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American Lutheranism by Friedrich Bente


109. Church Governed by Word of God Alone. -- The Tennessee Synod did not only realize the importance of the Symbols for the Lutheran Church, but had correctly apprehended also their spirit and doctrinal content. This appears from her uncompromising attitude toward the Romanistic, Reformed, Methodistic, and unionistic tendencies prevailing in the Lutheran synods and congregations at the time of her organization. As to polity, the cast of the first American Lutheran synods and congregations was of the hierarchical type. The congregations were subordinate to their pastors, the pastors and congregations to their respective synods, as a rule called ministeriums, because, essentially, they were bodies composed of ministers. David Henkel had experienced the tyranny to which such an order would naturally lead and lend itself. The Tennessee Synod must be credited with being the first, in a large measure, to recognize, confess, and defend the inalienable rights of all Christians and Christian congregations. The Henkels must be regarded as champions also of the basic truth of all normal church-government, viz., that no one is to govern the Christian Church, save Christ and His Word alone, not the pastor, nor the ministerium, nor the synod, nor any sort of majority. (1820, 23; 1828, 12.) In 1820, when the leaders of the North Carolina Synod, in matters of right and wrong, demanded subjection to the majority of votes, the Henkels maintained: |We thought the doctrine of the Augsburg Confession, of which we were assured that it can be proved by the doctrine of the Bible, ought to be of greater authority to us than the voice of a majority of men who are opposed to the doctrine and order of our Church.| (1820, 23.) Nothing short of clear proof and conviction from the Word of God and the Augsburg Confession would satisfy the Henkels. In 1822 Tennessee declared: |Our Synod can neither be governed by a majority nor a minority, now nor ever hereafter, with respect to doctrine and discipline. . . . Neither the majority nor the minority shall determine what our doctrine and discipline are to be, because they are already determined in the above-named rule. . . . But with respect to local and temporary regulations, such as the place and time of meeting, and such like things, which do not interfere with matters of faith and discipline, the Synod suit themselves to the conveniences of the most of their members.| (R.1822, 9.) In a |Note| appended to the above declaration, David Henkel defines the position of Tennessee as follows: |Herein is the difference between the government of the pure Evangelical Lutheran Church and the government of the General Synod. The established rule of the pure Christian Church is the Holy Scriptures and her supreme Head, Jesus Christ. Christ, by His Word, governs the Church in the doctrines of faith and discipline; there needeth no majority of votes to determine. In such matters as do not immediately interfere with the doctrines of faith and government of the Church, as, for instance, to appoint the time and place for the meeting of a synod, or the erection of a synod, and such like things, herein our Church doth not seek to exercise any authority, but granteth liberty to each congregation and to each of her ministers to act and do as they judge it most convenient for themselves. No one is despised for not joining with us in our Synod; no one is oppressed who is not in conformity with us in matters which are not essential to the doctrine of faith. Nothing can separate our union or break our peace with any, only when they deviate from the pure doctrine of the Gospel, and when they compose traditions of their own and impose them on others. A majority is not to have authority over any one, because they have no power to impose traditions of men on others with regard to religion. The government of the General Synod is altogether otherwise. . . . It is plainly to be seen in her constitution that her aim is to impose a number of human traditions on the Church, as, for instance, that no synod shall be erected in any State, unless there are six ordained ministers living therein, and not even then unless they are authorized by the General Synod. The General Synod is to be governed by a majority; if it were not so, she would admit that every congregation and every minister should act agreeably to their own advantage in matters not interfering with the doctrines of faith, and not seek such universal power, by which they may compel men to act according to the will of a majority. The Church of God on earth was never constantly governed right by a majority. In the times of the prophets the Church was oppressed by a majority. . . . How was it in the time of Christ? How did the majority act against the Savior? Who was right? The great council of Jerusalem and thousands of their adherents, or Jesus of Nazareth, and the few of His disciples who were despised by the world? How was it in the days of Luther? What was he against millions of the Papist Church? And yet every Protestant will confess that Luther's cause was just, and is thankful to God that the light of the Gospel was set up by Luther. But supposing that Luther had yielded to be governed by a majority as the advocates for a General Synod insist, or wish that the Church should be governed by a majority, might we not have remained in the ignorance of blind popery to the present day? The government of the world is supported by a majority, and thus, many imagine to themselves, it ought so to be in the Church; but they are greatly mistaken! Jesus saith, 'My kingdom is not of this world,' and consequently not His manner of government. . . . Jesus Himself hath already prescribed all things respecting the doctrine and discipline of His Church, therefore we need no General Synod to give us prescriptions! As touching matters not essential, as appointing the time and place of a convention or the like, whereof no prescription is given, no one is justifiable to give any prescription or direction, much less to compel any one thereto, whereas all are to enjoy Christian liberty. See Rom.14; Col.2. But those of the General Synod undertake to erect universal directions in these matters, or else they would not name their Synod Universal. Whosoever submits himself to be governed by a majority must be such as trust to a majority. The Scripture saith: 'Cursed is the man who putteth his trust in man.' Jer.17.