An Opportunity for Faithful Clarity: The Diverging Paths in American Lutheranism
I have been enjoying looking through older articles and essays in my files, and the other day ran across a copy of President A. L. Barry’s President’s Newsletter, from February 1997, more than twelve years ago. As I reflect on recent events in the Lutheran Church here in the United States, I was struck by the poignant relevancy of President Barry’s remarks. I thought I’d pass along an article he wrote calling for The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod to take up the opportunity presented for faithful clarity. Here is what President Barry wrote:
An Opportunity for Faithful Clarity:
The Diverging Paths of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Introducing the Opportunity
Over the past few months I have received any number of letters asking me two questions. The first question: “What is th e Missouri Synod’s response to the ELCA’s consideration of full communion with the Episcopalians and three Reformed Churches, and the lifting of the Reformation condemnations over against the Roman Catholic Church?” Following this question, the second generally is: “What are the key theological differences between the LCMS and the ELCA?”
Understandably, when Missouri Synod Lutheran laymen and laywomen hear about the proposals the ELCA is considering, they are led to wonder what our Synod thinks about thi s, and how one should respond to them. Often our church workers are asked about these matters. And so, I felt that it was both appropriate and necessary for me to share the following thoughts and observations in regard to these two important questions.
I would like to begin first by indicating that I approach this task with some very genuine pastoral concerns. The last thing I want to do is to stir up feelings of hurt and anger between our two church bodies or cause consternation in families that have per sons who are members in the LCMS and the ELCA. Many in our Synod enjoy long and close associations and friendships with individuals who belong to the ELCA, particularly since we were once in fellowship with groups that now belong to the ELCA, for instance the American Lutheran Church. Understandably, these issues can generate strong emotions as we find ourselves expressing heart-felt concerns to our brothers and sisters in Christ in the ELCA.
It is important for us to recognize that for the sake of our co nfession of the truths of God’s Word and in line with our commitment to the Lutheran Confessions, we must speak a word of faithful clarity and express our genuine concerns. Rather than being something negative, I believe that our Synod has a very good opportunity clearly to affirm the truth of God’s Word and the Lutheran Confessions. In love, we need to say, “This we believe, teach, confess and practice.”
In the paragraphs that follow I would like first to summarize briefly the ecumenical proposals being considered by the ELCA; secondly, offer a critique of these proposals, and then thirdly, discuss some of the important differences between our two churches.
The ELCA’s Consideration of Ecumenical Proposals
First, let’s take a look at the ecumenical proposals the ELCA will be considering at its August 1997 churchwide assembly. They are three in number: a proposal in regard to the Episcopalian Church, a proposal in regard to three Reformed Churches, and a proposal in regard to the Roman Catholic C hurch.
In regard to the Episcopalian Church, the ELCA will be voting on whether or not to adopt a “Concordat of Agreement” with the Episcopalian Church. The Concordat would declare that “full communion” exists between the Episcopalian Church and the ELCA. The term “full communion” is what we would understand to be altar and pulpit fellowship. The Concordat does not require the Episcopalian Church to accept the doctrinal truths of the Augsburg Confession as a normative basis for fellowship between their t wo churches. The Concordat requires that all future bishops of the ELCA be ordained to their office through what the Episcopalian Church considers to be an “apostolic succession” transmitted through their ordained bishops. The same would hold true for future pastors in the ELCA. The Episcopalians are temporarily suspending this requirement for incumbent ELCA pastors and bishops. Episcopalian priests would be permitted to serve as pastors of ELCA congregations, even as ELCA pastors would be permitted to serve Episcopalian parishes. Details in regard to joint-mission and ministry would be worked out later, if the Concordat is adopted.
In regard to fellowship with the three Reformed churches, the ELCA will be considering the proposals contained in the document titled, A Common Calling. If these proposals are adopted, the ELCA would be in church fellowship with the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and the United Church of Christ. Ministers would be shared among the four churches, along with the establishment of a common, decision-making process, and a commitment to continued theological discussions. The ELCA would recognize that the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments administered according to God’s Word within these Reformed churches. The ELCA and the Reformed would withdraw any historic condemnations made in regard to their theology and would recognize that differences exist over how Christ is present in His supper, but acknowledge that He is present in some way.
The final ecumenical proposal that will be considered by the ELCA is in regard to the Roman Catholic Church. The title of this proposal is: “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification.” It states that the ELCA and the Roman Catholic Church recognize that “the historic condemnations that appear in confessional and other official documents regarding justification do not apply to each other today” (The Lutheran, November 1996, p. 11). It would also formally accept assertions made in a joint Lutheran-Roman Catholic statement on justification which asserts a mutual agreement on aspects of the doctrine of justification.
Some of our Concerns with the Ecumenical Proposals
Our most serious concern with these ecumenical proposals for full communion is the fact that the ELCA would be entering into church fellowship with groups that clearly do not agree with, nor are bound to teach, the full truth of God’s Word on any number of important issues—issues that directly impact how we proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to state very clearly that simply agreeing to disagree by accepting a concept known as “reconciled diversity” is incompatible with historic, confessional Lutheran doctrine and practice.
