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Local Option for Certifying Pastors

By George H Muedeking (D.D., Ph.D., Editor, FOCL-POINT)

Date Unknown

Without doubt, the Ev. Lutheran Church in America(ELCA) will face an upheaval when its select Committee on Human Sexuality reports in to the 2005 Churchwide Assembly(CWA). The committee has been charged to bring in recommendations; and the Assembly will have to act.

Whether the recommendation is to affirm or deny same sex marriages and the ordination of practicing homosexuals, the respective positions of the ELCA members is pretty well chosen already. More "study" of the issue, as proposed by the committee for the next biennium, in the hope of changing views of either the majority or of imposing the will of the special homosexual interest group, will not do it. Either way, the voted outcome will be hugely disturbing to the defeated.

Can Anything Be Done?

So what to do about heading off what promises to be a major debacle? At the last CWA meeting, a concerted effort was threatened and attempted by the homosexual special interest group to force a vote on the issue. Engineers of the Assembly's dynamics thought they could snuff out the flames before they would rage like wildfire through the ELCA. It could be done by tabling any reckless resolution from the floor, and by proposing further study. The pressure and demonstrations conducted by the homosexual lobbying groups was too pronounced on the participants, however. The only recourse was to define the issue forthrightly, and appoint a committee charged to bring in a specific recommendation. That presumably would get the monkey of the back of the ELCA for good. So the CWA hoped.

Any Other Way?

Of course the solution of further and interminable studies will not do. As Sigmund Freud had already made clear a century ago, sex is woven into the pattern of life itself. No one, least of all a whole church body, sets the boundaries of this powerhouse by "further study."

One of the ELCA bishops has taken a cue from the controversy over the document called the Call to Common Mission (CCM), which established "full communion" with the Episcopal Church. The ELCA bishops had offered a resolution at the last CWA, by which the substantial opposition to CCM could be blunted. The CWA voters approved it, believing it thereby became an integral part of the CCM agreement. It proposed a way a misguided seminary graduate could be accommodated who believed the mandatory ordination by a bishop in the “historic apostolic succession” had to be abjured for its violation of the seventh article of the Lutheran Confession of Faith, the Augsburg Confession...

The adopted resolution, offered by the bishops to be made a part of the CCM, provided that an "exception" could be granted by a consenting bishop, for that seminarian. With the “exception” in hand, he/she could be ordained by someone of the ordinand’s choosing, other than a bishop.

In all other cases, the CCM provision for mandatory ordination by a bishop in the "historic episcopate" would prevail. For that was the price the Episcopalians uncondtionally insisted had to be paid to them for their opening their pulpits and altars to an ELCA clergy by the CCM agreement. Yet, with this resolution adopted by the CWA, the ordination could be carried out by a bishop not "in historic succession," or even by a lowly ELCA pastor.

(It should be noted that after the CWA adopted the CCM, the Episcopal Church had to adopt it also. To avoid a hassle about that very unepiscopal provision for an “exception,” the Episcopal national assembly was told by the Secretary of the ELCA that the ELCA bishops’ resolution, adopted by the ELCA’s assembly a matter of weeks before, was actually not part of the CCM document of agreement at all, and therefore need not be an issue to the Episcopal Church.)

We Have a Precedent

Now back to the bishop referred to above, Mark Hanson of the St. Paul Synod, was under much pressure from his congregations because he had expedited the irregular ordination of a lesbian. He saw that the route of "exceptions", pushed on the CWA by the conference of bishops in regard to the CCM, could also be just as successful a model to sidetrack the uproar expected from any future attempt in his synod to endorse homosexual marriages or clergy ordinations. Just so, an “exception" could also be the answer to the unhappy future prospect of running head on into a smashup with the ELCA majority, still obviously skittish about endorsing homosexual behaviors in the clergy parsonage.

By applying the "exceptions" principle, the strikingly unbiblical support the ELCA might give to its homosexually active clergy might be both grudgingly condoned, and zealously encouraged. For by this principle, no one had to ordain homosexual activists, but would be encouraged to do so, if they were so minded. Now the ELCA had provided that "exceptions" be made for pastors whose conscience bothered them about violating their ordination vow of adherence to the Lutheran Confessions were they forced to cave in to the CCM requirement for ordination by a bishop in the “historic episcopate..” So then, why could not this same makeshift Rube Goldberg device be extended to the question of ordaining homosexually active clergy? The idea had worked to disarm the the CCM's opponents. Apply it likewise to the potentially disastrous issue of ordaining the behavioral homosexual. So Hanson reasoned with his synod...

Ordination to Place

Hanson gave this strategy a very neutral sounding name: "Ordination to place." That is, the ELCA would not have to take a stand on the issue of homosexual practice, one way or the other. But the homosexually active prospective ordinand would seek out a bishop, a congregation, a synod, sympathetic to his or her case. In that place and for that kind of ministry, the ordination would occur and everyone would be satisfied. Those indignant at what was done, would be mollified, since it was not their synod, congregation or bishop that had welcomed this clergy type. And certainly the proponents would rejoice for achieving their purpose of opening the clergy roster of the ELCA to this kind of minister and ministry, These could look forward to continuing to wear down the opposition like water dripping on a stone.

