Prospects and alternatives

by Dr. James A. Nestingen (Professor Emeritus, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

Convention, April 18, 2005

There have been a couple of developments recently which indicate that WordAlone’s standing in the ELCA is even more precarious. Because of this, we need to start thinking about some provisional steps to serve our witness to Christ Jesus.

First, when the Theological Advisory Board challenged the CCM, we asked the ELCA to clarify its position on ordination. photo of Dr. NestingenAppealing to the historic interpretation of the Lutheran Confessions, one still held by other Lutherans throughout the world, we asked that the exceptions bylaw passed at Indianapolis be freely interpreted to provide an open option.

To this date, the ELCA has not replied to the Theological Advisory Board appeal, either formally or informally. Apparently, the church leadership is convinced that dignifying us with a reply would give us a standing they can’t allow. In the meantime, however, the bishops have answered in another way, by moving in the opposite direction to make the exceptions all the more difficult to obtain.

The Theological Advisory Board has not yet formally considered this development. But we did agree in drafting the statement that if the ELCA failed to clarify its position, its breach of the Lutheran confessions would effectively push us out of the denomination. Things are clearly moving in that direction. As usual in the ELCA, what was advertised for the unity of the church—the exceptions bylaw—has in its actual use become church dividing.

The second development came last week, with the church council’s lopsided endorsement of the kind of exception we are being denied, this one for practicing homosexuals.

After the CCM battles, the proceedings appear depressingly familiar. Then the Lutheran confessions were ambiguous, now it’s the Holy Scripture that doesn’t speak plainly. Then a small group of favored theologians opened up a new, unprecedented interpretation of the confessions; now the sexuality commission, with two brave dissenting votes, has offered an alternative reading of the Bible. Then, though it took two tries, the national assembly of the ELCA ratified the new interpretation of the confessions, practically eliminating the historic interpretation. Now, though by the Sexuality Commission’s own count, 57 percent of the membership of the ELCA opposes any change in current practice, 92 percent of the church council voted to recommend the new exception. The next step is already being taken, the marginalizing and effective elimination of those of us who disagree.

There’s one important difference this time around. A lot of us didn’t realize until after the fact how divisive the church’s enforcement of the CCM would be, and so even though some saw it coming, many of us weren’t prepared. This time around, we all saw it coming. So the Theological Advisory Board has been hard at work on a statement on the authority of Scripture. But more importantly, Solid Rock has worked effectively for a couple of years hoping to maintain the church’s biblical loyalties and to make sure that there would be a fair discussion at Orlando this summer. Maybe that labor will still produce enough votes to stop the juggernaut. But the church council’s nearly unanimous support of the exception for practicing homosexuals certainly has to sober our hopes.

So with these two developments registered, this is our situation. Following the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession, Lutherans since the Reformation have held that in the light of the freedom of the gospel, the office of the bishop is one option among many. In the ELCA, you’re welcome to believe that, just as long as you don’t try to practice it. Since its beginnings, the Christian church has held—as 98 or 99 percent of Christians now officially teach—that the Scripture prohibits homosexual activity under any circumstance. Now, even in the face of such a massive consensus, through its presiding bishop, the ELCA has declared that the Scripture is ambiguous on the matter. So, having taken our church beyond the historical interpretation of the Lutheran confessions, the national leadership is now voting to take us beyond the Scripture into an ecumenical corner where the only other residents are Episcopalians under discipline by their own communion.

Given these developments, we have to ask a very painful question. With the ELCA surrendering its Lutheran and ecumenical identity within the Christian church, what to do we do now? Where do we turn? Let me make some suggestions.

First, our calling remains what it has always been, the faithful proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the words of the book of Revelation, the ELCA has abandoned its first love. As a result, every wind that blows through popular culture claims the ELCA’s agenda. If the good Lord has preserved a remnant, if there are some of us left who still proudly bear the name Lutheran and so stand within the Catholic consensus of the church, it can only be for this purpose: to preach and bear witness to his word in Christ, to faithfully tend and bestow his sacraments and so to gather the sinners that come under his claim. Our only power is the gospel. If any other word, if any other power, if any other agenda claims our first loyalty, we fall into the same captivity we deplore.

Secondly, there are others in this remnant, both within the structures of the ELCA and at the margins, who share our confessional and biblical priorities. While they may disagree at some lesser points, even some of the bishops hold with us at the center and oversee synods that are more hospitable. Solid Rock has demonstrated what can be achieved as WordAlone allies with Evangelical Catholics and others who have been pushed to the margins. Further alliances may be possible with the Society of the Holy Trinity and like-minded organizations. Seeking the support available within, working with other groups being pushed out, WordAlone can join in creating networks big enough to provide viable alternatives. That is a hope I share with friends prominent in other movements within our church.

Thirdly, as much as many of us abhor the prospect of leaving our church, the fact of the matter is “this church,” as the bureaucrats call it, is leaving us, in the process stripping us of the standing within the body that we have long cherished. As it now appears, there is little or no prospect within the current structures of our church to substantially change this fact. So we have to talk about taking some provisional steps for the sake of our witness and congregations. They are provisional in this sense, that even in the adversity, we try to stay within the structures of our church but are prepared to move if the ELCA will no longer have us.

One provision should be for seminarians. Though attempting to maintain even tighter supervision, the ELCA has basically given up funding the seminaries. The constitution commits the church to funding 50 percent of the cost; now, they are providing 13 percent. Over the past years, the faculties have moved steadily to the left both politically and theologically. The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod’s experience demonstrates conclusively the trouble that comes with trying to address this problem in an authoritarian way. The freedom of the gospel can’t be enforced. But WordAlone can provide ways to make sure that the historic witness of the Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions is maintained in the faculties, even if as a few voices among many.

Further provision can also be made for congregations. WordAlone and LCMC have already been finding ways to provide for parishes that have encountered problems in the structures of the ELCA. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge in repentance, our own advocacy has contributed to these problems. But it is also clear that the hostilities of most of the bishops to WordAlone, their unwillingness to credit us, honor our standing within the structures and work with us in partnership has also exacerbated the difficulties. Given this situation, it is important to think together about ways that we can keep our witness to both law and gospel at the center of our life together and provide further support for the congregations that have been sent to the margins. Then working with others who share our hopes at the center, even if there are some salutary disagreements at the periphery, we can begin to build the kind of larger movement that could makes us salt, light and leaven in the Catholic tradition and in American public life.

While making such provisions, there is still reason for hope. We know this about the Lord Jesus: he loves sinners and enjoys nothing more than raising the dead. He is always at his best when there appears to be no human possibility. Our Lord loves fresh graves. Maybe now we are approaching the turning point, where he is going to move things to the good. Maybe this is the beginning of the resurrection after the long crucifixion we have endured in our church.