REFLECTIONS ON THE CONSTITUTIONS AND BYLAWS
OF LOCAL CONGREGATIONS
THE SYNODICAL MEMBERSHIP CLAUSE
Larry D. Harvey
In previous articles, I have examined the Preamble, Name, Purpose, and the Confession Clauses of constitutions of local congregations. In this article, I reflect upon the clause addressing membership in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. As you may well expect by this point in these articles, I have encountered various titles assigned to this particular clause, including “Synodical Membership”, “Synodical Affiliation”, and “The Denominational Affiliation”. Again, I suggest that you choose a name for this particular clause only after serious consideration is given to the purpose, contents, and undertakings contained within this clause.
This clause is often times taken almost for granted, particularly in existing congregations that are only either reviewing or amending their constitutions and bylaws. I submit that the congregation needs a clear and frequently taught understanding of why the congregation desires membership in any synod and specifically the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. The Preamble of the Constitution of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, entitled “Reason for the Forming of a Synodical Union” states:
“1. The example of the apostolic church. Acts 15:1-31.
2. Our Lord’s will that the diversities of gifts should be for the common profit. 1Cor. 12:4-31.”
The Bylaws of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, state in Bylaw 1.01 “Reasons for Organizing a Synod”:
“Committed to a common confession and mission, congregations of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod join with one another in the Synod to support one another and to work together in carrying out their commonly adopted objectives. The Synod functions in support of its member congregations by providing assistance as congregations conduct their ministries locally, as well as their ministries at large. The Synod on behalf of its member congregations administers those ministries which can be accomplished more effectively in association with other member congregations through the Synod. In this way member congregations utilize the Synod to assist them in carrying out their functions of worship, witness, teaching and nurture, service and support as they seek to serve (1) our Lord Jesus Christ, (2) the members of His body, and (3) the world which stands in need of the Word and the impact of His redeeming love.”
Many times I have heard the statement made that our congregations formed and continue membership in Synod because it is more efficient to do certain things, such as train pastors or send world missionaries, by working together in a representative body like Synod. But, is that statement or even Synod’s Constitution and Bylaws true to the Scriptures as to the bases for the establishment and continuation of Synod or a complete answer to the question of why we have Synod? I submit that the answer is more complicated than it might first appear.
The Holy Scriptures command us to seek out and acknowledge true, orthodox Christian churches and to establish altar and pulpit fellowship with them. Matthew 10:32,33; Luke 9:26; Romans 10:9,10; 1Corinthians 1:10; 3John 8,9. I do not mean to imply that altar and pulpit fellowship requires some form of corporate existence, such as the non-profit corporation organized under the laws of the State of Missouri named The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, but rather that the Word is endangered and looses its authority as the sole source and norm for all teachings and practices if a body like Synod is considered internally as only a man-created entity for the sake of efficiency and expediency while holding itself out to the world as Word-based and Word-measured for the purpose of entering into formal fellowship agreements with other church bodies.
The next question might well be how a congregation will view its relationship to Synod and the pastors and congregations who are members of Synod. If a congregation looks upon itself as the Christ-created and Christ-owned instrument of the Holy Spirit empowered by the Gospel that was discussed in the prior articles on the Preamble Clause and Purpose Cause, particularly, then will that congregation look upon Synod with the same discipline and criteria? In other words, if a congregation looks upon its unity as a work of Christ making believers one in true faith by His Word and Sacraments, will that congregation look upon its relationship with the other members of Synod under the same measurement of being made one in one true faith by Word and Sacrament alone, in Christ Jesus alone, by God’s grace alone and thereby hold Synod to a proper confessional standard in teaching and practice consistent with the formal and the material principles of our theology?
On the other hand, if a congregation looks upon Synod as an organization formed by men for the sake of efficiency, cooperation, and the like, then I submit that a congregation will find itself more connected to Synod’s organizational documents, Bylaws, rules, regulations, and procedures than upon the confessional fellowship that should truly form the basis for Synod. The approach of looking upon Synod as “law-driven” invariably will influence a congregation in viewing Synod as providing the congregation with but two choices as to its life and practices within Synod. The first choice is that the “Law of Synod”, in its regulations, history, rituals, and the like are tested not against Scripture but against the threat of perceived changes in how things are done. The second alternative is that Synod is a body that can only serve to oppose the desires of the congregation in its life and practices. Whenever God’s Word looses its rightful authority, man will inevitably pursue a law-driven course and confront the same two alternatives in life and practice.
