Authority and resistance in the ELCA

by James Nestingen (Professor of Church History, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

Date unknown

The ELCA's ecumenical process has been heavy-handed and one-sided to the neglect of other voices within the denomination. Adopting a historic episcopate will deny the power of the Word alone and will put Lutherans in a state of confession that demands resistance.

The three ecumenical proposals presented at the Philadelphia churchwide assembly last August raise some fundamental questions about the use of authority in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. photo of Dr. James A. NestingenThe first is a question of the Lutheran confessional priority. Implicit in each of the proposals is a reweighing of the emphasis historically placed on confessional assertions. Doctrines historically primary, such as justification sola fide and the real presence of Christ in the sacrament, become secondary; the doctrine of ministry, which has historically been regarded as correlative, becomes primary. The question follows: Do the Philadelphia proposals impose an authoritative interpretation on the confessions, thereby giving a churchwide assembly an authority prior to that constitutionally accorded the confessions?

This question in turns leads to a second. Besides being an ordination requirement, confessional subscription is for many pastors a matter of conscience. The confessions have a function like the Magna Charta or papers of manumission: they declare the freedom given in and for ministry. Given the character of the process that lead to the ecumenical proposals and their discounting of historical confessional affirmations, what are the resources available for those who cannot as a matter of conscience submit?

The Authority of the Gospel

The church's earliest creed, Jesus Christ is Lord, asserts an ultimate claim regarding the risen Christ that at the same time renders every other form of authority secondary. This is already apparent in the New Testament itself, which repeatedly returns to the theme. "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me," Christ says as he sends his disciples into mission (Matt. 28:19). His overall sovereignty is the hope of all creation: " his cominq, every knee shall bow, on the earth, above the earth and under the earth..." (Phil. 2:i0}. At the same time, it makes every other institution and power provisional: "then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and very authority and power," (1 Cor. 15:24).

In the Lutheran Confessions, Christ's ultimacy is set out in two dimensions: in the authority of the word and in the critique generated over and against offices, which seek to claim it for themselves. The priority of the word again grows out of New Testament roots. "He who hears you hears me," Jesus says in his sending (Luke 10:16). The crucified and risen Lord continues his work in and through the spoken word, whether in its preached or sacramental form. As such, God's word--the word that creates and became incarnate—has become a human word, fit for the lips of his sinners.

It is critical to note that precisely in its incarnate form, where it might be taken as one opinion among countless others, the word retains the power of its ultimate speaker. Christ is the word. As Article V of the Augustana states, by his Spirit, the preached and sacramental word carries out his purpose, affecting faith in the hearer.

The contrast between the gospel and other forms of speech can be seen in relation to the law: "The law says do this, and it is never done. The gospel says, 'Believe in this,' and it is done already," Luther argues in the Heidelberg Disputations. The law can only signify, pointing away from itself to an action required or under interdict. Its target is the will of the hearer, which is assumed to provide the power necessary to compliance. The gospel is performative—precisely in, with and under all the other human words, it does what it says, carrying the hearer beyond alternatives as it actually creates faith, bestows freedom, engenders joy, finally raises the dead. Such claims can be made for the gospel because of the Spirit who animates it.

Edgar M. Carlson, the now deceased former president of Gustavus Adolphus College and an outstanding Luther scholar, traced the effect of this understanding of the word in a classical analysis of the Lutheran understanding of ministry. For both historical and theological reasons, Lutherans in America have tended to divide over words like called and sent, office and function, reflecting tension between pastor and congregation. In fact, Carlson points out, in the confessional understanding, the word takes priority over both: the office established by and for the word is also limited by it; the assembly gathered by the Holy Spirit through the gospel is a creature of the word and therefore under its limit.

This understanding gains polemical teeth where it encounters claims to possession of the word, either personal or hierarchical. The first developed evidence of this confessionally is Article XIV of the Augustana, which makes ministry subject to the call. Only the congregation has a right to the word; no pastor can arrogate the office to the self. Article XXVIII asserts the same type of limit over and against the office of the bishop. Against any theory of hierarchical derivation, in which authority of the word is made dependent upon a succession of offices, the article insists that office exists by and for the preached and sacramental word. Anything beyond the word can claim authority only by the actual act of preaching or administering it.

