“A Lutheran Social Policy Convoy”

[1] The ELCA is fast approaching its twentieth year and, having been there from the beginning, John Stumme is fast approaching his twentieth year of ELCA leadership, first as the Associate Director for Studies of the ELCA’s division for Church in Society and eventually as the Director for Studies. His imminent retirement provides an opportunity to “reflect on social policy in the ELCA in the past twenty years,” as JLE editor Kaari Reierson puts it.

A Seminal Challenge
[2] Twenty years prior to the ELCA’s founding, the World Council of Churches’ Department on Church and Society convened a world conference, “Christians in the Technological and Social Revolutions of Our Times.” This was the first such broad-based conference on social ethics since the 1937 Oxford World Conference on Church, Community, and State. The WCC’s Department on Church and Society held a series of ecumenical preparatory symposia on four themes. Each symposium produced a study volume written by scholars across the ecumenical spectrum. Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World[1]was the first book, and an American Lutheran theologian wrote a seminal essay in the book.

[3] William Lazareth, then professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia and a Lutheran Church in America representative on the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, began as follows: “Since the Second World War, Lutherans have been forced to rethink the biblical and theological foundation of their social ethics.”[2] Lazareth continued by analyzing Karl Barth’s attack on Lutheran quietism. While sharply critical of Barth’s theological ethical alternative to the predominant social ethical bankruptcy of German Lutheranism in particular, Lazareth did admit: “The basic fact remains, however, that Barth has properly exposed the ‘soft underbelly’ of Lutheran social ethics in the realm of creation.”[3] Lutherans had been far more responsible in the realm of redemption, claimed Lazareth, but “we have often neglected the crucial importance of the nonredemptive counterparts: Caesar, nature, tradition, reason and the law.”

[4] Lazareth then issued the challenge that subsequently bore fruit for future American Lutherans: “Lutherans must quickly recapture and boldly champion the Reformer’s appreciation of the ‘sacred secularity’ of civil life, which is at once free from church-rule and yet subject to God-rule.” The ELCA’s predecessor bodies picked up both the bold appreciation of sacred secularity and the urgency for forming social policy through social statements and programmatic initiatives, lest our soft underbelly re-emerge. The ELCA was equally “quick” and “bold” to continue this revitalized heritage. Having highlighted Lazareth’s challenge we must emphasize that he neither stood alone nor was he the first to move in this revised and revitalized tradition of two-kingdoms ethical reflection. Conrad Bergendoff in the late 1940s and a collaborative triad of George Forell, Herman Preus, and Jaroslav Pelikan in the early 1950s-Pelikan funding my own heritage-had already been developing a social ethical hermeneutic of the triune God’s two, or better, “both” ways to rule the one world.[4]

A Social Policy “Convoy”
[5] So, how might we characterize the ELCA’s social policy? When the ELCA started operations in January 1988, it of course did not yet have any social policy. It relied heavily on the social policy statements of two of its predecessor bodies, the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America. The ELCA essentially grandfathered these documents in until we developed our own statements.This convoy of predecessor social policy remains a helpful way to imagine ELCA social policy since.
[6] Roman Catholic moral theologian Drew Christiansen calls the Catholic conception of peace a “convoy concept.”[5] He traces this convoy conception of peace beginning with Pope John XXIII’s landmark encyclical Pacem in Terris (1963) through various papal encyclicals and letters of Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. He also includes in the convoy the significant contributions of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace.”

[7] Characterizing consequential Catholic moral teaching as a convoy might in itself seem quite surprising, even shocking and disturbing. After all, doesn’t Roman Catholicism always produce a “substantial body” of moral teaching, a tightly woven, seamless totality of disciplinary truth? Still, it’s both more accurate and more fruitful to understand Rome’s emerging positive conception of peace with its many dimensions, different themes, and contextual specifics as “a series of somewhat disparate but related requirements, like a series of ships in a convoy.” [6] Christiansen promotes the convoy concept in the face of some Catholics who regard Catholic moral teaching of peace as “confused.”

