What is going on at Fishers? And a Few Predictions

by Rev. David Ramirez, Lincoln, Illinois


This Friday and Saturday, September 25-26, 2009, Lutheran CORE is holding a convocation in Fishers, Indiana, to discuss how to proceed in the aftermath of this summer's ELCA Assembly. Lutheran CORE is the organization through which the vast majority of "traditionalists" in the ELCA have attempted to fight the ELCA's slide into liberal Protestantism. There is no doubt that this meeting will prove to be an "I was there" event. One could draw parallels between this meeting and the withdrawal of the Pennsylvania Ministerium from the General Synod in 1864. However, this is not to imply that a new Lutheran body will emerge this weekend. There seems to be a complicated plan (or argument) concerning the relationship of Lutheran CORE to the ELCA. Will Lutheran CORE fight from within, leave as swiftly as possible, or limp along double-mindedly? Regardless of the specific fate of Lutheran CORE, I believe it is clear that this meeting signals the emergence of a large "moderate" Lutheran synod in America. We must remember that the General Council was not formed until 1867. Likewise, Fishers will not be the final break, but rather mark the beginning of the end of the ELCA as we know it now. The strongest parallel to this situation may be with the recent history of the Missouri Synod. Perhaps we could liken Lutheran CORE to ELIM, and the future "moderate" Lutheran body, which shall surely emerge, to the AELC, which was not constituted until the very end of 1976, almost 3 years after the Walkout in 1974.


But what specifically is going on with the "traditionalists" in the ELCA? What are people thinking, as they head to Fishers? What are the groups and the arguments? And what will transpire and be solved there? While I cannot yet answer the last question, I will be in Fishers to observe. Please check back here at Blogia Web Forum next week for a summary and some commentary on the proceedings. As for the other questions, I will attempt to provide a very general lay of the land.


The Lay of the Land

 One can make some important, broad observations about the different groups of "traditionalists" in the ELCA. For one, there is the "former LCA" and "former ALC" distinction. The ALC was more congregationalist, more conservative, more "low-church," less concerned about Lutheran unity in America, had closer ties to the Missouri Synod, and its greatest strength lay in the upper Midwest. The LCA was more hierarchical, more "high-church," very ecumenical and strongly desired to see Muhlenberg's dream of a united Lutheran Church in America realized, accepted liberal theology before other Lutherans in America, and had much of its strength in the East. The third predecessor body, the AELC, is less easy to classify. Many of the most vigorous proponents of the new stance on homosexual behavior are former Missourians, but there are some on the "traditionalist" side as well.


There is also the distinction between "confessing evangelicals" and "evangelical catholics" amongst the ELCA "traditionalists." These two groups are probably best represented by the WordAlone Network (WAN) and the Society of the Holy Trinity (STS), respectively. {{Please make the above highlighted names be links to these two organizations' home pages}} The "confessing evangelicals" seem much better prepared to take action, which is most likely due to their focus on the local congregation, less denominational loyalty to the ELCA, and prior crystallization into a powerful organization (WAN) during the debate over full communion with the Episcopalians.


"Evangelical catholics" seem to have the most difficult dilemma. They tend to have greater institutional loyalty than any other conservative group. This is in part due to the strong identification of the ELCA among former LCA members as a legitimate continuation of the LCA. Muhlenberg's dream of visible Lutheran unity in America is also still very important to them, and therefore they have doubts as to whether another split is beneficial. Many "evangelical catholics" do not relish the thought of being in a synod dominated by "confessing evangelicals."  They are wary of the importance laid upon the "priesthood of all believers" and worship influenced by American evangelicalism found in "confessing evangelical" circles. Some "evangelical catholics" look to Rome; however this would most likely entail abandoning their congregations. While the STS is a growing and vibrant organization of "evangelical catholics," it has thus far attempted to distance itself from church politics. And most importantly, unlike the "confessing evangelicals," the "evangelical catholics" have no clear landing pad.  



There appear to be three categories of response to the ELCA Assembly by "traditionalists," which cut across the distinctions made above. First, there are those who believe that it is time to go. They may not leave immediately, but the questions they are considering are "When?" and "How?" There will be differences of opinion about where they should go, but the question is not, "Should we leave?" Secondly, there are those who still wrestle with whether or not they should remain in the ELCA. However, this response will swiftly evolve into two divergent groups. On one hand, there will be those who will ultimately give an affirmative answer to the question "Should we leave?" and join the first group. On the other hand, there will be those who answer in the negative. They will advocate vigorously that it is faithful to remain in the ELCA and perhaps even harden their position to "one ought to stay." And thirdly, there are the wild card responses, such as writing to the pope for a Lutheran Rite, which will gain no serious traction.


