Reverend Paul R. Harris
Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church
Through years of driving using other people's directions I was at last able to understand these things. What I never understood was being told when asking for directions, "You can't get there from here." What does that mean? Aren't all roads connected? Unless the road dead-ends in front and has disappeared from behind me, how can it be that I can't get there from here? But guess what? It is true of some destinations. You can't get there from here. That's true of Scriptural, godly, evangelical discipline in the Christian congregation. This destination cannot be reached by the road most of us think.
Do not misunderstand. I know where you want to go, and I want to go there too. As a parish pastor, I see the same problem you do. The breakdown of discipline in the church. I know that in our day to be disciplined in one congregation simply means to walk into another.1 I have disciplined blatant adulterers, unscriptural divorcees, and those who persistently adhere to false doctrine only to have them warmly welcomed by a neighboring pastor and congregation. I have seen my thunderous call to repent muffled by unscriptural love. I have seen my Law confused with another "gospel" to the eternal harm of a person's soul.
And no, the Scriptural truth that "if the church does not discipline those who seek to participate in the Lord's forgiveness with an unrepentant heart, the Lord will do that Himself,"2 is really not much comfort to me. The certainty of the Gospel is at stake, and there is no comfort when that is the case. And it most certainly is at stake. Do not we confess in the Office of the Keys that a called minister's absolution of those who repent is as valid and certain as if Christ dealt with us Himself "especially when they exclude manifest and impenitent sinners from the Christian congregation"? When there is such a glaring lack of the disciplining of manifest and impenitent sinners, aren't we left uncertain about the absolution of broken and penitent sinners?
Also, is the fact that our lack of discipline will be made up for by the Lord Himself really comforting? We are admitting that the Lord will visit our fellowship, our Synod, our churches with the rod of judgement just like He did Corinth where some became weak, sick, and a number died because they were attempting the impossible: acting as if righteousness really could have partnership with lawlessness, as if light really could have koinonia with darkness, as if there could be harmony between Christ and Belial? Yes, the Lord will clean up our messes, but as St. Paul told the Corinthians, "If we judged ourselves rightly, we should not be judged" (I Cor. 11:31).
I know where you want to get to the point where we "judge ourselves rightly." You want to go where I do and where the early church did which declared in the second century Apostolic Constitutions, "If we do not separate from the church those who will not live within the rules of it, we shall make the house of God a den of thieves."3 I know the destination you want to get to, and I know the roads that will apparently take you there. If my district would just march over to the offending pastor and congregation and tell them that they either stop giving shelter to the legitimately excommunicated or be removed from the Missouri Synod, would not that lead to a better disciplined church? If the Synod would just publish a list of things that every pastor and congregation had to excommunicate for, wouldn't that get us to the destination of discipline? If Synod disciplined lax districts, then wouldn't districts discipline lax pastors and congregations? And if lax pastors and congregations would be disciplined, would not they become disciplined ones? This seems to be the path to reach to get to discipline, but you can't get there from here, and evangelical Lutherans have always known that.
Our Apology of the Augsburg Confession says that renewing the strict penitential discipline of the ancient church was not only not necessary but would be dangerous and harmful.4 Personally, I find that a bit hard to take. O for a time when Emperors would value their salvation so highly that they would willingly undergo church discipline. O for a time when adulterers, drunkards, false teachers, and such were found in the church only among the ranks of the penitents. O for a time when the Holy Communion was not assumed to be the right of everyone who thought himself worthy of receiving it. Why did our Lutheran forefathers reject such a time as this while I find myself longing for it?
Probably because in my sinful heart I am more Reformed than I am Lutheran. It was the Reformed church, particularly that affiliated with Calvin, which believed the church should be "a disciplinary institution" and "an association for moral purposes."5 They were known for their discipline, and in the 16th century there were some Lutherans who bemoaned the fact that the church discipline of Geneva, where Calvin was headquartered, was unknown in Lutheranism.6
Despite the bewailing of church discipline among Lutherans it was never a road that the Lutherans went down. Luther would include the binding and losing keys as a sign of the church but would not include them in his fundamental definitions of the church. Binding and losing, church discipline, was not in the same category as the Gospel and Sacraments. Church discipline was not so essential that believers and saints could not be generated and preserved without it. This was not and is not how the Reformed viewed things. For the Reformed, outward discipline was and is among the constituent elements, one of the essential parts, of the church.7 C.F.W. Walther observed, "The thorough practice of church discipline is not a necessary sign of the true church, according to the 'it is enough' of Article VII of the Augsburg Confession."8 This is the clause in Article VII that Walther refers to: "It is enough for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word." The Formula of Concord some 50 years after the Augsburg Confession also specifically rejects the idea that a Christian congregation cannot be a true one unless "public expulsion and the orderly process of excommunication" take place in her.9
Discipline, holiness, sanctified living were not an emphasis of Evangelical Lutheran theology. You will never find a Lutheran church body with a name like Apostolic Overcoming Holy Church of God, Christ's Sanctified Holy Church, Churches of God, Holiness, Fire Baptized Holiness Church, United Holy Church of America, inc.10 (These names belong to actual church bodies in the United States today.) But then are we saying we are not concerned with holiness, sanctification, and discipline at all?
