Why groups like the ACELC aren’t helpful: Part One

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I do not believe that groups like the ACELC are helpful to the cause of faithful Lutheranism in our midst.

While this is not an exhaustive examination, it is a start of my thoughts on the process.  I would welcome your thoughts and insights along the way.

The Association of Confessing Evangelical Lutheran Congregations (ACELC) was formed this past summer for the following purpose:

The ACELC is forming as an association of congregations within the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod.  It is our purpose to seek a return to faithful doctrine and practice within our church body by identifying and documenting the errors of the LCMS which are being promoted or tolerated among us.  Then, with united voice, to lovingly and firmly call our Synod to repentance.  It is toward that end that we have formulated a clearly stated ACELC theological position respecting the issues of contention within the LCMS, and have drawn together documentation of those errors.  We pray that God will bless our efforts to retain our Lutheran doctrine, practice and heritage within the LCMS.

The way the ACELC intends to accomplish this purpose is by being an association of congregations, by documenting the errors in our church body, and by then seeking unity around the ACELC theological position as articulated in its Fraternal Admonition, its proposed constitution, and its definition of confessional Lutheranism.  You may find all of them HERE.

One of the things that conservatives do well (or at least do a lot of) is make statements.  Even a cursory peek at the history of the LCMS would indicate a few things: 1. We have tons of statements on everything under the sun; 2. Most of them we agree to and never hear about ever again; and 3. Statements made by outside groups trying to have a positive influence on the synod are pretty much always divisive, not unifying around the Word of God.

Let me unpack each of those a little bit.

1. We have tons of statements on everything under the sun.

I remember reading some years back about a project at the St. Louis Seminary to categorize and catalog all of the doctrinal statements, encouragements, opinions and the like that 165+ years of the LCMS conventions have passed.  It is bewildering, and I like this stuff!  We don’t even know or understand what standing most of these documents/statements have in our church body.  One of the most vivid moments at this past summer’s synodical convention for me was when Dr. Sam Nafzger was asked to come to the mic and explain the different types of documents.  It was the most confusing thing I’ve ever heard in my life.

The multiplication of confessions and documents in our midst is more a sign of our disunity than it is our unity.  Now don’t get me wrong.  People and churches of conviction can and must confess the truth and deny the error.  However, I am not at all convinced that making statements is the answer on how we should do it.

2. Most of them we agree to and never hear about ever again.

The Predestinarian Controversy.  The Iowa Theses.  The Minneapolis Theses.  The Thiensville Theses.  The Brief Statement (ok, we’ve heard of that one…).  The Common Confession, parts I and II, The 1973 Statement (heard of that one too).  Those are just a handful.  For the most part, they come for a while, maybe draw some heat on this or that topic, and then they are gone.  I’m not trying to be cynical here.  But the reality is that most of the matters that appear REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT at the time are but a grain of sand in the life of Christ’s Church.

3. Statements made by outside groups trying to have a positive influence on the synod are pretty much always divisive, not unifying around the Word of God.

There have been and are today lots of groups on both the “right” and the “left” of our church body that have made statements, agitated for various candidates and positions, and have worked to change the direction of the synod.  I’ve been involved in some of these groups over the years, and many of my friends continue to be involved in them.  Personally, I think they can serve a good and legitimate purpose in an elective body like the LCMS.  I have no problems whatsoever with people advocating for what they believe is right, and whom they believe should be elected.

What gets messy is when those same groups start issuing statements.  The Statement of the Forty-Four.  The State of the Church Conferences.  Consensus.  When these external groups start making theological statements and positions, they by definition are setting themselves up as a sub-church.  The ACELC (as our most recent example) has a constitution, with congregational membership, and the like.  How is that not the precursor or antidote to a new church body?

Caveat and Conclusion

I put these thoughts forward for your consideration.  I know four out of the five steering committee members, and would consider them all friends.  I don’t really have any disagreement with the content of anything per se, but I am simply not convinced that this approach is going to be helpful in our common walk together in Christ.

In Christ,

Pr. Todd Peperkorn

Messiah Lutheran Church

Kenosha, Wisconsin

 

16 thoughts on “Why groups like the ACELC aren’t helpful: Part One”

  1. “Those are in fundamental agreement who, without any reservation, submit to the Word of God. When the Word of God has spoken in any matter, that matter is settled. There may be things that some men have not yet found in their study of the Bible; there may be matters with reference to which they have accustomed themselves to an inadequate mode of expression; yet, no matter what their deficiency may be, they are determined to accept the Bible doctrine. Where such is the case, there is fundamental agreement. … A fundamental agreement is all the church can ever hope to attain here on earth. We are not all equally gifted; one has a much clearer and a much more comprehensive insight into God’s doctrines than another. We all strive to grow daily in understanding. Besides, when once we have accustomed ourselves to a faulty or an inadequate expression, it is not only difficult to unlearn the particular phrase and to acquire a proper one, but the inadequate term may tend also to warp our views on other points. Yet, in spite of all such differences, where there is an unconditional willingness to hear what God has to say in his Word, there is fundamental agreement.” (John P. Meyer, “Unionism,” Essays on Church Fellowship [Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996], pp. 63-64)

  2. It may seem trite, but the best way to encourage confessional Lutheranism would be to actually teach the Confessions. I spent K-8th grade in an LCMS school; I think we all could have been confirmed by 6th grade and spent the last two years of daily religious education studying the confessions. I distinctly remember getting confirmed at the end of 8th grade and thinking, "adhere to the Confessions…I have no idea what I am agreeing to here." Encouraging laypersons to delve into the confessions would be a good start.

