The terms unionism and syncretism are not found in Holy Scripture. Nevertheless, they have become hot buttons within our national church body. This is nothing new. These two topics have been debated for quite some time in the LCMS, which observed its 166th anniversary April 26.
Throughout its history The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod has declared unionism and syncretism out of bounds for congregations and individual members. For many, these terms are not clearly understood. Here’s a brief explanation.
Unionism generally began with the 19th century Prussian Union. It was a forced merger of the Lutheran Church and the Reformed Church in Prussia under King Frederick Wilhelm III. In large part, this attempt to force a merger between two church bodies with significantly differing theologies precipitated the exodus of many of our Lutheran forefathers and their families, who left Germany and came to America to seek religious freedom.
Syncretism generally refers to objectionable cooperation between Christians and non-Christians. In our church body’s context, the basic issue revolves around the appropriateness of Lutheran Christians participating in worship or prayer with non-Lutheran Christians (considered unionism by some) and/or doing so in the presence of non-Christians (considered syncretism by some).
Two activities that catalyzed much controversy in recent times are the participation of Dr. David Benke in a prayer service at Yankee Stadium on September 23, 2001, and that of Pastor Rob Morris in a memorial service at a public high school in Newtown, Conn., on December 16, 2013. Both events were community responses to horrific, satanic terror and trauma.
Some saw these events as unionistic and syncretistic and were very upset. Many others disagreed and were thankful for the public participation of LCMS clergy at a time of national crisis. The disagreement, in large part, has to do with what the official documents of our church body say or do not say about this important matter.
For example, the Constitution of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod states: Conditions for acquiring and holding membership in the Synod are the following: Renunciation of unionism and syncretism of every description, such as: a. Serving congregations of mixed confession, as such, by ministers of the church; b. Taking part in the services and sacramental rites of heterodox congregations or of congregations of mixed confession.
Note the consistent use of the word congregations. Constitutionally, one point of disagreement is whether it matters that events in question did not occur in the context of a congregation as commonly understood in our church body. Neither event noted above occurred in a congregational setting. Both transpired in public settings. Obviously the issue has additional constitutional and theological implications.
Undeniably and somewhat problematically, this constitutional article uses the activities listed as examples of unionism and syncretism and does not claim to be an exhaustive listing of such activities. Accordingly, contention and conflict arise from and are exacerbated by the questions of what other activities might be considered unionistic or syncretistic and, conversely, what activities should be acceptable and commendable.
Those questions are neither completely answered nor conclusively resolved in our Synod’s Constitution or Bylaws. However, they are addressed in convention resolutions and documents from the Commission on Theology and Church Relations. Next week’s article will explore some of those documents.
In the meantime, my prayer is that the peace of our Lord Jesus Christ will be with you always!