By Linda C. Hoops
The Missouri Synod’s Praesidium (president and five vice-presidents) at its June 1-2 meeting unanimously endorsed a new document from the Commission on Theology and Church Relations (CTCR) that offers more detailed theological criteria for assessing the Synod’s involvement in human care efforts carried out in cooperation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and other church bodies or entities.
The LCMS and the ELCA support human care efforts through six different cooperative agencies, including Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, Lutheran Services in America and Lutheran World Relief. The LCMS also recognizes some 125 or more Recognized Service Organizations (RSOs) that involve the Synod, its districts or congregations in some form of cooperative service or mercy ministry, including nursing homes and senior care, adoption agencies, housing for low-income seniors, food banks, international relief, immigration and refugee services, etc.
The CTCR notes that the criteria set forth in this new document “are of pressing concern specifically to Recognized Service Organizations (RSOs) that are engaged in such cooperative work, both in terms of their internal working relationships and of their accountability to the LCMS.
“While this document sets forth general principles,” it says, “the urgency in responding according to the timetable for the process set forth in Resolution 3-03 has specific reference to such relationships.”
In a memo released July 13 announcing the endorsement, Praesidium Secretary Rev. Herbert C. Mueller Jr., LCMS first vice-president, stated that the Praesidium also adopted a resolution that calls for each LCMS RSO to “be evaluated on the basis of the theological criteria provided by the CTCR document” and based on those evaluations, to recommend whether or not continued RSO status be granted or revoked. The recommendations would be given to the LCMS entity responsible for the individual RSO.
The document, which was unanimously adopted by the CTCR and forwarded to the Praesidium in December 2010, is titled “Principles for Cooperation in Externals with Theological Integrity” and was prepared in response to Res. 3-03, which was adopted by delegates to the Synod’s 2010 convention. That resolution asked the “CTCR, in consultation with the Praesidium and other entities and individuals as needed, to develop more in-depth theological criteria for assessing cooperative endeavors, determining what would necessitate termination of such cooperative efforts,” and “that the Praesidium, in consultation with the CTCR, 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 issue of “cooperation in externals” arose at the convention because of the sexuality decisions made by the ELCA at its 2009 Assembly. The ELCA resolved to recognize “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” as morally acceptable and to remove any denominational obstacles for the ordination into the pastoral ministry of individuals who are living in such relationships.
In response to these decisions, a 10-page task force statement titled “Theological Implications of the 2009 ELCA Decisions” was commended to the Synod for “study and reference.” It reaffirmed historic LCMS principles for making judgments about participation in cooperation in externals, and included five questions to consider when making such judgments:
1. Is the purpose of the joint work fully consistent with the positions, policies and objectives of the Synod?
2. Do cooperative efforts imply doctrinal unity with the ELCA or endorsement of ELCA positions on same-sex relationships or other matters of disagreement with the LCMS?
3. Does the joint agency or organization distinguish itself as an entity from the churches that support it?
4. Are all the policies and programs of the organization consonant with the doctrinal position of the LCMS?
5. Do the individuals who lead the organization openly support and encourage efforts, positions or policies which compromise the theological stance of the Synod?
The new 15-page document with appendix expounds on these five questions and gives examples of specific issues and scenarios, while noting that “the great variety of human care organizations and efforts necessitates a case-by-case approach in evaluating them. There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to the different organizations that Synod recognizes currently in the general sphere of mercy ministries.”
“It’s important for the church to have this document at this time because important decisions have to be made about whether and/or how the LCMS can continue to cooperate with the ELCA in human care efforts — especially in specific RSO and institutional chaplaincy contexts — without compromising its theological convictions and positions,” said CTCR Executive Director Dr. Joel Lehenbauer.
“The urgency of this issue is highlighted by the fact that the 2010 convention asked for a response by the CTCR and the Praesidium by July 13, 2011 — one year from the date the resolution was adopted,” he added.
The new report affirms that “there can and should be a measure of cooperation between the LCMS and other Christians, Lutheran or otherwise, so long as there is no compromise of the teachings of Holy Scripture as explicated in the Confessions.” It labels as “determinative,” however, the “proviso” that “the church’s efforts in care for those in need may not cloud or compromise the church’s faith, or go against the Word of God and conscience.”
