From a Lay Leader's Desk

A series of opinion articles from lay leaders in our synod.


The Tenth Amendment

Jan 09, 2019


By Renée Wicklund, MNYS Vice-President 

The first ten amendments to the United States Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. They prohibit the federal government from curtailing certain rights held by Americans, like free speech or due process of law. Tucked into the end of the Bill of Rights is an amendment that seems out of place to many folks: the Tenth Amendment, which states, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” In other words, the federal government can exercise only powers that the Constitution expressly bestows upon the federal government. Every other power belongs to State or local governments. For example, the federal government cannot decree what a State teaches in its public schools, or how much money a State spends on its roads. Those decisions belong to the States themselves.

What is an Amendment like that doing in the Bill of Rights? It’s there because many of our Constitution’s drafters thought the document should not have any bill of rights. The Constitution is meant to establish a limited federal government, they reasoned, so why would anyone believe the federal government is in a position to curtail individual rights? Even to include a bill of rights, they argued, suggested a federal government with more power than it was meant to have. So the Tenth Amendment represented a compromise. The Bill of Rights passed, but with an affirmation of the limitations on federal powers.

Seen another way, the Tenth Amendment’s inclusion in the Bill of Rights makes sense. That is, being free from federal government overreach is a right that Americans enjoy. Being able to pick the State in which one lives, and thereby which State laws one will obey, is a right that Americans enjoy. Individualized State laws range from less controversial (lotteries, highway speed limits) to downright polemic (medical marijuana, physician-assisted suicide). Americans have been known to move from State to State in order to live under particular laws.

By now, you’re probably thinking, “Sheesh, why did we choose a lawyer to be Synod vice-president?”

Stick with me. I promise I have a point.

I’m not speaking for our Synod here—I’m speaking for myself as a lay person, and how I see my role working for our Synod. I wanted to write this piece because when I visit congregations, two sentiments I hear frequently are, “We don’t like what the Synod is up to,” and, “We disagree with a Synod [action or statement].”

The 50 States of our great nation have their own personalities. Some States are more urban, some more rural. Some are filled with residents born there, some with newer arrivals or transient populations. Some depend on tourism, some on agriculture, some on industry, some on insurance, some on banking and finance. At any given time, what’s going on in Washington, D.C. is popular in some States, and unpopular in others. Just try to find the federal action that’s received in Mississippi the same way as in Massachusetts.

The 188 congregations within our Synod have their own personalities, too. Like any communities, they are living, breathing, changing. I view our Synod like a federated system: MNYS binds together many unique parts in the recognition that we are stronger together than apart. Our Synod serves, responding with support and experience when a worshipping community is in need. Our Synod provides, with grants, youth programs, leadership training. And our Synod is called upon to lead, including with social policies and public statements on extraordinarily challenging topics that have proven unpopular in some of our congregations.

Since the ELCA’s official founding in 1988, our Synod has lost congregations over questions of worship and liturgy as well as social/moral. I am not inclined to complain about the decisions of such congregations, or their pastors; dedicated and faithful servants of the one Church universal can reach different conclusions, and they followed their consciences. But I will say this: Secession does not make anyone stronger, or able to do more.

We are all Lutherans. What do we believe, all of us? We believe Jesus is God’s son, revealing to the world God’s great love for the world. What is the mission of this Church? Our mission is to recognize that together in Jesus Christ we are freed by grace to live faithfully, witness boldly, and serve joyfully.

That’s it. If we focus on this Church’s core mission and belief, we might discover that our disagreements, and the shortcomings we perceive, fall outside the core. That’s not to say that divergent opinions aren’t meaningful, or that only some voices need to be heard. All voices need to be heard. But when we raise our voices only for disagreement about matters outside our core belief and mission, we risk squandering the chance to use our strength for good, like spreading the Gospel (Mark 16:15), feeding the hungry (Matthew 25:37, 40), clothing the poor (Luke 3:11), welcoming the stranger (Romans 12:13).

The ELCA is a bottom-up church. In that way, we differ from the Roman Catholic Church and from many newer denominations. By its nature, this Church allows for disagreement on issues other than grace and Jesus as God’s son. In my estimation, that makes us downright ’Merican. The United States is not about Washington, D.C. It’s about Floridians living as Floridians and Iowans living as Iowans. Our Synod is not about the Bishop, the staff, or the Synod Council. It’s about you and your congregation, about me and my congregation, about our common freedom—to live, to witness, to serve—as Lutherans.