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"In Statu Embarrassmentionis"

Paul R. Hinlicky

This article is reprinted from Lutheran Forum with permission from the "Forum" and from the author, The Rev. Dr. Paul Hinlicky. The staff of WordAlone extends its gratitude to both.

Six months have now passed since the event which will go down in history as the shoals struck in the slow, miserable shipwreck of the ELCA. It will be a slow, painful drowning, not a dramatic plunge like the fishing trawler at the end of the movie “The Perfect Storm.” It is a confused and confusing situation, a compound of panic and denial. Today we find ourselves not so much in statu confessionis at an apostate and persecuting church, but rather, so to speak, in statu embarassmentionis in a disintegrating one which has made us all de facto congregationalists.

At a WordAlone consultation in the winter, Hans Hilldebrand rightly warned against invoking the apocalyptic clause “status confessionis” against the ELCA’s heterodoxy. A dispute over blessing homosexuality, serious as it is, does not rise to the level of standing up to be counted against Nazis, Apartheid or the invading armies of the Holy Roman Empire. Truth be told, we who are in opposition have not yet made it clear to the people of the ELCA that a false gospel of indiscriminate inclusiveness is being substituted for the real gospel of God who was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself by not counting our trespasses against us. Moreover, there is a real danger (I do not say reality) in this still confused situation that a sub-evangelical and human-all-too-human revulsion at a vulnerable sexual minority animates us who are in opposition. We must fight through these confusions with the only weapons we have: Word and Spirit and the hard work of theology for clarity.

David Yeago makes a beginning at this by putting the matter before us with fitting nuance, when he said in January that we in the ELCA are now in a state of “impaired communion.” That is plenty bad—bad enough to require realigned forms for ministry and mission, without denying degrees of fellowship that exist with those who ignorantly and/or fearfully accede to the ELCA’s action last summer, and even those genuine theological Lutherans who erringly support it. Truth be told, it has been that way for years now. The root theological divergence mentioned above has become manifest for those with ears to hear and eyes to see since August of last year, even though clarity about the deeper reasons for this yawning chasm are still not widely understood. Something must be done about that.

Sarah Hinlicky Wilson has made a strong case for staying to fight with weapons of the Spirit despite our state of impaired communion, given the miserable track record of hot-headed and self-righteous schismatic movements. (I personally experienced just that in Seminex/ELIM/AELC days. To this day, forty years later, these folks are still driven by a passion to prove that they never came from the Missouri Synod. Their entire careers have been one huge, ever more radical reaction.) Wilson’s chief point, little noticed by friend or foe, is Jesus’ command to love our enemies—a difficult stance to take, but precisely what is called for in our embarrassment. Yet the decision to stay and fight (which is also my own) does not entail that the ELCA will remain, returning to “business as usual.” In fact, whether we stay or leave, the ELCA is falling apart. The ship is sinking. The “bound conscience” foolishness guarantees it. Let us in our confusion and embarrassment see that clearly.

Most of the Higgins Road team, in spite of massive personnel cuts since August, wants desperately to pretend to be back to business as usual. Lutheran CORE, by contrast, has wisely decided to minister not only to the steady stream of those who will secede from the ELCA to form a new denomination but to the larger numbers who will muddle along within it for the time being. The truth is, everyone who stays in the ELCA will be muddling along. Everyone is confused by what was actually done last summer, even the proponents of change, who are now begging us in the opposition to stay. There is next to no enthusiasm for what the ELCA hath wrought at the base, but fragile congregations sense that their own memberships are divided, so that any action one way or another will threaten their very existence. Even so, they are dimly aware that every single congregation of the ELCA will have now to decide one by one what its stance will be towards performing same-sex weddings and receiving pastors in such relationships. Just so, they are dimly aware that a day of reckoning will inevitably come. Those with the gumption to foresee this and leave now face the same bitter ad hominem attacks on “homophobia,” which the liberal Protestants will gleefully indulge and an eager and unsympathetic secular press will gladly publicize.

