A response by Pastor Geoff Burger

21 Oct

What the process of consensus might look like.

Pastor Geoff Burger left a comment on the previous post and a response to the three man collective, that the President commissioned. As it contains important thought we’ve reposted it in the belief that it should be read widely.


Recently the President asked three people to research what it means to Walk in Consensus – the Lutheran way –

I put together a response – if you are interested to read on this is it.

All the best


The group has diligently followed the terms of reference to describe what a consensus is in the Lutheran church with a few no gos A great deal more needs to be done. Here are some personal responses. Of course I may be wrong
Fundamentally we believe the Holy Spirit works through study and searching of the Word. However in the church this happens in a very human context – it is “in, with and under” human personalities and psychologies, social and cultural movements and changes, traditions and politics.
I believe the report would have been more valuable if the terms had been widened a little to explore the way in which an old consensus disintegrates and a new one develops in a church and the factors involved in recognising and affirming this new consensus. We can get insights on the process and factors involved from many fields of study.
Sometimes resistance to change can cause great suffering. The change in consensus on how to fight a modern war only came after unimaginable suffering on the front lines in WW1. Political resistance to a new consensus can lead to violent revolution – the Arab spring. Or opposition to a new consensus in a social group or church can lead to withdrawal and resignations and the formation of a rival group – sectarianism.
There is an insight from the way political change is recognized peacefully in our society through an election. A party gains a consensus and when it loses it through the defection of swinging voters another party forms government. The new consensus is accepted even though it cannot be unanimously agreed to because there are still maybe 49% of the population apposed to the new government.
The new political consensus is accepted because there is a deeper consensus behind it – a commitment to the Westminster adversarial system and a common commitment to the nation.

There is not a theological consensus in the church at the moment on many issues one of them being gender based or gender free ordination. The accepted status quo position from past tradition and Biblical understanding is that gender is critical. However this is not a unanimous position. It is possible that if the issue came to a vote a numerical majority of pastors, people and congregations would favour a gender free position.
So a consensus position by the church on an issue does not mean a unanimously held position. There is something deeper involved.
The deeper consensus which preserves unity is a common commitment to the LCA , its wider theology, heritage, traditions and personal relationships and friendships within the church. This is what will hold us together when other consensi are changing.

The church has always had to struggle with the lack of unanimous consensi on all sorts of issues. This is the challenge for God’s people to remain one as Jesus prayed. Oneness based on total agreement on everything is simple, a fairly easy human achievement that doesn’t need any intervention by the Holy Spirit. This can be forced or on the basis of compromises. At times we define ourselves against others and the conflict of us against them creates unity.

Our calling is to be bigger than this . To remain one and become an ever larger one even with a lack of all sorts of consensi on all sorts of things – gender issues being just one of them. We survived lack of consensus on attitudes to various wars and invasions. Statistics indicate that 50% of Christians accept euthanasia, 50% don’t. Similarly with environmental issues, climate change, boat people. And of course Biblical literalism and evolution, etc.
Our deepest calling as church is to do more than social clubs do – remain one at times in spite of a lack of unanimity or a consensus on issues. This is where we need all the resources the Spirit can shower us with.
In the church as in music difference is an essential characteristic of harmony. This is an implication of Paul’s reflection on the church as the body of Christ in Romans 12. People with strength of character, Spirit given faith and confidence harmonise with others but may not necessarily agree with them. The opposite of harmony is not chaos but uniformity and homogeneity. In human life as in agriculture a monoculture based on uncritical agreement is inherently unstable and unhealthy.
Consensus in the church is always a harmony which enables and embraces difference.
It may be helpful as well as realistic to see the glass as 95% full rather than 5% empty. On the really big denominational issues – justification and salvation, Jesus and the Trinity , ministry and mission, justice and welfare there is an undeniable consensus. Gender and sexuality is interesting but not that big a thing in the total scheme of things

