On the Canons of the Church (a response to ERCO)

My friends over at Four and Twenty Blackbirds are proposing an evangelical canon to be followed by pastors and congregations in the LCMS.  Rather than get stuck in the midst of the 55 comments (and going) they have on the list, I will offer my observations here.

First and foremost, it is undeniable that our Lutheran forefathers found no contradiction between following an evangelical rule and order (a church order) and the Gospel.  The claims that following such are legalistic misses the point that a church order is A) Voluntary and not prescribed; B) For the sake of the unity in the Gospel and C) Agreed upon in love and not coercion.  If we claim that following a church order is against the Gospel or somehow fundamentally unLutheran, we run the risk of contradicting the Lutheran Confessions themselves, which repeatedly affirm how our forefathers in the faith held to such orders.

Having said that, I don’t see how a church order will help us in any substantive way today.  For men of a common confession, such a church order is superfluous and just one more meeting, group or piece of paper.  Thank you very much, I have boxes of such and have wasted countless days in such endeavors.  Such a common Rule may be possible in a theoretical level, but I don’t see how it will meaningfully contribute to unity.

This is why I doubt it’s benefit.  For those who are in agreement, it isn’t necessary.  For those who aren’t in agreement, they will never have anything to do with it.  So all the lines and camps and the like all remain the same.  In fact, confessional Lutherans might end up dividing over things that at the end of the day simply aren’t that defining for us.  Are we really ready to say that only those who use the Common Service as handed to us in TLH, LW (which is a dubious version of the Common Service anyway), and LSB are in the club?  See Canon 12.

I will continue to look and follow with interest this line of thinking.  But I’m not convinced that this will actually contribute to the unity of the Church.  I fear it will only divide those who are in agreement all the more.


3 thoughts on “On the Canons of the Church (a response to ERCO)

  1. There is a fine line between being a model for, and a critique against those who do not follow the canon. While unity of practice (and doctrine for that matter) is a major concern for our synod I’m not sure how this will be our solution.

  2. Thanks for posting your comments on this topic, Pastor Peperkorn. I’m glad for your input, and, as always, I am grateful for your thoughtful insights and contributions. I’m looking forward to seeing you, God-willing, in a couple weeks (in Fort Wayne), and perhaps that occasion will also afford us the opportunity to chat about some of these broad topics.

    I’m still gathering my own thoughts on the prospect of a “rule” of some sort or another. I’m pleased to say that my thinking has progressed in the course of conversation, which is a mark of good discussion and debate. It is a process, in my opinion, and I have no idea, yet, where it may end up. If nothing is accomplished beyond greater clarity and renewed commitment to our confession of the faith, that will have been worthwhile.

    So far Brother Curtis has done most of the heavy lifting on this topic, but the constructive critique from several other brothers has also been useful. The most helpful responses are those that have offered specific criticisms of specific proposals.

    I’m hoping to put my thoughts into a coherent post of my own, perhaps after our district worship workshop this weekend. I’ve simply not had the time I need to cover all the bases thoroughly (my usual stumbling block!). For the time being, though, your observations invite some “brief” response.

    First of all, I would offer that, also in cooperative endeavors, it is best to stay focused on the process rather than the achievement of goals. Having goals is appropriate, but, especially in such matters as the faith and life of the Church and Ministry, we can only plant and water and cultivate, while only the Lord gives growth and new life as He wills, where and when He pleases. That He chooses to do so through the preaching and hearing of the Gospel points us to the chief thing that we are given to do.

    As for the specific point and purposes of an evangelical rule and order, I think we’re still searching for what it would look like and what it would do. In my opinion, we haven’t found that, yet, although I think that Brother Cwirla’s three points are a key: Work within our circuits (and districts), practice faithfully what we are given to do, and pray without ceasing. As I suggested in my response, I envision the main function of a “rule” to be guidance, support, assistance and encouragement in those very areas. We sometimes take a lot of things for granted, which aren’t all that obvious or simple when it comes to doing the daily grunt work of the pastoral ministry. We can help each other to do better.

    I still think it’s beneficial for us to look at the ancient canons and the Lutheran church orders. That sort of study is instructive in so many ways, and, speaking for myself, I don’t know those historic precedents and patterns nearly as well as I should. But the main thing I would like to learn from those canons and church orders is a way of thinking about the life of the Church in the world. Their example is one that we would need to “translate” into our own context, in response to our own challenges and concerns, for the sake of the Gospel.

