WordAlone - The theological implications of Called to Common Mission
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The theological implications of
Called to Common Mission

by Dr. Michael Rogness (Professor of Homiletics at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN)

March 28, 2000


A lot of our discussion here so far has been about strategy. As necessary as that is, I would like to take a different tack and concentrate on theology.

My overall thesis is this: We Lutherans in America come from different immigrant streams and have never worked out any kind of thorough theology of ministry or church structure. The general consensus reached among American Lutherans by the start of the last century was remarkable, but we have always thought there wasn't any one structure or theology of ministry mandated by the Bible or by the Confessions. So we came into the ecumenical scene of the late 20th century without doing our homework, and now we are encountering other church groups which have a very definite structure and theology of ministry. The result is that we came into the discussion with the Episcopalians saying we are flexible on matters of ministry, and they say they can have full communion only with the historic episcopate, so we said, in effect, "OK, for ecumenical harmony, we'll adopt your way."

Called to Common Mission (CCM) was sold as an ecumenical document. It is actually a document about ministry, a theological document, and it proposes a practice, a structure and a theology of ministry which has never been practiced in American Lutheranism. People who actually read CCM realize very quickly it isn't really about mission. It's more accurately about bishops, or episcopacy. As one surprised layperson asked me, "Why didn't they name it 'Called to Common Episcopacy,' since that's what it's really about?" Only now, after the fact, are people waking up to the theological implications of CCM.

Now we must do what we should have done 30-40 years ago, namely work out a clear theology behind our practice of ministry. Maybe it's too little too late, but an absolutely crucial task in the on-going CCM discussion is to state our convictions regarding these matters theologically which in turn will guide us concerning strategy.

I make no claim that the views I will express are the only views within the ELCA. I do claim that they are consistent with what a substantial number of Lutherans in this country have believed and now in the ELCA still do believe. Time is limited, so I've shortened what I wanted to say. I'll look at three areas:

1. The "ecclesiastical status" of the office of bishop.

I'm not talking about the authority of a bishop, but what I call the "ecclesiastical status" of a bishop, particularly the separation or distinction of the office of bishop from that of pastor. I begin with how I believe the Augsburg Confession (AC) defines ordained ministry. Article 4 is about justification, "by grace, for Christ's sake, through faith." The logical question is "how do we receive faith, so Article 5 follows sequentially with "The Office of the Ministry" or "The Ministry of the Church." It says: "To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith." That is, the office of ordained ministry is established so that the God's grace might be conveyed to people in Word and Sacrament. Let's look at how this works out theologically.

A. One Ordained Ministry or Three-Fold Ministry, Three Ordinations?

Following that foundation from the Augsburg Confession, the ECLA study of ministry, "Together for Ministry," adopted by the churchwide assembly in 1993 stated that "The ordained ministry of the Church . . . is basically one ministry, centered in the proclamation of the Word of God and the administration of the Holy Sacraments." (Para 123) This ministry embraces both the ministry of pastors and bishops, each serving "in differently specified expressions of the church" (congregations for pastors and synods for bishops)." (Para. 128) The ELCA affirmed the offices of bishop, pastor and deacons (or as we put it, "diaconal ministers"), noting that these are the three offices named in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession Article 14. However, consistent with the foundation of ordination as "one ministry, centered in the proclamation of the Word of God and the administration of the Holy Sacraments," the ELCA voted in 1993 not to use the term ordination for the installation of bishops or for diaconal ministers.

Ordination is for Word and Sacrament ministry. CCM sends mixed messages. It tries to embrace under one umbrella the Lutherans with their "one ordained ministry" and the Episcopalians with their three-fold ministry, three ordinations. On one hand CCM speaks of our common agreement on "one ordained ministry (Para. 7,8,10, Bishops' resolution 1A), but it also speaks of the "3-fold ministerial office" (Para 9) and the "common pattern" of ministry shared by the two churches" (Para. 8). Paragraph 16 also says that the suspension of the Episcopalian Ordinals of 1662 regarding our ministries will be only temporary until such time "in order to secure the future implementation of the ordinal's same principle in the sharing of ordained ministries [plural]."