As polemical as it could become, particularly against the papacy, this understanding of the ultimacy of the word is also responsible for the Lutheran Confessions' ecumenical openness. If word and sacrament cannot be taken as a possession of any institution or office, it cannot be assumed that other Christian communities are without them. The Spirit works faith "when and where he wills in those who hear the gospel," as Article V says. As Patrick Keifert has often commented, Lutherans "travel light" ecumenically, unencumbered by the official condemnations and anathemas burdening other traditions. Theological arguments and positions are attacked and even anathemized, but not communities of faith. The gospel is by its very nature, open-ended.

The classical objection to this understanding of authority was formulated by Erasmus of Rotterdam in one of the great polemical exchanges of the reformation. Writing against Luther in the mid-1520s, Erasmus argued that the Scripture is ambiguous, that it therefore requires an authoritative interpreter and that controlling the legitimate range of interpretation is therefore the prerogative of the papacy. Luther's reply to Erasmus, set out in one of his definitive writings, The Bondage of the Will, places a nonnegotiable priority on the freedom of the gospel. While Luther acknowledged occasional passages that remain obscure, in the light of the overarching clarity of Scripture even these disclose themselves. For this clarity asserts itself in Christ Jesus, the ultimate subject and Subject of the biblical witness. "Christ is the Lord of Scripture," he wrote, "take Christ out of the Scriptures and what do you have left of them?" As the subject of the biblical word, Christ is the one to whom finally, all of the various stories, arguments and assertions refer. As Subject, the Spirit of the risen Christ is ultimately the interpreter of Scripture, bringing home the word to forgive, raise and free. Thus the authority of the word consists not in establishing either doctrines or offices, whatever relative value they may have, but in actually forgiving sinners, raising the dead, establishing for creature and creation the marvelous liberty of the children of God.

No doubt, there is something inherently messy about this understanding of authority. Not everyone shares Luther's confidence that the word will emerge out of the cacophony of voices claiming it—one otherwise very conservative national Lutheran leader reportedly called it "Alice-in-Wonderland" theology. But the alternative to the freedom of the word is necessarily coercive. When the word is made dependent on an external guarantor, that force—be it doctrinal or official, a person or a gathering of people—inevitably becomes a subject displacing Christ Jesus as the Subject of Scripture, imposing itself as the one legitimate interpreter to establish the desired orthodoxy.

Ecumenical Advocacy

Given the nature of the gospel, ecumenism can only properly be a matter of joy. Expressed in the raucousness of Christ's table-fellowship with sinners, spilling out of the empty grave under the power of the Spirit of the crucified and risen One, the Gospel knows no limits, whether linguistic, of gender, social, political, ecclesiastical or denominational. To meet either the personal or the institutional neighbor under the sign of the gospel is to share in the freedom Christ bestows. But even the nature of the ecumenical hope itself would seem to suggest such a joyful character. As a quest for the expressions of unity in the church, it takes the shade of reunion, the delightful discovery of unity emerging in the midst of historic difference. When ecumenism becomes divisive, it has defeated its own purpose. Thus ecumenical studies commonly distinguish between the formulation of agreement and its reception, recognizing the latter as equally critical with the former. A formally accepted formula that stalls out at the level of reception is merely an agreement to agree. A genuine ecumenism brings home the goods so that the unity it seeks is actually expressed in the life of the church and its members.

As it bloomed in the 1960s and 70s, the ecumenical movement manifested such joy and still does, in some churches. John XXIII and the second Vatican Council opened doors and windows in such a way that for a whole generation, the memories still exude warmth. Finnish Lutherans, with a distinguished history of ecumenical theologians like Lennart Pinomaa, Lauri Haikola and now Tuomo Mannermaa, have maintained the positive character of the whole enterprise.

