The Purpose of Synod Conventions: Doctrine and Mission

Doctrine and Mission:
The Purpose of Synod Meetings 1892 District Address Minnesota and Dakota District
By Friedrich Pfotenhauer
Translated by Matthew C. Harrison

This was Pfotenhauer’s first address as district president. It is a beautiful, urgent admonition to be, above all, doctrinal, and to be doctrinal in order to be about mission. Synod meetings are to be about both. Orthodox doctrine is not to be voted upon, but assented to. When Pfotenhauer describes the tireless efforts of the traveling preachers, he is describing the life he knows. God grant us such zeal for doctrine and mission.


Translated from Achter Synodal-Bericht des Minnesota- und Dakota-Districts der deutschen evang.-lutherischen Synode von Missouri, Ohio und anderen Staaten, versammelt zu Courtland, Minn., vom 16 bis 22 Juni 1892 (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1892), 6–11. This and many other essay by the first five Presidents of the Missouri Synod may be found in At Home in the House of My Fathers (CPH)—M. H.

We lift our eyes to the hills, from whence cometh our help. Our help cometh from the Lord, who made heaven and earth [Psalm 121:1–2].

Venerable and beloved fathers and brothers in the Lord! We have again assembled ourselves from near and far in order to hold a synod session [i.e., district convention]. God has blessed our conventions. We can go to our work with confidence because we know that, as we pray, God will give us holy courage, good counsel, and upright work. To be sure, many synods are held that do not please God because they are not brought together or held in a God-pleasing manner. Still, we dare to be confident of God’s pleasure because our synodical sessions are carried out in a God- pleasing way. It has pleased God the Holy Spirit to explicitly describe the first Christian council, which took place in the year 50 at Jerusalem, in the 15th chapter of Acts, which was read to begin this session. Allow me now, beloved fathers and brethren, to point out a few things and to attempt to demonstrate that our synod assembly is essentially like that at Jerusalem. This will not be superfluous exercise. From this comparison we will recognize that we, like those who gathered in Jerusalem, may be confident in the pleasure of God. A Christian can and may do nothing so long as he does not how his Lord God regards a matter. But he is prepared for any activity, any sacrifice, if he knows that they please God.

It says: “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.’ And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question” [Acts 15:1–2]. Here the text tells us first of all why the congregation at Antioch desired to have a synod session. False teachers threatened to cause confusion, and the unity in the Spirit was in danger. Thus the council would deal with doctrine. We hold synods for the same reason. We do not come together to issue all sorts of decrees to congregations. We don’t come together to fight over matters of constitution. We come together, rather, to examine a definite doctrine and to deepen our understanding of the saving knowledge. Our synodical handbook notes the following under the reasons why our fathers were moved to form our Synod: “Maintenance and advancement of the unity of the pure confession, and common defense against separatism and sectarianism.”

The congregation at Antioch chose representatives, namely, Paul, Barnabas, and certain members of the congregation. They were to speak at the behest and in the name of the congregation. The congregation at Jerusalem was also represented in a similar way. Paul was not ashamed to be delegated by the congregation as a representative together with the lowliest craftsmen. And Peter and James had no more right at the synod than the least significant congregational member. This is precisely so with us. Our synod meetings are not gathering of pastors, but gatherings of congregations and their representatives. At our synod meetings, not only a Paul and Peter have something to say, with which the lay representatives simply agree. Rather, as at the Council of Jerusalem, all decisions are rendered by the apostles, elders, and brothers. Thus the lay delegates have the same voice and place as the pastors. This representation and composition of the Council of Jerusalem, and among us, is not an indifferent matter. It is a consequence of the right doctrine of the Church and Office. Pastors do not hover above the congregations, but are ministers [Diener] of the congregation to which Christ has given the keys of the kingdom of heaven.

