SYNODICAL TREASURES

During the January 2017 Symposia week at the Fort Wayne seminary, I had the opportunity to not only hear many excellent lectures, but also to renew many friendships with people in my synod—The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (hereafter LCMS)—and in other Lutheran synods here in North America and around the world.

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Why The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and Its Kin Have Declined in Membership and What to Do About It

By Martin R. Noland


Lutheran church leaders have been trying to explain the slow-but-sure decline in Lutheran church membership in America since the 1980s. Explanation for the decline in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)[1] is straight-forward and obvious. A constant focus by the ELCA on “social justice,” church fellowship with non-Lutherans, and adoption of the gay-lesbian agenda at its 2009 convention has led many of its former members to drop out, join other denominations, or start new synods, such as the North American Lutheran Church (NALC)[2] and the Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC)[3].

Explanation for the much slower decline in membership of The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS)[4] and its kin—the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS)[5] and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS)[6]—is less obvious and is, in fact, puzzling. From about 1973 to the present time, church-going Evangelical Protestants have consistently out-numbered church-going mainline Protestants in the United States. Today the church-going Evangelicals outnumber church-going mainline Protestants nearly four to one.[7] In the four key beliefs that define Evangelicalism, the LCMS and its kin are aligned with Evangelicals, not mainline Protestants.[8] So in this period, why haven’t the “confessional Lutherans,” i.e., the LCMS and its kin, enjoyed the same, or similar, membership growth that Evangelicals have seen?

In my opinion, the “confessional Lutherans” have not seen growth primarily because of four factors. These four factors are things that the Evangelicals have done, and we confessional Lutherans have refused to do. The confessional Lutheran refusal to follow Evangelical practices in these matters is commendable. I would not have these synods do otherwise. The LCMS, WELS, and ELS have been faithful to their beliefs, their confessions, and the Scriptures by refusing to do these four things.

The first factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to participate in unionistic worship services, revivals, and other unionistic religious work. American Evangelicalism really began with the Second Great Awakening, which was led by Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist ministers as a self-consciously unionistic enterprise.[9] Evangelicalism has been unionistic ever since. Unionism, or religious cooperation between people of contrary beliefs, is a key component of Evangelicalism’s popularity and its great “success.” The LCMS and its kin, on the other hand, have been strictly anti-unionistic, as were their orthodox Lutheran predecessors going back to the sixteenth century.

The second factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to accept the theology and practices of the charismatic movement. Although the early leaders of modern Evangelicalism in the post-war period were not Pentecostal or charismatic, the tide has changed. Charismatics, who are usually classified as Evangelicals, now are a majority among “born again” Evangelicals in America.[10] Charismatics are also a key component in Evangelicalism’s growth. This has led to some conflict with non-charismatic Evangelical leaders.[11] The LCMS and its kin, on the other hand, though buffeted by charismatics for a time, have resisted the siren song of tongues-speech, bogus healings, speculative prophecies, and related manic practices. 

The third factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to “sheep-steal.” The twenty-second paragraph of the Preface to the Book of Concord elaborates the Lutheran belief that there are many pious Christians “who err ingenuously and who do not blaspheme the truth of the divine Word” (Tappert, 11) in non-Lutheran Christian churches. This belief is the reason that, as a rule, Lutherans do not consider members of other Christian churches to be a focus of their evangelism efforts. Evangelism is properly directed to the non-churched, the unbeliever, and to people of other religions. Evangelicals, on the other hand, have grown in numbers in large part due to their willingness to proselytize their fellow church-going Christians. Although some Evangelicals have criticized this practice,[12] it is a common practice defended by “church growth” gurus.[13] Since confessional Lutherans hold to the same key beliefs as Evangelicals, our youth and young people have been “easy pickings” for Evangelicals.

