Michael Root: Are We Divided? (1)


For many, the answer to the question “Are We Divided?” is either obvious or unasked. For those furious over the decisions of the ELCA, that we no longer are one in the gospel seems all too painfully clear. For those who keep calling for unity or ‘churchmanship’, but without discussion of the nature of that unity, the question goes unasked. I have said earlier on this blog that “unity as it has existed in the ELCA is no longer possible (and perhaps has not existed for a while). The shared sense of law and gospel that communion requires is gone.” That statement needs support and I will try to provide it in a series of posts.

There is a wide ecumenical consensus that the unity of the church involves the common proclamation of the gospel, the Christian message, and that such common proclamation implies a common vision of the nature and shape of the Christian life. Yes, the gospel is first and foremost about what God does, but what God does has the end of bringing us into communion with God and with others who also share in that communion. Communion with God and others in the body of Christ is not a passive state, but an active faith, lived out in forms of life. Some common sense of the shape of that life cannot be separated from a shared participation in the mission of the gospel.

The need for such a shared vision is mentioned in a variety of ecumenical dialogues (and, as a matter of principle, I will begin with the ecumenical discussion, not with a narrowly Lutheran one). The Joint Working Group of the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches refers to “that unity in moral life which is Christ’s will” (references at end of this post). Similarly, the co-chairs of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission states: “Authentic Christian unity is as much a matter of life as of faith. Those who share one faith in Christ will share one life in Christ.” The US Catholic-Reformed dialogue stated: “We acknowledge that belief and behavior, faith and works, should not be separated. Therefore issues of ethics and morality, which involve the relation between conscience and authority, are not peripheral to but at the heart of the faithful hearing of the Gospel.” The Lutheran-Reformed international dialogue noted the legitimacy of diversity within and among the churches on ethical issues, but then states:. “But here too diversity can become illegitimate; there are certain ethical beliefs which cease to express the agreement reached on the understanding of the gospel. . . . It is therefore important that, both within our churches and communities, as well as between our churches, we engage in a common search for common witness and service where the important issues of our day are concerned (peace, justice, race, gender, bioethics, etc.).” Diversity “does not imply undifferentiated acceptance of any or all attitudes or opinions.”

Of course, not every ethical disagreement destroys that needed agreement on the shape of the Christian life, no more than does every disagreement on theology. A difficult task of discernment is called for. What cannot be done is simply to rule out the need for some level of ethical agreement as one aspect of Christian unity.

Michael Root

Joint Working Group between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches. “The Ecumenical Dialogue on Moral Issues: Potential Sources of Common Witness or of Divisions.” In Joint Working Group Between the Roman Catholic Church and the World Council of Churches: Seventh Report, 1998. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 1998. P. 32.

Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. Life in Christ: Morals, Communion and the Church. London: Church House Publishing; Catholic Truth Society, 1994. P. v.

Roman Catholic/Presbyterian-Reformed Consultation. “Partners in Peace and Education (1985).” Building Unity: Ecumenical Dialogues with Roman Catholic Participation in the United States. Ed. Joseph A. Burgess and Jeffrey Gros. New York: Paulist Press, 1989. para. 42.

Joint Commission of the Lutheran World Federation and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches. Toward Church Fellowship. Geneva: Lutheran World Federation, 1989. para. 72.

(Next post: is this view compatible with CA 7?)

2 Responses to “Michael Root: Are We Divided? (1)”

  1. Pr. Ian Wolfe Says:

    Dr. Root,

    Spot on as usual. I’ve tried to make this argue myself in the paper that I’m currently finishing. The unity that we share in the Gospel is not an amorphous unity of mission. For Lutherans the unity of the gospel takes concrete form in tangible means of proclaiming the one gospel which we share. Those concrete tangible forms of unity are the means of grace. I’ve tried to argue that the most obvious means of grace, which shows the true reality of division we now face in the ELCA, is the Office of the Keys. The social statement holds valid that half of the church can correctly and rightly bind a person in homosexual sin and the other half can rightly and correctly recognize and support the same sexual activity. In exercising the Office of the Keys, Lutherans have traditionally held that when a pastor chooses to do so he doesn’t speaks his own thoughts about sin, but rather that he speaks the word of binding and forgiving in the place of Jesus Christ. The words of binding and forgiving are the words of Jesus Christ, the pastor only happens to be standing in His place with His authority. It seems with the bound conscience doctrine this unity of the means of grace is gone when one half bind and the other half devoutly and rightly (social statement) believes nothing needs to be forgiven because there is no sin. If the unity of the Office of the Keys is broken through the bound conscience then, I think, the unity of the mission of the Gospel is also broken. The keys are by necessity the mission of the Gospel (John 20:21-23, SA Pt. III Art. IV).

    • Michael Root Says:

      Excellent point. The reason I think it is so little felt is that the practice of the keys is in such disrepair in contemporary Lutheranism.
      M. Root

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