Ever since Lutheran CORE announced its intention to be a “free-standing synod” at its Convocation in September of 2009, folks have been scratching their heads trying to figure out what that phrase means. In the six months or so since that gathering, several assumptions have been made as to what Lutheran CORE must be up to, and what its adherents mean when speaking of a “free-standing synod.” Some assume that Lutheran CORE is in the process of splitting away from the ELCA and is becoming a separate church body/denomination. Others see the word “synod” and think we must mean a non-geographic synod, similar to the Slovak-Zion Synod in the ELCA.
Being a member of Lutheran CORE does not do anything to one’s . . . participation in the ELCA.
Neither of those assumptions is correct. Lutheran CORE is not, and will not become, a church body or denomination. Joining Lutheran CORE in and of itself, whether as an individual or as a congregation, does not change one’s relationship to one’s current church body, whether that church body is the ELCA or any other denomination. As I have repeated in many presentations to congregations asking questions about Lutheran CORE, being a member of Lutheran CORE does not do anything to one’s membership or participation in the ELCA. Being in both at the same time is not only possible, it is being done now by many who will continue to be in both the ELCA and in Lutheran CORE for the foreseeable future.
Likewise, Lutheran CORE does not seek to become a non-geographic synod in the ELCA. Such a designation has never been sought by the steering committee of Lutheran CORE, for a number of reasons. The most obvious reason not to seek such a status is that there is little to no possibility that such a move would be supported by the Church Council of the ELCA, or by any future churchwide assembly.
In addition, Lutheran CORE values its status in being independent of the structure of the ELCA. Independence allows it the freedom to be critical of recent decisions reached by the churchwide assembly of the ELCA, as well as those policy changes that are in the process of being reached by the church council and other churchwide offices following that assembly’s mandate. Lutheran CORE renounced its recognition as an “Independent Lutheran Organization” (ILO) because it realized that its rejection of the actions of the 2009 Assembly in passing the Social Statement on Human Sexuality (and the implementing resolutions) and the Ministry Recommendations meant that it would no longer be able to claim that it was “working compatibly with the programs of churchwide units.” It may be ironic that in order to actually be an independent Lutheran organization, Lutheran CORE had to renounce the Church Council’s recognition of it as an ILO!
A Free Standing Synod
So far I have been explaining what Lutheran CORE does not mean by the phrase, “free standing synod.” But now, how do we define that descriptive phrase? Let me go back to the words of Pastor Paull Spring, chair of the Lutheran CORE steering committee, as he described it on September 25 in his address to the convocation:
“Lutheran CORE will be re-forming itself — God willing — along the following lines.
“A. We will become more intentionally a confessional and confessing movement. A movement moves and is not static. Part of our movement will be back to the past, to Jesus and the great acts of our salvation . . . back to the past of 325, when the Nicene Creed was professed . . . back to the Reformation that reforming movement within the whole church, when the truth of the Word of God was reaffirmed in the midst of the church catholic. But as a movement, we want to look to the future as well. And we want to engage in the mission that God places before us in the present . . . Our movement will be a confessional one. We will root ourselves in God’s Word of Law and Gospel, as recorded for us in the Holy Scriptures. We will surround our reading of the Scriptures with the ecumenical creeds and the witness of the Lutheran Confessions . . ..
“B. We will become a churchly community and fellowship. We will find our identity in the words of the seventh article of the Augsburg Confession . . . We will find our sense of community as Luther identified it in his treatise “On the Councils and the Church” . . . We do not aim to be schismatic or sectarian. We want to be church, God’s people and Christ’s body.
“C. We will be a free standing synod. The word “synod” comes from two Greek words that mean either a “gathering” or “on the way together.” As individuals and as congregations some may remain members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America for a time, but our relationship will be largely formal and external. Others may well choose other institutional relationships within the Lutheran family . . . But Lutheran CORE will be a free-standing synod for all faithful Lutherans . . . We will be free-standing, not a part of the structure of the ELCA . . .
Lutheran CORE . . . will be a coalition, an association, an alternative community.
“D. We will serve as an umbrella for other reform movements . . . Part of our vision is to stay together now . . . We’re going to stay together, and Lutheran CORE will continue to work with other reform movements . . .
