Posts tagged fellowship

Observations on the ELCA Churchwide Assembly

Note:  A short commentary on this topic will also be published in Reporter.  Here I offer some more extensive observations and reflections.  HCM.

At the invitation of Rev. Dr. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop, I attended the second half of the 12th Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Aug. 15-19, in Orlando, Florida, to represent The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). Everyone was very cordial and gracious, repeating several times how glad they were I was there, so I’m very thankful to Dr. Hanson and his staff. No opportunity was given me to speak to the delegates, but I was introduced along with about 20 leaders from other church bodies, including the following: Grady Parsons, Presbyterian Church USA, who brought greetings on behalf of the ELCA’s full communion partners; the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, National Council of Churches general secretary; plus representatives from other groups such as the Reformed Churches of America; Christian Church Together in the U.S.A.; Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; the World Council of Churches; the Episcopal Church; the Mennonite Church; the Disciples of Christ; the United Church of Christ; the Moravian Church; and Rev. Martin Junge, the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. Interestingly, after we had left the stage, a representative from the Islamic Society of North America, with whom the ELCA has had discussions, spoke and brought greetings of peace.

Though the ELCA is about twice our size, fewer voting delegates (about 1,000 compared to our 1,200-plus) made up their assembly.  They debated a shrinking budget (their assembly adopts an overall budget for two years) and reductions in funding campus and youth ministries.  It adopted a social statement on genetics and the church body’s own anti-malaria campaign, separate from the Lutheran Malaria Initiative.

Our Synod has always recognized many other Lutherans in North America and works toward greater doctrinal concord, seeking deeper relationships on the basis of the Word of God.  We have our long-time partners in the Lutheran Church – Canada (whose congregations historically were members of the LCMS in Canada).  We are also growing into our relationship of altar and pulpit fellowship with the Association of American Lutheran Churches declared several years ago after thorough theological discussion. In addition, we have our many partners around the world in the International Lutheran Council.  We also have ongoing conversations with a number of others, and of course, we continue to meet twice a year with the leadership of the ELCA in the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation.

What gave me a persistent melancholy feeling observing this Churchwide Assembly, however, is the sense that the ELCA is simply on a different course than the LCMS, particularly with regard to the authority of Scripture. In 2009 the ELCA, rejecting the prohibitions of God’s Word, recognized “life-long monogamous same-gender relationships” and allowed non-celibate homosexual ministers to serve as pastors.

In essence, some members of the ELCA still hold the position that such homosexual activity is sinful.  Other members of the ELCA hold the position that such activity is acceptable to God.  Officially, both positions are allowed by the national body, but in effect, the latter position has become the norm. There was no sign at this assembly of any move to reconsider these actions.

As a Synod, we believe these decisions represent a clear contradiction of the Word of God.  Most of us in the LCMS are deeply grieved by this because we believe the ELCA, in effect, has allowed, contrary to Scripture, the pernicious idea that homosexual activity is just as pleasing to God as sexual activity within Holy Marriage.

What makes this discussion even more painful is that, in the recent memory of many of us, we were much closer to parts of the ELCA.  The American Lutheran Church (ALC), one of the predecessor bodies of the ELCA, and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod lived in altar and pulpit fellowship for 12 years.  I remember well the close relationship enjoyed thereby between St. James – ALC and Holy Ghost – LCMS, two blocks apart in Bergholz, New York, when I served my vicarage at Holy Ghost.  The two congregations jointly supported a parish school. During the year I was there, on Ascension Day 1978, the congregations celebrated their first joint Communion service, and there was not a dry eye in the house. Personally, I have close family members who belong to ELCA congregations.  Many more folk in both church bodies are able to tell of countless long-standing connections of family and friendship.  Yet now, tragically, the LCMS and the ELCA are traveling roads that diverge rather than converge.

What does this widening gap mean for cooperative relationships between our churches? The 2010 Convention of the LCMS asked the leadership of our Synod to prepare theological criteria for evaluating these cooperative ventures, mostly in the area of social ministry and the care of hurting people.  These criteria have been prepared, and we have begun an extended process of examining carefully these ventures.  Where we conclude we can in good conscience continue without compromising God’s Word, we will do so. However, where we conclude the differences make cooperation impossible, there will, in time, be a careful and orderly disengagement.  As a confessional Synod we simply cannot participate in efforts that imply any agreement with the positions taken by the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.

