Posts tagged Koinonia Project

The Koinonia Project and the Nature of the Synod


In our previous posts we have outlined some of the theological and practical foundations of the “Koinonia Project.”  Here we need to see how this effort fits the nature of the Synod as a fellowship of brothers and sisters sharing one confession.   Article VII of the Synod’s Constitution reads, simply:


In its relation to its members the Synod is not an ecclesiastical government exercising legislative or coercive powers, and with respect to the individual congregation’s right of self-government it is but an advisory body. Accordingly, no resolution of the Synod imposing anything upon the individual congregation is of binding force if it is not in accordance with the Word of God or if it appears to be inexpedient as far as the condition of a congregation is concerned.  (2007 Handbook, p. 13f)


What does it mean that the Synod “is but an advisory body”? This concept is often misunderstood to mean that congregations and pastors have the right to thumb their nose, so to speak, at actions and positions of the Synod they do not like.  To answer this question we first have to determine what is in view when our forefathers wrote in the constitution: “In relation to its members the Synod… is but an advisory body.”  What is the Synod?  The Synod is not the staff of the International Center – the IC is a tool of the Synod.  The Synod is not the Council of Presidents or the Synodical President.  They are officers of the Synod.  The Synod is not even the convention – conventions are meetings of the Synod (members of the Synod gathered together).  Conventions of the districts are meetings of the Synod in that area (district conventions, for example, at one time were called “District Synods”).

In essence then, the Synod is a fellowship (“koinonia”!) of congregations, pastors and commissioned ministers who share the same confession of faith.  The Synod is the sum total of all its members, seeking to work together collectively under the Word of God, to confess Christ before the world.  Members of the Synod are congregations, together with their ordained and commissioned ministers.  Individual members of congregations are technically not members of the Synod, but are members of congregations that have joined the Synod. Again, the Synod is congregations, together with their pastors and commissioned ministers.  To say it another way, the Synod is us.  Each district is the Synod itself in that area.  Each circuit is the Synod in that locale.  Since the Synod is a confessional fellowship, as members of the Synod we are mutually accountable to one another in the Lord through our membership in the Synod as a whole.

Because the Word of God rules over us in the Synod, we do not have a hierarchy, nor do we operate by coercion.  Instead we operate by fraternal persuasion under the Word of God.  Matters of doctrine are decided by the Word of God.  In all other things, we seek to work together in love.  In its most basic form, the members of Synod in each local area seek to advise one another in brotherly fashion to help one another hear God’s Word clearly, confess Christ boldly and live together in holy love.  The Synod is pastors and congregations who have come together to confess the truth and to help one another serve faithfully and extend the Kingdom of God.  No one has any power over the other except the power of the Word of God and the power to advise and persuade one another.¹   This writer believes one of our maladies is that we have forgotten how to do this (which is why the 2010 Convention mandated study of Articles VI and VII should probably be part of the Koinonia Project). Our confession says “…the church cannot be better governed and maintained than by having all of us live under one head, Christ, and by having all the bishops equal in office (however they may differ in gifts) and diligently joined together in unity of doctrine, faith, sacraments, prayer, works of love, etc.” (SA II, IV9)²

The “Koinonia Project” will involve human beings, people in positions of leadership, relationships of influence, all seeking to persuade one another and working together under the Word of God.  Yet the “Koinonia Project” is not intended to form convention resolutions and bylaws but is designed to help brothers and sisters talk with each other about our theology and how our theology works out in practice.  Its purpose is ultimately to help each other hear and confess God’s Word clearly.  If convention resolutions are produced, these will have grown organically (as we come closer to the goal of the process) from the consensus God will have worked by and around His Word. That’s because true “koinonia” and lasting harmony and concord are ultimately not our work (though we work and pray hard toward that end) but are gifts of God given through the Word of God. 

Therefore the “Koinonia Project” cannot be a political process, but must be a spiritual process centered in the Word of God, repentance and prayer, forgiveness and charity. The theological conferences held in recent years have paved the way for an approach at least as old as the Formula of Concord.  Representative groups will meet together to work on a basis for agreement that includes the following:  1) a clear statement of the controversy – what is the real point at issue?  2) clear statements of what we affirm together;  3) clear statements of what we reject; and then 4) an agreement of what we will therefore DO together.  This material then needs to be studied and worked on together throughout the Synod 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.

+ Herbert Mueller

¹See also CFW Walther, Essays for the Church, Volume II, “On the Duties of an Evangelical Lutheran Synod,” 1879 Iowa District Convention Essay, Concordia Publishing House, 1992, pp. 31ff.

²Tappert, Book of Concord, p. 300.

