Matthew 18 and “in statu confessionis”

communionWorking 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 [2003], 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.

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19 Comments

  1. Scott Holder September 11, 2014
    Reply

    Great thoughts. I’ve been blessed by two great circuits during my 13+ years as a pastor, and hold out a great deal of hope that we can continue to work together as “church” rather than as a bunch of individuals doing our own thing together.

    • Andrew Bartelt September 13, 2014

      Thanks for the good report, Scott. Yes, we are a church, not a group of like-minded (or unlike-minded!) individuals, and somehow in LCMS policy a corporate church, not just an amalgam of independent (like minded, and sometime unlike-minded) congregations.

  2. John Rasmussen September 11, 2014
    Reply

    Thank you. I love my synod very much, and am thankful to be part of it. Most churches in the United States either don’t have any structure of ecclesiastical accountability, OR there’s such a wide gap of disagreement about basic Christian doctrines… all of which makes me very thankful that I’m in a church where everyone is able to speak the creeds and really mean them!

    • John Rasmussen September 11, 2014

      Which is why I think we’d do better in the LCMS to first and foremost give thanks for the unity we do have, and the blessing that we already are to one another.

    • Andrew Bartelt September 13, 2014

      As someone who has trafficked in Christian and Lutheran circles broader than the LCMS has quipped, once you hang out outside the LCMS, you realize that there are really no true liberals in the LCMS! So are we celebrating our unity or bemoaning our disunity? Depends on who is setting the perspective…

      Your comments are true also about teaching a seminary. Colleagues in a lot of “mainline” seminaries can have 15-20 “denominations” represented. I don’t know how you teach systematics in that context, but one reason I think it can work is because few take doctrine seriously anyway!

  3. Peter Elliott September 11, 2014
    Reply

    Dear Dr. Bartelt. You wrote:
    “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.’”

    First, I commend you for listening and trying to understand. However, why do you say that ‘Rom 16:17 does not really apply’? You don’t explain here; you simply assert. I found this to be a very weak statement. It may ‘seem’ that those who exclude themselves are the one ‘causing divisions’, but theology is never done by outward appearances. The text itself says that those who have left ‘the doctrine you have been taught’ are those being divisive.

    I commune at my winkels–and I don’t speak for others–but to put the best construction on it, such pastors probably take church/altar fellowship very seriously. They believe the divisions already exist, prior to any actions they may or may not take. (That is to say, they aren’t trying to be divisive; they’re trying to be honest about existing divisions.) They most likely also believe that these divisions should be dealt with before we commune together. They probably, in fact, want to commune with those with whom they disagree. Consider the following:

    1 Corinthians 11:17-18 But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. 18 For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you!

    Matthew 5:23-24 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

    These passages have been used by our fathers to explain the need of addressing divisions, prior to joining together at Christ’s table. (And that is different than performing some kind of symbolic act of supposed excommunication.)

    Now, I could be wrong, but it sounds like you have ‘something against’ such pastors in your article. And, if your prophecy about coming blog posts is true, we may discover that they have ‘something against you.’ It is my understanding that God would have us deal with such differences, prior to communing together. Not communing with someone is not the same as saying they are cut off from Christ. Certainly, there will be factions in the Christian Church (1 Cor. 11:19) but there should be no divisions at the altar.

    Also, we must recognize that there are false teachers among us, as there always have been and always will be. St. Paul tells us this as he warns his brother pastors, “from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things” (Acts 20:30) This means also that some of our LCMS pastors are those who ‘speak twisted thing’s—though I don’t have any specific situations or people in mind. Therefore, we all need to keep a close watch on ourselves and on our doctrine, lest we discover that we are the ones causing such divisions, by leaving the ‘sound pattern of words’ given to us by the apostles and prophets. And we shouldn’t be shocked when a brother pastor suggests that false teaching exists (or simply that unhelpful teaching exists) in our midst. I believe we should listen intently, and I am confident that you agree.

    I too have spoken with pastors who have abstained from the Sacrament at winkels. The ones to which I have spoken had very sincere—and dare I say loving—concerns. However, they seemed weary from always being labeled the ‘troublers of Israel’.