“E. Lutheran CORE, therefore, will be a coalition, an association, an alternative community. For congregations who choose to join with us. For the other reform movements who are partners with us. And for the many individuals, lay people and pastors, who now feel marginalized within the ELCA. We will be a coalition of movements, congregations, and individuals.” (Spring, Paull E. “A Vision for Lutheran CORE.” Address given at the Lutheran CORE Convocation, September 25, 2009, Fishers, Indiana.)
Three New Elements
In Pastor Spring’s address, the above points are not so much a sequential blueprint for an organization, but rather a layering of descriptive statements regarding what Lutheran CORE was in the process of becoming. Some of these elements had been part of Lutheran CORE from its inception in November of 2005: a coalition serving as an umbrella for other reform movements, one that would stay together because of common beliefs and concerns regarding pressing issues in the ELCA, and one that would form an alternative community for those experiencing marginalization in the ELCA.
But other elements in Pastor Spring’s address are either new or take on new importance in the situation post-August 2009 Assembly. In particular are those elements which are described in points A, B, and C: a “confessional and confessing movement,” “a churchly community and fellowship,” and “a free-standing synod.” These three elements have taken prominence as the reactions to the decisions of the August 2009 Assembly have unfolded, resulting in what must be described as a crisis within the ELCA. Synodical bishops and their staffs have been consumed with making time for congregations and pastors who are at times confused by the decisions of the 2009 Assembly and what these decisions mean for their future, and at times in open rebellion against those decisions. These reactions have taken different forms in different locales (and indeed, in some locales the reactions have been how to properly celebrate the decisions of the Assembly while being sensitive to those who “lost the votes”).
Sadly, some [congregations] have cut to the chase and bluntly asked, “How do we leave?”
A number of congregations, laity as well as rostered leaders, have sought guidance on how to be in “confessional resistance” to the 2009 Churchwide decisions. They have asked from where they are to seek pastors who will preach and teach in opposition to the Churchwide Assembly decisions. While many (though not all) see returning to synod assemblies with resolutions to overturn the 2009 decisions as being a waste of time and effort, they wonder to what extent they can in good conscience participate at all in synodical assemblies, local conference gatherings, or in any of the many other “churchly community and fellowship” opportunities that are promoted in the ELCA (youth gatherings, WELCA activities and camping ministries being among the most-often mentioned). And, sadly, some have cut to the chase and bluntly asked, “How do we leave?”
The decision of Lutheran CORE, to re-form itself into a free-standing synod which would be both churchly community and fellowship for those seeking to do ministry as members of the Lutheran expression of the church catholic, and a confessing movement in confessional resistance to the decisions on human sexuality reached at the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, is this organization’s response to the current crisis in North American Christianity as experienced in the ELCA. This decision reflects this organization’s experience before and during the August assembly in Minneapolis, and must be understood in the light of that time.
Prior to the August 2009 Churchwide Assembly, Lutheran CORE was structured as a coalition of reform movements within the ELCA, with its reason for existence the reformation of the ELCA from a constitutional organization in which all matters (including doctrinal) that were not spelled out in the constitutional documents were open for defining and re-defining by either the churchwide assembly or the church council of the ELCA, into a confessional church body which acknowledged certain received teachings as being, at the least, privileged in discussion, if not unchallengeable. (For the sake of argument, I would propose “Jesus Christ is Lord” as being an unchallengeable teaching, while “Marriage cannot be re-defined to include two people of the same gender” as being a privileged but challengeable teaching.) But that possibility of reform of the ELCA died on the floor of the 2009 Assembly. The work of reform, as Lutheran CORE had conducted it up to that point, was very much invested in working with voting members to churchwide assemblies in order to help them understand how to oppose proposals for changing the ministry standards and policies of the ELCA. While Lutheran CORE had never seen itself as being only about that one issue (the issue of GLBT persons in sexual relationships serving on the roster of the ELCA and the blessing of same-gender unions), it was that issue that consistently got the attention of voting members, synod and churchwide assemblies, and the news media.
As the Assembly voted in favor of the Social Statement on Human Sexuality, its implementing resolutions, and the ministry recommendations, the leaders in Lutheran CORE realized that reform could no longer be pursued in the way it had been. To do so would mean that Lutheran CORE would become more about what it was against than what it was for. Lutheran CORE would have to focus intently on what was negative about the ELCA, for mounting a campaign (in reality, many multi-year campaigns) to reverse decisions of a Churchwide Assembly would require an extreme singularity of focus to the exclusion of all other goals, worthy though they might be. The likelihood of success in such an endeavor, either in the short or long-term, was dismal. And the cost, both to Lutheran CORE and to the ELCA, would be increasingly negative and unchurchly.
Renewal, Not Reform
Lutheran CORE chose a different road. It changed its name from Lutheran Coalition for Reform to Lutheran Coalition for Renewal. The renewal began with Lutheran CORE itself, as it began to change its purpose. As members of the steering committee have spoken about the possibility of a “reconfiguration of North American Lutheranism,” often this has been understood as a sort of code language for “a new Lutheran denomination.” (Unfortunately, this has been the case even with members of the steering committee themselves, which has been one of the causes of the confusion regarding what Lutheran CORE is trying to do now!)
However, this understanding is incorrect. Rather, the biggest part of this “reconfiguration” is the reconfiguration of Lutheran CORE itself. The current and future work that lies before Lutheran CORE includes becoming a free-standing synod that is both within and outside of the ELCA, that sees its mission as working with those who claim the traditionally Lutheran and confessional interpretation of both Scripture and the Confessions on such matters as sexual relations and marriage, language used in worship and education for the Holy Trinity (including the Name of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit and the allowance of masculine pronouns when speaking of the God of the Christian faith), and witnessing to all nations that Jesus Christ is Lord and is the only source of salvation for all people.
Pan-Lutheran; Not a Denomination
This free-standing synod will be pan-Lutheran. It will not be a denomination; there is no intention to take on the work of a denomination (such as examining candidates for ordination and ordaining approved candidates to the office of the ministry, either extraordinarily or in any other way). It is not a split from the ELCA; no one is being required or even asked to leave the ELCA in order to work with Lutheran CORE; rather, it is in service of those remaining in the ELCA who seek to resist the recent decisions and the impending policy changes while witnessing from within to what many believe is the truth of the Church’s teaching on these matters.
This free-standing synod is open to Lutherans outside of the ELCA membership.
At the same time, this free-standing synod is open to those Lutherans outside of the ELCA membership who also confess the same interpretation of Scripture and Confessions on these matters. Some of these members will be those who are leaving the ELCA because of their rejection of the direction this church body is taking; others will be those who may never have been in the ELCA at all, but who as Lutherans wish to work together in this common cause. While the ELCA has been involved in pan-Lutheran relationships through its membership in the Lutheran World Federation, it has been unable (or perhaps at times unwilling) to establish such relationships with more conservative branches of the Lutheran family within North America. It would be a hopeful sign if Lutheran CORE, as a free-standing synod including but not limited to those within the ELCA, could find a way to establish dialogue and some working relationship with some of these more conservative Lutheran denominations, most of which reject both the ordination of active homosexuals and women. Lutheran CORE, despite derisive comments from some, firmly supports the ordination of women; however, its approach to that support may open a path to more constructive discussion with those bodies that do not find support for women’s ordination in Scripture.
Discussion, Discernment, Support and Guidance
In fact, far from being a body that encourages schism and separation from the ELCA, Lutheran CORE as a free-standing synod would provide strength and encouragement to those remaining inside the ELCA in spite of their rejection of the 2009 decisions and the resulting policy changes. How? In part, by providing prayerful support and communication among those whose isolation in their conferences and synods threatens to become more pronounced and painful in the coming months and years. Lutheran CORE gatherings can be a time for worship together gathered around Word and Sacrament, offering up the depth as well as the breadth of Christian worship in the Lutheran tradition. And Lutheran CORE gatherings, both at the yearly convocation and in more frequent local events, can be places for discussion and prayerful discernment regarding what a careful witness to the truth of the Christian faith must entail, especially for those remaining in the ELCA. Participants in Lutheran CORE can assist one another in finding resources for education, mission and evangelism that are fully Lutheran but that also reflect the concerns of Lutheran CORE members. Support and guidance of seminarians who are seeking to serve the traditionally orthodox ELCA congregations who are affiliated with Lutheran CORE would be another way in which this free-standing synod could be of benefit to those seeking to find a way to remain in the ELCA.
