By Joe Isenhower Jr.
BALTIMORE — Leaders of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LCMS) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) reported similar developments in their church bodies — including reorganization of both national staffs to bring about efficiencies, heard reports from executives of three agencies they cooperatively share and continued theological discussions related to the future of “cooperation in externals.”
The representatives of North America’s two largest Lutheran church bodies met here Dec. 1-2 as the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation (CLC), which gathers twice each year.
Joining them for the reports of the two churches and to report on the work of their individual agencies were Jill A. Schumann, president of Lutheran Services in America (LSA); Linda Hartke, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service (LIRS); and Dr. John Nunes, president of Lutheran World Relief (LWR) — all three based here and hosts for this meeting.
Schumann presented LSA’s update report in a TV’s “Jeopardy” format — reading 25 answers on slides for which she challenged the church leaders to provide the questions. To start, she flashed up “1 in 50,” which answers how many persons are somehow affected each year by the agency’s programs. LSA provides an array of human services through and on behalf of 311 member organizations with a collective annual income of $16.5 billion.
Hartke outlined a new five-year strategic plan for LIRS that its board approved in May. The plan emphasizes a new key focus for LIRS — nurturing welcoming communities — in which churches play essential roles.
“Our work cannot be done without the local congregation and faithful Lutherans — it’s where community leaders are raised up and where lives are transformed,” she said.
Hartke asked LCMS and ELCA leaders to “speak and teach about welcome, pray for welcome in hearts and communities, and lead by example in big and small ways of extending hospitality.”
Since its formation 71 years ago, LIRS has welcomed 360,000 refugees — including 10,904 from 55 countries within the past year.
Nunes mentioned LWR’s “2020 Vision” — a plan for growth over the next 10 years, culminating in 2020, the year of its 75th anniversary.
“Our value of innovation states that we are restless until we achieve our goal of ending poverty, injustice and human suffering,” he said. “Creating a long-term business plan provides a place to channel our restlessness, as we consider where we are now and where we want to be in the future for the sake of our mission.”
He also spoke of several other examples of LWR’s work, including the Lutheran Malaria Initiative.
The LCMS and ELCA are not in altar and pulpit fellowship with each other because of doctrinal disagreements.
Lately, those differences have centered on the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly’s adoption of a social statement on human sexuality and changes to ministry policies that include making it possible for those in lifelong, publicly accountable, monogamous same-gender relationships to serve as ELCA clergy, deaconesses, diaconal ministers and associates in ministry.
The LCMS holds that Scripture condemns homosexual behavior.
Delegates to the 2010 LCMS convention adopted a resolution that calls for the Synod’s Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) to develop “in-depth theological criteria for assessing cooperative endeavors, determining what would necessitate termination of such … efforts.” That resolution also asks the Synod Praesidium (president and five vice-presidents) to “provide an assessment of the current state of cooperation in externals and a full report of criteria for ongoing assessment of the same by July 13, 2011.” The resolution was proposed after an LCMS task force studying the theological implications of the ELCA’s 2009 sexuality decisions issued its report.
For this meeting’s theological discussion, Dr. Albert B. Collver III, the Missouri Synod’s director of Church Relations — assistant to the president, initiated discussion of the topic of “natural law” — defined by Philip Melanchthon in 1521 as “a common judgment to which all men alike assent, and therefore one which God has inscribed upon the soul of each man.”
As background reading for the meeting, Collver offered two papers he authored — one that discusses natural law and finds that it does not allow for homosexual behavior; and another that calls for “re-examination of the principle of ‘cooperation in externals’ … to consider what ‘externals’ can be cooperated in without compromising confession.”
Collver also offered what he developed as five “theses for cooperation in externals on the basis of natural law.” The first two state that cooperation in externals “can only occur when there is agreement in natural law” and “when there is agreement in doctrine and practice, because such agreement constitutes agreement in natural law.”
Dr. Marcus Kunz, executive for discernment of contextual and theological issues with the ELCA Office of the Presiding Bishop, provided for discussion at the meeting “A Brief Response” to Collver’s papers.
In his response, Kunz expresses appreciation for Collver’s papers, but places greater emphasis on the need for acts of Christian love that result from faith.
“The motivation for Lutherans in the United States to form and support these organizations — LIRS, LSA and LWR — has been a confident faith created by the Holy Spirit that, trusting God’s promises in Christ, has liberated Lutherans to respond graciously, generously and joyfully to the needs of their neighbors in the United States and throughout the world,” Kunz wrote.
LCMS President Rev. Matthew C. Harrison told the group that while Collver’s papers are not an “official response” to the ELCA, they address a “significant question.” He said that question has to do with how to be sure that activities in which the two churches carry out cooperation in externals “aren’t dominated in a way that is impossible for us [in the LCMS] to accept.”
This was Harrison’s first CLC meeting as Synod president, following his election by LCMS convention delegates in July.
He said that while actions of the convention show that “the Synod is overwhelmingly in pain” over the ELCA’s sexuality decisions, “the convention also said that it did not desire to discontinue all cooperative work.”
Harrison said that in situations when the Synod is approached by ELCA congregations or other Lutheran churches throughout the world that also disagree with actions of the ELCA, “we are challenged in how to interact with them.
“We want to be as transparent as possible about this,” Harrison said.
“We are deeply committed to being at this table,” ELCA Presiding Bishop Dr. Mark S. Hanson said during the theological-discussion period. “There is still more that we share in common as Lutherans than what divides us,” he added.
