The Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC) last week celebrated their 50th Anniversary. This is the church body to which I belong. Some people when they see the acronym, AFLC, think of that duck from that insurance company. That’s AFLAC. The AFLC began in 1962 when representatives from 70 Lutheran Free Church congregations met. These people opposed the merger into the American Lutheran Church. In hindsight, this was incredibly wise because less than thirty years later the ALC would join the Lutheran Church of America and Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches to form the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. The roughly 40-50 congregations that decided not to merge into the ALC and continue the tradition of the Lutheran Free Church in the AFLC, has grown today to 270 congregations. A few years ago our claim to fame was that we were the fourth largest Lutheran church in America. Since then the two ELCA break away groups, Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ and the North American Lutheran Church have passed us. In all honesty, who cares? Let the Church Growth people stew over numbers.
What does the AFLC “believe, teach, and confess”? (*Warning* Confessional Lutherans may want to have a bottle of Tylenol nearby.)
First of all, the AFLC confesses the Bible to be God’s Word, i.e. inerrant, infallible, and inspired. Also, for congregations to join the AFLC they must unreservedly subscribe to the ancient ecumenical symbols, Luther’s Small Catechism, the Unaltered Augsburg Confession, and the Fundamental Principles and Rules for Work of the AFLC. The last document can be found at the following link: http://aflc.org/pdf%27s/AFLC_Principles_and_RulesforWork.pdf. At seminary we were taught a “quia” subscription to the Book of Concord, i.e. we believe the Book of Concord because it is a faithful exposition of the Scriptures. However, it is usually only the Small Catechism and Augsburg Confession that are emphasized. Certainly this has to do with our Norwegian roots. One of the reasons is that the Book of Concord was not translated into Norwegian until 1868. Another reason is pietism. An excellent essay that discusses both, is Erling Teigen’s “The Book of Concord and Confessional Subscription Among Norwegian Lutherans—Norway and America” which can be found here: http://hans.blc.edu/~eteigen/Theology_&_Church_History_files/Norwegians%26BoC.htm
What about women’s ordination? The AFLC upholds the Biblical witness that only men are put into the Pastoral Office. As we rightfully confess the truth in this matter, we fail in another: lay-ministry. There are congregations in the AFLC that allow non-ordained men to publicly preach and teach God’s Word and administer the Sacraments. The AFLC allows this because Scripture says in….(crickets chirping)…… We see that Scripture nowhere talks about the Office of lay-pastor. What we do find in Scripture is that God calls, examines, ordains and sends men into the Office of the Holy Ministry via the church. This is precisely how our Lutheran forefathers understand the Ministry in AC V and XI.
The “R” and “P” Word
I know hearing the word revival for some Confessional Lutherans is tantamount to swearing in church. True spiritual awakening/revival that comes through the preaching of God’s Word and right administration of the Sacraments is a wonderful thing. Most would agree with this statement, heck even the Preus’ would, I think? Revivalism that is steeped in emotionalism and that is manufactured through cheap tricks, used by such men as Charles Finney and those in the CGM today is disgusting.
Hans Nielsen Hauge is one particular Norwegian revivalist that is championed in the AFLC. He was a layman that went throughout Norway preaching repentance and personal salvation. The state church did not care for him because he was not authorized to do the work of a pastor, and as a result he was sentenced to 10 years in prison. One of the reasons Hauge is favorably viewed is because of his emphasis on pietism.
Pietism is another hallmark of the AFLC. Usually it is tempered by the phrase “orthodox Lutheran pietism.” However, “orthodox Lutheran pietism” is as much of an oxymoron as “lay-pastor” is. True biblical piety is a good thing. Such piety is based on proper preaching of God’s Word; Law that kills and Gospel that makes alive. It is centered on our justification in Christ and the means in which we receive his righteousness, the Word and all of its avenues; font, pulpit, altar, and confession and absolution. This is true biblical piety. Pietism never saw it this way, and that is why it devolves into “I don’t chew, smoke, or go with girls that do.”
I would like to see my church body, just as the Missouri Synod has in the last ten years, rediscover Bo Giertz. He is a man that understands that true biblical piety is rooted in Christ especially as He comes to us with His gifts in the Divine Service. Giertz, through the fictional character, Torvik in The Hammer of God, writes:
As long as the world lasts, all Christianity is bound to this Jesus Christ….Today one becomes a disciple by being united with this same Jesus of Nazareth, being baptized to him, nurtured by him in his church, and receiving his gifts. These gifts are the same today as then. The same words reach us through the Bible, the same feast is celebrated in the Lord’s Supper, the same forgiveness is pronounced in the absolution. The conditions of discipleship are the same, salvation is the same. Once and for all, he suffered and died and rose again. Once and for all, the faith that embraces all this has been delivered to the church. And this is the holy and unchangeable faith for which the Word here bids us contend. (P. 271)
Here emphasis is where it should be on, Christ.
An Association not a Synod
The last thing that makes the AFLC fairly unique is her polity. Every congregation is autonomous. This can be a good or bad thing depending on how you look at it. It is bad in the sense that a congregation can call a non-Lutheran pastor if she wants to. Of course such a pastor is not allowed onto the clergy roster of the AFLC, but at the same time the congregation cannot be disciplined because she is autonomous. This polity can be a good thing if a congregation is led by a Confessional Lutheran pastor and has faithful lay leaders. She can remain such without fear from other pastors or leaders.
Maybe you are wondering if there can be such disparity between congregations why is there even an association? The company line is there is an association to help support a seminary, Bible school, home missions, foreign missions, and other works of mercy. Why an association was answered by of the proponents of the Lutheran Free Church over a century ago: “The Association of Free Lutheran Congregations is a venture of faith. It is an attempt to build an effective and orderly Christian fellowship with a minimum of human organization. It is an experiment in extreme ecclesiastical democracy and decentralization. It is a searching test of faith in the power of the Spirit of God.” (Dr. Bernhard Christensen, ‘What is the Lutheran Free Church.’”
Associate Editor’s Note — With this posting we introduce Pastor Patrick Lohse to the regular writers here at BJS. Pastor Lohse will give commentary on many things having to do with a rise in confessionalism in the AFLC as well as provide some interesting translation work from the Mission Province of Finland for us as well. We look forward to reading his future postings. Here is a little more about Pastor Lohse:
Patrick was ordained into the Office of the Holy Ministry on June 19th 2009. He has been the Pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Morris, Illinois since then. The Lord has blessed him with a beautiful wife, Jennifer, and two sons, Caleb and Noah (who is in the womb). He is currently enrolled as a part-time S.T.M graduate student at Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, Indiana.