graphic website title banner

A primer—for laity and clergy who "Just don't get it"

by Pastor Neal E. Snider

May 29, 2000

Why all the fuss about “Called to Common Mission” (CCM), the document approved by the ELCA Church Wide Assembly in Denver in August 1999? Why can’t we just get along with our Episcopalian brothers and sisters, and cooperate with them in the mission given by Jesus Christ to be One Holy Catholic Church in the world? In a pagan culture can we afford to expend our energies and resources, Christians fighting Christians while the world which we are called to serve goes to hell?

The above questions and others of a similar nature are valid questions and deserve responses. The following is one persons attempt to clarify the issues at stake and present the rationale for the steadfast opposition to CCM by thousands of members of the ELCA.

Every thinking Christian knows that truth matters. Conciliation at any cost is not the chief goal of humanity within history. If conciliation were the chief goal, regardless of the truth, we would have to offer every religion, i.e. Islam for Moslems, Judaism for Jews, Buddhism for Buddhists, Hinduism for Hindus, etc. Our mandate from our Lord is to bring the gospel to everyone.

Similarly, within the Christian family, truth is important. Our common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior may be expressed in a variety of ways. Forms may vary from time to time, and from place to place. But, wherever and whenever any emphasis develops within the community of faith that detracts from the centrality and sufficiency of Jesus Christ, Christians are bound by conscience to stand in opposition.

On one occasion Martin Luther was charged with teaching heresy (false teaching). Luther's response was "Heresy? So be it. It is still the truth."

As Luther experienced, there are times when faithfulness to Jesus Christ requires Christians to “draw a line in the sand” and rise in opposition for the sake of Jesus Christ and the gospel. That stand must be taken regardless of the consequences threatened or enacted by a church bureaucracy. (Note well: at the time of Jesus, it was the religious establishment that could not abide his teaching, and had him crucified. At the time of Martin Luther it was the religious establishment that had Luther censured as an outlaw with a “price on his head”. At the time of Hans Nielson Hauge in Norway it was the religious establishment that had Hauge imprisoned for more than a decade. In every case, and others could be cited, the religious establishment could not abide the truth). Thousands in the ELCA believe that again the time has come to “draw a line in the sand” and say that the church bureaucracy of the ELCA has gone too far and compromised the sufficiency of Jesus Christ.

Wherein lies the problem? It lies in the little phrase, “the historic episcopate”, (hereinafter the HE). And what is the HE? It is the belief and teaching in the Roman Catholic Church that the Apostle Peter was the first bishop of Rome, (in about 50-65 AD) and that only bishops in the church who can trace their line of descent back to Peter are legitimate bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ, andthereby legitimate transmitters of the Christian tradition. But how can that lineage be traced? It is alleged that each bishop has been consecrated by the ”laying on of hands” by a previous bishop who has been consecrated by the “laying on of hands” by a bishop…..back to the Apostle Peter. Consequently, it is alleged, there is an unbroken line of succession from the Apostle Peter to every bishop in the Roman Catholic Church.

Both the Eastern Orthodox Churches and the Anglican/Episcopal Churches allege to have bishops in the HE. Again, wherein lies the problem? There are four parts to the answer.

  1. The Episcopalian church requires that bishops in the ELCA come under the umbrella of the HE. Every ELCA bishop elected in the future, when installed into his/her office as bishop must include the laying on of hands of at least one Episcopal bishop, thus bringing that new ELCA bishop into the alleged HE. The ELCA will be in “full communion” with the ECUSA immediately upon adoption of CCM by the ECUSA in the summer of 2000. BUT the ECUSA will not acknowledge “full communion” with the ELCA until all ELCA bishops have come within the HE, (perhaps 20 years in the future). The ELCA says to the ECUSA, “we’ll accept you as you are. The ECUSA says, “we’ll accept you as you must become.” That is much like a marriage in which one party says “I take you for better or for worse,” the other party says “this marriage will not be fully complete until you become what I insist that you must be.” THE PROCEDURE IS INEQUITABLE.
  2. Although the ECUSA requires the HE, neither the Roman Catholic Church nor the Eastern Orthodox churches recognize the HE of the ECUSA. THAT IS AMUSEABLE.
  3. One of the Episcopalian drafters of the document CCM, Canon Robert Wright wrote an article in which he said, “there are as many understandings of the HE in the Episcopal Church as there are understandings of justification by faith in the Lutheran Church.” What does the HE mean that is required of the ELCA? The ECUSA itself apparently does not know, and can not tell the ELCA. We are expected to accept an important teaching of the Christian faith without being told what it means. That is neither inequitable nor amuseable, IT IS INCREDIBLE.
  4. Two respected Lutheran theologians have termed the HE “an historical fiction”and “a pious fraud”. The church of Jesus Christ that is called to bear witness to the truth is now expected to perpetuate a fiction and a fraud. THAT IS INCONCEIVABLE.

Not all bishops in the ELCA approved of CCM, but only a few have publicly opposed it. Those who support CCM with it’s required HE should be asked if in the depth of their conscience they truly believe that every bishop in the ECUSA (or any bishop in the ECUSA) actually has an unbroken line of “laying on of hands” from the time of the apostles to this day, and whether he/she believes, as the ECUSA requires, that the Church of Jesus Christ is not truly constituted without the HE. Those who affirm such a belief should be removed from office on the ground of gullibility at the least, or betrayal of the historic Lutheran teaching at the worst. Those who don’t believe it should be removed for duplicity and hypocrisy.

Following are four reasons, (theological, confessional, procedural, and consequential) why many in the ELCA oppose CCM and the required provisions of the HE. (Note: many who oppose CCM as it presently stands would not have the same objection if the fiction of the HE were removed).

Theological Reasons


As far as I can tell there is no direct biblical evidence to support an HE, nor is there any direct biblical evidence that would preclude it.

The pattern of organization that characterized the earliest church is not at all clear. The apostles themselves seem to have been given some special status because since they had been with Jesus they could verify or clarify what Jesus said and did. But there is no evidence in the New Testament that suggests that such accepted authority was passed on to succeeding generations.

It seems historically probable that the followers of the eleven disciples were held in some extraordinary esteem because, since the first generation of Jesus’ followers had died, the best source of information would be those who heard the eleven speak in person. That may have been true for several generations. The fourth generation may be superior to the fifth, but that hardly equates to the 20th generation being superior to the 21st generation, or the 199th generation being more credible than the 200th. Authority loses validity with the passing of time.

There is simply no biblical evidence to support the HE.

There is indirect evidence against the HE in the New Testament.

Followers of Jesus are called to bear witness to the truth. Jesus said that Satan, the Evil One, is the father of lies. Followers of Jesus can have no part in a lie. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, said Jesus, “he will lead you into all the truth., (John 16:13)

One of the Lutheran drafters of CCM has said something to the effect that Lutherans don’t have to believe the HE, they just have to do it. While that is not a direct quote, it is a fair approximation of what he said.

It is incredible that followers of Jesus Christ are encouraged to accept something or do something that is not a part of the truth to which we are committed.

That call to accept or dothat which is a fiction or a fraud has riled thousands of clergy and laity across the ELCA who have now taken a stand and are saying, “we will not participate in a lie”.

Is it considered strange that within the church of Jesus Christ, a fiction has created a friction that has produced a faction? Thank God for the few, or many who will not participate in perpetuating a fiction in the name of Him who is the Truth.

Finally, in terms of biblical evidence, CCM is aptly entitled. All Christians are indeed Called to a Common Mission of a common Lord. Those who oppose CCM in the ELCA are among those who affirm a common mission with other Christians, including the ECUSA.

But note, when CCM is examined carefully, the document is not about mission at all, but about bishops. When the document is studied carefully, a word search has shown that the word mission appears 6 times; bishop appears 56 times.

