by Rev. David Ramirez
ELCA “traditionalists” upset about the 2009 Churchwide Assembly’s actions concerning homosexual behavior have laid out their plans for the future and are meeting August 24-27 in Columbus, Ohio, for a theological conference on “Seeking New Directions for Lutheranism” and to form a new church body, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). To describe the emerging situation simply:
1. There are already “reform groups” and organizations formed by traditionalists inside and outside of the ELCA such as the Word Alone Network (WAN) now Word Alone Ministries (WAM), Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC), The Evangelical Lutheran Synod of Texas, Augsburg Lutheran Churches, and many more.
2. There are still a large number of traditionalists who are going to stay in the ELCA at the present time.
3. Many of the traditionalists are starting a new national denomination (the NALC), which will have a little bit more structure than is offered by the already constituted LCMC.
Lutheran CORE is the umbrella organization for all these “traditionalists,” the glue that holds together this emerging confederation. The proposed NALC will be the new home of many of the traditionalists of the ELCA launched by Lutheran CORE. Perhaps one could think of the NALC as the flagship of this new moderate Lutheran confederation, structurally and theologically tied most closely to Lutheran CORE. In the document “A Vision and Plan for The North American Lutheran Church and Lutheran CORE,” the purpose of forming the NALC is described by The Lutheran CORE Vision and Planning Working Group:
The NALC is being established in response to those members and friends of Lutheran CORE who have expressed a preference for completely withdrawing from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. They are looking for a Lutheran church body that stands in the tradition of the Church, is denominationally structured for leadership, oversight and accountability, enhances representative governance by congregations and affirms and supports ministry and mission at the congregational level. The NALC will be structurally lean and will look to Lutheran CORE, a community of confessing Lutherans in North America, for many resources.
Lutheran CORE, elsewhere spoken of as “a community a confessing Lutherans,” is described in the same document: “Lutheran CORE will include in its membership Lutheran church bodies, synods, congregations, reform movements and individual members. All of its members, as a basic requirement for membership, will endorse the Common Confession.”
What is this emerging confederation reminiscent of? Perhaps The American Lutheran Church of 1960? The acronym is a veritable “shout out” to the bygone (T)ALC so many of the traditionalists miss. Maybe. But a much better comparison would actually be the American Lutheran Conference of 1930.
Why the Comparison Works
A moderate confederation—with one leading church body amongst equals and unity based upon a recent statement of faith—all certainly sounds similar to the American Lutheran Conference. That conference’s biggest player was of course the “old” American Lutheran Church, also of 1930. The church bodies in that conference were united on the basis of the Minneapolis Theses of 1925. The Common Confession, written by traditionalists in 2005, serves a similar purpose for the church bodies/organizations affiliated with Lutheran CORE. Theologically, the American Lutheran Conference was considered “in between” the two other Lutheran groups at that time, the Synodical Conference and the ULCA. Lutheran CORE also postures itself as centrist or moderate, to the right of the ELCA and its ever leftward drift, but to the left of Missouri and other former Synodical Conference synods.
Where the Comparison Breaks Down
This comparison has its weaknesses. Lutheran CORE does not yet have a clear big-dog-on-the-block church body. This is not necessarily good or bad. As of right now, LCMC is the largest group in the mix and will remain so for the near future. The church body launched by Lutheran CORE (the NALC) may well catch and surpass the size of LCMC. There are many congregations waiting to see what comes of the meeting in Columbus. Yet it remains to be seen how large the NALC will grow and how quickly.
The Minneapolis Theses of the American Lutheran Conference were not entirely satisfactory to Missouri and the Synodical Conference Lutherans. Complaints about clarity existed. Yet compared to the Common Confession, the Minneapolis Theses were far more detailed and clear. Outside of the definite stance against homosexual behavior, the Common Confession tends to be vague on questions with which American Lutheranism has historically struggled. In particular, the statements on Scripture and its confessional subscription raise more questions than they answer. It would be beneficial for Lutheran CORE to clarify what they actually mean by this Common Confession concerning issues beyond parochial ELCA concerns. This leads to where the comparison truly breaks down.