    • Andrew Bartelt September 14, 2014

      Thank you, Peter, for this thoughtful comment. I was probably a bit terse in dismissing Rom 16 on the assumption that those who exclude themselves are causing divisions (though I think they are), but I do suppose that they would see themselves as “avoiding those who do.” And this does cut both ways, which is the point about “who has moved?” (This is why we are debating issues of “Lutheran identity” and promulgating competing claims to be truly “confessional.”) I recall that old saying, “if God seems far away, who has moved.” So if true Lutherans seem far away, who has moved? Usually it’s the “other” person. And there is fault here on both sides, to be sure. One of my favorite observations is that “in physics for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction. But in the LCMS, there is an equal and slightly greater reaction.” So we have folks moving away from the heart and center in both directions, often as a(n over-)reaction to those who have moved on the “other” side.

      Yes, the real issue is dealing with divisions amongst us. I appreciate your bringing also 1 Cor 11 and Matt 5 (as well as Rom 16 back) into the conversation, and Jeff Gibbs (who started my thinking about this with his comments on Mt 18) also makes this point in his comments on Mt 5:23-24, as well as in his very helpful article on the 1 Cor passages (“An Exegetical Case for Close(d) Communion: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:17-34” in CJ 21:2 April, 1995, p 148-163). He discusses the pastoral application in congregational life (not just the larger “church fellowship” issues) where divisions and hostilities among members must be addressed. In this regard, you have helped underscore the sincerity and dilemma of many of those who absent themselves. And it might be a good question to ask ourselves, “what is it that seems so divisive as to keep my brother from kneeling at the altar with me?” Now we are on the way actually to healing some breaches.

      And yes, the issues cut both ways. Back to the “who moved?’ question, I do think that the “burden of proof” is on those who initiate change, and this kind of dialog is also too often lacking. Back a generation or so, my own “reverend father” regularly sought out the counsel of the brethren in the Winkel before changing much of anything in the practice of theology within his congregation. (And that was back in the day when a worship innovation might be omitting the gradual on occasion for the sake of time.) My hope is that our Winkels are still the places where a lot of such casuistry gets discussed and debated. No one should have the attitude that “I don’t care how this impacts your congregation,” since we are all in this together, and the worship of each congregation, for example, is connected to the corporate worship of us all. Frankly, I think a lot of our worship wars might have been avoided if we had worked through issues of change and innovations, including both the theological and the practical reasons that sometimes can be very well explained within confessional Lutheran theology. But at least we would have been part of the process that would then “bless” something that a brother in another congregation would be doing rather than find it as something that, rightly or wrongly, or at least in my own mind, prevents my communing with him.

      So my major concern is really getting at the dialog that can heal divisions, but that includes the hard work of determining what divisions (or sometimes just disagreements, and sometimes even a debate over how to apply a not-so-clear word of Scripture) constitute the breaking of altar fellowship. When brothers absent themselves, they may have reasons that seems clear to them, but I’d like to know that there is actually some dialog and reconciliation going on. When they absent themselves from the larger body, including a district and synodical convention, they are also publicly refusing to commune with the whole lot of us, and in a sense are saying that they are not in fellowship with their own church body. My point is that this is not an individual decision, and until such issues are identified by the corporate church as breaking fellowship, we should continue to humble ourselves before the unity found in the grace and mercy of Christ within the fellowship of his body.

      But I deeply appreciate your insights, including the obligation to understand the arguments from all sides, and to do so with respect and humility. This is the kind of “blog dialog” that can actually be helpful!

  4. Martin R. Noland September 11, 2014
    Reply

    Dear Dr. Bartelt,

    Thanks for your well-reasoned article. I agree fully with everything you say–I wish more of our brothers did.

    I too have been blessed by excellent mutuuum colloquium et consolationem fratrum (SA III, iv) in all the circuits where I have been a member. Our circuit meetings are too valuable to neglect, or not to work on restoring the fellowship when divisions arise.

    Regarding the erring practice of withholding communion from brother pastors in the synod when there is disagreement, I have always rejected that, no matter what it is called or how it is defended. Against such erring practice, Dr. Kurt Marquart used to quote from Francis Pieper Abendmahlsgemeinschaft ist Glaubensgemeinschaft (Pieper’s English dogmatics, 3:385; cf. Fritz’s pastoral theology, p. 154; cf. Walther’s German pastoral theology, p. 145). This means “altar fellowship is church fellowship” and vice versa.

