations or groups of congregations. Or maybe a parliamentary model instead, with a House of Commons made up of middle-class and poor churches, and a House of Lords representing the wealthier churches with proven track records of financial success? However, this method would certainly bloat the bureaucracy and add to the costs.
Maybe the tensions could be alleviated by providing membership levels in the synod based on levels of financial giving. In other words, Gold or Platinum members could be provided first class accommodations and meals at synod and district conventions and other activities, as well as other perks that could alleviate some of the resentment. Of course, this might lead to resentment the other way, and further exacerbate the gulf between rich and poor congregations.
Another partial solution is to reduce the role, scope, and cost of our conventions, perhaps only holding them once every ten years, and/or have them held via Skype. The expenses involved in hotels, meals, travel, time off work, etc. are simply phenomenal. Consider the amount of wasted time in these conventions. The process could be vastly streamlined and economized with technology and stewardship.
Perhaps the solution put forth by the late Prof. Kurt Marquart of a peacefully negotiated divorce is in order. If we can’t even agree on things as basic as Sunday morning worship and theological education - not to mention harboring resentment of paying the hotel bills of delegates who disagree with us at the microphone - maybe it’s time.
Perhaps the road is now forked, becoming two separate roads, voluntarily chosen and maintained. Maybe we should simply shake hands, wish each other well, and part company as friends rather than foster more division and hatred down a single road that is becoming pocked by ugly and damaging potholes.