The American Lutheran Conference, while positioned between the Synodical Conference on the right and the Eastern Lutherans on the left, was still at that time in the “Old Lutheran” camp. This confederation was much more oriented to Missouri and the Synodical Conference, especially when it came to its commitment to inerrancy. This cannot be said for Lutheran CORE. They are indeed more “conservative” than the ELCA, but to consider them “centrist Lutherans” or “in the middle” certainly is a stretch. Any group that ordains women can only be considered “liberal” or “left wing” by any fair historical standard of Lutheranism. The only reason that Lutheran CORE has any claim to the middle is due to the extremes of the ELCA.
The New ELCA
“Will the NALC and Lutheran CORE be any different than the ELCA of 13 months or even 22 years ago?” is a question I hear often. History never repeats itself in precisely the same manner, and thus this new venture will not merely be an “ELCA reboot.” However, minus the stance against homosexual behavior, it is hard to see any huge differences on paper between Lutheran CORE/NALC and the ELCA. Certainly the leaders and members will be wary of the pitfalls of the ELCA, but what are the concrete guards in place against walking down the same path that the ELCA has taken? What precisely are the lessons that have been learned by the failed ELCA experiment? Less centralization of power, no special interest quotas, more focus on missions—is that it? Surely the problems are theological and run deeper, as so many Lutheran CORE leaders alluded to at the Fishers meeting last summer. But where is that reality reflected in the NALC’s constitution? Where is a detailed diagnosis, and potential cure, officially spelled out by Lutheran CORE that actually affects what they confess? The Confession of Faith in the NALC’s proposed constitution is virtually identical to the ELCA’s Confession of Faith. The only deviations are an additional quote from the Epitome of the Formula of Concord in the section on Scripture, “according to which all doctrines should and must be judged,” and a statement that they honor and confess the Common Confession. As noted before, I can see few clear, substantial points in the Common Confession besides its clear stance against homosexual behavior.
As things stand, it seems hard for traditionalists to answer the “revisionists” in the ELCA who say, “See, it is just all about sex!” How is reheating the ELCA’s Confession of Faith and adding the Common Confession truly “seeking new directions for Lutheranism”? Which is it? Was the ELCA fundamentally flawed from the very beginning or was an originally sturdy ship taken over by pirates? Lutheran CORE needs to put its finger on “the deeper theological problems” and make some fundamental distinctions between itself and the ELCA precisely, clearly, and quickly.
Quibbles and a Critique of “A Vision and Plan for The North American Lutheran Church and Lutheran CORE”
The Constitution of the NALC has not yet been passed; however, one may read “A Vision and Plan for The North American Lutheran Church and Lutheran CORE” to understand Lutheran CORE’s direction.
1. Why is the designation “confessing Lutherans” found all over the document? Modern Lutherans would do well to get over the desire to be connected, no matter how tenuously, with the Reformed/Barthian “Confessing Church” in Germany. Let’s focus on the content of the confession being made instead of getting excited over the mere act of confessing.
2. The “four key attributes” that Lutheran CORE will be centered on are, “Christ-Centered, Mission-Driven, Traditionally-Grounded, Congregationally-Focused.” Hyphenated terms, while perhaps well-intentioned, come across as poorly defined catchphrases.
3. While the NALC wisely will not be joining the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches, it “will apply for membership in the Lutheran World Federation.” Why bother, considering that the LWF is about as consequential to Lutheranism as the Jesus Seminar is to exegetical studies? Isn’t that the party they are trying to leave?