While earlier American Lutheran theologians and church leaders contributed significantly to the overall ecumenical movement in both formulation and reception, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has had a difficult time expressing itself positively ecumenically. Warren Quanbeck, Kent Knutson, William L. Lazareth, and Robert Marshall all made distinguished contributions. But in the 1980s, the ecumenical house itself divided, pitting ELCA theologians and church leaders against one another.

The division is recent and contentious enough that analyzing its sources usually only adds to controversy. As commonly in such division, the various parties have all claimed to know what really drives the others, generally offering polemical portraits that oversimplify complexities. It may be helpful, however, to recognize two competing trends in American Lutheranism, both of them originally developing in the 1960s when, in the analysis of Winthrop Hudson, American Lutherans were poised to enter more forcibly the larger cultural-religious picture. The two propose different ways of weighting the Lutheran heritage, one emphasizing Lutheranism's catholic roots, the other Luther's contemporary theological contribution. Consequently, they suggest different ecumenical strategies.

As pre-Vatican II hostilities eased, a generation of Lutheran theologians raised in that context discovered what mutual recriminations had generally concealed, the deep similarities between Lutheranism and its Roman Catholic origins. Led by people like Arthur Carl Piepkorn, George Lindbeck and others, these theologians sought to emphasize convergence in the liturgical as well as the doctrinal traditions of the communities, seeking insofar as possible, visible expression of the unity of the church.

Just as the ecumenical movement was drawing new portraits of Lutheranism, another powerful influence began to arrive in American Lutheran theological schools: the Luther renaissance. A generation of giants in Luther research—people like Gustav Wingten, Regin Prenter, Gerhard Ebeling, Gordon Rupp, with numerous others in Europe and in the US, particularly Wilhelm Pauck—used the tools of historical study to free Luther from his orthodox packing. Along with neo-orthodoxy, a parallel movement that was also fed by it, this reconsideration of Luther's theology and the accompanying re-appropriation of the Lutheran Confessions stressed their value in the current context of witness. Among the people associated with this school at one time or another have been William Lazareth and Gerhard Forde.

Though these two trends have sometimes coalesced theologically—some people have made important contribution to both—they have been at loggerheads ecumenically. Those who have identified themselves with the Catholic tradition have commonly made visible expressions of Christian unity the highest priority, stressing similarities—convergence—while discounting the very differences which the others cherish for their theological implications. Those emphasizing Luther's contribution have argued a more complex case.

Within the ecumenical movement, they have roots going back to its earliest days when, for example, Kent Knutson, one of the pioneers, offered what might be called of an ecumenism of engagement. In this way of thinking, unity expresses itself not at the expense of but precisely in difference. The eschatological oneness given in Christ allows room for a genuine diversity in the church's public life. Rather than endangering unity, the differences give witness its characteristic depth and strength. Advocates of this form of ecumenism have found strong allies among more traditional Roman Catholics who also wish to emphasize the uniqueness of their tradition.

The academic discussion lost its delight when it turned to issues of policy and got an additional charge from pre-existent conflicts in church leadership. The merger of the ELCA became a winner-take-all contest in which after some bitter contention, one group of ecumenical advocates was granted the power of office. Throughout its first decade, in the ELCA ecumenism has reflected these origins. It has had two primary characteristics, fed to some extent from both sides: consistent use of coercive tactics within the national church joined to a search for convergence with selected ecumenical partners.

The use of coercion is evident in a couple of ways. To begin with, it was a concomitant of the original power politics. Granted the authority sought, the new ecumenical office did what victors commonly do: they excluded the losers and proceeded to implement their own intentions, voicing privately and occasionally publicly vituperation for their opponents. So people who had advocated unity in diversity were put out of the structures. These included long term representatives in bilaterals like the Lutheran Catholic dialog as well as other executives with lifelong ecumenical experience and extensive contacts. There could be no such thing as loyal opposition.

