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A History of Lutheran/Reformed Dialogues

The following narrative, from the 1997 General Synod Workbook, provides background information on the thirty-four years of official dialogues and conversations that have now resulted in the proposal for full communion between the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and three Reformed churches--the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ.

Representatives of Reformed and Lutheran churches in the U.S.A. have held official conversations since 1962. The first round (1962-69) produced Marburg Revisited. The representatives concluded that there are "no insuperable obstacles to pulpit and altar fellowship." They encouraged the churches to look forward to intercommunion and the full recognition of one another's ministries. The second round of dialogues (1972-74) concluded that declarations of church fellowship should be dealt with on a church-to-church body basis.

The third round (1981-83) issued joint statements on justification, the Lord's Supper, and ministry in An Invitation To Action, which was published in 1984. In 1986 representatives concluded that the Reformed and Lutheran churches should recognize each other as churches in which the gospel is proclaimed and sacraments administered according to the ordinance of Christ. They recommended mutual recognition of ministries and Eucharist and a detailed process of reception.

The recommendations contained in An Invitation to Action were adopted by the Reformed Church in America (MGS 1986, R-5, p. 155) and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in 1986. The United Church of Christ adopted the recommendations in 1989. On the Lutheran side, the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches and the American Lutheran Church adopted the recommendations in 1986. At the same time, however, the Lutheran Church in America offered a more guarded response, calling for a "new series of Lutheran-Reformed dialogues." The Lutheran Church in America requested further exploration of: 1) the relationship between dialogue and the governing and liturgical documents of the churches, and 2) the confessional nature of the Reformed churches.

Concurrently with the actions of all churches, the three Lutheran bodies were in process of creating a new Lutheran body whereby the three predecessor bodies would be merged into one known as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The constituting churchwide assembly was held in 1988.

At the constituting 1988 assembly, creating the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, it was decided to engage in further discussions with the Reformed churches. ELCA leaders and representatives of the Reformed Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and the United Church of Christ agreed to address the doctrinal condemnations found in the Formula of Concord (1577) concerning the Lord's Supper, Christology, and predestination. Each of the four churches named representatives to the conversations.

The Lutheran-Reformed Committee for Theological Conversations was constituted by the four partner churches and met from 1988 to 1992. Its mandate was to explore the key doctrinal issues: the Lord's Supper (the real presence of Christ), God's will to save (predestination), and the condemnations of the sixteenth century. The mandate instructed the Committee for Theological Conversations to see whether or not there was any impediment presented by these three issues which could be called "church dividing." The committee's report, A Common Calling: The Witness of our Reformation Churches in North America Today, was released in March 1992. In it the committee reported that, on the basis of their theological discussion, participants found no "church-dividing differences" and made the following unanimous recommendation:

That the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Reformed Church in America (RCA), and the United Church of Christ (UCC) declare that they are in full communion with one another. In the specific terms of full communion as they are developed in our study, this recommendation also requires (1) that they recognize each other as churches in which the Gospel is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered according to the Word of God; (2) that they withdraw any historic condemnation by one side or the other as inappropriate for the faith and life of our churches today; (3) that they continue to recognize each others' Baptism and authorize and encourage the sharing of the Lord's Supper among their members; (4) that they recognize each others' various ministries and make provision for the orderly exchange of ordained ministers of Word and Sacrament; (5) that they establish appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making within the existing structures of the churches; (6) that they commit themselves to an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression in evangelism, witness, and service; (7) that they pledge themselves to living together under the Gospel in such a way that the principle of mutual affirmation and admonition becomes the basis of a trusting relationship in which respect and love for the other will have a chance to grow.

Having completed its work, the Lutheran-Reformed Committee for Theological Conversations was dissolved in 1992.

In light of the recommendation of the Committee for Theological Conversations, a Joint Coordinating Committee of the Lutheran-Reformed Churches was established with representation from each of the four partner churches. The mandate given to the Joint Coordinating Committee was to develop a process of educating the churches as to the meaning and implication of declaring "full communion" between the Lutheran and Reformed churches. In fulfillment of its mandate, the committee produced a number of documents for study in the churches. These are: A Common Discovery: Learning about the Churches of the Reformation in North America Today; Lutheran-Reformed Theological Reflections on Full Communion; and Glimpses: What Full Communion May Mean to You, a collection of papers written by Reformed and Lutheran writers focusing on each of seven recommendations reported in A Common Calling.