4. I also do not understand the readiness of Lutherans to engage in programs and work with movements clearly at odds with the faith confessed by the Evangelical Lutheran Church. Consider:
Our shared ministry will make use of Christ-centered approaches that the wider body of Christ finds useful and effective, tailored to the Lutheran context. For example, Lutheran ministries such as Word and Witness and Crossways International might be complemented by Alpha, Intervarsity, Mothers of Preschoolers and many other proven vehicles that God is using across denominational lines to transform the lives of countless people.
5. To another serious matter, the NALC, following the lead of Lutheran CORE, leaves affiliation with the ELCA as one faithful choice among many. Of course pastors and congregations must take seriously the state of their congregation as they seek the best way to flee from flagrant and stubborn error. Yet the question by this stage in the game surely ought to be when, not if. No doubt, as lines are further drawn and positions harden, Lutheran CORE will inevitably firm up against continuing relations with the ELCA. Yet the description of the relationship between Lutheran CORE, the NALC, and those who remain in the ELCA seems as if Lutheran CORE is trying to be “all things to all people”:
Lutheran CORE affirms the faithful call of confessing Lutherans, some of whom will remain in the ELCA and ELCIC and some of whom are now called to different affiliations. We envision a reconfiguration that maintains the highest degree of ongoing unity and cooperation possible among those who leave and those who stay.
This is an extremely rosy position, which will undoubtedly be proven untenable by time. Ironically, if the ELCA follows the precedent set by the way it has dealt with congregations joining LCMC, the ELCA itself will force the issue by not allowing congregations to have dual membership in the ELCA and NALC. It is baffling how little import is placed upon broader affiliation.
Many supporters within Lutheran CORE have indicated that they will remain members of ELCA (or ELCIC) congregations or on their clergy rosters, at least for a season. Some of these mention that they intend to remain within the ELCA on a limited basis - mostly at the congregational level, often re-designating their benevolence outside the mission support system of the ELCA. While these individuals and congregations may remain within the ELCA only in a formal sense, they may look to the Lutheran CORE community as their church beyond the congregation.
Others intend to remain more broadly engaged within the ELCA as faithful witnesses. Lutheran CORE recognizes and affirms those congregations and individuals who feel called to remain within the ELCA and who wish to continue to work for the reform of the ELCA and to witness to Biblical and confessional teachings and practices, as well as to support others remaining in the ELCA. Some of these congregations and individuals may choose dual membership in the ELCA and the NALC. Others may be members of Lutheran CORE on an individual, congregational or partnership basis.
How is all of this not saying, “Stay married to him, but spend your time with me?”
If Lutheran CORE is going to work as an umbrella organization, it will have to be ready to deal with potential sources for huge friction. I see two fault lines, ripe for trouble, which must be recognized and dealt with by the leadership of Lutheran CORE. One is the potential rivalry between LCMC and the NALC, the two big wolves in the pack. The other is the relationship between the traditionalists who leave the ELCA and those who are remaining within. I cannot see how the two will not be connected.
Word Alone Ministries has already moved to a firmer position against remaining in the ELCA. LCMC will almost certainly take a much harder line against the ELCA—and those who remain in it—than the emerging NALC. First, LCMC is made up of people who already left the ELCA back in 2001. Secondly, LCMC has picked up the majority of the congregations that have left the ELCA since last summer. This means that the LCMC has by and large gotten the congregations that were the most prepared, the best informed, and the most willing to leave. These “first wave” congregations left as soon as possible and needed a place to land. LCMC, as an already constituted and functioning body, aside from any other reasons, was obviously an attractive choice. The NALC on the other hand will not get many of those “first wave” congregations. Rather, as compared to the LCMC, the NALC will pick up more churches that were not as well informed, prepared to leave, or unanimous. In my estimation, over the next several years it will most likely be the NALC that will gain many of the congregations making a slower exodus from the ELCA. Regardless of whether one considers these “second wave” and later congregations timid or careful, this uneven distribution will shape the relationship between the LCMC and the NALC. Additionally, “evangelical catholics” and former LCA congregations who leave the ELCA are more likely to join the NALC, giving it a more varied composition than the LCMC. But perhaps most importantly, as mentioned above, the NALC will allow congregations within the ELCA to join. To a much greater extent than the LCMC, the NALC will have to guard against merely being the ELCA pre-2009.
