Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work may be a joy and not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. -Hebrews 13:17
This coming Sunday (Aug. 2) we will have the honor of having our District President, Rev. Dr. Anthony Steinbronn, leading us in worship, preaching, and then staying around afterwards for a “talk with the President”. This post-service talk will be focused on the stated goals of this triennium (2019-2022) for the Synod as well as ministry plans for our New Jersey District. Especially poignant at this time will be a discussion about church organization and the lack of pastors for the growing number of older and smaller congregations. But just what can our District President do in regards to these grave facing the Church today?
To understand that we have to join Mr. Peabody and Sherman in the way-back machine and look at the founding of our Synod. Our journey begins at the 300th anniversary of the Reformation in Prussia, 1817. Throughout the 18th century, borders for countries were pretty fluid and by 1817 a (relatively) new kingdom comprised of the various German territories, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, part of the Czech Republic, and various bits and pieces of other Northeast European nations were all joined in the Kingdom of Prussia. This new(ish) kingdom also included the German territory of Saxony, was predominantly Lutheran. As with all other European nations, the State took care of the Church - maintained the buildings, appointed clergy, paid clergy salaries and the like. This is still a common practice in many parts of Europe today, the priests of the Church of England are paid by the taxes collected throughout Great Britain. These civil rulers did a pretty good job of assigning Lutheran preachers to Lutheran congregations and Calvinist preachers to Reformed churches and the like. All that changed in 1817.
That year the King of Prussia decreed that there would only be two church bodies “in all Royal Prussian lands”, namely a Roman Catholic body and a Protestant body. This meant that a Calvinist could preach that there is no forgiveness to be found in the Lord’s Supper (it’s just bread and wine and a memorial meal) and one cannot be certain of one’s salvation as God has already predestined who is saved and who is damned and there’s nothing you can do to know or change that predestination. And this errant teaching could be proclaimed from a Lutheran pulpit, since there was no longer any recognized distinction between Protestant bodies. As odd as this seems to us, it is still pretty common - the United States military has Catholic and Protestant chaplains and services, not Lutheran, Presbyterian, Episcopal, etc. Well, the Lutherans in Saxony who held to the clear teaching of Scripture, as systematized in the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, would have none of that.
But what were they to do? The only place in the world where they could practice according to their beliefs was the newly formed United States of America - a country only about 30 years old at that time. To finance his coming wars, the French Emperor, Napoleon sold a vast tract of land to Thomas Jefferson in 1803 (the Louisiana Purchase). This opened up vast tracts of land on either side of the Mississippi River to settlement and immigration. In 1838 a group of 665 Saxon Lutherans left Germany on 5 ships for the new world. Only 4 of the ships arrived in the port of New Orleans (the Amelia was lost at sea), and these Lutherans headed up the Mississippi to the French trading town of St. Louis.
They were led by a bishop named Martin Stephan. He took the title of Bishop for himself as he was the main organizer of the expedition to start a new Confessional Church body in America. The passengers agreed with his taking the title and also gave him much of the authority European bishops had over their flocks. He was in charge of the finances, the food, the places for settlement, and the supreme leader for all matters of faith and life. But it was not meant to last, by the end of 1838, bishop Stephan was caught in the act of adultery. He repented and was absolved, but the sexual misconduct soon resumed. In 1839, he was found to be embezzling funds from the settlement and so was banished to the other side of the Mississippi where he lived out the rest of his life. From that point on, the Missouri Lutherans have not trusted their bishops (even 180 years later) not used that title.
Rev. C.F.W. Walther was now the ranking clergyman and took over the spiritual care of the group, though the finances were now handled by an elected exchequer (treasurer). He refused to take the title of bishop as that had too many European connotations. In 1841 the question arose if they were even a church or part of the Church universal as they were not under the oversight of a duly appointed bishop. This question was settled in the Altenburg debates where it was determined that ecclesiastical forms do not make the Church, only the pure teaching of God’s Word and the administration of the Sacraments according to Christ’s institution. Bishops are nice to have, but not necessary to be the Church.