As if that isn't a mixed message? The bishops' resolution A1 states that the ELCA is not required to adopt Episcopalian orders, but just read the text of CCM and decide for yourself whether or not it lays out an expectation for future development in that direction of three-fold ministries and ordinations.

B. Installation of Bishops Another mixed message:

CCM states that the ELCA will continue to use the word "installation" to put bishops into office. But the actual liturgical rite for doing so is the same rite as Episcopalians use to ordain their bishops, and as a matter of fact, an Episcopalian national ecumenical officer says that our "installation" is in their view "tantamount to, and interchangeable with, the term "ordination." (J. Robert Wright, The Anglican, October 1997, p. 4). Apparently we will use the liturgy of episcopal ordination but call it installation to keep peace among Lutherans who still hold to one office of ordained ministry.

Now look theologically at the office of bishop. Look at how Lutheran bishops will be installed with CCM. Here also we're caught without doing our homework. From a theological standpoint, who should install a bishop? Theologically, why don't the pastors and people of a synod install their own bishop? Who said it has to be done by the presiding bishop of the ELCA? Why not ask the presiding bishop, or other bishops to attend to represent other sectors of the church. Why should they install, rather than the members of the new bishop's own synod?

The argument is that a bishop serves the larger church, so must be installed by somebody serving the larger church. Isn't that view somewhat contemptuous of pastors, as if to say that pastors only represent their local congregation and have no vision or representation beyond that? I beg your pardon, but I was ordained as a pastor of the whole church, and not even of the Lutheran branch of that church, but as a pastor in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

The whole matter of installing a new bishop is of course water long over the bridge and a moot point, because we adopted the practice of the presiding bishop doing the installing, or another designated bishop, without any kind of widespread theological discussion at all.

My point is that we have never laid a thorough theological basis for what we have been doing. No wonder we're in such chaos now. The Episcopalians came to the table with a clearly defined practice and theology of ministry. We came to the table with a variety of practices and very little theology of ministry at all.

A related issue: Theologically speaking, if bishops install bishops, why should it take three bishops? Again we haven't done our homework. The Episcopalian have, so without further theological thought we propose adopting their system. Why three? Why not one? Is it because three bishops carry more weight than one? Or is it because the bishop's office is so much more important than that of a Word and Sacrament serving parish pastor? It certainly is going to look like that to anybody simply watching such an installation. Is it simply a sign with no substance? Why not have one do the job and others be there as guests? Who decided for three, and why - theologically?

Here's an interesting fact hardly anybody knows about in the ELCA's 1993 study of ministry. The study said that a member of the Conference of Bishops can be designated to install a new bishop. One delegate ("voting member" back then?) pointed out that the secretary of the Conference of Bishops could be a layperson, so that the possibility existed that a new bishop could be installed by a layperson. He moved an amendment to eliminate that possibility, to make sure it had to be a bishop. The amendment was defeated, precisely to say that a new bishop could be installed by a layperson!

Now we go from the possibility of a layperson doing the installation, affirmed in 1993, to the iron-clad requirement that we need three bishops, and not just three, but three in the historic episcopate. In any case, if anybody doubts that CCM elevates the office of bishop above that of a pastor, simply compare how a pastor is ordained by one person (bishop or pastor), and a bishop by three persons, imported from outside, each required to be "in" the historic episcopate.

C. The Bishop as Exclusive Ordainer

The decisive move to make the office of bishop distinct from that of a pastor is the CCM rule that pastors will no longer be allowed to ordain anybody at all. Since the purpose of ordination is for Word and Sacrament ministry, our tradition has been that, following approval by the church and a call, persons should be ordained by those serving in Word and Sacrament ministry. Pastors ordain pastors.

The practice in some predecessor church bodies came to be that the bishop would do most, even all, the ordaining. In others a bishop, or church body, delegated a lot of ordinations to pastors. Some predecessor church bodies designated a person other than the church or district president to ordain. No church body in any Lutheran church in the USA ever legislated as a sweeping rule that pastors could not ordain!

In the early Reformation, when evangelical churches had no bishops, Luther and the others simply advised congregations and pastors to ordain, after examination and approval, a practice Luther himself approved of in the Smalcald Articles (Article 10).

