A Missional Imagination for ELCA Polity (pdf version)

Framing a Missional Polity for the ELCA by Steve Thomason

A Term Paper Presented to Dr. Craig Van Gelder | Luther Seminary

As a Requirement in Course LD8525 Congregational Leadership |St. Paul, Minnesota | 2011


The purpose of this paper is to focus on the current polity of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and make suggestions for how the ELCA could modify its polity to embody a missional ecclesiology. Any discussion of this type is a hermeneutical endeavor and requires the proper framing of horizons before any fruitful interaction can take place. I will first briefly trace the historical roots of the ELCA from Martin Luther to the present and identify how this historical narrative has framed its ecclesiological horizon. I will then analyze the current structure of the ELCA as articulated in its constitution and identify significant incongruities between this formal structure and the reality of its informal structure and struggles. I will then briefly articulate the emerging missional ecclesiology in order to bring it into conversation with the ELCA. Finally, I will make some suggestions as to how the ELCA could address its incongruities and make polity changes that would align it within a missional ecclesiology.

Part One: Framing the Historical Context for the ELCA

Ground Zero: Luther on Polity

The Lutheran Church was forged in the crucible of the early 16th century when the Pope occupied the central seat of power in all of European Christendom. The Roman magesterium had dominated European culture for nearly 1,000 years, having replaced the Roman Empire circa 500 B.C.E. as the center of civil and religious power. Medieval cosmology[1] led the Western world to hold self-evident that God had ordained a top-down hierarchy of command and control for all political/religious structures. The power structure flowed along the following path. First, God was supreme at the top of the order. Second, God mediated his grace through the church to the world. Third, the human representative of God on earth was the Pope. Fourth, his authority was dispersed through a hierarchical chain of command through the archbishops, bishops, and local priesthood. This hierarchical structure is also known as the episcopacy. The issue of episcopacy will become an important theme in the discussion of the ELCA.

Martin Luther was a common German priest who was willing to point out an observation about centralized power. Authority that is focused entirely on one person grants tremendous power to that person. When that power is connected to the office of the keys and every person’s eternal destiny is ultimately held within that single set of human hands, then that power borders on absolute. Lord Acton captured this observation many years later in his now famous quote, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”[2] This strong pillar of Roman magisterial power cast a dark shadow of corruption across the European landscape in the first decades of the 16th century. It was out of this shadow—or perhaps, against this shadow—that Martin Luther stood. Luther sought to dismantle the powerful control the Pope and his bishops had over the local church.

We must pause at this point and ask an important question regarding core Lutheran polity. What was Martin Luther’s attitude toward church structure and power? How did he perceive the role of the bishop in the church? In his treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation he says,

for whoever has come out the waters of baptism can boast that he is already a consecrated priest, bishop, and pope although, of course, it is not seemly that just anybody should exercise such office…without the authority and consent of the community.[3]

The Augsburg Confession addressed the issue in two places. First, Article VII states, “The Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered.”[4]

Second, Article XXVIII says,

it is lawful for bishops or pastors to make ordinances that things be done orderly in the Church[5]…76] Peter,1 Pet.5,3,forbids bishops to be lords, and to rule over the churches. 77] It is not our design now to wrest the government from the bishops, but this one thing is asked, namely, that they allow the Gospel to be purely taught, and that they relax some few observances which 78] cannot be kept without sin. But if they make no concession, it is for them to see how they shall give account to God for furnishing, by their obstinacy, a cause for schism.[6]

It is important to note that Lutheran doctrine was formed in a time and place where 1) everyone was Christian, 2) the bishops held both political and religious power equal to the civil officials and royalty.

Luther made two radical reforms in this regard. First, he severed the powers of church and state. Second, he limited the authority of the bishop to issues of the Gospel.

This move was both radical for its time and also vague and open enough to interpretation that it has been problematic for the church ever since. Luther upheld two seemingly opposite positions: the priesthood of all believers and the necessity of ordained clergy. No clearer direction was given to the church regarding polity. The question still remains as to who holds the power in the church. Is it the bishop or the congregation?

Early Factions of Lutheran Polity

Lutheranism would continue to struggle with polity up to the present time. Two basic forms of polity would emerge over the next 500 years. One vein of Lutheranism followed an episcopal structure. This form of Lutheranism was dominant in the Scandinavian churches. The Lutheran Confession of Faith was adopted by the royalty of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland and established as the state church. Scandanavians have been Lutherans by birth ever since. The boundaries between the Episcopal Lutherans were drawn between nationalities and ethnicity. This would prove to be a problem as the churches later immigrated to the United States and were forced to become neighbors.

