The Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) 60th biennial convention convened on Monday, July 27 in Saginaw, Michigan, and runs through Friday, July 31, 2009 A.D. On the opening day, WELS President Schroeder delivered a report to the Convention. Here is just one section from his report subtitled, “Maintaining our confessional identity.”
Maintaining our confessional identity
by WELS President Mark Schroeder
WELS describes itself as a confessional Lutheran synod. That means that we subscribe unconditionally to the Lutheran Confessions as contained in the Book of Concord of 1580 not insofar as (quatenus) they are a correct exposition of biblical teaching but because (quia) they are. It means that our synod boldly, and without qualification or hesitation, upholds the doctrine (what we believe and teach) as articulated in the Confessions and is committed to reflecting those doctrinal beliefs in our practice (how we express our faith and carry out our mission). Our unity in faith is created by the power of God’s revealed Word and shaped by the doctrines of Scripture; it is expressed in our common commitment to the Lutheran Confessions as correct expositions and explanations of biblical truth. Since the time of the Reformation, Lutherans have recognized the importance of articulating not only what we believe as Christians, but what distinguishes Lutheran belief and practice from that of other Christian churches that have departed from scriptural truth.
It might surprise some here today that the Wisconsin Synod has not always been a solidly confessional Lutheran synod. There is no doubt that the early fathers of our synod were filled with a fervent zeal for mission work, but not all of them were fully committed to Lutheran doctrine and practice. They were sent to America by mission societies in Germany in which the distinction between Lutheran and Reformed teachings was blurred at best and virtually non-existent at worst. Their roots in pietism also resulted in a lack of commitment to sound Lutheran theology. True to those roots, they preferred to emphasize the importance of subjective feelings over the objective truth of God’s Word, sanctified living over justification, and the power of prayer over the efficacy of the means of grace. They emphasized the priesthood of all believers to the point where they downplayed the importance of the public ministry. John Muehlhaeuser, the first president of what would become the Wisconsin Synod, gave evidence of this doctrinal laxity when he said, “I am in a position to offer every child of God and servant of Christ the hand of fellowship over the denominational fence.” Curiously, the first draft of the synod’s constitution pledged the synod to the Lutheran Confessions, but within weeks those words were crossed out and replaced with a pledge to a generic “pure Bible Christianity.”
By God’s grace that orientation soon changed. In 1861 John Bading was elected as the second president of the synod. In contrast to Muehlhaeuser, Bading regarded the Lutheran Confessions as a proclamation of God’s truth for every age and was committed to sound Lutheran doctrine and practice. In his first address as president, he encouraged the young synod to sacrifice “blood, life, and limb and suffer all rather than depart one hair’s breadth from the truth we have learned.” In the years that followed, we are grateful that through his leadership and through the beneficial influence of the Missouri Synod, God transformed our synod into one that was truly committed to the doctrines of Scripture and to the Lutheran Confessions.
Striving to remain faithful to the Scriptures—and to maintain our confessional identity—does not involve a single battle fought and won. It is an ongoing struggle for the church militant. When the battle ends on one front today, Satan opens another front tomorrow. That’s why each generation needs to recognize this struggle as its own and engage in it zealously. Each generation, including ours, needs to resist the temptation to be led astray by false teachings, both blatant and subtle. Each generation, including ours, needs to be vigilant in resisting both doctrinal indifference and smugness. When orthodoxy is assumed or taken for granted, it is likely soon to be lost.
As Confessional Lutherans we are committed to holding on to the truth of God’s Word and to defending against all error. We do that, however, not merely to keep that Word for ourselves, but rather to share that message with the world now and for generations to come. It is a false antithesis to say that faithfulness to doctrine is somehow opposed to, or detracts from, a commitment to sharing the gospel. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The truth of Scripture, entrusted to us by God, is what gives us a message to proclaim. A truly correct understanding of biblical doctrine always produces a correct understanding of the mission of the church and recognizes the compelling need to share God’s truth with the world. I don’t believe it to be a coincidence that our synod’s period of most rapid mission growth and expansion occurred in the 1960s and 1970s, immediately after a decade of doctrinal struggles in which our synod displayed a bold commitment to upholding scriptural truth and to articulating our beliefs.
As Confessional Lutherans, we emphasize and agree that it is the gospel in Word and sacrament that is the “power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). We proclaim Christ crucified. The message of the cross was not the message that itching ears wanted to hear in Paul’s day, and it is not a message that finds favor in the ears of today’s postmodern, self-gratifying, self-centered unbeliever. As Confessional Lutherans we will look for every opportunity to proclaim God’s law in all its harshness, and we will be zealous to share the sweet message of the gospel to every sinner convicted by God’s law. But we will never adjust or hide or downplay a single word of God’s truth in order to make it somehow more attractive. To do that is to empty the gospel of its power and to lose the gospel itself.
Confessional Lutherans also recognize that Christ has set us free from the law and its demands. The ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, regulating all areas of life for Old Testament believers, have been fulfilled and removed. In Christ, all things not decided by the Word of God are, as Paul says, “permissible” (1 Corinthians 10:23).
But confessional Lutherans are also well aware that just because something may be done does not mean that it should be done. Immediately after asserting that all things are permissible, Paul went on to say, “But not everything is beneficial … not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23). In other words, when something is determined to be an adiaphoron, that’s not where the discussion ends; that is when discussion among Christians begins. It’s a discussion which asks important questions: “This may be permissible. But how does this particular practice affect my fellow Christians-both inside and outside of our fellowship? Does this practice reflect clearly what we believe, or does it send an unclear or blurred message? What impact does this have on the church today, and what long-term ramifications might this have? Is there the potential of offense or misunderstanding? Does a practice sacrifice a connection with the church of the ages for the sake of mere innovation? Will such a practice build up and express our unity or will it fracture and diffuse it?”
