The question that I have been asked to address flows from a recent lecture series by Philip Hefner and Tim Lull at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago on the issue, “How is the Church necessary for Salvation?” Though I was unable to be present during that 1996 Hein‑Fry series, I did have the opportunity to read the manuscript and spend a few hours in conversation with Professor Hefner as he discussed some of the major issues of the lecture series.
“How is the Synod necessary for Salvation?” At first glance it seems to be an obvious and almost ludicrous question…of course, it is not. But if it is obvious, how do we answer the same question for the other parts of this church which we, in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, claim in all of our documents to be a three‑fold expression: congregation, synod, and church‑wide. Much of the way we discuss and answer these questions will depend heavily on our ecclesiology.
Dr. Hefner says “the church must be a community that is available to God’s possibilities for the future of creation. If the church is not this community, then talk about God’s salvation borders on blasphemy. To the extent that the church is this community, its necessity for salvation requires no argumentation.”
A crucial way of being available to God’s future is to be open to all dimensions of church. My profound hope is that we would never limit our understanding of the church community to any one of these three, but see congregation, synod and the churchwide expressions as intrinsically tied to one another as rings that have no beginning, end, or seam. When we act with this understanding the salvation question will be answered as we live out our lives in the church in witness to what God is doing in the world.
One of the major contributions that I believe Hefner makes in his lecture series is his concept of “people’s church” which he introduces as a major theme for the future transformation of the ELCA. His working definition of the term “people’s church” is “the church life that is intimately bound up in the actual realities of the lived‑out lives of its people and the cultural expressions of these realities.”
Professor Hefner presents a challenge to all of us in all three expressions of the church when he asserts “that popular religion is often viewed with suspicion by the official church and its leaders.” It is here that I take exception because I am convinced that any person in the “official” church that is in daily contact with the life of the church in any of its expressions has developed an open stance to the developing vitality and passion that has been brought into the arena by the various contingents of the “people’s church.”
One of the great challenges that we face as a synod is to recognize that many pastors and lay people are speaking out of the same gospel context, but their lives and experiences create different directions for their evangelical message. Some come out of a traditional and historical Lutheran identity that finds it difficult to recognize the gospel apart from the Lutheran Confessions and a Bach hymn. Others have been influenced by modernity in some of its varied formats and have tried pouring the wine of the gospel into new wineskins.
I believe it is the task of the synod to allow all these expressions to be at home within our church, and to reach out with a witness that calls each woman, man and child to respond to the gospel where she or he is planted.
If mission and salvation are to happen, then we will have to see each expression of the church supported by the whole body and not just by one part. Dr. Hefner, I think, speaks to this very issue when he talks about the “Big Story” and “Little Stories”. According to Hefner, “‘The Big Story’ comprehends the largest dimensions of our lives and speaks to every person and group, and thereby gives them confidence that their own personal ‘little stories’ are not just their own subjective fabrications.” For Hefner, the “Big Story” is the church’s official rendering of the gospel, and so “The Big Story is thus synonymous with what we call the Word of God and embodies our interpretation of the basic message of the Bible and the Christian tradition.” In the midst of this tradition told in the church, are the “little stories.” These refer “to the stories by which individuals and particular communities render their own concrete experience, the stories in which the coherence and the projects of communities are given expression.”
I think that one of the challenges of the synod is to allow people who have not been part of the mainstream to post their “little stories” on the church’s kiosk in order that they may see themselves as an intricate part of the “Big Story.” Doing this will sometimes result in discussion, challenge, and even furor. But then, as Jesus told his “little stories”, they certainly elicited similar strong reactions.
Is the synod necessary for salvation? Probably not, especially if it is isolated from the rest of the church. However, united, as it is in the ELCA’s three‑fold expression of congregation, synod and church‑wide, the synod becomes a part of the Church universal. In William Willimon’s words, “‘No salvation outside the church,’ is not so much a judgmental declaration as it is an affirmation that, wonder of wonders, salvation does occur (even!) in the church.”