Recall the paper last year given at this conference by the Reverend Ken Schurb. He pointed out that in the Lutheran view the church is neither a museum for saints nor a gym for sinners to work out in to become saints, but the church is a hospital where poor miserable sinners get the medicine of the Gospel. Also when we are in the area of church discipline we must remember that belongs to the alien work of God. It only takes place to serve the proper work of God which is the salvation of sinners. That is why we are called the Evangelical Lutheran Church and not the Holiness Lutheran Church. That is why Lutherans have been willing to forsake discipline for the sake of the Gospel, to let weeds at times grow for the sake of the wheat.
That is kind of hard to accept, isn't it? But consider this: When an explicit order for excommunication was sent to Luther for his review, he replied, "'I have viewed your zeal for Christ and Christian discipline with great joy. But in this time of such unrest, which is not yet suited for the acceptance of discipline, I would not dare recommend such a sudden innovation.'"11 Martin Chemnitz exhorts the pastoral use of the binding key, but see how he tempers it with the Gospel: "Therefore, when ministers, lack all zeal against sins, they should absolutely not fawn on their sloth with the result that they altogether lay aside the binding key, but they should rather use the power given them by Christ to the extent, of course, that the edification of the church in a particular place can bear it."12
This 16th century zeal to have a disciplined church subservient or beneath the Gospel carried on down to our Synod through her first president, C.F.W. Walther. Walther said, "Church discipline with respect to life can sometimes fall into decline, even in an orthodox church, without it ceasing to be orthodox, because the wicked have the upper hand in it." "Circumstances can even occur in which the well-being of the church requires that a well-deserved excommunication not be carried out." Walther goes on to quote approvingly another theologian who writes, "'Those who cannot be separated without an uproar are not to be excommunicated.'"13 In his The Form of a Christian Congregation Walther refers to the example of St. Augustine who would not consent to the excommunicating of all the drunkards in Africa because he saw that this vice was so widespread in the land that if all the drunkards were excommunicated only a very few people would still be in communion with the church. Augustine says he suffers the drunkards so as not to leave the threshing floor on account of the chaff or to forsake Christ's sheep because of goats who will in the end be excluded anyway.14
I am not trying to give the impression that Augustine, Walther, Chemnitz, or Luther were in favor of a lax, undisciplined church. What they were in favor of was a church centered on the Gospel. This can be seen from Walther's comments about introducing church discipline. His instructions are aimed primarily at young pastors. Walther says it is not "according to the mind of the church" to introduce formal excommunication procedures right away into a new unrefined congregation. The pastor must be guided by this principle: "let the salvation of the people be the highest law."15
In our concern for the lax discipline in our Synod, in our districts, in our congregation, we do not want to lose sight of our Evangelical Lutheran heritage; we do not want to become a people of the Law rather than a people of the Gospel. The fact that the Gospel can be abused and is abused by sinners should not cause us to put a wall around it or qualifications with it. Our forefathers resisted this temptation when they saw the lax state of the Body of Christ in their day. They recognized that as much as it might seem that our righteous wrath would work towards the righteousness of God still James 1:20 held true. "The wrath of man never works the righteousness of God." What path then does lead towards discipline? Our fathers in the faith, Luther and Walther, regarded personal admonition on the part of lay people as essential. Luther writes,
'What hinders excommunication now at our time? Nothing but this (sic) in this matter no one does what is right for a Christian. You have a neighbor whose life and walk are well known to you but are either not at all known or not so well known to your pastor. For how can he know everyone's life in detail, how it is?...But dear fellow, who does it? For in the first place truth is a hostile thing. People get angry at anyone who speaks the truth. So you prefer to retain your neighbor's friendship and favor especially if he is rich and powerful, rather than to anger him and make him your enemy.'16
Walther too sees the connection between personal admonition by the laity and a disciplined church concluding, "So if a preacher wants to introduce Christian church discipline in his congregation according to Christ's prescription he must begin with the introduction of Christian, fraternal admonition."17
A second path leading to a disciplined church is the path of announcements before the pastor prior to communing. This is the form of church discipline most used in the Reformation, and the decline of this, not the decline of formal excommunication, is what is significantly different about our age compared to those that have gone before.