Drawing Lines and Coming Home
Of course, at the heart of this potential friction are the nature of fellowship and the necessity of drawing lines. Quite possibly, I may just be an old Lutheran worrying about problems that are rendered passé in the world of trans-, non-, and bi-denominational ministries, not to mention para-church complexities. But I don’t think so. At the meeting at Fishers, Indiana, last summer one could already sense the difference between the Lutheran CORE people behind the microphone and the rank and file in the pews. One very earnest woman spoke twice, once each day, pushing the assembly to have nothing to do with the ELCA, immediately.
It has been said that a conservative is just a liberal who has been mugged. Or to put it a different way, a liberal is merely a conservative who has not been mugged yet. The people of the ELCA have been mugged, and they have been mugged so ruthlessly and obviously by revisionist Christianity that many have begun seeing the necessity of drawing lines. It is always a good sign in pandering modern Christendom when the example of Elijah versus the prophets of Baal is invoked, as it was at least three times by my count at Fishers. I hope and pray that the traditionalists from the ELCA continue in this spirit and zeal. But even more should we hope and encourage the traditionalists of the ELCA to see that the heralds of neo-orthodoxy (orthodox words with liberal substance) are still picking their pockets as they pose as authentic orthodox Lutheranism.
How serious can Lutheran CORE actually be about “seeking new directions for Lutheranism” if many of the “traditionalist” theologians of Lutheran CORE are merely the radicals of yesterday? I cannot help but wonder how serious Lutheran CORE’s theological conference will be considering that one of their presenters is Dr. Paul Hinlicky, a traditionalist who has publicly suggested that gay unions have “goods analogous to marriage,” and in certain situations might be “recognized” by the church. I fail to see how Dr. Carl Braaten and Dr. Robert Jenson will produce a coherent vision for North American Lutheranism, seeing as after having helped lead mid-twentieth-century Lutheranism “out of the ghetto” into a brave new world, it blossomed into the ELCA. It is akin to watching modern neoconservative Republicans champion and “conserve” the liberal traditions that they as Democrats built a generation ago.
Perhaps I am overly pessimistic. Hopefully, the new direction for moderate Lutheranism is repentance and a return to the confessionalism of their fathers, for the cure must certainly go deeper than anything seen or heard thus far from Lutheran CORE. At Fishers, the refrain of, “We must all repent!” rang loudly and clearly. However, besides the concrete repentance of not being nice enough to those who struggle with homosexual desire and the vague repentance for not doing enough to stop the ELCA’s slide into liberal Protestantism, of what precisely have the traditionalists repented? The tired, old, dead end road of neo-orthodoxy is not a very promising path to follow for theologians, pastors, or laymen. Specific repentance for actual errors is what is always needed for Christians in this earthly life.
What does all this mean for Missouri?
The Missouri Synod and the confederation of church bodies and para-church organizations united under Lutheran CORE’s banner are nowhere near church fellowship due to great divergence in doctrine. However, there is hope for fruitful discussion between the LCMS and Lutheran CORE. The issue which would perhaps be an important starting point is the issue of the ordination of women. Director of Lutheran CORE, Rev. Mark Chavez, who gave an excellent presentation at the Fort Wayne Symposium this past winter, thought a discussion of the issue between the two groups would be beneficial. An obvious “deal breaker” for Missouri, women’s ordination would not only be of extreme importance in and of itself, but provide an opportunity for each group to observe how the other treats and what it confesses concerning the Scriptures.
I doubt there will be many surprises at Columbus, but it will be important for the Missouri Synod to carefully watch how this venture of moderate Lutheranism unfolds.
Pastor David Ramirez
Zion Lutheran Church, Lincoln, IL