The other vein of Lutheranism took on a congregational form of polity in which the priesthood of all believers was upheld as the higher standard. Clergy was still ordained, but their function was to simply administer the sacraments and care for the flock. The laity assisted in ministry and the congregation held power to make decisions for the local church. Divisions and boundaries in this vein of Lutheranism were also formed around ethnic lines, but they were also around doctrinal issues.

Moving to America

Lutherans started moving to North America over the next 300 years and things began to change. Each group that moved to North America brought with it more than just a church. It brought an ethnic heritage, latent with linguistic, nationalistic, and cultural mores that distinguished it from all other Lutherans. These individual churches were like small tributaries of cultural/ecclesial water that began to flow toward the basin of a collective unity in the American Church which would become the ELCA.

The path to the ELCA was not smooth or immediate. These small tributaries had to pass through an intermediate stage before they arrived as one church. The Lutheran churches in Europe were formed around geo-political lines. The Swedes didn’t like the Norse, and the Danish didn’t like the Germans, and so on. When the Lutherans immigrated to the United States, suddenly Swedish Lutherans found themselves living among Norwegian and German Lutherans. It was not uncommon to find a Swedish, Norwegian, and German Lutheran church in the same small, Midwestern town.

Subsequent generations began to lose the old ties to the mother country. Everyone spoke English and the rivalry of the nations faded into history. The turn of the 20th century and two world wars forced the previously rival churches to band together and flow into three tributaries of American Lutheranism.

The Three Tributaries Prior to the ELCA

We will now look specifically at the three major Lutheran Churches that formed during the 1960s and 70s and later came together to form the ELCA. These churches are: The Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC).

The Lutheran Church in America

The LCA was formed in 1962 by the combination of the United Lutheran Churches in America (ULCA), the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (Suomi Synod), the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (of Danish heritage), and the Augustana Evangelical Lutheran Church (of Swedish heritage). Theologically, the LCA was liturgical, high-church, and considered the most liberal of American Lutheran Churches. It also had the most Episcopal polity of all the Lutheran churches. This centralized, top-down approach to polity came from the fact that most of the churches that fed into the LCA historically came from the state church in Europe.[7]

The American Lutheran Church

The ALC was formed in 1962 by the merger of the old American Lutheran Church (a predominantly German amalgamation formed in 1930), the Evangelical Lutheran Church (formed in 1917 and also known as the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America), and the United Evangelical Lutheran Church (founded in 1896 and also known as the United Danish Evangelical Lutheran Church). The churches that formed the ALC were heavily influenced by pietism and practiced a predominantly low-church, congregational polity. They were theologically conservative and maintained a stance of Biblical inerrancy into the 20th century.[8]

The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches

In contrast to the LCA and the ALC, the AELC was born from a split in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) rather than the merger of smaller diverse churches. In the mid 1970s, a controversy arose among the LCMS regarding the issue of biblical inerrancy. The tension in the church was heightened when many faculty and students walked out of Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri to form the Seminex (Seminary in Exile). Eventually those associated with the more moderate group that was not satisfied with the conservative turn within the LCMS officially withdrew from the church and formed the AELC in 1976.[9]

A Decade of Deliberation, Dissension, and Collaboration

The conversation about structural unity in the American Lutheran church started between the LCA and the ALC in the mid-1970s. The LCMS was initially involved, but quickly withdrew from the conversation. Things may have progressed more quickly toward unification, but the sudden formation of the AELC and its inclusion in the conversation slowed the process down. The Committee on Lutheran Unity (CLU) met from 1979—1982 to decide whether the merger should happen. It held representatives from the LCA, ALC, and AELC. The three churches made the commitment to merge and formed the Committee for a New Lutheran Church (CNLC) in 1982 to work out the details.

How do you blend churches that approach the issue of polity from radically different perspectives? The ALC was nervous about giving up its autonomy and freedom within its congregational polity. The LCA was nervous about allowing the low-church, potentially anti-liturgists and/or pietists, from desecrating their sacred forms and usurping the authority of the bishops. The AELC was afraid that it would be swallowed up and lost in the merger. Six years of painful struggle, deliberation, dissension, and collaboration led to the drafting of the constitution of the ELCA. The church officially began on January 1, 1988.

Part Two: The Current Polity of the ELCA and the Incongruities Between its Formal and Informal Structure

The Polity as it is Stated in the Constitution

The ELCA is comprised of nearly 5,000,000 people, 10,500 congregations, and 65 synods, all unified in a churchwide organization.[10] It claims to be one church in three expressions—the congregations, the synods, and the churchwide organization (see fig. 1[11]).