    Much of what we have discussed so far really pertains to the jurisdiction and governance of the Church on earth, which belongs not to a voluntary organization within a synodical fellowship, but to the polity and structures of the synod itself. I think that Brother Eckardt is correct in saying that we’ve been contemplating things that the Missouri Synod should be doing, but isn’t. My opinion, for now, is that we should not attempt to undertake those “episcopal” tasks on our own, but we should rather be working within the structures of our synodical fellowship to encourage greater faithfulness in practice.

    In fact, one of the things an evangelical rule and order could do, I think, is to assist us in working within the extant polity of the Missouri Synod. Some guys are in decent circuits and/or districts, where taking part is comparatively feasible, but lots of other guys aren’t so fortunate. It’s easy for new guys and old guys to get discouraged, burned out, disgusted, cynical, or whatever you want to call it. They get nothing from their circuit, and they have nothing left to give. An evangelical rule and order might become a “non-geographical” circuit, of sorts, not for the sake of replacing one’s proper circuit, but for the support and assistance of a brother within his circuit. Encouragement, clarity of confession, and the sort of confidence that comes from knowing you’re not really the only one left. Even Elijah was strengthed by knowing there were 7000 others.

    Similarly, things like pastoral care, and even knowing where to find and how to follow the rubrics we do have (and what to do where there aren’t any rubrics!), and how to approach catechesis, and fostering a pattern of daily prayer within a congregation — most of these things I’ve learned from brothers and fathers in Christ, or else by my own trial and error (and I’m still learning). An evangelical rule and order could be a means of continuing education, pastoral catechesis, and the mutual conversation and consolation of the brethren. A think tank. A resource center. Not everyone is blessed with the circle of colleagues that some of us have had, nor do any one of us know it all. Aside from “know-how,” we also have the ongoing need to be called to daily repentance; and then there’s nothing like good friends and brothers to offer counsel and correction.

    The last thing I want is another political action group. No thanks. Nor am I mainly interested in another choir singing to itself. We’re not lobbyists, and there’s no need to formulate “rules” in our own image, in order to justify what we’re already doing. I don’t think that’s anyone’s intention, but there’s always that danger (and here I am confessing my own sins).

    There are a few things out there that look a bit like what I’m envisioning: The Concordia Catechetical Academy, Higher Things, the St. Michael’s Liturgical Conference, and even my own district’s Worship and Spiritual Care Workshop (which we’re hosting again this Saturday). The CCA and Higher Things, in particular, are simply aimed at helping pastors and congregations to do those things, faithfully and well, which they are given to do. They teach by example, by instruction, by publications, and by the support and encouragement they provide just by existing and doing it. It’s easy to suppose that nothing ever works, that nothing ever changes, that nothing ever gets any better. And, to be sure, sometimes the cross just gets heavier until it kills you altoghether; though even then, Christ is risen! but the fact is that good things do happen; they matter, and they make a difference. I cannot even begin to quantify or express what I’ve gained from Brother Bender and the CCA. So, too, my congregation would be fundamentally different, and greatly improverished, if not for the blessings and benefits of Higher Things.

    What the CCA has done for catechesis, and what Higher Things has done for “youth work” (and far more beyond that), an evangelical rule and order could do more comprehensively. What John Fenton and Dave Petersen and Gifford Grobien have taught me about using the rubrics to serve and support the Gospel. What Father Korby did for more guys than I could shake a stick at. What Dr. Scaer teaches “between the lines” in all his classes. What Dr. Nagel and Dr. Feuerhahn have given to their students, not only in the classroom but by their examples. What Dr. Weinrich and the sainted Dr. Preus gave us around the lunchroom tables. The accumulated wisdom of faithful fathers, which we in turn are given to hand over to those who come after us, and to each other in the meantime.

    Look at what Wilhelm Loehe accomplished from Neuendettelsau: in the United States, in Australia, and in Brazil. Liturgy. Missions. Human Care. Pastoral Practice. He influenced churches, pastors and people, all over the world, near and far, primarily by his good example, but also by organizing himself and others to do things: to serve the very point and purposes of the Church and Ministry. It made a difference then. It’s still making a difference now.

    Okay, I’ll stop now 😉 This isn’t as “brief” as I intended (like that’s a shock). But mainly I’m suggesting that discussions of an evangelical rule and order aren’t aiming at or leading to the sorts of things we might think or suppose. I don’t think they’re leading us away from our place and participation in the Missouri Synod (for those of us who belong to that synodical fellowship), but they ought to point us to faithful service in doing whatever we’re given to do, wherever we’re given to do it. If no one else pays any attention, what does that hurt? If we are helped to be the pastors that we are called and ordained to be, that is a good thing. That matters.

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