I found a good deal to agree with in the reflections on “After Schism” by my friend and colleague, Paul Hinlicky. My memories are still fresh of both of us standing outside the first ELCA Assembly in 1989 in Chicago, smoking cigarettes and fuming about what was happening therein, as well as of his dramatic gesture—he disgustedly threw a torn copy of The Lutheran from the pulpit in Boe Chapel at St. Olaf College--at one of the Called to Faithfulness Conferences in the early 90s. So we share a long period of resistance to the trends operating in the ELCA from its conception in the Committee for a New Lutheran Church. However, from 2009 onward we have taken different paths. As he makes clear in his article, he continues his tortured existence in the ELCA and in the new incarnation of CORE. I chose to shift my commitment and soon my membership to the North American Lutheran Church. I spiritually left the ELCA when it made its fateful decisions in 2009. Strangely, I found that defeat liberating—I no longer had to fight against something forever and ever, but rather could reorient my energies for something, first toward CORE in its earlier version and then toward the NALC, which it birthed.
I have served in several capacities in the NALC since its founding. For six years after those 2009 decisions we have continued to belong to an orthodox ELCA congregation, the same one to which Paul belongs, so I fully agree with him that there are genuine Lutheran Christians as well as orthodox Lutheran parishes remaining in the ELCA. But I see little hope that the slow movement of the ELCA toward liberal Protestantism will abate. Indeed, the path away from orthodoxy was dramatized by the election of a male bishop “married” to another man. So, after making a decision some years ago to cast my lot with the NALC, my wife and I will bring our local parish membership in line with that decision by joining St. John Lutheran in Roanoke when that parish joins the NALC in September.
As a member of the Commission on Theology and Doctrine of the NALC, I want to remonstrate a bit with Paul about several of his comments about the NALC. The first one concerns his chastising the NALC leadership for its “playing fast and loose with the truth in the process leading up to its now ‘pending’ application for membership in the Lutheran World Federation.” As he notes, one of the two reasons for wanting to join the LWF—against considerable resistance from many NALC parishes—was to respond positively to requests by African churches to help them stand for orthodoxy in the LWF. The other was to enter into world-level ecumenical conversations through the LWF.
One of the requirements for membership of a new body in the LWF is that the contiguous churches—the ELCA and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada—would have to give their approval. That didn’t happen so our application was put on “pending” status, with the accompanying question from the LWF about whether we would practice altar and pulpit fellowship with those churches. We replied that NALC parishes could and would practice such on an ad hoc basis. We knew there were orthodox ELCA pastors who could faithfully serve NALC parishes, and we had little doubt that NALC pastors could serve in orthodox ELCA parishes. Meanwhile, however, the ELCA has remained silent on the matter while a number of ELCA bishops have played a mean-spirited game of hardball. ELCA pastors who want to serve NALC parishes—even supply preach for them—have been threatened with expulsion from the ELCA. So, the truth is that there is far more hostility to pulpit and altar fellowship in the ELCA than in the NALC. The next step, as I understand it, is that the ELCA, ELCIC, and the NALC are supposed to have joint conversations on a number of issues before anything further can happen.
A second item concerning the NALC is Paul’s intimation that NALC cast CORE into outer darkness because it would not “play a stronger role in facilitating exodus from the ELCA” and therefore not help increase the growth of the NALC. The story is more complex than that. Under Steve Shipman the direction of CORE bent more and more toward remaining in the ELCA as a shelter for the orthodox and as a prophetic voice within the ELCA. Little energy was given to helping churches find their way out of the ELCA into the NALC. Meanwhile, the funds to support CORE were drying up and the NALC had to pick up the bill for some of CORE’ s functions, including the Theological Lectures held between its Convocation and the NALC Convocation. Since CORE had morphed back into a reform and renewal within the ELCA and has abjured its role in helping congregations leave, there is little reason for the NALC to subsidize the organization. However, CORE members continue to serve in various capacities in the NALC, including Paul himself in its planning committee for the newly-named Braaten and Benne Theological Lectures.
Third, Paul opines that if the NALC has dallied with the Navigators it can certainly relate to orthodox elements in the ELCA, the implication being that the NALC was theologically lax in its dalliance. Truth is, Bishop Bradosky received sharp criticism for his work with the Navigators from some pastors within the NALC. He assured them he was interested in some of the techniques of evangelism and discipleship practiced by the Navigators rather than its theology. Heavens knows Lutherans need to get better at both. To abate any fears the Commission asked Nathan Yoder to draft a paper on discipleship, which he has done in solid Lutheran fashion. It is currently being reviewed by retired Bishop Paull, Spring, David Yeago, and James Nestingen. Theology is taken seriously in the NALC.
One of the great opportunities in building a new church is that we have the chance to do things right. The first thing we have tried to do right is to make sure Lutheran theology provides the guidance system of the church, not fashionable ideologies that have so flummoxed the ELCA. That’s what happened with the Navigators episode. Further, we are trying to do public witness properly, avoiding the ponderous social statements and promiscuous political advocacy we enjoyed in the ELCA. Likewise, with evangelism, both at home and abroad, and with theological education, which is going to be held closely to the life and needs of the church.
Another of the benefits to building a new church is that one can orient energies toward the future and distance them from the battles of the past. That’s why I don’t recognize at all Paul’s suggestion that the NALC, along with the LCMS, is “forced perpetually to define themselves over against the heterodoxy of the feared other.” He might be right about the LCMS, which is always fighting among contending “feared others” within the church itself. But, as far as I have experienced the NALC, there is little dwelling on the battles of the past with the ELCA. The doctrine of marriage and the requirement that baptism is necessary for participating in the Eucharist are settled teachings. “Pioneer evangelism” (bringing the Gospel to lands and peoples who have never heard it) is accepted without any debate whatsoever. With the aid and blessing of the Holy Spirit, we want to move on to building a viable church not obsess about the past.
Further, I do not think the NALC proudly thinks “orthodoxy is something we own.” We are quite aware that all human formulations are marred by sin and finitude. As Paul asserts, “Orthodoxy is yet an unfinished project” in the sense that what is implicit in the Bible and the Great Tradition can become explicit through the promptings of the Holy Spirit. And new historical challenges have to be grappled with in ways that apply old truths in new ways. But there is an “apostolic faith,” a Great Tradition, a
“mere Christianity” that is settled and non-negotiable. The ELCA has denied at least two key doctrines of that apostolic faith: the Great Commission (it rejected “pioneer evangelism” in 1999); and the Christian doctrine of marriage (it has a male Bishop “married” to another man. Its doctrine will have to catch up with its practice.) More fundamentally, it submits doctrine to the manipulated decisions of a theologically and biblically uninformed assembly.
While I agree with Paul that God is working a shake-up of the Christian churches and perhaps realigning them anew in which denominational lines may be re-written or become obsolete, it’s a kind of Docetism that suggests that we can bracket church membership out of our lives at this point in history. As some Lutherans have argued, the church is included in the Gospel, and one simply has to take membership in a concrete body seriously. One cannot airily float above them all.
Finally, I do not think Paul has to worry about being “forced to shelter elsewhere.” The ELCA has no stomach for any forthright dismissals or heresy trials; it would much rather ignore you. Besides, who in the ELCA would be able to argue with the theologian who just finished a 1000-page systematic theology entitled Beloved Community—Critical Dogmatics after Christendom?
Robert Benne, Jordan-Trexler Professor Emeritus at Roanoke College
Professor of Christian Ethics, Institute of Lutheran Theology