How surprised I was to receive an emotional phone call from an acquaintance at the ELCA Churchwide Office asking how I could endorse such an attack on the ELCA! At first I didn’t know what my caller was talking about. But the 9.5 Theses had arrived by mail on Higgins Road; I hadn’t received my copy yet. When it came the next day there was my signature on the list of nearly 60 signatories to the Theses after the initial 8 pastors who had drafted them. The Theses had been mailed to the clergy on the ELCA roster, including those at the denomination’s Churchwide Office, to solicit more signatures by the Festival of the Holy Trinity, 1995. Eventually, more than a thousand pastors, teachers, bishops and lay people would sign. When I signed among the first group I had no idea who else might also subscribe. But when I looked at the initial list of signatories, I recognized the names of a number of respected bishops and pastors and I was proud to have my name among theirs.
But I was the only initial signatory from Illinois. So I was the object of phone calls from pastoral colleagues, like my acquaintance at the big house, asking why I did this. The answer I gave then is the answer I still give. I agree with the Theses that the root problem afflicting the ELCA is a crisis of faith, not just an institutional crisis. Whether there is a correlation between the two I don’t know. Nor do I regard any putative correlation as relevant since the church has never been called to be sociologically successful, only faithful to the gospel.
Furthermore, the 9.5 Theses were not an attack on the churchwide expression of the ELCA at 8765 W. Higgins Road but a wake-up call to the whole Church at every level of its expression. The letter accompanying this mailing clearly stated that “Now and again this crisis [of faith] erupts in church-wide controversy. But we believe that most of the damage is being done quietly, on the parish level, where ‘the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints’ (Jude 3) is replaced by ideologies not centered in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.” Or, in the words of the immortal Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
The most serious undermining of the faith occurs in the parishes. One still hears of instances of invocations and baptisms in names other than that of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in spite of the clear teaching of our bishops that no other name is to be used. Sin is downplayed in the frequent omission of the Brief Order for Confession and Forgiveness and in the nearly utter absence of any preaching of the law in its second use. Downplaying the unique saving work of Christ in his atoning sacrifice (which I take to be the essence of the gospel) follows from that. In fact, if sin is turned into sickness, which automatically gives one “victim” status, if death is no longer an “enemy,” and if personal evil has been relegated to the dust bin of mythology, what need is there of a gospel at all as it has been proclaimed in the Christian tradition as God’s victory over sin, death, and the devil? In the face of widespread theological accommodations to cultural sensitivities there is no visitation of pastors and parishes by bishops to ascertain just what is being preached and practiced.
I won’t let the ELCA off the hook entirely in this “crisis of faith.” Most of my contact with the ELCA is through printed material mailed to pastors and congregations. I would have to say that there’s not a lot of literature coming from the ELCA that supports Christians in their vocations as spouses, parents, craftspeople, professionals, employers or employees, but there is a lot of advocacy of selected causes and life styles. The effort to produce a church social statement on Human Sexuality did very little to address the fundamental social issue in our country, which is the 50% divorce rate and its deleterious effects on family life and the mental health of the children of divorced parents. The draft statement was a basically unhelpful document that was wisely shelved.
Church polity is up for grabs in the ELCA. On the one hand, a quota system based on biological and cultural accidents of birth is still in place in pursuit of elusive, inclusivist and multicultural goals rather than the discernment of gifts of the Spirit. On the other hand, we have among us plenty of pietistic Lutherans whose notion of the invisible church precludes making decisions that move in the direction of restoring the traditional church polity preferred by our Confessions but abandoned at the time of the Reformation because of the critical need to get the gospel preached and taught in the face of bishops who would have prevented it. Our churchwide assembly is constitutionally composed of 60% lay people who have no authority to exercise the public teaching ministry of the Church (according to Augustana XIV); yet these lay members who could outvote clergy on any issue are the ones who adopt church statements that tell the pastors what to teach. We no longer have a ministerium; we have “rostered persons” (or is it “persons of roster?’). The ministry has been professionalized and is often compartmentalized into various specialties. There seems to be little conviction that the church has an ordained ministry of word and sacraments to serve the apostolic function of calling the church to faith through preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments.
If I find the ELCA so unfaithful by confessional standards, why don’t I leave? I’ll admit that I’ve considered it. Like many others I’ve played the game of asking, “What church would you go to if the Lutheran Church ceased to exist tomorrow?” I’ve seen the dribbling away of respected pastors and teachers to Roman Catholicism (e.g. Richard John Neuhaus, Robert Wilken, David Gustafson, Jennifer Ferrara) and Eastern Orthodoxy (e.g. Michael Plekon, Sharon Zanter Ross, Jaroslav Pelikan, and now Robert Nelson from our own synod). But making a personal move to a different Christian tradition (and it would have to be to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy since most of the Protestant Churches are tempted by the same ideological seductions as the ELCA) would be difficult for me. Not just because I am married with children and have my future tied up with the ELCA Pension Plan, but also for faith reasons. I simply think like a Lutheran. If and when I enter into full communion with the Bishop of Rome and the Churches in communion with the apostolic see of the West (as I pray will someday happen), I want to do so along with my Lutheran brothers and sisters and with our own rite and practices of church life affirmed and respected under the rubric of reconcile diversity. Moreover, given my confessional ecumenical commitment to “decline or refuse nothing whatever, allowed by God and a good conscience, which may tend to bring about Christian concord” (Preface to the Augsburg Confession), I cannot imagine myself being comfortable in any Lutheran church bodies in the United States that tend to “decline and refuse” all actual expressions of Christian unity.
My evangelical catholicity and ecumenical interests are not self-taught; they were nurtured by the faith community in which I was baptized, confirmed, and ordained: the ULCA and the LCA. I’m not alienated from my ecclesial tradition; I’m in conflict with those who are eroding it. This very thought has prompted in me a new feistiness to stay and fight for my church and its faith in the midst of the cultural struggles in which we are engaged.
There are at least two weapons available with which to fight for the faith of the church within the Church. One is evangelical persuasion, which sometimes takes the form of argument and debate. Using a forum such as Let’s Talk is a way of engaging pastoral colleagues. The other is setting an example of faithfulness in worship, doctrine, and life. Given the frailties of the flesh, the influences of the world, and the assaults of the devil, having a support group in this endeavor is helpful. I’m happy to be a part of the newly formed pastoral Society of the Holy Trinity, living under the discipline of its Rule and supporting and being supported by my brothers and sisters in this new kind of religious order. One may also recognize that the struggle for the faith of the church is taking place within the Churches, not only in the ELCA, and look for kindred spirits and theological allies in other Churches. Confessionalism and ecumenism are not incompatible.
One of the most difficult things to do as a pastor is to deal with the reactions of members of one’s congregation when they discover aberrations in the ELCA’s faith and practice. “The faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” is still alive among the saints, for which I give thanks. I’ve decided that there’s no point in trying to hide the instances of the ELCA’s official acts of unfaithfulness; my constitutional duties, after all, require me to promote the Church’s magazine. Our people can read in The Lutheran that the ELCA Pension Plan was required, first by the churchwide council and then by the churchwide assembly, to pay for abortions. Whatever they might individually think about public policy concerning abortion, most Lutherans don’t like the idea that their offerings are paying for them. But they also need to be challenged by our own Catechism that there is no dichotomy between faith and morals, between the first commandment and the fifth. In both the issue is “fearing and loving God,” who is invested in his human creatures from beginning to end.
Our lay people can read that the Lutheran Youth Organization flirted with the idea of having a pre-Gathering conclave in the year 2000 for gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and trans-gender youth and gave up the idea only under the feeble pretext that they could not guarantee the safety of those who might attend such an event. Our lay people attend synod assemblies that have been exercises in the ecclesiastical version of the culture wars. And, yes, they have encountered at such assemblies worship leaders who publicly avoid saying the Name of the Trinity and participated in worship services that studiously avoid the historic cultural particularities of the Lutheran tradition. For example, not one classical Lutheran hymn was sung among all the hymns sung at the recent Assembly of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod.
The natural inclination of our laity is to raise the question of whether their congregation should consider leaving the ELCA or at least withholding benevolence contributions. I must tell my congregation what I tell myself: we are the ELCA too. At Immanuel we have a banner that was made for the congregation’s centennial celebration a few years ago. On it are the seals of the denominations of which Immanuel has been a part: the Augustana Lutheran Church, the Lutheran Church in America, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This congregation was at Lake and Sherman in downtown Evanston preaching the gospel, celebrating the sacraments, reaching out to others with the gospel and gathering in the faithful long before the ELCA was formed. What may be a new idea for us today is that there must be a loyal opposition to the Church within the Church.
American Lutherans have been synodically-organized. The name “synod” suggests “walking together,” but for too long that has meant walking lock-step. One is either loyal to the denomination or one leaves. But this has not been the whole history of Lutheranism in this country. We have not had only a tradition of splinter groups “walking out” instead of “walking together.” We have also had a tradition, stemming from one of our great Lutheran patriarchs, Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, of walking toward the unity of the church. This year marks the 250th anniversary of the first Lutheran synodical organization in North America, the Ministerium of Pennsylvania. The first meeting of the Ministerium also adopted Muhlenberg’s Liturgy as its common service. So the church was planted in a new pluralistic culture and revolutionary society with its confession, traditional polity and historic liturgy as sources of ecclesiastical identity and theological orthodoxy—and it flourished! The trajectory has not always been smooth. There were serious instances of cultural accommodation in the early nineteenth century in which doctrine slipped and liturgy disintegrated (the two usually go hand-in-hand). But the church recovered its bearings and moved on to establish its place in American society. This was an ecclesiastical tradition at once faithful to its confessional heritage, open to ecumenical cooperation, and willing to address issues in our society with a voice that bore witness to God’s rule over both of his kingdoms, using but not confusing law and gospel.
I’m sure that the drafters of the 9.5 Theses would have preferred to hold up this positive model and rally their fellow Lutherans around it. But the wake-up call of the Theses was necessary and it wouldn’t have aroused anyone without those alarming anathemas that so rub us the wrong way, formed as we have been in a culture that teaches tolerance of everybody and everything. But anathemas are necessary. You can’t stake out a claim for “no other God” without rejecting the false gods–by name. You can’t confess the gospel without saying what is not the gospel–not when there are so many false gospels clamoring for our people’s ears and loyalties. My hope is that the pastoral leaders of our Church will hear the alarm, wake up, and go to work to provide a vision for our Church of how our confessional commitments and missionary situation in America at this end of the modern age connect. We don’t need programs to accomplish this; we need our bishops to do the work of true evangelical bishops and pastors: preach the gospel and give leadership to the church’s mission of extending God’s kingdom. That’s what the apostolic office is all about.
If, as the Theses warn, the word of God can be silenced and driven out of the Church, it is time to speak the word and keep it in the Church. Bishop Anderson, in my humble opinion, should enlist the ablest and soundest bishops, pastors, and theologians to assist him in a great preaching and teaching mission. Let the Word of God sound forth–the Word which is Christ, the content of the Scripture and of the church’s preaching– and the faithful will rally and be energized for mission. But if it is too late, if the word of God has truly been silenced among us and driven out of the Church, then lamentably some of us will have to consider where else we can go to hear it and speak it.