| (R.1822, 11 f.) These views were embodied also in the constitution of 1828. In the explanatory |Remarks| to the Fourth Article we read: |As the aforesaid duties [to supply laborers, detect false teachers, examine and ordain ministerial candidates, etc.] devolve on all churches and ministers, they undoubtedly have the privilege to perform them jointly, i.e. they may constitute a synod. But no Christian synod can have legislative powers, consequently have no right to make rules for churches. All necessary and salutary rules pertaining to the government of the Church are prescribed in the Scriptures; therefore every body of men who make rules for the Church are in opposition to Christ. To make rules for the Church is one thing, but to execute these rules already made, and to employ the proper means for the promulgation of the Gospel, is another. The latter, but by no means the former, is the business of this body. That there ought to be no appeals from the decisions of congregations is evident from Matt.18, 15-20.| (B.1828, 20; R.1853, 25.) Of course, appeals from the congregation to the synod as a higher authority, to which the congregation is subordinated, were meant. The Introduction to the constitution says: |The rules and principles of church-government are contained in the Holy Scriptures. Therefore no body of Christians have authority to dispense with, or alter or transact, anything contrary to them. Human traditions or rules impressed upon the Church as necessary for Christian fellowship, which have no foundation in the Scriptures, are rejected by our Savior. Matt.15, 9.13.14.| Although, in executing the rules of the Church, different times, persons, and local circumstances intervene, as, for instance, in one age and country one language is prevalent, but not in another age, and perhaps not in the same country . . ., nevertheless, Christ being omniscient, and His all-wise Spirit having inspired His apostles, they have provided the Church with salutary rules, which are applicable to all persons in all places, times, and circumstances. Nothing relative to doctrines and church-discipline ought to be transacted according to mere will of the majority or minority, but in strict conformity to the Scriptures. Local and temporary regulations, such as the time and place of the meeting of the synod, the ratio of representatives from congregations, etc., may be varied for the sake of convenience, hence are subject to be altered, amended, or abolished by the majority; yet they ought not to attempt to make their decisions in such cases absolutely obligatory upon the whole community, because such regulations are only subservient to the execution of the rules which are founded upon the Scriptures.| (19.)

110. Antihierarchical Principles Practised. -- The organization of, and connection with, a synod was regarded by Tennessee as a matter not of divine obligation, but of Christian wisdom and liberty. No congregation was condemned or refused fellowship merely because it refused to unite organically with their synod. In the |Remarks| to the Fourth Article of her constitution Tennessee explains: |When ministers and lay-delegates are assembled, they may have a more accurate knowledge of the exigencies of the whole connection they represent, hence are the better enabled to impart their counsel. By their simultaneous efforts, vacant churches may be supplied with ministerial labors, and others formed and organized. Indeed, the same end may also be obtained by individual ministers and churches; nevertheless, as it frequently becomes necessary for such to receive cooperation from their brethren, this end may be obtained with more facility by the meeting of a Synod.| (1853, 25.) According to Tennessee, then, the organization of, and connection with, a synod is a matter of Christian liberty, wisdom, and expediency. But, while not opposed to synods as such, Tennessee most strenuously objected to any kind of human autocracy within the synods and congregations. When, in a letter, several members of the North Carolina Synod designated Paul Henkel |the head| of the Tennessee Synod, the latter declared, and could do so truthfully, that their Synod |confesses no man as its head save the one and only God-man, Jesus Christ.| (B.1824, 10.) The fact is that, in the beginning, Tennessee was even without standing officers. The chairmen were elected and changed at pleasure even during the sessions of the same convention. (B.1820, 7.) Largely, her opposition to the General Synod also was rooted in her determined hostility to every form of Romanism. (R.1820, 55; 1821, 17.) |If you will consider,| they said to the North Carolina Synod, which had joined the General Synod, |what pertains to true Christianity, you certainly cannot reasonably desire that a government, shall be forced upon the Church, of which no trace can be found in the Bible.