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Order in the Church

June 22, 2017 No Comment

by Timothy Teuscher

Everything in the Christian church is so ordered that we may daily obtain full forgiveness of sins through the Word and through signs (i.e., the Sacraments) appointed to comfort and revive our consciences as long as we live.

First Vice-President Timothy Teuscher

First Vice-President Timothy Teuscher

These words from Luther’s Large Catechism are not only fitting words for us to hear as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, but they are also necessary words to take to heart and actually put into practice, especially in light of the present state of turmoil and uncertainty in our church—aging and declining congregations, financial difficulties in our synod and districts, and so forth. The list grows longer every day.

What is the purpose and task of the church? Why should you even bother going to church? One reason and one reason only: to receive forgiveness of sins. For, as Luther goes on to say in the Small Catechism, “where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation.” The familiar explanation of the Third Article of the Creed puts it this way: “In this Christian Church (the Holy Spirit) daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.”

And that is why things in the church need to be “so ordered.” It begins with the order our Lord Himself has established—the order or office of the holy ministry, the proper calling of pastors by congregations to preach and teach the pure Word of God and administer the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution whereby this forgiveness of sins is offered, given, and bestowed upon us. It includes, as a result, the proper order of worship—the Service of the Word and the Service of the Sacrament, as the Lutheran Service Book puts it in the Divine Services. And it is also the basis upon which and the reason why congregations themselves are constituted and ordered. After all, “everything in the Christian church is so ordered that we may daily obtain full forgiveness of sins through the Word and through the Sacraments.”

Why should you even bother going to church? One reason and one reason only: to receive forgiveness of sins.

And this is so in our synod and districts as well—or at least it should be. This is why the Board of Directors and Department for Outreach of our East District has made it one of their main priorities to financially support remote and struggling congregations: so that people might continue to receive forgiveness of sins through the preaching of the Word of Christ and the administration of the Sacraments. This is why we do not (and should not!) operate like some business which closes some of its franchises that are not producing for the corporation; for as C.F.W. Walther says in his essay on the Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod: “Let everyone who is in a tiny little congregation take note and know that church matters are not like worldly matters. The smallest congregation is just as important as the largest one, and the largest is no more important than the smallest, because every congregation is great only because Christ is present in it.”

This is why our district is now in the process of looking at other ways of ordering things so that people in congregations which can no longer financially support a pastor might continue to “obtain full forgiveness of sins through the Word and through the Sacraments” — dual and tri-parishes, a deanery model (thanks to the task force from the Central District for their report on this), circuit riders, etc. This is why we are attempting to deal with so-called “non-calling vacancies” — the concept and idea of which is dis-orderly and contrary to Article XIV of the Augsburg Confession which states that “no one should publicly teach in the Church, or administer the Sacraments, without a rightly ordered call.” This is why our district’s Board of Directors has submitted an overture to the upcoming convention of our synod to deal with the uncertainty and lack of order concerning the status of retired pastors.

Our synod, too, would do well—in the midst of our current restructuring process and the countless hours and dollars that have been spent on this matter—to remember that “everything in the Christian church is so ordered that we may daily obtain full forgiveness of sins through the Word and through the Sacraments.” This, after all, was the guiding principle in how the first Lutherans wanted their confession to be put into practice and a proper structure implemented, as set forth in their 1545 report entitled The Wittenberg Reformation: “Proper Christian Church Governance consists chiefly in these (six) parts: First, in proper pure doctrine. Secondly, in proper use of the sacraments. Thirdly, in preservation of the preaching office. Fourthly, in preservation of proper discipline. Fifthly, in preservation of necessary schools. Sixthly, in fitting provision (for ministers and churches).” This is the underlying principle behind Walther’s aforementioned essay on the Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

In his essay entitled “An Assessment of LCMS Polity and Practice on the Basis of the Treatise,” Dr. George Wollenburg offers these timely words of warning and caution when it comes to this matter of structure and organization: “It is only natural to look at the visible organization with its structure and in our thinking externalize the church and approach it from the institutional, statistical, and organizational point of view. Efforts are then directed toward perfecting the organization, making it operate smoothly and efficiently. This understanding of the church produces some, not only unfortunate, but also serious consequences.”

In addition, consider these words of wisdom from Martin Luther concerning the 1526 proposed church order for Homberg and Hesse: “I know well and have experienced it myself that when laws are enacted too early and before they are tried out in practice, they rarely succeed. The people are not used to them, as those think who sit apart and picture to themselves in word or thought how things should proceed. To prescribe and to obey differ greatly from each other. Experience will show that many things in this order must be changed, while with others no one will bother about them. But if some things prevail and come into use, then it is easy to add to them and to arrange them in order. To make laws is indeed a great, glorious, and important thing, but without God’s Spirit nothing good will result from it. Therefore it is necessary to proceed with fear and humility before God and to observe these bounds: short and sweet, little and well, tender and always onward. After these things have become rooted, then more will be added as is necessary.”

No, not a preoccupation with authority and accountability, about whether decisions are made from the top-down or the bottom-up, about equal representation of clergy and laity at church conventions, and a whole host of other organizational and governance matters. That should not be our main concern; but rather this: “Everything in the Christian church is so ordered that we may daily obtain full forgiveness of sins through the Word and through the Sacraments.” After all, the catechism doesn’t say that “some things” in the church should be ordered for this purpose, but “everything.”

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Rev. Timothy Teuscher is First Vice-President of the East District of Lutheran Church–Canada.