The 1991 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America churchwide assembly adopted "A Declaration of Ecumenical Commitment: A Policy Statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America." This policy is the basis for full communion relationships with other Christian denominations. The document lists six characteristics of full communion relationships.
The first and necessary condition for a full communion relationship is "a common confessing of the Christian faith," implying agreement in the Gospel. Hence the ELCA policy cites article VII of the Augsburg Confession repeatedly: "for the true unity of the church it is enough to agree concerning the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments."
With that in mind, consider this answer by Katharine Jefferts Schori, the new presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, when asked by Time magazine in July, "Is belief in Jesus the only way to get to heaven?"
"We who practice the Christian tradition understand him as our vehicle to the divine. But for us to assume that God could not act in other ways is, I think, to put God in an awfully small box."
She must firmly believe this because in an interview last month with the Associated Press she responded similarly: "If we insist we know the one way to God, we've put God in a very small box."
When asked why she said, "Our mother Jesus gives birth to a new creation and we are his children," in her sermon at the Episcopal convention this summer, she replied: "It was very deliberate and conscious. I was wrestling with the image of blood on the cross, the image of labour. It's medieval imagery actually, Julian of Norwich. It seemed appropriate to the text and the hard work we are trying to do in this place."
Major leaders of some our other full communion partner denominations --the Presbyterian Church USA and the United Church of Christ--often make similar statements. Stepping outside the boundaries of the orthodox faith occurs regularly in mainline denominations.
The Presbyterian Church's 2006 General Assembly approved a document, "The Trinity: God's Love Overflowing," that commends the study and use of a multitude of images for the Triune God, including "Compassionate Mother, Beloved Child and Life-giving Womb." The document only specifies the use of the revealed name of the Triune God--Father, Son and Holy Spirit--in the baptismal formula. Otherwise Presbyterians are encouraged to explore other options.
Given the above, it is hollow to say that the ELCA is in full communion with these denominations in any truthful sense if the first and necessary condition is "a common confessing of the Christian faith."
"Called to Common Mission," the full communion agreement between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church, claims that bishops who are ordained into an historic episcopate are "a sign, though not a guarantee, of the unity and apostolic continuity of the whole church." Clearly Schori and the colleagues that voted for her are neither a guarantee nor a sign of unity and apostolic continuity. They are the opposite--a guarantee and a sign of the disunity and heterodoxy within their own denomination. They have cut themselves off from most of the rest of the Anglican Communion and other orthodox Christian churches.
Even if there was genuine agreement in the Gospel and a common confessing of the Christian faith when the Lutheran-Episcopal dialogues began in the 1960s, can it be maintained credibly that there is a common confessing of the faith in 2006? The same question should be asked of the ELCA relationship with the PCUSA and the UCC. Denominations change and their leaders change. Any of us can drift outside the boundaries of the faith into heterodoxy and heresy. An assembly's approval of a full communion agreement is no guarantee of either party's apostolic continuity.
The ELCA's full communion agreements should all be re-examined in the light of only one question: Is there agreement in the Gospel and a common confessing of the Christian faith? Forget all the other important matters--the real presence of Christ in the sacrament and the historic episcopate--and look at only one thing: Do we confess Jesus Christ as the only way to salvation?
Do we even have agreement in the Gospel and a common confessing of the Christian faith within the ELCA? Bishop Mark Hanson regularly asks, "But which Gospel are we proclaiming?" His question rightly assumes the proclamation of false gospels. Perhaps there are ELCA leaders who agree with Schori that Jesus may not be the only way to salvation.
Why have our ELCA bishops, in particular, been silent in the face of statements such as Schori's that explicitly deny the Christian faith? Most of our bishops have been ordained into the historic episcopate now. If the claim made in CCM is true, why aren't our bishops functioning as "a sign of unity and apostolic continuity" in the face of denials of the faith by our full communion partners? Where is the bold confession from our bishops along with Peter that "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved."
Where is the bold confession of Jesus' own words, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me"?
Surely we can expect at least one of our bishops to tell Schori that God put Himself in a box by sending his only Son to be born of Mary and placed in the small box of a manger. Then when Jesus had the audacity to proclaim that he is the only way, we put him on a cross and in a tomb, another box, but one that he triumphantly left empty.
"How can some of you be saying there is no resurrection from the dead? If there is no resurrection from the dead, Christ himself cannot have been raised, and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is useless and your believing it is useless . . . and if Christ has not been raised, you are still in your sins. And what is more serious, all who have died in Christ have perished. If our hope in Christ has been for this life only, we are the most unfortunate of all people." 1 Corinthians 15: 13-14 and 17-19