CCM supporters argue that once the reformation churches got evangelical bishops the Confessions intended that the bishops resume their role as sole ordainers. The truth is that Lutheran church bodies never reverted back to the old system at all. As the Lutheran churches became established they adopted a variety of ordination policies, believing from the Augsburg Confession Article 7 that the practice of ministry should be shaped by the task of mission, not by some prior structure. Even in those churches where bishops ordained, not one of them ever used the term or concept of the "historic episcopacy." That theology would never have been accepted, by any of them!

The theology and reality behind CCM is that Word and Sacrament ministry is possible through the office of bishop. It is no longer the gospel which creates the ordained ministry: It is the office which makes possible the gospel. If you don't have a bishop, you don't have Word and Sacraments. That practice and that theology are exactly the reverse of what Lutherans have always believed.

Have we in the ELCA ever discussed seriously why we are willing to take away even the possibility of a bishop authorizing a pastor to ordain? Why would that be - theologically? It would have to be that a bishop has something a pastor doesn't have or is somebody that a pastor is not. What is that? No CCM advocate has ever clarified that.

We need to look at the issue theologically, which I think has never been done adequately. Theologically, ordination is to Word and Sacrament ministry in a parish. We believe that ordination should be done in good order, that is, after approval and call. Who then should ordain? If you are going to specify one office over another, wouldn't it make more sense, theologically, that a parish pastor in Word and Sacrament ministry would ordain a new pastor, with the bishop participating, rather than the other way around? If ordination is to Word and Sacrament ministry, then a Word and Sacrament minister should do the ordaining. Think about it, starting from the theology of ordination!

In earlier times in American Lutheranism, the persons ordaining - pastors, deans, presidents, superintendents, ordinators, etc. -- were by and large parish pastors. When we got larger, and district presidents were no longer serving parishes, they continued to ordain, but as pastors, not as an office set apart from pastors. Now CCM takes this a huge step further and says that parish pastors can no longer ordain anybody at all! Persons who do what ordination is for can no longer ordain anybody! Isn't that strange, theologically?!

Now of course CCM bends over backward to assert that bishops are doing Word and Sacrament ministry and are part of the one order of ordained ministry, so being part of that ministry they should ordain. I won't dispute that, although they aren't serving as daily Word and Sacrament parish pastors, but to go the step further and say that pastors haven't got what it takes, or are lacking in something or other and therefore can't ordain - that I cannot accept, based on my understanding of what ordination is.

All I ask people to do is to read CCM and see for themselves if the office of bishop is not made distinct from and, in effect, elevated over the office of parish pastor.

2. The Concept, Practice and Theology of the Historic Episcopate.

Note the three words I use to describe the "historic episcopate": It is a concept, it is a practice, and finally it is a theology. I do not believe in the concept, or the practice, or the theology of the "historic episcopate." The term "historic episcopate" means that one office carries some kind of historic continuity in the apostolic succession of the church.

I believe the whole church carries the apostolic faithfulness or succession from generation to generation. I believe in the "historic laity," because all the people of God carry the responsibility of faithfulness to the biblical and apostolic faith, and there have been times in church history when it has been the laity that has best carried that role. I believe in the "historic pastorate," because pastors too are called upon to be faithful, and there have been times when courageous pastors have done just that.

One can speak of an "historic episcopate" only as part of the historic continuity of the whole church, because bishops too have the responsibility for faithfulness -- no less, but no more, than the historic laity and the historic pastorate. Our church has now chosen to specify one office and only one office with the term "historic."

This so-called "sign of unity and continuity" with the apostolic church has been narrowed from the 5 and a half million laypeople in our church, from 17,500 pastors, down to only 66 bishops, a teeny percentage of our church.

I believe that is wrong not only theologically but also historically. There are times when bishops have indeed been beacon lights of faithfulness to the apostolic tradition, but there are also times when they haven't. To isolate only the office of bishop as the sign of historic continuity is simply wrong. The "historic episcopate" is not only an historical fiction, it is theologically and confessionally simply wrong.