The fourth factor is the confessional Lutheran refusal to identify with American Evangelical politics and political organizations. A recent pastoral letter by President Matthew Harrison reminds pastors of the LCMS that, though we have a few issues of concern for the body politic like abortion and same-sex marriage, neither the pastors nor the synod should tell people how to vote or whom to vote for.[14] 

This is in stark contrast to the Evangelical common practice of making political statements, persuading public officials, and telling the Evangelical flock how to vote and for whom to vote. Of modern Evangelicals, 62% believe that religious organizations should persuade senators and elected officials on legislative matters, which compares to 40% of Liberal Protestants, 47% of Roman Catholics, 37% of non-Christian religious people, and 28% of secularists.[15] This is a big change from the conservative Protestants in the 1950s and 1960s who believed that they should not be political involved.[16] The heavy involvement of modern Evangelicals in politics since the 1970s has been well-documented and analyzed.[17] One might conclude that many people joined the Evangelical churches since the 1970s out of political convictions, instead of spiritual ones. In the present political season (i.e., early 2016), the political convictions of Evangelicals seem to be “Trumping” their spiritual convictions.[18]

What should the “confessional Lutherans” do about this? Imitating Evangelical worship practices, sheep-stealing, accepting charismatic or unionistic practices, or any other Evangelical practices or theology will only further erode the membership of “confessional Lutheran” churches. These are not options for us.

In my opinion, in the present climate, we “confessional Lutherans” should concentrate on our strengths, not on our weaknesses. We should tell people that in regard to the four key beliefs of Evangelicals, we are Evangelicals—Dr. Gene Edward Veith has been saying this since 1999, if not before[19]—and we have so much more to offer than what is found in Evangelicalism. 

Our preaching is permeated with the constant grace and love of God, because we believe that the Gospel should predominate in preaching and teaching, not the Law. We have a doctrine of sanctification that allows for failure, because it recognizes we are always sinners and saints, and that Jesus forgives anyone who repents. We have a solid hermeneutic for interpreting the Bible that has been tested by five hundred years of theological debate. We have a time-tested theology in the Book of Concord, which our pastors are expected to follow and which keeps them from idiosyncratic teaching and church-fights over doctrine. 

We have a congregational polity, which keeps our pastors “in check,” prevents abuse of power by “bishops,” avoids problems of pastoral succession, and which recognizes the ecclesial role of the laymen in exercising their own “priesthood.” We have a liturgy and hymnody that sings the praises of God, not of ourselves. We have sacraments in Baptism and Absolution that actually give the Holy Spirit, faith, and forgiveness to those who receive them. We recognize that reason and the arts are a gift of God, unlike many Evangelicals who are anti-intellectual or who despise science and the arts. As a rule, we avoid political involvements, since we recognize the left-hand of God at work in rulers, and we have learned by historical experience that political engagement corrupts the church, and vice versa. 

  Finally, we confess that “Christ . . . in His Supper, engages with us in a blessed exchange whereby he unites himself with us through his holy flesh and blood so that, by his power, he may continually crucify and kill the old Adam more and more. And thus we all become one body in Christ, where each member is to love, honor, and support the other. . . He who finds that he is weak in faith has in the Lord’s Supper a blessed, powerful antidote to strengthen faith.”[20] 

These are just some of our strengths, which we should be happy to confess before the world in the coming 500th anniversary of Luther’s Reformation.



[1] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Church_in_America#Statistics ; also see http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2013/06/elca-has-lost-half-a-million-members ; accessed March 4, 2016, as were all other web pages in this article.

[2] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_Lutheran_Church.

[3] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_Congregations_in_Mission_for_Christ.

[4] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lutheran_Church%E2%80%93Missouri_Synod#Membership_and_demographics.

[5] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wisconsin_Evangelical_Lutheran_Synod#Membership.

[6] For current statistics, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evangelical_Lutheran_Synod#Membership. Statistics for 1991 indicate 21,347 baptized members in the ELS; in John F. Brug, et.al., WELS and Other Lutherans (Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1995), 104.

[7] See https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/05/14/in-a-dramatic-shift-the-american-church-is-more-evangelical-than-ever.

[8] The four key beliefs of Evangelicals are explained here: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/april/defining-evangelicals-in-election-year.html. The beliefs are defined by the authors with the following statements used in surveys: 1) “The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe”; 2) “It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior”; 3) “Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin”; and 4) “Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

[9] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Great_Awakening ; see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cane_Ridge,_Kentucky.