Article 3.02, under the chapter Nature of the Church, states,

The Church exists both as an inclusive fellowship and as local congregations gathered for worship and Christian service. Congregations find their fulfillment in the universal community of the Church, and the universal Church exists in and through congregations. This church, therefore, derives its character and powers both from the sanction and representation of its congregations and from its inherent nature as an expression of the broader fellowship of the faithful. In length, it acknowledges itself to be in the historic continuity of the communion of saints; in breadth, it expresses the fellowship of believers and congregations in our day.[12]

ELCAStructureThe idea of three expressions of the church is a unique concept. It seems to represent a flat, egalitarian structure. It has three distinct parts that are each the church, and yet, no one part is the church in and of itself apart from the whole.

Article 5.01 begins to articulate the specifics of this interdependent relationship. Parts c and d read,

c.   The congregations, synods, and churchwide organization of this church are interdependent partners sharing responsibly in God’s mission. In an interdependent relationship primary responsibility for particular functions will vary between the partners. Whenever possible, the entity most directly affected by a decision shall be the principal party responsible for decision and implementation, with the other entities facilitating and assisting. Each congregation, synod, and separately incorporated ministry, as well as the churchwide organization itself, is a separate legal entity and is responsible for exercising its powers and authorities.

d.   Each congregation and synod in its governing documents shall include the Confession of Faith and Statement of Purpose and such structural components as are required in this constitution. Beyond these common elements, congregations and synods shall be free to organize in such manner as each deems appropriate for its jurisdiction.[13]

These statements seem to reflect an element of contingency theory that allows for adaptability to circumstances within the environment of the affected component. If something happens at the local congregational level, the congregation is free to adapt accordingly without waiting upon a bureaucratic bog-down of upward and downward command and control decision-making processes. Likewise, if the synod has a synodical decision, it can function within its sphere. And yet, all three expressions communicate and rely upon each other.

When we look closer at the organizational structure of the ELCA it is somewhat more complex to articulate and, perhaps, less egalitarian than it seems. Figure 1 is slightly deceiving in that it depicts the three expressions of the church as equal and interlocking partners. Perhaps a more accurate portrayal of the organizational structure is found in my interpretation of the structure in figure 2. This matrix shows three dynamics at play in the structure. The first dynamic is represented by the three strata (or expressions) of the church—the congregations at the bottom, the synods in the middle, and the churchwide organization at the top. The second dynamic is the structure within each strata. It is similar for each strata and consists of three basic parts: the ordained clergy (bishop or pastor), the assembly/congregation, and the council. The third dynamic slices vertically through all three strata and creates a separation between the roster of ordained clergy and the laity of the church.

Some Observations and Framing Questions

Mapping Power

ELCA PowerA cursory examination of figure 2 leads to an observation and some subsequent questions. The observation has to do with the key words written along the clergy axis and along the congregation strata. The ELCA appears to have both an episcopal and a congregational polity at work within its organizational structure. The first question is whether it is possible to have both forms of polity simultaneously at play? The next question would be, assuming it is possible, how can it work? The real question is that of power. Where is the power in the ELCA and how does it flow through the organization?

Let us first analyze the structure of the individual strata. There are three components to each strata—ordained clergy, congregation, and council. The ELCA constitution places the power of decision making into the hands of the congregation. The congregation has the power to call a pastor, form a church council, and make financial decisions through a democratic vote of all church members. The church council—comprised of volunteer laity—has the power to run the ministries of the church. The pastor may or may not serve as a member of the council, depending upon the will of the congregation. The model congregational constitution states,

Only such authority as is delegated to the Congregation Council or other organizational units in this congregation’s governing documents is recognized. All remaining authority is retained by the congregation.[14]

This form of congregational power runs up the strata as well. The synod assembly is comprised of voting members sent by local congregations. The assembly has the power to make all decisions through democratic vote, including the power to elect the bishop. The Assembly appoints a council to manage the regular affairs of the synodical ministries while the assembly is not in session. The churchwide stratum is the same as that of the synod. The churchwide assembly is comprised of voting members sent by the synods. The assembly appoints the council and elects the presiding bishop while the council manages the affairs of the assembly between sessions.

What About the Clergy?

