'We never knew it was this serious'

by Roger C. Eigenfeld (Senior Pastor, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, Mahtomedi, MN, WordAlone Network board member)

November 27, 2002

At a theological conference held at St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Mahtomedi, Minn., Nov. 18 and 19, 2002, eyes were opened for participants from three continents–North America, Europe and Africa.

The first eyes to be opened were some members of the WordAlone Theological Advisory Board, some of whom came from Germany, Norway and Tanzania. In presentations that also afforded the opportunity for questions and answers, the international theologians expressed numerous times that, previously, they never really thought Called to Common Mission and the ELCA’s adoption of it was as bad as it is. One theologian said, “We never knew it was this serious.”

[Called to Common Mission (CCM) is a full communion agreement between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and The Episcopal Church USA.]

The theologians’ comments were directed at the heart of the controversy over CCM, that being: making something (the adoption of an historic episcopacy) a necessity when it clearly violates Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. This article speaks against mandating conformity to traditions–specifically the text that reads, “For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. It is not necessary that human traditions or rites and ceremonies, instituted by men, should be alike everywhere.” (Augsburg Confession Article VII)

More than one theologian referred to the historic episcopacy as “Christian fiction”–as this writer clearly believes it is.

The second eyes that needed to be opened were our own. These are eyes that have grown weary over this controversy, but eyes that must once again glisten with clarity and determination if there is going to be a Confessional Lutheran church for our children and grandchildren to inherit.

You see, the problem stemming from ordination into the historic episcopacy has not gone away. In fact, it’s becoming more clear that our ELCA is headed down the path toward two distinct orders of ministry–that of “pastors” and “bishops.” In fact, this writer believes we already are practicing those two distinct orders and all it lacks is an official vote at an ELCA Assembly to make it a part of the ELCA Constitution.

At the Indianapolis Assembly of the ELCA in 2001 a minor victory was won by the passing of the “exception” clause that allows a seminarian, in unusual circumstances, to seek ordination by someone other than a bishop.

But, note–there is no such “exception” clause for those who are newly elected bishops in this church. Newly elected bishops have no opportunity to express their consciences. They must accept the “laying on of hands” by bishopsÔincluding three bishops in the historic episcopate, one of whom must be an Episcopal bishop—whether they believe in the Episcopal historic episcopacy or not.

By the mere fact that there is a different standard for bishops than that for pastors we now have a “de facto”two-fold order of ministry in the ELCA.

Once, in one of my headier moments I posed this question to two bishops. I said: “Pretend I want to be elected a bishop. Now, because of conscience and theological integrity I cannot participate in the bestowing of the historical episcopacy. My question is, would you work to grant me an exception?”

The answer was, “That’s not the rule of our church at this time.” I pressed on, “But would you work to create an ‘exception’ clause for bishops?”

No real answer ever came to my question. No real commitment, either, to allow a newly elected bishop to exercise his or her conscience with regard to the historic episcopacy issue.

My point!

Unless we’re going to sit back and allow our ELCA to become a Lutheran church body with two official orders of ministry, we had better get on our ponies to spread the news that we must bring resolutions to every 2003 synod assembly seeking an “exception” for those elected as bishops of this Church.

We made progress in Indianapolis. We must make a bigger statement in Milwaukee in 2003.

The question still remains: “What kind of Lutheran church are you willing to leave as your legacy to your children and grandchildren?”

Are you willing to stand up for those who have no idea just how far from our Confessional moorings we have drifted? We either stand together or we will be dismissed one by one by one as being irrelevant and out of touch.

The ELCA once proudly and with theological integrity stated clearly a belief in the “priesthood of all believers.” I question whether it does so today. Will this great biblical gift be lost to the next generation of Lutherans? Will we, too late, say with our European and African theologians, “We didn’t realize it was as serious as it is.”

The battle is far from won! The distance we need to cover is significant. But, so too, is the cause. Let’s get on with the task.