The top leaders of the two largest Lutheran denominations in the States – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) – met at the ELCA headquarters in Chicago for the second “theological conversation group” summit, on October 13, 2004. Following the daylong summit on inter-Lutheran dialogue, the leaders took an additional day to discuss the possibility that both groups can be part of a new round of theological dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church, Oct. 14, 2004.
The Rev. Randall R. Lee, director, ELCA Department for Ecumenical Affairs, and assistant to the presiding bishop, began the discussion on the Roman Catholic Church by reporting on the developments within the ELCA. Lee reported that the ELCA and the Catholic Church “recently concluded the 10th round of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue in the United States,” and that the two groups released a statement entitled “The Church as Koinonia of Salvation: Its Structures and Ministries.”
The Rev. Samuel H. Nafzger, executive director of the LCMS Commission on Theology and Church Relations, explained that the Synod would be “interested in being full participants in the discussion” in the next round of Lutheran-Roman Catholic dialogue.
Lee, however, pointed out that the LCMS is not part of the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) – the worldwide fellowship of Lutheran churches of which the ELCA takes part – and that much of the round-table dialogues between Catholic Church and the ELCA are based on the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” signed between the Vatican and the LWF. The JDDJ, which was signed in 1999 at Augsburg, Germany, is a significant theological document that resolved one key point of contention that led to the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.
Nafzger explained that while the LCMS did not agree with all parts of the JDDJ, “some progress was made” in terms of early dialogues on justifications with the Catholic Church.
"We did not feel all of [the] issues were resolved,” said Nafzger. However, “the LCMS had no desire to place an obstacle on what's been done."
Meanwhile, the LCMS president Rev. Gerald B. Kieschnick asked the ELCA President Mark Hanson if he could “envision a day in which Lutherans are in full communion” with Roman Catholics.
"We don't minimize the issues that remain, but the resolve to keep addressing them is still there," Hanson said. “The ELCA is guided by its ecumenical statement that expresses the church's hope that all Christians may be united again.”
Hanson added, however, that unless Lutherans and Roman Catholics engage in "spiritual ecumenism," the "hard work" accomplished in agreements such as the JDDJ will not have much of a chance of succeeding.
The two leaders also discussed several other issues relevant to Lutherans.
Kieschnick explained that for the LCMS, mission and theological matters such as "who should receive Holy Communion" in LCMS congregations are of utmost importance. He also said there were concerns about the roles of women in the church, funding for national church ministries; "coordination and collaboration" of ministries by church institutions, partner churches and other groups, and the formation of pastors and lay ministers.
Hanson, on the other hand, explained that the ELCA has been concerned with the “multiculturalization” of the church. According to statistics, some 97 percent of the members are White.
Hanson also said the ELCA had been concerned over its declining membership – now slightly under 5 million – and the declines in financial offerings to synods and the churchwide organizations.
Both Hanson and Kieschnick expressed a desire to further discussions pertaining to the Roman Catholic Church as well as to Lutheran unity.
The next meeting of the ELCA-LCMS theological conversation group is March 29, 2005, in St. Louis; following the meeting, the leaders will take another day to discuss communion with the Roman Catholic Church.
While both the LCMS and the ELCA are historically based on Martin Luther’s protestant movement in the 1500s, they vary theologically. According to the LCMS, the three main differences between the two groups are:
“1. The doctrine and authority of Scripture. The LCMS believes that the Bible is without error in all that it says. The ELCA avoids making such statements, holding that Scripture is not necessarily always accurate on such matters as history and science. Differences between the LCMS and the ELCA on the authority of Scripture also help to explain why the ELCA ordains women to the pastoral office, while the LCMS does not, and why the LCMS unequivocally rejects homosexual behavior as contrary to God's will, while the ELCA has yet to take an official stand on this issue.
2. The ELCA, while affirming its commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as witnessed to in the Lutheran confessional writings, also tends to emphasize the historical character of these writings and to maintain the possibility of dissent to confessional positions that do not deal directly with the Gospel itself understood in a narrow sense.
3. The level of agreement necessary to join together in one church body. While the LCMS believes that the Bible requires agreement in all that the Bible teaches, the ELCA holds that disagreement in some matters of doctrine, such as the mode of Christ's presence in Holy Communion, do not prohibit church fellowship.”