The Joint Coordinating Committee also prepared A Formula of Agreement. The Formula serves as a summary of the report of the Conversations Committee as well as focusing on the intent and meaning of the "full communion" proposal between the Lutheran and Reformed bodies. The Formula provides a basis for understanding the work completed these past thirty-four years leading to a doctrinal consensus and the work to be carried out as "full communion" is effected in the life and mission of the Lutheran and Reformed churches.

At its last working session on February 3, 1997, the Lutheran Reformed Coordinating Committee called attention to the fact that the Formula of Agreement sets forth a fundamental doctrinal consensus that is based on, and presumes, the theological agreements of earlier Lutheran-Reformed dialogues, including the 1983 statement: "Our unity in Christ compels us to claim our strong affinities in doctrine and practice." Both Lutheran and Reformed traditions:

a. Affirm themselves a living part of the church catholic.

b. Confess the Nicene and Apostles' Creeds.

c. Affirm the doctrine of justification by faith as fundamental.

d. Affirm the unique and final authority of Holy Scriptures in the church.

e. Affirm the real presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper.

f. Affirm the priesthood of all believers and have interpreted this as our servanthood to God and our service to the world.

g. Affirm the vocation of all the baptized, which is service (ministry) in every aspect of their lives in their care of God's world.

h. Affirm that they are in faithful succession in the apostolic Tradition and that faithful succession in this Tradition is all that is necessary for mutual recognition as part of the church catholic.

i. Share a common definition of a church in the apostolic Tradition: a community where the word is rightly preached and the sacraments rightly administered.

j. Identify a ministry of Word and sacrament as instituted by God.

k. Ordain once to a ministry of Word and sacrament, and the functions of such persons are identical.

l. Understand that ordination is to the ministry of the church catholic. Such ordinations in both traditions have usually been by presbyters.

m. Have granted the appropriateness under some circumstances of one ordained person exercising episkope, oversight (under a variety of titles, including that of bishop), but both traditions have ordinarily exercised the function of episkope collegially through such structures as presbyteries and synods.

n. Affirm that the church always must be open to further growth and reformation. Both traditions have been willing to be self-critical. Both traditions have become increasingly open to a historical-critical understanding of the history of the church and of their respective traditions within the apostolic Tradition.

General Synod Actions Relating to the Lutheran-Reformed Dialogues

In response to the dialogue of 1981-83, the 1986 General Synod voted:

To adopt the suggested Reformed/Lutheran response as the official response of the RCA to the proposals of the Lutheran-Reformed dialogue (MGS 1986, R-5, p. 155).

The Commission on Christian Unity, in its report to the 1986 General Synod, also reported:

In the long history of Lutheran-Reformed relations, there has been recognition of the many things that our traditions have affirmed together. The Reformed Church in America is mindful of this shared heritage and is grateful that An Invitation To Action provides the occasion to make the following affirmation as an official action of this church.

a. Recognize one another as churches in which the gospel is proclaimed and the sacraments administered according to the ordinance of Christ.

b. Recognize as both valid and effective one another's ordained ministries which announce the gospel of Christ and administer the sacraments of faith as their chief responsibility.

c. Recognize one another's celebrations of the Lord's Supper as a means of grace in which Christ, truly present in the sacrament, is given and received, forgiveness of sins is declared and experienced, and a foretaste of eternal life is granted.

Therefore, we urge our churches to:

d. Enter into a process of reception of these recognitions so that they may become a part of the faith and life of each church at the deepest level, moving beyond purely administrative and intellectual action (MGS 1986, p. 154).

In response to the Lutheran-Reformed dialogue of 1988-1992, the 1993 General Synod voted:

To commend the Commission on Christian Unity (working with the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., and the United Church of Christ) for its dialogue with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as to commend the work of our two RCA theologians...and RCA denominational staff person (MGS 1993, R-2, p. 197).