The document offers five principles for evaluating cooperative work and lists examples for each. The principles are:
- The all-important question for any organized effort involving the church is whether the intended purpose or goal is God-pleasing. While this may seem obvious, says the document, it is crucial to emphasize that “such a value judgment can be made only on the basis of the authority of Scripture and orthodox theology.”
- Cooperative efforts with another church ought to be engaged in with a clear understanding that agreement in the purpose of the particular organization does not imply agreement in all areas of doctrine and practice.
- The corollary to the previous stipulation is that a cooperatively supported RSO ought to have a distinct identity from either the LCMS or the ELCA (or other church/church body).
- Since we are considering organizations with very direct, practical purposes — specific “good works” — it is necessary that the implementation of the organization’s goals and the steps it takes toward those goals be examined. The activities, policies and practices of organizations must be evaluated in light of LCMS theological positions and principles. Both goals and implementation must be consistent with Lutheran theology.
- The personnel who actually manage and lead cooperative efforts are a critical factor. Both the public conduct and public positions taken by leaders and staff of organizations are significant to the question of integrity.
Some of the examples of possible scenarios listed under each of these five principles include:
- An organization might engage in a laudable “social ministry” because it holds that such ministry — not the proclamation of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ — is the primary ministry of the church. A cooperative endeavor in that instance risks the integrity of the Gospel itself since a “Social Gospel” has been substituted for the genuine Gospel of forgiveness, life and salvation by faith in our Lord Jesus Christ (Gal 1:6-9).
- Organizational events or ceremonies must not involve public worship and neither the LCMS nor the ELCA (or any other church with which we might be cooperating apart from a relationship of altar and pulpit fellowship) ought to imply that the joint effort fully represents its confession of faith in all articles.
- It is … possible that in an effort to maintain a distinct identity, an organization loses its identity as a specifically Christian (and Lutheran) entity. For example, just as the YMCA is no longer a “Christian association” in any recognizable way, so also a “Lutheran social service agency” always runs the risk of losing any “Lutheran” element to its identity, and becoming just one more “social service organization.”
- A board of directors may have little or no representation from the Synod and may be unaware of or unsupportive of LCMS beliefs. Organizations may adopt operational principles that are alien or contrary to Scripture and the Confessions (for example, a relief organization policy that forbids volunteers from sharing the Gospel or praying with those who are being served). The lack of a policy may indicate an unwillingness to address a necessary matter of Christian truth. With regard to adoption by homosexuals, for example, the lack of a policy may be a tacit allowance for such adoptions (which is contrary to the stated position of the LCMS).
- If an organization is staffed by someone whose lifestyle is scandalously or openly unrepentantly sinful, the message of God’s Word is inevitably compromised. Institutional chaplaincy decisions must be assessed theologically — the LCMS cannot support heterodox ministry, lend tacit approval to women’s ordination or other unscriptural practices, or support chaplaincy services by those engaged in an immoral lifestyle.
The document concludes by reaffirming that there “can and should be a measure of cooperation between the LCMS and other Christians, Lutheran or otherwise, so long as there is no compromise of the teachings of Holy Scripture as explicated in the Confessions.” Yet it also states that “the markedly different theological courses of our respective church bodies (LCMS and ELCA) mean that cooperation on the national level is a different matter. The ELCA’s departure from historic Christian and Confessional Lutheran standards makes it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for the LCMS to cooperate directly with the ELCA national office in united efforts with doctrinal integrity.
“In the end, decisions about where the Synod may and may not engage in such cooperative work,” says the document, “will involve a Spirit-guided, careful, case-by-case look at each of the shared endeavors according to these scriptural principles.”
The document points out that “no two RSOs are identical. Individual districts of the LCMS will, of necessity, need to be an integral part of decisions that are made regarding the RSOs with which they relate.”
To read Mueller’s memo or the complete CTCR document, visit the CTCR’s website (click here) and see the links under “Reports.”
Linda C. Hoops is a freelance writer and a member of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection, Sunset Hills, Mo.
Posted July 18, 2011/Updated July 21, 2011