Lutheran CORE . . . would provide strength and encouragement to those remaining inside the ELCA.
This last part could be extremely important going forward, not only for those individuals, lay and rostered, in the ELCA who oppose the policy changes regarding GLBT persons who are in same-gender relationships, but also for those who are in agreement with the new policy directions. No one will argue that everything regarding human sexuality, especially regarding the status of those who define their orientation as that of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, has been settled by the August decisions of the Assembly. The years of discussion of the proposed social statement has revealed the extreme difficulty we Lutherans have had with discussing and dealing with the issues of divorce and premarital sex among heterosexuals. In addition to much-needed work in those areas of human life, many who are opposed to the August 2009 decisions still seek counsel on how to minister pastorally to those who are gay or lesbian, along with their families and close friends. Lutheran CORE, as a free-standing synod, can work to bring together people and resources to responsibly explore these questions and concerns. It may be possible to find some areas of common concern among those on both sides of the sexual ethic divide, in ways that may allow for common discussion and study that will prove beneficial to the level of pastoral care given by all in the ELCA.
Reclaiming Chastity and Celebacy
In fact, one area of human sexuality that has received very little attention over the past ten years is that of providing positive support for those who are single and striving to live a chaste life, as well as those who believe that they are being called to remain celibate. The vocation of the single, unmarried (or unpartnered if one is talking about a same-gender relationship) person is barely touched on in the recently approved Social Statement.
The Lutheran emphasis on vocation, which sees the married state as a call from God, also claims living as a single person to be a calling as well. This is quite distinct from the popular cultural view of life as a single person, at least if what one sees on many television shows is any indication. A single person who is not engaged in sexual activity most of the time is viewed often with sympathy mixed with humor, and at times with scorn. To deliberately choose to refrain or abstain from sexual relations with another person of either the opposite or the same sex is viewed as quaint, at best.
The Lutheran emphasis on vocation . . . also claims living as a single person to be a calling.
As a free-standing synod, Lutheran CORE could seek to develop ways to support those who are called to live chastely as single adults whether they are laity or clergy, in the ELCA or in any number of Lutheran church bodies. This support will be even more crucial for those who are gay or lesbian who are traditional in their understanding of Christian teaching on sexual ethics and who wish to serve in Lutheran CORE supportive congregations in the ELCA.
Mission Support Dollars
Another area that needs further discussion and exploration by Lutheran CORE as a free-standing synod is what staying in the ELCA looks like for those continuing to reject the 2009 decisions of the Churchwide Assembly. One area that is troubling to many is the whole matter of financial support by congregations through their mission support to the synods and churchwide levels. For those congregations and individuals who reject the 2009 decisions regarding human sexuality policies, the redirecting of mission support dollars is a strong indicator of how deeply impaired these relationships are in the ELCA. That this redirection is having some negative impact on both synods and churchwide offices is evident, though difficult to gauge fully, given the current state of the nation’s economy. It is difficult to remain objective when one is in the midst of declining revenue; however, it is important to remember that this redirection can provide an opportunity for honest discussion of the purpose of mission share offerings.
It is difficult to remain objective when one is in the midst of declining revenue.
What appears to be transparency in financial reporting at one level may in fact be anything but clear communication at another level. Congregations and members who believe they have been shut out of the system of decision-making will not be eager to continue to fund the organization that has shut them out. Whether or not this perception is correct, it needs to be addressed, multiple times and in multiple ways. Lutheran CORE, as a free standing synod, needs to be willing to provide a measured rationale for when redirecting both is and is not appropriate for those remaining in a church body that they deem to be in grave error. Rather than jump to the question of the constitutionality of such re-directing, it may be more prudent (and display better churchmanship) for the ELCA and Lutheran CORE both to approach this from the perspective of the writings of Paul in 1st Corinthians. Can the issue be addressed from the perspective of what truly builds up the whole body — redirecting monies may be lawful, but is it ever helpful?
