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WordAlone, ELCA, and the Church

Hans Schwarz

April 16, 2010

When the Theological Advisory Board was formed one of the first issues it addressed was ordination with or without the presence of a bishop. Then came the issue of scriptural authority. Concerning sexuality we wanted to remain silent, but reality within the ELCA caught up with us and we voiced our scriptural assessment of the sexuality study. Now we are confronted with a new situation after the 2009 Minneapolis Assembly, especially after the endorsement of the blessing of same sex unions and that actively gay and lesbian persons may serve in the ordained ministry of the ELCA. WordAlone cannot remain silent if it wants to be true to its agenda that God’s Word alone is the rule for faith and action. In this situation we should remind ourselves what the church is, because God’s Word is only proclaimed in and through the church.

In the Nicene Creed we confess “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” We hold to the truth that there is this one church even if we see many denominations. For Martin Luther it was clear that even in the darkest moments this one church has always existed. Therefore it would be unwise to give up on this one church and to presume that one more denomination would not weaken the one church universal. It would weaken it especially if such a denomination would be founded in opposition to or in demarcation from an already existing denomination. This means leaving the ELCA in one way or other and forming our own church or a semblance thereof would not be a good option on theological grounds. But then we have as the second mark of the church its holiness. The issue here is the same as with the community of saints. Being holy and saintly is not a human possibility. These adjectives are attributed to humans on account of God’s grace and should inspire us to actions of holiness and saintliness. While we are convinced that some movements in the ELCA are unholy we cannot declare that the whole ELCA is unholy. To the contrary confessing the church as holy must inspire us to bring the ELCA to a more holy behavior so that it becomes more a semblance of the one from whom it has the attribute of holiness, the one and holy God. We have work cut out for us to say no where we must say no and yes where we can say yes. We must make our voice heard to those who are still willing to listen to us.

The third mark of the church is its catholicity. Several voices have reminded us that some ecumenical relationships of the ELCA with other denominations may be in danger. Whether this is true remains to be seen. Nevertheless if one part of the body sins not all members must sin. Therefore we can offer alternatives to the present structure of relationships. If the ELCA as an institution is ecumenically damaged that need not damage the whole body of the ELCA. So we could enter into ecumenical relationships and dialogs that used to be centered only in the head office in Chicago. One could envision selective relationships. If the official institution has abandoned an ecumenically responsible stance others could fill in this vacuum.

Then we come to the final mark of the church, its apostolicity. Here WordAlone has a special responsibility to make sure that the connections to our apostolic roots are not severed. We can never get tired of reminding individuals and the church as an institution of the responsibility toward that apostolic tradition. We should also try in our own way to strengthen the church’s connection with this tradition, especially when, as at this point, the church strays away from tradition and introduces unwarranted changes. We are not the first Christian community but stand in a long tradition. This is both an obligation to be honored and a relief, since the course of the past can guide us into the future. Of course, the church should never be static, advocating a status quo. While we must be open to new ideas and new methods we dare not cut our ties with the past, lest we remain without direction. The church is the guardian of the past because its sources lie in the past and its present direction must be measured by the extent to which it is true to its sources. As Luther has shown in his debate about infant baptism those who introduce new teachings must bear the proof that they are still in line with that source which informs all our actions. Of course tradition can veer off the right path. Therefore an appeal to tradition must always go beyond tradition to that which engendered it, Scripture alone. But again the appeal to Scripture does not yet settle the issue for Lutherans since they do not believe in a paper pope.

It was the great discovery of Martin Luther that he did not read the bible in a literalistic way but distinguished between center and periphery. There are central writings and central assertions in the Bible and there are peripheral ones. The distinction between the two is not one of personal preference but is made with the hermeneutical key that central is “what best communicates Christ.” The gospel of Jesus Christ stands in the center of the Bible and is the source which informs and corrects tradition. Yet what is the essence of this gospel? What is the essence of the good news? It is justification by grace alone. If we were justified by our actions, by what we have done and left undone, we would never stand a chance to meet God’s expectations. This was Luther’s discovery in his monastery cell. Therefore he was about to despair. Then came the so-called tower experience, Luther’s realization that God justifies us without pre-conditions. Two actions on our part, however, are constitutive for justification, that we first despair in our own efforts and that we totally rely on God’s undeserved grace (sola fide). Only if we totally rely on God and not on us or our well-intended actions will God justify us for Christ’s sake. Therefore we can sin boldly. This does not mean sinning in such a way that we are careless or carefree in our actions, but that we realize that the final outcome of our life does not depend on our own doing but on God’s.

However, justification is not an isolated act of God, isolated from the rest of our life. We notice this, for instance with baptism where God receives us as his children without any pre-condition. But in his Small Catechism Luther insists concerning baptism that the “old Adam must be drowned daily.” God’s free grace calls for our response, or to phrase it differently, justification leads to sanctification. Luther explained it this way, that a Christian cannot be without many and great good works. This responsive ethics, responsive to God’s undeserved grace unfolds itself in a life in which a Christian becomes the light to the world and the salt to the earth. This means that Christians listen to a different tune than do other people and they also usually act differently. Especially in the present situation where the ELCA tries to model itself after the people of this world, WordAlone has a responsibility to show through word and action that Christians do not take their cues from the world. Quite the opposite, they model a life-style distinctly different from the world and its fads. Only in this way can they become trend-setters for society and be able to offer something which the world cannot give.

Adopting life-styles more and more in vogue in the world the ELCA has forgotten that this world though God’s good creation is still under the dominion of the prince of this world and therefore under the dominion of the seductive and anti-Godly powers. By emulating the standards of this world we betray our Lord Jesus Christ and that which he stood for, the opposition and dethronement of the prince of darkness. Furthermore, by changing standards honored since the New Testament times through a vote that is far from unanimous one forgets that the church is not a political institution where even a slim majority counts which then becomes binding for the opposition. The people themselves form the church. They are called out from the world and together are the body of Christ with Christ as their head. In obedience to their head there must be a oneness of mind and spirit among them. If this is no longer given, the church ceases to exist and becomes a political institution that operates largely independent of the people. It is up to WordAlone to remind the church hierarchy of this important truth.