On community and local levels, where people live and practice their faith, there is more unity among the laity and among pastors than there is among the historic episcopates of those churches which practice it. In any community today laypeople cooperate in all kinds of ways with Christians from other denominations, including worshiping with each other and even joining different denominations when they move to another community. In any community today among pastors there is a lot of cooperation, friendship, and joint worship.

But on the level of the historic episcopate there is disunity. The three main church bodies with the historic episcopate -- Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican/Episcopalian -- don't recognize each other's episcopate at all.

Furthermore there is much disagreement and diversity among bishops of these churches. Within the Episcopal Church USA there is probably more strife among the bishops than in any other sector of the church. And now the proposal to adopt the historic episcopate is causing more disunity in our own church than any other issue in the history of the ELCA. To single out the office of bishop as a sign of unity is simply incorrect. The so-called "higher" you get in church bureaucracy, the less unity you find.

On this issue I feel a bit like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's tale about the emperor's new clothes. When the crowds are applauding and embracing the historic episcopate as a sign of unity, I'm standing on the sideline and saying, "Good people, there aren't any clothes there!" It's not a sign of unity, nor a fact of unity at all. It's quite the opposite -- the most apparent and obvious sign of disunity in the entire church.

On February 8th the ELCA website issued a two-paragraph explanation titled "Historic Episcopacy in the ELCA." Read it and see that it does not come clean, but tries to say everything to all people. For example it says "in witness to this God-given unity, and for no other purpose, the ELCA has adopted a practice of historic episcopacy, or bishops in historic succession." Who's kidding whom? Our God-given unity already exists in Christ, as we are brothers and sisters in our Lord. Bishops "in historic succession" haven't brought about unity at all. A layperson from Indiana calls this "a spin document - double-talk about special signs and gifts . . ."

He writes, "As an ordinary 'pew-sitter' . . .I expect the information I receive to be straight forward and logical. I get enough 'spin' from politicians. . ." The website paragraph also says "Bishops in the ELCA are. . . not above or separate from other ordained ministers. [But they] regularly preside . . . at ordinations . . . , not because bishops alone possess that power, but as an expression of the continuity of the ELCA's ministry of Word and Sacrament with that of the Church catholic." To which this layperson responds, "If the bishops do not alone possess the power to ordain, why are they the only ones who can ordain?" Isn't that a perceptive, obvious question? CCM paragraph 11 refers to Article 14 of the Apology to the Augsburg Confession, which says that we desire to maintain the traditional church polity and ecclesiastical ranks (which we in the ELCA have done).

CCM 11 then claims that Article 14 is the equivalent of accepting the historic episcopate. That's simply not true. Neither the term nor even the concept of the historic episcopate exists anywhere in the Lutheran confessions. The idea that one office would carry the historic apostolicity or continuity of the church through generations was never accepted by the reformers. Just read Luther's three treatises of 1520 if there is any doubt whatsoever on that score.

We are about to write the historic episcopate into the constitution and into the rites and liturgies of our church. Some say that won't change our theology. Once you adopt the term "historic episcopate" and the procedures and liturgies of the historic episcopate, you can't help but get the theology as well. Practices, liturgies and constitutions shape what you believe.

We are told that we are not adopting the historic episcopate of the Roman Catholics, Orthodox or Anglicans, but that we're going to work out an "evangelical episcopate." We adopted CCM without anybody defining what an "evangelical episcopate" is. I contend that we have a pretty "evangelical episcopate" now, and we are giving it up for the concept, practice and theology of the historic episcopate.

The historic episcopacy is not a sign of unity, but a practice of uniformity and conformity within a church body. Apparently not even our bishops agree with the theology of the historic episcopate, which says that only bishops have whatever is necessary to ordain, since in their recent letter they urge the ELCA Church Council to consider ways a pastor might be authorized to ordain. So it appears they don't really believe in theology of only bishops ordaining or the historic episcopacy, which says that a bishop's hand is the only one which can effect ordination. Yet they are willing to adopt into our constitution and liturgies a practice they don't really believe in.

