Suicide, Social Contract, and Synod Leaving

This has been ruminating in my thoughts since Easter 2009.  No, it was before that.  Circa 2001 a Fort Wayne Seminary student in town working at summer job said, “Leave Synod and you die.” He wasn’t warning of spiritual suicide but practical.  You weren’t damned, but your church would die for all intents and purposes.  History was on his side in that there are not many churches that leave a bigger church body and survive without aligning themselves with other congregations.

In 2009 there was an article in the Eastertide 2009 Logia titled “The Night Will Soon be Ending.”  It was about Lutheran hymn writer Jochen Klepper.  He ended up committing suicide with his Jewish wife in Hitler’s Germany.  At first, hypercritic that I am, I wondered about the wisdom or even rightness of including two hymns of a suicide in The Lutheran Service Book.  Seemed like an insult to John Hus.  But that theological indigestion passed and was replaced with thoughts of the social contract.

The social contract is why we can have multilane highways in this country.  If the majority of the people didn’t abide by the social contract to stay in their own lane and not randomly switch or purposely cross over, we could only have one lane, one directional highways.  Our society can’t abide me deciding to turn into oncoming traffic or drive horizontal to traffic just because.

The social contract was in the article about Klepper.  A man named Hermann influenced Klepper.  Hermann originally indentified with the confessing Lutherans, but he was afraid “that a ‘rigid’ confessing church would be a church estranged from the people and the nation, which would leave state and nation vulnerable to the influence of other ‘gods’” (33).  Can you see where I’m going or aiming?

Over the years, I’ve had discussions with earnest confessional layman who didn’t have and never would have the thought of leaving the LCMS.  When I would expressed such a thought they would always express the fear that if men like me left the Missouri Synod what would become of it?  They didn’t expressly say it would be vulnerable to the influence of other gods, but that is what they meant.

Frankly, I don’t see how a faithful confessional stance can lead you anywhere but outside the LCMS.  Go here for proof in the pudding.  This is the present day LCMS.  Open communion, revivalist worship, and emerging churching are the new normal.  It is it ‘rigid,’ ‘strident,’ ‘ultra-conservative,’ ‘far right’ to say one cannot stay in fellowship with such unfaithfulness without endangering one’s own soul?  A generation ago no confessional Lutheran would say that.  Now you are abnormal, not confessional, if you don’t say it.  But then there is the social contract.

To reject fellowship with the new normal LCMS is not just committing suicide; it’s committing synod-cide.  On the doctrinal level the rigid, strident, ultra voices are the only one’s putting the breaks on those who would drive across five lanes of doctrine and into three lanes of historic liturgy.  On the practical level the “far right” staying in the lanes of the retirement and health plans means we don’t crash our cars or anybody else’s and so these things are kept moving.  The trouble is doing the first seems noble; doing the second seems cowardly.

What gnaws at me is I can’t see where prophets, apostles, Luther, or other confessional Lutherans paid attention to the social contract.   Oh Elisha let Naaman bow before a false god for the sake of his duty to his master.  Paul went along with James’ scheme to put a good spin on his attitude toward the law, and Luther tolerated the poor theology of Melanchthon and others.  But then you have hunted Elijah, imprisoned Micaiah, and beheaded John.  All these stood alone for not agreeing to go along with the new normal, and were considered pariahs by polite society.

The social contract is a building block of the world, but it’s a dangerous one for the a church to use.  Prior to modern health and retirement plans they weren’t used.  It wasn’t a social contract but theological agreement that kept us together.  Now what keeps us together is not theology but sociology.  As it stands now, by leaving Synod you do break a social contract and you for all intents and purposes you die to the full benefits of that contract.  However, if this is accompanied by a dying to self, then it isn’t suicide; it’s life.



About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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