I vaguely remember as a child in the late ‘40s in Geelong that women wore hats in church to cover their hair, sat separately from men and Lutherans communed as a gender group not in families.
And over the past 40 or so years we have recognised a different consensus on the role of gender in the LCA developing.
I was ordained in 1968 and was part of a succession of LCA church conventions where gender roles in the church were debated and bit by bit the gender consensus changed. Women were allowed to vote in congregations, then synods, then do Bible readings in worship, then hold office, then lead committees, then be “pastoral carers”, then lay readers. Each step of the process involved a discussion and steadily narrowing interpretation of the same Biblical passages – mainly Paul.
There were some verbal gymnastics to make accepting the new consensus easier for some – the right of males to make an issue a male vote if they wished (!!!!), not using the term “elder” to describe female pastoral carers and so on.
Obviously many factors were involved in this acceptance of a different consensus on church gender attitudes among Lutherans. It wasn’t just theology. As they became less rurally isolated Lutherans became more and more Australian and were affected by all the factors creating a changing society – war time mobilization of women into the paid work force, movement from farms to the cities, prosperous baby boom children, more women and men undertaking secondary and tertiary studies, European migrant Lutherans, overseas travel, TV and Internet etc.
There are significant personality differences leading some people to welcome change more than others – some people live for stability and safety and are threatened by change – anchor people. Others need challenges and stimulation to energise them – sail people.
Both groups can exist side by side in the church – actually the church needs both to balance each other. A static unchanging church can only exist in isolation and gradually becomes more and more exclusive and irrelevant. A constantly changing church has no foundation or stability and ends up being indistinguishable from everything else
One problem is that it seems easier for sails to accept anchors than for anchors to accept sails.
The group mentioned the 25 year movement towards union of the two synods culminating in the formation of the LCA in 1966. It would be worth doing a careful analysis of the factors involved. Sure there was lots of theological discussions but what lay behind these?
Personalities were obviously important along with their histories and experiences. There was the bitterness of 100 years of suspicion and family squabbles in some places; personal animosities of some pastors; the Concordia-Immanuel rivalry – at one football match there were reports of students spitting at the opposing team.
On the other hand there was a very positive commitment of church leaders on both sides, the growing trust and friendship between pastors on the union committee. Gradually more and more pastors and leaders form both synods got to overcome stereotypes and historical animosities.
Hugely important at the end seems to have been the collegiality, respect and friendship between members of the two seminary faculties.
In the end it seems to have been the total commitment of church leaders to the new consensus which over came the fears and hesitancy of other clergy. Laity recognized this and were able to give solid support to what most had long thought had to happen eventually.
In summary , the critical human factor is a united leadership of academic theologians and church leaders (bishops) who are as passionately and uncompromisingly committed to a similar basic consensus as our Canberra politicians – win or lose we are committed to something greater than our selves. We will not separate from each other whatever happens because we recognize the body of Christ.
This happened over time as an ever growing group of leaders and theologians kept meeting and sharing fellowship before union – eventually they began to pray with each other to open the meeting. Finally they shared a common consensus – there needs to be one LCA.
In the context of this fundamental consensus the smaller consensi gradually took place or were allowed to remain as a movement towards consensus – eg relations with LWF.

Dr Sasse seems to have been a very important personality respected by both sides, a sort of baggage free catalyst from the outside. He seems to have helped to move the church leadership to accept a new consensus.
It is really vital to recognize the unique importance of some individuals. Some people by force of personality, charisma and sometimes uncompromising (or blinkered?) conviction are more influential than others –gifted speakers and communicators, able to convey passion and win support. They punch well above their weight.
On a spiritual level being given unrestricted authority to do this is not respectful of the body of Christ and its unity. Nor on the human level is it democratic. It is fairly easy to identify LCA individuals who have used these gifts either to maintain the old consensus against any changes or to support the new consensus. New consensi can be created by or blocked by fanatical spiritual populism – the histories of personality based sects in the church give evidence of this.
The challenge for church leaders especially is to discern real wisdom, theological and spiritual insight and to strongly affirm this. The really hard and vital thing in deciding whether to hold onto an old consensus or affirm a new one is to sense the timing and know whose views should be supported and whose views should be restrained.

