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Reflections on the Past—in Hopes of an Alternative Future

by Dr. James Nestingen (Professor Emeritus, Luther Seminar, St. Paul, MN)

WA Conference 2002


photo of Dr. NestingenThough I am not formally a member of WordAlone, you folks have been a steady source of encouragement and strength. That was particularly true last summer, in Indianapolis, when a little coalition of us went to the churchwide assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America to make our witness. A number of key people from WordAlone--Al Quie, Paul Erickson, George Weinmann and many others, along with folks from other parts of the church--kept things on track and positive. Each time I went before the assembly to speak, we gathered together for Bible study, prayer and to sing some hymns, so that it was like being carried on multiple sets of wings. Neither my dear Carolyn nor I will ever forget it. It is a privilege to be with you again.

My job here, in line with the other two speakers, is to take the second of the three R's. So while Mike Foss spoke of renewal last night and David Tiede will later speak of reform, this morning we are going to reflect. We’ll do that by taking up two questions. The first is, what has WordAlone accomplished? Second, what are the issues that require particular attention in turning towards the future?

First of all, reflecting on the last several years, it seems to me that WordAlone has accomplished four things. To begin with, most importantly, it opened up a forum for conversation on a critically important confessional issue, freedom in ministry.

Looking back over the early l960s and the late 80s and 90s, it's clear that for whatever they accomplish, mergers disrupt old pecking orders, rearranging power and privilege. So, not surprisingly, the ELCA’s brief history has been marked by continuing conflict, as different groups have attempted to claim their place and make their impress. Such a situation hardly encourages open conversation. There is really no place, neither in the church’s media nor its assemblies, that is open to a frank exchange of views, welcoming criticism.

WordAlone has provided such a forum, particularly on the issue of Called to Common Mission (CCM) but in broader connections as well. Some of it has been by effective use of the Internet; some by meetings like this. Some of it, too, has been protest driven, matching power with power. But this meeting is an indication of what has happened over the past year, as WordAlone has been moving from protest to profession, from playing the scold to looking toward the future. This is a forum where we can talk openly, outside the lines of power, considering together the possibilities of renewal and reform.

Having such an open forum has made it possible to discover neighbors. The attempt of the opposition, of course, was to portray WordAlone as a movement of upper Midwestern, anti-ecumenical cranks bent on preserving a dead tradition. In fact, WordAlone has found support across the country, in virtually every synod of the ELCA.More than that, it has reached across party lines. nbsp;Though, for example, WordAlone and the Evangelical Catholics have been portrayed as natural enemies, in fact, where the Scripture and the Lutheran confessions take their proper priority, people from both groups have been able to work side by side. The witness our coalition made in Indianapolis last summer wouldn’t have happened without key contributions from people identified as Evangelical Catholics.

But WordAlone’s forum has also made it possible for us to discover neighbors in the larger Lutheran world. To my knowledge, the ELCA has yet to acknowledge it publicly. But the Evangelical Church in Deutschland, the EKD, last year rejected a CCM style compromise on the doctrine of ministry. Previously, 250 German theologians--along with six of us in this country--protested the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. WordAlone is not alone, but is a voice of historic, confessional Lutheranism in this country for freedom in the doctrine of ministry.

That is the critical issue. Historically, other churches have wanted to focus on the person of the preacher in talking about ministry, insisting on particular forms of order as essential to the shape of the church itself. From the time of the reformation, we Lutherans have worked in a different way. Instead of beginning with prior assumptions about the creation of the church and then fitting Christ into them, we have insisted that his justification of the godless has to have its priority in everything. “Take every thought captive to serve Christ,” as the Apostle Paul says. Beginning with Christ Jesus, the word of God, in the flesh, we have thought of ministry in terms of his word, whether in its preached or sacramental form. Once Christ’s priority is clear, we’ve been willing to negotiate the question of structure. The whole conflict over CCM has been to preserve that freedom in a church that suddenly, despite its own constituting documents, considered such liberty negotiable.

That is WordAlone’s second contribution. Given the church leadership’s hard push, things got turned around on CCM. The Indianapolis assembly wound up having to do what the Denver assembly should have done before a vote was taken, negotiating terms for an agreement within our own church. The Denver vote was premature, putting the Episcopal Church in the USA in a very awkward position in which they have been asked to choose between churchwide assemblies. That is hardly textbook ecumenical procedure. But however it happened, in Indianapolis the bishops, led by H. George Anderson, gave strong support to the exceptions amendment, allowing at least some candidates for ministry to be ordained in the historic Lutheran way. When it passed, Dr. Anderson is said to have commented in a press conference that the amendment cleared away the most significant confessional objection to CCM.