[10] See https://www.barna.org/barna-update/congregations/52-is-american-christianity-turning-charismatic#.Vtnw-Ob3yzM.

[11] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_F._MacArthur#Cessationism ; and http://www.christianpost.com/news/strange-fire-conference-john-macarthur-calls-out-charismatic-movement-as-unfaithful.

[12] For example, see: William Chadwick, Stealing Sheep: The Church’s Hidden Problems with Transfer Growth (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).

[13] See Donald McGavran, “Sheep Stealing and Church Growth,” in Win Arn, ed., The Pastor’s Church Growth Handbook (Pasadena, CA: Church Growth Press, 1979), 15–18.

[14] See http://blogs.lcms.org/2016/president-harrison-provides-a-lutheran-view-of-church-and-state.

[15] See James Davison Hunter, American Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandary of Modernity (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1983), 115–16.

[16] See Hunter, American Evangelicalism, 116.

[17] See Robert Zwier, Born-Again Politics: The New Christian Right in America (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1982); James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991); D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Christine Wicker, The Fall of the Evangelical Nation (New York: Harper One, 2008); Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics (New York: Free Press, 2012); and Kevin M. Kruse, One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America (New York: Basic Books, 2015).

[18] See http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/02/the-demise-of-conservative-christian-political-prominence/471093

[19] See Gene Edward Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross: The Way of the First Evangelicals, 2nd ed. (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010). The first edition of this book was in 1999.

[20] See Martin Chemnitz and Jacob Andreae, Church Order for Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel , 1569 edition, tr. Jacob Corzine, Matthew Harrison, and Andrew Smith, ed. Jacob Corzine and Matthew Carver (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2015), 63.

Witness, Mercy, Life Together Bible Study by Albert Collver: A Review by Robert Zagore

A new Bible study and DVD presentation, Witness, Mercy, Life Together [Witness Mercy Life Together Bible Study by Albert B. Collver, Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2011. 64 pages. $5.99.]

WMLT Bible Study

has been published as a rally-cry-educational-let’s-work-together piece by Dr. Albert Collver and the LCMS President Matthew Harrison. Many pastors who receive it in the mail will have a conditioned response, ‘we’ve seen this before.’ Every publishing house, every administration, and (it seems) most pastors seek to build the church into a savvy social organization using marketing surveys, demographic insights, and the effective use of technology. Slogans and catch phrases inform believers about the church’s core competencies, strategic goals, and mission. Books and “Bible Studies” show how theirs is really the Lord’s plan updated and informed by the insights of the modern mind. How strange and welcome therefore is the new Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod theme and emphasis, which is built on something altogether different. “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” is the new Synodical emphasis put forward by LCMS President Matthew Harrison and his administrative staff.  The emphasis is not a focus-group-tested slogan set forth to move forward with strategic objectives. “Witness,” “Mercy,” and “Life Together” are words the Lord has spoken describing the work of His church. The church is purest and most beautiful when she is defined and described by the Lord. Through his eyes she stands as “a radiant church without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27). It is indescribably refreshing to the weary to hear those words applied to us. That is the point of the new study by Dr. Albert Collver: to hear what the Lord has said about his church and embrace it as a gift. From the start one can tell this theme and Bible study are much different than the usual “grow more, give more, get more” fare.

The difference becomes obvious in Lesson One, “Witness.” In the church-speak world the word witness has become shorthand for an intentional conversation by which believers help an unbeliever make a decision for Christ and therefore grow the kingdom. “Lesson One” should really be called “Round One” because Collver gently wrestles the word back to its biblical intent: “The Lord saves souls, but He locates His saving Gospel in the Church, and He uses people within the Church as his instruments to proclaim the Gospel” (p.14). The leader’s guide, the accompanying Steven Starke hymn, and the impressive concordance of biblical usage thoroughly equip students and leaders to complete the journey that brings the word “witness” back from law to gospel.