A word study alone does not prove a lot. If the word count showed a 2-1 ratio one might raise an eyebrow. But, when the ratio is almost 10-1 it certainly raises grave suspicions.

Let every clergy and lay person read CCM again with this question in mind, “Is CCM about a common mission or is it about common bishops?” The more people read and study CCM the more they are convinced that it is about bishops.

The above is convincing enough, but let us now examine the Lutheran Confessions (writings from the time of Martin Luther, and some by Martin Luther).


The Lutheran Church is a confessional church. That means that, in distinction to other Christians who say, “we just believe the Bible”, or some similar statement, Lutherans have written statements of belief that from the time of the Reformation (16th century) mark the “out of bounds” for what Lutheran Christians believe.

Almost every Lutheran knows about the Small Catechism written by Martin Luther. There are at least five other writings from the 16th century that most Lutheran churches have adopted as a clear statement of what Lutheran Christians believe, teach and confess, (Large Catechism, Smalcald Articles, Augsburg Confession, Apology to the Augsburg Confessions, Formula of Concord). Of the above named six documents from the 16th century, it may be that the Augsburg Confession is the most important in clearly defining what Lutheran Christians believe about major themes in the Christian faith, e.g. God, Justification, the Church, Baptism, Lord’s Supper, etc.

Article 7, (there are 28articles) of the Augsburg Confession speaks about the nature of the church. That article says, “For the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel, (the German translation speaks of the “preaching of the Gospel”) and the right administration of the sacraments. Nor is it necessary that human traditions, that is, rights or ceremonies, instituted by men, should be everywhere alike.”

Note carefully, it is the true preaching of the Word of God and the right administration of the sacraments by which the church is constituted. What is the one crucial element that unifies the Word of God and the Sacraments? They both communicate Jesus Christ to the church, the community of believers. It is Jesus Christ alone who creates and constitutes his church. He does it through the Word of God and the sacraments.

Now comes CCM and insists that for the church to be truly constituted there must be an episcopate (bishop) whose line can be traced back to the apostles through the “laying on of hands” from one bishop to the next throughout the centuries (thus HE).

Now, note again, the Word of God and the sacraments communicate Christ. Whether one believes or not, Christ is present in the Word and Sacraments. No such promise is given and no certainty can be claimed that Jesus Christ is communicated simply because one is consecrated a bishop. (There are countless cases throughout history where bishops have been nothing less than scoundrels. There is in this very day at least one Episcopalian bishop who decries the basic teachings of the Christian Faith, e.g. that Jesus Christ was not (is not) the divine Son of God, that his death and resurrection are not for the sins of the world, that, in fact, he did not rise from the dead at all. That bishop is allowed to remain a bishop in the Episcopal Church USA. Amazing! Preposterous! Incredible!)

In accepting CCM, the Lutheran Church is abandoning its historic tradition that Jesus Christ alone is sufficient to create and constitute His church. We are now one step closer to insisting that bishops, properly consecrated by the “laying on of hands” is necessary for the true church of Jesus Christ. Thousands of Lutheran clergy and lay people are objecting and saying, “we won’t buy the baloney!!”

The passage of CCM at the August 1999 church wide assembly has awakened the theological thinking of many. At least since the creation of the ELCA in 1988 the constituency as been told that the church exists on three levels, on the congregational level, the synodical lever, and the national level. Until the passage of CCM few questioned that assertion. Now, theological thinking has been sharpened. Perhaps we have been fed another fiction. Does the church exist on any level other than the congregation? Where is the Word of God preached? Where are the sacraments administered? Is it not exclusively on the congregational level? Very probably the church exists on no level other than a local congregation of believers.

That is not to deny the value of synods and national offices that exist to support the local congregation. That support can be offered, and may be useful. But, supporting functionaries do not constitute the church. If synods and national offices were eliminated the church would continue to exist. If congregations were eliminated, but synodical and national offices continued to exist there would be no church. There would be only service offices and officers with no church to support.

We have been told that the HE is a sign of the unity of the church. (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are not sufficient signs of that unity ????)?

