Wayne Cowell, one of the editors of this issue of Let’s Talk, wrote to Louis A. Smith, one of the authors of the 9.5 Theses, with questions about the reception of the theses in the church
You and your fellow authors of the 9.5 Theses have addressed the people in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and their pastors with solemn counsel that the ELCA is in a crisis of faith. You characterize the root of the crisis as a confrontation of the faith of the church with a spectrum of ideologies, the most prominent of which you identify as enthusiasm, fundamentalism, nationalism, pietism, activism, feminism, and advocacy.
You are careful to say that the impulses behind each of these have worth for our nation and church, but “none of these things comprises the biblical message committed to the church; when biblical faith is denied its own integrity and made subordinate to such ideologies, then there is crisis.” Your perception that such a crisis exists has compelled you to ask, “whether this church will prove faithful to the prophetic and apostolic Scriptures and the catholic creeds and evangelical confessions, or fall into apostasy …”
Together with your commentary as published in Lutheran Forum (Vol. 29, No. 4, November, 1995), your theses present a credible, clearly articulated statement of your case. Their publication provided terms of reference for a conversation in the ELCA that uses as a touchstone the confessional consensus which has bound the Lutheran enterprise together. Yet, more than two years after publication there is little awareness of the 9.5 Theses, virtually none among the laity. Some individual pastors have subscribed but the theses have languished in official silence rather than being heard as a call to reflection and dialogue, to confession and prayer. It is hard to see who is served by this official deafness.
We need such a conversation if we are to understand the implications of confessional faithfulness in the life of the church of the late twentieth century, from the worship life of the local congregation to the actions of the Churchwide Assembly. (It might be better to say “conversations” since each of the theses offers an opportunity for reflection and discussion.) Either someone will devise a different frame of reference (I have not seen one), or we will find an alternative to the failed “top-down” reception of the theses, or we will not have the conversation.
I would like to pose three clusters of questions to you, in the hope that your response will help us initiate a constructive discussion of the theses among the readers of Let’s Talk.
First, would you comment on the official silence following the publication of the theses. Have I been unduly pessimistic in my remarks above? Will it simply take more time?
Second, is it consistent with your call to “the people of the ELCA and their pastors” to encourage local congregations to be the principal loci of reflection and dialogue, confession and prayer? What problems and benefits are associated with such “localness?”
The third question is an attempt to probe the more general question of how confessing movements take root and spread, but with specific reference to the theses. In Epilogue/9.5 you tell of your struggle with the question of what to do, now that you had stated your case publicly. Deploring “politicization,” and knowing that there are no “steps” beyond faith, you conclude with nothing more (which is, at the same time, nothing less) than confession and prayer. I ask: If you were to write a reprise of Epilogue/9.5 in the light of what has happened since publication, would you give advice about the process of reception, about steps that might be taken in faith, not beyond faith?
Dr. Smith replied as follows:
With respect to the first cluster of questions:
First, I think it is important to note that the first response to the theses was not so much “official silence” as it was “official silencing.” Of course I didn’t see it first hand (it’s not the kind of thing that I would expect to see, given the source) but it was reported to me that the then Bishop of the Church issued a letter to the synodical Bishops and those who would be representing the ELCA at Synod assemblies, instructing them to not permit discussion of the theses. That is a very loud silence. It indicates to me that the theses struck a nerve. They surely, by my interpretation, struck a nerve with many pastors in the ELCA. Remember that, with the publishing of the theses, we did not pursue signatures with any follow-up effort. And even the original publication was mass mailed, and therefore in a format likely to be dismissed. We just didn’t have the money to do it any other way. It was heartening to us that we received the response that we did.
We also know that the theses were used in a variety of ways. Local clergy study groups used them for discussion purposes. They were used by a number of Lutheran groups in Australia. They made their way before the Church Council of our Canadian Lutheran partners. We received mail responses from Tanzania and one of our signatories, a Lutheran Pastor not serving a congregation, got his copy at an LWF meeting in Namibia. We even had a German translation made and published. So, in spite of “official silence” and “silencing,” significant discussion has happened.
s far as pessimism or optimism goes, well, I have at the time very little by way of positive expectation with respect to officialdom in the ELCA or any other American Church for that matter. I do now and will continue to pray for them. But I don’t pray to them and therefore my expectations were fairly low to begin with. It has something to do with the Psalmists reminder to not put trust in princes. (By the way, I have always encouraged my congregations to not place too much trust in me either, knowing my own mortality, so I don’t mean any of this in a particularly personal way.) But I think our present circumstance is exacerbated because of the bureaucratization and corporatization of our present institutions. The result, it seems to me, is that those who end up in those official positions these days are pretty well insulated from the actual life of the Church. When you couple that with the fact that, while the persons in those positions may be justified by faith, the positions themselves aren’t. They lie by what they produce and so if they are to continue, must always come up with something new. Can you imagine a department of the ELCA saying, “just use what you got last year?”