It’s interesting to note that in almost all cases when the New Testament addresses the matter of Christian freedom, the focus is not on the Christian’s right to exercise that freedom. More often the New Testament talks about the importance of refraining from exercising my Christian freedom if doing so will potentially cause harm to others or to the mission of the church.
In asserting their right to act in Christian freedom, especially in a desire to reach the lost, people often cite these words of Paul: “I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). But the context of those words clearly indicates that Paul is not making the case for an “anything goes” approach to mission work and worship practices. On the contrary, Paul prefaced those words with this statement: “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone to win as many as possible.” In other words, even though he may have every right to exercise his freedom, for the sake of the gospel and Christian love he does not do that. He refrains from using his freedom for the sake of the message and for the sake of those who hear his message. Professor John Brug of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary put it this way: “Paul’s way of being all things to all people was preaching the same clear gospel to all, not trying to tailor a message that would be offensive to none.” (Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, v. 106, #3, p. 220).
Faithfulness to God’s Word and to the Lutheran Confessions is the responsibility of every called worker and lay member of our synod. We have also given to the Conference of Presidents (COP) the responsibility of overseeing supervising doctrine and practice in our synod. Mindful of that solemn duty, the COP states in its report to this convention: “The COP has also discussed issues relating to forms and practices in the areas of worship, outreach, and congregational organization. The COP maintains that our practice in all of these areas should always be consistent with our doctrine and should reflect a unified understanding of scriptural principles.” The COP then resolved to initiate scriptural studies and brotherly discussions of these matters throughout the synod.
The COP recognizes that doctrine shapes practice in worship, outreach methodology, and congregational organization. Likewise, the COP is aware from the lessons of church history that practice can influence doctrinal beliefs—often unintentionally. Doctrine and practice are intimately related to each other. Therefore, it’s essential that we be wary of methods and practices that have their roots in evangelical and reformed theology and that may inherently reflect that theology. For example, these “theological underpinnings” can show themselves in worship and outreach methods that emphasizes subjective feelings over the proclamation of God’s objective gospel truth; or that gives the impression that prayer is a means of grace; or that emphasizes the role of praise over against the centrality of the Word proclaimed and the sacraments administered.
It is equally important for us as Confessional Lutherans to guard against formalism or empty traditionalism. We will be careful not to say, “This is what God says,” when he has not spoken. To do so would restrict and deny the wonderful Christian freedom that God has given us.
All of this has serious implications for our approach to our God-given mission. Will we look for all possible ways to communicate that message to an unbelieving world? Absolutely. Will we strive to understand the thinking and the world view of the culture in which we live? Undoubtedly. Will we communicate God’s truths in a way that people can understand? Certainly. Will we have a burning love to reach the lost with the precious news of a Savior from sin? Without question. But in doing all of those things, we will want to insure that we do not back away in the slightest from a faithful and full proclamation of Law and Gospel. We will be careful not to hide our identity as a Confessional Lutheran church in favor of a more appealing, and less “intimidating” brand of Christianity. We will not model ourselves after outwardly popular and successful non-denominational or pan-denominational churches in which adherence to clear biblical doctrine gives way to a generic, feel-good, popular Christianity that seeks to remove barriers by setting aside the offense of the cross. We will value the time-tested heritage passed down to us through the generations, while recognizing that God has not established a New Testament ceremonial law. We will ask God for the zeal to apply law and gospel to the heart of hearers and to trust in the power of the Word and the working of the Holy Spirit to do what we could never do: to change a heart.
Ever since the Reformation, Lutherans have not hesitated to agree that certain practices, even though not necessarily determined by the Word of God, are good to be followed or avoided in a unified way. In order to improve the quality and consistency of worship practices among Lutherans, Martin Luther produced the German Mass. Lutherans have consistently agreed that baptism would typically be performed among us by sprinkling or pouring, as a clear witness against those who claim that immersion is the only proper method. In our own synod, we have adopted constitutions and bylaws, which are nothing more than agreements freely made to follow certain procedures and practices. We have agreed on practical procedures for issuing calls assigning ministerial graduates. We have produced hymnals and catechisms to unify our worship and instruction. Among our WELS family, we have a history of brotherly discussion of what things are truly beneficial and constructive and have achieved a remarkable consistency in practice from congregation to congregation. We have also displayed a willingness to listen to loving words of concern, caution, and admonition.
This is the nature of the discussion that the Conference of Presidents has in mind. The intent of the COP is not to approach these matters legalistically or with a desire to place undue restrictions on the freedom that we have in Christ. There is a desire to foster a greater unity in our approach to mission and ministry among us. The intent is that these discussions will be based on a discussion of biblical truths and principles, in a spirit of brotherly love, and with a desire to maintain the blessing of Confessional unity among us.
I would expect that every member of the synod will applaud the COP’s desire to have these issues discussed among us. We will also continue to pray that God will strengthen our unity in doctrine and practice, our ability to articulate our beliefs clearly, and our commitment to proclaiming the timeless truths that God has entrusted to us.
The COP’s desire to have a synod-wide study guided by our Lord’s word, properly understood, is commendable. In this vale of tears, the Church militant will never see the victory we so long to see. For now, we must be content with a struggle for the word of truth and the hidden glory of the sacraments. Whether we see the results or not, the word of the Lord will not return empty. (Isaiah 55:11).