The discussions in the Koinonia Project (KP) are welcome. For years, the Wyoming District has been requesting serious theological dialogue regarding our divisions. After several convention cycles of nothing more than chirping crickets for a response, it is a welcome relief to see that our requests and prayers have been answered.
That having been said, however, there is a problem built into the structure of the Koinonia Project itself. It was not really an issue the first time around. But as we have discussed in our own district exactly what happened and what it means, this fundamental structural problem has come to the fore. In talking to pastors in other districts who are also involved in Koinonia discussion groups, it seems that, while first not even noticed, this flaw becomes more significant the longer the discussions go on.
In the interest of giving others a heads up about potential obstacles in their future paths, a few words of warning now may make the journey easier later. Because this problem will come up at some point. And it has the potential not simply to make discussion difficult, but to derail the project entirely at the local, and eventually national, level.
Before the Koinonia Project had been proposed, during the previous administration, there was a Blue Ribbon task force that recommended significant changes to the LCMS constitution. At the same time, another task force was studying the problem of harmony in the synod. The two task forces came to a common (but entirely incorrect) understanding of the problems we face: Pastors. Now, technically, that was the same problem the church had at the council of Nicaea: hardheaded pastors who refused to compromise in even the smallest jot or tittle. After all, in a word as long as “homoousious” what’s a little “i” between friends? So, in a sense, yes the problem is pastors.
But of course, the problem is that there are differences in how the pastors (and the congregations they serve) see things like the authority of the word of God, the power of that word to do what it promises, the place and nature of the sacraments in the life of the church, the role of male and female in the church and world, the nature of humanity itself, the doctrine of original sin, etc. to name but a few.
However, a problem identified by one task force can be solved with some sleight of hand by the other task force. On the one hand you had a committee composed of District Presidents and other synod leaders identifying the source of our synod’s problems as pastors. (Note for those who are not familiar with the structure of the synod: It would be like executives in a Fortune 500 company being told to find out why there was low morale in the company. Their finding: The employees are the problem! If you are a stockholder in such a company, it’s time to sell.) But despite the thorny problem of pastors in the church(!), another committee was coming up with an elegant solution: Pastors are too committed to doctrine as the basis for our life together. So we’ll just demote the place of doctrine. Problem solved!
The Task Force on structure recommended that the constitution be changed to accommodate a new understanding, thusly:
Unity of faith (Holy Scripture) is given by the Spirit to all Christians.
Concord of Doctrine (The Lutheran Confessions) is what keeps us united as a church body.
The Harmony task force added a third level: Harmony / life together. Unfortunately, this understanding was imported wholesale into the Koinonia Project:
“Unity: The oneness that all believers in Christ have with each other through Spirit-given faith in Jesus created through the means of grace…
Concord: The oneness that believers in Christ seek to manifest and express in their confession of the Gospel and ‘all its articles’…
Harmony: The oneness that believers in Christ seek to manifest and express in their life together as God’s people.”
While this may sound like basic adherence to Holy Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, note that “confession” is not mentioned until level 2: Concord. The Wyoming District in 2009 rejected this multi-part understanding:
This separation of doctrine from faith has an extremely important consequence for the Church (including congregations and synods) and her fellowship. The proposed new arrangement would separate the fellowship of the Church into two levels, corresponding to the two levels of the confession… These proposed changes would be the end of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod as a confessional Lutheran church. All declarations about the Lutheran Confessions, the Word and Sacraments, or purity of doctrine and practice, would be relegated to a marginal or secondary level in our Synod’s self-understanding and mission. (Wyoming District Resolution 6-01-2009)
To put it positively, The Spirit gives unity of faith by virtue of the concord of doctrine, which manifests itself in our life together. The three levels are not merely interrelated; there is only one level. Unity of faith is not possible without concord of doctrine, because they are the same thing.
The church in this world (congregation, district, synod, diocese, denomination, etc.) can do no more than recognize and acknowledge this unity; it is not created by churches. We call that recognition “church fellowship”. Churches merely note its existence or the lack thereof.
But the confusion of the previous administration on this issue has been carried into the Koinonia Project – whose very purpose is to bring clarity to our doctrine and practice. As we have tried to work through this process in our own corner of the church, this confusion is now manifesting itself in our discussions and reflections.
Specifically, questions has arisen regarding the basis of our fellowship. Is the synod a fellowship by definition? Is the synod a collection of those who have unity of faith which then results in fellowship? Or is the synod a fellowship only insofar as it shares unity of faith? And what role does the Koinonia project play in all of this? Is the Koinonia Project just about strengthening unanimity in merely external matters for a church which already has concord of doctrine? Are there doctrinal differences underlying the differences in practice which could someday threaten our unity of faith? Or, do differences in practice by definition mean differences in doctrine, thereby indicating that the unity of faith once shared has already been broken?
These are important questions, and they deserve serious consideration. But the tripartite understanding of our fellowship, imported into the Koinonia Project, has not helped the discussion. It has caused confusion about the very purpose of the Koinonia Project. And with the purpose confused, the goal and the end are now shrouded in confusion as well. This is not a formula for success in the church or the world. Clear goals, clear purposes, and clear objectives are necessary.
Is it possible to have that clarity in the Koinonia project? Yes. But first, we need to be clear about the place of doctrine in giving unity of faith to our church, and in bringing harmony to our life together. For this to happen, at the very least the Koinonia Concept paper needs to rewritten, removing the erroneous understanding of fellowship. And there needs to be a serious discussion about the nature of that fellowship, including its source, its implications, and its limitations.
While not prohibitive of initiating discussion, the longer the Koinonia Project continues, the more this structural problem will inhibit solutions.