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What to Expect from the Bishops

James A. Nestingen

April 16, 2010

The controversy fired by the Minneapolis assembly vote ratifying practicing homosexual pastors has exposed a major change in the office of the bishop carried out by the ELCA. The bishops themselves have compounded the difference. The net effect leaves congregations and pastors objecting to the Minneapolis vote without voice or standing. The bishops arrive in parishes not to give an ear to both sides but to enforce the Minneapolis vote. According to numerous reports, they are not shy about using force in the process.

Traditionally, the bishops have been thought to hold three responsibilities. The first appears in the oath of office, in which bishops—like all pastors—promise to preach and teach the word of God according to the Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. The second, going by the usual assumptions, would be to represent and serve the synod electing the bishop and funding the enterprise. Thirdly, the bishops individually and collectively serve the national church.

While the traditional assumptions have been left in place, in actual fact the ELCA has turned the office over. The bishops are still elected according to the procedures provided in the synods and they still officially are supposed to serve pastors and congregations, particularly at the point of call. But like the national assembly’s voting delegates who upon election have no further accountability to those who elected them, once the bishops have assumed the office they do not represent either the pastors or the congregations. The third part of the office crowds out the other two: the bishops become officers of the national church who serve to implement the church’s plans and policies. Accordingly, their oath of office has been redefined: they preach and teach the word of God according to Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions as interpreted by the national church. By the same token, they serve the congregation as directed by the national church council and the presiding bishop.

This redefinition of the bishops as officers of the national church has been reinforced by the bishops’ own circling of the wagons. According to several estimates, they spend one-third of their time away from their synods, working together for the “churchwide.” A series of decisions has put them at the front line in the challenges that have faced the clergy and the congregations. Under such pressure, they have learned to rely on one another, developing strong friendships in the process. Mutual reliance and loyalty have forged the bishops together in a powerful bond. Keeping in regular touch through a private internet sight, their first reference is to the presiding bishop and one another. Several of the bishops have spoken directly of their fear of risking their standing with the others.

The effect of this reconfiguration and the entrenchment that has gone with it has shown up in the controversy following the Minneapolis decision. Early in the spring last year, sensing possible trouble, the bishops asked the church council for modifications in the proposal presented in August. This request failed. At least ten of the bishops have confided their opposition to the change in visions and expectations in favor of practicing homosexuals. But with rare and still quiet reservation, those who were hesitant have been pushed along by the biggest majority of the bishops, who voted in favor.

By several reports, neither national officials nor the bishops anticipated the force of the reaction to the Minneapolis vote. If the congregations had gotten their say, they would have most likely looked for a way to be nice to practicing homosexuals without compromising the authority of Scripture. Unrepresented, out maneuvered and outvoted, many congregations have reacted with fury against both the advocates and the strident opposition. Given the biblical word, given the Sixth Commandment, practicing homosexuality should never have become an issue. Consequently, objecting congregations have punished the national church and the synods financially. The result has been extensive layoffs and cutbacks across the boards.

Instead of driving a search for peace, however, the strong reaction to the ELCA’s errant leadership has made the bishops all the more determined to enforce the Minneapolis decision. There are some real exceptions—genuine, God fearing bishops who love Christ Jesus and will mix it up with sinners any day. But generally, the bishops are scared of what is unfolding and so quick to resort to coercion. There have been reports of open hostility, verbal abuse, intimidation, threats and punishment. So, too, some parishes that have scheduled votes to leave the ELCA tell of their bishop patrolling the parish, looking to qualify inactive members to tip the vote in favor of staying. In such circumstances, both sides lose.

Whatever the truth of these reports—usually it is a little less dramatic—they are enough to show the importance of being careful. Those who stand with the biblical word on sexual matters, who therefore stand with the largest majority of Lutherans and other Christians throughout the world, are in the ELCA a minority without standing. If like Luther, your conscience is bound by the word of God, you can’t count on either the bishop’s respect or encouragement. Rather, you have to expect that no matter what your previous relationship, the bishop regards you as a problem to be solved and will use the office accordingly.