The Spectrum of Options: The Option of Maximum Unity and Uniformity (Implementation 3)


(I am continuing to write a series of posts on implementation because I believe important questions are still unanswered. How they are answered will determine the shape of the ELCA for years, if not decades.)

The Church Council and Conference of Bishops now have before them choices about the implementation of the ministry proposals that fall along a spectrum from, at one extreme, a maximum of unity and uniformity and, at the other, a maximum of diversity and respect for bound consciences. These two are, I think, inversely proportional. To increase one is to decrease the other. Choices must be made. Each options has its benefits and drawbacks. A variety of points along the spectrum may be possible.

The wind seems to be blowing toward the maximum of unity and uniformity. Vision and Expectations would be revised and applied uniformly throughout the church. The expectation would be communicated that these standards are to accepted by all synods and candidacy committees. No provision would be made for a bishop, synod, or candidacy committee to express a ‘bound conscience’ and opt out. The only provision for ‘bound consciences’ would be the right of congregations to refuse to call any particular pastor (a right they already have). Respecting ‘bound consciences’ would be a pastoral matter for pastors, bishops, and the presiding bishop, dealt with on an ad hoc and individual basis.

For those who support the change, this option is obviously attractive. It seeks to preserve the ELCA as it has been. If one believes, as some speakers at the Assembly seemed to, that opposition to the changes were a matter of ‘fear’ or simple lack of acquaintance with the pastoral work that partnered gay or lesbian clergy can do, then one could hope that as we live into the new arrangement many of the opponents will come to accept the change.

Even apart from support for the change, one can advance ecclesiological arguments for such uniformity. A single ministerium, in which a pastor can serve anywhere in the church, has been an important force for unity in the ELCA. Such a united ministerium requires a single set of disciplinary standards. Allowing synods to opt out on the basis of conscience might create ‘no go’ zones, strongholds of opposition, prolonging the life of such opposition (witness the experience of the Church of Sweden and the Episcopal Church in allowing dioceses to opt out of the ordination of women). Such arguments are real and should be recognized.

The drawbacks of such an option, however, are also real. Most directly, they are incompatible with the spirit and, probably, the letter of the Assembly’s actions. No comprehensive theological and biblical argument for a uniform acceptance of partnered gay and lesbian clergy was offered. What was offered was an argument for a diversity of practice, ‘structured flexibility,’ on the basis of bound conscience. To reduce ‘structured flexibility’ to nothing more than the capacity of a congregation not to call a particular pastor flies in the face of what was proposed to the Assembly. The exact language of the Report and Recommendations should be remembered (lines 281-284, in relation to the ‘bound conscience’ resolution): “This step recognizes that agreement in this church on this matter does not exist. Therefore, decisions about policy that serve only the interests of one or another group will not be acceptable. If this church intends to move toward change or to decline to change, this step commits it to doing so in ways that respect the convictions and provide space for the faithful witness of all.” To ‘provide space’ in this way may not be compatible with the united ministerium the ELCA has known in the past, but that was a reason for voting against the proposals, not an argument for now ignoring this aspect of what the Assembly accepted.

There are also more abstract ecclesiological arguments against this option. In the ‘interdependent’ polity of the ELCA , congregations, synods, and national church are all ‘church’ in a theological sense. In a more normal time, it makes sense for the national church to set ordination standards. But we face, as the Task Force said, a deadlock on an important matter. To say that only congregations can exercise conscience on this issue, that synods must simply fall in line with the national policy, denies synods any voice. Historically, synods, analogous to dioceses, have a much stronger claim to be ‘church’ than national denominations, whose theological status is more tenuous. The victor of such an outlook, in the long run, is always congregationalism.

There is also a pragmatic argument against this option. For those who oppose the changes, this option simply solidifies the church in false teaching. It may harden the opposing fronts in the church. Calls for free-standing synods will be all the more attractive. How much opposition will develop is hard to predict, but I would guess that without some provision to respect the ‘bound consciences’ of groups other than congregations, proposals will arise in synods to instruct bishops to refuse to sign the call papers of partnered gay or lesbian clergy and to instruct candidacy committees to apply the unrevised text of Vision and Expectations. If such proposals pass, how does the national church respond?

There has been much talk of unity in the weeks since the Assembly. My colleague David Yeago has made a plea for opponents of the changes to live with those with whom they decisively disagree. The question of the moment for the ELCA, however, is how those who carried the day in Minneapolis will chose to live in the ELCA with those who cannot in good conscience accept these changes.

