The stuff of a thing must match its purpose. “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11-12) If I set out to bake your child a birthday cake, I wouldn’t use beet mash and kippers. I’d use flour, water, sugar, eggs—the things that make for a blessed moment of contentment in a room full of reveling toddlers. Sweetness for sweet moments, or something like that. So also the Father, in seeking to make the world righteous, did not send us a sinner, but an innocent, to make us what we were not.
Would we expect the church to operate differently?
Fewer people speak of church unity these days (or so it seems to me), but the subject nearly dominated my time at seminary. During my first year at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, 1996-1997, the campus was roiled by the ELCA’s impending full communion agreement with Reformed churches, the “Formula of Agreement.” Professors lectured on it, and students chewed on it over lunch. In time, Bishop William Lazareth of the Metropolitan New York Synod came to debate the subject with the seminary’s president, Dr. David Tiede. Tiede stood for the agreement, and Lazareth against it.
Each man seemed to take on the flesh of his argument. Tiede, arguing for the careful, academic formulas of a decades-long process, stood straighter and with a more polished, fresh-faced poise than the energetic, nobby-nosed Lazareth, the latter all in clerical black, his eyebrows as thick as his confessional objections. They started with the issues at hand (the Holy Supper, predestination, the lifting of confessional condemnations), but they soon hit on the question of the Church and its unity.
Like any good ecumenist, Tiede invoked the words of Jesus in John 17:21: our Lord Himself prayed for his disciples “that they may all be one.” Why would we not be open to the fulfillment of that prayer among us? Those words animated Lazareth like no other point in the debate, leading to what would become its most memorable moment for me. Leaping to his feet, his eyebrows arching sharply, Lazareth stuck both of his meaty index fingers in the air and declared, “That they may all be one—that the world may believe!”
Belief in the truth of Jesus: here is the purpose of the Church’s unity. Therefore, the stuff of that unity must match its purpose. It must be a unity in and of the truth, even if it means ending fellowship with falsehood. So Lazareth argued, convincingly for me. Lutherans could not and should not overlook their serious objections to the Reformed teaching of Communion and predestination, thinking that the mere form of unity (the human will to be one, with all of its social achievements) was itself instrumental to the faith God creates. Only the unity comprised of truth could lead others to truth. Only sweetness leads to sweetness; only the Son’s innocence makes us innocent; only a unity conceived by the truth can beget faith in the truth.
This view, formed so clearly by Articles VII and VIII of the Augsburg Confession, continues to have implications not only for those remaining in the ELCA but also for those who have left it. By rooting the unity of the Church in the truth of the Word, it locates the possibility and assurance of unity, not in constitutional arrangement, but in the teaching of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments. As the Church speaks its proper message and sets forth the Lord’s true Supper and Baptism, it is revealed to be the una sancta, the one, holy catholic and apostolic gathering of believers that midwifes new believers into the world.
And if the unity of the Church resides in its preaching and ministering, then so do its limits. Votes and constitutions have their place, as signposts and jingle bells for keeping every cow in its field. But they provide no lasting or certain refuge, nor do they fulfill the call of Jeremiah: “Go out from the midst of her, my people!” (51:45) In as much as the Church experiences its unity in the doing of the ministry, it is there, too, that it must experience its division from the world and from heresy.
As Lazareth saw in regards to the Formula of Agreement, closed pulpits and closed altars are part of church renewal. The degree to which “closed is closed,” I will not pose in this article. But suffice it to say, renewal seeks faith in the truth. Publicizing false confession in the pulpit or at the altar will not result in that faith, and thus, it will not result in that renewal. I understand that I may stand in the minority on this issue among my own ilk. But I also understand that the mere will to be one (or better, the mere will to be distinct), with all its social achievements will not herald the renewal of the Church.
That renewal takes place in local ministry. Denominational constitutions are the highways that plow across states and regions to move people along in mad efficiency. We need them, but they flatten the landscape in brute fashion. Local ministry is the footpath worn in response to the particular contours of a place, with care for the critters found in every burrow and den. It is there, as the congregation of believers both looses and binds, both admits and restrains, that the Church rises up from the ashes, its wings on fire—yes, it is there that faith is born.
Those confessors remaining in the ELCA may therefore wish to pause and question to what extent their denomination’s manifold constitutions remain the gateway to their pulpit and altar—they may wish to review how open is open, and how closed is closed, in their local ministry. To start there, rather than in the baseline acceptance of a brokered political settlement, may prove illuminating and even reforming, if also excruciating. Similar illumination and crosses may await those who have left the ELCA, as they ponder the spiritual demand that faces them daily in Jeremiah’s call, quoted above.
The Church is a creature of the Spirit of truth. “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” (Luke 11:13) He knows how sweetness leads to sweetness, and innocence to innocence, and truth to truth. With this Father, if you ask for an egg, you get an egg. As we ask for the Church’s renewal, we ask also for its unity, and to that end, we pray fervently for truth.