The "Church Problem" of the Sexuality Statement
In a history of American Lutheranism class, which I have taught in both ELCA and LCMS deacon training programs, one of the standard texts I use is John Tietjen’s Which Way to Lutheran Unity published by the Missouri-Synod’s Concordia Publishing house in 1966. It is illustrative to read through his closing chapter “Prospects for Future Lutheran Union.” There is much optimism, perhaps rightfully so. Missouri had joined the Lutheran Council-USA and Tietjen, himself a Missouri-Synod Lutheran was serving as its executive secretary. The American Lutheran Church (ALC) and The Missouri-Synod were well on their way to a fellowship agreement realized in 1969. It was a high-point heretofore unseen in American Lutheran unity. With the release of the ELCA Sexuality Study, it is difficult to read the optimistic words of Tietjen now 40-plus years later, as the unity of our respective Lutheran jurisdictions appear to be on the brink of a heretofore new low point in American Lutheran history. What happened to get us to this point?...
In a history of American Lutheranism class, which I have taught in both ELCA and LCMS deacon training programs, one of the standard texts I use is John Tietjen’s Which Way to Lutheran Unity published by the Missouri-Synod’s Concordia Publishing house in 1966. It is illustrative to read through his closing chapter “Prospects for Future Lutheran Union.” There is much optimism, perhaps rightfully so. Missouri had joined the Lutheran Council-USA and Tietjen, himself a Missouri-Synod Lutheran was serving as its executive secretary. The American Lutheran Church (ALC) and The Missouri-Synod were well on their way to a fellowship agreement realized in 1969. It was a high-point heretofore unseen in American Lutheran unity. With the release of the ELCA Sexuality Study, it is difficult to read the optimistic words of Tietjen now 40-plus years later, as the unity of our respective Lutheran jurisdictions appear to be on the brink of a heretofore new low point in American Lutheran history. What happened to get us to this point?
At the risk of oversimplifying history, both the Missouri-Synod and the ALC, in a series of sectarian moves in the early 1970s, set American Lutheranism on a course, which it has uncritically accepted, and from which it may never recover. The ALC, acting fully within its rights but without apparent consideration to the inter-Lutheran impact of its decision, began ordaining women in 1970. The Missouri-Synod, also acting fully within its rights, shifted (protected in the eyes of some) its theology with its 1973 Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles, which provided a new confessional standard beyond Scripture and the Lutheran Symbolical Books. Both churches were well within their rights to address the needs and concerns of their respective ecclesiastic communities. It was the sectarian, non-consultative manner in which those decisions were made which has become the problematic pattern for doing theology which plagues Lutheranism down to today. Fellowship between the two churches quickly deteriorated, with the Missouri-Synod voting to continue the fellowship under protest in 1977 and 1979, and then finally severing the fellowship completely in 1981, albeit with a call for continued doctrinal discussions, a call that has largely been ignored.
Today both the Missouri-Synod and the ELCA are content to operate as if they were the only “Lutheran Church” in North America. The Missouri-Synod has even gone as far as to label the ELCA a “heterodox denomination.” The respective publishing houses of each denomination have published their own hymnals ensuring that another generation of Lutherans will remain divided in worship and even in the very creedal words used to confess our shared Christian faith. Both will soon put out their own study Bibles. All the while each church has become more content to act as if the only voices that matter in shaping policy and theology are the voices from within, and even then only the majority of voices at the latest convention. American Lutheranism has become, by definition, sectarian and as such now lacks the corrective voice of others, even those who share the same confessional heritage. It might be easier for each church to do theology without the “hindrance of outsiders,” but it is also easier for each church to drift, sometimes even from a large percentage of its members under the weight of its own internal pressures and politics.
It should not be surprising that the ELCA Sexuality Study was completed without reference to the Missouri-Synod. It is well within the rights of the ELCA to set the moral direction and vision of its church. The Missouri-Synod did the same thing in its 1989 convention where it authorized non-ordained individuals to preside at the Mass, a practice which moved beyond matters of mere morals and ethics and into questions of Confessional faithfulness.
As an outsider, I personally do not understand why homosexuality has become “the issue” which seems to engross so much of the ELCA’s resources and time. Is it really that much more of a moral aberration from catholic moral tradition than the ELCA’s ambiguous statement on Abortion? Is it really that much more a departure from catholic tradition than in Missouri where non-ordained individuals can be authorized to preside at the altar? What is troubling to me is not so much the content of the debate, but the way the debates in both of the major North American Lutheran jurisdictions are conducted. We may be well within our rights to decide what is best for our own ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but it seems that there once was a time when Lutherans understood that one church body’s decision doesn’t simply effect that one church body - a time when Lutheran unity was something to be desired. As members of the same body of Christ our actions effect one another and we ought, therefore, in our decision making give consideration to how our decisions will impact one another.