The use of coercion is also evident in the three ecumenical proposals presented in Philadelphia. Each of them was crafted by an unidentified prior authority that determined the final shape of the proposal, putting critical issues beyond the examination of the assembly. So the Formula of Agreement reflects an arranqement apparently struck among various church officials to lump the Reformed Church in America and other Calvinists with the United Church of Christ in a take-it-or-leave it package, precluding the discernment among the different church bodies by the assembly. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, which was made available in March for the August assembly, aligns the ELCA with the Vatican's restoration of Tridentine formulations, repudiating the insights offered by Vatican II theologians like Hans Kung and Karl Rahner. Requests for further time for churchwide consideration of such a fundamental step were dismissed out of hand. This refusal has received greater significance from the repudiation of the claimed consensus by some 150 German theologians and the Danish church as well as by the qualifications added by the papacy in receiving the document. Last but once again, in the name of ecumenical advance, the Concordat that failed would have made apostolic succession through the historic episcopate normative to church governance, with the consequence that the bishops would have been granted a legitimizing authority prior to the word.

The use of coercion in the ecumenical life of the church has had several effects. The most immediate was to effectively eliminate oversight, a crucial function of national leadership. Those who had already acted to eliminate their perceived opponents indicated publicly by that step that they would not assume the neutrality necessary to serving open discussion of such critical issues, and they did not. Consequently, the ecumenical climate within the ELCA has remained hostile. The theologians who had represented the ecumenical alternative generally withdrew into silent resignation, speaking rarely. At the prompting of disgruntled church politicians these more seasoned voices were replaced by less measured ones, "corporals asked to do the work of lieutenants who wound up thinking of themselves as generals," as one of the silenced commented privately. With oversight surrendered to advocacy and the field in control of polemicists, the quality of the public discussion has gone from bad to worse. Vituperation has elicited venom, ounce for ounce.

The loss of oversight also explains the absence of negotiation and compromise at the Philadelphia assembly. With issues on the table as significant as relations with other church bodies, it would have been reasonable—as Canon Wright of the Episcopal Church is said to have commented—to bring the opposition to the table before the public vote. In fact, there was at least one compromise proposal that would have gamered the last six votes, if it didn't result in overwhelming majority for the Concordat. It died. With opponents excluded and the table in control of advocates, there was no one maintaining oversight of sufficient independence to broker compromise.

The other effect of coercion was to undermine reception, an aspect of ecumenism in which the failure of ELCA officials has been the most significant. To all appearances, no effort was spared in advocacy. National officers, with other chosen representatives, canvassed virtually all the synods. The bishops were mobilized to carry the issues to assembly delegates. The Lutheran handled the debate as though there neither was nor could be any legitimate disagreement, even when former national leaders spoke out against the Concordat. But reception requires something beside pressing for implementation. It demands teaching, handing over the information in the confidence of the church's readiness for and trustworthiness in confronting the issues. When advocacy overrides teaching, the effect is suspicion, the appearance of exactly the hierarchical dominance that was predicted by opponents. So one of the national officials who traveled the church widely to support the ecumenical proposals acknowledged shortly before the Philadelphia assembly that the church had never been ready. That is an admission of failure.

The other characteristic mark of ecumenism in the ELCA, again following out of the origins, has been its commitment to the method of convergence. The value of formally recognizing ecumenical similarity is not to be disputed—it is a gift of grace. But convergence ecumenism, seeking visible expression of such unity, at the same time has commonly sought to undercut historic differences by relativizing them. Thus each of the three ecumenical proposals presented at the Philadelphia assembly implicitly demands the revaluation of a particular which Lutherans have considered central.

pJustification by faith alone apart from works of the law, set out in Article IV of the Augsburg Confession, is a church defining doctrine, an article by which the church stands or falls, as it has been called. As Robert W. Jenson and Eric Gritsch argue in Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings, a textbook that has shaped a generation of Lutheran confessional studies, it is a proposal to the church catholic to reorient its preaching around the unconditional gift of God given in the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification affirms justification, but at the expense of the Lutheran particulars. It is taken in its historic Roman Catholic context as a minor doctrine formulating a transition in the moral reclamation of the sinner. The papacy's qualified reception of the claimed consensus indicates that this matter of placement, along with the simul iustus et peccator, remains a sticking point. As for the ELCA, the vote of the Philadelphia assembly—the church having been denied opportunity for any fully representative, extended discussion—the unqualified acceptance of the proposed consensus statement signals the church body's formal withdrawal from the Lutheran reformation's proposal as it is confessionally expressed.