Why is this necessary?  Our Synod maintains the position that God Himself has reserved the act of sexual union for marriage between one man and one woman.  On the basis of God’s Word and evidenced by 2000 years of Christian teaching, we believe that fornication, adultery, and homosexual activity are all sin before God1, sins which need to be confessed as such, so that they can be forgiven, as the Scripture says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”2   Some may dismiss our position as biblicism or legalism.  Yet the Word of God remains true.  In the wider context of this verse we can see how these issues DO affect the Gospel:

This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.  If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.  If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.  If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.  My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.  He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.3

This is the only way any of us are able stand before God.  We claim nothing of our own, but can only plead the merits of Jesus Christ.  All else is darkness and leads away from the truth, for if we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us.  Only Jesus can save us, for only Jesus is the sacrifice that bears in our place the full wrath of God on account of our sin. 

This is why we cannot call good what God has called sin. Accepting homosexual activity as good (which is the effect of the ELCA’s 2009 action) promotes a false security about behavior God has forbidden and from which He longs to redeem us.  It leads to self-justification rather than that justification God has promised all who trust His forgiving mercy through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.

This is not a happy situation.  We humbly recognize we in The Lutheran Church––Missouri Synod have many faults, many of which are often more visible to those outside than to us insiders.  But we are also bound to the Word of God.  We pray that the Lord would enable us to love every sinner enough to be honest with them about the Word of God regarding both repentance and forgiveness.  We pray that by His Spirit we drink deeply of His Word and joyfully keep the Gospel of forgiveness central to our life together.  We pray for our brothers and sisters in the ELCA, and for all of us, that the Lord would preserve us and that we may both humbly seek and boldly confess Christ and His Word before the world.

Peace in Christ,
+ Herbert Mueller

1 See 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, et al. Yet we have much work to do to improve our ministry in these areas. Discussion is under way to develop helps for pastors and congregations to serve folks in these situations.
2 1 John 1:9
3 1 John 1:5-2:2

Presentations at the Mercy Conference – Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia

If you follow this blog, by now you know that we have been engaged in a series of three mercy conferences in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.  But what was the mercy conference all about?  Here is a short summary of the conference, listing the presenters.

Herbert Mueller – First Vice President of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod brought a keynote address on our Biblical and Confessional Theology of Mercy (summarized elsewhere in this blog).

Bryan Salminen – Serving as pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in St. John’s, Michigan, Dr. Salminen is also a psychologist teaching a class at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan.  His presentation focused on a theology of the body and of passion.  Our sexuality is a pointer for our need for communion with God, a need God fills with Himself in Christ.

John Fale – is a pastor of our Synod presently serving as the interim executive director of LCMS World Relief/Human Care. Before coming to the Synod, he served as a hospital chaplain for 14 years.  He led conference participants into a deeper understanding of the need for the pastoral care of the sick.  Times of personal illness will often make a person emotionally and spiritually vulnerable to the attacks of the devil.  The pastor’s task is to bring the right medicine at the right time for each person.

Grace Rao – serves as a deaconess, presently on the staff of LCMS World Relieve/Human Care.  Grace organized this conference with the help of her counterpart in Latvia – Ms. Inta Putnina, in charge of diaconal work in Riga, Latvia. She also made a very interesting presentation on the calling and work of deaconesses and their relationship to the pastoral office.

Sara Bielby – is a deaconess serving two congregations in Michigan: Immanuel Lutheran Church, Macomb, and University Lutheran Chapel in Ann Arbor.  In a moving way, she focused on the need for visitation of the marginal and lonely.  Deaconesses put the love of Christ into action, leading to the cure that is found in Christ and His means of grace.