So far the ELCA sounds like a congregationalist polity. The assembly of members holds all the power, even over the clergy. What, then, does the clergy do? Here is where it gets interesting. Before we can answer that question it will be helpful to pause and look at the bottom of figure 2 and discuss the purpose of the church. The Constitution defines the church as

A congregation [that] is a community of baptized persons whose existence depends on the proclamation of the Gospel and the administration of the sacraments and whose purpose is to worship God, to nurture its members, and to reach out in witness and service to the world.[15]

The function of the church can be essentially boiled down into three parts: the Word, the Sacrament, and the Diaconal Ministries. It is in this distinction that the true issue of power comes into play. The ELCA states that only ordained clergy can administer the Word and the Sacrament, thus creating an ontological division between the clergy and the laity. The clergy controls the sacrament and the laity needs the sacrament as the means of grace. Herein lies the age-old problem for Lutherans. Does the laity need the sacrament as the means of Grace? Does the sacrament need the ordained clergy to administer it for efficacy? How much of the clergy-controlled sacrament is a carry over from Medieval theology that is, in reality, an attempt to maintain control of the church? Where does the priesthood of all believers fit into this conversation?

Luther, and the majority of Lutherans throughout the centuries, have maintained that the clergy is necessary so that all things can be done in good order.

The ELCA constitution states in 7.11

This church affirms the universal priesthood of all its baptized members. In its function and its structure this church commits itself to the equipping and supporting of all its members for their ministries in the world and in this church. It is within this context of ministry that this church calls some of its baptized members for specific ministries in this church.

It continues in 7.21

Within the people of God and for the sake of the Gospel ministry entrusted to all believers, God has instituted the office of ministry of Word and Sacrament. To carry out this ministry, this church calls and ordains qualified persons.[16]

We will discuss these issues further in the final portion of this paper. For now we will leave the discussion as a simple observation about the flow of power. The congregations hold the power to make most of the decisions in the church. The clergy holds the power over the sacraments and the rostering of pastors who are qualified to preside over the sacraments. The congregation can call and dismiss the pastor, but the bishop controls who can be called. On the one hand we have a Congregationalist polity in the daily functions of the diaconal ministries—everything other than Word and Sacrament—and on the other hand we have an Episcopal polity in the administration of Word and Sacrament. There is a power struggle latent within this system. The church must prioritize what is most important for the life of the congregation. Is it the ministries of the church or the administration of Word and Sacrament?

Another nuance of this power structure is the simple question, who is in control? Is the pastor the leader of the church? Is the council president the leader of the church? Is the bishop the leader of the church?

Moving Up the Strata

These issues are paralleled in each strata of the organization. The bishop is considered the pastor of the synod. The bishop has the authority to approve and install individuals to the roster of ordained clergy. Outside of that authority, the bishop functions as the CEO of the synod organization and facilitates the Synod Assembly. The assembly is the decision-making body of the synod. It is comprised of voting members who are sent from each local congregation in the synod. The voting member is not a delegate and is not bound to vote according to his or her constituency, but is sent to vote his or her conscience at the assembly. The synod also has a council that serves as the board of directors for the synod, but is bound to function within the constitution of the synod and cannot make decisions outside of the assembly.

The Churchwide Organization expression of the church is structured in the same way as the synod. However, the Presiding Bishop has less authority in that he or she does not have direct control over the rostered clergy. That authority rests on the college of synodical bishops. The Presiding Bishop functions as the pastor of the Churchwide organization and the CEO of the organization. There is a churchwide council that functions as the board of directors of the organization. All decision-making power lies in the Churchwide Assembly. This is comprised of voting members who are sent by the Synod Assemblies.

A Final Question

The ELCA Constitution is the result of a decade of conversation within the CLNC. Each church—the LCA, ALC, and AELC—brought something to the table and felt they had something to lose in the merger. The question that remains, in light of the purpose of this paper, is whether the ELCA constitution formed a true collaborative union through communicative action in which a win/win third alternative was reached, or if it defaulted into a compromise in which each party felt that it lost something in the merger.[17]

Part Three: Toward a Realized Missional ELCA

What is a Missional Polity, Anyway?

Dr. Craig Van Gelder has stated that there has yet to be written a truly missional polity.[18] Why is this true? Perhaps part of the reason for this is that missional ecclesiology has only been recently percolating in the theological community and has not yet matured enough to frame its own polity. Perhaps another reason is that the western church is desperately clinging to its former place of privilege and power within the center of the near-extinct colonial Christianity that has dominated its history for the past 1,500 years and is not willing to make the radical changes necessary to align itself with the movement of God in the world. Perhaps it is a combination of both.

I stated at the beginning of this paper that this is a hermeneutical exercise. It is a conversation between the horizons of the ELCA’s current polity and that of a missional polity. I have attempted to sketch a brief portrait of the ELCA’s horizon in regard to polity. If I hope to bring it into conversation with a missional polity then I must attempt to articulate what I mean by a missional polity.