Consider how essential it must have been in the early days of our Missouri Synod for Walther to write that an orthodox pastor could not take a call to a congregation unless it required announcement for Holy Communion.18Citing the Augsburg Confession Article XXV and the Article about the Mass in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, Walther concludes,
It would be contrary to conscience to accept a call to a congregation that did not agree to personal announcement for the holy Supper. That is incontrovertible because according to God's Word the preachers are supposed to be not only teachers but are also shepherds, bishops (overseers), and watchmen over souls and so have to be careful that no one receives the holy Supper to his judgement. Especially where the holy Sacraments are concerned they are not mere distributors but stewards of them (I Cor. 4:1).19Walther knew that without personal announcing before Communion church discipline would be impossible in an era that would not bear formal excommunication. Walther knew this not only from personal experience but from Luther and the fathers of the Reformation. Earlier I mentioned an explicit order for excommunication sent to Luther for his approval. Remember how Luther said he could not recommend it because of the unrest of the times? He went on to write, "'In the meantime I would like to recommend this that one begin gradually as we are doing here, and that those who are recognized as worthy of excommunication first be turned away from Communion (What is called the minor excommunication is also the true excommunication);'"20 This is not some personal quirk of Luther's either. Luther, Jonas, Bugenhagen, and Melanchthon wrote concerning the church order to be set up in two cities: 'Yet at this time we have set up no other excommunication than that those who live in manifest vices and will not give them up are not to be admitted to the Sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. And that can be preserved in this way that among us the Sacrament is administered to no one unless he has first been heard by a pastor or deacon.'21
It is from comments like this by fathers of the Reformation that Walther drew his absolute stand on personally announcing before going to Communion. It is also why Walther and the earlier Lutheran fathers could forego formal excommunication procedures. They always had private, personal announcing to protect people and the Body and Blood of Christ. That announcing came to function this way was by design. In his early writings Luther expressly said that confession can take place before any Christian. His later writings emphasize more strongly that confession should be made to a pastor. "The tendency to emphasize the role of the pastor in confession was associated with an alternation in the concept of the function of confession. In addition to its place in connection with absolution, it also came to be used as a means of maintaining church discipline."22
But what are we to do now when people will not only not endure formal excommunication proceedings but they also will not endure personal announcing? We find ourselves in the same quandary as the 6th century Gregory the Great who worked at restoring discipline in a lax church. He said that he was at a loss "'to 'rebuke with all authority' when people would not endure any.'"23 And it seems to me that we in Missouri are in a particularly difficult spot. In the writings of Walther, I find an emphasis in matters of excommunication that I do not in Luther or the Confessions. This being that if the congregation or some of its members cannot be convinced from God's Word that someone should be excommunicated he should not be. Walther says, "That impossibility is proof that the case is not one that can be taken as far as excommunication. Neither the moral conviction of the preacher nor that of the majority of the members can decide this matter."24 In another place he writes, "In the practice of church discipline, the preacher should primarily remember that he does not have the power in any case to excommunicate any person alone and without the preceding trial by and knowledge of the congregation."25
This is not what I hear Luther or our Confessions saying. Luther says that it is unwise and may harm the Gospel for a pastor to excommunicate without the assent of the congregation, but I do not find him saying there is no power to excommunicate without their consent. In fact, did not Luther say above that being turned away from Communion, the so called minor excommunication is in fact the true one? As far as our Confessions go, the Treatise on the Power and the Primacy of the Pope specifically says, "It is certain that the common jurisdiction of excommunicating those who are guilty of manifest crimes belongs to all pastors" (74).
Do you see what has happened? While Luther and the Reformation fathers advised against pastors pressing the matter of formal excommunication because it would be unwise and not serve the Gospel in some circumstances, Walther said in addition that pastors to not have the authority to do excommunicate without the consent of the congregation. If a pastor has no authority to excommunicate apart from the congregation, then he has no authority to keep people from the Lord's Table at all. He can at best advise people against communing to their own harm, but people can respond, "That's just your opinion."
