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Lutheran disinformation continues

by Tim Huffman (Professor, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio)

July 1, 2000

This article is part of an ongoing conversation between Michael Root and Tim Huffman occurring largely on Doug LeBlanc and Deirdre Duncan's listserv in June 2000. The first piece, "Better together than apart", is by Root published in The Living Church on June 18, 2000. The second piece, "Lutheran disinformation", was written by Huffman and published on LeBlanc/Duncan on June 23, 2000. The third piece, "Response to Tim Huffman", by Root was published on LeBlanc/Duncan on June 28, 2000. This fourth piece is by Huffman, published on LeBlanc/Duncan on July 1, 2000.

In Michael Root's "Response to Tim Huffman" (, June 29, 2000) there are about 20 instances of distortions of fact and/or of calculated attempts to mislead Episcopalians about the ELCA and Called to Common Mission. As tedious as it is to have to correct the record, several of the matters in question would seem significant enough to require a reply.

Root defends his assertion that only a third of the ELCA opposes CCM (only a third!) by reference to 1999 Synod Assembly votes. Root prefers to count synods rather than souls, asserting the importance of the number of synods that found a majority support for CCM in 1999. This neglects the fact that synods range in size from 6,800 to 227,000. The Minneapolis Synod is larger than the nine smallest synods (out of 65 total), and Minneapolis and St. Paul together are larger than the 13 smallest synods. Since synod votes per se count for nothing in national calculations, it is important to look beyond that simplistic figure. What is most relevant from 1999 votes is that only 15 of the 65 synods reached the necessary 2/3 vote in favor of CCM, and that their total membership is less than 20% of the ELCA's membership. The twelve synods that reached a 2/3 vote against CCM have 20% more members. Taking total votes for and against, and counting people rather than synods, shows about 50% of the ELCA opposing CCM. This figure is consistent with the only scientific study of churchwide opinion, undertaken by a political scientist at an ELCA college on a National Science Foundation grant. His results were published by Episcopalian sources, but not by Lutheran sources. All this intensified the campaign by the national church to manipulate the Denver Assembly, easily done when opponents are excluded from all planning and leadership, from all publications and preparation of materials.

Root then defends his argument that opposition is shrinking by (mis)counting synod votes in year 2000. This is comparing apples with watermelons. There were to be no votes in 2000; enormous national energy went into ruling resolutions out of order; many bishops strenuously opposed such resolutions; and it is unprecedented for moderate Lutherans to claim the right to refuse to comply with a churchwide vote after the fact. Yet 21 synods (of 65) did claim the right to allow pastors to choose ordination without benefit of bishops, and eleven did claim the right even for prospective bishops to accept or reject the historic episcopate. Here the numbers of synod votes are significant, because each synod represents a potential "constitutional crisis," in the words of the presiding bishop's office. This action is indeed unilateral, and highly significant. What it holds for the future of the ELCA is open to speculation, but it would suggest that the ELCA may never have all its bishops within the historic episcopate. That raises the question of who is in communion with whom, and when. Root tells audiences that the ECUSA will have to suspend the preface to the ordinal for about 55 years, and that he would not agree to that if he were Episcopalian. In fact it could become a permanent "temporary suspension." Root's solution is that the ELCA should arrange an "amicable parting of the ways" of the ELCA itself. So much for ecumenical concern!

Root is nearly alone today in defending the outrageous process by which CCM was sold to the ELCA. In the words of Professor Gerhard Forde, "The game was rigged from the start" (Dialog, summer 1999, p. 163 [ed's note: see also this and this]). The national materials were all prepared by advocates for CCM, censorship in church publications and in many forums was absolute, and opponents were illegally denied even the names of "voting members" to the Churchwide Assembly, lest they have too much to read. Root fails to mention that the re-drafting group which "considered" suggestions for changes was a team of Lutherans split 2-1, with three Episcopalians siding with the two, and that no minutes were kept nor votes taken. The majority simply ignored what it did not like. From the moment in 1991 that Lutherans in the Lutheran-Episcopal dialogue voted 5-3 for the principles of the Concordat, only one side of the matter was presented by ELCA officialdom. The 5-3 margin should have been a warning to everyone, and should have guaranteed a fair hearing for both sides.