St. Paul said that we do not war against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. It seems to me that we almost always get it backwards. We assume that if we could only get the right people into the official positions (i.e. change the flesh and blood) it would be O.K. I doubt it. The positions (principalities and powers) will shape the people in the end.
Also, I think that Bishops in our church are in a tough spot. My friend Jim Nestingen from Luther Seminary has observed that American Lutheranism has in practice divided the office of Episcope in the Church. The theological part went to the Seminaries and the administrative element went to those we now call “Bishop.” (We used to call them “presidents” and I don’t see much difference in what they are asked to do just because we changed the title.) That seemed to work pretty well until quite recently when the Seminaries became captive to the academic study of religion rather than to the theology of the Church. Now with the cutting off of the theological branch, Bishops are pretty much left in the lurch. Our Bishops do not have the Altars, Pulpits and Fonts that are necessary to root their ministry in the actual tasks of Preaching and Sacraments. They have desks, phones and filing cabinets instead. They don’t evaluate, in their requested reports, sermons, catechetical instruction, or liturgical presidency. They check information concerning the change of numbers in members and budgets. Those are the kinds of things you can put into files.
So I suppose you’d say that I’m pessimistic about “officialdom.” When it comes to parish Pastors, however, I tend to be, probably not optimistic, but hopeful. Even folks who didn’t sign the theses have been encouraged to think some things through.
Will it simply take more time? I guess that I see time as being on God’s side. He surely has more of it to work with than we do. That might help explain one of the really hopeful elements in the Church’s history. That history is full of wrong turns and yet somehow the orthodox faith of the Church keeps resurfacing. I like to talk about the “Lutheran Confession of the Biblical Faith of the Catholic Church.” That is what we wanted to point to when we constructed and published the theses. I suspect that long after the 9.5 Theses are forgotten by everyone except the one bloke looking for a Ph D. topic in late 20th Century American Lutheranism, that Confession will still be around. That’s not an invitation to say that the theses shouldn’t now be pressed for discussion, but it is to place that activity in a proper framework.
Your second set of questions raises the issue of “localness,” wondering how the notion of congregations as loci of discussion jibes with the address of the theses to “the people of the ELCA and their pastors.” Well for starters, the people of the ELCA are in fact gathered in local congregations around their pastors as the ministers of the Word. So where else would the conversation and prayer take place? In fact, our local pastors have more in common with the Bishops of the ancient Church than those who bear the label “Bishop” in the ELCA (and not just the ELCA, by the way). After all, those ancient bishops “oversaw” the Gospel in its actual proclamation. They catechized and were responsible for discipline in the faith and morals of the community. And, after all, it is local congregations who actually do the mission of the Church in the world. They are the loci of actual evangelization and service. So where better for the conversation and prayer to happen?
Besides, it seems to me that the top-down programmatic style of church life that we’ve fallen into in the past years has mostly served to enervate pastors and congregations, who come to look like retail outlets for products produced somewhere else. So the encouragement of local thinking and practice might provide a welcome antidote. When the best that a synodical evangelism committee can come up with is to duplicate an evangelism manual from the Disciples of Christ and stamp “… Synod of the ELCA” on the cover, the poison directly affects the congregations to whom it is sent and who are encouraged to make use of it. If that’s where the poison is put then that’s where the antidote is needed.
And let’s be clear, “localism” and “congregationalism” are not the same thing; the local Churches that I have in mind are not isolated congregations, but congregations that are mutually accountable to one another. Then, reflection, dialogue, confession and prayer are an exercise in trans-congregational accountability.
In fact, I would argue that it is our bureaucratized and corporatized denominations (again, not just the ELCA!) that end up producing “congregationalism” because the program-product mentality puts local congregations in competition with one another. I now live within a 20 minute drive of 5 ELCA congregations and an LC-MS congregation. I could go to any one of them and so could any of the other members. How do I make the choice? It really should make no difference to either me or the congregations. But in a body where you are called on to report your numbers each year, it is pretty important to pastors and congregations to “attract” new members. You might even say that “product differentiation” becomes important. In the area that I came from there were Lutheran pastors who ran off to the Crystal Cathedral every year to learn how to become the Lutheran church growth operation. They were in no way accountable to other Lutheran congregations.
That, of course, is what is to be feared–congregations that are accountable to none but themselves. But there is no necessity for that to happen just because of local activity stimulated by the theses. In fact, congregations that take the time to reflect and pray about the matters addressed by the theses might find themselves more closely related to other congregations who did likewise; maybe even to some who didn’t.
I suppose that some could say that you create problems if you expose the ELCA to the light and thereby discourage institutional loyalty. But all I can say on that score is that to see it that way you’d have to be sitting in a radically different seat than the one I’m sitting in.
Your third question is one that I’d like not to take on. But that is just the Old Adam in me speaking, so I’ll try to silence him and address myself to the question. But I’d like to work backwards, if you will. That is to say, I’ll work from steps “in faith” to “how confessing movements take root and spread.”