My own prognostication is that it will take a few such demoralizing years before the inevitable liberal Protestant radicalization of the ELCA, along the lines of the ECUSA or the UCC, drives the remaining Lutheran core out.

So from every angle, it appears that the institutional edifice that was the ELCA sooner or later will crumble and collapse. Can that day be hastened? Jim Nestigen has argued that, even short of a status confessionis, all who hold to God’s Word and Luther’s doctrine should redirect their benevolence away from Higgins Road to trustworthy ministries. Is it so?

Word on the street confirms the appeal of Nestigen’s argument. Receipts to the ELCA are said to be down by 30+%; more than one ELCA seminary is in imminent danger of bankruptcy. In my own synod, under the leadership of a sound bishop who thanklessly sought a unity-saving compromise in August, not only was there a significant 2009 shortfall, but proportionate giving to the ELCA has now been cut from 50.6% to 36% (among other budget slashing moves locally) for the coming year. Congregational pledges to the Virginia Synod for 2010 in turn are down a half a million dollars, something like 25%. In an astonishing two-page letter from the Synod appealing for help, the name “ELCA” was named only once, in a curious paragraph telling the long history of the Virginia Synod through its various predecessor bodies. The pitch: no love lost with the ELCA, but that is not really who we are here, locally, anyway. A similar story is being repeated in many other synods. In statu embarassmentionis.

Also for those who support the ELCA’s heterodoxy. They also now choose to designate their benevolence accordingly. The trust is just gone. So we are all, like it or not, in this de facto situation now of congregationalism. Consequently, in statu embarassmentionis.

As I mentioned, my own embarrassment is that I am not voluntarily going to leave the ELCA. But neither will I in any way cooperate in “Churchwide’s” dysfunction any longer, and my non-cooperation will be a matter of the public witness of an ordained servant of the Word. I will insist upon my rights after 30+ years of service, and I will gladly continue in my congregation and other local ministries, but I will never again contribute a solitary dime, one volunteer hour, a prayer (except in the manner of praying for one’s enemies), or act of good will on behalf of this theological and moral bankruptcy. Thus I am going to act on my “bound conscience” in this de facto debacle of congregationalism that has been thrust upon us. I will work actively in Lutheran CORE for the new configuration of American Lutheranism that will someday emerge from these ruins.

Sensing the danger to “business as usual” facade in such clear thinking, ELCA Secretary David Swartling recently floated his own confused idea of expelling pastors and congregations who participate in CORE, on the grounds that the ELCA is an interdependent church. Wouldn’t it have been nice if he had thought about the ecclesiology of interdependence before the ELCA plunged headlong into the “bound conscience” sectarianism of last August? Wouldn’t it have been even a little bit plausible today if those congregations and pastors who have been part of the relentless agitprop of Goodsoil and the Reconciled in Christ movement had been threatened in this way?

But I say, more power to him! Swartling’s threat would do all the dirty work for the dissidents. No votes necessary, no painful and divisive congregational studies, no bad publicity in the local press, just a quiet letter from Higgins Road saying you are no longer welcome.

As if we didn’t already know that. That much has been clear since the formation of this misbegotten denomination, which destroyed the ministerium, established the skewed quota system in its place, treated congregations as local franchises of corporate headquarters, left the seminaries to their own devices, and in all this abandoned the chief mission of gospel evangelism for public policy advocacy with corresponding bloated bureaucracy.

What is now clear is that the ideal of a Lutheran church, “without Emperor, without Pope” and making all its decisions by means of theology, has been abandoned by the ELCA policymakers and assembly. That is the shipwreck. In response, the rest of us, every one of us, is summoned to resume the real theology of the church—not the ex post facto ideological decoration of a heterodox denomination that makes its decisions along other lines, but faithful Christian theology according to the canon, creeds, and confessions of Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today and forever. We must all begin again de novo. There only will we, Deo volente, begin to find some clarity in statu embarassmentionis. And maybe, just maybe, this shipwreck will turn into a phoenix rising from the ashes.

Paul R. Hinlicky is the Tise Professor of Lutheran Studies at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia.