The number of Christian denominations in North America is unknowable, perhaps in the vicinity of 3800. Since we don’t know precisely how many inadequate alternatives already exist, the absurdity of introducing a new one is more philosophical than mathematical. The number of Lutheran bodies is more easily established. Valparaiso University’s index puts it at 28. This census predated the founding of number 29, the North American Lutheran Church, in August. Twenty-eight bodies have tried and failed to uphold the true faith to the exacting standards of the fathers of the North American Lutheran Church. To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, schisms are the triumph of hope over experience.
I understand and even share many of the discontents the NALC founders feel toward the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. At the same time, it is unsurprising that the Biblical and confessional purism of Lutheran CORE has not driven them, especially the women, so far as to embrace the Missouri Synod. And yet there is already a body standing betwixt the two, a church in the cultural-theological sweet spot of accepting women but rejecting gay pastors: the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ. Sadly, in the words of Robert Benne, a “goodly number” of those fleeing the ELCA “are not eager to join Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ because it is more an association of congregations than a church.”1 If churchliness were at stake however, beyond the minimal ecclesiology Lutherans have typically relied upon since Augsburg VII, there are abundantly churchly churches available as well. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches come to mind, where one may take refuge from the tempest of Protestant factionalism. Should a specifically pro-woman, anti-gay version be desired, the new Anglican Church in North America would surely take any comers.
So we have come to this pass, and another dedicated group of people has sunk irrecoverable and precious hours of this vain life into writing yet another set of rules and bylaws for yet another body calling itself Lutheran in the hope that this one will avoid the doctrinal, political, and bureaucratic pitfalls that have made 3800 (or so) other Christian groups insufficiently holy, catholic, apostolic, Christ-centered, Mission-minded, and the rest of it. Did no one during this process take a moment to savor a chuckle? Did no one stop to consider that after all we are going to die, and who then will inherit our standing rules and continuing resolutions and disciplinary procedures? One need not be either a cynic or hostile to the undertaking to place rather low odds on such a venture long enduring, much less renewing and unifying the strands of confessional Lutheranism in North America.
Rather, it is likelier that such a step signals the coming end of interdenominational confessionalism. The new body, after all, has no distinctive mark apart from rejecting gay clergy. As Rev. David Ramirez, writing in Logia, observes, “Outside of the definite stance against homosexual behavior, the Common Confession [framed by Lutheran CORE and required for membership in the new body] tends to be vague on questions with which American Lutheranism has historically struggled.”2 This can mean one of two things: that major struggles over the meaning of confessional Lutheranism lie ahead for the new church, or that the imprecise language that plagues every CORE document merely signals a cultural and political equilibrium with which its members are comfortable. Should either confessional conflict or cultural shift challenge these ambiguities, however, the new church will be naked against the threat of further schism along whatsoever lines its discontented partisans should choose. The new confession on sexuality will not keep even this issue from surfacing again. Soon a closeted clergy or lay leader — of whom there will be a few — will turn up with an incriminating browser history or public incident, and the commitment of the new church to “biblical boundaries” of sexual conduct will require a good deal more definition than has heretofore been provided. “Can there be a more compelling embodiment of Lutheranism in North America than what has thus far been enacted?” Benne asks, and of course the answer will be “yes.” And it will still be “yes” next year when the NALC gets into the gritty work of being a denomination rather than a protest. It will be “yes” until the return of Christ. Benne and the new NALC are simply positing a Goldilocks ecclesiology — meaning no disrespect to Goldilocks, who after all only needed three alternatives to find one that was just right.
Yet if I cannot help but find this Lutheran adventure somewhat comical, it is a dark comedy. Many of those leaving are people we will miss when the debates in the ELCA turn to other topics. (I commend my colleague Frank Senn’s thoughts, elsewhere in this issue, on how the synods may extend charity to disaffected congregations, clergy, and seminarians who have for one reason or another not left the denomination.) If there was a virtue particular to the big, full-service, ungainly mainline denominations of yore, it was that they held the fealty of people with very different views on many issues. I do not care for Pastor Jaynan Clark’s intemperate rhetoric nor Benne’s talk-radio racial politics, yet I was glad to strive to live together in charity with them as fellow believers. That obligation is not broken by schism, but it is strained, and it is strained doubly, if we are to sort ourselves into ever more uniform factions. Whatever the intentions of its founders, this is what the NALC represents and enacts — not the revitalizing of a Lutheran doctrinal center, but the ultimate surrender of that center to the colonizing power of political allegiances, cultural identifications, and market segmentation. So one group of Christians breaking charity and fellowship with another manages to leave both parts poorer — the first for rejecting charity as a principle of church unity, the second for having less difference of opinion through which charity is exercised and built up.
Needless to say, if anyone reading this is considering leaving the ELCA for the NALC, I implore you to stay. In a world where the newspapers of record couldn’t even be bothered to note our newest schism, we may need each other more than we think.
Robert Benne, “Why There Must be New Beginnings,” http://lutherancore.org/papers/benne-beginnings.shtml accessed August 27, 2010.
David Ramirez, “The NALC and Lutheran CORE: The New ALC or the New ELCA?” http://logia.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=140&catid=39%3Aweb-forum&Itemid=76, accessed August 27, 2010.