Those delegated by the congregation at Antioch immediately made the long and dangerous journey. Accompanied by the prayers of the congregation, they traveled through Phoenicia and Samaria. “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders” [Acts 15:4]. What a beautiful picture the Holy Spirit paints with these few words. Those delegated did not shun making the long journey of 350 miles. They went, driven by holy zeal, to serve their congregation and the kingdom of God in general. And when they finally reached Jerusalem, everything was ready for them. They were greeted joyously and taken in as guests in the homes of the congregation. It is similar with us, God be thanked. In spite of the fact that many of us had to make long and dangerous journeys and had to pass through several states in order to reach the location of this synod meeting, men are always found who are willing to come. Our congregations also demonstrate interest in the synod sessions and accompany their representatives with their prayers. Indeed, also the willingness to host the synod has not yet ceased to exist among us. Soon this and then that congregation invites and receives the unknown [delegates] as though they were known. They make friends from those faces they have never seen, be- cause they have a common faith. They come to love them, and [they] separate from one another only with sorrow.

When the synod had gathered at Jerusalem, they immediately began to deal with the matter of doctrine. The doctrine of Christian freedom was a burning question. The debate was very lively. Not merely a few spoke, but many did so, including congregation members. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and James gave longer speeches. From God’s Word they convincingly demonstrated that one must not continue to lay the yoke of Moses upon the necks of the disciples. Salvation comes only through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ. All would be convinced, and they confessed the right doctrine by resolution. We, too, have long dealt chiefly with doctrine at synods. We have not decided doctrinal questions according to majority or in respect of persons, but according to God’s Word. At this synod, we will again deal chiefly with doctrine [Lehre trieben], and indeed together [we will] treat the Sixth Commandment. It will be the most earnest matter we deal with. We will acknowledge the deep corruption of original sin of all human nature and God’s abhorrence and horrible anger over all sins of impurity. Precisely because of the sins against the Sixth Commandment, God drowned the first world and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah by fire. Precisely on account of these sins, the wrath of God will soon come upon the child of unbelief on the Last Day. Oh, how we should then faithfully warn church and school against the horrible sins of the Sixth Commandment. How we should keep body and soul chaste and unblemished and be blameless midst perverse generations of this world!

But the first synod at Jerusalem dealt not only with doctrine, it also dealt with mission. It says: “And they declared all that God had done with them” [Acts 15:4]. “And all the assembly fell silent, and they listened to Barnabas and Paul as they related what signs and wonders God had done through them among the Gentiles” [Acts 15:12]. Also at our sessions, the mission [of the Church], after the treatment of doctrine, takes the most time. Our dear traveling preachers [Reiseprediger] have given their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Suffering great deprivation out on our often inhospitable prairies and in solitude in the wild mountains of Montana, without making much fuss, they have done the most difficult work. They recount to us how the Lord has opened doors for them every- where, and congregations have sprouted up like gardens of God. By reporting this to us, they bring great joy to all the brethren. In so doing, they move us to holy determination to take the Word of God ever further and to work ever more diligently. Indeed, last year, we unanimously decided to assist in taking the Word into the land of the heathen [i.e., among the American Indians]. It was the reports of our traveling preachers that warmed our hearts and have given us courage to implore God that He give still more because He already has given us so much. To be sure, it is our chief task to preach the Word to brethren in the faith who live in scattered places. But we have now done that beyond what anyone would have thought possible. From Winnipeg to New Orleans, there is a string of one congregation after another. Our missionaries carry the message from the east to the setting of the sun, to the Rocky Mountains and back. To be sure, we always lack the necessary workers. Thus the prayer of the Lord “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few, pray the Lord of the harvest that He send workers into his fields” is applicable for the Church of the entire [era of the] New Testament. And so the workers will remain few until the Last Day. If we had enough workers, we wouldn’t need to pray what the Lord asks us to pray. God desires our prayer that He may give us what is needed.

Our Confessions also testify that along with the advancement of understanding of the pure doctrine, the mission should be the chief matter of a synod. Luther writes in the Smalcald Articles:

But let us return to the subject. I should be very happy to see a true council assemble in order that many things and many people might derive benefit from it. Not that we ourselves need such a council . . . we see so many vacant and desolate parishes everywhere that our hearts would break with grief. Yet neither the bishops nor the canons care how the poor people live or die, although Christ died for them too. Those people cannot hear Christ speak to them as the true shepherd speaking to His sheep. This horrifies me and makes me fear that He may cause a council of angels to descend on Germany and destroy us utterly, like Sodom and Gomorrah, because we mock Him so shamefully with the council [SA Preface 9–11; Tappert, 290].

