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The "Church Problem" of the Sexuality Statement

by Paul Sauer — March 17, 2009

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[1], 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,[2] albeit with a call for continued doctrinal discussions, a call that has largely been ignored.[3]

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.



[1] 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.

[2] 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!)

[3] 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.

How about the in-laws?

Posted by Padre Dave Poedel, STS at March 21, 2009 04:37
Great paper! I can't help wondering what our various Lutheran flavors would taste like if we had tried honest and loving dialogue with our "in-laws" in Rome.

Why not norm our organization and structure with the Church of our origins?

Do you think Rome would be interested? They seemed mildly so in the JDDJ. Would it be a reciprocal relationship?

Just wondering....

Consultation without Resolve

Posted by Rev. Prof. Thomas V. Aadland at March 28, 2009 11:22
Thank you, Paul Sauer, for a thoughtful article, one that should prompt some honest self-examination. The grief at the loss of any real prospect for Lutheran unity is evident. You appeal for non-sectarian behavior in the church bodies and for not acting without consultation. Your initial question (“What happened to get us to this point?”) has been asked often indeed these past two decades, and it deserves a straightforward answer. It was asked by some in the ELCA, reacting to the CCM at Mahtomedi, MN, in March of 2000, at the formation of the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, but without an answer being given. I wonder now, however, whether your own argument might not be strengthened by a greater account of those significant consultations, past and present, which certainly did and do seek honest dialog, assessment, and critique.

Certainly, the eight consultations sponsored by LC-USA in the 1970s bear mention. Their focus was a topic selected in 1971, by the Division of Theological Studies of the Lutheran Council in the USA for special study. The result was the document “The Function of Doctrine and Theology in Light of the Unity of the Church” (1978), an introduction to which is available at https://www.lcms.org/graphics/assets/media/Office%20of%20the%20President/The_Function_of_Doctrine_and_Theology_in_light_of_unity.pdf. Strikingly, both Presidents Robert J. Marshall (LCA) and J. A. O. Preus (LCMS), leaders of the two out of the three church bodies not in fellowship, were present at the initial conference, held November 28-29, 1972, at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, President Kent Knutson unable to be present due to a rare terminal illness. The conferences initially brought together 12 (later 9) officially designated representatives, four (later 3) from each of the church bodies.

The FODT document reveals that any optimism for genuine Lutheran unity based on a common confession of the Gospel was ill founded without serious work toward honest and God-pleasing resolution of significant disagreement over the nature of biblical authority and its interpretation, the meaning of confessional subscription and the nature and basis of church fellowship. As early as the second conference, held in Chicago, April 5-7, 1973, “the differences which were known to characterize the church bodies were clearly in evidence [from that point] until the end of the conversations” (p. 4), which ended with the eighth conference, June 21-22, 1977, in Minneapolis.

Further evidence of consultation between the antecedent bodies of ELCA and the LCMS can be found in the extensive study of hermeneutics, launched by the Division of Theological Studies of LC-USA at the same time as the third conference, late 1973. Papers presented in this effort were published in Studies in Lutheran Hermeneutics, edited by John Reumann and Samuel Nafzger (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979). This volume provides, I believe, a needed clue to answer your question (“What happened to get us to this point?”).

In addressing the nature of biblical unity and its implications for the unity of the church, ALC theologian Duane A. Priebe cites with approval the position taken by the post-Bultmannian Ernst Käsemann in his essays on the New Testament, published in English in the 1960s. According to Käsemann, and thence Priebe, the New Testament canon presents us “not infrequently” with “irreconcilable theological contradictions,” so that “it is quite comprehensible that the confessions which exist today all appeal to the New Testament canon” (“The New Testament Canon and the Unity of the Church” in Essays on New Testament Themes, SCM Press, 1963). If indeed “one-sided emphases, fossilized attitudes, fabrications and contradictory opposites in doctrine, organization and devotional practice are to be found in the ecclesiology of the New Testament no less than among ourselves” and that “to recognize this is even a great comfort and, so far as ecumenical work is concerned, a theological gain” (“Unity and Multiplicity in the New Testament Doctrine of the Church” in New Testament Questions of Today, SCM Press, 1969), then the ecumenism of “reconciled diversity” is already at hand. So the drift of LWF and ELCA into positions we find today, including pulpit and altar fellowship with the non-creedal UCC and its clergy, some of whom are also rostered with the Unitarian-Universalist Association, is justified beforehand. The handwriting was already on the wall.

Käsemann’s statements, if given credence, obviate what was one of the primary purposes of the Division of Theological Studies – that of “growing together theologically” (op. cit., p. 4). Consultation that is genuinely fraternal and fruitful presupposes common ground on a normative authority. But this is just what was eroded – not by the partners in the dialogue from the LCMS but by those who went another way, who were “of a different spirit” – to quote a partner in a colloquy from another century – and thus made unity impossible. I submit President J. A. O. Preus, in writing A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles (1973), acted courageously to restate the norm over against aberrations then current. He did what any confessing Christian should do when false brethren choose to go their own way despite fraternal appeal. Thanks be to God it remains doctrina publice for The Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod still today.

Sectarianism is separation from other Christians for reasons that have nothing to do with confessing the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Who, honestly, are the sectarians?

Even still today, the President of the LCMS and his colleagues seek annual consultation with the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA. President Gerald Kieschnick has properly remonstrated with representatives of the ELCA that their proposals depart from Holy Scripture. Mark Hanson simply continues to note the ELCA differs with the LCMS on the interpretation of Scripture.

