The Core Question: Is Synod a Church?

By: Larry D. Harvey



            Efforts to calmly but deliberately review the events of the 2004 Convention of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod require great discipline in identifying and sequencing the proper questions to be asked before confronting potential consequences of the various possible answers.  Lately, the members of the LC-MS and the laity within the member congregations are being challenged to ascertain and defend the rights of pastors, the rights of congregations, and the authority of Synod in various theological journals, official and unofficial publications, websites, and conferences. 


            I submit that to present the issue as a choice between Synod as an ecclesiastical authoritative hierarchy or Synod as only an advisory body allows the core question of “Is Synod a Church?” to be improperly avoided.


If Synod is a church then it is a body to be measured by the marks of the church, namely the sound teachings of the Holy Scriptures and their correct exposition in our Lutheran Confessions. These marks then provide definitive authority to evaluate all resolutions and actions of Synod and its officers. However, if Synod is not a church, but only an entity created by agreement for economy and efficiency, it must be measured by a different set of norms. These norms apply both to the ecclesiastical hierarchy established by Synod and to the resolutions passed by such a so-called advisory body. The true significance of any actions by Synod may then be called into question by the norms of human reason and law. All that really matters in this case is the language of by-law provisions, committee reports and synodical resolutions. The normative marks of the church do not apply.


            I submit that we have allowed confusion to arise and continue because this core question has not been properly addressed.  For example:


            If Synod is not a church, then, under the doctrine revealed in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the Lutheran Confessions:


1.         Can men without a regular Call to the Office of Public Ministry provide ecclesiastical supervision over those with a regular Call?

2.         How does Synod provide ecclesiastical supervision over those with a regular Call to the Office?

3.         Would Synod and District officers, e.g. Presidents, be required to be under a regular Call of a congregation at the time of their “election”?

4.         How does Synod send missionaries overseas to preach, teach and administer the Sacraments?

5.         How does Synod publish doctrinal statements?

6.         Is Synod’s ecclesiastical supervision/doctrinal oversight more in the nature of meddling in another church than maintaining purity within the church?



If Synod is a church, then under “our doctrine”:


1.         How does Synod “elect” men not under a call to the Office of Public Ministry rather than issue a regular Call?

2.         Is election to office, e.g. of Synod President, really a prohibited “call for term/temporary call”?

3.         Would seminary professors be considered as called to the Office of Public Ministry, and specifically of “teaching the teachers”?

4.         When can seminary professors properly operate under systems recognizing “tenure”?


            Dr. Kurt E. Marquart has written:


“A word must be said here about local churches in relation to larger church-bodies, for instance at regional, national, and international levels.  Geographical or political boundaries have of course in principle no significance for the church.  The traditional Lutheran distinction is between “simple church” (ecclesia simplex) and “composite church” (ecclesia composita).  The “simple” church is the local church, the gathering round a particular font, pulpit, and altar.  The “composite” church is composed of several “simple” churches.  The local church is the minimal entity that can be unambiguously identified as a church.  On the other hand, local churches do not cease to be churches when they act together as, say, “synods”, in their common churchly confession and work.  Such synods are clearly churches-“composite” churches-because they are made up of churches.  A “synod” in the sense of a deliberative assembly (“convention,” nowadays) is “representative church” (ecclesia repraesentativa), and this not because large numbers of “Christians” are present and occupied somehow with God’s Word, but because the churches are officially represented, first of all by their public teachers and then also by other competent delegates….

            Those who urge that nothing beyond local congregations can really be a church, often do so without adequate theological reflection, simply in order to avoid the spiritual tyranny of a “super-church”-whatever that is.  This well-meaning argument is badly mistaken, however.  It is precisely as churches that synods are controlled by faith and love, and therefore cannot tyrannize anybody.  The more this churchly constitution and its constraints are forgotten, and replaced by political notions of majority rule and commercial chains of command, the more scope there is for worldly, carnal power and all its works.  This goes to the heart of the question of the nature of church government.”[1] 


In addition, a review of the writings of Johann A. Quenstedt would indicate the same position in the seventeenth century.[2]


            We have no real reason to fear looking at the question, anymore than an individual has something to fear in becoming a member of a local congregation.  The rights and obligations of the priesthood of believers are determined by the Scriptures.  The rights and obligations of pastors are determined by the Scriptures.  The right use of human reason and agreements of men within the church is determined by the Scriptures.  However, the true answer to the core question almost certainly will involve changes in the practices of Synod whichever answer is finally determined to be true to God’s Word. 


            I submit that the core question of “Is Synod a Church?” must be confronted immediately in light of the present divisions within our Synod.


[1] Marquart, Kurt E., THE CHURCH AND HER FELLOWSHIP, MINISTRY, AND GOVERNANCE, Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics, Volume IX, Ft. Wayne, Indiana: The International Foundation for Lutheran Confessional Research, 1990, pp 202,203.  Footnotes omitted.

[2] Quenstedt, Johann Andreas, THE CHURCH, edited, abridged, translated, and briefly annotated by Luther Poellot, Malone, Texas: Repristination Press, 1999, pp.20-34.



Mr. Harvey is an attorney practicing in Houston, Texas, USA, and a member of Zion Lutheran Church, Tomball, Texas.



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