Monday, October 08, 2007

A Constitutional, not Confessional, Church?

My friend, colleague, and brother in the Society of the Holy Trinity Pr. Ken Kimball, who is also a member of the Lutheran CORE Steering Committee, writes here on ALPB Online of part of our difficulty in the ELCA
The difficulty is that the ELCA is a constitutional church, not a confessional one. The constitution is the primary source of authority; power is obtained and exercised by those who control the constitutional process and structure. In a constitutional church, everything, including the confessions and core doctrines as well as traditional praxis can be put to a vote. The voice of the people is the voice of God. The progressive-revisionists understand that. The orthodox-traditional have been slow to realize that is the ecclesial reality in which we find ourselves. The orthodox-traditional, thinking we are a confessional church, have assumed that some things have simply been decided by Scripture and the Confessions and are not up for vote. That assumption is wrong and accounts for a great deal of the surprise and outrage on our part while the progressive-revisionists have straight-forwardly and methodically grasped the reins of power and control through effective political networking and organization. Lutheran CORE and Lindenhurst certainly represent steps forward for the orthodox-traditional but we are still considerably behind on the learning curve.

One challenge for the orthodox-traditional folks is how to organize and work politically as a faithful and necessary form of ecclesiastical stewardship without losing our confessional soul, i.e. that the Word of God through and from the Scriptures and witnessed by the Confessions trumps the voice of the people and the princes. While we exercise the ministry of witness by our involvement in reform and working through the constitutional processes and structures of the ELCA, in the end, truth is not established or made by church votes. The Church can only either recognize the truth of God's Word or deny/reject that truth. The Church cannot make or create or uncreate truth. If we lose sight of that, we reduce the Word of God to an ideology and we ourselves to an ideological lobby. That means there are some compromises we cannot make even if we lose votes and it also means that ultimately, it is not the winning or losing of votes that matters most but confessing and witnessing. It is not about getting power or about replacing the progressive-revisionist elite with an orthodox-traditional elite.
There is nothing new, of course, to Pr. Kimball's observation -- though when he said, "the ELCA is a constitutional church, not a confessional one," at the Lutheran CORE gathering that particular succinct phrasing was not one I'd recalled.

No, the matter goes back to the earliest days of the ELCA -- established firmly in the disciplinary hearings that eventually led to the the expulsion of St. Francis and First United churches in San Francisco from the ELCA: the charges against them were that they had called and installed as pastors persons who were not eligible to be called as pastors of ELCA congregations. It "just happened," I suppose, that their ineligibility occured by being 1) a lesbian couple or 2) or fully desiring and intending to have a gay partner once he found the right guy. It was the Constitutions of the ELCA (and the congregations themselves) and the policies of the Church (by then as described in Vision and Expectations and, more particularly, Definitions and Guidelines for Discipline that the congregations had violated, but efforts by the pro-gay accused to engage in theological debate were ignored by the "prosecuting" officials -- for whom breaking the rule, and not the behavior described in the rule, was the offense -- before that ELCA Discipline Hearing Committee.

Or, as I observed here with this year's discipline of Pr. Bradley Schmeling
the ELCA's advocates bring no theological testimony to defend the rules (which would, at the very least, note that Pastor Schmeling's public "partnership" would never have been deemed compatible with the Office of the Ministry until a generation ago), but merely speak to the violation of the rules themselves.
Yet the the seeds for "constitutionalism, not confessionalism" were sown even earlier, when the PLTS Three in January 1988 (Joel Workin and Jeff Johnson, who had been approved for ordination the previous autumn by the PLTS Faculty in accordance with ALC practice, and Jim Lancaster, who been approved at the same time by the Pacific Southwest Synod's Professional Preparation Committee -- the same committee I was registered with! -- in accordance with LCA practice) announced that they had been open about their sexuality with those who'd approved them for ordination and that they intended to be out and proud about it throughout their ministry. And the brand new ELCA responded with guidelines, rules, and regulations while steadfastly avoiding the theological discussion.

I recall standing on the floor as a volunteer of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Indianapolis, as the resolution committing the ELCA to recognizing the ordination of Anita Hill and other non-rostered, gay pastors serving ELCA congregations, wanting to scream to Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson, "Rule it out of order!" The theology of the Church was clear, and wasn't up for a vote. Except in the ELCA. Where we just don't want to talk much, at least formally, about theology when it comes to matters of sexuality. Or, really, much of anything else.

So, when anything can be up for a vote, how do the Confessions of the Lutheran Church fit in?


Peter said...

Although the LCMS proclaims (and officially is) a church that is guided and normed by Scripture and the Confessions, I notice that too much of the practical applications lean to the Constitution and By-laws to decide issues. So I think a practical argument can be made that the LCMS is also a constitutional church body as well. Obviously, polity has its place and helps keep good order, but the moment we start relying on man-made resolutions and legalities to decide matters of theology and morality instead of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions, then we have moved off of the foundation of the Church that is grounded upon the foundation of the prophets and the apostles, with Christ as her Cornerstone. May the Holy Spirit help both Lutheran church bodies return and remain grounded on Scripture and the Confessions.

Anonymous said...

More and more I find myself in total agreement with HH Benedict XVI, who as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said:


Tom in PA, STS