Church as Community of Moral Deliberation

[1] With a quarter century behind us, it is a good time for the ELCA to ponder our aspiration to live together ecclesially as a “community of moral deliberation,” which we voiced in our first social statement, The Church in Society: A Lutheran Perspective (1991) [hereafter CS:LP]. A little historical context can offer salutary background for our future as a community of moral deliberation.

[2] In 1967 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. Prior to the 1967 conference the World Council of Churches (WCC) 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 was the first volume, and an American Lutheran theologian wrote a seminal essay for the book.

[3] William Lazareth, then professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia and a Lutheran Church in America representative on the Faith and Order Commission of the WCC, began his essay as follows: “Since the Second World War, Lutherans have been forced to rethink the biblical and theological foundation of their social ethics.”[1] Lazareth continued by analyzing Karl Barth’s attack on Lutheran quietism. On the one hand, Lazareth was sharply critical of Barth’s theological-ethical alternative to the predominant social ethical bankruptcy of German Lutheranism in particular. On the other hand, Lazareth did admit: “The basic fact remain, however, that Barth has properly exposed the ‘soft underbelly’ of Lutheran social ethics in the realm of creation.”[2] Lutherans had been far more responsible in the realm of redemption, claimed Lazareth, but “we have often neglected the crucial importance of 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.”[3] 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 reemerge. In fact, Lazareth had not been standing alone. Already in the late 1940s Conrad Bergendoff had started down this path. Then in the early 1950s a collaborative triad of George Forell, Herman Preus, and Jaroslav Pelikan began developing a social ethical hermeneutic of the triune God’s two, or better, “both” ways of ruling the one world.[4]

[5] “Quickly” and “boldly” the ELCA sought to champion a revised and revitalized heritage of both-kingdoms ethical reflection. We professed the distinction and coordination of law and Gospel as the heart and soul of CS:LP, our “foundational” social ethics document. The ELCA, we stated, “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.” Other perennially fruitful Lutheran themes flow from this basic Scriptural hermeneutic with varying degrees of confessional clarity, consistency, and coherence.

[6] It’s arguable that CS:LP’s “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. A constellation of Lutheran notions provide theological funding for imagining “church as community of moral deliberation,” such as, the priesthood of all believers and an expansively understood “mutual consolation and conversation of sisters and brothers,”[5] as well as the—oft overlooked—magisterium of all believers together and the churchly communion of bearing one another’s burdens in and with a complex world of diverse neighbors and global neighborhoods. Such bearing surely includes bearing one another’s ethical discernment, deliberation, discussion, disagreements and agreements, and—sometimes—decision-making. Indeed, the church as bearing communion exists only because “our God is a God who bears,” to use Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s poignant phrase.[6]

[7] Some people contend that it would be better to imagine and practice church as a community of moral “discernment” because “deliberation” implies processes that lead to win/lose legislative decision-making processes. The original intent of “community of moral deliberation” did not inevitably entail legislative decision-making. Indeed, back in the early 1990s even social statements themselves were not imagined to be the necessary end point of some structural process but rather were hoped to be more like a fluid mid-point in which a social statement, or a social message, would be a fruitful catalyst for ongoing discussion, discernment, and dialogue in congregational and synodical settings. The point was to foster an ongoing communicative culture regarding moral matters. Of course, cultures always take on a life of their own and can never be constrained by original intention alone. Still, with “deliberation,” despite its strengths and weaknesses, we imagined a future together decidedly different from our too often predominant “quietist” past.

[8] The social imaginary of church as community of moral deliberation also participates in a much broader emerging culture of moral practice and ethical reflection. H. Richard Niebuhr once called this emerging Western phenomenon within the triune God’s created realm the responsibilist tradition of ethics. Niebuhr positioned the responsibilist ethical tradition as a third, emerging tradition along side of the classic Western ethical traditions of deontology and teleology. In contrast with deontology’s ethics of the “right” and teleology’s ethics of the “good,” the responsibilist ethics of the “fitting” was more responsive to democratic, discursive, and interpretive ways of life that recognize the moral gravity of social complexity, plurality, ambiguity, suffering, and dialogue.[7] To social complexity we would surely add environmental, biological, and technological complexity.

[9] Three things make this a good time to ponder anew what imagining church as community of moral deliberation might mean for our current life together. First, we possess a substantial body of ethical reflection on a broad range of moral matters that impinge significantly on life “in America.” Second, we are in the early days of a transition in leadership with the election of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton. Finally, the growing prevalence of social media offers new cultural—not just technological—capacities that foster the kind of collaborative, discursive, and dialogical ways of life that Niebuhr had seen emerging over the last two hundred years or so of Western life. In addition, the current social media revolution is a global phenomenon with all the banes and blessings imaginable.


[1] William H. Lazareth, “Luther’s ‘Two Kingdoms’ Ethic Reconsidered,” in Christian Social Ethics in a Changing World: An Ecumenical Theological Inquiry, edited by John C. Bennett (New York: SCM Press, 1966), p. 119.

[2]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] See Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles in The Book of Concord, edited by Robert Kolb and Timothy Wengert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), p. 319.

[6] See Gary M. Simpson, “‘Our God is a God who bears’: Bonhoeffer for a Flat World,” Word & World 26 (Fall 2006).

[7]H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1963, 1999). It is important to note that unfortunately Niebuhr did not also compare and contrast the responsibilist tradition with the classic Western traditions of virtue ethics, which would have added significant conceptual weight to his analysis.

Gary M. Simpson

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