What should we do?

by Al Quie (WordAlone board chair)

January 18, 2005

Often people who are supportive of the efforts of the WordAlone Network express impatience with us. Mostly it has been the lack of speed at which we are bringing about change in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). This impatience carries with it a sense of losing heart. This raises the question of what we should do about it.

Other people have concerns, which I will not address. Some are unhappy because we have not left the ELCA and there are others who are unhappy because we just don't go along with the direction the national office of the ELCA is pushing us.

Before suggesting what we need to do, I'll give you my view of the three basic reasons for WordAlone's existence. First, we came together because in 1999 the ELCA Churchwide Assembly (CWA) imposed a mandatory historic episcopate on all of the ELCA when it adopted Called to Common Mission. The historic episcopate used by the Catholic and Episcopal churches is a sacramental rite giving greater ontological significance to church hierarchy (raising the metaphysical stature or rank of the hierarchy) than any Lutheran church in America ever accepted and requiring ordination by bishops. The ELCA, which now mandates that we go through these rites, claims we do not have to believe in it as the other denominations do. In order to take some of the pressure off the disagreement over CCM, the 2001 CWA provided exceptions to allow for clergy ordinations by pastors "in unusual circumstances" (but not for bishop’s installations).

For us who objected to an historic episcopate, making mandatory what is not theologically necessary can break the human spirit making it less fit for God’s use. Doing what you don't believe in corrupts the soul, as any one who has been in secular politics can tell you. Jesus Christ, not some religious or ontological requirement, must be the only Master of the human heart. We want to get rid of the mandatory requirement.

The second reason for WordAlone's existence is the conviction that representative governance should be the polity of the ELCA. Now, those who vote at assemblies, churchwide or local synod, are "voting members," not representatives of the people in congregations or even those who elected them. Churchwide council members, who govern between churchwide assemblies, are not chosen in synods where people know them but by the churchwide assembly and the synods councils are chosen by synod assemblies, not by the congregations. So, what difference does that make? It is why there is such a chasm between the churchwide organization and the congregations. Would it be too difficult and complicated to have democratic polity? The millions of people in this nation can pull it off in secular government. Other denominations of the "Reformation" do. The most glaring proof of top-down ELCA control is that, opposite the democratic system, a congregation's constitutional amendments must be ratified by the synod and the synod's constitutional changes must be ratified by the churchwide organization. Churchwide constitutional changes are ratified by the churchwide assembly. It should be reversed.

WordAlone demonstrated the governance it believes in when we formed Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). It is an association of Congregations. Congregations form districts either geographic or nongeographic, giving those churches great freedom.

The third basic reason is a strong trust in the authority of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. The ELCA push toward ordaining practicing homosexuals and blessing same sex unions is the issue of most immediate concern (see). The very imposition of the historic episcopate is also a theological concern as I note above. The WordAlone board has taken action in regard to both of these. One was to establish an independent Task Force on Marriage and the Family and, second, a Theological Advisory Board of international significance. Read the reports of both. You will see in the marriage and family reports information about people who have changed their orientation from homosexual to heterosexual. In the theological "Admonition" you can read about the danger to Lutherans in adopting the mandatory historic episcopate.

Now, what else should we do? In my view, WordAlone congregations need to associate with each other.

As I read the New Testament, the churches of a certain geographic area worked with each other, as did churches with certain theological beliefs. They learned to think and to live Christ-like lives. We are expected by our Lord to assemble with fellow believers and be a part of the whole Body of Christ. Why? We learn through people, events and places in order to better bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to others. Each of us has experienced the inner promptings, intuitions and even feelings that have accompanied new or confirmed understandings. We need each other to hold each other accountable to Christ both individually and corporately. The congregational entity is different from an individual Lutheran and different from a WordAlone chapter. The visible evidence of the Body of Christ is the church. The regular assembly of believers is church not the churchwide organization or the synod. Not even a chapter of WordAlone or our conventions are the church. But it does not mean that we should stay independent from each other, as it seems to be with the WA Congregations.

We understood the importance of common congregation interaction in our disappointment with the ELCA when we formed LCMC. We also realized that LCMC needed to be free and independent from WordAlone if it was to develop into what God intended it to be. In the process, we were so involved with organizing the individual members of WordAlone into a viable organization that we ignored the need for congregations who were not ready to join LCMC to formally associate with each other as unique entities. Our Synod Point of Contact (SPOC) appointments and especially chapter development are important for individuals to be able to drive WordAlone’s effort so we will not grow top heavy. It was not until the idea of a nongeographic synod came up that I realized that we had no way of hearing from our WA congregations about building more clout in the event the 2005 CWA went against the biblical view of marriage.

There are 219 churches that have joined WordAlone. There are others who have redirected benevolence or passed resolutions. People like myself on the WA Board, who are not members of a WordAlone congregation, cannot speak for our congregations. People from WA congregations who come to meetings, conventions and conferences have a responsibility to their congregations. They need to both converse with like-minded friends and inform those of us who are not fortunate enough to worship in a WA church.

The ELCA has not developed congregational collaboration very well. Evidence is the ineffectiveness of most conferences and clusters. So there probably is not much experience to draw on.

There is great strength in associations of organizations, but collaboration is difficult to pull off.

Association or collaboration occurs most easily when there is a need. Easiest is when there is a common need or a common goal. A super-ultimate goal builds real effectiveness, such as Jesus talked about in the bride and bridegroom concept. In our times we can ask, "What causes warring parties to come to peace and common ground? Look at the Apostles who were everything from a tax collector to an “insurgent” or Paul's mission churches of gentiles and the Jewish ones in Jerusalem. What causes groups who are ignoring each other to come together for common efforts? A common danger did it at the beginning of WA. Whatever happens in the future, we need to develop, with servant hearts, common causes with our assemblies of believers—our WA churches.