Hanson said he finds it “distressful that we’ve been perceived as imposing our decisions on others. Our relationships with others are not defined by our sexuality decisions.” He reminded the church leaders that “not everyone in the ELCA is of a like mind” concerning those decisions — including those who “hold the same position as the LCMS.
“There are too many people longing to hear the Gospel as we Lutherans understand it,” Hanson said. “It would be tragic if we become so preoccupied with our differences that they would come in the way of our Gospel proclamation.”
“We need to find ways to respect our differences at the intersection [and be] committed to our partnerships in externals,” Hanson said. “I hope and pray that this will be the end result of the LCMS study.”
Collver said that he offered his papers for discussion “not to establish principles for the LCMS, but to help promote dialogue.”
“There is still the question of our understanding of the Gospel. Can agreement on the Gospel exist unless there is agreement on what the Gospel rescues us from?” Collver asked.
“Application of natural law is critical,” said Dr. Donald J. McCoid, the ELCA’s executive for Ecumenical and Inter-Religious Relations, who also reminded the church leaders that natural law has been used in the past to justify slavery and bigotry. “Interpretation of natural law could lead us to a narrow approach,” he cautioned. “I question how to apply it toward love and care for the neighbor in need.”
Collver replied that he agrees that natural law has been misused, but that “love for our neighbor is part of natural law.”
“I think we need to explore these natural law matters,” said Dr. Joel Lehenbauer, executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations. “But I think that anything we say about natural law needs to be in the context of what Scripture says.”
LCMS and ELCA leaders also reported significant information about their individual church bodies.
For the LCMS:
- Harrison said that in addition to its ELCA-related actions, the 2010 LCMS convention approved a number of restructuring and governance changes for the Synod, including streamlining the national offices from seven program boards to two policy-setting Boards for International and National Mission. In line with the restructuring, some 13 positions have been eliminated at the LCMS International Center. The convention also approved the Synod’s participation in the Lutheran Malaria Initiative, in partnership with Lutheran World Relief. Harrison added that the three-fold emphasis of WITNESS, MERCY, LIFE TOGETHER that his office initiated for the Synod is being received well.
- Lehenbauer indicated that the CTCR has issued a report on Christian stewardship of the environment. It is finishing work on a report on the theology and practice of prayer, and a report on immigration is well under way.
- Collver reported that a number of confessional church bodies — particularly in Eastern Europe and Africa — are seeking closer ties with the LCMS. He also said that the International Lutheran Council (ILC), of which the Synod is a member along with some 30 other Lutheran churches around the world, has new leaders and that the Synod no longer is represented on the ILC executive committee.
- Dr. Raymond Hartwig, LCMS secretary, reported briefly on the results of the Synod’s 2010 convention and progress being made to finalize its new Handbook.
- Dr. Larry Stoterau, chairman of the LCMS Council of Presidents, noted that the council is concentrating on ecclesiastical leadership in an unchurched culture, folding that topic into every one of its meetings for study and discussion. Stoterau also said that fewer than 5 percent of LCMS congregations are seeking to fill pastoral vacancies, compared with the preferred 10 percent of LCMS congregations calling pastors — for the sake of mobility in the Synod.
- LCMS Chief Administrative Officer Ron Schultz reported a continuing trend of declining district pledges of funding for the national Synod, resulting in budget cuts and other efficiencies.
For the ELCA:
- Hanson said that “our self-understanding is in the context of our relatedness through Baptism, in the one world where God has placed us with other Lutherans and with our ecumenical partners.” He also spoke of the “interdependence of ecologies” in ELCA relationships internally and externally. He said that although the ELCA is dealing with “internal challenges” of income reductions and an aging church, “we will not allow them to be self-consuming.”
- Dr. M. Wyvetta Bullock, executive for administration in the Office of the Presiding Bishop, said that due to deeper than anticipated income declines from ELCA synods and in its World Hunger Appeal, a contingency plan is in effect for both budgets for the current year. She noted that a redesign has taken the number of churchwide-office units from 16 to six, and has resulted in 65 positions being eliminated.
- Rev. Allan C. Bjornberg, chairman of the ELCA Conference of Bishops, said the conference has intentional liaisons with ministries in the churchwide organization and with other ministries and that each synod has at least one companion synod in the Lutheran World Federation. He said bishops have spent considerable time in conversation with congregations as a result of the 2009 sexuality decisions and that the ELCA’s situation with the mobility of pastor calls mirrors that of the LCMS. He said that ELCA synods continue their commitment to congregational outreach into their communities, evidenced by the fact that nearly all 65 synods have directors of evangelical outreach.
- McCoid said that the LWF decision to ask for forgiveness from God and from Mennonite sisters and brothers for the persecution against Anabaptists during the Reformation period was received with deep appreciation, emotion and in the spirit of reconciliation. He said inter-religious conversations continue to develop with Muslims, especially in light of recent public reactions against them. These inter-religious conversations include deeper relationships with Jewish colleagues. He indicated that the next round in the Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue would deal with “how we make moral and ethical decisions.”
- Rev. Rafael Malpica Padilla, executive director of Global Mission, reported on “global mission events” that strive to share skills and competencies to help congregations understand and reach out to internationals in their own communities. He said the ELCA has experienced a shrinking number of mission personnel, in part due to the success of missionaries in their work. He also said that he would welcome conversation leading to agreement in identifying areas for inter-Lutheran relationships globally, including within the framework of the LWF and ILC.
In addition to those already mentioned, others at this meeting of the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation were LCMS First Vice-President Rev. Herbert C. Mueller and ELCA Vice President Carlos Peña.
The next meeting of the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation is tentatively set for May 25-26 in St. Louis.
Posted Dec. 30, 2010