The defining character of this world that stands in opposition to God and His Christ is a series of lies. Jesus called Satan the father of lies.

Every Christian must constantly ask, “Is it true?” That is especially important of clichés that are easily dropped, but are not clearly. That HE is a sign of the unity of the church is a classic cliché. Is it true?

In the history of the Christian Church, three groups of Christian have considered the HE vital for the life of the church - Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglicans (Episcopalians). Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox do not recognize the validity of each others episcopate (bishops). Neither Roman Catholics nor Eastern Orthodox recognize the HE of the Anglicans. The evidence is clear that the HE not only fails the test of signifying the unity of the church, but is precisely a sign of disunity.

The following reduces the contention of a sign of unity from the preposterous to the humorous.

In 1947 Pope Pius XII issued an encyclical (letter) entitled “Mediator Dei”. (Encyclicals are always named by the first two or three Latin words in the text of the letter). In that encyclical Pope Pius XII said, “The use of the Latin language, prevailing in a great part of the Church affords at once an imposing sign of unity and an effective safeguard against the corruption of pure doctrine.” Another bit of fiction that died with the Second Vatican Council of the 1960’s. The HE is as much a sign of the unity of the church as the universal use of Latin.

The Gettysburg “Lutheran Theological Seminary Bulletin”, # 72 contained an article entitled “The Whole Christian Church On Earth: Luther’s Conception of the Universality of the Church”. This article was condensed in the “Luther Digest”, (1996). The author writes, “For the reformer, invisible unity did not belong to the signs of the church.” He continued, “A unified organization, the uniformity of customs, traditions and ceremonies as well as one’s legal system is not identical with that unity which is the fruit of the Good News” (p.145).

Now Lutheran bishops, called to give leadership to a Lutheran understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ are trying to persuade members of the ELCA that bishops in an historical line, allegedly back to the apostles of Jesus, are a sign of the unity of the church. Many clergy and laity faithful to the historic confessions of our Lutheran tradition simply don’t believe and won’t have the spurious contention that the HE is a sign of the unity of the church.

The place of the pope in the Roman Catholic church is similar to the understanding of bishops in the Episcopalian Church. The Roman Church contends that among other things of the unity of the church, and it requires that for “full communion” (a term used in CCM) with the Roman Church one must recognize the Pope as the successor of St. Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and that the Pope stands in a linear line of apostolic succession (read: historic episcopacy) from St. Peter through the subsequent 263 Popes since St. Peter.

With the acceptance of CCM the ELCA has moved one step closer to reversing one of the great treasures of the Lutheran Reformation, the sufficiency of Jesus Christ alone, to constitute His church.

Opposition to CCM is not opposition to ecumenism. This writer is thoroughly committed to ecumenism. The best ecumenism is cooperation without capitulation. The ELCA has shown that such positive ecumenical relations are possible in it’s agreements with the Presbyterian Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Moravian Brethren. In each of those three agreements no church was asked to surrender it’s historic heritage. Each church accepted the other as a legitimate church as it exists today without change. Those agreements are worthy.

In the CCM two of the three Lutheran representatives that negotiated the agreement with the Episcopalian Church, USA capitulated and allowed that the ELCA would change it’s tradition in order to satisfy the requirement of the Episcopalian Church, that for “full communion” with the Episcopalian Church the ELCA is required to accept the historic episcopate. It makes no requirement that Lutherans must believe that such a thing as the historic episcopate exists. It makes no requirement that Lutherans believe that the historic episcopate is necessary for the true unity of the church. The Episcopalian Church only requires that the ELCA adopt HE- - - believe it or not.

Such frivolous dealings with matters of faith is simply repugnant to many thinking members of the ELCA

C. Procedural Issues

It is beyond question that the attempt to pass CCM at the Denver Church Wide Assembly of the ECA was a political program carefully managed by the bureaucrats of the ELCA. Let us quickly dispense with any argument that since the passage of CCM was a result of political craft that it is somehow thereby tainted. Politics has been part of the church since at least the fourth century when Emperor Constantine, not a bishop, convened the 1st Ecumenical Council. Politics probably existed in the church prior to that time, and has certainly been a part of the history of the church since that time.