An ELCA Convoy
[8] Christiansen’s “convoy concept” offers a fruitful metaphor for characterizing and assessing ELCA social policy as well. The ELCA describes its social policy as the corporate conclusions written in “social statements” adopted at Churchwide Assemblies and social policy “messages” adopted by the Church Council.[7] Presently we have eight social statements with two new ones in the pipeline, and eleven messages. Here I’ll identify four large ships-without prejudice to others-sailing in the ELCA social policy convoy.[8]

[9] The first ship is the “law-gospel” ship with its derivative Lutheran escorts like two-kingdoms and the church-world relationship, baptism and vocation, priesthood of all believers, etc. In 1991 the second Churchwide Assembly adopted the ELCA’s first social statement, Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective [hereafter CS: LP], which early on people referred to as our “foundational” social ethics document. Here one finds the law-gospel distinction underlying a revised and revitalized both-kingdoms teaching, even though someone like myself might wish that these key hermeneutics were more clearly, theologically grounded and articulated. In CS:LP the ELCA “seeks to be true to this church’s mandate to confess and teach both law and Gospel as the whole Word of the Triune God. This church witnesses to the living God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-who in love creates, judges, and preserves the world and redeems, sanctifies, and brings it to fulfillment in God’s reign.”[9] Subsequent perennially fruitful Lutheran themes flow from this basic Scriptural hermeneutical distinction between law and gospel.

[10] The good ship “law-gospel” embodies specifically the first two aims of ELCA social statements: that they be theological documents and teaching documents.[10] A more thorough social policy analysis would stipulate other escorts and their characteristics within CS:LP, log their influence in the other documents and how they lead to various “middle axioms,” as well as spot them across our convoy.[11] Subsequent study would also identify and analyze other characteristically Lutheran ships and escorts as well as possible sojourneying, interloping, or even hostile escorts or ships.

[11] The second ship in our convoy is the ELCA’s “ecumenical (and other global) companions.” CS:LP says it explicitly in the very first sentence of its introductory paragraph: “The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is called to be a part of the ecumenical church of Jesus Christ in the context in which God has placed it — a diverse, divided, and threatened global society on a beautiful, fragile planet.” Indeed, “ecumenical companions'” weightiest contribution to the convoy is identifying and probing the currents in which the convoy is sailing, i.e., the current concrete realities facing the world. The good ship “ecumenical companions” is at times (oft-times?) partial (fully?) shrouded in fog. I’m not referring here to our ecumenical companions’ foggy competencies. Rather, often our “ecumenical companions” sail in our convoy “behind the scenes,” as the common expression puts it. I’d favor as much visibility and transparency here as possible. It’s also important to note that our ecumenical companions are more likely associated with the World Council of Churches, as they were back when Lazareth was doing his work, than some other ecumenical alignment.

[12] Our third ship’s name is “church as community of moral deliberation.” This ship became an ELCA vessel already in CS:LP. It’s arguable that “church as community of moral deliberation” is the ELCA’s most important theological innovation in the perennial constellation of themes that have characterized Lutheran ethical reflection. The theological funding, building, and sailing of “church as community of moral deliberation” does indeed come from Lutheran notions, such as, the priesthood of all believers and an expansively understood “mutual consolation and conversation of sisters and brothers,”[12] as well as the-oft overlooked-magisterium of all believers in their togetherness and the churchly communion of bearing one another’s burdens in and with a complex world of diverse neighbors. Such bearing surely includes bearing one another’s ethical discernment and decision-making.[13] Indeed, the church as bearing communion exists only because “our God is a God who bears,” to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poignant phrase.[14] The convoy concept itself, imagined in dynamic motion, ranks among this ship’s major contributions and ongoing assignments. After all, convoys are all about mutual burden bearing.

[13] “Never alone, always testable, desiring trustworthiness” is the name of the fourth ship in the convoy. Granted, this is a mouthful both as a name and as an aspiration. Still, I’d like to make the case. ELCA procedure states clearly that our social policy never stands alone.[15] First, social policy itself encompasses two distinguishable yet interrelated “spheres of activity.” There’s social policy expressed in social statements and messages; then it’s interpreted and implemented across the breadth of the ELCA. Second, and this is crucial, these two social policy spheres are interrelated with and indeed dependent upon two other “spheres of activity:” “equipping and nurturing members” and “encouraging learning and moral discourse.”

[14] The ELCA’s Policies and Procedures document makes very clear that moral deliberation, “usually precedes activity in sphere three [social statements] and thereby also offers a basis for considered selection of those concerns that should be subject to legislative decision.” To my knowledge Church in Society’s Department of Studies scrupulously follows this prime directive. No quarrels here from me. My big tiff comes because Policies and Procedures notes only that moral deliberation precedes the “conclusions” of social statement policy. Ought not moral deliberation also be a major consequence of social policy statements? That’s a stated purpose of “messages.”[16] Why not emphatically state the same with social statements?