A single congregation will not be able to alter the nationwide view of Synod or the future course of Synod, but how a congregation views Synod and that congregation’s membership in Synod should be expected to show itself in how that congregation treats Word and Sacrament, the division of Law and Gospel, and the relationship between the Office of Public Ministry and the priesthood of believers, and that congregation’s relationship with its sister congregations in its immediate vicinity, for example.
By becoming a member of Synod and continuing in that membership, a congregation formally agrees to certain conditions for acquiring and holding that membership in Synod. Such conditions are set forth in Article VI of Synod’s Constitution which states:
“Conditions for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod are the following:
1. Acceptance of the confessional basis of Article II.
2. Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description, such as:
a. Serving congregations of mixed confession, as such, by ministers of the church;
b. Taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or of congregations of mixed confession;
c. Participating in heterodox tract and missionary activities.
3. Regular call of pastors, teachers, directors of Christian education, directors of Christian outreach, *[directors of parish music,] deaconesses, certified lay ministers, and parish assistants and regular election of lay delegates by the congregations, as also the blamelessness of the life of such.
4. Exclusive use of doctrinally pure agenda, hymnbooks, and catechisms in church and school.
5. A congregation shall be received into membership only after the Synod has convinced itself that the constitution of the congregation, which must be submitted for examination, contains nothing contrary to the Scriptures or the Confessions.
6. Pastors, teachers, directors of Christian education, directors of Christian outreach, *[directors of parish music,] deaconesses, certified lay ministers, or candidates for these offices not coming from recognized orthodox church bodies must submit to a colloquium before being received.
7. Congregations and individuals shall be received into membership at such time and manner, and according to such procedures, as shall be set forth in the Bylaws to this Constitution.” (footnotes omitted)
Those conditions should be taken quite seriously. For example, the congregation has not agreed to simply avoid the practice of unionism and syncretism of every description, but has agreed to renounce unionism and syncretism of every description. Renunciation might well require the congregation to publicly refuse to participate in unionistic or syncretistic activities or to publicly condemn participation in such by other members of Synod. In addition, the “exclusive use” of appropriate material in the congregation might well exclude the use of programs, educational material, music, and the like that are preferred by at least segments within most congregations. Much has been made of the independence or autonomy of the individual member congregations and each congregation’s right of self-government under Article VII of Synod’s Constitution, but self government should not allow a member congregation to ignore the common confession of faith and its agreements with the other members of Synod, nor the congregation’s duties under Synod Bylaw 2.35 which states:
“Every member of the Synod shall diligently and earnestly promote the purposes of the Synod by word and deed.”
Bylaw 2.35 would, on its face, require every member pastor and congregation to respond to the public activities of other member pastors and congregations that appear to be contrary to Synod Constitution Article VI, Conditions of Membership and to commence an action to terminate such membership under Bylaw 2.27, if the activities appear to be violations of such Conditions of Membership. The congregations, may well be “separate” but they are certainly not “separated”.
The next issue that has to be considered in reviewing this clause is whether or not a congregation is making a commitment to membership in Synod on condition or without condition. If conditional, the question is what are the criteria for continued membership by which the congregation will measure Synod? For example, is the criterion continued efficiency and economy of cooperation? Or, is the condition that Synod itself must remain true to the confessional standard adopted by the congregation in the congregation’s constitution? Next, the question arises as to how a congregation will determine whether or not the condition to membership in Synod is continually met by Synod. I submit that no individual or congregation can commit to membership in a visible body without the condition that the visible body maintain its own commitment to the Confessional Standard so that there is no question that ultimate loyalty always remains to Christ Jesus and therefore, His pure Word. In addition, the failure to include an express procedure to be employed in determining whether or not the condition has been met by Synod invites not only confusion, but resolution by the application of power politics rather than the Word.
With these thoughts in mind, consider the following examples of titles to this clause:
Synodical Membership Clause, Alternative One:
Synodical Membership Clause, Alternative Two:
Synodical Membership Clause, Alternative Three:
Which of the above Alternatives would you prefer as a title to this Clause in the Constitution of your congregation? Ask yourself why you prefer one over the others.
