We Are the Body of Christ: Ecclesiology for an ELCA in Mission
by Craig L. Nessan (May / June 1999 — Volume 15, Number 3)
A church proclaiming God's kingdom — a church in mission — depends on mutual trust and a willingness to see our various Lutheran traditions as gifts which complement each other.
Forming a new church is hard work. In its first years of existence, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has encountered many reasons for debate and division: the doctrine of ministry, representational principles (quotas), diaconal ministry, homosexuality, church growth strategies, contemporary worship forms, ecumenism, and the place of the historic episcopate.
Theological arguments have been presented on all sides of these debates. Tempers have flared. Intemperate words have been uttered. Regional differences have been blamed. The process of learning to live together in one church has been tumultuous.
One of the most difficult obstacles in becoming a new church with a common focus on mission has been the lack of mutual trust. Wherever one feels one's previous beliefs and traditions are not being honored, there one becomes extremely defensive. To the degree to which we believe it is necessary to defend from attack the identities which we have attained through our respective traditions, it becomes impossible to join together in envisioning the future.
God intends the ELCA to be an instrument in proclaiming the gospel and making manifest the kingdom. How can we be a church open to God's possibilities for us in the future? How can we interpret the traditions of the past in a way that honors the differences each brings to our common life?
Paul imaged the church as the body of Christ. This metaphor has immense potential for guiding the future of our life together. Above all, it keeps us focused on Christ as the source of our identity and mission. Christ is the head of his body, the church. The church is totally dependent on the saving work of Christ for its very existence. Without its head, the church loses its way.
If we are to be one church, we must place commitment to Christ above all other priorities. Praying for one another, studying together, and gathering together for worship around the Lord's table deserve utmost attention if Christ is to be our guiding reality.
Paul's explication of the metaphor of the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12 has much to teach us about the gifts each member brings to the one body. "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you,' nor again the head to the feet, 'I have no need of you.' On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable..." (1 Cor. 12:21-22).
What if we in the ELCA were to take Paul's metaphor of the body of Christ seriously as we reflect on the gifts each member brings to our common life as a church?