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Speech —to WordAlone national gathering

Dr. James Nestingen (Professor, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

March, 2000


This is the text of a speech delivered by Jim Nestingen at the first WordAlone national gathering, March 2000, in Mahtomedi, Minnesota.

photo of Dr. NestingenFor starters, here, I want to thank Tim Johnson and the leadership for the invitation to speak at this constituting convention. I am not a member of Word Alone. But I believe that the good Lord has called out this organization for a critical purpose and so am happy to lend my support.

The topic assigned to me came in the form of a question, What would a confessional Lutheran church look like? Addressing it broadly, I am going to make three arguments: First, that Lutherans have traditionally defined the church by confessing to preserve the freedom of the gospel; second, the ELCA developed and has expressed itself on a paradigm of coercion; and thirdly, that being a confessional church in this contest involves using political power to resist coercion, seeking cooperation in common confession.

First of all, as all of you know, Lutheranism was born in the rediscovery of a biblical word that had gotten lost in a hierarchical church bent on dominating medieval society. This word is a promise that in Christ, God has grounded each of you, each of us, to restore the balance of life-Creator, creation, creature; to tune us up with himself, our neighbors and the earth around us. As such, this word is the promise in Christ of forgiveness, as he takes the past up into himself to strip it of its accusations; the promise of resurrection, as Christ brings in a future shaped by his unconditional goodness; of deliverance from the powers which beset, bind and destroy life and its balances.

This word of promise, in the hearing of the original Lutherans, has a double effect. The first is to radicalize the importance of telling it, whether the telling takes the form of formal preaching, the visible word of the sacraments or the direct witness of everyday life. The miracle of the incarnation is that God's word has become a human word, fit for the lips of the whole community of speakers. As such, it must be spoken, declared, above all, confessed. For it is by this telling, this confessing that God is at work, reclaiming both creature and creation, realigning all things to bring them to their proper end. And it is in this telling, in all of its forms, that the church comes to be. As a great Luther scholar of another generation, Wilhelm Pauck, once wrote, "henceforth, the very reality of the church is grounded in preaching" — that is, in the act of handing over Christ's benefits to hearers of every shape, size, color and description.

At the same time, the other effect of this word is to undermine the ultimate claims of institutions that have sought to appropriate the power of this word for themselves. The papacy that Luther knew had made such a claim. Presenting themselves as Christ's earthly vicars, they asserted that God grace was limited to the hierarchical channels of the church, flowing through a succession of offices-from the bishop of Rome to the bishops and then to the priests and deacons-to bless the believers.

In a dramatic series of writings in the late teens of the l6th century, Luther drew increasingly radical conclusions from the promising word. The gospel establishes the office, he argued, not the office the gospel. Rising like a flood tide, the word overpowers attempts to restrict it to channels, flowing out into the community on the tongues of its hearers as it is spoken, confessed, declared, even and especially, sung. In the phrase of a fine historian of print, Elizabeth Eisenstein, Luther moved the altar from the church to the family kitchen. Rather than controlling the power of the gospel, the church is its tool, existing in and for the flood of grace released by God's speaking.

At the same time that he took on the hierarchy, Luther challenged an alternative form of the reformation. If medieval Catholics found the power of the church in its office holders, Protestant reformers in Southwest Germany, Switzerland, France and England, found the power in a reformed community-a morally overhauled, earnestly upright, devoted organization of the faithful. As Luther saw it, it was wall the same thing: whether it is the tyranny of a medieval pope or the rule of the pious, sinners are always going to be had. It makes no difference-in the end, freedom disappears in coercion.

That is the key word, freedom. In fact, Luther changed the spelling of his name from Lutter or Ludder to Luther using the H to parallel the Greek word for freedom, elutherius. As has been pointed out by many of his students, Luther's most important works all revolve around this theme: the bondage of the will, curved in upon itself, seeking to control the powers of life and death; the freedom of the gospel, as we are grasped by Christ Jesus and his spirit to enter into the callings of everyday life. We are called Lutherans not because we belong to a denomination-that is an American development which came long after the reformation. Rather, we are called Lutherans because we share a common confession concerning the freedom of the gospel. That is who we are, freedom people, who have followed the call of the gospel into the common and the ordinary.

And this is the importance of the confessions. We tell the story of Luther not because his experience is normative, but because as we have heard the promising word confessed, it has become definitive for our community. Some of the Lutheran confessions were written by Luther, the catechisms and the Smalcald Articles. Others were written by a colleague of his at the University of Wittenberg, Philip Melanchthon-the Augsburg Confession and its supporting documents. Still another was written by Luther and Melanchthon's students. But whoever wrote them, each of the confessions became a public document, summing up Catholic faith in terms suitable to ongoing confession, witness.

As such, the confessions are like the Magna Charta or the Declaration of Independence. They are declarative. Their goal is to set out the freedom given in Christ in such a way that those who hear the declaration are not only drawn into it but actually freed in its hearing. As Luther himself once said, "the law says, 'do this,' and it is never done. The gospel says, 'Believe in this,' and it is done already."

Because of this orientation to the freedom of the gospel, because they are finally just a step in the remove from preaching, the confessions are only secondarily legislative. Freedom can't bound up in rules and regulations. So over and against Roman Catholic hierarchies and Protestant structural preoccupations, the confessions remain open ended. While they attack arguments, they do not condemn other churches, denying the work of God within them. While they reject attempts to bind the word to particular systems or methods, they do not insists that there is a therefore a particularly normative Lutheran way of doing things. Instead, they do as they say: they confess the freedom granted in the promising word so that hearing it, we can't help but joining in the confession. Freedom can't work any other way.

So, to answer the question given me, this is what a confessional Lutheran church looks like: it is a church in which the spoken word, whether in the pulpit, at the font or the altar, is declared in such a way that Christ's gifts are handed over. It is a church that stands open to its ecumenical neighbor even while challenging every attempt to subordinate the word to hierarchies and structures. It is a church that exists in and for God's continued speaking and so a church driven into mission, wherever that may be, in some small town, a suburb or across the world someplace. God is reclaiming the whole creation, sinners of all kinds.

Now, in this light, we can talk about what has happened in the ELCA and my second argument, that our church developed and has been maintained on a paradigm of coercion.

Here, too, the history is familiar. Lutheran unity in America is a long held dream, going all the way back to Henry Melchior Muhlenberg and the waves of immigrants who followed on these shores. But as the reality approached, it was marked by the difficulties of the times-the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod's turn to the right, stridence of various social groups, and so forth. In the end, the committees that formed the ELCA, the original committee that set up the Committee on the New Lutheran Church and the CNLC itself took on an additional agenda item. To be sure, they did not eliminate the confessional priority, though according to reports at one point they did take a vote on whether or not the doctrine of the trinity was so sexist as to be unusable in the new church. But over and above what they considered merely denominational, they sought to establish a church that would embody their own particular commitments to peace and justice. This vision the CNLC entrenched in the constitution and procedures of the ELCA, mandating their imposition through the life of the church. The cutting edge was the much disputed system of quotas, guaranteeing inclusive participation.

Already, a coercive hand is showing. Instead of seeking to free the new church for its witness, instead of seeking to honor that membership that had sustained the merging churches through the years, the CNLC sought perpetuation of its own views, structuring them into the new church. According to all reports, a faction out of the AELC-the remnant of the conflict in Missouri-played an especially important part in this, claiming an influence far beyond their numbers.

The positive value of the quota system overall can be debated. It looks to me like it brought forward a number of people who would not have had access to the churchwide committees and offices responsible for decision making, and to that extent, it has been a good thing.

At the same time, however, the quota system has always had a another side to it. There have always been people who would have traditionally been a part of the decision making processes of the church who had to eliminated to make room for others. And over the years, the people who have been eliminated have generally been those who were identified with a particular tradition out of keeping with those in power. So, for example, in ecumenical matters, those who interpret the Lutheran Confessions in terms of the justification of the godless all disappeared from the committees, replaced by those styling themselves as "evangelical Catholics" or who make the church the controlling factor in interpretation.

This reliance on coercion, evident in the exclusion, also can be seen in the way the CNLC left power unchecked at critical points. When you give sinners power, you always have to watch it-someone is going to pay. The normal way to check power is to balance authority with responsibility and accountability-people who are given authority always have to be accountable for their responsibilities. Otherwise, power gets out of hand and turns coercive.

The CNLC failed several times at this point. Helping itself to the authority it had received, it turned over power without making provision for an accounting. And it is precisely at the points where this happened that the ELCA has had its most serious troubles.