Lutheran CORE Constitution
The basis for exploration and discussion of these and other matters rests in the Lutheran CORE constitution that was adopted last September. “Chapter 5: Statement of Purpose” lists eight points by which Lutheran CORE will conduct itself as a free-standing synod. From the first point of strengthening of faith and life for individuals and congregations, through the eighth point of striving to engage in shared ministry with synods who share the convictions and commitments of Lutheran CORE, these points support and guide the work of the task forces that were established following the September convocation. Whether in regards to theological education, congregational life, or evangelical outreach, these working groups are exploring how, as a free-standing synod walking together, those involved with Lutheran CORE will “work for reform and renewal of the Lutheran community and . . . advocate for Biblical authority and Lutheran confessional identity.” In this section of its constitution Lutheran CORE commits itself to “Cooperate, wherever possible, with synods and other units within the ELCA and support faithful ministries . . .” While the shape and direction this cooperation will take is still in the very early stages (and, admittedly, in some places is nearly non-existent or even antagonistic), the fact that this is stated as part of the purpose of Lutheran CORE’s continued existence should serve to call Lutherans on both sides of the current divisions to actively seek ways to cooperate in building up the Body of Christ.
Vision and Planning Proposal
I cannot conclude this article without making reference to the recent release in February of “A Vision and Plan for the North American Lutheran Church and Lutheran CORE, a community of confessing Lutherans.” This document, prepared by the Vision and Planning working group in Lutheran CORE, proposes many things, but for the purpose of this article I will comment on only one: a proposed change to the Lutheran CORE constitution. Rather than describe itself as a free-standing synod, the language in the constitution would be changed to read: “An association, providing a sense of Christian community and Lutheran identity and making available resources for mission, theological and lay education and the call process.” Members of the Vision and Planning working group explained that the use of the word “synod” was continuing to be too difficult to explain, especially given the specific usage of that word in the life of the ELCA. Rather than continue to confuse people by trying to use “synod” in a way that ELCA Lutherans were finding confusing and contradictory, it would be better to replace it with the term “association.”
While I fully understand the concern expressed by the Vision and Planning group, and have dealt personally with the frustration of trying to explain how “free-standing synod” does not mean becoming a separate church body in competition with or schismatic from the ELCA, I remain opposed to the change in terms. A free-standing synod says something profound about the nature of the organization that Lutheran CORE is in the process of becoming. It is claiming churchly language in order to stake the claim that it stands in the heritage of other confessing movements, which always sought to bring renewal from within the midst of the Church as it exists on earth.
A Different Way of Moving Forward
Such movements did their work by getting on with the mission and ministry that Christ gave to his Church, and not by seeking organizational or political change in the ranks of the earthly church’s administration or constitution. To claim to be a free-standing synod is challenging beyond the question of defining technical terms: it challenges the members and leaders of Lutheran CORE itself, as well as that of the ELCA, to find ways to go forward with the mission of the Church without giving in to the temptation to waste time and treasure in endless political maneuvering that threatens only to mire all parties in increased recriminations and hostility.
In the midst of real division and potentially church-dividing disagreement, the vision of Lutheran CORE becoming a free-standing synod holds the possibility, even the promise, of a different way of moving forward. While not ignoring the facts that some congregations will, and indeed are making decisions that will take them out of the ELCA and into new denominational relationships, Lutheran CORE as a free-standing synod could try to do something new: reconfigure North American Lutheranism by coloring outside the lines of all the Lutheran denominational boundaries, rather than by attempting to redraw those lines. It is a new dream for Lutheran unity.
What I have come to realize, out of all of this struggle in the ELCA, is that Lutheran unity doesn’t depend on a single monolithic denominational “big tent” structure. A free-standing synod for those who are struggling to maintain and give voice to traditional, confessional, Biblical Lutheran identity within the one, holy, catholic and Apostolic Church, a synod which is seeking to connect all who share that struggle, without asking for or requiring anyone to leave their denominations in order to work with and support one another, is an idea whose time may be now. It is audacious. It is bold. It may also be an impossible dream. But I am convinced that it must be tried, now, by Lutheran CORE.