Wherever people work together for a common cause, or a against a common cause, there politics is at play whether or not we like it to be. The issue in the church, as I see it, is not the use of political means, but the issue is one of hypocrisy. There is at least one Bishop in the ELCA who decried the use of political means when his position was defeated in 1997, but who apparently saw no problem employing political means to accomplish his desired end in 1999. This year he has even written a letter affirming political events at our 2000 synodical assembly.

Voting members to the Church Wide Assembly were told numerous times that they were not delegates to that assembly. They were voting members according to the constitution of the ELCA

Many who attended the CWA thought of themselves as delegates and attempted to represent those from their synod.But only a few needed to be convinced that they represented nobody but themselves. Once that conviction could be established those in positions of power could influence the votes. (The political party in power always has great power to control the voting. Such tactics as delaying, advising, advocating, counseling a vote or allowing/disallowing outside influence is common political practice).

Prior to the CWA in Denver at least 20 synods of the ELCA went on record as opposing the passage of CCM. That was about half of the synods that voted on the issue in the spring and summer of 1999. In spite of these non binding votes the church bureaucrats gambled that they could ignore the voice of the people from the pew and force the issue to passage. Such was accomplished. CCM passed by about 27 votes out of a total voting constituency of over 1,000 voting members. Approximately 700 voting members voted to approve CCM. Remember, there were no delegates. 700 votes from an ELCA constituency of 5,200,00 means that CCM was approved by about 14/100,000 of 1% of the membership of the ELCA. To write it another way .00014 passed CCM. That is hardly a mandate.

The largest congregation in the ELCA is slightly more than 10,000 members. What pastor would dare to bind the conscience of that entire congregation by the vote of 2 members of that congregation? Such action would be so outrageous that the congregation would laugh off the alleged action as a non-action. Yet 2 out of 10,000 is a greater percentage than 14 out of 100,000. The ELCA hierarchy has now discovered that many members of the ELCA simply won’t have the action of so few bind the consciences of so many.

At the CWA in Denver there were many who struggled with their own conscience over CCM. They wanted to be ecumenical, to be cooperative, to be accepting of another Christian body. Yet, they struggled with being faithful to their own Lutheran tradition.

At the last minute, shortly before the vote on CCM was to be taken the General Secretary of the Lutheran World Federation was asked to speak. Was it just a mere coincidence that someone from Geneva, Switzerland happened to be in Denver, and at the ELCA Assembly? It trains credulity to the breaking point to believe that it was not previously planned. After an impassioned speech by the General Secretary in support of CCM, the vote was taken and CCM passed. f these 1,000 plus voting members, many of which were struggling with their conscience, is it not credible to believe that at least 15 were swayed by this impressive world leader of Lutheranism? Though he was not and is not a member of the ELCA, it is more than plausible that he created the needed votes to win passage of CCM.

One can imagine the outcry of opposition if the Bishop of one synod in the ELCA traveled to another synod to lobby for passage of any issue in that other synod. That is quite similar to what the ELCA bureaucracy pulled off by allowing the General Secretary to speak, and perhaps even arranging that he be present so that he could speak.

