The AALC and Other Lutherans
by The Commission on Doctrine and Church Relations
The concept of "inquiring minds" is not limited to the audience sought by the grocery store tabloids. It also describes those who want to know how The AALC compares to other Lutherans.
However, making such a comparison presents several challenges, not the least of which is trying to avoid ending up with something that is overly negative and divisive. It is the opinion of this Commission that more negativity and divisiveness are the last things Lutheranism needs in this day and age.
Just as challenging is the fact that The AALC is a confessional Church. This means that we subscribe to written statements of what we believe, teach and confess. It also means that we reject both explicitly and implicitly teachings that are. contrary to what we believe, teach and confess. As a result, we will be "for" some teachings and "against" others by the very nature of our confessional position. In the language of the Confessions, not only do we "believe, teach and confess," but we also "reject and condemn."
In addition, this kind of comparison is complicated by the fact that sometimes there may seem to be a wide gap between public doctrines and individual practices. In other words, the public doctrines to which a church body adheres may not be reflected in the actual practices of a given member congregation or its pastor. While congregational autonomy
may be the cause of some of this, one would have to question the integrity and honesty of any group or pastor employing private practices which contradict their public confessional witness.
Nevertheless, there are obvious differences among those who call themselves "Lutheran." And the purpose of this report is to highlight some of those differences in such a way as to help us better understand where The AALC fits into the larger picture of Lutheranism in America today.
WHAT IS A LUTHERAN?
According to the Lutheran liturgical tradition, Lutherans claim to be part of "The Evangelical Lutheran Church." In other words, there seems to be some kind of unity among those who share the name "Lutheran." And yet in the United States alone, there are just under some twenty groups of Lutherans with separate denominational labels. Perhaps the first question, then, ought to be, "What is a Lutheran?"
While there may be many ways to answer that question, for purposes of this discussion a Lutheran is one who subscribes to the authority of the Scriptures, the Lutheran Confessions and the three Ecumenical Creeds (where "Ecumenical" refers to the universal acceptance of the Apostles', the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds among Christians throughout history and around the world). These confessional writings and creeds are recorded in the volume, The Book of Concord, the very purpose of which was and still is to seek "harmony" ("Concord") among those who call themselves "Lutheran."
According to the Confessions themselves, Lutherans believe, teach and confess that the Bible is the Word of God and that it is the "sole rule and norm of all doctrine." Along with this understanding of Scripture, it is uniquely Lutheran to believe, teach and confess that all of Scripture is divided into either Law or Gospel. In fact, without a proper distinction between Law and Gospel, the Bible remains a closed book. And confusing Law and Gospel only frustrates the Holy Spirit's work of bringing people to and keeping them in the one, true, saving faith.
This work of the Holy Spirit is accomplished through the means of grace: Word and Sacrament. While some might suggest that this seems to place limits on the Spirit's work, the Scriptures reveal that it is God's will to use these objective, external vehicles by which He would carry out His desire for "all to be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4).
Along with the Scriptures, Lutherans subscribe to the Confessions as normative for faith and life because they are "a true exposition of the Word of God." And this confession is made by both people and pastors who call themselves "Lutheran." So people who join Lutheran churches subscribe to the Confessions as they have been taught them according to the Small Catechism. Historically, Lutheran pastors have been required to subscribe to the Confessions unconditionally because (quia) they are a faithful witness to the Scripture. However, the issue of confessional subscription has been clouded by those who would subscribe "in so far as" (quatenos) the Confessions agree with Scripture. Combine that kind of subscription with a diminished view of the authority of Scripture held by some Lutherans today, and one is left with a totally subjective view of what is true, not the objective truth both the Scriptures and the Confessions claim to be.
In addition, let it be understood that to be a Lutheran is to be "Evangelical" in the purest sense of the word. In other words, what Lutherans believe, teach and confess is part of their public witness to the world for the sake of the Gospel (that is, the evangel, the "good news") of our salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. And that witness carries
Lutherans into the world in response to Jesus' mandate to "Go and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:18-20). Our prayer is that this above all else would define what it means to be a "Lutheran."
WHO ARE THE LUTHERANS?
The largest Lutheran group by far is the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Created in 1987, it is comprised of three former Lutheran bodies, the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), the American Lutheran Church (ALC), and the American Evangelical Lutheran Church (AELC - the origin of which was "Seminex - Seminarians in Exile," the group which left The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LC-MS) in 1974).
Every other Lutheran organization is dwarfed by the size of the ELCA, having a membership of churches in five figures and a baptized membership in the neighborhood of five million - plus. The LC-MS is second in size, with congregations numbered in four figures and a baptized membership about half of that of the ELCA (some two-and-a-half million baptized). A distant third is the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS), claiming over 1200 congregations and a baptized membership of about half a million.