Therefore, in regard to the Episcopalian proposal, we are troubled that the ELCA would be accepting a principle clearly rejected by our Lutheran Confessions; namely, that the ordination of pastors or bishops requires apostolic succession through the laying on of hands from an Episcopalian bishop, as if the office of bishop was above the office of pastor. Furthermore, we would be very concerned that the Episcopalian Church, as a church in the Reformed tradition, does not consistently and clearly confess the truth about Christ’s Supper and that the historic differences between Anglicanism and Lutheranism are not adequate-ly resolved.
In regard to the proposal for full communion with the three Reformed churches, here again, similar concerns come to the front. We are concerned th at the ELCA is considering fellowship with churches that do not clearly teach the truth about any number of Biblical teachings, such as the doctrine about the person and work of our Savior Jesus Christ. We are particularly troubled that the ELCA would consider entering into a “full communion” altar and pulpit fellowship with churches that do not correctly profess the truths about the Lord’s Supper. In the words of the Small Catechism, the Lutheran Church believes that the Lord’s Supper “is the true body an d blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine, instituted by Christ for us Christians to eat and to drink” and that “forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation are given us through these words…when accompanied by bodily eating and drinking” (SC VI.1, 6, 7). Explain- ing these truths further, Martin Luther wrote in the Smalcald Articles that, “the bread and wine in the Supper are the true body and blood of Christ and that these are given and received not only by godly but also by wicked Christian s” (SA III, VI.1).
In regard to the proposals over against the Roman Catholic church, I thought it was interesting that the noted Roman Catholic theologian, Avery Dulles, expressed his serious concerns in the Summer 1996 issue of the Lutheran journal Dialog, stating that he “doubts that all of the 16th-century issues have been resolved.” He correctly observed that these differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics are not trifling issues, but go to core differences between the Lutheran and Rom an Catholic churches. We would agree with Dulles’ assertion in this article that “one of the most precious things we have in common may be our conviction that pure doctrine is crucially important and that ecclesial unity should not be purchased at the expense of the truth.” Our Synod has stated its position that the Lutheran-Roman Catholic declaration on justification is lacking in clarity and is insufficient for there to be a declaration of agreement on justification between the Lutheran and Roman Catholic church.
Therefore, we would hold that the ecumenical proposals being considered by the ELCA are incompatible with the Holy Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions. If adopted, this action would represent a contradiction of essential doctrinal truths that Lutherans have confessed as points that cannot be compromised or surrendered, under any circumstances, or at any cost, since the time of the Lutheran Reformation. We do not make this assertion lightly, and we certainly say this with the deepest regret. F or the sake of the truth of God’s Word, we must speak a word of faithful clarity over against these ecumenical proposals.
The Larger Issue: Differences Between the LCMS and the ELCA
Obviously, the ecumenical proposals being considered by the ELCA, point to a larger issue—the fact that there are clear differences between the ELCA and the LCMS. Much more could be written than we have space for in The President’s Newsletter, but we can provide some summary obs ervations about these important differences.
First, and most importantly, the LCMS and the ELCA disagree over the nature and authority of the Bible, the Holy Scriptures. While both of our churches profess allegiance to the Reformation principle of sola scriptura, that is, that “Scripture alone” is the supreme authority for the church’s doctrine and life, the LCMS believes that the Bible is actually the Word of God, and therefore, is totally truthful and reliable, free from error. We believe that t he Scriptures are the final standard by which we must judge everything that we believe, teach and confess. This is why our Synod’s constitution states that “the Synod, and every member of the Synod, accepts without reservation the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament as the written Word of God and the only rule and norm of faith and of practice.” The ELCA, on the other hand, avoids making statements that confess the full truthfulness of the Bible. It holds that Scripture is not necessarily always accurat e or trustworthy, and it makes use of methods of interpreting the Scripture that presuppose that the Bible is not necessarily an errorless book.
Differences between the LCMS and the ELCA on the final authority of Scripture help to explain other differences between our two churches. For example, we differ over the ordination of women, homosexuality and abortion. While the LCMS does not ordain women to the pastoral office, the ELCA does, in spite of the fact that Scripture clearly teaches otherwise. The LCM S unequivocally rejects homosexual behavior as contrary to God’s Word, while the ELCA continues to be unable to take an official stand on this issue. The LCMS has repeatedly condemned willful abortion as contrary to the will of God. The ELCA has not been able to speak this clearly about abortion. There are any number of other examples, but these three serve to illustrate the fact that because our two churches differ over the nature and authority of the Bible, we differ over other important issues.