Let me start by saying that whatever I end up saying, it is not to be taken as modifying in the least that the first and last act of faith is prayer and precisely the kind of prayer that we call “intercessory prayer.” I have come to resent the prayers that are called intercessions but really are little more than piously phrased auto suggestion, presuming that if God indeed does something, we will, of course, be the instruments. I want to start and end with the prayer that God will sustain and uphold His Church according to His promise, in His time and by the Instruments of His choosing. And having so prayed, I will confess Christ and His Gospel as clearly and as well as I can, so help me God.
Having said that, let me acknowledge that with the Old Adam not yet dead in me, there is no small temptation to lash out in frustration and just get mean. To do so is not bold confession but sheer unbelief. On the other hand, it is all too easy to become cautious and private and take no risks, thereby relaxing a tension that could be productive to the life of the Church.
Another thing that needs to be acknowledged is that any steps that proceed from these theses should involve conversation and mutuality.
A third item contains your word “process” in “process of reception.” I guess that I think that the word “process” throws us a curve ball. It seems to imply that there is some way to go about “receiving” this statement. I suggest that there isn’t. Readers of the documents will either perceive the truth of it or not. Those who do will move on that basis and those who don’t, won’t. But the receiving will either be or not be in the doing or not doing. There is no process whose end point is “Well, now I/we/they/you have received it.” To receive is to do.
My next point would be that we need to form a confessionally faithful catholic congregational life, which is to say, be Church in our own place and encourage others to do likewise. In this regard, every pastor needs all the help he or she can get: to institute weekly Eucharist or individual confession and absolution in positive ways; to do mutual reading of the classics of the faith in patristic and confessional sources; to learn to do theological exegesis according to Law and Gospel. All these can be done in the framework of the widely popular pericope study groups. Concerned Pastors can work in those groups and move them away from the “read a commentary and mine the text for sermon nuggets” approach that so often dominates them.
Some of us have worked to establish a pastoral society, The Society of the Holy Trinity, to work on just such matters. It is, I believe, a step “taken in faith.” It is highly unlikely that it could be used to “take back the Church,” even if we intended to try that (which we don’t). But it does make our commitments public and put in place some mechanism for mutual support, encouragement and accountability.
I would also suggest that we refuse to participate in a conspiracy of silence that acquiesces to public mischief. At synods or other such gatherings, we need to be willing to stand up and challenge when corruption appears. Whenever you’re tempted to retreat into “the silent majority” remember that the phrase comes from Homer and he used it to describe the dead on the plains at Troy. And when you remember, use the tongue that God gave you to confess the Word that He gave you. That was after all the real starting point of the theses themselves. When a resolution that wanted to put the doctrine of the Holy and Blessed Trinity on the table for revision, some of us “just said No” and the resultant prayer and conversation among us ended up in the composition and publication of the 9.5 Theses.
I would suggest that it is the public appearance of actual confessors that is the root of a confessing movement and that it is the continuing public speaking that will make it spread. Some place along the line some organizational skill will come into play, but confessing movements are about actual confessing, not the formation of organizations.
There has been–and there was among us–talk about withholding funds. There is no intrinsic reason why such a step could not be taken “in faith.” But it is a tricky business. For if the decision is taken, it must still be related to the Church beyond the congregation if it is to maintain integrity. It is important to make sure that there is not even a plausible appearance of local greed setting in. Any monies withheld from the ELCA should immediately be put into escrow and held for either future deliverance to the ELCA when satisfactory conditions are forthcoming, or for use in some previously determined trans-local mission venture. Local greed cannot confess Christ and His Gospel.
I also want to say that confessing movements are really about the unity of the Church. To unbelief they always appear fractious and so you can be sure that if you decide to confess publicly, you will be accused of doing damage to the unity of the Church. When that happens, please take the time to read Luther’s comment on Psalm 118:22, “The Stone which the builders rejected has become the chief Cornerstone.”
Note who they are who reject this stone. They are not simple folk, but the best, that is, the holiest, wisest, most learned, greatest and noblest. These are offended. The poor, miserable sinners, the downcast, the wanderers, the despised, the little people, and the unlearned accept Him joyfully. Those others are called builders, that is they edify, improve, and govern for the good of the people by preaching and teaching. They are not called destroyers, wreckers, or bunglers. They are builders, the most necessary, most useful and best people on earth. Were it not for them, the skies would cave in before nightfall, and land and people would be destroyed. These are the rulers of the spiritual and temporal estates, whose laws govern land and people, and who would also teach God… They rejected this stone and could not tolerate it in their building or government. They knew better.
So, then, if kings, princes, bishops, lords, saints, the wise, the prudent, the rich, and the learned persecute the Gospel, this is not surprising. Who else would do it? No one else can. If there is to be persecution, they must do it; for they are the “builders.” They do it ex officio; for they must see to it that their building has no crack, rent, or disfiguration. Therefore they cannot tolerate the Word of God or those who declare it, for such a person disfigures their building by causing cracks or rents in it. He is a rabble-rouser who misleads the people whom they have so beautifully edified, ordered, and organized. His way of doing things is entirely different from theirs. (Luther’s Works, American Edition, Vol. 14, pp.96f.)