Warfare, Containers, Harvest, Living Water, and the LCMS Constitution and Bylaws
By Justin Rossow
One of my favorite moments in the Gospels comes in John, chapter 4, right after the Samaritan woman at the well leaves her empty jug behind to share what she has seen about this Jesus guy:
So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” They went out of the town and were coming to him.
Meanwhile the disciples were urging him, saying, “Rabbi, eat.” But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you do not know about.” So the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought him something to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work. Do you not say, ‘There are yet four months, then comes the harvest’? Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.
John 4:28-35 (ESV)
“Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see …”
Jesus says the same thing three times in slightly different ways. I think it must have been important to Jesus. And I think it must have been easy for the disciples to get wrong. In fact, Jesus is asking the disciples to reorient, to re-calibrate, to put on Jesus-colored glasses and perceive the world differently.
“Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see … the fields are white for harvest.“
Jesus wants to change their perception of reality at precisely the point where they are seeing and evaluating people who don’t know and follow Him.
I don’t think it is stating it too strongly to say that the disciples saw this Samaritan village as nothing less than enemy-occupied territory. They were of course products of their culture, and the Jewish/Samaritan animosity runs deep. We might catch a glimpse of their default position in the rather obscure little scene in Luke 9 when, after the Transfiguration, Jesus turns His face toward Jerusalem, and for that reason alone, He and His entourage are not welcome at the next Samaritan Motel 6.
The Sons of Thunder immediately jump to Shock and Awe: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?!” You see, if Samaria is enemy-occupied territory, then acts of war seem like a reasonable response to provocation.
In this case, the disciples go on a reconnaissance mission to buy food, and they are somewhat aghast when Jesus says He already has food they know nothing about. I think we are supposed to imagine this Samaritan village has exactly one kosher drive-through, and the disciples have to go looking for it, knowing that their purity and therefore their identity was at stake. Not to put too fine a point on it, the Talmud says that food from the hand of a Samaritan is more unclean than swine flesh.
If these disciples had anything like that attitude hard-wired into their worldview, it’s no wonder they went on a trek to find a Jewish deli in enemy occupied territory! It’s no wonder they asked among themselves, “Did someone else bring Jesus something to eat?” I don’t think their question expresses shock at the hospitality of hostile enemies so much as shock that Jesus would eat the pulled-pork sandwich these enemies would probably have offered.
Only much later did the disciples come to understand that the teaching of Jesus declared all food to be clean, and even then it took a divine vision. At this point in the story, the food laws are the most obvious way to tell a Jew from a Samaritan. Crossing that boundary is a bridge too far.
IN and OUT, US vs. THEM
So we have an idea of the way the disciples saw the situation: there is an US and a THEM, with an IN and an OUT, and clear boundaries—like food laws—that must be defended. The outsiders are enemies, and rules of engagement apply.
And that’s the worldview Jesus wants to change. Emphatically, He says, “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see … the fields are white for harvest.“
Harvest, bringing in valuable grain, giving thanks at the completion of time and labor, taking what is outside and joyfully bringing it in: that’s how Jesus wants His followers recalibrate their worldview. A few verses earlier, Jesus has also talked about bringing salvation in terms of offering living water to drink.
The disciples look and see enemies and purity boundary infractions; Jesus sees harvest and offers living water. No wonder He has to say it three times! The disciples see the world very differently.
So how about us? When we evaluate the present and the future of our church, when we look at our situation, how do we see the people around us?
That’s not an easy question to answer. But the answer has to do with the missional heart of our Synod.
So I looked at the most recent Handbook of the LCMS (available at https://www.lcms.org/about/leadership/commission-on-handbook) to see how we talk about, how we perceive, how we frame people who don’t know and follow Jesus.
I have to admit, I didn’t do a thorough study. I simply looked at our expressed objectives, figuring that those at least should express clearly our heart for the ongoing kingdom work of Jesus in the world.
Here’s what I found.
Protection and Purity in Synod’s Goals and Objectives
The Objectives expressed in our Constitution begin by stating that the Synod shall “conserve and promote unity of the true faith” specifically by “providing a united defense.”
“Conserve” and “defense” are both protection, combat, rules of engagement kind of words that cast those who are different from us as enemies, at least to the extent that our true faith needs protecting and defending from them. The paradigm of “true faith” sets up a binary dichotomy of true and false, with a very clear delineation of those who are on the inside of the unity of the true faith and those who are on the outside, from whom those on the inside need protecting.
After one sentence, we are sounding more like the disciples with their concern for purity and their enemy mentality than I think we actually intend.
And those aren’t the only expressions that frame those who do not believe like us as either enemies or outsiders or both.
Article III section 6 says the Synod will provide resources to help congregations in “conserving and defending their confessional unity in the true faith.” Section 9 promises to “provide protection to congregations, pastors, etc.”
Likewise, Article II of our Articles of Incorporation, paragraph c., lists as one of our objectives and purposes to “protect member congregations and ministers of religion” while paragraph a. uses the container we are most familiar with, the human body, to define a very clear IN and OUT, with a very clear boundary line: “congregations that remain true to the Book of Concord of the year of our Lord 1580” are on the inside, and everyone else is on the outside, and we need to protect and defend our faith, our unity, our congregations, and our church workers from them.
