Lutherans in Public—Threads from a Conversation

[1] “Lutherans in Public” focused on how Lutherans have been, how they are or are not, and how they ought to be participants in the public realm, both as a church and as individual members of it. It was the theme of the 2006 Annual Gathering of Lutheran Ethicists in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January of this year. Presentations and discussion papers came at these questions in a variety of ways, from general theological arguments to particular examples to historical case studies. All of them attempted to get at some aspect of what it means to be Lutherans in public.

[2] The gathering featured eight discussion papers:

Robert Benne-“Lutherans in Public: Four Lively Options”

Ronald Duty-“Moral Deliberation in a Public Lutheran Church”

Mark Ellingsen-“Lutheran Confessional Theology and the Constitution”

Stefan Heuser-“The Public Witness of Good Works: Lutheran Impulses for Political Ethics”

Richard Hoehn-“Lutherans in Public: A View from the Public Square”

Charles Lutz-“Should Churches Use Economic Tools to Push Political Goals in the Holy Land Conflict?”

Cynthia Moe-Lobeda-“Ethical Method for ‘Lutherans in Public'”

Diane Yeager-“God, Church, and Country: Berggrav’s Leadership in the Norwegian Resistance”

Some of these discussion papers are published in this issue of JLE; others will be published in the summer, 2006, issue of the journal, Dialog. In addition, the gathering had the benefit of the insightful reflections of Ronald Thiemann, who served as respondent on various papers and on the discussion at the gathering as a whole.

[3] This essay attempts to discern and tease out threads from the conversation at that gathering that revolved around these discussion papers. An unstated question running through the gathering was characteristically catechetical in a Lutheran sort of way-“What does it mean for Lutherans to think, talk, decide, and act in and for the public?” The gathering did not produce anything approaching a formula of concord on the subject. Instead of producing the declarative explanations of Luther’s catechisms, the participants wrestled with the questions and with Lutheran theological and ecclesial tradition much like Luther himself wrestled with scripture and church tradition on his way to discerning the key insights about God’s grace and the theology of the cross. Before reaching whatever clarity we may discern, Lutherans it seems must wrestle with scripture, with God, with ourselves, and with each other-much like Jacob wrestled with the angel-before receiving the blessings of spiritual, theological, and ethical discernment. This is not a bad thing.

[4] Although it may make some people anxious for an easy clarity or consensus, this catechetical question is apt to promote lively-albeit messy-theological and ethical deliberation about things that matter in Lutheran faith and life. The purpose of reporting on threads from this conversation is so that the discussion papers that appear below and the conversation itself might have a wider audience and give rise to further deliberation. These threads also suggest both avenues toward, and a need for, future ethical work around the issues raised in the papers and the discussion.

Notions of “Public”
[5] Participants saw the need to explore what was meant by “Public” in discussions of Lutherans in public. There may be several uses of this term, and it was not always easy to keep track of various uses in the discussion of Lutherans in public. One area where some precision about the use of the term, “public” was deemed to be needed was its use in relation to views of the common good. These two terms are not identical, it was noted, and the relationship between various senses of “public” and “common good” are complex. Some “mapping” of these relationships would be helpful. In addition, participants wondered about the relation between various notions of “public” and an understanding of “political.” The two terms are not always synonymous. Moreover, use of “political” does not always imply that the authority or power of government is involved.

Lutheran Theological Diversity about Public Matters
[6] Along with the various senses of “public,” “political,” and “common good” at play, Lutherans themselves take diverse approaches to public matters. The group saw a need to examine one’s own positions with sufficient depth in the midst of this diversity, and to be deliberate about the particularity out of which one makes claims as a Lutheran about matters public, political, and the common good.

Lutheran Unity amidst Diversity
[7] Participants also asked, what holds a plurality of diverse Lutherans together when they differ on these matters? Or, what is the significance of being Lutheran? There may be a common language all Lutherans use even when they do not agree about what that language or its referents means. But that does not preclude some fundamental partings of the way on key ethical and social questions. Is it possible to identify a “core” of ideas, concepts, or commitments that all Lutheran ethicists are likely to share? How are Luther and the Lutheran Confessions related, and what is their authority for ethics? How Lutheran ethicists “revise” Luther was suggested as a topic for further conversation or another gathering.

Being the Church in Public
[8] What is the nature of the church that acts publicly? Is the church primarily an institution, or the people of God? A description and evaluation of the public church will differ depending upon which conception of the church is used. So will the understanding of the church’s exercise of power. When considering the public church, what is the relation between the “visible” and “invisible” church? Is the public church necessarily a uniform body in its thinking and acting? Or is it a unity that expresses a real public pluralism?

[9] What is the relation between the various expressions of the public church? Is the public church primarily or always congregational? Or do other expressions-such as churchwide-also matter?

