by Rev. David Ramirez, Lincoln, Illinois
Of late, the idea has been circulating that the only substantial difference between the LCMS and the WordAlone Network (WAN), a reform group within the ELCA, is the ordination of women. This idea, whether produced in ignorance or out of misguided hope, unfortunately does not stand up to much investigation. Furthermore, even if the ordination of women were the only issue that separated WAN from the LCMS, it is highly unlikely that WAN would change its position on this matter. Female "pastors" are not an incidental part of the organization. They hold positions of leadership at every level, with one even holding the presidency of the WAN.
Word Alone describes itself in its Mission Statement as "a Lutheran grassroots network of congregations and individuals committed to the authority of the Word manifest in Jesus the Christ as proclaimed in Scripture and safeguarded through the work of the Holy Spirit. WAN advocates reform and renewal of the church, representative governance, theological integrity, and freedom from a mandated historic episcopate." Hope for a LCMS-WAN relationship is not new. Over the last few years there has been talk of creating a way for Word Alone seminarians to attend Concordia Seminary-St. Louis. The seminary even went so far as to appoint a liaison to the WAN.
With the important showdown in Minneapolis now past and the crisis in the ELCA over homosexuality convincingly settled, concern for reaching out to disaffected ELCA members has grown in the LCMS. This pastor applauds the heightened awareness of the ELCA situation by the LCMS; however, we also must be careful not to overlook reality.
While we ought to give thanks for much of the work and doctrinal positions of the WAN, especially its resistance against the homosexual agenda in the ELCA, it holds to many teachings that are in contradiction to genuine Lutheranism. The WAN does not affirm the inerrancy of the Scriptures as classically upheld by the Lutheran Church. The WAN does not maintain the doctrine of closed communion. However, perhaps to really understand how deep the divide truly is between the LCMS and the WAN, we ought to look at the WAN's reaction to ecumenical agreements advanced by the ELCA. While the WAN staunchly resisted full communion with the Episcopalians, it was nearly silent concerning the full communion agreement with three Reformed bodies. Or more recently, where was the outrage from the WAN over the proposed full communion agreement with the United Methodists, which passed by 95%? The overwhelming majority of votes in favor of the full communion agreement means that not just the liberal wing of the ELCA voted for this resolution, but that the majority of every other group did also, including WAN members.
It could be argued that this was not the big issue of the Assembly this summer, and that the WAN had plenty on its hands with the debate on homosexuality. But the passage of the full communion agreement with 95% of the vote does not allow us to merely conclude that the WAN had bigger fish to fry. At best, the WAN sympathizers at the Assembly were ignorant of the mutually exclusive claims of Lutheranism and Methodism. At worst, they understood the difficulties but voted for full communion anyway. Either way this example betrays a weak understanding of historic Lutheranism. An understanding of Lutheranism that sees nothing wrong with full communion with the United Methodists is a far cry from orthodox Lutheranism, and probably just a wee bit further from the LCMS than a disagreement over the ordination of women.
However, an important question still remains. How should Missourians reach out to "WordAloners"? I believe the overarching answer is this: We should remind them of their history and their fathers in the faith that did clearly confess orthodox doctrine. The liberal agenda of the ELCA counts upon historical ignorance and what C.S. Lewis liked to call "chronological snobbery". The majority of WordAloners are former ALC members and congregations. What is ironic is that on all three of the points discussed above (ordination of women, closed communion, and inerrancy) much of the ALC, and especially its predecessor bodies, staunchly supported the classic Lutheran position. In fact, by the 1930s, the "old" ALC (a predecessor body to the ALC) and the LCMS had come to agreement with the Missouri Synod concerning the doctrine of election, and if the "old" ALC had not become soft on the "Four Points" (altar fellowship, pulpit fellowship, lodge membership, and chiliasm) perhaps God-pleasing church fellowship could have been realized. Unfortunately, by mid-century theological liberalism and neo-orthodoxy deeply infected the ALC. Discussion of the WAN's heritage would be a profitable conversation for the members of the LCMS to have with their neighbors in the WAN. Glossing over real differences never serves any good; rather it delays true reconciliation through lies. A real gift would be to remind the WAN of its fathers in the faith such as Hermann Amberg Preus, J. Michael Reu, and many others, and the beautiful biblical doctrine which they championed.
Rev. David Ramirez