This is not to say that mutual dialog between the two largest Lutheran Churches in America would have changed either Missouri or the ELCA’s official positions on anything. At the very least, though, ongoing dialog would have allowed people who were genuine partners to express genuine concern, and perhaps give added insight, new ways of thinking, and a broader appreciation for how decisions will fit into a wider catholic context. Instead of simply talking about how the ELCA’s proposal grieves us as an outsider church (as if we have any relational standing to comment) Missouri’s leaders would be able to talk about how the ELCA’s proposal grieves us as partners in the church catholic. It is a subtle but important difference, one whose nuance seems to have long ago been cast aside.
When dialog becomes a hindrance, it is not surprising that theology soon takes a backseat to political solutions. No one needs to convince anyone else of rightness or wrongness, nor need their be an attempt at a consensus, rather only a political majority needs to be established and then held at subsequent conventions. The political losers than become virtual outsiders within their own denomination, held together by…what? Under this self-focused weight sectarianism eventually leads to denominational fracturing. It shatters not simply relations between partner churches, but between sisters and brothers of the same ecclesiastical community who become political enemies. It is Missouri’s recent history; it now seems to be the ELCA’s.
Perhaps there is already too much water under the bridge, too many hard feelings from betrayals in the past, too much self confidence in our own churchly directions to listen to correctives from ecclesiastical brothers and sisters, but a church that has ceased listening to other members of the body of Christ, even those who share a similar confessional heritage and history, has by definition become sectarian. I worry that both the Missouri-Synod and the ELCA are far too comfortable in their own sectarianism, and the ELCA Sexuality Study will just add renewed current to the already massive tide that threatens to sweep away any remaining hope for Lutheran unity.
 The definitive history of this time period remains to be written, and with each passing year it looks more unlikely as fewer of the principal actors remain to tell the story from an insider’s perspective. Those who have spoken of “those days” anecdotally speak as much of the personalities who drove the conversations, as the content of the conversations themselves. The ALC’s Kent Knutson whose leadership of that church was cut short by cancer and who gave way to David Preus and a more progressive ALC leadership for the largely rural, Scandinavian church. George Beto who gave up the Presidency at Missouri's Springfield Seminary to become the director and chief of chaplains for the Texas Department of Corrections which cleared the way for a Missouri’s Preus (via the Wisconsin Synod). Jack Preus would ride a conservative wave into power in the Missouri-Synod, a wave which ultimately would prove harder to control than to ride. Ironically, it was a wave that might have been ended prior to the conflicts of 1973-74 had Lutheran Hour Speaker Oswald Hoffman not withdrawn his name from consideration for the presidency of the Missouri-Synod on principle. The Preus cousins would lead their churches in new directions, one progressive and culture-captive, one regressively countercultural, but both arguably moving too fast for denominations with large percentages that were lagging behind their leaderships. Leadership, however, only tells part of the story. There is also the unquantifiable “tenor of the times” which manifest itself in protests over Vietnam and racial activism – particularly in the Missouri–Synod with Richard John Neuhaus and the Lutheran Human Relations Association – and which generated a conservative backlash of its own in Missouri, even as it drove the ALC's leadership in a more progrssive direction.
 At issue in the protest: “Women’s ordination” and the ALC’s lack of acceptance of Missouri’s 1973 position on Scripture as well as the ALC/LCA 1978 adoption of a “Statement on Communion Practices” that Missouri rejected as appearing “to abandon the historic Lutheran acceptance of the ‘Galesburg Rule.’” (somewhat ironic given that Missouri drew the boundaries tighter than the Galesburg Rule!)
 The LCMS Convention resolution calling for the ending of fellowship with the ALC closes with a call for continued doctrinal discussions: “WHEREAS, The LCMS considers agreement with other Lutheran Church bodies in Biblical and confessional doctrine and practice to be one of its highest priorities; and WHEREAS The lack of such agreement with The American Lutheran Church is particularly grievous in view of the long and cherished relationships and the common confessional heritage enjoyed by both church bodies; therefore be it RESOLVED, That the LCMS herewith commit itself to pursue doctrinal discussions wit the ALC with the prayer that the lord of the church will send His Holy Spirit to guide and bless those discussions, to enable both church bodies to reach agreement in doctrine and practice and thereby hasten the day when the two church bodies can enjoy God-pleasing altar and pulpit fellowship.