Now, let us ask specific questions about each of these Alternatives titles:
Now, with the above discussion of the commitments and obligations made by becoming and continuing a member of Synod, consider the following examples of Synodical Membership clauses:
Membership Clause, Alternative One:
“This Congregation shall hold membership in The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. It shall send its Pastor and a Lay Delegate to the District Convention of Synod. It shall be the duty of this Congregation and its individual members to support the work of the District and Synod.”
Membership Clause, Alternative Two:
“This Congregation shall be a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.”
Membership Clause, Alternative Three:
“In order to do the Lord’s work more efficiently, and also beyond the confines of this Congregation, this Congregation shall maintain voting membership in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as long as that body adheres to the confessional standards prescribed in Article III of this Constitution. As members of this Synod, this Congregation shall send pastoral and lay delegates to its meetings, share in its work and help to bear its burdens.”
Membership Clause, Alternative Four:
“This Congregation with its pastor shall be members of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod so long as said Synod shall remain true to the confessional standard as set forth in Article III hereto.”
Membership Clause, Alternative Five:
“This Congregation shall be affiliated with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as long as the confession and Constitution of the Synod are in accordance with the confessional standard laid down in Article III of the Constitution of this Congregation. No resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon this Congregation shall be of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of this Congregation is concerned.”
Membership Clause, Alternative Six:
“This Congregation with its Pastor(s) and all other called offices shall be a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod so long as said Synod shall remain true to the Confessional Standard as set forth in Article III hereof and so determined during the course of any deliberation concerning this issue by a two-thirds vote of the Congregation at a specially called meeting to consider the matter. This Congregation shall send its Pastor(s), other called church workers, and a lay delegate to the District Convention of Synod. It shall be the duty of this Congregation and its individual members to support the work of Synod since they thereby support there own Christ-appointed Word.”
Which of the above Alternatives would you prefer to include in the Constitution of your congregation? Ask yourself why you prefer one over the others.
Now, let us ask specific questions about each of these Alternatives:
· Which Alternative best reflected the congregation’s relationship with Synod?
· Which Alternative best reflected the congregation’s acceptance of its obligations within Synod?
· Which Alternative best reflected the criteria by which the congregation shall measure its continued membership in Synod?
· Which Alternative best reflected the procedure the congregation will use in determining the congregation’s continued membership in Synod?
As is indicated in the above discussion, the relationship of a congregation with Synod and with all other members of Synod is a serious issue. Accordingly, I encourage every congregation to insure that all congregational staff, whether called or otherwise employed, and all lay leaders be regularly encouraged to and provided the necessary resources in order to understand and be familiar with the Constitution and Bylaws of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and the history of those documents.
Mr. Harvey is an attorney practicing in Houston, Texas, USA, a member of Zion Lutheran Church, Tomball, Texas and the lay representative on the Committee on Constitutions and Bylaws of the Texas District, LCMS, 2001-2003. The views expressed herein are Mr. Harvey’s personal thoughts and opinions, and are not meant to represent the position of the Committee on Constitutions and Bylaws of the Texas District, LC-MS.
 Handbook of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, 2001 edition, ©2001, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, page 6.
 Handbook of The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, page 15.
 See prior article on the Name Clause, footnote seven (7).
 Handbook of Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, page 8.
 Handbook of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, page 28.
 Handbook of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, page 26.
 A careful study of the history of the language used in Synod’s Constitution from the inception of Synod until now is beyond the scope of this article, but I recommend that every pastor and congregation consider such study to determine whether or not Synod has allowed bureaucratic laws and structure to overcome the centrality of unity in one pure true faith.
 The confessional standard was discussed in a prior article in this series.
 I recommend all church staff and lay leaders read Carl S. Mundinger, Government in the Missouri Synod, 1947, St. Louis, Mo., Concordia Publishing House, and Kurt Marquart, The Issue of Church Fellowship and Unionism in the Missouri Synod and Its Associated Churches, and David P. Scaer, Missouri’s Identity Crisis: Rootless in America and the other articles to be found in Logia, Volume XII, Number 1, Epiphany 2003, Crestwood, Mo., the Luther Academy.
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