None of this would have happened without WordAlone. Cursing this movement or blessing it, the national church had to recognize what was happening. In refusing to accept the defeat at Philadelphia, in pushing a predetermined course of action, the leadership had generated powerful and costly resistance. In a strange turnabout, ecumenism--one of the deepest joys of church life--had become one of its most divisive issues. If WordAlone had not emerged, opposition would have fragmented; there would have been no possibility of settlement.

A third significant contribution of WordAlone has been the way it has limited divisiveness. Historically, protest movements in the church are usually pretty unstable. Oftentimes, they burn out on their own hostilities, so incensed by the situation that occasioned the protest that they can’t see beyond it, soon protesting everything, including one another. Then, too, such protests are often no stronger than their leadership, degenerating into personality cults.

WordAlone has certainly not been conflict free. There have been some more strident voices, particularly on the Internet, rejecting every hint of compromise. And there have been alternative strategies in relation to the national church that have occasioned some sharp controversy. But while providing some organizational options, WordAlone has stayed with the national church, insisting on making its contribution even where it has not been particularly welcome. As Luther himself once wrote, “To be sure, we criticize, we upbraid, we condemn, but we do not on that account break the unity of the church. A love that can bear nothing is fictitious."

Fourth, finally, WordAlone is emerging as a positive force for the renewal of the church. The predecessor church bodies that merged to form the ELCA had different attitudes towards special issue or renewal groups within themselves. In some situations, such groups were welcome; in others grudgingly tolerated, if not dealt with in open hostility. Defined by its original protest, WordAlone has excited apprehension, caricatures and open resentment, much of it uninformed, the product of previous suspicions.

But now there is a change underway, driven by forces at work within the movement itself. It began last summer, in the aftermath of the Indianapolis assembly. There, I was asked to meet with the leadership present there, in the midst of some discouragement and concern about what the future would hold. But already there were signs of a turn, the kind of turn evident in the agenda of this meeting. Behind the objection to the CCM, there has always been another vision of the church, one in which the gospel really is the center defining all else. So in that room upstairs at Indianapolis, the more positive dimensions of that vision started to appear. Objections can only sustain a movement so long. WordAlone has to turn from the negative to the positive, putting confession alongside critique, vision alongside its vigilance.

Thus WordAlone has made four strong contributions to the life of the church. It has opened up conversation on a critically important confessional issue; it set the occasion for a compromise on CCM; it has been a loyal opposition, working within the church and it is now becoming a positive force for church renewal.

The second question for reflection is this, what are the issues that demand attention as the ELCA turns toward the future? I am going to talk about two, one overall and the other more particular to the ELCA.

The overall issue involves the relationship between our church and the culture around us. Like other Christian churches shaped in Europe, Lutherans coming to America brought some patterns with them in the immigration. One of the most important is the notion of the folk church. The basic idea is the church on main street or at a prominent junction, which includes most everybody in the neighborhood, serves with the other institutions of public life, like the government and the schools, as a major contributor to the well-being of the community. Tending public morals, serving families at the critical transitions in life--like birth, marriage and death--the folk church has a privileged place in public life. It can rely on the community to support it at least passively, if not through active cooperation or membership.

Visiting parts of the country that drew large scale Lutheran immigration, you can still see evidence of this folk church assumption. It is common in the Midwest, but also in Pennsylvania, by census data the most rural state in the union. You can see it in the Lutheran parts of North Carolina, once heavily rural but now so far into a mixed economy that the state leads the country in manufacturing. The same pattern shows up in parts of Texas, as in pockets elsewhere. In fact, years ago, you could see the same arrangement in cities like Toledo and Detroit, the old Southside of Chicago and in Minneapolis-St. Paul. In each of these situations, North or South, rural or urban there is been a pattern of small congregations spaced a convenient distance from one another, working hand in glove with the community to render their particular services.

Against this background, the ELCA is a merger of folk churches. This whole emphasis on inclusiveness, for all of its political background, grows right out of such assumptions. The goal is to include as broad a range of people as possible in hopes of gaining enough standing to make a significant impact in American public life.In fact, I wonder if the fault lines in the division over the CCM run along folk church lines. From what I’ve been told, it got its strongest support from both coasts, where Lutheran churches have been pushed to the margins and are eager to make alliances; the strongest opposition to the CCM came from parts of the country where the folk church survives, even if it's struggling.

There’s a real genius to the folk church idea. It binds the church to the community so tightly that it gets real difficult for the religious to play holier than thou, either dominating or withdrawing. The pious and the impious have to sit side by side, even if they are tempted to sort out weeds from wheat. And the church can depend on fairly consistent support--people go to church and give of their substance to keep it going.

