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Friday, March 5, 2021

What Would Full Communion Mean for Disciples and Lutherans?

Rev. Bob Cornwall, a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) tweeted recently about his involvement in ecumenical dialogue between his denomination and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. That definitely caught my attention, given the different backgrounds of the two groups, particularly because he spoke of it as 'full communion.'


That talk of 'full communion' had me confused, because both denominations already practice open communion, and the ELCA and many CCDOC congregations recognize each other's baptisms. My mind went to ordained ministry, given that the United Church of Christ and the CCDOC already have an arrangement in place along these lines. At the same time, I tend to think that the theological gulf is a little wider between the two now in question, at least enough to make me think that for the minister of one to serve in another some extra education about history, polity, and theology would be in order. This isn't a point lost on Rev. Cornwall either, who recognizes the challenge in his blog post on the subject of this dialogue.

I am embarking on a journey of discovery. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has entered a season of discernment as to how we might pursue full communion with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. I will be participating fully in this conversation as co-chair of this bilateral dialog (I have an ELCA co-chair). The Disciples are a non-creedal/covenant community while the ELCA is a confessional community. So how do we achieve some form of full communion with this difference before us (and this is not the only difference between the two, but for this posting, it’s the one I want to consider)? So what should we do about creeds when we enter bilateral conversations as a non-creedal community with one that treasures them? Remember it’s not just the Disciples who must struggle with this question. The ELCA must also struggle with it.

 He's not exaggerating on the ELCA as a confessional communion. Their Book of Concord, which the Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod) also recognizes, runs to a very meaty 774 pages in the most recent English translation. The CCDOC, on the other hand, was founded in the early 1800s on the rejection of creeds. And yet, they too have a confession. 

As members of the Christian Church,
We confess that Jesus is the Christ,
the Son of the living God,
and proclaim him Lord and Savior of the world.
                            – The Preamble to The Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

At the same time, given that these are two very progressive denominations, I have to think that quite a bit can be worked around. I don't see the contemporary ELCA getting hung up on their confessions as tests of faith. In practical terms, and Rev. Cornwall indicated in his tweet, shared ministries could be a useful focus. The CCDOC and the UCC have their Global Ministries together as one organization, and it isn't hard for me to imagine the CCDOC regions and ELCA synods putting some of their resources together as well. I focus on the regional level because it seems the most likely area of cooperation, in things such as youth ministry, camps, and perhaps relief work along with other areas of concern. At the national level some work could certainly be done as well, but without knowing more about the two denominations organizationally I don't care to speculate further.

As denominations continue to recede in membership and finances, they're going to have to find ways to keep going that don't follow the older ways that allowed for separation of resources. If it were boom times for organized Christianity as a whole in the US, the story would be different. To be clear, while there are certainly very large and influential mega churches in this country, overall religious organizations are losing ground. This has for decades been especially true of progressive churches. By putting ministries together they can pool their money and continue to provide ministry resources to their members and their communities.