    The relationship of a pastor in administering communion to his flock is not the same as his relationship to his BROTHER pastors. To his flock, a pastor is a spiritual father, and so exercises discipline when necessary by withholding communion–but still with the concurrence of the congregation (i.e., with congregational concurrence in LCMS polity).

    In relationship to his BROTHER pastors, he is an equal, and so has no right to withhold communion. Only after charges have been made, investigation proceeded, and trial concluded, can one say that a brother is erring–and then withholding of communion is deserved. The trial process is what gives CERTAINTY to the judgment, which is the point you are making, I think.

    This highlights the importance of having a good trial system in the synod. If we don’t have a good judicial system, then erring brothers continue in their error. If we do have a good judicial system, then one can have CERTAINTY, and then commune properly–and with confidence–with our brother pastors.

    Thanks for these excellent thoughts, and blessings to you in the new academic year!

    Yours in Christ, Martin R. Noland

    • Andrew Bartelt September 14, 2014

      Thanks, Marty. You have said better what I was trying to get at with the need for the corporate church to identify those issues that truly break fellowship.

  5. Matthew P. Johnson September 12, 2014
    Reply

    Dr. Bartelt:

    In our circuit we generally have a high turn out for winkels, yet do not partake of the holy Supper together. Instead, we gather for Matins with the reading and preaching of the Word of God by the host pastor. We have some disagreements among us over the usual items (using the hymnal, closed vs. functionally open communion, etc.), and so reserve the administration of the Sacrament for our local congregations. The emphasis has not been on exclusion, but on keeping open the channels of dialogue, which does not move so much in the realm of sacrament as in the realm of Word–the divine gift that is the very thing employed in the dialogue, the divine gift given for that as one of its ends.

    It might not be a bad idea for us to ponder whether winkels are the place for having the Sacrament. Oral history suggests this was done when communion was less frequent than is the case among us today…which, I think points to something else: as an entire church body we have actually moved together and become “more Lutheran,” “more confessional” by returning to the practice described/prescribed by our confessions regarding weekly communion offered in the parishes per Apology 24. The irony of history might be that it was voices on the fringes of the Mo. Synod, and voices from other Lutheran churches, that helped us move in the proper direction (underscoring the importance of listening to others in the current moment, as at the same time we are listening to our confessions–which have the lead).

    With more frequent communion comes more intensive pastoral care for our people, underlined by the forgotten “sacrament”–absolution. Perhaps this “sacrament” is the one that is most applicable to the brotherly relationship that obtains between pastors holding the same office within the same church body in the setting of the winkel? Absolution among brothers (Psalm 133, Jesus and Peter in John 21) exemplifies the reality of the Office; just as the administration of, and participation in, the holy Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ exemplifies the life of the confessing congregation–where it is pastor and people together (true also in the Divine Service at district and synodical conventions, where our polity has called for pastoral and lay representation–thereby recalling in the governance of the church the more fundamental reality that obtains from the altar and Testament of Christ).

    So, our circuit does not partake in the Sacrament at our winkels. The tone is not one of exclusion, but out of deference to the Word–that it and our confessions might hold sway in the ongoing dialogue.

    Sincerely,
    Rev. Matthew Johnson

    • Andrew Bartelt September 14, 2014

      These are interesting insights, and I am grateful for your response. Part of the reason, I think, for communion at Winkels does go back to the liturgical renewals of the previous generation, which did emphasize the fundamental role of the sacrament in our worship life. It was, unfortunately, somewhat driven by the ecumenical (“which way to Lutheran unity?”) movement, and I remember the old debates about whether the sacrament “caused” unity or “celebrated” it, with the “odd, but not-so-odd-since-the-Bible-uses-the-marriage-analogy” analogy of sex before or after marriage – as helping to build the intimacy of a relationship or as celebrating and consummating it. (I am not making this up; I listened to just this debate more than once in even official discussions of these issues.) Having just re-read Jeff Gibbs’ article on 1 Cor 10 and 11 (“An Exegetical Case for Close(d) Communion: 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:17-34” in CJ 21:2 April, 1995, p 148-163; see my comments to Peter Elliott’s post, above), he makes clear that the sacrament is based on the unity first in baptism, “Nor can we deduce that the cup- and bread-participation in Christ’s body and blood is the way to overcome divisions in the church” (Gibbs, p 151f).

