1999 Synod Assembly Report, Or
"What's a Conservative Pastor to Do?" Part 1

Most of you are aware that our church is a part of a much larger organization - the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; the largest Lutheran body in the United States.  Every year there are local "Synod Assemblies" or area gatherings ("synod" comes from the Greek and means "meeting" or "coming together").  These gatherings are a time for approving budgets, hearing reports from the bishop and other officials of the church, for Bible Study, worship, singing, schmoozing, and voting for people or on resolutions.  Some people love these things, and some people hate them.  I fall somewhere in-between, closer to the latter.

It is at these assemblies that pastors and congregational voting members (we are allowed two voting members from our congregation) are able to hear about the direction of the church beyond our own doors, elect representatives for the Synod Council (like our church council, only over the work of the Synod), and (here is often the tricky part) vote on Resolutions.

These resolutions come from congregations, pastors, agencies, individuals, or synodical boards, and can be about virtually anything that seems to be important enough to have the Assembly vote on.  Often the Assembly is asked through these resolutions to request the National Assembly to consider an issue or move the church in a certain direction.  The Synod Assembly can be a powerful gathering.

This use of power becomes interesting when we consider what the assembly is being asked to do and who makes up the voting members of the assembly. Most congregations, like us, have three voting members - two lay people and one clergy (we have two clergy voting members).  Some congregations also have "Associates in Ministry," lay people who have special clergy-like status because of their education or calling (Mr. Federwitz, our former principal, had this status).

This voting arrangement sounds innocent enough, and in many cases is just fine, until one considers that two thirds of the voting members are not theologically trained.  Again, that's not all bad either.  Having experienced seminary "up close and personally," I'm not sure that missing out on such a life experience is all bad.  But a few questions arise:  Why would we put theological questions (about God or Scripture) or ecclesiastical questions (about the function, direction or structure of the church) before an assembly untrained and unequipped to make such decisions?  And what are the long-term effects of such a practice?

It used to be the custom at such assemblies when a technical question arose before the assembly that a recognized expert was brought in to give input to the Assembly before a decision was made.  For example, when I served a church in Nebraska, the question of whether or not homosexual pastors should be allowed to serve in the ELCA was coming up in Synod Assemblies all over the country.  Before our Synod Assembly in Nebraska was allowed to vote on the issue, a nationally recognized biblical scholar from one of our own seminaries was brought in to lead a Bible study on the subject.

It was that scholar's opinion that the Scriptures condemned homosexuality and that, despite what many people were shouting, no case could be made for ignoring what the Bible said on the subject because it was "culturally irrelevant to us today" if we were to base our beliefs and our church practice on Scripture.  The proposal to fully open our churches to an organization with a strong homosexual agenda ("Lutherans Concerned") was narrowly defeated.

Why is this important to me?  And why should it be important to the church?  One of the reasons that I am a Lutheran pastor (as opposed to another kind of pastor) is that our church was born out of a 16th century movement to bring the Catholic Church back to the Scriptures.  "SOLA SCRIPTURA!"  ("Only Scripture!") was the rallying cry.  So often and for so long the church had ignored the Bible - Church leaders used the power of the church for political expediency and to promote its own agenda in the world - NOT to promote the grace and love of God in Christ.  Martin Luther taught that it didn't matter what councils or popes or theologians or anyone said about faith or life or the church.  If any of these contradicted the Bible's teachings, the Bible was to be the authority over all else.

Sola Scriptura.  I haven't heard that lately. Nor have I heard intelligent theological debate on the weightier or controversial issues before the Synodical Assemblies I have attended.  A couple of years ago, for the "entertainment" at the "gala" assembly dinner, the Los Angeles Gay Men's Chorus was the program.  They were enthusiastically received by most of those attending the dinner.  Some of us left, and I personally do not intend to go to one of those dinners again (the food is never that good anyway!).  The die is cast, and the church's direction seems to be set.

This year the homosexual issue came under an innocent-sounding resolution that came before the assembly: the "Request Educational Materials" (Resolution 99-5).  It seems that there is concern in the church that there are still backward-thinking pastors and laypeople who are unenlightened on the marvelous joys and gifts from God that come from leading a gay lifestyle (yes, I'm being sarcastic! Read Romans 1!), and so this resolution that "study materials, produced by the ELCA, regarding the issue of homosexuality, be prepared under the auspices of the ELCA Division for Congregational Ministries, be made available... at the earliest possible date for study by both adults and youth in our member congregations."  Those of us who aren't on the bandwagon just need to be further educated, I guess.  What was Martin Luther thinking?  Sola Scriptura?  It's no longer "politically correct."

This is the kind of thing that happens when you move the church (deliberately?) away from Scripture and theology.  When you design the church assemblies in such a way that at least two thirds of the voting members are not prepared to make theological decisions, and make sure they are kept in the dark, you end up with a sort of pop-theology, a kind of "feel-good" politically correct version of the church.  A liberal agenda is achieved, and Scripture is all but deleted.

Another issue that has been coming before the Assemblies for the past few years has to do with the seemingly unstoppable movement towards linking up with other churches with little regard for theology, church teachings or consequences.  "Ecclesiastical Promiscuity" is my term for it, and we'll take that up next month.  It came up at the last national assembly and failed because of the work of some conservatives in the Midwest (that bastion of Lutheranism), but it's back again.  We'll take that up next month, along with some of the good things that come out of the ELCA (really!).

Blessings and Peace, 

Pastor Larry Becker