Walther remarked on this at the synod of the Iowa District: “Behold, dear brothers, we should be so minded also. We come here not for the sake of ourselves. We stand in the faith and with this faith we hope to be saved! But how many millions are there still who have no faith! We exist and have founded a synod in order, as much as possible, to bring men to salvation, and thereby to check the misery in Christendom and the number of the lost in the poor blind heathen world. If we do not do this, if we fail to seek the honor of Christ and the salvation of souls, Luther fears, as he says, ‘then may the dear God convene a synod, namely a “council of angels” in order to carry out his judgment.’ ” (Iowa Synodal-Bericht, 1:113)

Walther says furthermore: Every synod “should send workers into His harvest. For the crop has long been ripe; it has to do only with this, that the crop be harvested. Thus you shall work together in all institutions for inner and outer (heathen) mission, for the spreading of the Holy Scriptures. So also we must work for the founding and maintaining of institutions in which the preachers are prepared. In short, a synod shall be a living member of the Body of Christ, and work together with all other living members of this most holy Body on the entire earth, doing what they may, that the kingdom of Christ be spread and, where possible, all whom Christ with His precious blood has bought be won for Christ, led into His fold, and finally brought to eternal life” (Iowa Synodal-Bericht, 1:116).

Finally, we hear of the blessings that the synod at Jerusalem established. Those present were all advanced and strengthened in the saving doctrine. The bond of unity for the sake of the congregations was strengthened. And the blessing of the synod was spread afar. It was recorded that Silas and Judas, in the name of the synod, transmitted the results to the congregation at Antioch. They came to Antioch, and the multitude gathered together and responded to the letter. “And when they had read it, they rejoiced because of its encouragement. And Judas and Silas, who were themselves prophets, encouraged and strengthened the brothers with many words” [Acts 15:31–32]. And in the 16th chapter, it says: “As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily” [Acts 16:4–5]. Our synod sessions, too, have long since been great blessings, as much to those who participate as to the congregations. The following applies also to our synod reports, which are distributed to the congregations: “When they read it, they rejoiced.” Our visitors who, like Judas and Silas, in the name of the Synod, visit the congregations, strengthen the brethren.

So it is clear, beloved fathers and brothers, that God’s pleasure rests upon our dealings, and that we are gathered in the name of the Lord, indeed, that according to God’s grace, it is ascribed above all to our synod sessions, that we have remained in the purity of the doctrine, and the orthodox Church in America has been spread far and wide.

Now may the Lord grant that we, like our fathers, who nearly all have already entered the rest of the people of God, at all times recognize the importance, the relative necessity, and the blessings of Synod dealings. Let us come together in order to deepen our understanding of the saving doctrine and not fritter away our time with unimportant matters. Let us come together in order to give counsel from the Word of God where there is need of our counsel, but not in order to put any kind of legalistic yoke upon our congregations. Let us come together in order to sit around the honeycomb of the divine Word and eat and speak there from. Oh, how sweet it is—to encourage, to carry on the work of the mission! The dawn of eternity already spreads its rays over this old earth. But we know that with the appearance of the Lord, the time of grace shall have come to an end. Whoever then has not been gathered like sheaves will be burned as chaff in eternal fire. Whoever, then, has not found his Savior will never find him. He will only learn to know the Lord Jesus as the judge of the world. O beloved brothers, how very serious a matter is the truth that we live in the last hour of the world! How brief, then, is the harvest time for us! And so we cannot delay, because the field is white for the harvest. There is so much yet to harvest, and only so little time left!

God be gracious and merciful to us also at this synod and give to us His divine blessing. May He shine His countenance upon us, that we on earth may acknowledge His way. May God bless us, our God, may He bless us and give us His peace. Amen.