| (B.1824, Anhang 2.) Indeed, in their aversion to any and every form of synodical dominion over the congregations Tennessee frequently went so far as to create the impression that they viewed with suspicion and as questionable, if indeed not as directly objectionable and sinful, every form of organization of synods into a general body. On this point, also in her criticism of the General Synod, Tennessee frequently ran riot. But, though occasionally losing her balance and making a wrong application of her antihierarchical doctrine, the principle as such was sound to the core and truly Lutheran. When the North Carolina Synod, without further investigation, annulled a ban of excommunication which David Henkel's congregation had imposed, Tennessee repudiated the action as an infringement on the rights of the congregation. |For,| said they, |it cannot be proven anywhere that a synod has authority to break the decision made by the church council and the congregation. In such matters a congregation has greater power than any synod.| (B.1820, 20.) In agreement herewith the Fourth Article of the constitution submitted in 1827 provided: |But this Synod shall have no power to receive appeals from the decision of congregations, with respect to the excommunication or receiving of members. For every congregation in this respect is independent of the Synod.| The German version adds: |Hence Synod cannot change or annul a decision of any congregation pertaining to the exclusion or the acceptance of a member.| (R.1827, 22; B., 21.) The form in which this article was finally adopted (1828) reads: |But this Synod shall have no power to receive appeals from the decisions of, nor to make rules nor regulations for, congregations.| (B.1828, 19; R.1853, 25.) Neither did the Tennessee Synod arrogate to itself the right to appoint pastors to the congregations or to remove them. The Report of 1824 records concerning Adam Miller: |This young man displays strong inclination for preaching; but since he has produced no regular call from a congregation, he could not be ordained.| (14.) The Tennessee Synod claimed no power whatever over the individual congregations. The minutes of 1825 record: |It is reported that this Synod, in 1821, ordered all the congregations not to suffer any minister who is connected with the General Synod to preach in their meeting-houses. Be it therefore known to all whom it may concern that there was no such a resolution adopted; although, there was a petition handed in, subscribed by three congregations in Tennessee, in which they stated that they had adopted a resolution among themselves not to suffer a minister belonging to the General Synod to preach in their meeting-houses, and also petitioned the Synod to admonish all the congregations to concur with their resolution. But the Synod sanctioned their resolution only in part, in so far as not to be connected with the General Synod; yet the Synod do not arrogate to themselves any authority to prescribe to any congregation, whom they shall suffer to preach in their meeting-houses. All congregations in this respect are independent of the Synod.| (R.1825, 11; 1821, 7.) The Report of 1832 declared: |This body arrogates to itself no power to make laws and rules for the congregations, because it is against their rights and liberties, as well as also against the Fourth Article of our constitution.| Indeed, such was their care not to exceed their authority that, e.g., Synod, superscrupulously, refrained even from making a declaration how to further the instruction of the young, but contented itself with merely advising |the diverse church councils and congregations to make such rules and arrangements how they might most fittingly and conveniently (wie es fuer sie am schicklichsten und bequemsten sei) instruct their young.| (B.1832, 9.) According to the Fourth Article of the constitution it was the business of Synod |to detect and expose false doctrines and false teachers.| But the |Remarks| appended to this article are careful to explain: |That it shall be the duty of this body to detect erroneous doctrines and false teachers does by no means suppose that the same does not also devolve upon individual churches and ministers, for this body does not claim it as their prerogative. But it is believed that this duty may be performed more advantageously by a synod.| (R.1853, 25; B.1828, 19.) Even the right of examining and ordaining ministers was not denied to the congregation. The draft of the constitution published 1827 declared: |The business of this body shall be . . . to examine (if requested) candidates for the ministry who may be called by congregations, and, if they be found qualified, to consecrate them with the imposition of hands and prayer.| (R.1827, 22.) The reading adopted in 1828 ran thus: |The business of this body shall be to impart their useful advice . . . and, upon application, to examine candidates for the ministry.| (1853, 24.) The |Remarks| appended this explanation: |Neither does this body claim the exclusive right of examining and ordaining candidates for the ministry. For every congregation has the privilege of choosing fit persons for their ministers, and individual pastors have the authority to perform their ordination. This is evident from the practise of the primitive Christians, as well as from the Scriptures. But when any congregation shall request this body to examine and ordain the person of their choice, it then devolves on this body to perform this duty. As the aforenamed duties devolve on all churches and ministers, they undoubtedly have the privilege to perform them jointly, i.e., they may constitute a synod. But no Christian synod can have legislative powers, consequently have no right to make rules for churches.| (1853, 25.)

111. Rights of Laymen Recognized. -- From the very beginning the Tennessee Synod vindicated to the deputies of the congregations the right not merely to listen, to witness, and to testify, when called upon to do so by the ministers, as had been the custom in the Pennsylvania Synod, but also, on equal terms with the pastors, to deliberate, decide, and vote on all matters submitted to Synod. ( Lutheraner 11, 166.) Article Three of the Constitution declared: |It shall not be allowed either for the ministers to transact any business exclusively of the lay delegates, or for the lay delegates exclusively of the ministers; provided there shall be both ministers and lay delegates present.| (B.1828, 16; R.1853, 23.) The |Remarks| appended, add the following: |It is not the privilege and duty of the clergy alone to impart their counsel in ecclesiastical matters, and to employ means for the promulgation of the Gospel, but also of other Christians. The first Christian council was convened in Jerusalem, and consisted of the apostles, the elders, and the other brethren. They decided the question whether it was necessary to be circumcised. See Acts 15, 1-31. The apostles were inspired, hence could have made the decision, without the assistance of the lay brethren; but it appears they desired no such prerogative. This precedent justifies the laity in being in council with the clergy for the purpose of deliberating on the most important ecclesiastical matters. Christians, in common, are called 'a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people,' and they are 'to show forth the praises of Him who hath called them out of darkness into His marvelous light.' 1 Pet.2, 9. Now, since Christians in common have such honorable titles, sustain such a high dignity, and are to manifest the praises of God, it may be concluded that they have the same rights in church-government as the clergy. St. Paul, in writing to the Corinthians, said: 'Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters? Know ye not that ye shall judge angels? how much more things that pertain to this life?' 1 Cor.6, 2.3. Not only the believing ministers, but also the laity are saints. . . . Now, if saints shall judge the world, even the angels, why should they not also be capable and privileged to transact the most important matters pertaining to the Church? That laymen should exercise equal rights with clergymen in church-government, is not only Scriptural, but also conducive to the preservation both of civil and ecclesiastical liberty. . . . From the history of the Church it appears that whenever the clergy governed without the laity, they enslaved the people, grasped civil authority, and persecuted those who detected or opposed their aspiring views. This not only has been the case under the reign of Popery, but also some of the clergymen who called themselves Protestants have been the most bloody persecutors.| (B.1828, 17; R.1853, 23.) In accordance with these principles, laymen in the Tennessee Synod were also represented on, or even exclusively composed, most important committees. Thus, in 1824, three laymen were elected members of the committee which was to confer with the North Carolina Synod in an effort to remove the doctrinal differences separating them. |They appointed farmers,| Jacob Sherer of the North Carolina Synod, in a letter, remarked contemptuously, |to instruct us, who in public print have slandered us, and treated us scornfully when it is known to them that the priests' lips are to preserve the doctrine.| David Henkel, then secretary of the Tennessee Synod, however, in a |Note,| recorded in the Report of 1825, justified the action of Tennessee. Here he wrote: |I conceive it to be my duty to observe that it is truly astonishing that farmers should not also, as well as ministers, be capable of judging the Christian doctrine. Whenever it shall be proved that farmers are not to read the Holy Scriptures, then only ought they to be excluded from this important business. It is well known that in the dark ages of Popery the layman was not permitted to judge in religious controversies, and it seems very alarming that Mr. Sherer has expressed a similar sentiment, inasmuch as he considers himself much offended because the Synod appointed laymen or, as he says, farmers to constitute the committee. That the priests' lips are to preserve the doctrine does not prove that it is inexpedient or wrong to appoint laymen to assist on deciding a dispute. It was believed laymen would act more impartially, since the ministers are more immediately concerned in this controversy. Neither can I discover that all farmers are so contemptible a class of people (so niedertraechtige Leute) that Mr. Sherer could possibly be offended at the appointment! If in case the committee have published anything, which is contrary to truth, Mr. Sherer is at liberty to make it appear.| (R.1825, 6.)

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