Matthew 18 and “in statu confessionis”
Working through this week’s Gospel in Matthew 18 brought me back into contact with the insightful work of Jeff Gibbs in the CPH commentary, which, in turn, references the important CJ article by Gibbs and Jeff Kloha (“‘Following’ Matthew 18,” CJ 29:1 , 6-25). Their plea to read especially vv 15-20 within the larger literary context and theme, and not simply as a prescription for church discipline, remains very helpful counsel and wisdom. At the same time, this passage shows the genuine concern within these words of our Lord for the lost and erring brother, including those whose lack of repentance may lead to “a loving word of exclusion” (Gibbs, Matthew 11:2–20:34, 920).
Good colleague Gibbs explains this oxymoronic phrase very well, but also makes two other key points. First, this is a last resort “when it becomes certain [emphasis his] that there has been no repentance and renewal despite all the loving outreach.” Secondly, simply affirming what the text says, it is the “congregation” (“church,” ἐκκλησία) that takes this action, not any individual or even pastor on his own.
One of my favorite questions to ask our vicars as they return to campus concerns the state of our circuits. While anecedotal at best, one gets a very mixed picture. Some are healthy, with the brethren coming together for mutual admonition and consolation, casuistry and coffee, prayer and support for one another. Some can be described as “fraternal,” with healthy discussion, debate, and even some disagreement, but “we all get along.” Sadly, one continues to hear more than the occasional report that circuit and Winkel meetings are places of outright discord, actually avoided by some of the brothers, and that there are even those who would absent themselves from the fellowship of the altar. Some circuits, it is heard, maintain peace by simply not sharing the Lord’s Supper, simply to avoid the issue. At the heart of this problem are some strange practices about excommunication, about what it means to exclude one another, or maybe even ourselves, with or without out a “loving word of exclusion.”
These things ought not to be so. I have witnessed it myself, at circuit and district gatherings, even at synodical conventions. That which unites us in and under Christ, despite our personal peculiarities and peccadillos, symptomatic of the peccator in all of us, has become that which divides us. Is this self-exclusion, which seems odd as a witness to the body of Christ? Or is it a form of excommunication of the rest of us, which seems odder still, and even offensive?
I have tried to hear and understand the supposed argumentation often given for such action. A citation of Rom 16:17 does not really apply, as it really seems that those who exclude themselves are “causing divisions.” More likely such action is related to our need to take seriously church fellowship and church discipline. It is grounded in our affirmation that altar fellowship is not only a manifestation of our doctrine of this sacrament but also of ecclesiology, of church fellowship, and of taking seriously the faith that is confessed at the altar. There should be a unity of that faith that is confessed, starting with the Nicene Creed, not to mention the rest of the Lutheran Confessions.
I have talked to some of these brothers, somewhat à la Mt 18, since their action has offended at least me. Their point is often one of “in statu confessionis,” against certain positions and practices apparently taken by those who would be communing with them, or even serving as the called and ordained administrators of the sacrament. If one of the marks of the church (AC VII) is the proper administration of the sacrament, they would seem to be stating publically that the rest of us are not the true church, and that they will not be party to our false witness.
That is strong stuff, indeed. If this is no longer the Lutheran Church, who has moved? Of course, it is always the other, against whom I need to bear witness.
But Mt 18 implies a different approach. First, it is only when we are certain that there is public and unrepentant sin. Secondly, that certainty is determined by the church, not by any individual, not by any subgroup or ecclessiola, and not by any network of self-acclaimed truly “confessional” Lutherans.
I can read the blogposts responding already, another sign and symptom of the same problem I am trying to address. I am NOT suggesting that we do not have issues that may divide us, issues that desperately need some mutual admonition and consolation. President Kieschnick tried the “theological convocation” route. President Harrison has put forth the “Koinonia Project,” under First Vice President Mueller. These are noble attempts to get at these issues in a fair-minded, collegial, and fraternal way. I myself have good friends and brothers, and some who would not consider themselves either, on both sides of the synodical aisle that engage in theology and practice that comes close to offensive to our confessional unity, and is, at the very least, ripe for some fraternal discussion.
But until the church, through its usual order, comes to the clear and certain conclusion that a “loving word of exclusion” is needed, it would seem to be an inappropriate act of self-determined authority either to exclude oneself as a private statement of church discipline against others or to appear to have excommunicated the whole lot of the rest of us. Neither action seems consistent with a biblical and Lutheran ecclesiology.