Walther, with Luther, saw that the road to discipline was marked on the one side by personal admonishing by the laity and by personal announcing before the pastor on the other. But when Walther makes excommunication a corporate power, it can only be used by the common consent of all. If all will not agree says Walther that is proof positive that excommunication ought not to take place. Now I ask you. In an era where a prosecutor cannot convince 12 strangers that a man caught red handed with a murder weapon who actually confesses ought to be convicted, what chance does a pastor have of convincing an entire congregation of friends, family members, and acquaintances? If the shepherd can only lead sheep down paths they all want to go, how will we ever get to the destination of discipline?
These are real questions in my mind, but I do not think we should wait till they are answered before addressing the lack of discipline in our midst. However, I think if we approach it from the standpoint of discipline for the sake of concord we will invariably end up champions of the Law, focused on what we do, with the burden squarely on our shoulders. I think the sentence should be turned around. Let's look at the situation from the standpoint of concord for the sake of discipline. Discipline in the early church was always approached by the road that led FROM the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ was not something the early church believed she made by proper disciplining; it was something she assumed to be present and therefore disciplined accordingly. The existence of the one Body of Christ was the fact that she based her principles of discipline and fellowship on.26 When St. Paul admonishes the Galatians to "restore" one who has been overtaken by sin (6:1,2), the Greek word he uses kataptizete is actually a surgical term for setting a bone or joint of the body. Paul is admonishing them to restore to the one Body of Christ a person who has broken himself off.27
Also consider that the early epistles of the New Testament speak of unity, of the one faith, of the Body of Christ, of concord. In the later writings of the New Testament, from the pastoral epistles on, it is another story. There we read about the battle for "sound doctrine," making "a good confession," "separating from false doctrine," "avoiding myths," "what is falsely called knowledge," "heresy," and "apostasy from the faith."28 This sort of talk was not made with a view to achieving a unity of faith; it was based on the fact that the unity existed already. They knew of a true doctrine, a true knowledge, a given faith by which they could judge the false, manmade faith. And what broke the unity, what broke the concord had to be disciplined.
What broke the unity was not sins of life but sins of doctrine, not sins against the love between members but sins against the faith once for all delivered to the saints, not sins against the Second Table of the Commandments but sins against the First. Against such sins discipline cannot cease or the Body of Christ is threatened. Listen to Luther on this point:
'But if we cannot excommunicate [because of] sin in life [because people would not tolerate it], yet we excommunicate [because of] sin in doctrine. We have nevertheless retained this excommunication that we say: one should not hear Anabaptists, Sacramentarians, and other heretics but [should] excommunicate and separate them from us. That is the most important part. For where the doctrine is false, the life cannot be improved.'29
We have got to disabuse ourselves of this notion that the great doctrinal chasms that exist under the name Missouri Synod can somehow be talked away, "consensus-ed" away, negotiated away, "convention-ed" away or CTCR "away-ed." That is not what happened in the great Councils of the ancient church. Those promoting false theologies were not won over to the truth by talking. They either were out voted by the majority and set outside the Body, or they walked out of the assembly before the decision was made and so separated themselves from the body.30 The concord that existed in the Body of Christ left no other choices. A body can never be divided against itself and survive. No amount of "how much we really love each other" was enough to cover a gap between doctrines, was enough to mend a part of the Body of Christ that had broken away.
We should approach the destination of discipline from the road of concord. There is really only one Faith, one doctrine, one Body which Christ Jesus has made us partakers of. Those who depart from the one Faith into competing doctrines thereby break themselves off from the Body of Christ. The Church has no choice but to recognize that such have fractured what God has joined together. No disciplining of life can take place if there is not disciplining of doctrine going on. If we will not the discipline doctrinal sin which is far more serious, we cannot discipline the lesser sins of life.
But there is a problem. At the parish level, how can a pastor discipline sins of doctrine that are tolerated, protected, or promoted at the district and/or synodical level? I believe this situation can be addressed and so can the lack of personal communion announcements by resorting to a practice in the early church. You must remember there situation was really not very different from ours. "From the fourth century on there were congregations of differing confessions next to each other in the large towns and in many other places."31 And these churches were not labeled Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist. No, they were ALL labeled Christian even as all ours are labeled Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. What protection did churches have against people who were excommunicated from one church walking into theirs? What protection did she have against the leaven of error from one church being transmitted to theirs?