Critical in any discussion on consensus is to take seriously the church as the body of Christ. So an olde consensus is preserved and a new one recognized by the community of God’s people in a Christ relationship with each other.
In my limited experience as an observer the CTICR is a very pleasant activity for those attending. There is camaraderie, vigourous discussion and at times dissent, and at the same time there is respect for one another and appreciation for differences in theology and application. I cannot imagine any of the participants leaving the group or church because they did not get their theological point of view accepted. There is a consensus that the LCA must remain united
This process needs to be made the basic principle as it was a number of years ago when there were free discussions around the church in all congregations on the issue. Unfortunately the process was allowed to lapse without a formal resolution – maybe this can be seen as a failure in leadership
Could the CTICR be widened to be open to all pastors who want to be involved and all leaders especially all those who punch above their weight?
Whatever happens it will need to be personal-social-relational-theological allowing group dynamics to be given equal weighting with theological position papers and disputation. It will be important for everyone to be given an equal hearing.
Probably this will mean more Australia wide pastors’ and lay leaders’ retreats so that relationships can be developed and a strong consensus of commitment to the body of Christ will strengthen and allow possible recognition of a new consensus on gender free ordination

Geoff Burger
August 2011


Posted by on October 21, 2011 in Hermeneutics, politics, sociology, theology


Tags: ,

8 responses to “A response by Pastor Geoff Burger

  1. lcamyopinion

    October 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    hey Geoff, well said, but wordy,,,ahhh, it was ever thus :). im surprised that you devoted the time to respond to what was an entirely predictable paper with a predetermined outcome. if ur interested, have a look at my shorter and slightly more cynical response in my new blog. (shameless advertising there). I guess the value of the “consensus” paper was that it helped drag me out of oblivion and motivate me to set up a blog of my own…to help promote theological discussion where it rightly belongs…out in the big dangerous unrestricted uncontrollable digital world. And it was because of my blog that i came across this one. so…all good yeh?


  2. John Miller

    March 20, 2013 at 2:28 am

    The great challenge for Christians of all persuasions is to confront head on the fact that the religion was established by schizophrenics, fascists, criminals and misogynists. Just read the first few chapters of the Old Testament and see just how far this religion has come. (most people appear not to be well acquainted with it at all.) The integration of modern social trends would appear to be trifling compared with the changes that have been made since Leviticus was laid down.

    • Katie and Martin

      March 21, 2013 at 2:24 am

      From this age and time it would appear that way, however, everything from that time would also have the same hue.
      In Australia we have just had a Federal Parliament apology to families whose children were taken under a forced adoption programme (effectively kidnapping). Society over the ages didn’t seem to object to this removal of children, but through 21st Century eyes it was an appalling programme.
      The point seems to be that Scripture is not infallible. Rather, we read Scripture with ever-new eyes as we grow into a new revelation of what love is.

      • John Miller

        March 24, 2013 at 2:35 am

        And if scripture is no longer infallible, inspired or inerrant your faith is in vain. It means God is no longer immutable.

        Which parts of scripture are you going to accept as ‘true’ and which are you going to discard. Like the laws of nature the truth should be constant throughout the ages. Obviously in the Christian religion it’s not.

        The rational world is closing in on the LCA. The ordination of women could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Whilst condoning the ‘close embrace promiscuous dance’ at Luther League socials didn’t do it, ordaining women just might. Geoff, be careful what you ask for.

        The house of cards is about to collapse. If we can change what we think without god striking us down dead, it means that we are controlling God. If we can change what God thinks, it means the he is created in our own image. If that’s the case we are victims (and perpetrators) of a great fraud.

        We are living in the last days the prophets warned us about. The end of the world that they devised is nigh. It will, for the ‘church’ be the catastrophe they foretold. There will definitely be wailing and gnashing of teeth in Jeffcott St, North Adelaide.

        The truth will set you free.

        • Katie and Martin

          March 25, 2013 at 12:15 am

          Can’t quite agree with all your logic. We do however, need to step away from the Bible as being infallible and inerrant, a phrase that has it’s origins in recent times. The violence of the O.T. cannot be attributed to God.
          Are we able to live with ‘inspired word of God’ or is there something better?
          Can we live with a changing God? Does God change as her/his children change?
          Perhaps only some truths are absolute – the truths that matter anyway. We’re happy to live with the truth that Jesus is our saviour. Beyond that, perhaps each age will find its own truths.

          • John Miller

            March 25, 2013 at 9:02 am

            Geoff, you write, ‘The violence of the O.T. cannot be attributed to God.’

            Tell that to Lot’s wife. Tell it to the little boys in Egypt. Tell it to poor Onan. This jealous, vindictive god (Exodus 20:1) was into violence up to his neck and if he wasn’t in it himself he was either egging his acolytes on, or standing back and watching.

            The history of BC Jewish religion is one of violence, brutality and slavery – and in the context of this blog site, misogyny. It is not the history of the ‘God is love’ god.

            The history of the Christian Church is also one of extreme brutality and violence – just ask the Albigensians, the women of Salem, Joan of Arc or Michael Servantes. In Australia there is currently a Royal commission into this violence. In Ireland a few months ago a women died because no-one would perform the operation to abort her child.

            For around 1700 years, the Christian church prospered under State-enforced laws of blasphemy. I know what I’d do if the choice was between recanting and having my head cut off. (And so the sun continued to revolve around the earth for a few more years.)

            For centruries the Christian Church ruled by the sword, the torch and the stone. The same god as the god we believe in is still the inspiration for rule by the AK47, the bomb and the stone in Muslim countries.

            The god we believe in has never been in the vanguard of the development of the values we hold dear – liberty, free speech, democracy, equality, decency, fairness … When it came to social and political change, His earthly representatives have always used their interpretation of the will of God to stand in the way of that change – as they do now in the quest for equality of status of women in the LCA. What we’re experiencing is a class of values between ‘true Christian values’ and secular humanistic values.

            If you plan to bet on the results of this skirmish and are looking for a hot tip go to 1 Samuel 17.

            But getting back to your second sentence; if the Bible is no longer infallible and inerrant, which parts do I believe to be the true, unalterable word of God and which ones don’t I?

            The logical extention of this question is that sooner or later I have to write my own ‘Bible’, laying down my own set of beliefs and values (which I’ve done.) I don’t need a god, revealed through ancient texts to be the sole source of my own inspiration. In fact, large sections of the Bible provide very good examples of what not to believe.

            Which leads us back to Psalm 82.6.

            Geoff, you write, ‘Does God change as her/his children change?’ You will have to answer that for yourself, and, in view of your status within the LCA make your decision public.

            If the answer is , ‘Yes’ then the god we believe in is created in our own image.

            In the development of our own ‘Bible’, the philosophy of Jesus provides us with a useful set of signposts, but it’s only ‘a set’ not ‘the set’. Our own personal set of values are drawn from much wider sources, many so deeply etched into our societal values that the Old Testament and the Epistles have largely become irrelevant to the way we lead out lives.

            What does stand out about Jesus of Nazareth is that his philosophy of life (the velvet glove)appears to be diametrically opposed to that of his heavenly Father (the iron fist) – which casts doubt on whether be was ‘begotten, not made’ and whether he was ‘of one substance with the Father.’

            In the meantime stay tuned, highly tuned and remember that the truth that sets women free is the the truth that most men don’t want to hear!

  3. janine

    March 24, 2013 at 5:17 am



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