In response to the Lutheran-Reformed Joint Coordinating Committee's development of the Formula of Agreement declaring "full communion" between the Reformed and Lutheran churches, the 1994 General Synod voted:

To instruct the Commission on Christian Unity to produce and distribute to all RCA clergy and clerks of consistories a brief compendium of A Common Calling: The Witness of Our Reformation Churches in North America Today, highlighting the main points of the Reformed-Lutheran dialogue, along with its implications for clergy and congregations (MGS 1994, R-1, p. 172).

Among its reasons for proposing R-1, the Advisory Committee on Christian Unity stated:

R-1 encourages a positive General Synod vote in 1997. The advisory committee noted that a fragmented body of Christ undercuts the ultimate effectiveness of all Christian endeavor, and that disunity in the church blunts the basic message of the gospel of reconciliation (MGS 1994, p. 173).

The same advisory committee further recommended, and the 1994 General Synod voted:

To urge RCA clergy and congregations to use A Common Calling and the companion study, A Common Discovery, in adult education classes; and further,

to urge RCA clergy and congregations to engage, where possible, in joint studies with congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (MGS 1994, R-2, p. 173).

In its reason for proposing the above R-2, the Advisory Committee on Christian Unity stated the same reason as presented with R-1 above:

R-1 encourages a positive General Synod vote in 1997. The advisory committee noted that a fragmented body of Christ undercuts the ultimate effectiveness of all Christian endeavor, and that disunity in the church blunts the basic message of the gospel of reconciliation" (MGS 1994, p. 173).

In 1995 the Formula of Agreement was presented to the General Synod for information (MGS 1995, pp. 164-73). In response to its review of the formula, the 1995 General Synod voted:

To commend the Commission on Christian Unity for its work in developing the Formula of Agreement (MGS 1995, R-1, p. 173).

The 1996 General Synod received an overture from the Classis of South Grand Rapids calling for a postponement of "any decision on the Formula of Agreement" until the United Church of Christ, one of the Reformed partners in the dialogue, be informed that "the RCA is opposed to the policies adopted by the United Church of Christ which condone homosexual behavior and that the two churches" enter into dialogue . . . on the issue of homosexuality (MGS 1996, p. 207).

In response to this overture, the 1996 General Synod took no action to postpone the proposed vote in 1997 establishing "full communion" with the ELCA. No conditions on the 1997 vote were implied or stated by the 1996 General Synod.

However, with regard to the homosexual issue of differences between the UCC and the RCA, the 1996 General Synod voted:

To instruct the Commission on Christian Unity to engage the United Church of Christ (UCC) in dialogue on the issue of homosexuality in the context of the paper, "An Ecumenical Mandate for the Reformed Church in America" (MGS 1996, pp. 184-97) and the Formula of Agreement with its convenantal call for the churches to:

Establish appropriate channels of consultation and decision-making within the existing structures of the churches;

Commit themselves to an ongoing process of theological dialogue in order to clarify further the common understanding of the faith and foster its common expression in evangelism, witness, and service; and

Pledge themselves to living together under the gospel in such a way that the principle of mutual affirmation and admonition becomes the basis of a trusting relationship in which respect and love for the other will have a chance to grow (Formula of Agreement, Preface, p. 3);

and further,

to encourage this interdenominational discussion at the denominational, classical/association, and congregational levels, based on prior Reformed Church in America statements on homosexuality (MGS 1996, R-4, p. 211).

The 1996 General Synod also voted:

To inform the United Church of Christ that while we ourselves have failed in many ways to submit our sexuality to the lordship of Jesus Christ and that while we too wrestle daily with the lusts of the flesh, in a spirit of repentance and love the Reformed Church in America is opposed to the policies adopted by the United Church of Christ which condone homosexual behavior; and further,

to offer to enter into dialogue with the United Church of Christ on the issue of homosexuality for the purpose of encouraging the UCC to move toward a more biblically faithful understanding of human sexuality and to move toward a repeal of all its policies condoning homosexual behavior (YES-112, NO-110) (MGS 1996, p. 214).

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