      And yes, a little confession and absolution on the part of pastors as brothers in Christ would be a good thing, especially for sins that may be against each other, whether giving offense or, conversely, taking offense at something that should not divide us. I wonder if those who absent themselves from communion (not an issue if you don’t celebrate it) also consider themselves, or their brothers, not absolved ! ?
      And if this means a bit more “intensive pastoral care” for one another, that sounds like a good thing.

      But back to “settling” for a service of the Word at Winkels. Maybe that’s a good thing, as long as is not just avoiding a problem by avoiding the problem. There certainly is the issue of pastoral oversight — and I would think that the presiding minister of the “host congregation” would then need to be involved in pastoral care, counseling, and yes, confession and absolution, for those who would not commune (and presumably with those whose offense, rightly or wrongly, has prevented them from communing). There may be other good reasons not to have communion, but for those who regularly preside, it is often a joy simply to receive, somewhat like the joy of worshipping in the same pew with spouse and family once in a while. And I recall someone who quipped that we say “Word and Sacrament” but we really mean “WORD (and sacrament).” Like a “church with a liturgy” (as opposed to a liturgical church), we are sometimes a church of the Word, with the sacrament.

      But I appreciate your comments and the fact that your circuit has a “tone” that “is not one of exclusion” but rather of dialog around the Word and Confessions. This is a good thing.

  6. The Rev. BT Ball September 16, 2014
    Reply

    Dr. Bartelt-
    thanks for posting the piece, and for your follow up comments to the posts of others.

    The experiences of one pastor are certainly anecdotal, but I’ll share some anyway.

    As a young pastor, I was threatened with dispute resolution because I refused to commune an ELCA person – at a winkel. I found out that was standard operating procedure – the hard way. I spoke to the individual beforehand, I was the host. He was representing Lutheran Social Services and I had not met him before. I told him that the Sacrament was being offered and had the closed communion conversation that I am so thankful that JAOPreus III modeled for us in Systematics III. As I vested and then sat down in the chancel, a brother of our Synod began to berate me for not being willing to commune a guest of our winkel and Christian brother. He stormed out. Somehow I made it through the service, I had a mind to cancel it. This “discussion” took place in front of a couple other members of the winkel. The following conversation during the winkel did not go well, and he contacted the DP seeking my removal after telling me, “Closed communion is a bunch of garbage. I grew up with that hateful way of doing church and you need to get it out of your head.”

    There would occasionally be other pastors who were ELCA or were members of ELCA congregations who would come to the winkel, they would be communed. One pastor was on the roster of the LCMS but was a member of an ELCA congregation and regularly preached there and was a communion assistant. I did ask one brother pastor if he would refrain from commmuning an ELCA pastor on one occasion for my conscience’s sake. He quietly asked the ELCA pastor to not commune for the sake of the LCMS brothers present who would take offense. When the time for distribution came, some of the LCMS men then told the ELCA pastor to come on up and commune – when they were not the host. They were wondering what the problem was.

    I was also told that there was no foundation for Missouri’s opposition to the ordination of women. That faith alone in Christ Jesus was not necessary for salvation; this from a Pastor whose son had married a Jewish woman and who had participated in his grandson’s bar mitzvah at a reform synogogue – “I had to dust off my Hebrew to help out.”

    Yes, there are liberals in the LCMS. I have met them and been in the winkel with them. In light of my anecdotes, perhaps you can see why some would stop going to winkels or refrain from communing at them.

    Peace, Ben Ball+

    • Andrew Bartelt September 21, 2014

      Thanks, Ben, for sharing this. The only thing that gives me hope amidst your anecdotes is that a brother decided to “dust off his Hebrew,” although I wish it were for better preaching and teaching on the OT. If such dissensions from our doctrine of the sacrament and church fellowship do exist (and I am not doubting that they do exist), then I agree that they need to be dealt with, through the proper channels of our church order. My challenge to everyone is to listen, clarify, engage, and then let the whole church, not individuals, determine who has broken fellowship. The pastor holds that office of the keys locally (as pastor loci), and even there is subject to the check and balance of the elders, but not beyond his congregation.

      It may be painful, frustrating, and even apparently fruitless, but the need to deal with such dissent as you report would seem to be an important reason to attend Winkels, not avoid them.

