WordAlone - What's at stake?
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What's at stake?

Speech by Meg H. Madson

First conference, 1999

This is the opening speech delivered at the WordAlone national gathering in Roseville, Minnesota, November 15, 1999.

Presiding Bishop Anderson has framed the issue by asking the following question: “If you concede that it is possible to be a faithful Christian within a church that embraces the historic episcopate, why is it not possible for those of us in the ELCA to take this step?” (Letter to Dr. Karl Schmutzler, Oct. 4, 1999).

What do you think? Are there faithful Christians in the Roman Catholic Church? In the Episcopal Church? The Baptist Church? Yes, of course. When Luther was asked this question, he said of course there are faithful Christians scattered throughout the world. Using Bernard of Clairvaux as an example, Luther said: “He did not hold his monkery or angelic life against the wrath and judgment of God, but took hold of the one thing that is needful and thus was saved” (LW 26:460). The same is true today. There are Catholic, Episcopal, and Baptist Christians who grasp the one thing that is needful.

If true Christians can be found everywhere, why don’t you join the Catholic Church? Or the Episcopal Church? Baptist Church? Because official teachings matter. Every church has a genetic code, a kind of DNA, that determines its official teaching. For the Catholics it’s the papacy, for Episcopalians the historic episcopate; for Baptists, a personal decision for Christ.

But every time a denomination’s DNA requires more than the Word alone, the gospel is subverted; salvation is uncertain. How do I know if I have believed sincerely enough? Correctly? Done enough? If only a priest in Holy Orders can make the Eucharist action complete, then Christ’s death and resurrection are not sufficient, not enough, but must be supplemented by something else. Wherever the Word alone is not enough, we are thrown back on ourselves.

This certainty, the certainty of salvation, is not a Lutheran luxury; it’s intrinsic to the gospel; to lose the certainty of salvation is to lose the freedom of the gospel. Where the Word alone is enough, we are free – free from sin and death, free from religiosity, free to let God be God, free to truly be ourselves, to be his creatures.

But now that the ELCA has adopted Episcopal DNA, the certainty and freedom of the gospel have been undermined. For Episcopalians the historic episcopate is required because it plays a role in salvation, it channels grace. To be sure, CCM ¶13 says the historic episcopate is not required for salvation. But this assertion is misleading in light of what Episcopalians say elsewhere:

  1. In their international dialogues with Catholics (adopted by Lambeth and ECUSA 1988) Episcopalians agree on ministry, except for the ordination of women and the papacy. They agree ministry is sacramental and that those in Holy Orders differ from the laity essentially, not only in degree.
  2. In 1996 the highest court in the Episcopal Church declared that the historic episcopate is included in what is essential for salvation and “for reckoning a church to be a true church.”
  3. Just a month ago, Archbishop George Carey said that laity can never preside at the Eucharist because they lack the grace given in Episcopal ordination (See Carey quote: “the firm ontological basis of the ordained ministry”). Sacramental priests are required because they have the charisma to make Christ present in the Eucharist.
CCM ¶5 states: “...episkope... is necessary... to safeguard... apostolicity.” The non-negotiability of this requirement is softened by the concession that you don’t have to believe in it. You must do it, but as Martin Marty has said: “Episcopalians do not expect Lutherans to start accepting the episcopate as a matter of faith.” You just have to do it, you don’t have to believe it.

But how long will that work? Faith is not just a head-trip that doesn’t involve the church. How long can you practice one thing and believe another? Episcopalians are happy to have the ELCA just do it because they trust that practice shapes belief. It’s only a matter of time before Lutheran beliefs will bend to Episcopal practice. They are patient to wait until we are all retired and dead, knowing that after 20 years of doing it, the next generation of ELCA members will practice and believe that the Word alone is not enough.

Fear. Some taunt us saying, “You’re so fearful.” This charge is bizarre; who would deny that if you practice what you do not believe in, you will be corrupted over time?

Church Without Sin. Others taunt us: “It’s too bad CCM was adopted, but do you think you could produce a church without sin?” The issue is not creating a church without sin, but belonging to a church whose official teachings hold to the Word alone – a church where no group is elevated above others to safeguard the gospel – a church with one universal priesthood of believers; not two priesthoods, one for laity and another for clergy.

Single-Issue. Others taunt us, “Oh you’re just a single-issue group. Get over it so we can move on.” But that’s not true. Just as Luther faced challenges on many fronts with the Word alone, so do we. The Word alone is our DNA. One attempt to unpack what the Word alone means in the battles we face is found in “A Lutheran Declaration.” It is a 6-part statement that uses Luther’s method, his law/gospel dynamic, to address the challenges we face as we enter the 21st century:

  1. It responds to those Lutherans who want to use the Trinity to join with the Eastern Orthodox in order to get behind the Reformation, thereby avoiding the Reformation critique of the church.
  2. It shows how Word of the cross authenticates itself when it is proclaimed – over against the Catholic need for an office to safeguard the gospel, and over against a particular theory of the inerrancy such as is found in Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod and conservative evangelicals.
  3. It deals with our human predicament and how we are caught in a state of sin – over against Catholic and Baptist assertions that sin is only sin when it’s a personal act (as in JDDJ).
  4. It states once again that the cross alone is our theology – over against culturally conditioned messages based on feelings about the cross, or how I accommodate the cross to my needs.
  5. It shows how our Lutheran doctrine of ministry is based on the proclamation of the cross and states what we hold – over against the so-called Catholic tradition where the Word alone is not enough.
  6. It spells out the lost and forgotten two kingdoms doctrine which is simply an extension of the law/gospel dynamic – over against the vast majority who use culture and experience to define the Christian life or who are woodenly caught in Biblical phrases.

To sum up, our Lutheran DNA spells out what Paul writes in I Cor. 1:18 and 21: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.... It pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”

Dr. Meg H. Madson

Meg Madson writes and thinks about the freedom of the gospel from Plymouth, Minnesota