The AALC is much further down the size list. With about 86 congregations and a baptized membership of some 20,000, The AALC is much closer in size to the slightly larger Association of Free Lutheran Congregations (AFLC) and the Evangelical Lutheran Synod (ELS). In addition, other groups which identify themselves as "Lutheran" would include (taken from WELS and Other Lutherans, page 104):
- Apostolic Lutheran Church in America
- Church of the Lutheran Brethren in America
- Church of the Lutheran Confession
- Concordia Lutheran Conference
- Conservative Lutheran Conference
- Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church
- Evangelical Lutheran Federation
- Fellowship of Lutheran Congregations
- International Lutheran Fellowship
- Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church
- Lutheran Churches of the Reformation
- The Protestant Conference
THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF LUTHERAN CHURCHES (TAALC)
By the gracious blessing of Almighty God, The AALC was born at its constituting convention in November of 1987. Comprised of pastors and congregations in most part from the former American Lutheran Church (ALC) and the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), its initial focus would be on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Scriptures, a personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and subscription (quia, "because" they agree with the teachings of the truth of God's Holy Word) to the Lutheran Confessions. This confession is summarized under the theme, "A Past to Cherish - A Future to Claim in Christ." For we boldly build on the heritage which is ours because of God's work through Martin Luther and the other Reformers dating back to the beginning of the Reformation in 1517. We also press on toward the heavenly call of God's kingdom and His righteousness which is ours by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
The AALC is a national church body which has grown from an initial 12 congregations and 22 pastors to some 86 congregations and over 150 pastors located in 23 states. The Rev. Thomas V. Aadland heads The AALC; he holds the position of Presiding Pastor.
In September of 1993, The AALC opened its own seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. At the 2005 General Convention of The AALC, however, the Convention voted to accept the invitation of Concordia Theological Seminary, of Fort Wayne, Indiana (a seminary of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) to relocate The American Theological Seminary (ALTS) to Fort Wayne. This move allowed an expansion of course offerings to ALTS students. The President of ALTS is The Rev. Franklin E. Hays.
The Seminary is our commitment to the high quality of training necessary to fill the pulpits of churches in The AALC with men who boldly proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. As the Scriptures affirm, while both men and women are gifted by the Holy Spirit for the work of "ministry" (i.e., "service") in the church, The AALC ordains only men to the Holy Ministry of Word and Sacrament.
In doctrine and practice, The AALC reflects many of its roots from the former ALC. In our view, that places The AALC in the conservative middle of Lutherans in America. From that position, we affirm the full authority of the Bible as the inerrant and infallible Word of God. As we confess in our Statement of Faith, The AALC accepts all the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments as a whole and all their parts as the divinely inspired, revealed, and inerrant Word of God, and joyfully submits to this as the only infallible authority in all matters of faith and life.
According to this same Statement of Faith, The AALC adheres to the Lutheran Confessions because they are a true interpretation of the Word of God, rejects homosexuality as sin requiring repentance, and affirms the sanctity of human life at all ages. The AALC has also adopted a well-articulated statement on The Holy Spirit and His Gifts, rejecting all pentecostalism and any "baptism of the Holy Spirit" theology as contrary to Scripture and detrimental to Holy Baptism as instituted by Christ Himself in the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20).
Built upon this foundation, we call ourselves an "association." This term expresses our desire to walk together in doctrine and practice even though our congregations reflect a diversity of people and circumstances to which God has called them. This walk together also includes a strong sense of the mission to be God's instruments for reaching the unchurched and the lost for Jesus Christ through the work of evangelism, the planting of new churches, and the support of missionary efforts to "reached" and "unreached" people. To that end, The AALC lends its support to mission work in Madagascar, Mexico, Guatemala, Estonia, Latvia, Russia and India.
This is our commitment in The AALC. It is above all a commitment to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who died and rose again to save us from sin, death and the devil. And we believe, teach and confess that He is the only way to heaven, "for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12).
We believe that this same Jesus Christ who died and rose again also ascended into heaven, to the right hand of the throne of God, and reigns over His Church through the power of His Word. We also believe that Jesus is truly among us today, establishing His real presence by His Gospel and the treasure of the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Lord's Supper as they are revealed to us through His Word. These are the means the Holy Spirit has chosen to attach us to the saving work of Christ on our behalf and to empower us to a life of sacrificial service in response to Jesus' call to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Him as His disciples.
With great joy we thank God for all that He has given us as we walk together in The AALC.
Both the richness of our heritage as Lutheran Christians and the treasure of all that God has revealed in His Holy Word truly give us a past to cherish and a future to claim in Christ.
THE AALC AND THE LC-MS
Of all the Lutheran groups in America, The AALC is closest in doctrine to the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (LC-MS). That has been the case since the inception of The AALC, which included two LC-MS doctrinal statements in our official documents, Gospel and Scripture: The Interrelationship between the Material and Formal Principles in Lutheran Theology, and A Statement of Scriptural and Confessional Principles. In addition, The AALC has had some seven meetings with the leadership of the LC-MS to discuss doctrinal agreement sufficient for altar and pulpit status between the two bodies. The AALC has every intention of continuing these discussions in the future (just as we intend to open or maintain discussions with any group of Lutherans to search for areas of commonality).
There is certainly much that the LC-MS and The AALC have in common. Both maintain the same high view of Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. Both bodies articulate the same biblical and confessional position on the Office of the Ministry and the role of women in the church. Both are concerned with the question of fellowship among Lutherans.