Formation for the Public Church
[10] Participants raised several issues related to formation. What does it mean to form Christians for loving the neighbor in a public or political sense, for deliberating about what will make for their well being or the common good, and for using religious claims appropriately in public discourse? How does the church go about forming Christians spiritually and morally for participation in a church which attends to public matters through moral deliberation as well as deciding and acting together. How does the church organize itself to form public Christians effectively? How does it pay for appropriate resources and training? Does a primary emphasis on action neglect spiritual and moral formation and the ability to practice deliberation? When is it important in the public church to focus on such concerns as individual or corporate character? For that matter, how does the church form not only individual Christians but also Christian communities for public life?

[11] What should Christian individuals and communities be formed for as a public church? Is it to work for structural change on behalf of the poor? Is it for the capacity to resist systemic evil? Is it to overcome the blinders of our interests so that we may first recognize the evil that must be resisted?

Determining the Church’s Public Action

[12] What is the importance of exemplars-both individual and corporate-in shaping the actions of both individuals and of Christian communities? The moral authority of speaking and acting publicly was noted. The example of Berggrav in Yeager’s paper raises the question of what the public role of bishops should be. In addition, how should the church decide what its public action should be? What is the proper role of deep introspection and moral deliberation out of the church’s theological and scriptural tradition? What is the range of issues upon which the church can effectively speak and act publicly? How should the interaction of congregational, regional, and national expressions of the church affect what it does publicly?

[13] What are the criteria by which the church decides and evaluates its direct actions? How does it decide which of the available means it should use? Must its direct action necessarily be political? Might it not be either social or economic instead? What distinguishes the church wielding worldly power in service and in politics? Should one be preferred over another?

Being Prophetic
[14] What does it mean for the public church to be “prophetic” today? At one point a distinction was made between “clear prophecy” and “fallible discernment.” Does being prophetic necessarily imply a kind of assured moral clarity? Is the distinction between being prophetic and being discerning always sharp?

[15] There has been a tendency in the U.S. to associate prophetic points of view in the church with ideologies of the left. Does this correlation necessarily hold? Is it plausible to imagine that “prophetic” actions might also tend toward actions which might be seen as conservative? In addition to political approaches, might there also be economic approaches to dealing with issues?

The Calling of the Citizen
[16] Heuser’s paper stressed the idea of citizenship as a Christian calling. What does it mean to be a “citizen’ today? Can we find the idea of “becoming a citizen” in Luther’s thought? How do we relate Luther’s understanding of political “orders” to Hannah Arendt’s view of political action? Is there a “Lutheran spin” on the idea of citizenship and on political discourse generally? If there is a Christian calling to be a citizen, how does the church work to form citizens?

Questions for Lutheran Ethics
[17] In his response to this discussion of Lutherans in public, Ronald Thiemann proposed six sets of questions for Lutheran ethicists to ponder:

[18] 1. What principles of hermeneutics govern our interpretation of the Lutheran tradition? What authority do we grant to Luther? To the Augsburg Confession? To the Book of Concord? A vast array of efforts to invoke Luther and the Lutheran tradition to authorize theological and ethical proposals was evident in the papers for this conference. Do we somehow need to “get Luther right?” What critical principles do we employ to construct a “Luther within Luther?”

[19] 2. How do we construe Lutheranism as a theological and ethical tradition? Can we give a succinct account of our conception of the Lutheran tradition? Are Lutherans a movement of confession and reform within the church catholic? If so, what are the implications for ethics?

[20] 3. As Lutheran ethicists how do we relate the so-called “zwei Reiche Lehre” to other fundamental Lutheran emphases like justification by grace through faith for the sake of Christ? The theology of the cross? How does the distinction between law and gospel relate to the teaching of the “two rules or kingdoms?” How do we understand the relation between faith and works in constructing a public theology?

[21] 4. Do Lutherans have a distinctive understanding of the political, social, and economic realms? How do we make theological decisions concerning which non-theological resources to use in our ethical work? Do we share a common understanding of the notions of “public” and “publicity?” To what extent are our views of “public” shaped by our Lutheran convictions?

[22] 5. If we want the ELCA to become more of a “public church” how do we understand theologically the notion of “Church?” If church is fundamentally “the people of God gathered around word and sacrament” how can we encourage “publicness” in all aspects of the church’s mission? How do we engage the church’s least-used resource, its educated laity, for the purpose of “going public?”

[23] 6. What are the relationships among spiritual devotion, moral deliberation, service to the neighbor, political action, and political/economic advocacy? Which public activities are most important to a church which seeks to enhance its public outreach? Are some activities more appropriate to the distinctive character of the Lutheran witness to Christ?

Ronald W. Duty

Ronald W. Duty is the former Assistant Director for Studies in Church in Society at the ELCA, and is now a private scholar.