Dear Mark, [Tuffin]
At a recent conference in Mequon, I had a couple interesting off-camera conversations with a couple of WELS big-wigs, regarding the church and ministry thing as it relates to fellowship relationships. I learned a few things that don't usually show up in WLQ. The ELFK in Germany had some concerns about the church and ministry thing, especially because of some of the stuff that had been published by WELS people on this. In their conversations with ELFK, when their fellowship relationship was being firmed up, the WELS people were called upon to affirm, for example, that they believe that the local congregation is "foundational". This tends to mollify the "same plane" terminology that has been used earlier in official documents re: congregations and synods.
In more recent discussions with a free church in Finland, which recently broke with the LCMS, they were called upon to affirm the same thing, and for the same reasons. They were also called upon to firm up their expressions about the pastoral office. The point is, that WELS does sometimes get its feet held to the fire when other churches with a stronger Lutheran consciousness want to know what kind of strange ideas they are advocating. I'm not sure exactly what the group in Australia is concerned about, but maybe it's the same kind of thing the Germans and Finns were concerned about, and maybe WELS would back off of some of their crazier sectarian-sounding expressions when called on the carpet. Of course, it also depends on who you talk to in WELS.
One of my commonly-used pet names for WELS is "Weaker Evangelical Lutheran Siblings." On the question of a Confessionally-oriented theology I still think that's what they are. But maybe they're also still tolerable, as they continue to learn and reevaluate certain ideas. If we remember the Catechism admonition always to try to "put the best construction on everything," we can perhaps help groups like the one with which you're dealing to swallow the sour medicine of WELS fellowship. I generally say to LCMS friends who are looking our way but who are put off by the WELS relationship, "There are reasons why we have not broken the long-term fellowship we have with WELS, and there are also reasons why we have never considered merging into WELS."