As Walther and others came to form the Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Missouri, Ohio, Michigan and other states in 1847, they wrestled with how they would see that purity of life and doctrine was maintained and who had oversight of what the pastors were being taught, preaching, and teaching. Their solution, based on the United States democratic model, was to elect a President of the Synod and the Districts that make up said Synod followed suit in their District constitutions.
Okay, enough of the history lesson. But in knowing our denominational history we can begin to understand what we can expect of our ecclesiastical leaders. Our District Presidents (all 35 of them) are charged by our governing documents (constitution and by-laws), with preserving sound doctrine and furthering the aims of the Synod as set forth in the minutes from the most recent Synodical Convention. The purpose of a District President is to act as the representative of the Synod for the congregations within his district and any other churches we are in fellowship with.
The duties and authority of the District President are fairly limited in scope. Their purpose is to inform and advise. They have little compulsory power. For example, let’s say St. Mark’s Lutheran Church has a pastoral vacancy. The District President, as outlined in the by-laws, furnishes a list of names of pastors who have expressed interest in taking a new call. These names are given to the congregation, but the District President cannot compel St. Mark’s to select a certain pastor for the call. He can recommend and strongly advise one candidate over another, but he cannot force them to take a particular pastor nor can he simply assign one to St. Mark’s. The exception to this would be a 1st placement coming out of the Seminary. Likewise, the District President cannot order a congregation to close, form a dual parish, or otherwise reconfigure. Again, his powers are limited to presenting the best possible information and advising the congregation on what he sees as the best course of action for the congregation’s future in keeping with the ministry emphases of the Synod. In large part due to the history of Bishop Stephan, the District has no power whatsoever over the finances of a congregation. They cannot unilaterally acquire property or seize the assets of a congregation, nor can they disperse district funds to a congregation without special circumstances approved by the district Board of Directors.
The exception to this is in matters of doctrine. If a pastor is found to be preaching or teaching false doctrine and does not submit to brotherly correction, he may be removed from office. The process for this is not solely the purview of the District President and is much too lengthy to discuss here. If a congregation adopts practices outside of the doctrine of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod and is not open to repentance and conformity with Scripture, then the District President can remove that congregation from the roster and Synod membership. This too is a long and complex process and is rarely needed. So the District President really only has the one arrow in his quiver - he is there mostly to inform and advise.
So why should we listen to him? As the District President, he has his finger on the pulse of congregations throughout the District. If Redeemer is facing some issue, odds are one or more of the other 45+ congregations in the District is wrestling, or has dealt with the same issue. As part of the Council of Presidents, he also meets 3x / year with all the other District Presidents. Who knows, maybe the Central Illinois District has figured out a viable solution to the issues we’re facing? He also meets and is in regular contact with Synod officials and the President of the Synod and can glean useful information from what is happening Synod-wide. He, and he alone, has this wealth of information and the mandate to deliver that intelligence to the congregations over which he presides. Beyond the knowledge, there is also an accumulated wisdom from decades of service to the Church. The District President is, generally speaking, among the oldest active servants of the Church (sorry Tony). There is much to be learned from such a long tenure and the advice should not be lightly dismissed. We should think of our District Presidents as a wealth of information and sound guidance, a great resource to help us plan how we can be Christ’s hands, feet, eyes, ears, and especially mouth in our time and place.
So I hope you will join me in welcoming Pres. Steinbronn this Sunday to our worship service and further that you will stick around after service to hear what he has to say about the state of affairs at Redeemer, New Jersey District, and the Synod at large. Bring your questions and “put him on the spot”, that’s what he’s here for. With God’s Holy Spirit ruling our hearts and minds, guided by His Word, and with the counsel of our District President, I’m confident we can launch into a new and bright chapter of ministry in our little corner of New Jersey. See you on the 2nd!
- Pastor Brian
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Pastor Brian Handrich graduated from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis in 1997. He first served a dual parish in northeast Nebraska before coming to Flemington, New Jersey in 2002.