The doctrine of the real presence, as stated in Article X of the unaltered Augsburg Confession, has since the reformation been considered definitive of the church's fidelity. Thus Lutherans in both Europe and America have consistently refused to surrender the down-to-earth reality of Christ's presence among sinners in, with and under the bread and wine of the sacrament. While in the name of unity affirming the doctrine of the real presence, the Formula of Agreement surrenders its historic priority in sacramental practice. The doctrine no longer offers criteria for evaluating use of the Lord's Supper, throwing the doors open to all the sacramental practices of the churches named in the Formula of Aqreement, including those in which the sacrament has no more significance than any other meal of the pious.

Standing against a hierarchy widely acknowledged to be degenerate, Luther and the reformers insisted, as in Article V of the Augsburg Confession, that the Spirit of the risen Christ establishes ministry by giving faith throuqh the proclaimed word and administered sacrament. This definition has freed Lutherans to accept a wide variety of theories and forms in ministry, ranging all the way from the lay ministries of pietistic traditions to apostolic succession through the historic episcopate in Sweden, Finland, and some African churches. There has been criticism, even contempt among these various expressions. But Lutherans have not ever asserted that salvation depends on a particular theology of ministry. By contrast, in exchange for a temporary suspension which allows official Anglican recognition of the validity of ELCA ministries, the Concordat attempted constitutional change which surrenders the freedom of the confessional understanding, giving hierarchy an authority prior to the word. So, in an irony regretted on all sides, ecumenism has become one of the most contentious issues in the ELCA. Instead of promoting visible expressions of unity, the use of coercion and convergence at the expense of legitimate difference has brought evident divisiveness.

The Propriety of Resistance

With these considerations in place, the two original questions—the relation of the confessional priority to the Philadelphia proposals and the proprieties of resistance—can be addressed. The first question can be answered in two different ways, depending on how the evidence is approached. If the issue is taken up on the basis of the traditional understanding of the authority of the gospel, the Philadelphia proposals can only be subordinate. Ordination and installation promises give the Scripture and the Lutheran confessions a place that has never been granted to church assembly resolutions. The findings of assemblies may be considered orienting and helpful; in the ranking of authorities long characteristic of Lutheranism, they are not ever by themselves theologically determinative. Taken at this level, the two proposals that did pass in Philadelphia would have the same standing as the various social ethical resolutions brought to the floor of assemblies. They should be treated accordingly, just as, for example, national officers have treated the 1991 Orlando Assembly's statement on abortion in forcing the Board of Pensions to fund abortion on demand.

The diminished authority of the Philadelphia statements may not make the issues any less painful. Those who disagree with the resolutions may find themselves at odds with the national church and synodical bishops, an isolation not be taken lightly when respect is essential. But the priority of the confessions does give leqitimate grounds for objection and to that extent, renders moot the question of resistance.

If, on the other hand, the question of confessional priority is approached on the basis of the prior analysis of the practice of ecumenism in the ELCA, there is a much more serious problem. Convergence ecumenism has become a technician's discipline in which ambiguity plays as much part as direct expression. As often as not, the ambiguity conceals a knife with a very specific tarqet. Read this way, the ambiguity lays precisely in the authoritative relationships in question. Though it is not stated explicitly in the two proposals that passed, going by prior efforts, the advocates' apparent anticipation would be a de facto, functional override of the traditional authorities. The confessions could say what they will, subscription remaining, but their interpretation would be normed, in the name of Christian unity, by the Philadelphia decisions and their primary supporters in the hierarchy. And then the knife would move, trimming Lutheran particularities while undercutting the standing of those who cherish them.

