By Justin Rossow
I was recently presenting at a gathering of pastors when we went down a brief rabbit trail of a discussion regarding our English word “synod” (as in The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod). I thought I was always taught that “synod” came from the Latin for “walking with,” while the other pastor pointed out that “synod” came from the Greek and meant, “assembly.”
Obviously, there is a difference between those meanings and, more importantly, between what those meanings invite us to expect from or imagine about our Synod, so I thought I would chase that rabbit a little farther down the hole to see how far it went.
According to Merriam-Webster, our English word “synod” comes from the Middle English “sinod,” which in turn comes from the Late Latin “synodus,” from the Late Greek “synodus,” derived from synodos, a combination of the Greek syn- or “with” and hodos, which means “way” or “journey.” (So “synod” does come from Latin; it just came from Greek first …)
A little further digging revealed that the Greek noun synodos does not appear in the NT, though in other ancient literature it does mean something like, “where the road comes together,” and therefore, “an assembly.” The assembly in question could be a council (or clandestine group) meeting to plan or make decisions, but opposing armies can also experience synodos as they come together to fight, or lovers can experience synodos as they … well … join their roads together …
On the other hand, the Greek NT does use the verb synerchomai (syn– [with] + erchomai [to journey]). Synerchomai can mean “assemble,” with the same kind of “come together” sense of synodos. However, the verb can also mean “accompany.” We use related words in English to mean those two different things: we can “come together” (assemble) or “go together” (accompany). Greek uses one verb to get at both meanings. So in Mark 14, all the chief priests, the elders, and the teachers of the law synerchomai for Jesus’ trial. But Jesus can also synerchomai with the Emmaus Road disciples in Luke 24. Those disciples weren’t meeting to vote or fight; they were traveling along the same road together.
Interestingly, the NT does use synodeuō (the verb related to synodos) exactly once, for the men traveling with Paul on the Damascus Road. Damascus Road, Emmaus Road, traveling with, taking the show on the road.
So does our word “synod” mean “walking with?” Or is it “an assembly?” It might depend on whether we come or go together. I think the “walking with” interpretation of the Latin “synod” from the Greek synodos is a clear example of relying on the verbal root of an event noun, a fairly standard way of establishing external entailments; score one for Walking With. At the same time, the Greek noun synodos came to designate “an assembly” rather than “a journey together” as “come together” took precedence over “go together” in common parlance over time; score one for Assembly.
All of that etymology still leaves me wondering, when is the Missouri Synod a “synod?” I’ve heard some discussion of that, even at the District level. The Synod is certainly synod at convention, when we assemble to vote and discuss and speak with one voice. If you want to know Synod’s official position on anything, you have to go to the express will of the Assembly. In that sense, the Missouri Synod is a political entity bound together by the decisions its members made together, kind of like the Southern Baptist Convention (Latin con- [with] + venire [to come or go]) or the Assemblies of God (Latin ad- [to or toward] and similis [resemble, be similar]).
But my hope is that Synod is also “synod” not only at convention, but as we journey together, as your congregation and mine and their pastors and other members of the Traveling-With group (the NT word for caravan or traveling company is synodia)—as we keep following Jesus and he keeps leading us forward. I would much prefer to think of us as a group of people headed in the same direction rather than a group of people assembled to vote on stuff.
On this journey, we will have “Avengers, assemble!” moments, where we need to experience synodos as a group before we experience synodos with the enemy armies of spiritual forces leading people away from Jesus and his Gospel. But we also want to synodeuō, travel the road together, join the Great Caravan of the faithful, pilgrim people of God and enjoy the journey, together.
There’s more we could say about “synod” and the concept of “dead metaphor” and the lexicalization of metaphor over time, but I shall refrain from that discussion in the interest of brotherly love and affection.
For now, I would just like to wonder if—or perhaps better, pray that—in an election year, when we are set to “come together” down in Tampa to be Synod, we might also find a way to leave Tampa and “go together,” as we follow Jesus down his road of cross and resurrection, on a joint journey of discovery, into a world where the Spirit still works and the harvest is still ripe and ready to be brought in.
What if we imagined ourselves as The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synodia?
Grant this, Lord, unto us all.
 See especially chapter 8 of James W. Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 2nd ed.
 When it comes to denominations, the metaphor you use matters. (Ironically, the English word “denomination” is related to the Latin denominatio, which means “to use metonymy…”)