Root calls the status of the ELCA bishops' Tucson resolution a red herring. Let Episcopalians read it, when they can find it in their packets, and decide for themselves. It is what changed enough minds to bump the churchwide vote up 3%. Certainly the ECUSA bishops' Mind of the House resolution found it important, as do Norgren and Wright in their Questions and Answers. Is it really acceptable to have a contract that is understood differently by the parties before the fact? The ELCA understands CCM to continue lay presidency; to preserve a single ordination for ministry with no ordination of deacons or bishops, an ordination which has no ontological character; to have no bishops-for-life; and to have the preface to the ordinal never applying to Lutherans. It asserts that the PCUSA and the UCC, the Moravians and the Reformed Church, are equally part of any discussions the ELCA has on matters of mutual concern, with no priority given to Episcopalians. Are those understandings acceptable to Episcopalians?

The finer points of Lutheran theology may seem abstruse to Episcopalians, but they should understand that theology is the key question for Lutherans. The theology represented by Root and companions is an ideological theology which twists and alters Lutheran understandings to conform to predetermined commitments. Root argues against the Lutheran view of ordination by misusing Lutheran confessional writings-yes, Melanchthon allows that ordination might be called a sacrament (Apology 13), but in the same context he allows that matrimony, government, prayer, alms and "afflictions" may also be called sacraments; and Luther opposed such a notion. Lutherans do not believe that ordination brings any ontological change to the ordinand, and therefore the ELCA practices "lay presidency" widely. Root prefers Lohse's interpretation of Luther to Luther himself, but fails to see clearly even here that Lohse's words argue against any ontological character to ordination. He also neglects to mention that Lohse insists that in the "Reformation understanding… there is basically no difference between the offices of bishop and pastor." ("The Place and Office of the Bishop in the Augsburg Confession," Evangelium-Sakramente-Amt und die Einheit der Kirche, eds. Karl Lehmann and E. Schlink, 1982, p. 86. See also Luther's Theologie, 1995, pp. 304-314 [english], where Lohse lays out Luther's view that ordination is the confirmation of the congregation's call to a person, not something which comes through succession or which changes a person.)

Root argues against the Lutheran view of the priesthood of all believers, quoting Lumen Gentium. But only a handful of Lutherans would agree with LG when it says, "Though they differ from one another in essence, and not only in degree, the common priesthood of the faithful and the ministerial or hierarchical priesthood are nonetheless interrelated…. The ministerial priest, from the sacred power he enjoys, molds and rules the priestly people." (LG 10) This is anathema to Lutheran understanding, as Root knows. For Lutherans, pastors are not different from laity except for the churchly authorization for public ministry, and bishops are not different from pastors, except for the breadth of their responsibilities. This is neither a novel view nor a minority view, but the traditional and prevailing view. Episcopalians deserve to know what Lutherans really believe.

Root quotes the 1984 report of the Division of Theological Studies, Lutheran Council in the USA, which he takes to affirm the historic episcopate as represented in CCM, and then expresses puzzlement that some (actually many) who signed it later opposed Concordat-CCM. That fact alone shows that the report, which was not binding on anyone, does not say what Root would have it say. To affirm a principle does not make a particular agreement acceptable. It is the matter of "necessity" that is unacceptable. The ELCA had no hesitation voting full communion with the Moravians, who also have the historic episcopate. The requirements of the agreement are what make the difference. Root uses one sentence from the 1984 report to try to counter my assertion that, until recently, all Lutheran theologians would have resisted something like CCM. But as Professor James Nestingen writes in "A Constitutional Crisis", June, 2000, "4. The textbook in common use by seminaries of the merging churches at the time the ELCA came together (1988) states the working consensus of the time…. 'As soon as 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.'"

Cutting to the bottom line. Episcopalians are certain to like Root's theology, and his account of Lutheran theology. That it has distorted or left behind important elements of Lutheran teaching may not be evident to Episcopalians, but it is deeply troubling to many Lutheran theologians.

The current mantra is that all will be well because the ELCA is a "constitutional church," and the constitutional changes are safely in place. But even the constitution recognizes the priority of the Lutheran Confessions, and many in the ELCA have no qualms about ignoring or defying the constitution where it is seen to contradict the Confessions. The constitution is merely a human agreement only a dozen years old, and the church leadership has no leverage for enforcement.

Regarding the extent of ELCA opposition, Root argues that only one-third of the ELCA, or about 1,733,000 members, oppose CCM. Opponents would put the figure closer to 50%, which would be 2,600,000. Impartial observers would probably split the difference. Can the agreement work with 40-45% (roughly 2,000,000 people) of one party deeply opposed?

The theology is what has divided Lutherans. The process used to suppress dissent has embittered the divisions, so that healing could take a generation. Whether there is a formal split hardly matters. Significant numbers will likely be in but not of the ELCA, directing their loyalties and energies elsewhere. Is this an ecumenical breakthrough, or an ecclesial breakdown.