Friday, October 30, 2009

An History and Theology of the Circuit Counselor

Friday after Reformation Sunday
October 30, 2009

The Lord be with you

As the members of Lamb of God Lutheran know, I’m now the Assistant Circuit Counselor of Circuit 18 in the Southeastern District of the LCMS. To help me fulfill these responsibilities I have received a copy of the Circuit Counselor’s Manuel. As you would expect, it has a great deal of practical information about my responsibilities. The introduction, however, is a great little piece blending history and theology in relation to this office. As every Circuit in the LCMS has a Circuit Counselor, and therefore every church in the LCMS has a Circuit Counselor, I thought I’d share the introduction from the manual with everyone who might stumble across this blog.

First, just a word of explanation for my international readers: LCMS stands for Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, which is my denomination. The LCMS has about 2.5 million members. The churches are divided up into Districts. My District is the Southeastern District. The Districts are divided into Circuits and numbered. So every District has a Circuit 1, Circuit 2, and so on. Larger Districts have more circuits than smaller Districts.


The Theological and Historical Setting
of the Circuit Counselor's Office

Unlike the office of pastor, the office of circuit counselor does not have a divine command. Nevertheless, the office, including its responsibilities, has its roots in the practice of the apostolic church and in the historic development of the church following apostolic times.

In the book of Acts and in a number of the letters of Paul, we have examples of both the visitation of the churches and the supervision of the churches.

In Acts 8, after the evangelist Philip had planted the church in Samaria, Peter and John were sent by the believers in Jerusalem to visit the Samaritan converts. It was through their visit that the Word was confirmed in Samaria, and they returned to report that the church in Samaria was of the same origin and held to the same Gospel as the church in Jerusalem.

The church in Jerusalem also sent Barnabas to Antioch in Acts 11 when the news reached Jerusalem that Gentiles also had been converted through the preaching of the Gospel. Barnabas, together with Paul, visited other churches also "strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith" (Acts 14:22). And after the council in Jerusalem, the apostles and elders there sent two other men with Paul and Barnabas to deliver the letter to the Gentiles in Antioch and to report the decisions of the council.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul prepared the church in Corinth for the visit by Timothy. They were not to despise him but to "put him at ease" and speed him on his way (1 Corinthians 16:10-11). Later, Paul thanked God that Titus has the same "earnest care" in his heart for the church in Corinth, for Titus also visited there, apparently with Timothy (2 Corinthians 8:16-24). Paul speaks highly of them for their work. Paul sent Timothy also to the church at Thessalonica with mutually excellent results (1 Thessalonians 3:1-8).

Timothy was to protect as well as admonish the elders to whom he went (1 Timothy 5:17-19). This included concern for their wages. Through the apostolic "counselors" all the churches were encouraged to exercise concern for all the fellow believers (Acts 11:27-29; 1 Corinthians 16; 2 Corinthians 8-9).

It should be evident from these passages that the apostolic church knew nothing about "independent and autonomous congregations." The purpose of such visitation and supervision of the doctrine was to prevent schism.

The Lutheran Confessions recognized this in the post-apostolic church (SA of the Power of Bishops, Tappert p. 330). "One man was chosen by the rest to prevent schism, lest several persons, by gathering separate following around themselves, rend the church of Christ" (From the letters of St. Jerome).

At the time of the Reformation after the collapse of ecclesiastic order, Luther urged Elector John of Saxony to give attention to the plight of the clergy and the churches. The spiritual life of the people in the elector's lands was in decline. In February 1527 the visitations began on the basis of Articles of Visitation formulated by Melanchthon. As a result of these visitations Luther prepared both his large and small catechisms.

In 1528 Luther provided a preface which explained the origin of the instructions for the visitors of parish pastors. In this preface he states:
    Both the Old and the New Testaments give sufficient evidence of what a divinely wholesome thing it would be if pastors and Christian congregations might be visited by understanding and competent persons. For we read in Acts 9[:32] that St. Peter traveled about in the land of the Jews. And in Acts 15[:2] we are told that St. Paul together with Barnabas revisited all those places where they had preached. All his epistles reveal his concern for all the congregations and pastors. He writes letters, he sends his disciples, he goes himself. So the apostles, according to Acts 8[:14], when they heard how the Word had been received in Samaria, sent Peter and John there . . . Formerly, in the days of the ancient Fathers, the holy bishops diligently followed these examples and even yet much of this is found in the papal laws. For it was in this kind of activity that the bishops and archbishops had their origin - each one was obligated to a greater or lesser extent to visit and examine ... we would like to have seen the true episcopal office and practice of visitation re-established because of the pressing need ... we have respectfully appealed to the illustrious and noble prince and lord, John, Duke of Saxony . . . that out of Christian love (since he is not obligated to do so as a temporal sovereign) and by God's will for the benefit of the gospel and the welfare of the wretched Christians in his territory, His Electoral grace might call and ordain to this office several competent persons ... we yet hope that all devout and peaceable pastors who find their sincere joy in the gospel and delight to be of one mind with us will act as St. Paul teaches in Phil.2[:2], and will heed our prince and gracious lord. We hope they will not ungratefully and proudly despise our love and good intention, but will willingly, without any compulsion, subject themselves in a spirit of love to such visitation and with us peacefully accept these visitors until God the Holy Spirit brings to pass something that is better, through them or through us (Luther's Works American Edition, Vol. 40, pp. 269-273).
Following this ecclesiastical tradition, the original Constitution of the Synod made it the responsibility of the President of the Synod to visit the congregations of the Synod and to report to the Synod on the religious conditions of the congregations. As the Synod grew, the assignment of visiting and supervising was delegated to district presidents. And as the Synod continued to grow the district president was assisted by the circuit visitor.

Sometime after World War II the circuit visitor became the circuit counselor. The name change was not to change the office. Visitation by the district president with the assistance of the circuit counselor is stipulated by the Synod's Handbook and does continue to occur.

Thus the office of circuit counselor is a part of a long tradition of the church, beginning with apostolic practice. Counselors serve the Lord and His Church in an extremely important and unique way.

Blessings in Christ,
Pastor John Rickert

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