  7. Rev. Joshua Scheer September 16, 2014
    Reply

    Dr. Bartelt,
    In the OP, you state some very assumptive words concerning blogs and their response – does this not do what you are actually writing against? Is that a fair or brotherly estimation of those brothers who write blogs?

    • Andrew Bartelt September 18, 2014

      Well, there are blogs and there are blogs, and if my comments are heard as an unfair broadside against all blogs, then I repent and recant. The issue is how we disagree with one another, and even define the issues about which we disagree as divisive of altar fellowship – and who determines that among brothers in the ministry. Blogs that seem to be biased and unwilling to take seriously the arguments of another position do not serve the common good of working through such issues. We have enough “preaching to our own choirs,” on both sides of the aisle, and I truly want to do what I can to bridge those divisive issues and tactics. If my comment about such “blogposts” … [as] another sign and symptom of the same problem” is characteristic of my own misrepresentation of others or unwillingness to listen, then shame on me.

      I would like to think that there is a significant difference in tone and substance in the kind of dialogue engaged here, but if that is not apparent, then I can understand your concern and regret that I have appeared to deal with others in the same way that they may choose to operate, of which I am, indeed, critical. And I appreciate that you would seem to agree that such a means and manner is unacceptable. My own concern is that a blog serves the actual good of the whole of the church, as a “safe place” (if we can find one!) to engage issues with substantive argumentation and respect.

    • Rev. Joshua Scheer September 20, 2014

      Thank you Dr. Bartelt for your reply. Disagreements will come with varied convictions, the key is what the Word of God and our Lutheran Confessions teach. The altar fellowship thing is spelled out in Augsburg, agreement in the pure Gospel and the right administration of the sacraments. (of course open vs. closed communion is a disagreement in the administration of the sacrament of the altar).
      As one of those who blog, and often on one of the “feisty” blogs at that, I can say that honest debate, even if it is gets hot is good. That said, there should be some standards – BJS worked hard to get its comment policy to be taken seriously, and it’s not perfect, but it does alright with moderation.

      As far as “safe places” go, a place should never be safe for the public confession of error. This is where it is difficult because blogs are quite public. Facebook and Twitter are quite public. I know everyone is concerned in the LCMS nowadays about this idea of safety, but I wish we would start to worry more about making the good confession and less about safety – after all, it is a false presumption to think that anything we do creates “safety” anyways. The Lord takes is the one who preserves and protects.

      Fearing for safety in online discussion actually may be a sign of a bad conscience about that which you want to discuss. If you are teaching it, practicing it, or whatever, if you are not willing to proclaim that before all, there is a problem – the conscience bound to the Word of God will convict. The problem can then become that the “safe place” actually does not let the Word of the Law (or for that matter the Word of the Gospel) ring forth to the erring. In the end the “safe place” ends up hurting our brothers because they can neither receive rebuke or restoration.

      Just this past week I received a rebuke from a brother. It was good. I needed to be told I was wrong. I had sinned. I was forgiven. Any onlooker would have thought I was not in a very “safe place” by being rebuked, but I was in the best place, the place I needed to be – being rebuked, convicted, forgiven and exhorted by God’s Word.

    • Andrew Bartelt September 21, 2014

      By safe space I certainly do not mean that it is good to be safe, saved, or spared from proper rebuke for error. But I do mean safe space from misunderstandings, misrepresentations, character assassination, and other great shame and vice. I am also talking about the fraternal discussion and debate even about doctrinal matters, where casuistry and various applications of doctrine can be discussed without fear of being branded heretical. The goal is to talk it through and understand even opposing views, and if there is heresy, then it can be identified and dealt with.

      The fundamental problem I am trying to address is not the toleration of error, but the fraternal discussion of differences amongst us that may or may not be doctrinal error. There are some who may scoff at Scripture and the Confessions, to be sure, but the vast majority of folks, some of whom would be accused of error by others, do believe they are upholding the Word of God and our Lutheran Confessions. So how do we remain faithful in working through such disagreements? Some folks think that refusing to commune with those with whom they are in altar fellowship, based on personal determination of error, is a violation of our doctrines of ecclesiology and fellowship. Some believe that any deviation from the liturgy as printed in our hymnals, or using an instrument other than an organ, is doctrinal error. Others think that calling our clergy “father” is doctrinal error. Some folks think that a female voting in congregational matters or serving as an acolyte is doctrinal error. Some folks think that denying women their role in the priesthood of the baptized is doctrinal error. If there are doctrinal errors, then such errors and those who uphold them should be disciplined through the proper order of the church. Simply claiming that a brother has erred does not give one the license to attack him in the name of “properly unsafe space.”