Substan tial differences also exist between our two churches on the meaning and implication of subscription, or full agreement with, the Lutheran Confessions. The LCMS binds itself to all the doctrinal content of the Lutheran confessional writings of the sixteenth century as contained in The Book of Concord. We bind ourselves to the Confessions not in so far as they are in agreement with the Scriptures (which would allow individual members to reject certain doctrines), but because we are convin ced that the doctrinal teachings of the Confessions are in complete harmony with God’s inspired and inerrant Word. We in the LCMS therefore accept without reservation “all the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church as a true and unadulterated statement and exposition of the Word of God” (LCMS Constitution).
The ELCA, on the other hand, does not require that its church workers and congregations pledge unqualified acceptance of the full doctrinal content of The Book of Concord. T he confessional article of the ELCA’s constitution refers to the Augsburg Confession simply as “a true witness to the Gospel” and the other confessional writings in The Book of Concord as “further valid interpretations of the faith of the church,” but not as doctrinally binding statements of faith that require unqualified assent. The ELCA views the Lutheran Confessions as historical expressions of the faith held to be true at the time that they were written, but not necessarily as normative standards for teaching and practice today.
With this view of the Scriptures and the Lutheran confessions, we are able to understand why the ELCA would consider it possible to enter into full fellowship with a church that teaches something contrary to the Word of God and the Lutheran Confessions. The unfortunate cause, and logical result, of such fellowship arrangements, is the attitude that ultimate truth is unable to be known, confessed and asserted. This attitude is clearly contrary to the confessional principle of the Lutheran church that is characterized in the Book of Concord by two very important phrases: “We believe, teach, and confess” and “We reject and condemn.”
In light of this very serious disagreement over the nature of the importance of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, it is really no surprise that our two churches also disagree on what is necessary before there can be full altar and pulpit fellowship between two churches. The first objective listed in our Synod’s Constitution is to “con serve and promote the unity of the true faith (Eph. 4:36; 1 Cor. 1:10)” and “to work through its official structure toward fellowship with other Christian church bodies.” We do this only under the normative authority of the Scriptures and the Lutheran Confessions, with the conviction that God desires us to work toward agreement in the Gospel and all of its parts. Thus, the LCMS believes that the Bible requires full agreement in doctrine before it is possible to join together in altar and pulpit fellowship with other church bodies. The ELCA, on the other hand, holds that disagreement in doctrine does not prohibit “full communion” with other churches.
In the document A Common Calling, for example, which sets forth the rationale for the fellowship proposal between the ELCA and the Reformed Churches, it is admitted that “important theological differences…remain between our two churches in such questions as the understanding of the Lord’s Supper and Christology” (p. 66). These differences a re viewed “not as disagreements that need to be overcome, but as diverse witnesses to the one gospel that we confess in common” (p. 66). This approach fails to recognize the vital relationship between the saving Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ and all other teachings of Scripture that are centered and rooted in that Gospel—teachings which our Lord Himself commanded us to observe in their entirety (Matt. 28:20). The ELCA’s approach also represents a significant shift away from the historic Lutheran understa nding of altar and pulpit fellowship as based on complete agreement in doctrine, and it compromises Scripture’s clear mandate to confess and proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:28) in all its Gospel-centered truth and purity.
Concluding Thoughts: The Opportunity Revisited
I would like now to offer some concluding thoughts. Needless to say, it is not a pleasant task to point out the errors we feel are very much present in the proposed ecumenical decisio ns facing the ELCA. Nor does it cause us any joy when we describe the weighty differences that divide our two churches. We would like to see our two churches on a converging path, but instead, as so many have observed, we clearly are on diverging paths. The fact that we are on diverging paths is particularly painful to members of our congregations who have family and friends in ELCA congregations. We do need to be sensitive to these very genuine concerns.
Over the past several years, the LCMS has attempte d to express, in various ways, its serious concerns with the fellowship proposals under consideration by the ELCA, and we will continue to do so. We have also indicated our desire to participate in theological discussions with the ELCA concerning our serious disagreements in doctrine, and to be included in present and future dialogues with other churches. We want to bear witness to the Gospel as we work toward true unity in the church, based on the teachings of God’s Word, as these are correctly articulated in the Lutheran Confessions.
In the weeks and months ahead, as the ELCA comes closer to its August 1997 churchwide assembly, I would like to urge that all members of our Synod keep the ELCA and its leadership in their prayers. Let us ask the Lord to move the ELCA to take very seriously the many concerns being expressed about these ecumenical proposals (also within the ELCA). Please join me in praying for renewed opportunities for our Synod to discuss our differences honestly and caringly with our brother s and sisters in Christ in the ELCA, speaking the truth in love so that, with faithful clarity, we may all embrace more fully, see more clearly, and confess more faithfully, what our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us in His Word.
What a marvelous opportunity for faithful clarity we have before us at this important time in American Lutheranism. May the Lord grant our Synod, and all of its members, the courage to recognize this great opportunity, and the willingness to speak with clarity about it. In the wo rds of the hymn, let us join our hearts in prayer to God: “In these last days of sore distress, grant us, dear Lord, true steadfastness, that pure we keep, till life is spent, Thy Holy Word and Sacrament. Amen!”