A Theological Imagination

If Van Gelder is correct, and there is no extant missional polity, then how should I proceed? We must start with a missional theological imagination. One of Van Gelder’s postulates is: The church is, the church does what it is, the church organizes what it does.[19] A missional polity cannot be a concretized architectural design, but must reflect the dynamic movement of God. The Triune God is at work in the world through the pluriform, polycentric Spirit.[20] The missio dei is to bring about the reign of God through the crucified, risen, and exalted Jesus Christ. This is a proleptic eschatological kingdom in which God invites the church to partner with God’s mission to unmask the powers of evil and draw all nations into the shalom of God.[21] God is active in all nations and not localized within one church or denomination. The church is gathered to be a symbol of God’s shalom within community, and then sent into the world to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world.[22]

It is important to note for the discussion of missional polity that God is already at work in the world. The church is not the gate keeper to God’s presence. The church must understand this directional flow. The church is not called to attract those who are out in the world to come into the church in order to meet God. The church is called to move into the world to see what God is already doing and be a partner in that. Yes, the church is a gathering of people around Word and Sacrament. However, the gathering is for the edification of the church, the exemplification of the proleptic kingdom of peace, healing, and reconciliation among humanity, and the equipping for a life of incarnational other-oriented service and ministry in every aspect of daily living in the community.

A Biblical Hermeneutic

A missional polity must also draw from a biblical understanding of leadership and polity. The scripture does not prescribe a specific polity. It simply describes how different local congregations functioned within their specific contexts. This is an important point. The church of the New Testament was an organic structure that found itself in a pluralistic culture characterized by discontinuous change. The church was the oppressed other in the shadow of an Empire. It was led by the Holy Spirit and a multiplicity of leaders—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, teachers, administrators, bishops, and elders.[23]

The only prescriptive biblical insights that we can glean for church polity is that the church must be a plurality of leaders, submitted to the guiding of the Holy Spirit, under the leadership/headship of Christ, for the purpose of equipping the saints for the work of the ministry. Leadership is simply one gift among equal gifts necessary for the functioning of the body of Christ in the world.

Theoretically Informed

An adaptive, organic entity like the church must be able to 1) discern its environment, 2) be abreast of the most current methods of organization theory that are in tune with the environment, and 3) utilize the appropriate theory that will allow it to respond in a positive way to the environment. How, then, does the missional church structure itself in a world characterized by discontinuous change, a globalized awareness, and a pluralistic culture? The church must first understand itself to be an open system that can adapt to its environment with minimal effort. Organization theorists suggest that a neo-weberian bureaucracy, characterized by a top-down, command-and-control leadership style is the least malleable structure available to organizations. The church must recognize that it is comprised of uniquely gifted and called individuals who form a social network that collectively navigates society as an open system. It is more like an organic body than a building. It is not fixed in one place, but is held together by a semi-permeable membrane that allows inward and outward interchange with its environment. It is adaptable to new circumstances and allows for continual reformation.[24]

Social Network theories can provide helpful insight into the polity of the missional church.[25] An organization is a collection of social relationships between individual actors. There is not one leader who controls the entire organization. Rather, there are several leaders who are central to relational clusters—or nodes—within the organization. These leaders work together through a process of communicative action to discern where the Holy Spirit is guiding the organization. The relational ties between actors within the organization are fluid and have the ability to change as different needs arise. Each individual and node is empowered to respond to the Spirit’s guidance with minimal interference from power-based leadership structures.

Pulling it All Together

Have we arrived at a missional polity? No. We haven’t because it is impossible to do so. There cannot be any one structure that is defined as missional. The missional church is a church that understands itself to be a dynamic, organic, adaptive organism that is willing to change its structure as the environment dictates and the Spirit directs. In a stable environment a more centralized, bureaucratic structure works well. In an environment of discontinuous change a more diversified, flattened, responsively nimble structure is essential. Today’s environment is one of discontinuous change, therefore most churches in the United States that seek to be missional will need to be more flattened and fluid.

The missional church is based upon its identity not its polity. The missional church understands itself to be gathered by God for community, equipped by leadership for service, and sent into the world for peace, healing, and justice, in the swell of God’s proleptic, eschatological Kingdom. How it chooses to organize itself is entirely up to each local gathering.

What About the ELCA, then?

We now come to the fusion of horizons. Is it possible for the ELCA to embody a missional polity? I believe it is possible. I believe this is true because, as I mentioned in the last section, it is not the polity that makes a church missional, but the self-identity that does so. In fact, I think the ELCA has already made great strides toward a missional ecclesiology.

The ELCA has two big challenges. First, it must solve the education/self-identity hurdle. Second, it must solve the power flow issue.

Missional Identity on Paper

Allow me to explain the first challenge. The ELCA’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know what it is. The ELCA constitution is a very missional document. The first four chapters are inspiring. They read like a missional manifesto.