But there are some equally real liabilities to a folk church strategy, especially as it begins to break down. Privileged, dependent on community support, the church has a terrible time standing over and against those who support it. The law, sin and repentance get short shrift, becoming more and more airy and abstract. The gospel loses its christocentric specificity, becoming an ideology of universal acceptance. As H. Richard Niebuhr put it in a classic line from another generation, “a God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without pain through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” All of the specifics are washed away.

And in fact, the same thing happens theologically. The ELCA is a merger of churches that have made a distinction between the legal and evangelical authority of Scripture and the Lutheran confessions. Over and against those perceived as attempting to enforce theological standards by coercion, we have insisted that the true power of the gospel comes home in confession, in the word itself. But an ideology of inclusiveness, the rhetoric of tolerance, has proven itself just as exclusive as any other, only the more so because it is blind to its own intolerance. Jesus Christ is welcome to be a way, a truth or a life; the exclusive particle, the way, the truth, the life becomes a problem.

But in fact, the folk church is no longer an option, not for reasons of witness but because it is breaking down around us. The rural congregations that have been the bedrock on American Lutheranism have been ravaged by a farm crisis that has continued, unabated since the late 70s.

They are going the way of the working class congregations of the cities whose buildings stand empty now. And while the economy works its way, public culture expresses itself with increasing hostility to basic assumptions of the Christian tradition. The liturgy, confessions, even such basic vocations as marriage and the family all go out in the wash.

This is the fundamental challenge of the future. An inherited pattern that has served American Lutheranism for generations is proving itself untenable. The question before us is how to be the church, how to serve Christ Jesus and our communities, in a new context.

Then what about the ELCA? In fact, it appears that both the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America have gotten caught up in their own structures. Missouri gets it from the right, having put in place a system of electing convention delegates that favor the forces of enclosure, attempting to shut out a threatening culture. And we get it from the left, with churchwide assemblies that have again and again proven amenable to a rhetoric of inclusiveness that erodes historic standards. Either way, it is the center that loses its voice, a center focused on Christ Jesus and the vocations of everyday life.

With this, the fundamental problem in the ELCA, it seems to me, is accountability. The churchwide assembly is a prime example, but not the only one. The original documents use the language of delegates, people elected who are in turn accountable to those who sent them. When delegates become voting members, the lines of accountability are broken. The churchwide assembly, in a specious ecclesiology, becomes a “third level” of the church out of reach of those who pay the bills. It is a pattern repeated again and again as the structures of the ELCA have evolved. Authority is assigned if not taken, responsibility is given if not appropriated, but the accountability necessary to measure effectiveness gets short-circuited. Though we confess our sins Sunday after Sunday, or are supposed to, we have yet to learn the lesson that an old Deist like Thomas Jefferson took for granted: when you give a sinner power, there has to be check and balance.

So we are in the same old predicament. In the last go round, a group took power convinced that Lutheranism has lost its relevance to a larger ecumenical consensus. When they took over the offices, despite warning and protestations, they played winner-take-all, attempting to force the center into submission. Now other hands have taken power, this time with a social agenda. They assure us that there is no predetermined outcome, that openness and diversity will prevail and that the historic witness will be honored. But we have yet to see whether the bishops will actually use the authority to grant exceptions, allowing traditional Lutheran forms of ordination. And with no clear lines of accountability in place, it looks for all the world like we may very well be getting set up again.

Maybe, in fact, this is God’s judgment on our church. Some close friends, pastors on whose judgment I have come to rely, believe that the ELCA is so compromised by its quest for power that it must die before it will ever rise again with its true center, in Christ and in the freedom of the gospel for everyday life. Maybe that’s true; maybe that is what God is doing. If so, we both together and individually stand under call to serve our church with our criticism as well as our support, that in its losses it may be reoriented by the divine word.

This much I know for sure. For some twenty-five years, I have been traveling our church, coast-to-coast, corner-to-corner, here, in Canada, and in other parts of the world. In that experience -- speaking, listening, visiting in hallways and church basements, going to classrooms and gravesides -- there is one verse of Scripture that has recurred like a theme in a symphony, “My sheep hear my voice.” In fact, that is true. If there really are two other levels of the church, levels that are certainly now in question, there is a third: the parishes. They can be mean and contrary, tough and unyielding. But as old Albert Estin Anderson used to say, “you can trust the congregations.” They know Christ’s voice. You know his voice. It is the voice of the Lord Jesus who says, “I am the resurrection and the life,” “I am the way, the truth and the life,” for you. In this word, a future opens, even as the old hymn puts it, “when steeples are falling.”