Testing the Spirit

by Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt (Assoc. Prof. South Dakota State University, WordAlone board member)

February 19, 2003

[Editor’s note: This is an abbreviated version of the essay. For the full essay click here.]

How deep does the WordAlone critique of the current Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) go? Would WordAlone be satisfied were the ELCA suddenly to allow traditional (pastoral) ordination of pastors and simple installation of bishops? What if the ELCA were to permit a more representative form of government? Does WordAlone hope for more change than that in the ELCA?

The WordAlone Network remains wholly engaged in the question of the structure of the ELCA. WordAlone is concerned with reforming an ecclesiastical structure that is increasingly top-heavy, a structure that virtually guarantees that congregations are underrepresented if not ignored. It wants an ELCA structure that treats its people fairly—even confessionally-minded pastors, seminarians and laypersons who regard the historic episcopate as quasi-idolatrous. WordAlone desires an ELCA that devotes more resources to the mission field and less to the production of social documents trumpeting the rectitude of particular political positions. However, merely changing the structure of the ELCA does not guarantee a change in the essential nature of the ELCA. Correcting the external, formal structure of the ELCA does not necessarily mean a change in the faith or spirit of the ELCA as an institution.

If we in WordAlone think that a mere external change in form will reform and renew the church, we had better read our Martin Luther again.

Luther tirelessly critiqued the Aristotelian conception that changing one’s behavior could change his or her heart. Good fruit does not make a good tree, but rather a good tree makes good fruit. God must first renew the heart’s nature before the heart’s habits can be established. In other words, grace must first create the faith that subsequently displays itself in concrete forms.

To think that actions can change the heart is wholly mistaken because only the Holy Spirit can do that. However, once the heart is changed, a person cannot but act differently. Analogously, fixing the external form and structure of a church in no way guarantees any change in its “spirit,” but changing its spirit brings with it a corresponding change in form.

The reforming work of the WordAlone Network cannot be done effectively apart from God’s work of renewing the spirit of the ELCA. A reform in externals cannot take the place of a renewal of the ELCA’s innermost spirit. Without this, the ELCA as an institution will always be the place where the most noble and desired ends of human beings are simply ratified with the cross of Christ.

As to this renewal, there is much WordAlone can do.

Luther believed that the Holy Spirit is carried on the wings of the Word. WordAlone stands resolutely and steadfastly for the loosing of this Word upon the world. A church filled with people reading and studying scripture, with people hearing and heeding law and gospel sermons, with people studying and discussing confessional documents, would be a church not much interested in perpetuating the external forms that WordAlone presently seeks to change.

Renewal is logically prior to true reform.

May none of us lose confidence in the power of God’s Word to change all things–even His church.

[Editor’s note: This is an abbreviated version of the essay. For the full essay click here.]