      And I am pleased to be reminded that there are standards at BJS, and, to be fair, many discussions would seem to follow them. When I took a look at the website to remind myself of the stated “rules,” I also stumbled into the shallow and sophomoric, superficial and sarcastic, almost silly and childish characterization of Rev. Bill Woolsey, featured as a “pick of the week,” no less. The compete lack of any fair-minded attempt to understand what Rev. Woolsey is trying to do does not seem to substantiate the kind of standards you would want to uphold.

  8. Rev. Joshua Scheer September 22, 2014
    Reply

    Dr. Bartelt,
    Thank you for your clarifications. Clearly there is doctrine and there are things adiaphora. You give some good examples, but I have often not found pastors actually dividing over them. I find it more common for more substantial differences to be discussed and debated – matters which are by nature doctrinal (worship theology; communion fellowship; Law/Gospel) but that is my experience – YMMV.

    What does one do when the proper orders of the church do not work? This is a very Lutheran question isn’t it? Our Lutheran history has often shown a willingness to set aside the broken systems after they have been proven to not work in the hopes of restoring sound doctrine and practice.

    As for the post on BJS, that is one of 20 posts on the homepage right now. In the other posts we have seen some really wonderful conversation, and even in the post you bring up we see some very good conversation going on between opposing “sides” in the LCMS. I also know that the post in question has provoked some very good private discussion which had the post not been made would have not happened. I don’t know Rev. Woolsey other than what he puts out for public consumption and in my opinion is foreign to me. As far as what he is trying to do, a person using new language, ideas, or themes (rapid departure from the sound pattern of words given to us by our fathers, including a new “six chief parts” and in the video posted an emphasis on “community”) and innovative methods has the burden to show why he is doing so in an honest way and to explain it in light of the sound pattern of words in a faithful way. I do know the way in which Table Talk Radio teaches the faith, they have made it no secret that they make fun of things and teach through games, critique, and humor. They have made it easy to understand what they are trying to do, even without talking to them privately.

    • Andrew Bartelt September 28, 2014

      The frustrations are real over whether the proper orders of the church are functioning, and I agree. Of course, we need to be sure that we are actually dealing with false doctrine. Are there such aberrations amongst us? I would not deny that there are. Are there cases of lax discipline? Probably. And this can cut both ways. Are you willing to admit a lack of discipline on both sides? And is your point about “a willingness to set aside the broken systems” to suggest that we then have liberty to determine church fellowship on our own? Is this about Rome and the Reformers? If so, who is who in our LCMS cast of characters? Maybe I’m missing your concern here, but I would agree with a need to fix a broken system in any case!

      But I am also aware of a lot of claims of “false doctrine” that are hard to substantiate, or that even evaporate, especially when we actually hear each other out. That’s really the heart of this whole discussion—when do we really have divisions that should break our fellowship with one another, and who gets to decide?

      Yes, the examples I cited are extreme (and intentionally almost silly), but I do know folks who would consider them doctrinal aberrations of some sort. The real issues are in the middle somewhere, like where is the line for “non-Lutheran” worship? Is any semblance of “contemporary worship” or, better, engagement of our theology of worship with a 21st century cultural expression, non-Lutheran? Or where is the line for an overly restricted definition of Lutheran worship? Whose definition of “leitourgia divina” gets to declare “non adiaphora est” as do the Gottesdienst brethren (actually, “fathers”)? Isn’t that adding to our Confessions? And does that provide license to go over the line in the other direction? And oh yes, just where is the line and who gets to decide?

      Finally, back to Brother Woolsey and the BJS, I agree that those who are using the sound pattern of words in a different way have a certain burden of proof to explain themselves, and I have actually talked with them and to them about such things. In the process I also listened to them. There is burden of proof but also benefit of the doubt, not to mention putting the best construction on what our brothers in the ministerium might be trying to do. Is the point re the “Table Talk” that as long as they “make it no secret that they make fun of things and teach through games, critique, and humor,” they are exempt from the 8th Commandment or even the basic integrity of public discourse? How is this “teaching [not to mention modeling} the faith?”

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