There are also areas where further discussion is necessary, most of which surround the application of various biblical issues. For example, the celebration of the Lord's Supper among congregations in The AALC could be described as "close" Communion. While the term "close" has been used in the LC-MS in the past, the current practice is to define this as "closed" Communion with the perception that Holy Communion in Missouri Synod churches is only for Missouri Synod Lutherans.
In addition, there appears to be a significant level of controversy in the LC-MS. There is, for example, pressure to move the LC-MS toward the ordination of women. There are also some very vocal factions in the LC-MS such as "Jesus First" and "Daystar," the agendas of which are circulated in unofficial publications, just as a more conservative agenda is printed in the unofficial, privately-published, weekly newspaper, Christian News.
Nevertheless, we in The AALC praise God for the LC-MS and its role in promoting biblical Christianity and confessional theology. May what we share be wholly dedicated to the glory of God for Jesus' sake.
THE AALC AND THE ELCA
The formation of the ELCA is the latest in a long line of mergers among Lutheran groups in America. More times than not, the fruit of these mergers has proven to be church bodies which end up watering down what they believe in order to overcome previous differences. In other words, mergers frequently require church bodies to reach a lowest common doctrinal denominator in order to achieve agreement. Such is the case in how the ELCA came into existence.
The ELCA has taken a more recent step towards this kind of unity. In 1999 the ELCA approved "altar and pulpit fellowship" with five non-Lutheran groups: the Episcopalian Church in the USA (ECUSA), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church. What is unique about this approach is the fact that agreement was achieved by agreeing to disagree about doctrinal differences. It was determined that these differences were no longer sufficient to keep these church bodies from uniting.
One facet of this agreement has proven to be much more difficult for the ELCA: namely, the need to reconcile its position on the Office of the Ministry with the doctrinal requirement of the Episcopalians called "apostolic succession." In this case, the ELCA had to yield to a three-fold definition of ministry (bishops, deacons and priests), and the requirement that ordinations must be traced all the way back to the Apostle Peter. This has caused a splinter group to form within the ELCA called, the Word Alone Network, which seeks a return to the Scriptural position of "apostolic succession": one holy ministry, Word and Sacrament.
The sad reality is that the ELCA has become a church body which is unrecognizably Lutheran, or "Lutheran" in name only. At the same time, its churches and publications continue to use language that has an historic Lutheran ring to it. This only serves to promote a high level of confusion among churches in the ELCA and Lutherans in America.
Obviously, the ELCA has placed itself in a position that is at odds with many Lutherans in general and with The AALC in particular. To illustrate, the following table highlights some of the doctrinal differences between the ELCA and The AALC:
|The supreme authority in the church, Scripture is the Word of God, inspired, inerrant and infallible.||The church avoids clear statements on the nature of the Scripture. It encourages methods of interpretation which assume the Scriptures are man- made, subject to error and too historically limited for doctrinal applications today.|
|The Lutheran Confessions along with the three Ecumenical Creeds are normative for today because they are in harmony with what the Scriptures teach. Pastors are required to subscribe to the Confessions "because" of this harmony.||While the Confessions are historically important to the church, they are not necessarily true for the church today. Pastors are required to subscribe to the Confessions "in so far as" they agree with the Scripture.|
Ordination of Women
|Only men are ordained to the pastoral office, in keeping with the Scriptures.||Women are ordained. The ELCA was on the forefront of women in the ministry.|
Abortion and Homosexuality
|We defend the sanctity of life at all ages and sexuality as it's defined in the Scriptures, between one man and one woman.||The ELCA health care plan sanctions abortion. It continues to fund costly studies on sexuality. Groups promoting homosexuality are tolerated in the ELCA.|
|The work of the church is spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ, in response to the Great Commission.||What drives the ELCA is ecumenism over evangelism, with a posture that is defined more by social issues than biblical direction.|
THE AALC AND WELS
Wisconsin maintains a high view of Scripture and the Confessions which is so stringently adhered to that fellowship between WELS and other Lutherans is not easily reached. Even joint prayer among Christians in general and with Lutherans in particular is viewed as an act of fellowship. However, what distinguishes WELS from other Lutherans is its position on Church and Ministry. For WELS, the church is not defined in congregational terms; rather, the entire Synod is the church. This practice is based on the position that the New Testament does not define any particular form for church and public ministry.
There are other practices which follow this stringent position. That would include "closed" Communion (officially referred to as "close(d) Communion"), opposition to the Boy Scouts (especially the oath and the Scout Law), and refusal to participate in government-sponsored military chaplaincy (as a violation of the separation between church and state).
The AALC is committed to future discussions with other Lutherans in general. Wherever we as Lutheran Christians can work together would no doubt find wide support among the members of many Lutheran congregations. As a result, we will continue to pursue further discussions with the LC-MS. Further discussions with other Lutherans will be determined in the future.
Once again, there are obvious differences among Lutherans in America. Our goal is to search for those areas where agreement can further the work of God's kingdom for God's glory and for Jesus' sake.
TO GOD ALONE BE THE GLORY
(Presented to The AALC National Convention, June, 2002)