Article 4.01, under the chapter heading Purpose of the Church, summarizes the missional nature of the ELCA’s self-perception.

the Church is a people created by God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, called and sent to bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming, and sanctifying activity in the world.[26]

A few observations will highlight the missional nature of this passage. First, notice how it says that the church is a people, not the people of God. This leaves open the possibility that God could have and can work in and through other people groups outside of the Judeo-Christian horizon. The missional church is aware that within the global community there are many cultures that have existed pre and outside the Judeo-Christian narrative. This begs the question, how did God interact with these cultures?

Second, the church is created by God. The church is not a human enterprise in its essence. The church is a mysterious product of God at work in the world.

Third, the church is created in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Two sub points emerge from this text. First, God is trinity. The Confession of Faith begins in Article 2.01, “This church confesses the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”[27] This is the first and most fundamental reality from which the missional church is formed. Secondly, the church is not an objective creation completely outside the Triune God, but is created in Christ and empowered by the Spirit, thus it is a participant in the divine community. This eastern, perichoretic understanding of the trinity is a needed and welcomed correction to the monarchialism that has dominated the western church. The ELCA confession reflects this correction well as it places the church within the life-giving and sustaining community of the Trinity.

Fourth, it is God’s activity in the world. It is not the mission of the church. It is the missio dei. God is at work creating, redeeming, and sanctifying the world. Each of these participles identify another important theological point essential to the missional church. They are ongoing acts. It states that God is creating, not that God created. God is redeeming, God is sanctifying. This language opens itself to constructive dialogue with a proleptic eschatology in which God is continually at work creating and recreating the world until it comes to its intended fruition.

Fifth, the church is to bear witness to God’s activity. A witness is someone who has seen an event firsthand and then tells about the experience. The Pharisees asked the blind man who he thought Jesus was, and he simply replied, “once I was blind, but now I can see.”[28] It is not the job of the church to go into the world and convince people about a theological construct through clever arguments and polished presentations. The church is to bear witness to the reality of God at work. It is experience and praxis that precedes theology and proclamation.

Sixth, the church is called and sent. This point deals with the identity of the church. It is called, on the one hand. There is a uniqueness to the church that must stand in contrast to the forces of evil in the world. Just as God called Abraham and set him apart for service to bless the nations, so God calls the church to be set apart as a servant to all people. To be called is not to be elite, better, or exclusively within the love of God, but it is to be different. It is to be called to a standard of sacrificial, other-oriented love in the example of Christ. Then, on the other hand, the church is sent. Herein lies the true meaning of the term apostolic. An apostle was a person who was sent as an official ambassador by the government. Being one, holy, catholic, and apostolic[29], the church is called by God for service, and sent as God’s ambassador of the Gospel to people who need the healing and liberating power of Grace.

The problem for the ELCA is that ninety-nine percent of the people sitting in the pews of ELCA churches have no idea that it is missional. They are not aware of two important factors. 1) They aren’t even aware of the term missional ecclesiology. 2) The ELCA constitution reads like the document of a missional church.

Most church members are still functioning within their old paradigms of LCA, ALC, or AELC. They function as if the church is still at the center of society and exists for the purpose of dispensing religious commodities—baptism, confirmation, weddings, funerals, sacrament—like a static vending machine sitting on the street corner. The population that holds this kind of cultural memory is aging rapidly and having an increasingly difficult time passing that identity on to the next generation.

The CNLC drafted a missional document—at least in the first four chapters. It is debatable whether this was the conscious intent, but, by the grace of God, the document exists. If the ELCA is going be missional, do missional things, and then organize the missional things it does, then it is going to have to first truly embrace its missional identity at the ground level. This can only come through a concerted effort for biblical praxis. The people must be shown what it looks like to be missional through experiential learning.[30]

The Issue of Power

Earlier I posed the question regarding whether or not the CNLC drafted a mutually beneficial third alternative or if it merely came to a compromise. I sense that ELCA polity, as it currently stands, is a compromise between the Congregationalist and the Episcopal predecessor churches. A compromise leaves both parties feeling like they settled for a lose/lose result. The clergy/laity distinction mentioned in part two of this paper sets up the ELCA for continued controversy and conflicted power struggles in the future.

Is there an easy solution? Of course not. If there was, the CNLC would have discovered it. Why, then, did the CNLC land on a hybrid/compromise model of Episcopal clergy and congregational diaconal ministry? It was, on one level, built out of the pragmatic need to make a decision in which everyone’s voice was represented. When there are only two options—in this case either Episcopal or congregational—and no third alternative seems apparent, then compromise is the only tenable solution. The CNLC did, however, have at least the theological intuition to draft a missional statement. Perhaps the third alternative is to actually make the missional move and give up centralized control. The shift is not as much in polity as it is in identity and theological imagination.