Prediction: A "Moderate Synod"

 Sooner or later the people that are ready to leave, will; and they will not wait indefinitely for the others. The "Word Aloners" will control this new "moderate synod." This "moderate synod" will welcome the "evangelical catholics" and other types of traditionalists, but will be dominated by "confessing evangelicals." At least a couple hundred congregations will leave within two to two and a half years. The following are my reasons:


1. (The Biggest Reason) The WordAlone Network (WAN) has been organized for over a decade. There are already over 230 WAN congregations. Congregations, that's the important part! The WAN is not only an association of pastors, but churches who have already taken the steps necessary to vote together to make a statement against the ELCA. The path has already been cleared for these congregations to leave. The WAN congregations don't need to be primed and led out of the ELCA; many are prepared to leave immediately. Plus, they are mostly former ALCers who had deep misgivings about the merger in the first place. Also, we cannot forget about the LCMC, former "Word Aloners" who have their own parachurch organization. They already have almost 230 congregations, and are already independent of the ELCA structure. It is likely that they would join with those leaving, greatly bolstering the numbers of a "moderate synod."


2. If you read the Lutheran CORE Statement in response to the ELCA Assembly, you saw that they suggest not sending benevolence dollars to the ELCA Churchwide level. This kind of move tends to lead to a split; they are putting their money where their mouth is.


3. ELCA members are angry. While it certainly can no longer be said that "there is no such thing as a liberal Lutheran," the average ELCA layman is not pleased with the recent decisions of the ELCA. In short, something has to give.


For the next several years, congregations and families will stream from the ELCA into this "moderate synod." I believe that within five to seven years there will be a reasonably large "moderate synod" with approximately 500,000 members. This could easily come to pass sooner and result in a larger synod, if the iron is struck while it is hot.



 My first fear comes from a heartfelt concern for those in the ELCA. I fear that "traditionalists" who realize that the ELCA is a sinking ship will move into action too slowly. I fear they will squander far too much time, energy, and momentum by going round and round with the "traditionalists" who believe one ought to stay. Sometimes, the most faithful form of persuasion is leading, and eternally "remaining in dialogue" is no virtue.


My second fear is that the Missouri Synod will not take advantage to confess clearly during this time of confusion and reevaluation for ELCA members. I pray that we in the Missouri Synod reach out in love and truth on a local level. I fear that unfortunately, many conservative ELCA members will walk away from Lutheranism altogether.


My last fear is in regards to the nature of the "moderate synod." What will this synod be like? I fear it will not be a flight from blatant heterodoxy to orthodox Lutheranism. I do not doubt that the ordination of women will be tolerated, and thus the relationship between women's ordination and toleration of homosexual behavior will be ignored. Also, toleration of error and the understanding of the church, especially church fellowship, must be addressed if the new "moderate synod" is to avoid the pitfalls of the ELCA. However, I have little hope that a "moderate synod" will return to the church catholic's biblical doctrine of closed communion. I pray that the "traditionalists" in the ELCA will take a fresh look at what it means to confess that the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God. No church body in America that has denied inerrancy has escaped the slide into liberal Protestantism. This includes the Roman church in America, which is functionally the largest liberal Protestant church in America. I fear that a "moderate synod" will just be a turning back of the clock to thirty or forty years ago, when the ELCA "traditionalists" were comfortable. The deeper, underlying issues will not be addressed.


What Does a "Moderate Synod" Mean for the Missouri Synod?

I am sure that Missouri Synod congregations across the country will receive many families from the ELCA. We will even gain congregations here and there. However, I fear that few pastors will consider the Missouri Synod as an option. Regardless of who inquires, we must be prepared to have serious conversations with those who will have them.


I also hope that the Missouri Synod's theological muscles haven't atrophied from having such an easy theological punching bag in the ELCA for the last twenty years; and that we can still offer a cogent critique of a "moderate synod."  Falling back on differentiation based on abortion and homosexual behavior will not be an option in reference to this new "moderate synod."


Off to Fishers

 The convocation in Fishers will prove to be an interesting two days. What is Lutheran CORE's plan? Who will be the leaders in this movement? What will be presented? What will the "evangelical catholics" do? What will be the doctrinal confession of the "traditionalist" ELCAers? And the most burning question...What will prove to be the strangest speech from the floor?"