(Editor’s Note: Holger Sonntag commented on one of our many strings on the ELCA issue that the vote for full communion with the UMC may be the greater story here despite all the attention the statements on sexuality have received. We asked him to expand on this thesis and he has blessed us with this fine article. It is a lengthy post so we have serialized it. Here is Part II. Part I can be viewed here.)
The Eleventh ELCA Churchwide Assembly According to Law and Gospel – Part II: When is a Theological Disagreement Church-Dividing?
Now, the question is: when is a particular disagreement no longer church-dividing? Who decides that? And how would, e.g., Roman Catholic theology not be somehow “grace-centered and Christ-centered;” how would it not have a “strong trinitarian theology and confidence in the grace of God for salvation”? The Lutheran Confessions, in particular the Augsburg Confession, do not know of any doctrinal differences that would not be church-dividing. Those who embrace and confess the Augsburg Confession, for instance, do so magno consensu (AC I, 1), that is, with great unanimity. This unanimity is not the result of democratic procedures like appealing to broader principles left undefined (such as “love and justice” in the moral realm and “grace-centered and Christ-centered” in the doctrinal realm) and voting and negotiating and arriving at a sketchy compromise “all can live with;” rather, it is a spiritual effect of God’s word. It is, in other words, a spiritual gift. The consensus that counts in the Christian church is, therefore, nothing other than joining the consensus of the church of the prophets and apostles established by scripture (Preface of the Book of Concord, 3; Apol. IV, 83; XII, 66, 73; see Treat. 42).
It is no surprise and quite consistent with the earlier Lutheran statements of faith when the Formula of Concord, in its summarizing Epitome, writes (X, 31):
… churches will not condemn each other because of a difference in ceremonies, when in Christian liberty one uses fewer or more of them, as long as they are otherwise agreed in doctrine and in all its articles and are also agreed concerning the right use of the holy sacraments, according to the well-known axiom, “ï»¿Disagreement in fasting should not destroy agreement in faith.ï»¿”ï»¿
In other words, church rituals might be different, but “doctrine and all its articles” as well as “the right use of the holy sacraments” has to be unanimously agreed upon for condemnations of churches or individual teachers to be lifted. As is stated in the Augsburg Confession (VII, 2-3):
… it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word. It is not necessary for the true unity of the Christian church that ceremonies, instituted by men, should be observed uniformly in all places.
Agreement is thus not primarily with one another but with God’s word, that is, with a pure understanding of the gospel.
This, of course, applies first of all to existing church bodies: if their existence and unity should mean anything, then they need to be in agreement with God’s word. Yet it also applies to those desiring to enter into “church fellowship,” that is, those who wish to establish a union between church bodies. And if all parties involved agree with God’s word rightly understood, then they will, of course, also agree with one another. Church union – visibly expressed at the Lord’s altar (1 Cor. 10:16-17) – is then not only possible but necessary.
Applying this to the first issue, homosexuality, despite all the attempts to diffuse the real disagreements in the ELCA on this issue, declaring it, too, to be not church-divisive, one must realize that this is just institutional well-wishing and pep-talking. If disagreement on such a foundational issue as the validity and extent of God’s law does not divide the church, what does? Now, some will say: but doesn’t the Augsburg Confession specifically talk about agreement in the understanding of the gospel? In other words, can’t we disagree on the law of God while still agreeing on the gospel? The quick answer is: no, we cannot. God’s unchanging word, both the law and the gospel, is the standard for our agreement. According to the Lutheran confessions, a proper understanding of God’s law (not just formally but also materially) is a presupposition to a proper understanding of the gospel.
This is to say: if half of a given church body calls homosexuals to repentance and forgiveness in the gospel, while the other half believes there is nothing to be forgiven here, then it is clear that differences in the understanding of the law also lead to a different understanding of the gospel. Besides, how is the fruit of faith, the love and new obedience of the believer in Christ, defined but by the law of God (AC VI, 1)? Would one not want to agree in the shape of the new Christian life among fellow Christians? One pastor in a church body counseling a given parishioner to struggle against homosexual lust in her heart while trusting in Christ’s forgiveness and in the power of the Holy Spirit, while another pastor is encouraging her to live it out in a “committed relationship” – this does not testify to church union, unity, and order but to disunity and confusion that will lead to confused hearts and minds.
A historical case in point with application for the present discussion: Lutherans and Catholics, ever since the 16th century, have disagreed on the extent and nature of original sin; and because they have, they cannot claim agreement in the gospel (see Apol. II, 33), despite all recent declarations to the contrary. The 2009 ELCA-Methodist agreement also cannot deny that there are differences between Lutherans and Methodists in the question of Christian perfection. It seems dishonest to downplay these by presenting them as mere different emphases that can be quite enriching for future dialogue between these churches. Since Lutherans have traditionally denied the perfectibility of man in this world due to the persistent gravity of original sin in the baptized, how can an affirmation of such a perfectibility, that is also held by the Roman Catholic Church, now be “compatible” with the Lutheran understanding of the Christian faith in general and the gospel in particular, no matter how much God’s grace is emphasized in this context?
Another reminder from history: Luther, in his 1539 On Councils and the Church, considered it part and parcel of the duties of a church assembly (or council) to reaffirm the old faith and the old good works established by God’s word while rejecting any innovations in this realm (Am. Ed. 41:135):
[Church councils] should confess and defend the ancient faith, and not institute new articles of faith against the ancient faith, nor institute new good works against the old good works, but defend the old good works against the new good worksâ€”because he who defends the old faith against the new faith also defends the old good works against the new good works. For as the faith is, so are also the fruits or good works…
(Next time – demonstrating that communion with the UMC goes right to the heart of the gospel.)