John Pless – teaches pastoral theology at Concordia Theological Seminary, Fort Wayne, Indiana.  His lecture focused on the pastoral care of the dying. Death is not the natural end or course of things, but death is the last enemy.  Yet it is an enemy defeated by Christ Himself, who died and rose for us.  Life is not ours to take, but God’s to give and to take according to His plan.  Death brings judgment, a judgment Christ received on our behalf, so that now, in Christ, we are judged righteous. Death swallowed up in Christ’s death and resurrection becomes the portal to life everlasting.

Of course, we would not have been able to hold a conference in Latvia without a great deal of help in Latvia.  We had the cooperation and help of all the bishops in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia, led by Archbishop Janis Vanags.  However, Ms. Inta Putnina, director of the diaconal center of the church in Riga, was invaluable in her work to support and organize our conference.  Mrs. Sandra Gintere (wife of one of the Latvian pastors and instructor at the Luther Academy, who also has a PhD from CTS, Fort Wayne) worked untiringly as our interpreter, with the help of Ms. Mara Zviedre (who had translated several theological papers on the Church’s work of mercy into Latvian). We pray God’s continued blessing on our partnership in the Gospel and in the Church’s work of mercy with our brothers and sisters in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Latvia.

+ Herbert C. Mueller

More “Talk” about the Koinonia Project…

Currently under development through the Office of the President of the Synod, the Koinonia Project is basically intended to draw the members of our Synod closer together in our confession of God’s Word.  Just that statement alone begs the question – why is the Koinonia Project needed?  What are the issues?  What’s the real problem?

Some would say, “If only ‘they’ would behave themselves as Christians,” (whoever “they” are!), “our problems would be solved.”  Or, “the real problem is those pastors who…” and you can fill in the blank with whatever you think is the malady.  Indeed, the Task Force on Synodical Harmony (whose report you can access at has identified a number of issues, both behavioral and theological.  Everyone, it seems, will have their list of reasons why our Synod experiences conflict in our life together.  In the Koinonia Project concept paper, also at, we list a few of the obvious theological issues, not to be exhaustive but simply illustrative. 

The point is, most people can identify at least some of the problem.  Of course, it is also true that how each person (including myself!) evaluates the issues and conflicts will be colored by his or her political biases and expectations.  No one should be surprised by this.  It’s been part of our life together for a long time.  In fact, this phenomenon is one of the clearest examples of the need for an effort like the Koinonia Project.  It’s also the source of some misconceptions about the project.

For example, we’ve heard it said:  “The Koinonia Project is just a smokescreen for a new purge of the Synod.”  “Harrison and Mueller are writing off 15-20% of the Synod.”  “This really shouldn’t be difficult – if only ‘they’ would…”  “I heard that Koinonia will force people to conform…”  “I’m afraid Koinonia will be hijacked by [here insert the group you are afraid of].”  “What’s going to happen if we can’t agree?”  Perhaps you’ve heard other things as well.

Please read carefully the concept paper and watch the Koinonia Project web site as the project expands and is refined.  And please pray for us as we seek to develop and implement the process. There are many possible pitfalls – some listed above and many others we haven’t even thought of.  The Koinonia Project is not going to be easy – in fact, it may be the most difficult thing we have ever done together as a Synod, more difficult than any of us imagine.  Koinonia will not be quick – we are looking at this as a decade long effort.  The Koinonia Project cannot work by coercion but only by attraction to draw people into theological discussion under the Word of God.  We will not “paper over” differences, but will seek to deal with them honestly, plainly, clearly from the Word of God and our Lutheran confessions. It also means we will have to be patient with one another and with the process. No one is being written off.  Every member of the Synod is welcome.  It’s just something we have to do, together. This will take time, but we believe it will be worth it!

We do understand that right now we’ve only been talking in general terms about the project.  How it actually works is yet to be demonstrated.  Our prayer is that several pilot groups will be active before the Fall of 2011, and that many more will be developed over the next couple of years.  Please keep the effort in your prayers and consider your own participation as the project grows. Only God can provide His blessing of koinonia, of life together, and He provides His blessings through His Word. As St. Paul writes, “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship (koinonia) of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.  I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:9-10 ESV).