The churchwide assembly is a good example. A bishop's secretary recently told me that that she had seen the trouble coming years ago, when the name was changed from "delegate" to "voting member." Delegates have to go home again; they are accountable. "Voting members" are sitting ducks for the powerful, who sell them on their independence, get the desired vote, and then after the assembly, send the former delegates home to face the music anyway.

Here is another example. The critical point in the Denver assembly, beside the passing of the CCM, was the ruling on amendment proposed by Andrea deGroot Nesdal of South Dakota in cooperation with several other bishops. The amendment introduced the word "regularly" to give a flexibility traditionally valued by both Lutherans as well as Episcopalians in matters of church regulation. It was nullified by a ruling from the church secretary.

This is a critical point because it was just here that the ELCA came into direct conflict with Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. Listen to the difference. Article VII says, "it is not necessary that human traditions, rites and ceremonies be the same. Lowell Almen, the secretary, ruled that "regularly" means "always and everywhere the same." Robert W. Jenson, writing in Lutheranism: the Theological Movements and its Confessional Writings, a textbook used by all eight Lutheran Seminaries over the last 25 years, comments as follows (177): Most denominations with which Lutherans are led to negotiate define themselves by some organization peculiarity; that is, by something the Lutherans must regard as a "ceremony." Roman Catholics define themselves by the juridical primacy of the bishop of Rome; the various branches of the English reformation define themselves by episcopacy, presbyterial or congregational government; the Methodists define themselves by a 'method' of holiness; and the sects are just that. For Lutherans, all these matters or negotiable; but for the bodies in question they are not. Great ecumenical proclamations often represent them as negotiable, but when it comes to actual proposed steps to unity, the contrary is regularly discovered. And as soon as it is discovered that, for example, congregational autonomy is constitutive for the unity of the church as some group proposes to establish it, Lutherans are bound to resist.

In contrast, H George Anderson, in answer to a question posed to him by Jim Engh, a western Montana pastor, said that the seminarian who disagreed with the CCM should join another church.

Now, ever since that ruling, I have been trying to find out how it happened. Initially, I assumed that Lowell Almen made it spontaneously. Despite his high office, he has long stated his disagreement with the Lutheran confessional understanding of the church. I assumed he had made this ruling out of personal conviction.

Later, in conversation with a bishop who was a strong proponent of the CCM, I heard a different story. By his account, he had been involved with a group of bishops supporting the "regularly" compromise, had talked to the Episcopalians and gained their support but that it had been vetoed by Michael Root.

Last week, I got still another account, this one from the ecclesiastical equivalent of "Deep Throat," an official of the ELCA who doesn't want to be named. He said that while it was Almen who made the ruling on the floor, it was actually the reference and council committee that had arrived at it.

So here we are. According to the constitution of the ELCA, the Lutheran confessions take priority over the constitution itself; here the churchwide secretary, who by one authoritative account has usurped the authority to interpret the constitution, stands in flat out contradiction of Article VII. But no one can tell who is really responsible for the decision-the secretary himself? An ecumenical ideologue empowered by churchwide authorities? An anonymous committee? Who is accountable? And who preserves the confessional priority when the officer who has taken authority over the constitution himself violates confessional precedence?

It gets worse. According to H. George Anderson, Articled VII can be interpreted two different ways, as a floor or a ceiling. But the church secretary having ruled, the word "regularly" can have only one meaning, and that directly contrary to the normal use of the word. And more, having been excluded from the processes and overpowered in assemblies, those of us who don't like it are told we can leave.

These are not the only examples of the way the ELCA has used power coercively. The sexuality statement, the imposition on the pensions board of abortion funding on demand, and the candidacy process are others. Again and again, authority is invested, accountability ducked. And we all know the next step along the way: once again, we are going to be told that biblical standards on sexuality are ambiguous, that consequently sexual behavior is really a personal question and that the church consequently has no alternative but to accept indiscriminate sexual self expression.

In fact, the rhetoric of inclusiveness-in ethical as well as ecumenical matters-turns out to conceal a knife, becoming as exclusive as any other ideology. And we're right back in an already too familiar position, watching the unfolding of a whole series of power plays.

Thirdly, confessing in this context calls for a use of political power that rejects coercion, replacing it with critical cooperation for the sake of witness.

There is deep temptation, given the experience of the last couple of churchwide assemblies, to respond to the abuse of power in kind. This is supposed to be a merged church; in fact, to many of us it looks much more like a hostile takeover. For a whole variety of reasons, as a church we have yet to emerge out of our differences into common loyalties. So, especially on ecumenical issues, commitments to previous church body policies, regional prejudices and even ethnic stereotypes have been continuing factors. There have been winners and losers, the empowered and the subordinate. There is yet to be the kind of leadership that draws us all together in common confession.

It has gotten the feeling of betrayal. The man who stood before the Denver assembly after the vote on the CCM and declared that he had lost his church spoke for many of us, indicating the true proportion of what had happened. This is not a matter of a few theologians with their noses out of joint. Neither is simply a matter of some pastors with a complaint. A whole church culture, an entire way of being the people of God has been brought under attack, ironically, in the name of an ecumenism that seeks the larger unity of the church. Having lost again and again, there are a lot of us ready to say, satis est, "This is enough."

But there are both long term and short term reasons for looking at another alternative.

In the long term, the gospel of freedom in Christ Jesus has always engendered opposition, especially among those who would be expected to treasure it. As my friend Lee Griffin, a retired psychiatrist has often observed, the gospel is antithetical to every human tendency. It is our death as well as our life, challenging the control games, the quest for domination, the grasping and subordinating characteristic of the sinner in us at the same time that it is forgiveness, life and liberty. And so confessing always brings a cross with it.

What is more, generally when you flee one cross, you just find another-even bigger. To leave the ELCA is to leave behind the institutions in which our lives have been intertwined-our parishes, our colleges, our seminaries. It is to spend 20 or 30 years in the same kind of struggles that have been underway since the last merger, mourning what has been lost, attempting to create anew. If you look at the history of groups that have split off, the problems leap out one after the other-personality conflicts, limited movement, difficulties finding pastors and all the rest. No, given the long-term, given the character of the word we confess, the nature of confessing, there is always going to be something antithetical about us no matter where we go.

But there is a short term consideration here, too. In the weeks preceding the recent Conference of Bishops meeting down in Florida, several of the bishops involved in the "regularly amendment" offered at Denver went to work seeking a compromise. One result was the Milwaukee meeting with the proposals it offered. Though the Milwaukee conference didn't achieve the hoped for results, the Conference of Bishops issued a pastoral letter that many of you have seen or heard about.

The Bishops' Letter is a beginning, not an end. There is a ways to go. But there are a couple of things about that letter which are very important. One is that the bishops took on the national leadership and made an opening, the first we've seen since Denver. Another, even more important is this: a lot bishops who were strongly for the CCM recognized in voting that those of us who have opposed it have to be given footing as well. And so even though there were only four of the 65 who voted against the CCM at Denver, the Conference of the Bishops voted unanimously for the pastoral letter, finally bringing Bishop Anderson and Secretary Almen with them into the effort.

There is surely more to come. Among the bishops themselves as well as in the Chicago offices, there is a growing recognition that interpreting the word regularly to mean always put our church into a needlessly restrictive corner. Unity does not require uniformity. There is an honorable opposition, a loyal minority that can hold with the church even while rejecting something important to the hierarchy. And there is every reason to be confident that the Episcopalians will support such a settlement. In fact, Canon Robert Wright, the Episcopalian ecumenical officer, has shown a far better understanding of us than our own church officials.

As Roger Eigenfeld said last fall, however, the work of Word Alone is just beginning. The ELCA has yet to develop the kind of leadership that can bring it into the cohesiveness of a merged church. There are still a number of factions that are seeking, in a path opened by the CNLC, to dominate the ELCA, using old fashioned power politics to achieve their ends. That being the case, Word Alone is desperately needed. The ELCA has to learn another paradigm, one in which coercion is called into question, a paradigm of cooperation in which differences are honored instead of repressed, in which confession is recognized for what it is: the definitive act of the church.

Ten years after the mergers that produced the ALC and the LCA, both national bodies went through processes of restructuring. A decade had been enough to show points in the original planning which needed adjustment, correction, overhaul. The merger process that produced the ELCA was hijacked by special interest groups, some of them political, some of them theological or ecumenical, all of them convinced of their superiority. For whatever they achieved, these interest groups have again and again cornered us. Its high time that we went back to work on these systems, to make them workable. As a loyal opposition, Word Alone could be a powerful factor in helping our church in finding our way back to the center, leading us to a renewal of our confessional character, serving us as we seek to recover our balance the mission of the triune God who in Christ is always most at home forgiving sinners and raising the dead.