There are other theological issues I don't even have time to touch on -- For example, the concept of "necessary" or "necessity," for instance. We are told that CCM does not regard the historic episcopate as necessary for church unity, which is not the point at all. The point is that it will be legislated as necessary within the ELCA, with no exceptions on the basis of theological conviction or conscience. Not necessary? Not essential? It will be absolutely necessary and essential as the operating principle of episcopacy and ordination within the ELCA.

Another example of an issue that needs a theological look: what's the difference between human law and divine law? It seems to me when you make something as rigid and inflexible as the CCM legislates it starts to take on the character of divine law.

Another example I don't have time for is the whole question of adiaphora. Adiaphora aren't adiaphora anymore when they're required. Is the historic episcopacy an adiaphoron or not?

Or how about the imbalance of CCM, where we Lutherans declare full communion when it's adopted, but the Episcopalians can only say the process begins but is not yet achieved? I need to move to my third section:

3. A Theological Look at a Possible Scenario

A number of future scenarios have been discussed by those opposed to the theology of CCM..

  • The bishops' letter asks the ELCA Council to consider circumstances in which a bishop could authorize a pastor to ordain.
  • Some suggest that a synod might vote that their newly elected bishop not be installed in the historic episcopate.
  • A non-geographical synod is another possibility, which has precedent in the USA. I would like to consider another scenario, one which is based on both our theology and practice of ministry.

Our theology of ordination is that one is ordained as a pastor of the whole church, not just to the congregation issuing the call. So we believe that if an ordained pastor of a non-Lutheran or other-Lutheran church body petitions to be on our clergy roster, we interview that person to satisfy ourselves that he or she is indeed Lutheran, then upon call we install them, and they are part of the ELCA clergy roster. We do not re-ordain, either non-Lutherans or Lutherans from another church body.

Furthermore, under the "Formula of Agreement" with the Presbyterians, Reformed and United Church of Christ we have re-affirmed that practice, confirmed also by the ELCA bishops' resolution B-2, appended to CCM. So here's my scenario: What will happen if a Lutheran graduate of an ELCA seminary is called by a congregation and ordained by an ELCA Lutheran pastor? Granted such a person would probably by-pass the present candidacy process, which will require CCM compliance. Also granted that an ELCA pastor who ordains would not be seen favorably by ELCA headquarters. But apart from that, what will the ELCA do when such a newly ordained pastor petitions to be part of the ELCA, especially when the ELCA faces an increasing shortage of pastors? Will the ELCA be less hospitable to its own sons and daughters than to non-Lutherans? I can't imagine so. What would be the theological grounds for refusing such a person on to the ELCA clergy roster, given our practice with non-Lutherans?

Furthermore, what would happen if a candidate for bishop said he or she would be open to supporting such persons, that is, helping them find calls and supporting their inclusion on the ELCA clergy roster? I doubt the Episcopalians would mind, because for them proper bishops are what's necessary. They already acknowledge that with the Formula of Agreement we will have some black sheep among the clergy fold. That is acceptable to them, as long as our bishops are white sheep, so to speak. The problem with this scenario is that it shifts resistance to CCM to the most vulnerable people in our church -- seminary graduates who have loans to pay off, and who need the good will of the bishops for jobs. That's an unfair burden for them to bear, in my opinion, even though we have a number of brave ones who are willing to stick their necks out for their convictions. One would think that the church-wide office would have considered some of these alternative possibilities? My experience is that they refuse to deal with them. Their answer is, "We don't know yet." To stress again: We need to look at these issues theologically.

I do fear for the future of the ELCA. I believe that one's agreement to CCM will become the primary test of orthodoxy and loyalty in candidacy committees, search committees, nominating committees and such groups. Far from being a non-essential matter, it will become the most essential test of one's belonging in the ELCA. We have been assured that one does not have to believe in the historic episcopate or agree with CCM to remain in the ELCA, but in reality that tolerance will give way to an insistence on adherence to the constitution of the ELCA once all these changes are enacted. We have already had premonitions of that, and the Episcopal Church hasn't even voted yet!

What we absolutely must do is to state our case theologically. If we do that persuasively, then we will have made the case that for its own health and mission this church cannot adopt the rigid inflexibility of CCM. In closing, I urge us on all sides to work together in good faith and to work out ways we can live together in this church!