Remember the goal (from the concept paper):  “All of us constantly need the daily change of heart God works through repentance and faith. The problem belongs to all of us.  None of us is exempt.  We are each, every last one of us, called to examine our actions and attitudes toward one another so that we confess our sins, trust God’s promise and speak forgiveness to one another.  But again, it is absolutely essential that our theological issues are addressed by a thorough process under the Word of God where we come to clear agreement on 1) the points at issue, 2) what we confess together, 3) what we reject and 4) what we will therefore do together, on the basis of Scripture and our confessions.  This effort to do so we have chosen to call ‘The Koinonia Project’ because we pray God will build and strengthen our unity in the Word of God and our fellowship, our ‘koinonia’ together.”

+Herbert C. Mueller
First Vice President

Our “Life Together”

The Word of God

And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).

God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:9-10).

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to feel this way about you all, because I hold you in my heart, for you are all partakers with me of grace, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel (Philippians 1:3-7).

…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised (Galatians 2:9).

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?  Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:16-17).

 In Greek “Koine” means something “common.”  “Koinonia” is the Greek word that describes the act of holding things in common.  “Koinonia” is usually done into English with the words “fellowship,”  “partnership,” “communion” or “participation,” depending on the context, as in the Scriptures cited above.  In the broadest sense, we have “koinonia” with all who are in Christ by faith, living or dead, as we confess, “I believe in … the communion of saints.”  When we speak of our unity in Christ, we “believe one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” for there is but one Christ, “one body and one Spirit… one hope… one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all…” (Ephesians 4:4-6, selected portions).  This one body of Christ is not The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, but encompasses all believers in Christ.

Where does one find these believers in Christ?  Our confessions tell us we will find them wherever the Word of God is proclaimed and the sacraments are given out according to Christ’s institution.  It is interesting, is it not, that in each of the passages listed above, when the word “koinonia” is used, what we Lutherans call the means of grace (God’s Word and Sacraments in Christ) are quite often also in view.  So in our understanding of Scripture, “Koinonia” is not something we achieve by our efforts, but fellowship is given by Christ, given where He gives all His gifts, namely, in the pure preaching of the Gospel and the right administration of the Sacraments.  These are the Church’s identifying marks, and the true source of our fellowship in Christ.

Unity, Concord and Harmony

 The Task Force for Synodical Harmony identified three important aspects of our life together that needed clear definition:  unity, concord and harmony.  We observe here that our “life together” in the Gospel includes all three.   Here’s how the Task Force summarized them:

Unity: The oneness that all believers in Christ have with each other through Spirit-given faith in Jesus created through the means of grace. “There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4). This unity cannot be seen by human eyes, but we confess it by faith: “I believe in one holy Christian and apostolic church” (Nicene Creed).

Concord: The oneness that believers in Christ seek to manifest and express in their confession of the Gospel and “all its articles” (FC SD X, 31). The church’s unity as confessed in the Creed is a “given.” Concord in doctrine and confession is a goal that we “strive to maintain” (Ephesians 4:3) by God’s grace on the basis of his Word. St. Paul urges the Christians at Corinth—and us—to speak the same thing, to avoid divisions, and to be perfectly united in the same mind and judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10-11). The Book of Concord sets forth what we in the LCMS continue to affirm without qualification as a “single, universally accepted, certain, and common form of doctrine,” drawn from the Word of God, that bears faithful witness to the oneness of doctrine and confession that serves as the basis for true concord in the church.

Harmony: The oneness that believers in Christ seek to manifest and express in their life together as God’s people. Paul urges those who are united in Christ and who seek to manifest that unity through concord in doctrine and confession to be eager to maintain this unity “in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). He reminds the Christians at Corinth that Christ-like attitudes and behavior are crucial to their efforts to maintain doctrinal concord (1 Corinthians 13). Above all, says Paul in Colossians, “put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Col. 3:14). “Paul urges that there be love in the church to preserve harmony…lest the church disintegrate into various schisms and lest enmities, factions and heresies arise from such schisms” (Ap. IV, 232).

In summary, unity focuses on our oneness with Christians everywhere by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Concord focuses on our oneness in doctrine and practice. Harmony focuses our life together in Christ to be characterized by Christ-like attitudes, particularly love. (Task Force for Synodical Harmony Report to the Board of Directors and Council of Presidents of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, pp. 1-2.)

