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ELCA reformers—unite around common concerns

by Betsy Carlson (Editor, WordAlone Network)

News: November 10, 2005

Reform minded individuals, groups and churches unified Tuesday for efforts to change the social focus, the culture and perspective of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Individuals and representatives of various Biblical, orthodox Lutheran groups and churches agreed to set aside differences and work together, based on a common confession, to re-establish the authority of the Bible and Lutheran Confessions, bring back missions work and evangelism, return to orthodoxy and rein in the present liberal social agenda in the ELCA.

WordAlone Network President Jaynan Clark Egland cautioned those attending a theological conference, "We first need to work in renewal. If you work just for reform, just work in the politics in the church, I don’t want to go there. But we must start at the level of bringing Jesus into the church."

During the annual WordAlone Network theological conference, held this year at Brooklyn Park Lutheran Church (Minnesota), reformers and renewal groups of several stripes met to decide how to work together for both renewal and reform in the ELCA. Initially, conference planners expected the meetings within the conference to produce only an association of churches.

However, the WordAlone board agreed at its October meeting to look into requests to form another group for individuals and reform groups not eligible for membership in an association of churches.

Egland said that experiences of reform groups in Solid Rock Lutherans working together on issues about homosexual behavior before, during and after the 2005 Churchwide Assembly showed the groups they could work together and had many common concerns about the ELCA.

In response to these experiences, WordAlone members and non-members formed two parallel structures this week, one, a coalition of individuals, churches and reform organizations and the second, an association of churches named—for now— "Lutheran Churches of the Common Confession."

The association of churches has two initial focuses: mutual ministry and mission support and reform of the ELCA. The coalition primarily will concentrate on political action to reform the ELCA. Both groups formed steering committees.

Pastor Paull Spring, State College, Penn., is chairman of the coalition. He was on the board of Solid Rock Lutherans, which went out of existence after the assembly. Pastor Randy Freund, Hutchinson, Minn., a WordAlone board member and head of a task force that laid groundwork for the association of churches, is head of the steering committee of Lutheran Churches of the Common Confession.

A resolution to form the coalition stated the coalition would coordinate its ministry within the WordAlone Network and with the association of churches. It called for "a serious and intentional effort" to be made to integrate the coalition within the Network. That relationship is to be reviewed in two years.

Churches were included in the coalition after some of those present said their congregations wanted to work for reform but didn't want to join the association of churches. Leaders of the new groups acknowledged there were many operating details to be worked out.

"There's going to be a lot of sorting out," commented Egland. Individuals, churches and reform groups need not join WordAlone to be part of the new reform and renewal structures.

Egland expressed satisfaction that, while the various reform groups are keeping their identities and that differences among them were acknowledged, together they will be make a "bold confession and a bold witness" of the faith.

Some of the differences involve ecumenical agreements, particularly Called to Common Mission with The Episcopal Church USA. Others pertain to liturgical practices and how worship services are conducted.

Some of the reform groups at the meetings, in addition to WordAlone, were: Called to Faithfulness, made up of many northeast Iowa churches; the Evangelical Lutheran Confessing Fellowship from the northeast part of the U.S.; and the Fellowship of Confessional Lutherans from the western states.

In addition several pastors from the "evangelical catholic" wing of the ELCA, including Spring, helped form the coalition. Evangelical catholics view Lutheranism as a reforming movement in the western church. They are concerned about maintaining the historic character of the church's worship and life. They tend to prefer more formal, liturgical worship than some in the ELCA. Some of the evangelical catholics support an historic episcopate, which was mandated in Called to Common Mission.

WordAlone opposes the mandatory historic episcopacy. Its members include evangelical catholics and others who prefer a variety of worship styles.