  3. Yep. Let's do nothing to correct the errors creeping and/or storming in for the last 80 years some more. Who wants to seem impatient.

  4. But suppose the church is sliding into error & nobody stands up to address the problem & call for correction. Suppose the system is rigged so that the unfaithful can teach or practice any heresy under the sun & whatever the faithful have to say about it gets hushed up behind the scenes. Suppose some people know better & others aren’t even aware of the problem. Isn’t it also possible that making a statement could be the start of a healing process? Isn’t it also possible that if an outward division happens, it might really be the result of a deeper spiritual division that already existed? Might it not be necessary & right to bring that to light? And if that happens, are not the unfaithful rather than the faithful to blame for the division?

    Of course all these are hypothetical suppositions. So is your post for the most part. By suggesting such hypotheticals might apply to a given group like ACELC, isn’t it possible that someone might draw some negative conclusion about ACELC without having any real basis to do so? Wouldn’t that be a bit like character assassination?

  5. Todd,

    You say that when "these external groups start making theological statements and positions, they by definition are setting themselves up as a sub-church." If the "theological statements and positions" are in accord with the catholic faith, how can this be a "sub-church"?

  6. The following is from Pastor Dick Bolland, a member of the steering committee for the ACELC.

    Hi Todd,

    Permit a couple of reflections on your comments from the ACELC side of things if I may.

    First, we are not an “outside” group. We are entirely made up of members of The LCMS, thus we are an inside group. We are all members of Synod (either on the roster or members of LCMS congregations), and as such we have an obligation to speak to the organization to which we belong when we see them heading in theological directions which are obfuscating the Gospel. I would suggest that to remain silent is to be complicit in those errors. Christian brothers and sisters lovingly speak to each other when matters of concern are raised. That’s how things get resolved. The ACELC simply wishes to engage in a Synodwide conversation about very specific concerns.
    With respect to such statements turning out to be divisive that is not at all our intent. In fact, our intent is quite the opposite. We are seeking to unify our Synod in its doctrine and practice because right now we are much divided in this regard. While you criticize attempts to unify, you also offer no solution to deal with our divisions. You see, Todd, the problem is that our Synod is already divided. If we do not speak with one another respecting our specific issues about which we are divided, I do not understand how such unity can be obtained. You say that, “…people and churches of conviction must confess the truth and deny the error.” I believe that is precisely what the ACELC is attempting to do. Indeed, if we are obligated to confess the truth and deny the error how does that occur without making some kind of statement?
    One of the things that assists this fraternal discussion is clarity. Thus, the honorable folks forming the ACELC have tried very hard to be very clear.
    The effort of the ACELC has been largely mischaracterized by those who have objected to our actions. We are called “schismatic” or “divisive”, but any fundamental definition of these terms would indicate that schismatics are people who desire to seperate themselves, and break fellowship over insufficient doctrinal reasons. That is not at all a description of the ACELC’s efforts! We are not even hinting that anyone should separate from anybody. Secondly, our issues are specifically concerning doctrine and doctrine’s practice and are very specifically defined so as to target the discussion rather than get lost in generalities and vague claims. So the term “schismatic” does not accurately describe our efforts at all. As for “divisive” I would say that those who stand up for the truth can hardly be that. It is our doctrine that unites us in all its articles, not just those in which we happen to agree. If there is division over doctrine, Pieper indicates that this is commanded by Scripture as the only way for a church body to retain its orthodox character. But that kind of separation only comes at the end of a process to identify the errors, measure them against Holy Scripture and our Confessions and then those who will not hear God’s Word must leave. That is biblical division of the sort that St. Paul says is necessary so that those who hold to the truth can be seen. Frankly, that kind of division has been and continues to be sorely needed in our Synod and hopefully at the end of President Harrison’s “Koinonia Project” that kind of division will finally occur with those who will not go along with God’s Word.
    You see Todd, this is all about keeping our Synod as an orthodox Lutheran body for our children and our grandchildren. Hermann Sasse wrote:
    “How shall a church which suffers with this illness again become well? How can such a church body separate the true church from heresy? No one is so foolish as to think that heresy will ever of its own will give up the right granted it in the church. It is part of its essence that it cannot do this, for it lives on the basis of the claim to be the genuine church…There is nothing more foolish than the hope that the false teaching concerning the person and work of Christ, which has ruled a great part of Protestantism since the Enlightenment, would disappear with the philosophical view of the eithteenth and nineteenth centuries. No, it will return in entirely new and all the more dangerous forms – we have indeed experienced something of this already!…The great heresies die as little as does the devil.”
    Our situation in The LCMS at this point is that we are now in a divided church, which claims a false unity. The only remedy for such a false unity is to clearly, forthrightly clarify and discuss the errors among us. Frankly, the catalog of errors put forward by the ACELC goes a long way to achieve that end and deserves to be publicly discussed throughout the Synod.
    As for the forming of an association a couple of points:
    1. There already exist many such associations within our Synod: The LCA, The LWML, The LLL, Higher Things, etc. These are not divisive organizations either. They all have constitutions, articles of incorporation, elected officers, and the like.
    2. Why a Constituting Convention? Simple: We live in a post-911 world. If any organization wants to receive money to promote their goals, it becomes necessary to have a Federal Tax Identification Number. But in order to obtain one of these, it is necessary to file corporation papers with the state. In order to file corporation papers it is required that an organization have a governance document (Constitution), elected officers, etc. If that organization wants to obtain a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status, all of the aforementioned must be in place before the application is accepted for consideration. That’s just the way it works these days. It’s frankly a pain in the neck, but that’s the legality of it.
    It would seem that more than a few folks really have their knickers in a knot over the formation of the ACELC but none of the consternation is at all necessary. All we are doing is confessing the truth and defending against error. I believe in Scripture it says that we are to ready in season and out of season to do precisely this. We deserve your support, not your criticism.

