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'Ecclesiastical disobedience

—is necessary' to avoid idolatry

by Prof. Dennis Bielfeldt (WordAlone board member)

July 4, 2004

So what can WordAlone do now? Wherever I go, I hear that same question asked. Five years ago the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Churchwide Assembly voted by a narrow margin to change its constitution and adopt the practice of the historic episcopate. Since that time angry voices have arisen, consistently and eloquently stating their opposition. “This is a confessional issue,” they argue. photo of Dr. Dennis Bielfeldt“A collection of people from across the ELCA (many who were unfamiliar with the issue before the vote) had no right to rescind the Reformation principle that the unity of the church depends solely upon the presence of the Word in preaching and sacrament and not upon common ecclesiastical hierarchy and structure.”

But what happens now that the principle has been given up? What can happen now? What happens now that we find ourselves in a situation where many now within the ELCA actually agree that the free adoption of a necessary practice still involves us in a necessary practice? What happens now that many concur that the ecclesiology of the historic episcopate is not consistent with honest Lutheran theology? How, we might ask, can it ever be possible to change the status quo when great numbers of voting delegates to the Churchwide Assembly do not know the issues and will naturally vote with leadership? What happens if and when WordAlone has been proved right on its theology, but nobody really cares any longer?

For those of us who have been distressed about the historic episcopate for 10 years or so, WordAlone can start to seem like too little too late. Its efforts to change things can appear to be a little like closing the barn door after the cattle have already gotten out. While the WAN continues to say that the church has erred because confessional principles have been sacrificed to constitutional provisions and ecumenical expediency, it has seemingly been upstaged by the siren song of “churchmanship.”

I hear again and again, “The church has spoken,” and we discontents must “get over it.”

“There has been a vote,” they say, “and the matter is decided.”

“We may not like it, and may think it is wrong, but it is now the way it is, and we must learn to live with it.”

At times like this it is important to remember a principle that the American Transcendentalist David Thoreau espoused. Called “civil disobedience,” Thoreau argued that when unjust political situations present themselves, it is every citizen’s duty to resist. Assuming the existence of a higher standard than the merely legal or political, Thoreau pointed out that sometimes the constitution of an institution is itself the problem. One need not obey injustice; it is far better to resist on the basis of principle. The transcendent ground of principle trumps the vicissitudes of the political situation.

But if this is true of the ground of morality over an against the expediency of politics, how much more does it apply to the ground of the divine over and against the expediency of its empirical, visible, institutional following known as church. Just as morality trumps politics, so do the confessions trump any ecclesial constitution.

I am increasingly inclined towards the position of ecclesiastical disobedience. Plugging into a tradition called in statu confessionis (being in a state of confession), I know that I can finally stand only upon the solid ground of confession. Accordingly, I cannot act or acknowledge that there are any structures in the empirical church allowing for the practice of that necessity known as the historic episcopate. I cannot act as if bishops have any powers other than mere administerial ones. I cannot act as if there are some ecclesial people or structures that have a holiness escaping structures of sinfulness.

Ecclesiastical disobedience is necessary now, I think, if we are to avoid the problem of idolatry. vWhen ecclesiastical structures take on an unconditional element, they must be resisted. Any absolute relation of obedience to that which is in itself not absolute involves us in the power of the demonic. To avoid the demonic, one must break the relationship of unconditionality to that which is not unconditional. The Reformation knew that the only unconditional thing is that which is truly divine: The Triune God at work as Word in proclamation and manifestation. It knew that all that is generated and produced by this Word is itself not unconditional. It realized that the church produced by this Word is thus not in itself unconditional, and that, accordingly, all ecclesiastical structures in the church are not unconditional.

The Reformation insight articulated in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession is this: No conditions of ecclesiastical unity can be imposed that are not tied to that which is truly unconditional. When an ecclesiastical structure disconnected from the Word becomes a condition of unity, then the finite is elevated to the infinite, and a situation of idolatry arises. Human beings have a pronounced proclivity to worship the created order rather than the creative One.

This tendency is surely present in church circles, especially when people begin to talk solemnly about “the church.” Such thinking may be present in those sincere ELCA people who claim that “the decision has been made,” and we must now be “good churchmen.” But order for order’s sake often threatens the substance of the gospel. Order for order’s sake is demonic when chosen for its own sake.

So what should WordAlone do? Resist, resist, and resist some more. Only in ecclesiastical disobedience can we witness now to the God who calls and gathers all our ecclesiastical institutions and structures into being. Only in this disobedience can we witness to the good news that God eternally transcends all our structures. Such an act of disobedience is thus evangelism of a new order. Such an act of disobedience witnesses to the New Being in Christ, and to the divine’s continual “re-formation” of church: Ecclesia semper reformanda.