The early church had Letters of Peace and Letters of Fellowship. These were certificates universally required of Christians before they would be communed by a congregation or its pastor.32 The Council of Carthage (345-348 A.D.) "directs that no person, clerical or lay, may commune in another congregation 'without a letter from his bishop.'"33 But such credentials would only be acknowledged by a pastor if they were issued by another pastor in fellowship with him.34 You see they all had the name Christian on their signs even as we all have the name Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. But they knew that under the name Christian many false things were being none even as we know that under the name Lutheran Church Missouri Synod many false things are being done. But they did not do what we do. It was not enough to just come from another Christian Church. It was not sufficient for fellowship at the Lord=s table to come from another church with the same name on it as yours. You had to have a letter stating you were in communion fellowship with a pastor and church whom the pastor you wished Communion from recognized as part of the one Body of Christ.
Let me see if I can give you an example of how this would work in practice. We know there are congregations and pastors in the Missouri Synod where charismatic theology is accepted. There are pastors and peoples who are proponents of women's ordination. There are churches and ministries who openly invite all Christians who believe in some sort of Real Presence to the Lord's Table. We also know there are pastors and churches who do walk faithfully with us. They share our understanding of doctrine and life. When a person comes to me seeking the Holy Communion, I would ask him for his letter from his pastor. If he had none, I would call that pastor to find out 1) Is he in communion with your church? 2) What is the doctrine proclaimed from your pulpit and celebrated at your altar? If he had a letter from a pastor I did not know, I would call and ask only the second question. If he had a letter from a pastor I knew, I would commune him. Obviously, these letters would be dated and sealed with the churches seal. Such a process would In some measure restore personal announcement for communion since both the sending and the receiving pastor would get a chance to speak with the person. Also we would be giving witness to the fact that concord, unity, fellowship is a given, is a gift from God which we have no right to recognize where it does not really exist. Indeed we cannot see what is not there no matter how much we might pretend we do. You can't get there from here. You cannot get to discipline by cracking down on laxness. You cannot get to discipline by focusing on what we must do. We must first go to what God has done. We must first speak of COMMUNION before we can speak of EX-communion. We must first speak of the Body of Christ before we can speak of mending it. God has revealed to us the one true Faith. He has given us a communion, a fellowship, a unity, a concord in Christ. This being given to us, we must recognize that we cannot make those who depart from what God has given part of His fellowship, His unity, His Concord by plastering the Name Missouri Synod on them. They have went out from the Body; all we can do is call them back to Him. We cannot stretch, negotiate, or dialogue God's doctrine, God's fellowship beyond the limits He has set in His Word. If we who recognize this gift of Concord could agree to only fellowship within it's limits and not automatically assume the label Missouri Synod meant concord, then discipline would flow from Concord. And I think if we went down this road "a bit" maybe for "a piece" or even for " a ways" we would arrive at discipline not just in the area of doctrine but of life too.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church
1. Paul R. Harris, "The Principles and Practice of Penitential
Discipline in the Early Church: Counsel for the Church Today"
(Unpublished Master of Divinity Thesis, Concordia Theological Seminary: Ft. Wayne, 1983) 1.
2. Harris, 61.
3. 2, 17.
4. C.F.W. Walther, Pastoral Theology, John Drickamer, trns. (New Haven: Lutheran News, 1995) 246.
5. Werner Elert, The Structure of Lutheranism, Walter Hansen, trns. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1962) 363.
6. Elert, 366.
7. Julius Kostlin, The Theology of Luther, Vol. II, Charles Hay, trns.
(St. Louis: Concordia, 1986) 541-542.
8. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 234.
9. Epitome, XII, 26, 500.
10. Frank S. Mead, Handbook of Denominations 7th edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 1980), Table of Contents.
11. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 235.
12. Chemnitz, Martin, Loci Theologici, Vol. II, J.A.O. Preus, trans. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1989), 697.
13. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 234.
14. Walther, C.F.W., The Form of a Christian Congregation, J.T. Muller, trans. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1987), 36.
15. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 235.
16. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 238.
17. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 239
18. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 38.
19. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 38.
20. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 235.
21. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 235.
22. Holsten Fagerberg, A New Look at the Lutheran Confessions (1529-1537, Gene Lund, trns. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972) 221.
23. Harris, 20.
24. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 249.
25. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 239-240.
26. Werner Elert, Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four centuries, N.E. Nagel, trns. (St. Louis: Concordia, 1966) 63.
27. Harris, 31.
28. Elert, Eucharist, 47.
29. Walther, Pastoral Theology, 237.
30. Elert, Eucharist, 141.
31. Elert, Eucharist,129.
32. Elert, Eucharist, 131.
33. Elert, Eucharist, 131.
34. Elert, Eucharist, 134.