    Permit a couple of reflections on your comments from the ACELC side of things if I may.

    First, we are not an “outside” group. We are entirely made up of members of The LCMS, thus we are an inside group. We are all members of Synod (either on the roster or members of LCMS congregations), and as such we have an obligation to speak to the organization to which we belong when we see them heading in theological directions which are obfuscating the Gospel. I would suggest that to remain silent is to be complicit in those errors. Christian brothers and sisters lovingly speak to each other when matters of concern are raised. That’s how things get resolved. The ACELC simply wishes to engage in a Synodwide conversation about very specific concerns.

  7. Okay, is there ever going to be, has there ever been a perfect approach by which no one took offense and met with complete success as far as acceptance? Would the Reformation have ever even happened if the pastors and lords in Germany held the same sensitivities? E.g., You have to agree with Luther’s 95 Theses and the Formula of Concord. But their approach sure was schismatic and the timing poor, what with the Turks invading and all. I mean people including Luther were threatened with death, and some did in fact die in the effort. Surely it couldn’t be worth such a cost.

    Please, isn’t this the same thing we here from our flock all too often, and even the reason used to dismiss pastors on occasion? “It’s not what you say, pastor. It’s the way you say it.” Nobody ever enjoys being corrected. It is always painful. In fact when it comes to the Word of God correcting sin, it always must be. Sin must die and the cross is a stumbling block and offense to sin and unbelief in what God’s Word clearly says.

    The ACELC is offering no new confession of the faith. It is only calling the LCMS to embrace and abide in the one to which it claims quia subscription.

    As we approach the festival of the Martyrdom of John the Baptizer, let us consider when it is ever a time NOT to confess the truth for the sake of those who are lost in the lies of sin. In the case of John, the ones who needed to hear it most were the ones who did the beheading. In our case today, perhaps the ones who need to hear it most are the ones we are hoping not to offend.

  8. Todd Peperkorn said: “When these external groups (e.g. ACELC) start making theological statements and positions, they by definition are setting themselves up as a sub-church.

    First of all, the “synod” is not a church but a man-made organization.

    Secondly, the “synod” is created by individual churches to support their ministry (i.e. the public preaching of the Word or the preaching office =”predigamt”).

    When the man-made organization (synod) fails to do this; or hinders it in any way; or breaks down in its ability to identify and eliminate false doctrine/practice; the very churches that spoke synod into existence have the right/obligation to speak. (2Tim. 4:2ff)

    No one denies a congregation has the right to speak within and by means of the synodical process. But what if confidence is lost with the process? Do congregations have the right to speak in an organized fashion outside the process? How can one say “no” if the purpose of the organization is to help/heal/unify the synod, not hurt it? And how can this be schismatic if the very truth that created our churches and inspired it’s synodical unity is the very truth spoken?

    The ACELC is not a “sub-church”. Synod and organizations like it are not “Church”. The ACELC is an organization within synod created by churches for the very purpose of helping synod carry out it’s original intent. The more the better! Let the Word rule them all and aid the synod which claims to be ruled by the Word!

    Steve

  9. I certainly agree with Pastor Bolland. If the errors are not discussed and resolved using a statement as a starting point, then how else should it be done, Pastor Peperkorn? We have heard it said that President-elect Harrison can take care of the problems, but he is only one man, and a sinner, too (by his own admission). Has there been any response from him on the ACELC statement?

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