Archive for the ‘Are We Divided?’ Category

Are We Divided? (2) Clearing the Lutheran Ground

October 5, 2009

In a previous post, I noted that a broad ecumenical consensus exists that one aspect of the unity of the church is a common vision of the life we are called to lead as human beings and as Christians. A division on an important ethical question thus can be church-dividing.

But do Lutherans agree with this consensus? The Report and Recommendations on Ministry Proposals seems to dissent:“Our perspectives on social realities, in particular human sexuality, are not the basis of our unity or disunity. Our Lutheran unity is centered on the promises of God, our common baptism, and our fellowship in the sacrament of Holy Communion, expressed in our love for the Lutheran church, theology, and tradition” (lines 424-427; cp. 465-467). As long we agree on gospel and sacraments, no disagreement on ethics is rightly church-dividing. While I know of no church that has made such a statement so explicitly, one can find individuals who have made such arguments (e.g., Craig Nessan of Wartburg Seminary). If this view is correct, then the ELCA cannot be divided by the present dispute on sexuality.

I have commented elsewhere on this idea (see here). Let me summarize my argument.

1. This view appeals to Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession: “It is enough [satis est] for the true unity of the church to agree concerning the teaching of the gospel and the administration of the sacraments.” What must be asked, however, is whether “gospel” here is to be read narrowly – the gospel in distinction from the law – or broadly – the entire Christian message, law and gospel. The term ‘gospel’ is used both ways in the Confessions (Formula of Concord, SD, V, 5-6). In CA 7, “gospel” is explicitly contrasted with “human traditions, rites, or ceremonies instituted by human beings,” not with law. The point of CA 7 is that the church is founded on the divine message, not on human structures.

2. Some have argued that the 1984 action of the Lutheran World Federation in suspending the membership of Southern African churches over apartheid shows that ethics cannot be divisive, because these churches were criticized not for their general ethical view of race, but only for division at the altar, more a matter of gospel than law. The text of the LWF resolution does not support this reading, however. The Southern African churches were called upon “to publicly and unequivocally reject the system of apartheid (separate development) and to end the division of the church on racial grounds.” The ethical issue of racism is explicitly mentioned as itself an issue affecting confessional integrity, not just the issue of internal church relations. (The 1977 LWF resolution stating that confessional integrity is at stake in the church’s rejection of apartheid is similar.)

3. Can law and gospel be separated, so that agreement in the gospel is compatible with any and all diversity in law? As Pastor Ian Wolfe has noted in some comments on this blog, for the Reformation the gospel presupposes repentance. Repentance is not our achievement, but is worked in us by the law. As the Article 5 on Law and Gospel in the Formula of Concord makes clear, law and gospel must both be preached. Without the negative and positive functions of the law as rebuke and instruction, the gospel floats free of concrete life. Unless one has a completely functional understanding of the law (the law is whatever convicts of sin, regardless of content), then one would think that the church would need to have some agreed sense of what we are rebuking and toward what sort of life we are calling. What sort of common life in Christ can co-exist with no limits on diversity in ethics?

None of this is yet to say that our present disagreements on sexuality must be church-dividing, but it is to say that they might be. To say, as the Task Force suggested and as others have said more explicitly, that ethical matters cannot be in themselves church-dividing is to depart both from Lutheranism and from the wider Christian tradition.

Michael Root


Michael Root: Are We Divided? (1)

September 28, 2009

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?)