[15] Indeed, why not imagine moral deliberation as a consequence of social statements in the sense of an intentional feedback loop that continually “tests” the adequacy of our “conclusions”? After all, our procedures do state that social statements can be revised or even rescinded. Isn’t it far too often the case that, at least in the life of our congregations, once our social policy “conclusions” are passed they remain in some drawer, usually in the pastor’s office? This is a church-wide ethos issue even more than an institutional procedural or staffing issue. Again, we’re back in sphere one, “equipping and nurturing members.” Finally, this ship’s aim, indeed, the entire convoy’s aspiration to be trustworthy hinges on a community of moral deliberation in, with, and under-so to speak-the entirety of ELCA social policy.

A Trustworthy Leader: John Stumme
[16] The desire for social policy trustworthiness also depends upon leadership. In a new church no social policy convoy could have had more trustworthy leadership for two decades than we have had in John Stumme. Thanks be to God for John! I’ve known John since 1989 and have been with him literally dozens of times since, usually in meetings of two, three, or more days at a time. John fits a department of “Studies” to a tee. First, he’s very smart but doesn’t strut it. Second, he knows and, furthermore, believes, teaches, and confesses his deeply Lutheran theological commitments with high integrity. In this sense he fits within the post-WWII emerging revised and revitalized tradition of law-gospel, two-kingdoms ethical reflection. Third, his practiced manner of leading in a shared-power world is crucial.

[17] In his heart John is first of all a dedicated attentive listener. In Galatians 5 St. Paul identifies “the fruit of the Spirit” as love with an attending non-exhaustive list of varying forms of love, depending on which form the particular neighbor needs. The fledgling ELCA has surely needed much love in the form of patience. For someone with vast expertise in his field, John is likely the most patient attentive listener I’ve met in churchly circles. Enough said for now! Still, there’s more patiently waiting for another occasion. We might reflect on how John persuasively asserts his own insights, innovatively seeks agreement across differences, consistently acts on agreements made, and finally courageously assesses where we’ve been and where in hope God calls us forward. As we now search for social policy leadership we ought surely resist the temptation to clone. All the same, John Stumme embodies a seminal heritage of leadership. Like a mind, this heritage of leadership would be “a terrible thing to waste.”

End Notes

[1] Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World: An Ecumenical Theological Inquiry, edited by John C. Bennett (New York: SCM Press, 1966).
[2] William H. Lazareth, “Luther’s ‘Two Kingdoms’ Ethic Reconsidered,” in Bennet, op. cit., 119.
[3] Ibid., p. 121.
[4] See John Stumme, “A Lutheran Tradition on Church and State,” in Church and State: Lutheran Perspectives, edited by John Stumme and Robert Tuttle (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), pp. 53-55.
[5] Drew Christiansen, “Catholic Peacemaking, 1991-2005: The Legacy of Pope John Paul II,” The Review of Faith and International Affairs 4 (Fall 2006): 21-28. Christiansen credits David Braybrooke with the notion of “convoy concept;” see Braybrooke, Three Tests for Democracy (New York: Random House, 1968).
[6] Ibid., p. 22.
[7] See Policies & Procedures of the ELCA for Addressing Social Concerns (1997 Churchwide Assembly) @ http://www.elca.org/SocialStatements/procedures/default.asp.
[8] First, people often imagine ships in a convoy all in a line. Christiansen’s “series of ships” implies that. This isn’t necessary and likely not the most helpful. We might think of geese flying in a “v” convoy with dynamic rotation. Second, there are different kinds of convoys: humanitarian, military, commercial, adventure, et al. Here I use the concept without prejudice.
[9] See Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective @ http://www.elca.org/SocialStatements/churchinsociety/.
[10] These are the first two of eight aims of our social policy; see Guiding Perspectives for Social Statements at: http://www.elca.org/SocialStatements/procedures/perspectives.html.
[11] See the third aim in Guiding Perspectives for Social Statements.
[12] See Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles in The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000).
[13] Again, the third aim addresses this: “Social statements involve this church in the ongoing task of theological ethics.” See Guiding Perspectives for Social Statements.
[14] See Gary M. Simpson, “‘Our God is a God who bears’: Bonhoeffer for a Flat World,” Word & World 26 (Fall 2006).
[15] See Policies and Procedures of the ELCA for Addressing Social Concerns [hereafter Policies and Procedures] at: http://www.elca.org/SocialStatements/procedures/.
[16] Ibid.

Gary M. Simpson

Gary M. Simpson is Professor of Systematic Theology at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota.