In search of koinonia (May, 2011)

Started by Richard Johnson, July 19, 2011, 06:58:05 PM

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Richard Johnson

"In search of kononia"
by Peter Speckhard
Forum Letter May, 2011
Copyright 2011 American Lutheran Publicity Bureau. All rights reserved.

Unity has been something of a Holy Grail for the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod since its founding, but often the attempts to find it have resembled the Monty Python version of the Arthurian legend. You may remember the scene in which the palace guards keep acknowledging their lord's very simple instructions, but then in confusion keep doing the opposite. The laborious explanations of something very simple, the emphatic agreement, the subsequent bewildered exasperation—trust me, it is very funny.

And it is funny (though perhaps in a different sense) how often the LCMS in convention has voted overwhelmingly for, say, close(d) communion, and then immediately gone back to practicing the same huge variety of communion policies we had before, to the unending frustration of those who made the motion to re-affirm the official policy yet again.

It will be a project
So the quest for genuine unity in the LCMS, if it has any chance at all of succeeding, will certainly require patience. LCMS President Matthew Harrison has made a proposal for achieving unity called the Koinonia Project, which calls for ten years of work toward that end. Whether it will yield true koinonia is yet to be seen, but it is certain to be a project.

Koinonia simply means fellowship, life together, convivium, and specifically in this case the shared life in Christ and Church of God's people. The project is to figure out what that looks like in order to achieve three related goals: unity, concord, and harmony. A cynic might throw in a plan to buy the synod a Coke and keep it company, but that cynic would not be fair; there is honesty and depth to this project that merits being taken seriously. 

Of course figuring out what it means to live together is a strange thing to cram into a time frame. It is almost by definition an ongoing project that cannot logically have a starting or finishing point. In the internet age it is not possible for a monthly newsletter to give anything like a blow-by-blow except in very broad terms, so I encourage you, in addition to reading Forum Letter (the interpretation of record), to log onto for what I consider to be a refreshingly thorough and candid (for an official take) assessment of the situation and the goals of the Koinonia Project.

Getting everyone at the table
The first step calls for groups at various levels of the church just to meet—to listen to each other and get everyone's positions on the table, so to speak. It will take the entire first year of the project simply to formulate an agreed-upon statement of what the conflicts are about. This is a critical phase, and actually something of a switch in policy from the previous administration. The Missouri Synod has always endured its various internal conflicts, but in recent years it had taken to a new strategy of proclaiming unity as a way of achieving it—a tactic that resulted in the famous vote at the 2007 convention which declared by a 51-49 margin that we were unified.

But Python-esque as that vote seemed at the time, it made a serious point. The complaint by many conservatives was that President Kieschnick and the moderates refused to admit that the two sides disagreed on anything fundamental or doctrinal; doctrinal agreements by vote, the detractors said, wallpapered over big differences when doctrine turned to practice. Things like close communion or male-only elders were matters of doctrine for the conservatives (and therefore in need of uniform application) but matters of practice for the moderates (and therefore subject to perfectly legitimate local variation).

That's why the votes on these and other issues could be nearly unanimous but result in almost immediate anger, confusion, and feelings of betrayal or accusations of dishonesty; the conservatives thought the vote was against what the moderates were doing, while the moderates thought the vote was simply reaffirming a prior uncontroversial principle with which they considered their practice to be in harmony.

The approved speed limit
A parable, if I may. There once was a town whose citizens grew concerned about public safety because of rampant speeding. The speed limit, by common consent, was 65 mph except in emergency circumstances. But herein lay the problem: by the town constitution, there could be no tickets. The speed limit was agreed upon by vote, but the drivers policed themselves. Most people assumed that 65 mph meant you could set the cruise control at 72 or so with no harm done.

But a few old-schoolbus sticklers preferred to snarl traffic by following the letter of the law so they could frown on anyone passing them, while a few free-wheeling "hotmod-erates" took advantage of the situation by going 90, on the theory that preferring to drive fast constituted an emergency. But since there were no police, the only way to address the speeding problem was to vote once again to make the speed limit 65 (with an exception for emergencies) which, of course, everybody did, and then promptly went back to driving the way they had been driving previously.

The vote did nothing because nobody considered themselves in serious violation. The sticklers said there was obvious disunity on the matter of the speed limit because so many people were speeding. The free-wheelers said there was obvious unity—the vote was 100% in favor. What could be more unified than that? The majority who drove 72 mph wished they didn't have to vote on this at every town meeting. I'll leave it to the reader to discover the points of comparison to the matter at hand.

What kind of differences?
In a way this labeling of all disagreements as differences in practice rather than doctrine was a legitimate approach taken by President Kieschnick. Unity will always be a matter of degree this side of the Last Day. So the real question could be thought of in terms of the question: unified compared to whom? Certainly compared to our own past or to the present situation of pretty much any other denomination of any size on the American landscape, we were and are remarkably unified. But to consider ourselves unified in this way, we had to agree (and did, 51-49) that our differences in practice did not equate to difference in doctrine.

But now with the Harrison administration and the Koinonia Project, there is a subtle sense of uneasiness among the moderates and a more overt sense of relief among the conservatives, which may seem odd given that so far all we've agreed to do (or been told to do, depending on how you look at it) is listen to each other talk over our differences.

But the fact of the matter is that by setting aside time to air our differences, President Harrison has changed the default position to favor the conservative assumption that we do in fact have doctrinal disagreements—most notably on worship, communion practices, and issues related to women in leadership. The Koinonia Project treats practice as doctrine in action, much to the consternation of those who prefer to separate the two issues in order to have official unity with diversity of practice. President Harrison has vowed not to use or seek to use coercion but to allow the discussion to build greater consensus, but few people on either side of the various issues foresee themselves changing their positions. Stay tuned.

Near hijacking
Meanwhile, the entire process was almost hijacked by a small group of conservative pastors and a few laymen calling themselves ACELC (Association of Confessional Evangelical Lutheran Congregations, or something like that) which sent a letter last fall to every pastor and congregation in the LCMS telling us to consider ourselves fraternally admonished for tolerating false teaching in our midst, and inviting us all to join them as part of the solution or be listed as part of the problem. But as someone with some experience fighting with his brothers growing up, I know that there is fraternal and then there is fraternal, and this letter definitely came across as the latter. (Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.)

At any rate, the admonishment included the interesting twist that they wouldn't be using the synodically approved dispute resolution process because it had proven itself to their satisfaction to be dysfunctional by failing to get it right on several well-documented occasions. So there remain some layers of irony to peel away before the actual unity commences.

Unfortunately, the ACELC letter came out at about the same time the Harrison presidency and the Koinonia Project were beginning. This timing led to some confusion, suspicion, and an official raising of the threat level to orange among some of the moderates, especially after the ACELC offered their platform as a blueprint for the Koinonia Project discussions. To the moderates, the ACELC blueprint was not a good ice-breaker, much less discussion-starter, since it came across merely as "Do you recant?" But to the conservatives, it was refreshing to see the actual disagreements, framed as such, out in the open. You have to start somewhere. As it happens, though the ACELC has held a conference and issued press releases, with detractors and sympathizers throughout synod, their admonishment has not formed the basis of the Koinonia Project discussions.

Version 9.0
At the aforementioned synodical website, there is a 16-page document issued in March 2011 and signed by the synod's first vice-president Herbert Mueller called "Koinonia Concept, Draft 9.0." It is an excellent summary. The concluding paragraph ends with a description in a nutshell, all in boldface, which reads:

In the "Koinonia Project" several 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 [caps in original] 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.

It is that fourth point which separates this project from every other mere convention vote. It is also the point which causes the most nervousness among those who were already a little nervous about President Harrison's theological conservatism. The unity, concord, and harmony being talked about imply unity in action, not merely an agreed upon doctrine or principle upon which to make our own decisions. In other words, we aren't seeking unanimity (again) on what the speed limit should be; we're seeking more uniformity in how fast people actually drive. President Harrison has vowed not to use coercion, but apart from introducing police and tickets or eliminating the "emergency discretion" loophole, it remains to be seen how exactly any behavior will change.

At this point I am cautiously optimistic about this project, largely because, as I mentioned, the material published on the website does not pussy-foot around in euphemisms, denials, or bureaucratic newspeak, but is candid about our past and present while remaining hopeful about our future. But again, stay tuned. 
—by Peter Speckhard, associate editor 
The Rev. Richard O. Johnson, STS

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