Why stay in the ELCA?

Dr. Gordon “Tim” Huffman (WordAlone board member; Professor of Christian Mission, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio)

July 12, 2002

From the time of its first convention, WordAlone (WA) has walked a path often described as the “two prong approach.” One prong was to stay within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and to work for change and reform, including changing the character of the “full communion” agreement with The Episcopal Church USA (ECUSA). The second prong was to prepare for life outside the ELCA, if that should be necessary. There always were persons more closely aligned with one prong or the other, but part of the genius of WA was that it held both possibilities together. Much of the first year of WA was spent putting together a separate association that could function as a place of affiliation and mission for congregations who left the ELCA or were dismissed from the ELCA and for congregations who chose to stay, but to be in fellowship and mission all with each other.

Since the formal launching of Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), some “prong two” people have devoted their energies to mission through LCMC, while WA has re-focused its energies on working within the ELCA. Differences of opinion about whether prong one is viable have sometimes led to sharp exchanges, undermining some of the original vision that WA and LCMC would be overlapping and coordinating groups.

Is it a waste of energy, time and money—in other words, poor stewardship—to remain in and to work for change within the ELCA? Certainly the ELCA as an institution is in decline by any objective measure. Yet some of us are committed to remain and to work within that structure.

There are several reasons for such commitment:

  1. The “ELCA” is not the 11th floor at Higgins Road, despite the sign there saying “Welcome to the ELCA.” Nor is it the elected or appointed—or self-appointed—leaders of the institution. The ELCA is the 5 million lay people and pastors in 10,800 congregations. WA has always argued that the ELCA did not approve CCM; indeed, we have shown that a large majority of the ELCA does not yet understand what has happened. Everywhere we state our case, ELCA members begin to understand, and they begin to react. Out of simple pastoral concern for the millions of fellow members of the ELCA who have been “church-jacked,” some of us are called to stay, to minister and to educate. If indeed the 5 million wanted something like CCM, we in WA would need to leave. There is no evidence that is true.
  2. There is no evidence to support the contention that we cannot make great progress, both in turning back CCM (Go to the home page of the Episcopal church and read their reaction to just one “exceptional” ordination!) and in recalling the ELCA to its Reformation roots. The last few years have seen huge sales of the Book of Concord and supporting volumes, of the Catechisms and of Luther’s works. People are recovering our Lutheran identity, and there is renewed interest in the universal priesthood of all believers. Decline of a denomination is a judgment on poor leadership, not a sign of the decline of the impact and importance of the Reformation. WA is the only coherent voice for renewal in mission and in confessional integrity within the ELCA. Its positive effect already is surprising, given WA’s size and resources. It is also a measure of our effectiveness that some of us have been targeted by supporters of the ELCA status quo.
  3. History is not encouraging regarding the efficacy or longevity of small groups that leave. Our time might indeed be different, but the odds are against the effectiveness of such groups in the long run.
  4. To leave is to abandon institutions dear to us, part of us and our heritage, and hard to replicate. Why should we be the ones to leave the riches of our inheritance to latecomers who lost the vote in 1997 and won in 1999 by political manipulations? In truth, they are few, if fanatical. We should be very reluctant to reward them for their misdeeds by walking away from a heritage we love, for which many of our ancestors risked everything, when they want to give those riches away.
  5. We can always change our minds if the good people of the ELCA close their hearts to the call to renewal and to the continuing Reformation. Although it was a lot of work to form LCMC, we created a new and exciting model. It is being emulated both outside the ELCA and in other new Lutheran associations. WA could be a seedbed for a series of associations committed to the renewed Reformation in the 21st century. But for now, some of us are called to stay and to work with the millions who boarded a church heading one direction, and find it taken over and being driven recklessly in another direction toward the abyss.

People in prong one and prong two will do well to encourage and support each other. Let us be steadfast in our vision of cooperation and coordination.