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A constitutional crisis

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

June 2000

The ELCA's adoption of CCM has generated not just a confessional crisis, but a constitutional one as well. Written June 2000

  1. photo of Dr. James A. NestingenThe constitution of the ELCA explicitly recognizes the prior authority of both the Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, subordinating to them other authorities within the church such as the churchwide assembly, national officers, synods and their bishops.
  2. The authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions are established by their witness to Christ Jesus and their usage, and are therefore independent of the ELCA's recognition.
  3. The Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions provide a variety of understandings of the nature and function of the ministry. As Augustana 7 states, " is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places."
  4. The textbook in common use by seminaries of the merging churches at the time the ELCA came together states the working consensus of the time concerning the interpretation of Augustana 7: "Most denominations with which Lutherans are led to negotiate define themselves by organizational peculiarities that Lutherans must regard as 'ceremony'.... For Lutherans all these matters are negotiable; but for the bodies that are in question they are not. ...As soon it is discovered that [a ceremony] is constitutive for the unity of the church as some group proposes to establish it, Lutherans are bound to resist." Robert W. Jenson, in Lutheranism: The Theological Movement and its Confessional Writings (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 177.
  5. If as has more recently been claimed, Augustana 7 is ambiguous, the prior authority of the Lutheran Confessions would require that the various readings stand, being subject to continued examination on the basis of reasonable evidence.
  6. To submit a particular reading of a scriptural or confessional teaching to the vote of a churchwide assembly necessarily subordinates the prior authority to the lesser authorities of those calling for a vote and the assembly itself.
  7. To require by churchwide assembly vote the practice of a particular form of ordination on the basis of an extra-biblical or extra-confessional theory of authorization of ministry subordinates the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions by negating the variety provided for in the prior documents. Under such circumstances, by the earlier consensus interpretation of Augustana 7, Lutherans must resist.
  8. Voting on matters defined biblically and confessionally is inherently divisive in that it takes away from those who lose the recognition of their previously guaranteed constitutional standing in practicing historically established interpretations of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.
  9. To enter into negotiations with those officials of the church who have proposed an extra-biblical, extra-confessional standard for the interpretation of the prior documents is to implicitly recognize their claim to arbitrate interpretation and thereby, further subordinates the authority of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions.
  10. While it may be helpful in seeking reconciliation, to use constitutionally provided channels through synod assemblies in an attempt to reestablish churchwide standing in the ELCA for alternative interpretations of the Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions also compromises the prior authority of the documents.
  11. Though Article 10 of the Formula of Concord spells out grounds for resistance, there is no confessionally established procedure for redressing the subordination of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions to churchwide authorities. Neither is there a defined procedure in the constitution for challenging the subordination of prior authorities to lesser authorities in the ELCA.
  12. The action of the Denver Assembly of the ELCA in considering and ratifying Called to Common Mission has precipitated a constitutional crisis by asserting power over the Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions as the defining documents of our church, leaving those on the minority side without remedy. By the original constitutional provision, churchwide and synodical officials have no basis for imposing the ceremonies required by CCM on those who on the basis of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, disagree. By the same token, those who stand in such disagreement must of necessity resist, as Article 10 of the Formula of Concord insists, for the sake of the freedom of the gospel.