“Round Two,” builds on this gift and extends it. Throughout history, well-intended but misguided people have declared that pure doctrine and the desire to save the lost are antagonistic goals. Systematicians have sometimes made doctrine devoid of proclamation. Mysticism, pietism, and the theological descendants of Dwight Moody decry doctrinal and confessional subscription as anti-missional. The LCMS is certainly no stranger to this battle. Collver however beautifully and convincingly demonstrates that these two stand together in the Lord’s church: “A witness that does not confess what Jesus taught is not a Christian witness. Likewise, a confession that does not witness is not a New Testament confession. . .Telling about Jesus and doctrine go together” (p.18). The leaders’ guide to this section is especially strong. As Collver presents a precisely written and beautiful summary of how true doctrine is manifest in Christ coming to us according to his promise—which is the only hope of the world. With very little modification the leader's guide could become a great Christmas sermon.

Lesson three wrestles the word “mercy” (his translation of the Greek word diakonia) back into its biblical sense: “Being rooted in the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won for us on the cross, mercy means feeding the poor, taking care of the sick, and caring for the orphans and widows. Diakonia, then is caring for our neighbor in concrete and effective ways because of what Jesus has done for us” (p.22). Collver does not speak of himself, but his experience as a parish pastor and as an executive in LCMS World Relief and Human Care fills this far-too-brief study with an authenticity and understanding that is known by one who has “done the hard work” (Proverbs 14:23).

Lesson four, “Life Together” leads through a study of the biblical word koinonia. Once again the word is rescued and revived from its more unworthy uses. In common usage koinonia and its common translation "fellowship" have lost their biblical, sacramental foundation and have come to refer to donuts. Collver’s study and leader’s guide demonstrates with great skill that our fellowship and unity are not founded on liking each other (think of St. Paul and Barnabas) but on a doctrinal and sacramental unity that transcends men, personalities, and time. If the LCMS (or any denomination) would escape their bondage to bickering and infighting it will only be as people who have a bond that is deeper than human affronts and leadership cults. “Life Together” rightly teaches divine fellowship that flows from the gospel as the hope and substance of churchly interaction. Reconciliation with Christ through His cross enables reconciliation with others. Individual gifts find their fruit and proper use through their incorporation in the Body of Christ.

Lesson five, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” speaks of the history of conflict in the days of the apostles. The obvious conclusion is that the unity of the church has always been under assault from without and from within. The only proper response and the only faithful response of the church is to return to the mission that can be summarized by the Bible’s words witness, mercy, and life together.  It is indeed commendable that the author would take this approach to a topic so important at this stage of the LCMS’s life. The approach is biblical, evangelical, and draws us to the gospel and the need for the faithful administration of the word and sacraments.

The accompanying DVD shows LCMS President Harrison presenting these same doctrines in a way that is winsome, pastoral, and humorous. He demonstrates a tremendous grasp of the practical application of Lutheran theology. While the production quality is not wonderful, it is hard to imagine a faithful non-partisan who could fail to be edified and delighted by Harrison’s presentations.

The study is designed to be used in any adult or teen level Bible class and can be used with great profit. Pastors may find that its most enduring value will be as a “new member’s” class or a follow-up to Catechism and confirmation classes. Many congregations offer special classes for those who wish to join by transfer or reaffirmation of faith; it is hard to imagine a better study for such use.

The Bible studies, leader's guide, and DVD are not fundraising, team building, or leadership training devices that use pop psychology and marketing techniques to win hearts. They are biblical, sacramental, genuine, doctrinally solid studies on the nature of the church. It is easily the most useful item to come out of the Synodical Office Building since the sainted A. L. Barry’s What About series; and in many ways, it is more important. One can pray that the biblical emphases in these studies will come to mark President Harrison’s term of office. If so, the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod is entering a period of great importance in this dark and fallen world. “The world is longing for what we have,” Harrison cries out in the presentation. If the LCMS and her leaders can maintain a strong biblical witness, shown forth in mercy and lived out in our life together, she will truly be, “a radiant church.”

Robert Zagore is Senior Pastor at Trinity Lutheran Church and School, Traverse City, MI.

The NALC and Lutheran CORE: The New ALC or the New ELCA?

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?”

 

Fault Lines

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