Why A “Koinonia Project”?

In light of these definitions, one of the goals we have in our “life together” as a Synod (developing the three-fold theme of witness, mercy and life together) is to seek, by God’s grace and Spirit in His Word, a greater sense of unity and concord in our Synod under the Word of God for the sake of our witness before the world. We pray that this will also help us toward a greater sense of harmony.  There is no denying that we have several areas of disagreement and unresolved problems that plague our life together: questions of worship forms, communion practice, fellowship, church and ministry issues, to name the most obvious. Some would say the differences are usually only matters of practice, yet theology and practice cannot be separated.  A pastor’s teaching will be reflected in his practice and a pastor’s practice is his theology in action.  There may be varieties of practice that can carry the true teaching (adiaphora), but there are also practices that will negate the true doctrine.

We need to recognize as well that our internal fellowship is stressed and polarized not only by disagreements in theology and practice, but also by the resultant political movements and accompanying sinful personal behaviors.1  For years we have sought to solve theological problems by political means (voting), but this has only perpetuated the polarization to the point that, in the eyes of some, we are a Synod not in fellowship with itself.  Others see our Synod as a collection of “aggrieved minorities,” each looking to grab what it can, whenever it can.  And the relative anonymity of the internet makes it easy to write in the blogosphere things about people we would probably never say in person.

In contrast, spiritual health and life, unity, concord and harmony come when God, in mercy, works repentance, forgives sinful attitudes in the blood of Jesus, and gives faith, reconciliation and concord, all through His Word.   We need to learn again how to deal with one another in terms of Christ and Him crucified and do the hard theological work to help each other hear the Word clearly so that our thinking, speaking and practice are more unified under the Word of God.  In essence, then, the true goal of any “Koinonia Project” is repentance and renewal of faith together by means of the Word of God.

That is why this effort cannot become a political process, that is, something determined by close convention votes with winners and losers, but must remain a spiritual and theological movement.  Faithful teaching, faithful practice, mutual repentance and forgiveness for the sake of Christ will only be God’s work among us.  Our confessions tell us…

God is extravagantly rich in His grace: first, through the spoken word, in which the forgiveness of sin is preached to the whole world (which is the proper function of the gospel); second, through baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters” (SA III, IV).2

In other words, we are called to believe God is at work in our midst through His Word of Law and Gospel to draw us to Himself, not separately, but together in His “koinonia.” All of us constantly need the daily change of heart God works through repentance and faith. The problem belongs to all of us.  None of us is exempt.  We are each, every last one of us, called to examine our actions and attitudes toward one another so that we confess our sins, trust God’s promise and speak forgiveness to one another. 

Repentance and forgiveness will give us what we need for our life together so that we address our theological issues by a thorough process under the Word of God where we come to clear agreement on 1) the points at issue, 2) what we confess together, 3) what we reject and 4) what we will therefore do together, on the basis of Scripture and our confessions.  Material produced in this manner then needs to be studied and worked on together throughout the Synod over and over again so that the Word of God has its way with us in our life together, our witness to Christ and our service for the world. The effort to do so we have chosen to call “The Koinonia Project” because we pray God will build and strengthen our unity in the Word of God and our fellowship, our “koinonia” together.

Watch this space and others for more information (we know there is not much detail here – yet!) on the “Koinonia Project” as it will be developed through the President’s Office with the CTCR, the COP, the Seminaries and many others in future months.  This is a long term project for which, we pray, this piece has only whetted your appetite!  God’s peace to you in Jesus!

— Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr.


1 The Task Force for Synodical Harmony gave a preliminary report in the 2010 Synod Convention Workbook, pp. 74ff.  In that report and in their report to the COP and BOD cited above, they identified seven aspects of disharmony in the Synod:  1) Inability to deal with diversity;  2) A lack of civility;  3) A politicized culture;  4) Primarily a clergy problem;  5) Poor communication across “party lines”;  6) Lack of accountability; and 7) Distrust.  We note here that these are, for the most part spiritual problems – sins – that can be addressed only by repentance and forgiveness.

2 Kolb and Wengert, p. 319, emphasis added.

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