Hanson was subsequently elevated to the top bishop slot in the ELCA. The perception is growing rapidly accross the ELCA that he and the homosexuality study committee appointed by him to bring in to the 2005 CWA, an action-resolution, will propose this solution as a way out of the disastrous turmoil that is ahead if the Assembly votes to certify to its roster the homosexually active. The ominous prospect of a church-wide revolt is too real, a mass defection too likely that any action, for or against, by the 2005 Church Wide Assembly, will split the church. Either way, those following the biblical principles of sexual conduct, or those pushing the envelope to revise our millenia-old moral insights, will walk out.

Will It Work?

What a relief! For everybody! Call it "exceptions.” "ordination in place" or more honestly, "local option." Whatever. Everybody gets his way, no matter which side he might be on in this conflict.

Before the ELCA Assembly takes this way out, however, it is incumbent on us to envision the implications and the complications. Start with the question: Why do we have a synodical clergy roster in the first place? The answer is historically simple. The first Lutheran denomination in the U.S., the Pennsylvania Ministerium, was formed precisely to "accredit" certain pastors who were starting congregations all over the new land, and "discrediting" certain other carpetbaggers--those pseudo-shepherds, who, as the Ministerium's founder, Muhlenberg, said, were roaming the frontier, looking for the sheep's wool, not for the sheep's welfare.

Since a state-church did not exist in the US, however, some other body would have to step in to certify the reliability of the work of any individual who aspired to recognition as a Lutheran minister. So the "ministers" got together and did the certifying. The Pennsylvania Ministerium, came into being precisely for that purpose.

In that sense, the Ministerium was a professional society, laying down tests or criteria by which it could testify to the reliability of any who wanted to work in that profession. And that is also the only final meaning for the existence of the "clergy roster" of the ELCA.

This is no different than the creation of any and all professional societies, guilds, unions, or other similar organizational structures. They all start as a product of the recognition of its practitioners, who want to distinguish themselves from the incompetent or the deceitfully deviant in their ranks. If the standards for accreditation made by such a group are ignored or are yet too imprecisely formed to isolate the unqualified, then the Law steps in to structure such professional or guild associations. If the government can find an excuse, by citing a health, educational, or consumer-protection need, the Law jumps in to set the standards and to certify membership by issuing the license to practice. Probably the most recent example of this state preemption in the field of religious practice, is in the governmental takeover of the pastoral marriage-counseling or psychotherapeutic counseling function of pastoral activity, mandating legal certification, particularily for medical reimbursement privileges...

Since the First Amendment to the US Constitution denies the state the right to interfere in the recognized work of the church, and since the church is rigorous about trying to keep the ever eager state from climbing over that wall between church and state, and since the church hopes constsantly to limit the Law's intrusion into its affairs, the church in the U.S. certifies and rosters its own qualified workers and members. It cannot, as was regularly the case in Europe, depend on the state to indicate who is equipped for the pastor's task In the U.S. the organized denomination assumes this task.

That is ultimately also then the only irreducible reason we have an ELCA--so that when a congregation wants to call a pastor, or an organization wants a religious worker--it will know where it can find a reliable prospect. Everything else the ELCA does arises initially from that cooperative mechanism for certifying and providing accountable and reliable church workers.

The Complications

Now then, if we gratefully and hastily adopt Hanson's easy "local option" solution for who deserves to be on the ELCA clergy, homosexually active or no, we should recognize the implication. We no longer then have a national church body that can certify, let alone guarantee, the doctrinal or moral integrity of its workers. For in any "local option" jurisdiction, by definition the national body is silent. We will be reduced to shopping around, asking the neighbor, congregation, or pastor friends who can be recommended. Then of course we will also suffer in silence and frustration when the recommended candidate can't fill the bill of integrity or competency...

Once upon a time, the seminaries established by the Lutheran denominations of this country observed their students and certified them and their qualifications for ministry. The seminary faculty had four years to weigh the prospective ordinand's fitness. With the ELCA, however, in the name of "inclusivity" and its manipulative quota system, we have resorted to "synodical candidacy committees," to certify a competency for ordination. Seminary graduating candidate after candidate has reported the imposition of "politically correct" answers demanded by an aggressive synodical committee member, as the price for ordination in the ELCA.

"Local option" will only aggravate the problem. "Ordination to place" should not be given a place in the ELCA

*George H. Muedeking, editor of FOCL-POINT, the newsletter of the Fellowship of Confessional Lutherans (, retired after 14 years as Editor of the Lutheran Standard, the official publication of the American Lutheran Church. He previously was Professor of Functional Theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary, in Berkeley, California.