The Loyal Opposition
The issue in the ELCA, post-churchwide assembly is: What are we going to do now? How will we live together in this very fractured church, in spite of our disagreements? Some advocate leaving the ELCA and forming a new Lutheran church altogether. I do not think it is viable alternative. It strikes me as sectarianism, even if it goes by the name Lutheran. Those who cut off from a relationship always bring the wounds from the previous relationship into any new church they create, usually in unhealthy ways. So, if we stay, how shall we live? Borrowing from our English and American political history, I suggest that we become the loyal opposition...
The issue in the ELCA, post-churchwide assembly (CWA) is: What are we going to do now? How will we live together in this very fractured church, in spite of our disagreements?
Pastors and congregations are figuring out what to do. The options are many. As Robert Benne wrote in a recent article after the CWA (“How Did We Come to This?”):
There will be a profusion of different responses by congregations and individuals. Many congregations and individuals will leave the ELCA. Others will bide their time to see what Lutheran CORE (Lutheran Coalition for Renewal) will become as it strives to articulate and then embody the best of Lutheranism. Many will withdraw from involvement in the ELCA and its synods and live at the local level. Many others will try to live on as if nothing happened.
Some advocate leaving the ELCA and forming a new Lutheran church altogether. I do not think it is viable alternative. It strikes me as sectarianism, even if it goes by the name Lutheran. Those who cut off from a relationship always bring the wounds from the previous relationship into any new church they create, usually in unhealthy ways.
So, if we stay, how shall we live? Borrowing from our English and American political history, I suggest that we become the loyal opposition.
The idea of “loyal opposition,” as it originated in England and in the U.S. after the election of Thomas Jefferson, is that one can be opposed to the actions of the government or ruling party of the day without being opposed to the constitution of the political system. That’s what those who are opposed to what happened at CWA should become by whatever organizational means they find most suited to the long-range goal of calling the ELCA to repentance and return to the foundations of Scripture, creeds, and the Lutheran Confessions.
Both “loyal” and “opposition” need further clarification.
We are, first loyal. We are loyal to this Church, the ELCA. We are loyal even though it has erred in its decisions at CWA. It is still the Body of Christ, even though though right now it is diseased, suffering from an infection of postmodernism. (Even Luther, at his vitriolic highest, while calling the pope the antichrist, never said the whole Church was apostate. By Christ’s own promise, that is not possible. As God made clear to Elijah at Horeb, there is always a faithful remnant.)
I don’t think you could get a more succinct statement of the sickness at the heart of the ELCA than this quote that recently appeared in our local paper in an article about the CWA:
“Tim Mumm, an assembly delegate from Whitewater, Wisconsin, said the Scripture that guides opponents of the more liberal policy was written by mortals, at a much earlier time, and doesn’t reflect what many Christians now believe.”
There it is: “Written by mortals at a much earlier time. Doesn’t reflect what many Christians believe.” That is postmodernist philosophy at its clearest: no authority other than the self, religion as subjective expression of one’s interests, values, feelings. All tradition is dismissed as an outdated relic of the past. Can we still sing Luther’s great hymn, “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word”?
It must be understood that the real issue at CWA was not sexuality. It was the authority of Scripture, Creed, and our Lutheran Confessions. This relates to a whole raft of other issues that have been eating away like corrosive acid at the faith of our church: baptisms in names other than the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; confessions of faith other than the Apostles’, Nicene, or Athanasian Creeds (e.g., the “creed” that was “confessed” at Goodsoil’s service during CWA); worship skewed to fit political or social agendas; the abolishment of Scripture from the life of the church, especially worship, as it is replaced by politically correct paraphrases.
As one pastor wrote me, “The vote in Minneapolis was the brick that broke the camel’s back. Ever since the formation of the ELCA, the Scriptures, creeds, and Confessions have been ignored in the ecumenical agreements, in the new Lutheran study Bible, and in social action. Some pastors have struggled in this but each one separately was not enough to make one leave. The homosexual vote brought the issue out in the open to the laity. Now we have a full-blown, obvious situation.”
Yet, we are still loyal to this Church. We are loyal to its constitution, which confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and the Gospel as the power of God for the salvation for all who believe. The constitution accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life—even if the last CWA in its decisions forgot this. The constitution accepts the Apostles’, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds as true declarations of the faith of this congregation—even though some in this ELCA replace the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit with others of their own devision. The constitution accepts the Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel and the other Lutheran confessional documents as valid interpretations of the Christian faith.
We are loyal to the Church, so part of our work must be to call this erring ELCA back to its true foundation: the Gospel, recorded in the Holy Scriptures and confessed in the ecumenical creeds and Lutheran confessional writings, as the power of God to create and sustain the church for God’s mission in the world.
Because of our loyalty to the Church, we must oppose the direction of the current ruling party. We must fight the infections of postmodernism and Gnosticism that are making this Church sick. We must take a stand against the ELCA’s drift into liberal Protestantism and for a return to catholic and orthodox teaching and practice.
Because we are loyal to the church, we must oppose the recent decisions on sexuality and ministry policies made at the CWA. We must simply, steadfastly state: the CWA erred. Majorities are not infallible. Majorities make mistakes. As Martin Luther noted in 1521 at his trial at the Diet of Worms, “Popes and councils [and ELCA Churchwide Assemblies] have erred.” But God’s Word does not err. The Holy Spirit, according to Jesus’ promise, leads the church into all truth and keeps it united in the one true faith.
Because we are loyal to the Church, we cannot cooperate with the new situation post-CWA. How this non-cooperation will take place, what forms it will take, remain to be worked out. But our response must be firm, steadfast, peaceful non-cooperation. There are already hopeful signs in this direction; e.g., the vision of Lutheran CORE.
Being the loyal opposition is the harder road to take. It is the way of the cross. It is so much easier to walk out with our heads held high, proud and sure of the rightness of our cause. There is a great emotional payoff in telling someone, even the ELCA: “We will have nothing more to do with you.” Cutting off is always easy. But the Lord Jesus and the witness of the Scriptures tell us this is not the way God’s people operate. Even in the worst days of Israel sins, the prophets did not abandon God’s people. When Elijah cut oout and went to Horeb, God told him to return to His people and resume his ministry. In the darkest days of Judah’s fall from grace, Jeremiah invested in real estate.
The path of loyal opposition will require of us patience, persistence, and a high degree of civility. Ranting at the ELCA will not serve our cause. We shall have to walk the narrow road of maintaining respectful contact with our opponents, even while honestly disagreeing with them and refusing to cooperate with the direction they are taking the ELCA.
But we can do this in confidence that we will be heard. After all, they must accept us. Not to do so would violate the cardinal doctrine of liberal Protestantism: “We are an inclusive church.” (Or prove that, after all, nothing is more intolerant than liberalism’s tolerance.) And who knows when a word from us will succeed in calling the ELCA to metanoia—“to change one’s mind”—i.e., repentance. And changing its mind is what the ELCA needs to do.
In the most recent issue of De Trinitate, the newsletter of the Society of the Holy Trinity, Frank Senn made this very astute observation even before the CWA was held: “The actions of the CWA will resolve nothing. This is one of those issues that will take a century to resolve, just like gnosticism and Arianism in the ancient church.”
It is good to have the perspective of history. At one time, Arianism even seemed to have the upper hand in the church, and its great opponent, Athanasius, often suffered many defeats before orthodox teaching prevailed. We should realize that we are bit players in a long play. We need to play our role as the Loyal Opposition patiently, firmly, persistently, speaking the truth in love, contending for the faith once delivered to the saints, trusting that God’s Word forever shall abide.
Dan Biles is the Pastor at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania.