WordAlone - Speech by David Preus, 1999
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Speech by David Preus

David Preus (led the American Lutheran Church, interim pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church, Moorhead, MN)

WordAlone Document — 1999

A snippet of history is in order. To my chagrin it makes clear the political astuteness of those who have nursed the Lutheran/Episcopal dialogue to its current status. Lutheran participants in LED II, with the complicity of then heads of church Marshall and Preus, made clear the Lutheran readiness to accept the Episcopal church, its ministry, its sacraments, and enter into what was then called pulpit and altar fellowship with the Episcopalians. It was clear that it was Episcopal rejection of the Lutheran proposal that was preventing full mutual communion. The Episcopalians avoided being the negative ones at that time by proposing the "interim communion" which has been in being since then. In Led III, however, enough Lutheran participants joined the Episcopal representatives in desiring the episcopal succession (Lutherans voting for it by 5-3) to turn appearances around. Now the Lutherans were put in the negative position. It does not change the fact, however, that it is the Episcopal refusal to accept each other as we are that is causing all the current hardship.

There are profoundly Lutheran objections to the Concordat. They are not because Lutherans do not like or respect Episcopalians. Rather, Lutherans stand ready at any time for full mutual acceptance of each other’s churches, sacraments, and ministries. The Lutheran objections stem from the Episcopal requirement that Lutherans accept the Episcopal ordering of ministry.

The Concordat requires Lutheran clergy to be "ordained" according to Episcopal orders in order for "full communion" to exist between Episcopalians and Lutherans. Unless Lutherans assure the Episcopalians that all future Lutheran ordinations will meet Episcopalian standards, which includes a special ordination for bishops and ordination into the episcopal succession for all pastors, the Episcopalians will not enter into what is now called "full communion."

The Reformation brought many things back into focus. One of the important results of the Reformation was the recapturing of a direct Word of God line from God through Christ to individual believers. Such a Reformation was necessary because a system had developed whereby the church, through its specially endowed ministry, was the intermediary between God and individual humans. A specialized priesthood had been created without whom faith could not be properly initiated or sustained. This priesthood was credentialed by specially ordained bishops. As time went on these properly ordained "professional" priests were declared to be the only ones who could "confect" the Lord’s Supper or perform baptisms. The order of salvation proceeded from God to Church to Believer. The Reformers instead saw the process as God to Believer to Church. The phrase "the priesthood of believers" resulted from just such an outlook regarding the character of life in Christ. The Word of God is the instrument by which the Holy Spirit creates faith, and God’s Word is not tied to any particular priesthood. Believers assemble to be the church, and to choose persons from its ranks to be preachers and teachers and administrators of the sacraments.

A second major objection is that the Concordat requires Lutherans to accept, in terms of practice, an addition to the Article VII of the Augsburg Confession. This Article declares that which is necessary for the unity of the church, namely, agreement in the Gospel and right administration of the sacraments. Article VII says nothing about ordination or ministry. Article VII remains totally consistent with Lutheran insistence on the central "justification" article. The Concordat says that something else is necessary, namely, ordination of clergy into the episcopal succession. The Concordat requires the Lutherans to acquiesce to the Episcopal understanding of ordained ministry.

The Lutheran acquiescence is to be marked in several ways:

  1. Commitment that all future ELCA bishops will be ordained/installed in a rite in which episcopally ordained bishops participate in the laying on of hands, thus assuring that it is a proper episcopal ordination.
  2. Commitment that all future ELCA clergy will be ordained by properly ordained bishops.
  3. ELCA commitment to a future adoption of the threefold ministry. Explicit language to this effect has been dropped from the most recent CCM. However CCM upholds the Episcopal requirement that the Ordinal of 1662 be fulfilled in the future, which means adoption of the threefold ministry is only delayed.

There are Lutheran clergy who desire the Episcopal ordination into what they understand to be "the historic succession." They believe that Lutheran freedom to adopt the best possible form of church orders should enable us to join the Episcopalians in their version of the apostolic succession. However, Lutherans are not choosing Episcopal orders because they believe it is the best ordering of ministry available, but because the Episcopalians are requiring it in order for full communion to exist. That makes no difference for those who want Lutherans to be in the historic succession. It makes a great deal of difference for those of us who believe it a departure from Lutheran theology and practice, and who believe it a weakening of the fabric of the whole people of God.

There are outgrowths of episcopal ordering that are objectionable to Lutherans. Such ordering is inherently hierarchical and undercuts the understanding that the church is a priesthood of believers. A second ordination into the ranks of bishops cannot but be perceived as an institutional elevation. The perception of the church as a caste system with bishops at the top, lesser clergy in the middle, and laity at the bottom is inevitable. Even if "servant" language is used there would be a hierarchy of servants. It is true that we have difficulty keeping such thinking at bay in the existing Lutheran communion. However, Lutherans have been able to be theologically insistent that there is only one priesthood of believers that includes the entire people of God.

There are many important objections to the Concordat and you will hear them here today. I wish to mention two more that I believe will be continuing plagues. The first is already apparent in the way the ELCA’s agenda has been focused on this matter of ordained ministry. I believe the Concordat passed will assure a continuing church focus on questions of ordained ministry and church organization. Second, I believe the Concordat will result in an ecumenical loss. The rest of the mainline Protestant churches have made clear that they will not acquiesce to Episcopal insistence on episcopal succession. It is beyond the pale for Conservative Evangelical and Pentecostal churches to even consider such an eventuality. In adopting the Concordat ELCA Lutherans will have moved toward creation of a minor denominational group that is a late comer to the large "C" Catholic grouping of churches. I see no gain, only loss in this.

My hope is that Lutherans will approach the unity question with a "reconciled diversity" stance.

Lee Snook’s description of the Christian Church as a baobab tree is helpful. Let each of the church’s that clearly affirm the apostolic faith live as they are in the confidence that all who confess the Triune God are attached to the same trunk. Lutherans can understand themselves to be in full communion with fellow Christians whether other Christians are ready to claim that or not. It will not change the fact of our being attached to the same tree...one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all.