A very troubling procedural issue developed several months after the August 1999 Church Wide Assembly. A bit of background will be useful. After a ground swell of opposition to CCM developed at the grass roots in the fall of 1999, following the adoption of CCM at the CWA, the ELCA Bishops, meeting in Tucson, AZ in early 1999 developed and distributed their understanding of CCM. To many that understanding was a vast improvement over CCM as it had been prepared and distributed to the ELCA months earlier. At the CWA the ELCA Bishops interpretation of CCM was offered as an amendment to what many understood to be an amendment to CCM itself. With that amendment some who opposed CCM as presented to the CWA were willing to vote in favor of it. Now, several months later, we discover that the version of CCM that the General Secretary of ELCA delivered to the Episcopal Church USA did not include the amendment. We are now told that the amendment which included the Bishops’ interpretation of CCM was not an amendment to CCM, but an amendment to a procedural vote to submit CCM to the Episcopal Church USA. (I have spoken with a voting member of the CWA whom I have known for nearly 50 years. We were classmates in college, and I know very well her intellectual capacity. She graduated MAGNA CUM LAUDE!!! She told me that it was clear to her that the Bishops’ interpretation was in fact an amendment to CCM, and not an amendment to a procedural issue. Indeed, she may be wrong in her understanding, but if she is wrong, it is not because of lack of intelligence, but because of procedural tactics used to confuse the voters. Such insidious tactics may be expected in this world, but they are repugnant in the Church of Jesus Christ)!

Procedurally, the passage of CCM is tainted at best.

D. Consequential

There is an implicit danger when one speaks of future consequences since the future can not be known with certainty. Therefore what follows is only possible or, at best, probable. I claim much less weight for this section than those that preceded.

Nevertheless, there is some value in considering possible future consequences. When one charts past history the future can be predicted with some degree of probability, if not certainty. (If one encounters the letters A through M and a future is projected, it would be quite reasonable to expect the next few letters to be N, O, P . . . )

Prior to about 1970, there were no bishops in any Lutheran Church in the United States. Those who were elected to give leadership beyond the congregation usually carried the designation of president.Some of those presidents acted pastorally, others autocratically in relation to pastors and congregations.

Those who acted as a pastor to congregational pastors and congregations were loved, respected and even revered. Those who acted autocratically were sometimes feared, and most often disdained. During the 1960’s there was a move to change the title from president to bishop. The argument for this change was that president is a secularterm whereas bishop is a term of long standing usage in the Christian Church. With but little opposition (as I recall) the change from president to bishop was made.

The problem with the change (which I supported in the 1960’s) is that many of those who received the title bishop began to act as though they possessed some extraordinary power inherent in the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. Progressively over the past 30 years, bishops, (not all) have moved further away from the life of congregations and pastors, and more into the role of ecclesiastical administrators. Increasingly, it seems that they have attempted to wield more control over congregations and pastors.

With the trend to more centralized and bureaucratic control of the church by bishops, one may expect that trend to continue and increase.

CCM gives bishops added power and control. If the trend is not stopped at this point, congregations in the ELCA may have allowed the trend to advance beyond a point where it can be stopped.

There are profound and serious theological reasons why CCM should be opposed and rejected by every member of the ELCA. But, there is also a very practical reason with which every young parent and older grandparent can identify. It is spelled CHILDREN and GRANDCHILDREN.

CCM will not effect me nor my children. I simply do not believe it, and will not have it. My children are old enough so that they understand the implications of this flawed agreement. But, my grandchildren will, (or may be) a part of the ELCA 40/50 years from now. I want them to live in a church where congregational worship around the Word of God and the Sacraments is central to their lives, where a living relationship with Jesus Christ as Lord is presented and shared in a community of Christians, where a vital life empowered by the Spirit of God is engendered and cherished. I do not want them to be part of a church in which an ecclesiastical hierarchy dictates who their pastor (priest) will be, what religious forms will be required, and which religious dignitaries will be accorded honor because of their position.

When I graduated from Seminary in 1960, the Roman Catholic Church was in the midst of that great reforming Second Vatican Council that propelled that community of believers from the Middle Ages to the present in about a ten year span. At about that time I said, “I will not be surprised that if within 50 years the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church change places, the Roman Church being where the Gospel is heard clearly, and the Lutheran Church where religious pomp and ceremony obfuscates, (I didn’t use that word then because I didn’t even know what it meant in 1960) the Gospel.” We are now within ten years of that half century mark. I still have hopes that I will be wrong. But, if CCM is allowed to prevail, one major step will have been taken toward the fulfillment of my worst dream. CCM: STOP IT NOW!!