There is already some evidence to suggest that this latter approach is the more likely one. Canon Wright has publicly stated that apostolic succession through the historic episcopate gained the priority it has in the Concordat at the insistence of the Lutherans involved, not the Episcopalians. The church officials who were the Concordat's chief advocates appointed the committee responsible for the negotiations, a group hardly to be considered representative of the real issues. Not surprisingly, it has become a non-negotiable in the committee's considerations. Clearly, an ecumenical elite within the ELCA has come to the conclusion that Lutheran confessional ecclessiology is inadequate and are using ecumenical conversation to justify implementing their own corrections.

It could be hoped that this is a misreading, that in fact, those responsible for oversight have realized the necessity of a more genuinely ecumenical ecumenism within our own church. That is clearly needed. Someone with churchwide authority needs to accept the neutrality commonly expected of those who have the chair and bring all the points of view to the table. Doing so would entail providing equal footing for all and encouraging a genuine hearing, one in which the issues are clearly defined and the results are not predetermined, where all have opportunities to practice their persuasive skills with good argument. If such a procedure did not tap the poison out of the ELGA's ecumenical well, it miqht very well expose those who have been the source of it. Perhaps then there could be genuine and respectful interchange that built up the church rather than dividing it. Bishop H. George Anderson's handling of the assembly floor following the Concordat's defeat is an example of such leadership.

Should such hope be fruitless, the question of resistance would become much more pertinent. In such circumstances, there would be three different kinds of resources available. The first would be the constitutional argument. To use a churchwide assembly to either explicitly or implicitly set an extra-confessional standard for the interpretation of the confessions is fundamentally illegitimate. It makes the secondary primary. Among other consequences, should the Philadelphia holdings be imposed in this way, it would call into question the terms of the 1987 merger.

The second resource is confessional, Article X of the Formula of Concord. Following their defeat in the Smalcald War, Lutherans were subjected to the forced reintroduction of symbols—then liturgical rites—that expressed the unity of the church. Remembering the agony of that time well after the emperor's efforts had failed, the authors of the Formula of Concord spelled out a basis for resistance. When the truth of the gospel is tompromised, Christian freedom attenuated or submission to idolatry demanded, Article X holds, Christians are obligated to resist as a priority equal to confessing the faith itself. Given the coercion characteristic of ELCA ecumenism, if church officials bring back the Concordat at the level of constitutional change, it would certainly appear that the criterion involving Christian freedom would be brought into question. Should that be established, those holding to the original authority of the confessions would be called into a state of confession, in statu confessionis, in which resistance would no longer be an option but a requirement.

The third resource is far beyond any such subordination: the gospel. It has a life of its own. In, with and under all of the church's attempts to justify itself, the gospel continues to get out and to do its work. As it does so, the word of Christ's death and resurrection for you, for us, exposes all of the fraudulent attempts to manage and manipulate it. Given such a basis resistance could take several forms. To begin with, it would involve refusing to accept the imposed re-ordering of churchwide authorities. Pastors and teachers would refuse the demanded obedience and the accompanying symbols, holding to the priority of the word alone. So, for example, resistors would continue to uphold the statement of the Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope that recognize all pastors as holding the right to ordain.

Such resistance could also take the form of encouraging the ecumenical neighbor exactly at the point of difference. Convergence ecumenism demands concession of what it considers offensive on all sides in search of a generally ambiguous middle ground. There is no such thing as Catholicism without the papacy with its Ratzingers or Cassidys; neither is there an Anglicanism without the low church. Love delights in difference, for its gift and challenge. A genuine ecumenism doesn't demand a theological Esperanto. Instead, like those who observed the Holy Spirit's work at Pentecost, it recognizes the Shepherd's voice no matter what the language. Thus churches that practice apostolic succession through the historic episcopate would be encouraged to do just that, provided they recognize that the gospel alone defines the church.

Finally, the only legitimate and the most appropriate form of resistance is to give unyielding priority to the church's mission. Here we join the saints, martyrs and confessors in the unity of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church, setting out the word and sacraments in the freedom that the Spirit of the risen Christ bestows in and through them.