It was easier for American Lutherans to practice schism in the 19th century. Whole synods moved in and out of fellowship with one another. In 1864 the delegates of the Ministerium of Pennsylvania walked out of the Convention of the General Synod over dissatisfaction with S. S. Schmucker’s Definite Synodical Platform and the admission of the unconfessional Franckean Synod to the General Synod. The Ministerium withdrew support of the General Synod’s Gettsburg Seminary and created its own more confessional seminary at Philadelphia. In 1866 the delegates from the Pennsylvania Ministerium were denied seating at the Fort Wayne Convention of the General Synod. The Ministerium then issued a letter to North American Lutheran synods proposing the formation of a new general synod along more conservative lines. Ten synods responded favorably and the General Council was organized at a convention in Fort Wayne a year later with thirteen member synods.
With the formation of the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches in 1976, the decision to leave became individualized and therefore more excruciating. Individual congregations had to decide whether they would leave the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod and join the new association. The same thing is happening today as individual congregations vote to leave the ELCA and join a different church body such as the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ or the newly-formed North American Lutheran Church. The process of voting to leave, which is quite complicated, can also produce schisms within congregations.
I joined Lutheran-CORE a year ago when it changed its name from Coalition for Reform to Coalition for Renewal. I advocated for CORE to become a pan-Lutheran free standing synod that would provide a confessional fellowship for congregations within and outside of the ELCA. I envisioned a convocation of congregations that came together to do what should be done in a synod (a meeting of those who walk together): pray and worship, study the Scriptures and strategize for mission. How edifying it could be to worship without ideological agendas, to hear sermons and celebrate Holy Communion, to work together on issues in congregational life and ministry such as evangelism and stewardship, catechesis and formation, etc. A pan-Lutheran free-standing synod would be a post-denominational churchly expression. I was disappointed that Lutheran-CORE devoted much of its energies to forming a new denomination. It was argued that this is what some congregations needed.
There are many issues that, taken together, are driving people out of the ELCA. It’s not just about (same-) sex. There is the issue of governance by biological categories (quotas) rather than by spiritual gifts and the authority of office (“regular call”). There is the issue of making official denominational pronouncements on public policies rather than cultivating the vocation of the laity who serve in the public arena. There is the issue of using an official worship book that suppresses the name of the Father. (Why, among other things, is the Gloria Patri omitted from the biblical canticles?) There is the issue of a global missions strategy that “accompanies” local churches in other parts of the world rather than directly preaching the gospel and making disciples. (Is the ELCA exempt from the Great Commission?)
And then there was the proverbial “last straw.” The social statement Gift and Trust could not achieve consensus in the interpretation of Scripture on the matter of homosexual relationships. It did not even bring up the texts for discussion. But on the basis of this lack of consensus the 2009 Churchwide Assembly acted to change standards of ministry. To be sure, the policy enacted offered to respect the “bound conscience” of congregations in the call process. But to many it was a clear sign that human experience (a form of reason) trumps the authority of Scripture in the ELCA.
Many are not convinced that it is possible to remain together in one denomination that embraces such vastly different spirits. Faithful Christian brothers and sisters are being driven out of the ELCA. I will not be one of them. I am remaining. “This Church” is in historical, if not theological continuity, with the Church I grew up in and have served as a pastor for over forty years. I am not alone.
I attended the CORE convocation in Columbus, Ohio and what impressed me most was how many people I knew. Dozens and dozens. I could retrace my own history on the basis of the people I reconnected with in Columbus. Many of them are remaining in the ELCA. Members of congregations that achieve a majority but not a super majority in the vote to leave are remaining. Many congregations are not taking a vote, even though they have members who are in disagreement with the ELCA’s decisions. Do the synod bishops have any gospel words of comfort and encouragement for the many members who are remaining but feel no enthusiasm for being part of the ELCA? So far they seem to be only wielding the law — constitutional law.
Responding to a failed vote to leave with “We’re glad you’re staying” because the congregation fell six votes shorts of two-thirds won’t win hearts and minds. Something more pastoral is needed. Surely just as parish pastors would try to draw disaffected members back into the life of the congregation, our synod bishops need to try to keep disaffected members of the ELCA and whole congregations from leaving and give them a reason to want to stay!
Some congregations are in the process of voting to leave, and bishops will be visiting them. If I were a bishop visiting such a congregation, I would take note of the congregation’s history in the ELCA (and its predecessor bodies), point out that the ELCA is a “churchly” structure rather than a sectarian one and explain that this requires “comprehension” of different points of view, appeal to our common theological convictions in Article II of the ELCA Constitution, and affirm that the theological convictions of the congregation will be respected. I would pray mightily for the Holy Spirit’s bonds of unity.
If congregations pass a second vote to leave anyway, bishops should receive the results graciously and pray for God’s blessing on the congregation in its new situation. In fact, the bishop should ask for the privilege of returning in person to conduct a rite of Godspeed and Farewell so that the congregation is sent forth recognized as brothers and sisters in Christ. Congregations that were formerly LCA should be allowed to leave with no strings attached — especially the financial strings of repaying mission grants. This can only appear as an unseemly form of blackmail: you have to pay to leave. Anyway, LCA mission grant contracts required repayment only if congregations disbanded, not if they voted to leave a successor denomination.
What can the ELCA bishops do to win back disaffected pastors and congregations who remain in the ELCA? They can start acting like evangelical bishops according to Article 28 of the Augsburg Confession. They can close down administrative offices we can no longer afford to maintain and visit congregations. They can preach the word of God, rightly dividing law and gospel, and celebrate the sacraments in the congregations of the synod. Hearing a clear proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ will encourage the faithful. The bishops can exercise the office of the keys and judge doctrine. They can’t undo the decisions of churchwide assemblies. But that includes the decision of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly that endorsed the 1993 Statement of the Conference of Bishops with regard to the blessing of same-sex unions. That decision was not rescinded by any action of the 2009 Churchwide Assembly. They can affirm respect for “bound consciences” in the calling of pastors, including pastors who are not in agreement with the 2009 decisions. They can ensure that the consciences of orthodox seminarians are respected in the seminaries.
The churchwide leadership should demonstrate graciousness toward LCMC and the NALC by establishing channels of communication and looking for areas of cooperation with these bodies just as the ELCA cooperates with the LCMS.
The ELCA Constitution should be amended to allow for dual rostering of congregations. There is more to be gained by allowing congregations to keep one foot in the ELCA rather than forcing them to take out both feet completely.
The ELCA Constitution should be amended to provide for a teaching authority in “this Church.” That magisterium is the Conference of Bishops. The bishops should sign off on any teaching documents (such as social statements) passed by the churchwide assembly.
Nineteenth century American Lutheran history shows that schisms do not need to be permanent. The schism between the General Synod and the General Council, and the Civil War-produced United Synod of the South, ended with the formation of the United Lutheran Church in America in 1918. Along the way these three synodical groups hastened their reunion by working together on various projects, including (especially!) the Common Service of 1888. But eventual reunion was also helped by the fact that the General Synod moved in a more confessional direction after the schism that produced the General Council. Pray God that history may repeat itself.