(A post on the “maximum diversity and respect for consciences” option will be made in the next few days.)

Michael Root

8 Responses to “The Spectrum of Options: The Option of Maximum Unity and Uniformity (Implementation 3)”

  1. Pr. Nathan Hilkert Says:

    The efforts of the ELCA to apply concrete provisions for “bound consciences” beyond mere personal and congregational dissent to the decisions made in Minneapolis will be crucial.

    For one thing, it will answer the question that Professor Yeago raised in my mind with his recent post: will traditionalists be prevented from teaching the Church’s historic understanding of marriage under the new ministry policies that have been adopted?

    I want to give both Professor Yeago and the leadership of the ELCA the benefit of the doubt, but I do remain rather worried that the silencing of traditionalist teaching will eventually become standard operating procedure, even if it is not articulated as such. If traditionalists do persist from within the ELCA, and endeavor as much as possible to graciously reach out to our Christian brothers and sisters who differ, the official changes in ministry practices pragmatically operates against traditional teaching. Furthermore, concerned pastors and laypeople have already been asking pertinent questions concerning how changes to our official policies for ministry will shape the catechetical materials coming out of our publishing houses, the programs at camps & retreat centers, conference-level cooperative ministries, and so forth.

    I can’t imagine that there would be any outward coercion of our teaching. However, anybody who knows traditional priests in the Episcopal church has heard about the political processes that blackball traditional priests, silence dissident teachers, and enforces a strict uniformity in teaching in most dioceses. That kind of “velvet” coercion withers congregations, stifles vocations, and ironically destroys the very diversity that liberal theology enshrines as an essential theological virtue. Though some traditionalists may well persist under similar conditions, were they to evolve in the ELCA, can such persistence really be called “communion?”

    It seems to me that your argument for “maximum diversity,” Professor Root, would move Lutherans currently in the ELCA in the direction of more synodically-based ecclesial governance. (And perhaps even to a new profusion of synods!) Increasing the theological & practical unity and authority of synods would move us closer to the historical practice of Lutherans in North America, and wouldn’t be a bad thing at all, in my opinion. This would reduce the authority and oversight of the national “expression” of the church. While such a change would be significant, it does not necessarily seem bad. Our “churchwide” governance, like those of other mainline denominations, seems to be just the latest iteration of liberal protestantism, infused into a bureaucratic model of secular authority. The return of synodically-based ecclesial practices would hopefully allow for more theological coherence and more true unity in teaching and practice. That may initially look like fragmentation, yet in reality, there would be less merely cosmetic unity, unity for its own sake.

    Following that thought to its logical end, we arrive at the question: why maintain the ELCA at all? If a maximum diversity of practice is allowed, and synods begin to shape ministeriums that operate under different guidelines, if synods, according to “differently bound consciences,” are at odds in their practices and ministries, what is the point of the ELCA? Some have argued that joint ministries such as evangelical outreach (such as it is in the ELCA), education, and ministries of mercy are reason enough to maintain unity, however loose it may be.

    However, if the logic you lay out, the logic of maximum diversity of practice, really is worth following to its end, then there will likely be an abundance of new Lutheran ministries & synods. Traditional synods will almost certainly align themselves with each other to produce publishing houses, seminaries or “houses of study” at existing seminaries or colleges, camps & retreat centers and the like.

    Are there bonds of unity that we might be able to maintain within the ELCA, however loosely, with integrity to our scriptural & ecclesiological convictions? Should that prevent us, or at least delay us, from seeking more theological unity in teaching, and practical cooperation in ministry, with groups that intend to exist apart from the ELCA, such as Lutheran CORE?

    Obviously, those of us who are sticking with the ELCA for the time being have to wait a while before we see what the fallout of the decisions made in Minneapolis will be, for our own congregations, for our synods, for the ELCA, and for American Lutheranism. In the meantime, thank you for your leadership in articulating helpful questions, Professor Root!

  2. Rafe Allison Says:

    Following a conference pastor’s meeting with our bishop and now our Fall Convocation I have to say, unfortunately, that “bound conscious” is already practically out-the-window and the cry to get on board the conformity, inclusivity train (now isn’t that an interesting oxymoron?) has commenced. I won’t take up space with a lot of anecdotes, as one sums it up quite well. A colleague who is also on our Synod Council put it to me quite bluntly: “The decision has been made. It’s over. Now get on board, or get out!” Anyone standing in opposition to the decision OR the basis on which it was made, (like myself), had better do themselves a favor… keep your ears open… the train’s a-comin’… and your standing on the tracks!

  3. Brian Says:


    Personally I think you’ve nailed it. The conflict will move faster than the “let’s hang in there” crowd will be able to contain. In very short order the theological air will become toxic to confessional and biblical faith. Now it just smells bad. That won’t last.

  4. Pr. Baron W. Cole Says:

    Michael Root’s concern about the ultimate victory of congregationalism is well placed. Even now, most of our members have very little sense of connection to the churchwide expression of the ELCA. There remains, however, a significant sense of connection to the Synod. In part, this is because the Synod is closer. Its ministries are more visible. But this is also the result of the governing structures through which the churchwide expression operates. Casting the Churchwide Assembly as the supreme legislative authority of the ELCA, without any requirement that its actions be ratified or reviewed by synods or congregations might have been an appropriate arrangment in small Lutheran bodies of the somewhat remote past. When most of the clergy knew one another, and most of the members shared common experiences and vewpoints, the denominational assembly could act like the council of a small congregation, formalizing consensus that emerged in the whole body. The connection between central decision making and the people in the pew was implicit and presumed. The ELCA has never been such a body. We are far too diverse to operate with a structure that presumes this kind of consensus. For people in the pew to feel any real sense of connection to the actions of the churchwide expression, that connection would have to have been made explicit, either through a more overtly representative assembly, or through formal review of major decisions by synods or congregations. The shape or our structure has taught people that churchwide decisions have little to do with what they think and feel. They, in turn, are have increasingly little to do with it the churchwide expression of the ELCA. An orderly devolution of authority from churchwide to the synods is our best hope for turning back defacto congregationalism, which is already well advanced. a “federation of synods” may be the softest landing our institution can hope for. It might even turn out to be a creative advance into the post-modern landscape of dispersed and distributed authority and vision.

  5. Brian Says:


    As I understand their structure, you’ve essentially described the Anglican Communion, except their Bishops have more authority than ours.

    If you move power (defined as linking authority and responsibility) down into an organizational structure, IMHO the lines of accountability must become more clearly defined. It’s a simple management axiom that the more people to whom one is accountable, the less accountable one becomes. Or to put it another way, groups cannot be accountable to groups. The organizational structure of the ELCA has been a mess from the very beginning.

    So, the default will be raging congregationalism because each local mission outpost will grow to understand any structure beyond themselves (as currently configured in the ELCA) can do just about anything they want and rarely be held accountable for it. What passed this summer was in furtherance of that systemic chaos. Beyond the confessional and biblical issues, it simply isn’t sustainable as an organization. No matter what “side” one may embrace in this conflict, the ELCA is headed for dissolution no matter what anyone does.

    • Pr. Baron W. Cole Says:

      One might wonder whether the dissolution will be purposeful and overt, or will the connecting structure simply wither because no one sends it money or pays it any attention.

  6. Brian Says:


    Good question. That’s the key isn’t it? The ELCA, like all the other deadline denominations, was in a near terminal spiral before the CWA. We’ve failed to reach two new generations with the Gospel – having already not noticed the Boomers didn’t come back in the 70’s when they married and started families. Over a decade ago people were already pointing out the deadline churches were headed toward financial meltdown. The sadness is how quickly the ELCA decided to hop that train of general liberal protestantism and still assumed a different outcome than everyone else.

    If the structure withers because our generation believes it superfluous, IMHO, it will be further expression of Boomer stupidity. Yes, I am one and we’ve done a pretty good job beating on many other social institutions until either they changed to meet our definitions of necessary or were destroyed in the process. The splintering effect of rampant congregationalism will leave the next next generation at the whims of whatever social ill blows through the church during their times.

    So what’s to be done? That IS the question before us, yes?



  7. Pr. Baron W. Cole Says:

    There are advantages to decentralizaion. In each of our consolidations, where quirks and eccentricities have been ironed out, we have lost access to those who might have been reached through those eccentricities. Perhaps, if our vision becomes more fragmented and local, we can gain back some of that ground. Our continuing unity could be based on our shared heritage of confessional doctrine, rather that on the perception of institutional integration. Of course, that would require a general affirmation of that doctrinal heritage.

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