Both options—episcopal and congregational—are options that were born under the same paradigm—Christendom. They both ask the same question: how can we get/keep people into the church and how can we control the church? The missional church doesn’t want to control anything. The missional church wants to send people into the world with the mission of God’s hope through biblical praxis.

Are there any solutions? I think the answer is two-fold. First, the church needs to continually focus on the local congregation as the primary manifestation of the church. One of the biggest temptations for the ELCA is to misunderstand the nature and purpose of the churchwide organization. Certain individuals who come from a confessionalist tradition may be tempted to view the churchwide organization as the church in totum. If the church sees itself this way and believes that the church is most intensely visible when the churchwide assembly is gathered and the presiding bishop is leading in Word and Sacrament, then the ELCA is in trouble.[31] This understanding of the church flows from a traditional, confessionalist theology that understands the gospel to be the grace of God that is dispensed through the sacrament and taught in the spoken word by the clergy in the context of the worship service. According to this paradigm it is up to God to draw people to this gift. It is up to the church to simply maintain proper order in Word and Sacrament. This is the ecclesiology of Medieval Christendom that centralizes God within the church and power within the clergy and is antithetical to missional ecclesiology. The ELCA Constitution does not dictate this self-identity, but it does allow room for it to those who want to press the point.

If the ELCA is going to be missional, then it must, from the presiding bishop down, emphasize that the local church is the church. It doesn’t need more to be the church, but it is also connected to all the other local churches in a larger network that forms the larger body of Christ. The churchwide organization is an equipping organization that exists for the support of the local church. There is a great advantage to the collective resources of 5,000,000 people. Put simply, the local church is the dog and the synod and churchwide organization is the tail. The dog needs to wag the tail, not the other way around.

Secondly, and connected to the previous issue, the church must address the issue of good order. The Lutheran controversy over power in the church boils down to this one phrase. What did the Augsburg Confession mean when it said that the Word and Sacrament must be done in good order? Did it mean that the bread and wine should never be touched by the laity because they are uneducated and not worthy or able to distribute the Lord’s Supper to God’s people? Or, was it simply seeking to guard against the corruption that the power brokers of the Medieval church had brought to the table over centuries of abuse?

Richard Bliese says that there must be a rereading of Word and Sacrament. He proposes that “we use the phrase ‘Word, Sacrament, and Christian community’ as an alternative reading regarding how Jesus comes to people salvifically.”[32] He goes on to say that

when Word, Sacrament, and Christian community are fully freed up to be God’s means of grace in the hands of the baptized….A phoenix will rise from the ashes of a declining church as Lutherans rediscover their doctrine of baptism, the baptismal call of all believers to the priesthood, and the relationship between baptism and vocation.[33]

Wyvetta Bullock suggests that

insights from the social sciences help us understand that congregations function as nonlinear, self-organizing systems. Self-organizing systems are intentional, have a purpose, and are open to change….in nature, cells within organisms move in, with, and among their environment….We need to think of congregations in terms of being interrelated teams or cells of activity rather than as rigid organizational structures.[34]

What is the answer to the power flow issue? Power should flow to the local congregation and to the vocation of all the baptized as the priesthood of all believers. Does this mean that the clergy should be abolished and the role of the bishop is unnecessary? Not at all. It is important to have leaders in the church who are trained and equipped to lead. Ordination is a helpful tool to ensure good training. However, ordination does not need to equate to power. The biblical/theological model for leadership and good order in the church is that there is a plurality of leaders that are focused on equipping the saints for the work of the ministry.


Can the ELCA embody a missional polity? I believe it can. The path to this embodiment is one of education. The ELCA is already missional on paper, it just doesn’t know it yet. Both the people and the pastors need to learn what the first four chapters of the ELCA constitution really mean.

The root of these issues lies within theological education. If pastors are trained to be the center of power and the only authority who can handle the Word and Sacrament, then that is how they will function. If pastors are trained to be missional leaders who are called to empower the baptized into missional/biblical praxis by demonstrating service and empowerment within the larger community, and if the bishops are trained to be the support and equipping network for the pastors and congregations involved in missional life, then the ELCA will embody what it claims to be on paper.




Bliese, Richard H., and Craig Van Gelder. The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005.


ELCA. “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.”  (2011): 232 p.


Gritsch, Eric W. A History of Lutheranism. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010.


Hatch, Mary Jo, and Ann L. Cunliffe. Organization Theory : Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.


Kilduff, Martin, and Wenpin Tsai. Social Networks and Organizations. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2003.


