The Problem With CCM ¹
“Doctrine directs us and shows us the way to heaven …. We can be saved without love … but not without pure doctrine…. The devil would dearly love to corrupt and overthrow our doctrine; that is why he attacks us so cleverly with this specious argument about not offending against love and the harmony among churches” (Luther’s Works 27: 41-42).
A. Luther rediscovered “the way to heaven” (the gospel): On the cross Christ solved the terrible problem of sin. He did it by himself, without our help, and it is finished (John 19:30). The gospel is this particular message of salvation by faith alone in Christ alone — not the cross + good works, + the right priest, + a conversion experience.
B. This gospel has necessary consequences: Certainty and Freedom. Certainty means you don’t have to worry that you’ve done it right or believed intensely enough — because salvation depends not on us but on Him. Freedom includes the freedom to let the church be one priesthood of all believers, without a required hierarchy for governance, ordination, and valid communion.
C. In 1999 the ELCA changed its constitution to require the Episcopal historic episcopate (¶ 10.81.01) in order to achieve “full communion” with The Episcopal Church USA. This structure is: 1) a necessary ceremony for new bishops involving the laying-on-of-hands by bishops already within the historic episcopate, and 2) a sacramental-system for dispensing grace and ruling the church. It gives bishops (and their priests/pastors) spiritual powers that laity lack. It elevates bishops as special channels of grace (CCM ¶ 5) and by necessary implication, they have extensive administrative power to regulate congregations and pastors by controlling the call process. By changing its constitution to require a particular, sacramental structure, the ELCA has become a “gospel-plus” church. This “plus” of a required structure distorts the pure gospel of the all-sufficient cross and thus jeopardizes salvation.
It is not realistic to think of reversing the constitutional changes made in 1999. Altering the ELCA Constitution requires 2/3 + 1 vote at two consecutive churchwide assemblies. In 2000 years of church history no church with a sacramental historic episcopate has ever given it up or voted it out. It is also not realistic to think of establishing a non-geographic, non-historic episcopate synod within the ELCA because too much power is concentrated in bishops and the bureaucracy. Renewal efforts, however well-intended, will be ineffective because the hierarchy has the capacity to set agendas, frame issues, and determine what happens – not constitutional processes.
¹ Called to Common Mission (CCM) is the ecumenical document adopted by the ELCA in 1999 to achieve “full communion” with The Episcopal Church USA.