The vulnerability of orthodox churches goes beyond the semblance of due process.
The lutheran scene in the United States is divided into three major denominational segments: the “liberal” Lutheran Church in America, the “conservative” Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, and—in-between—The American Lutheran Church, organized in 1960. Someone has said with fair accuracy that a liberal Lutheran is like a conservative in the United Church of Christ, and it is generally true that even liberal Lutherans are remarkably gospel-centered in their preaching. But the years since 1960 have seen the American Lutheran Church march steadily in the direction of modern critical theology, especially where the Bible is concerned. In 1969, Case Western Reserve University sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden, in his Gathering Storm in the Churches, found that ALC clergy, while officially subscribing to the Bible as the “inerrant Word of God” (Art. 3 of the ALC constitution), held a much different view in practice. By their own admission, only 23 percent of all ALC clergy believed in scriptural inerrancy, and the statistics correlated significantly with age (50 percent over 55 years of age believed in inerrancy, while only 6 percent of those under 35 years of age did so).
Since the founding of the American Lutheran Church in 1960, only one ALC congregation has been removed from the roster of the denomination after carrying its case through the full system of church courts—right to the National Committee on Appeals and Adjudication. This congregation is Central Lutheran Church of Tacoma, Washington (Dr. Reuben H. Redal, pastor). Though the ultimate result after more than a year of litigation was virtually a foregone conclusion, the case is well worth reviewing for the insights it gives into the theology and administrative practices of denominations in transition between orthodoxy and liberalism.
Central Lutheran is a large and dynamic church in the heart of urban Tacoma. Typically, Pastor Redal found himself in need of additional staff for evangelism, teaching, and gospel proclamation. But the congregational members were not about to call a young graduate of the ALC seminaries, which, they fully realized, were the prime cause of the decline of belief in the inerrancy of Scripture on the part of ALC clergy. (Warren Quanbeck of Luther Seminary was perhaps most influential in shifting students from the historic Lutheran position, but he was by no means alone; see my Crisis in Lutheran Theology, passim.) So Central called a graduate of the independent, conservative Faith Evangelical Lutheran Seminary to assist Pastor Redal. This assistant had been ordained by the Lutherans Alert-National organization and was thus a clergyman, but Central called him as a “full-time lay theological worker and assistant to the pastor.” Naturally, being an ordained clergyman, he was also referred to as “assistant pastor.” This gave the North Pacific District Executive Committee its opportunity to get rid of a Bible-believing thorn in the flesh: it determined, after a perfunctory hearing in which no attempt at all was made to examine the assistant’s call document or duties in the congregation, that Central should be suspended for calling a clergyman to serve it who was not on the ALC clergy roster or approved by the district president (bishop).
In vain did the congregation plead that the Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers surely allowed the assistant to function in his lay capacity; that the ALC constitution was being violated right and left by clergy who did not believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and nothing was done about it; and that the ALC constitution permitted a district president to approve a non-ALC pastor to serve an ALC congregation “in special circumstances” (Art. 6.12.12.b.4). Here the special circumstance was that a Bible-believing parish wanted an assistant whose attitude toward Scripture was beyond reproach!
When the District Executive Committee, contrary to the 1978 ALC Rules of Procedure, was not going to give the congregation any hearing on appeal, Pastor Redal retained legal counsel. As a result, a hearing did take place, and the stenographic record of the full day’s trial makes fascinating reading (it is slated for publication—a kind of ecclesiastical Peyton Place). Here are a few highlights:
• Central was refused access to documents relating to other congregational suspensions. Concerning one of these, even nonconservative ALC professor Roy Harrisville had flayed the lack of proper due process in he ALC (Dialog, Spring 1968, pp. 86–87).
• The ALC nowhere defined and the Appeals Committee never employed a standard of proof by which the defendant congregation was to be judged. Central never knew whether it was being found guilty by a preponderance of evidence, or beyond reasonable doubt, or by some other measure.
• Bishop Solberg declared that geography was the essential “special circumstance” to justify calling a non-ALC clergyman to an ALC parish. The defense then (1) proved by a survey of the non-ALC clergy presently serving ALC parishes in the U.S. that fully one-fourth were in the same cities as other ALC churches served by ALC pastors, and (2) put on the stand a United Methodist clergyman whom Solberg himself had approved to serve an ALC parish only 17 miles from another ALC church served by an ALC pastor, and who testified that he held a Barthian, noninerrancy view of Scripture, contrary to Article 3 of the ALC constitution.
Central, to be sure, lost its appeals on the district and on the national church levels, and is now an independent Lutheran congregation. Fortunately, ALC congregational church polity gave the denomination no title to or interest in the local church’s property, so Central lost no physical assets; the ALC gained but a Pyrrhic victory, winning its case, but losing a stalwart congregation that faithfully represented the theology the denomination itself should have stood for.
The Tacoma Church case offers at least two sobering lessons for conservatives in mediating church bodies. First, recognize how vunerable you are if your denomination lacks (as does the ALC) a sufficiently clear and specific procedural law to insure due process. (Even W. J. Henry and W. L. Harris’s old Methodist Episcopal Ecclesiastical Law and Rules of Evidence [rev. ed., 1881] gave more protections than the ALC offered Central.) Second, recognize that even where there is a semblance of due process, when a denomination is going liberal, the liberals will be able to get away with the grossest deviations in doctrine and practice, but conservative Bible believers will be promptly cut off by whatever tools—legal or extralegal—come to hand.
Dr. John Warwick Montgomery, an attorney-theologian, is dean of the Simon Greenleaf School of Law, Costa Mesa, California, and director of studies at the International Institute of Human Rights, Strasbourg, France. He served as Central Lutheran Church’s counsel.
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