In John 4, it seems to me that Jesus is combating a tendency in His disciples to automatically consider people who do not follow Him as outsiders and enemies from whom those on the inside must be protected so that they may remain in some sense pure.
As I read the way we express ourselves as an organization, I find a similar tendency to define others as outsiders from whom our faith and our people must be protected so they may remain safe, faithful, pure.
But perhaps that is not quite fair. Of course organizations, in defining themselves, will naturally use language that sets up a binary IN and OUT. I’m perhaps a little surprised at the defensive and protectionist language but again, to be fair, that’s not the only language our Handbook uses to describe the Missio Dei of which we are a part.
Article III of the Constitution paragraph 2 says we will “strengthen congregations and members in giving bold witness … and extend that Gospel witness into all the world.” Witness is certainly a good, biblical word … but I wonder if the setting of a “bold witness” asks us to imagine a hostile environment, where even those to whom we are giving a witness are primarily some kind of threat. If they were not a threat, why would a witness need to be bold? And “extending that Gospel witness into the all the world” just sounds kind of like military expansionism to me; but perhaps I am being overly sensitive.
The Purpose of the Synod as defined in our Bylaws is to assist congregations as they serve—well, first Jesus, and then His body, and finally the world: a world “which stands in need of the Word and the impact of his redeeming love.” So those outsiders are needy, and we know what they need, and we are going to impact them. I can’t shake the image of airdropping care packages from a safe distance or hitting people over the head with a club labeled “redeeming love.”
Along with uniting and protecting, our Articles of Incorporation list as one of our objectives: “To spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world by every means possible.” I think I like that way of putting it… though I am left wondering about the entailments of “spreading.” Does the Gospel spread like butter? Like wildfire? Like a disease? Like political influence? I’m just not clear enough on the evaluations and expectations built into that metaphor to say whether it has military overtones or not.
Listen. I am not saying there is one right way, or that these are necessarily wrong ways to talk about our relationship with or attitude toward people who don’t know and follow Jesus. In fact, the Bible clearly uses designations of IN and OUT: there are sheep on the one hand and goats on the other; those inside the wedding banquet and those outside in darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth; both wheat and tares exist side by side in the field.
But note that these IN and OUT designations are not ones that we are invited to live by this side of eternity: the sheep are separated from the goats when the Son of Man comes in glory as judge; the wedding banquet is eschatological; our theology of the Invisible Church conforms to the Parable of the Wheat and Tares—you can’t pluck out the one without damaging the other, and in fact, you can’t even tell them apart … until the harvest.
I think the best metaphor in our entire Constitution and Bylaws is the simply word Synod: “walking with” is exactly what Jesus does with people who don’t yet understand Him, people who do not yet believe in His atoning work or resurrection from the dead, people who constantly get their theology wrong, misunderstand His mission, and fail to grasp His promises.
“Walking with.” Now that’s an approach to outsiders I could get on board with. That’s an approach to non-believers that sounds like Jesus spending two extra days in a Samaritan village because they asked Him to. “Walking with” could define a biblical, Christ-like attitude toward people who don’t pray or think or believe like we do.
But we hide “walking with” behind the Latin “Synod,” and use it refer to our insider relationships, and then add objectives like “encouraging congregations to strive for uniformity in church practice” so that any walking with we are allowed to imagine is rank and file marching in lock step, defending their unity and using their bold witness to impact the world.
The language we use in our institutional documents matters. The way we talk about our objectives and purpose, the way we frame our relationship with people who do not yet know Jesus, carries along with it primary assumptions, inferences, expectations, values.
In John 4, Jesus uses the language of ripe harvest to describe what the disciples saw as enemy-occupied territory. Jesus uses the language of sharing living water with people the disciples assumed would make Him unclean. Jesus is sent by the Father, and His food is to bring about the Father’s will and do the Father’s work. The disciples are concerned that the food Jesus has will make Him unclean, unclean like those enemies and outsiders.
The Question Before Us
So my question for you is simple: what language should we use to describe our purpose and define our relationship with people who don’t know Jesus? I think defining non-believers as outsiders from whom our faith and our people must be protected hinders bringing about the Father’s will and doing the Father’s work. I’m not sure spreading the Gospel or giving bold witness is much of an improvement.
So what language should we use? White harvest, a bringing from the outside in rather than a spreading from the inside out? Living water, offering a drink to the thirsty rather than impacting the world?
I don’t know. But I think we need to find out. I think I can hear the voice of Jesus gently but firmly insisting: “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see.” Jesus is inviting us to reorient, to re-calibrate, to put on Jesus-colored glasses and perceive the world differently.
Where we see enemy-occupied territory, He sees fields ripe for in-gathering. And if Jesus will teach us to see the world that way, then I am confident He will also teach us how to speak about our purpose, even in our Constitution and Bylaws, in ways that help other people see it that way, too.
 For more on the Latin (but mostly Greek) origin of the word “synod” as well as its interpretation as “walking with” or “assembly,” see https://justinrossow.com/does-synod-mean-walk-together/ or https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyb9j8vP0Zs.