Melancthon, Philip. The Augsburg Confession Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church, edited by F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.  (accessed November 3, 2011).


Peters, Ted. God–the World’s Future : Systematic Theology for a New Era. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.


Scandrette, Mark. Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011.


Simpson, Gary M. Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination Guides to Theological Inquiry. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.


Thorkelson, Willmar. Lutherans in the U.S.A. Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1969.


Van Gelder, Craig. The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007.


Van Gelder, Craig, and Dwight J. Zscheile. The Missional Church in Perspective : Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation The Missional Network. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011.


Welker, Michael. God the Spirit. 1st English-language ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.




[1] By this I am referring to a geocentric cosmology. The earth was the center of the universe and was surrounded by concentric sphere emanating from it. God was beyond the outer sphere in the realm of eternity. This physical distance and proximity necessitated that God mediate his grace through the vehicle of the church. This cosmological paradigm is what gave credence to the divine right of kings and the authority of the magesterium. Luther’s reformation, in combination with the Copernican revolution, would wreak havoc on this cosmological paradigm until it would be eventually overturned by the heliocentric cosmology and Newtonian Physics.

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Dalberg-Acton,_1st_Baron_Acton

[3] From Luther’s Works, Volume 44 quoted in Eric W. Gritsch, A History of Lutheranism, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), 24.

[4] Philip Melancthon, “The Augsburg Confession,” in Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Ev. Lutheran Church, ed. F. Bente and W.H.T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921) (accessed November 3, 2011).

[5] Ibid., Article XXVIII:53

[6] Ibid., Article XXVIII:76-78.

[7] Willmar Thorkelson, Lutherans in the U.S.A (Minneapolis: Augsburg Pub. House, 1969), 5-15.

[8]Ibid., 28-36.

[9] ELCA website. “Lutheran Roots in America.” http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/History/Lutheran-Roots-in-America.aspx#newplayer (accessed September 18, 2011).

[10] http://www.elca.org/Who-We-Are/Our-Three-Expressions/Churchwide-Organization/Synodical-Relations/Regions.aspx (accessed November 3, 2011).

[11] .jpg image downloaded from http://www.elca.org/~/media/Images/Who%20We%20Are/Our%20Three%20Expressions/wwa_three_expressions.ashx (accessed November 3, 2011).

[12] ELCA, “Constitutions, Bylaws, and Continuing Resolutions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,” (2011): 20.

[13] Ibid., 23.

[14] Ibid., 213.

[15] Ibid., 62.

[16] Ibid., 27.

[17] Communicative action is a phrase used by Jürgen Habermas to describe the process of two or more parties entering into conversation in which both parties reach a third alternative that is better than  what would have happened in either a win/lose scenario or a compromise that inevitably results in a lose/lose feeling in both parties. Gary Simpson discusses the missional application of this idea in Gary M. Simpson, Critical Social Theory: Prophetic Reason, Civil Society, and Christian Imagination, Guides to Theological Inquiry (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).

[18] He made this statement several times during the course LD8525 Congregational Leadership at Luther Seminary in the fall of 2011.

[19] This is a basic premise of Craig Van Gelder’s work on the missional church. Craig Van Gelder, The Ministry of the Missional Church: A Community Led by the Spirit (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2007).

[20] For a complex and robust discussion of the pluriform and polycentric Spirit, see Michael Welker, God the Spirit, 1st English-language ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).

[21] Ted Peters, God–the World’s Future : Systematic Theology for a New Era, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).

[22] Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective : Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation, The Missional Network (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011).

[23] All of these terms are use to denote leadership in the church. A clear demonstration of plurality of leadership is found in Ephesians 4.

[24] Mary Hatch does an excellent job of mapping out the landscape of organization theory in  Mary Jo Hatch and Ann L. Cunliffe, Organization Theory : Modern, Symbolic, and Postmodern Perspectives, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

[25] Martin Kilduff and Wenpin Tsai, Social Networks and Organizations (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2003).

[26] ELCA: 21.

[27] Ibid., 19.

[28] John 9:25

[29] Article 2.04 of the ELCA Constitution places the church firmly within the creedal tradition, following the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Athanasian creeds. The phrase “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” is a universal understanding of the church.

[30] A good example of this kind of biblical praxis is found in Mark Scandrette, Practicing the Way of Jesus: Life Together in the Kingdom of Love (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011).

[31] This issue was exposed to me through a conversation I had with my synod’s bishop’s assistant.

[32] Richard H. Bliese and Craig Van Gelder, The Evangelizing Church: A Lutheran Contribution (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2005), 41.

[33] Ibid., 46.

[34] Ibid., 88.

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