More on the “Koinonia Project”

This effort is being developed collaboratively to provide a means for studying and confessing the Word of God together with the prayer that God will use this process to resolve issues and behaviors that have been troubling our fellowship, our life together. The President’s Office, the Board of Directors, the Commission on Theology and Church Relations and the Council of Presidents are all involved together in developing this concept. We introduced some ideas in a previous blog post, but here are some further thoughts on the basic values of the “Koinonia Project.” Remember, “koinonia” is the Greek word for “fellowship,” “partnership,” “communion” or “life together.”

Focus on Christ in His Word

  • Our study and discussion are focused on Christ crucified and raised from the dead, confessed in the Word of God, for Jesus Himself “is our peace…” (Ephesians 2:14).
  • We pray we undertake this work with a God-given humility under the Word of God and with much prayer! • We look for integrity with one another before God – honest, heart-felt, open dialog – recognizing we do have problems of doctrine and practice to address together, and praying for that openness to one another God gives as we hear the Word of God and each other.
  • That is why it is essential for this process that we spend time together in the Word of God, in worship, and in prayer with and for each other (fellowship, “koinonia,” in the church’s marks).
  • We will also work together on this, recognizing the nature of the Church as we confess it in the Augsburg Confession – the assembly of believers gathered around the Word and Sacrament.

A Collaborative Effort

  • Collaboration is a basic value for the Koinonia Project – this is not just an effort from the President’s Office, but a process in which many more are brought on board, beginning with the design phase. The project must work by attraction, not coercion, and become an integral part of our life together as a Synod.
  • The project is inclusive, drawing in the Harmony Task Force, Board of Directors, Seminary Faculties, COP and CTCR in some way in the whole process, including design.

Personal and Individual

  • The Harmony Task Force brought a series of recommendations to the Council of Presidents and Board of Directors in November 2010 regarding strategies for restoring harmony among us.
  • Though theological issues are primary, the personal cannot be separated from the theological, for how we deal with one another is ultimately a theological issue. The Report of the Harmony Task Force referenced above chronicles real pain and real concerns that must be addressed spiritually through repentance and forgiveness. Following are the suggested strategies of the Task Force:
    1. Synod-wide studies of the Scriptures and the Confessions, including studies by the Commission on Theology and Church Relations, covering specific topics such as; the 8th Commandment, a theology of diversity, Christian virtues and civility, the political culture of the church, accountability and harmony.
    2. Our seminaries and universities include these topics in the formation of our clergy and professional workers.
    3. Training & modeling for and by the Council of Presidents, the Circuit Counselors, and all other church leaders.
    4. A Code of Conduct, developed with input from across the Synod, adopted by the Synod, in which we express common expectations of one another and seek to hold ourselves and one another accountable for appropriate behavior.
    5. Those who are charged with ecclesiastical supervision must be trained to hold us all accountable when our actions and attitudes are inappropriate.
    6. The need for continuing education.
    7. The clergy must recognize their responsibility and engage in working toward greater harmony within our Synod.
    8. The dialog must include all positions, at every level of the church; within our congregations, circuits, auxiliaries, Synod-wide theological convocations and smaller focus groups as well.
    9. Communication is a key issue. We need to learn to use the media appropriately-officially and unofficially.1
  • The Koinonia Project will need to incorporate these recommendations from its inception. Specifically how this will happen will be fleshed out further by the discussion of this paper in the Council of Presidents, the Board of Directors and the CTCR, etc.

Also Broad Based

  • The Koinonia Project is broad based, in the sense that the approach must be replicated broadly across the Synod, and also broadly reported in the sense that, while discussion groups need to have freedom to dialog within themselves without fear, these are not secret negotiations, but at appropriate times the Synod at large needs to hear and support the results of the dialogs, as well as provide input.
  • All-encompassing – every member of the Synod (i.e. every ordained or commissioned minister, every congregation) is eventually invited to participate in the effort.
  • We cannot work by coercion in this project, but always by invitation, fraternal persuasion, and attraction, centered always in the Word of God and our confession, for the sake of the mission.
  • We must begin with those who are willing, drawing in more and more of the skeptical as we move forward. Yes, some may look on the “Koinonia Project” with suspicion, thinking, “this is just another attempt on the part of one group in the Synod to enforce conformity on the rest!” Only as we work together on the project, seeking to proceed in the love we have from Christ (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7) will such suspicions be alleviated. To this end we much be mutually accountable to one another. We pray God to give us the wisdom to work in the spirit of John 17 where Jesus prays that His church may be one. The work of ecclesiastical supervision must move forward in any case, but we also recognize that if the Koinonia Project is perceived as a means to “purge” the Synod of “undesirables,” it will accomplish little.
  • That’s why, in our next blog post, we will look at how the “Koinonia Project” fits in with the nature of the Synod as explained in Article VII of the Synod’s Constitution.

+Herbert Mueller


1 Report of the Task Force, pp. 17-18

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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