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The Way Out: Suggestions for those Left by the ELCA

James Arne Nestingen

April 16, 2010

photo of Dr. NestingenBoth biblically and historically, times of crisis in the church have been occasions of both death and rebirth. The August churchwide assembly in Minneapolis has put a good share of its membership in crisis with its vote to ratify practicing homosexual clergy. This crisis forces uncomfortable questions not generally asked. But just so, the consideration of these questions may lead to renewal, both in the congregations and beyond.

A Double Breach

In order to tip the balance of power away from the congregations, those who put the ELCA together in the merger of 1988 distinguished three levels of the church: first, churchwide or the national; second, the 65 synods, represented by their bishops; and third, the congregations. The congregations pay the bills for all three, of course. Still, the first two have claimed the greater authority. Now they have compromised themselves, forfeiting the power they have sought.

According to the constitution of the ELCA, the Scriptures followed by the Lutheran Confessions have the final word in the life of the church. In its August meeting, the assembly voted on a teaching of Scripture unanimously accepted throughout the church since the time of the New Testament and before. Voting on the Bible, the ELCA gave the churchwide assembly authority over Scripture, breaking the constitution. So doing, it cut loose those congregations and people who continue to believe the biblical word concerning sexual behavior.

The bishops also compromised their authority. They have taken and administered oaths of loyalty to the Word of God in Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. But in fact, at Minneapolis, the biggest majority of them voted in favor of practices directly contrary to the plain sense of Scripture. In this way, the national church and the bishops dissolved the biblical bonds that have held the congregations together. Having substituted a human word for God’s Word, they cannot assume the authority they have claimed to reverse biblical teachings.

Turning to the Congregations

In the Reformation, Luther faced similar circumstances: the exchange of the Gospel for political power along with betrayal by the bishops. Confronted by such breach, he appealed to the original power of the church, God’s word as preached and administered in the congregations.

Luther sums up this Word in words that have been memorized by Lutherans for generations, the explanations of the three articles of the Apostles Creed in the Small Catechism. God the Father “…has created and still sustains…;” Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son “…has bought and freed,” “saved and redeemed…;” the Holy Spirit has “called, gathered, enlightened, sanctified and kept….” The triune God is at work through the Word, reclaiming the creation and creatures for himself, defeating the forces that destroy and distort creaturely life as he brings in the new creation. This is the gospel.

God brings together sinners by and for the means of grace, which he uses to reach out to people across the face of the earth. The first of these means is preaching, the formal proclamation of the pulpit in Sunday worship but also words declared around the table, at the bedside, “where ever two or three are gathered in his name.” This happens secondly, through the sacraments—in the word and the washing at baptism, by the word declaring the forgiveness of sin in the absolution, in the words of institution along with the eating and drinking at the Lord’s Supper. The preached word gets customized, addressed to particular people in their individual situations. The sacraments are formal, shaping forms that in their repeated formulas bring home the gifts of grace.

Because God loves sinners in Christ Jesus, he will continue to reach out to them wherever they may be found, even in bureaucracies. In the meantime, the people of God—those who gather in their congregations—exercise the power of the Word. That is the church’s calling and test.

So there are some questions that must be asked in every congregation. The answers indicate the health and vitality of the parish, giving its members standards by which to evaluate what is happening there. Is Christ being proclaimed? Do sinners hear a word of grace? Are the sacraments properly taught and tended, so that those receiving them recognize the blessings that are being bestowed? By the same token, are the Ten Commandments preached and taught, with the demands of the biblical texts?

If the answer to these questions comes back in the negative, it may be time to seek another congregation. Christ Jesus speaks of scraping the dust off your feet where the word is not welcome. On the other hand, if the answer is no, Christ Jesus might have something else in mind: he might be calling for the renewal of a congregation that has gotten lost along the way. The distinguishing mark, differentiating one situation from the other, is the freedom to preach the gospel. If the gospel can be preached, there is always a possibility for a different future. On the other hand, if the gospel is short-circuited or stifled, something has gone terribly wrong.

The Pastors

At ordination or when being installed in parishes, pastors take an oath to, with the help of God, preach and teach according to the Word of God and the Lutheran confessions. There are many other duties associated with the ministry, many of them set forth in the traditional letter of call. These include visiting the sick, helping people in times of trouble, providing leadership with the church council and so forth. Such duties also provide standards by which people commonly evaluate their pastors. But in the end, the final standard is the Word of God.

For centuries, going all the way back to the early life of the church, biblical texts—one from the Old Testament, another from the Epistles and a third from the Gospels—have been assigned to the Sundays of the church year. They are listed in the Church Year section of the hymnal and commonly printed up for distribution in worship on Sundays.

These texts, particularly the reading of the Gospel, are the sermon’s test and measure. The job of the preacher is to hand over the goods, to bring home to the congregation what God demands and promises. The Gospel texts focus on the words and the works of Jesus. That word comes to life in the mouth of the preacher as Jesus goes to work to accomplish the same thing in the present, either setting his hearers under demand or bestowing forgiveness—deliverance from the powers of destruction, and the hope of the resurrection.

Evaluating a pastor’s preaching involves comparing the text—which should take control—and the message, which should be controlled. When this happens, the pastor is trustworthy. But it easily goes another way. For example, preachers who read the story of Jesus in the Gospel and then in the sermon, begin with some story of their own, generally have trouble getting back to Jesus’ story. By the same token, pastors who tie the text to some particularly social or political problem commonly have another agenda working. The question remains the same: what does the preaching have to do with the text? Where is it found in the text? Are Jesus’ commands being faithfully set out? Are his promises being handed over to the hearers? Faithful pastors welcome such questions—they indicate attentive hearing. On the other hand, pastors who begin with the obscurity or ambiguity of biblical texts indicate that they had their fingers crossed when taking the oath of office. This raises questions of trust.

The sacraments provide the second test. Pastors are called to baptize, to absolve sinners and to administer the Lord’s Supper. With this responsibility, another follows: to tend the sacraments by teaching them, upholding and supporting them in the life of the congregation. When baptism is faithfully administered and taught, it anchors Christian hope in Christ; when it becomes a mere formality, it is literally useless. The absolution brings home in personal terms the gifts of Christ’s death and resurrection. Pastors who disparage the forgiveness of sins or neglect absolution make the cross an empty exercise. In the Lord’s Supper, Christ Jesus continues to come to the table with sinners. The words “for you” and “for the forgiveness of sin” name the address and the purpose of the sacrament, making it a center point in the life and ministry of any congregation. Pastors who either treat the sacrament as magic or teach suspicion of the sacrament are not to be trusted.

Liturgy and hymns provide still a third point of evaluation. The liturgy tells the story of God’s dealings with his people. It unites Christians across time and space, bringing forward forms that have been used for centuries, bringing believers together throughout the world. With this, liturgy can and should vary with the life of the congregation. However, when the liturgy gets displaced, when happy talk and me-and-Jesus piety takes over, the congregation has lost its way. Similarly, the great Lutheran hymns drove the reformation and have sustained the church through its darkest hours. When these hymns are set aside in favor of songs that make the self the center, people literally go home empty handed.

Finally, Luther’s Small Catechism makes the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer the center of Christian teaching. Daily use in family life sets footings under all of life. Pastors who lead their congregations through the catechism, in confirmation, in adult classes, in Christian education, join in building firm foundations. On the other hand, the disappearance of the catechism usually indicates that things are disintegrating.

In the history of church, times of crisis are also generally times of renewal. The good Lord upsets the apple cart to put things together again in the power of the gospel. Carefully, faithfully evaluating church and ministry is part of the process.