That is an understatement. The difference is precisely that between Zacharias and the Blessed Virgin. We ought to have been reminded of it during the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25). Mary asks, “How shall this be?” in sanctified curiosity. Zacharias doubts, “How can that be?” in rationalistic dissent. The difference between the hermeneutics of faith and the Cartesian methodology of doubt is a chasm that cannot be bridged.

November 7, 2005, on the occasion of an official visit to Rome by a delegation of officers of the Lutheran World Federation [http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/2005/november/documents/hf_ben_xvi_spe_20051107_lutheran-federation_en.html], the summus episcopus of Rome, Benedict XVI, while expressing appreciation for progress in ecumenical dialogue, marks what threatens to undermine the Lutheran-Roman Catholic relationship, namely, a “changed hermeneutic” that calls into question commonly accepted Christian teaching that has endured for the millennia. Apparently, the Pope has read the handwriting on the wall. The irony is that Leo X and Martin Luther have appeared, in their modern dress, to have exchanged places. Therefore, the problem is not a total lack of consultation. Intellectual honesty requires that we call a spade a spade. The problem is that current leadership in the ELCA, as was the case with their predecessors, turns a deaf ear to fraternal remonstrance given by those who are speaking the truth in Christian love.

Kyrie eleison.

Rev. Prof. Thomas V. Aadland
Matongo Lutheran Theological College
Kenya

Article

Posted by Rev. Lee Bennight at November 03, 2009 21:36
Very good article. May I reprint it in our newsletter?

Rev. Lee Bennnight
Trinity Lutheran Church
Durand, Illinois
leebennight@gmail.com
www.lutheransonline.com/trinitydurand

The Church Problem of the "Sexuality Statement"

Posted by Rev. Richard A. Bolland at December 31, 2009 18:04
There is no doubt that speaking to our brothers and sisters in Christ and engaging in theological dialog are good and healthy things to do. It seems actually an easier task with those who are not Lutheran than with those who are. I suspect that the reason for that is simply that those who are close to each other expect that the other person should understand and "get it", and we become frustrated when they do not.

With respect to dialog between The LCMS and the ELCA, there remains a fundamental problem: We have no common view of the authority of Holy Scripture on which to base our discussions. For the ELCA the Word of God is somewhere contained in Holy Scripture and for Missouri the Word of God is Holy Scripture. It is from this fundamental difference that all our other differences derive. How are we to resolve the issue of women's ordination if both parties disagree on the validity of the Scriptural texts which address the issue? How can we resolve the matter of ordaining homosexuals into the Office of the Holy Ministry when the Scriptural texts adressing that issue are dismissed out-of-had by the ELCA?

Perhaps a more fundamental difference between us lies in the way in which the two bodies seek to achieve pulpit and altar fellowship. In the ELCA "Reconciled Diversity" (a contradiction in terms), simply dismisses important theological concepts as "non-divisive" and thus we may "agree to disagree". Whereas The LCMS insists on agreement in all articles of doctrine and practice prior to such a declaration of fellowship. In the eyes of the ELCA doctrine is secondary to unity. In the eyes of Missouri unity is a derivative of doctrinal agreement. These are two approaches to the ecumenical task which cannot co-exist.

To be sure Missouri has plenty of struggles with both doctrine and practice within our own fellowship and we must find a way to settle them based on God's Word and our Lutheran Confessions or we will find ourselves with a further deteriorization of our internal Synodical relations and perhaps even a split, so I am not just pointing fingers at the ELCA, but as ourselves as well.

Plan and simple: The ELCA and The LCMS cannot and will not be able to talk productively with each other until and unless we can do so on the basis of God's Word and our Confessions. Current societal norms and expectations must take a backseat to theology.

The Church Problem of the "Sexuality Statement"

Posted by Rev. Richard A. Bolland at December 31, 2009 18:10
There is no doubt that speaking to our brothers and sisters in Christ and engaging in theological dialog are good and healthy things to do. It seems actually an easier task with those who are not Lutheran than with those who are. I suspect that the reason for that is simply that those who are close to each other expect that the other person should understand and "get it", and we become frustrated when they do not.

With respect to dialog between The LCMS and the ELCA, there remains a fundamental problem: We have no common view of the authority of Holy Scripture on which to base our discussions. For the ELCA the Word of God is somewhere contained in Holy Scripture and for Missouri the Word of God is Holy Scripture. It is from this fundamental difference that all our other differences derive. How are we to resolve the issue of women's ordination if both parties disagree on the validity of the Scriptural texts which address the issue? How can we resolve the matter of ordaining homosexuals into the Office of the Holy Ministry when the Scriptural texts adressing that issue are dismissed out-of-hand by the ELCA?

Perhaps a more fundamental difference between us lies in the way in which the two bodies seek to achieve pulpit and altar fellowship. In the ELCA "Reconciled Diversity" (a contradiction in terms), simply dismisses important theological concepts as "non-divisive" and thus we may "agree to disagree". Whereas The LCMS insists on agreement in all articles of doctrine and practice prior to such a declaration of fellowship. In the eyes of the ELCA doctrine is secondary to unity. In the eyes of Missouri unity is a derivative of doctrinal agreement. These are two approaches to the ecumenical task which cannot co-exist.

To be sure Missouri has plenty of struggles with both doctrine and practice within our own fellowship and we must find a way to settle them based on God's Word and our Lutheran Confessions or we will find ourselves with a further deteriorization of our internal Synodical relations and perhaps even a split, so I am not just pointing fingers at the ELCA, but as ourselves as well.

Plan and simple: The ELCA and The LCMS cannot and will not be able to talk productively with each other until and unless we can do so on the basis of God's Word and our Confessions. Current societal norms and expectations must take a backseat to theology.

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