PLEASE, LORD, BRING FIRE
For me one of the most challenging parts of writing an article or a letter is knowing where and how to start. I know what I want to say. I know what I want to include. But where and how do I begin?
That is the challenge I was facing with my August letter from the director, where I wanted to write about and review two church gatherings that took place during the same week – the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in Milwaukee and the NALC Theology Conference, Mission Festival, and Convocation in Indianapolis. I attended the NALC events. Many thanks to ELCA pastor Steve Gjerde, vice president of our board, who attended the ELCA event and gave us on Facebook an account of the proceedings as they occurred.
I wanted to write about those two gatherings and I knew what I wanted to include, but for several days I could not answer the question, “Where and how do I begin?” But then, one week after both events, during a telephone conversation with a pastor colleague, I was reminded of the Gospel reading for August 18, the second Sunday after both assemblies – Luke 12: 49-56. In that passage Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! . . . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
During the days leading up to and even more so since the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly, we all have grieved over the relationships that have been strained and even broken, the damage that has been done to congregations, and a church body that is going off in the wrong direction. The division is even greater – the lines are now even more sharply drawn – as the ELCA goes further and further away from a traditional, orthodox understanding of the authority of the Bible, the mission of the church, and moral values.
Four days after the close of the assembly, on August 14, the ELCA released a summary of actions that were taken by the assembly. A link to that summary can be found here. The opening sentence stated that the voting members made “a number of key decisions to further the mission and ministry of this church.” Those key decisions included naming patriarchy and sexism as sins; calling on the church to take action against gender-based violence, workplace discrimination, and economic inequality; pursuing racial diversity and inclusion; adopting memorials dealing with gun violence, engagement in the Holy Land, and gender identity; affirming the ELCA’s long-standing commitment to migrants and refugees; declaring the ELCA to be a sanctuary church body; committing the ELCA to support a campaign against rape and violence; and condemning white supremacy.
NO MENTION OF JESUS
Did you notice that there is one thing missing in all these actions? There was no mention of Jesus. And there was only one mention of God, and that one mention had to do with speaking “boldly about the equal dignity of all persons in the eyes of God.” I did see one other mention of God in one of the daily press releases during the assembly, but that reference had only to do with using gender inclusive and expansive language for God. With no mention of Jesus, there is nothing in these actions regarding telling the world about what Jesus has done (grace). Instead they are all about what I need to do (works).
Now some might say that that lack of reference to Jesus and that minimal mention of God was only true of the summary of actions taken by the assembly. Certainly Jesus must have had a more important place during the assembly.
You might be able to convince me of that possibility if it had not been for the action taken by the assembly to adopt “A Declaration of Inter-religious Commitment” as “church policy for inter-religious relations.” A link to that declaration can be found here. The Declaration said, “We must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion.” It also stated, “Lutheran tradition has understood the word ‘faith’ to mean trust rather than affirming beliefs. Hence, we also must be careful not to judge our neighbors only on the basis of their religious beliefs. . . . All we know, and all we need to know, is that our neighbors are made in God’s image and that we are called to love and serve them.”
I do not know how anyone could read the Bible and study church history and say that “we must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion.” The prophet Elijah spared no energy in warning Israel against the worship of Baal. Other Old Testament prophets joined with him in clearly warning against worshipping the idols of the surrounding peoples. The apostle Paul warned the churches to whom he was writing about the other religions of the day. How could we say that the Bible says that we cannot know God’s judgments regarding other religions? And besides, to argue that faith means trust rather than affirming certain beliefs does not support the intent of this declaration because my trust is only as good as the object of my trust. I am not showing love for and I am not serving my neighbors (which the declaration calls upon me to do) if I do not warn them that what and/or whom they are placing their trust in is not worthy of their trust.
We commend a voting member of the assembly for reminding the assembly that in the words of Jesus in John 14: 6 we do have “a basis to know God’s views on religions that do not require faith in Jesus Christ.” This voting member proposed an amendment to the declaration both prior to and during the assembly. His motion to amend was overwhelmingly defeated. The policy statement was adopted with 97.48% voting in favor. How can we view the fact that the discussion took place in the presence of thirty-nine ecumenical and inter-religious guests on stage as anything other than the ELCA’s manipulating and controlling the outcome?
IN SHARP CONTRAST
In Luke 12 Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” “I came to bring division.” Contrast the actions and priorities of the ELCA Churchwide Assembly and its de-emphasis upon Jesus with the clear statements from the Rev. Dr. Daniel Selbo, who was elected to be the new bishop of the NALC (North American Lutheran Church). In answer to the question, “What hopes do you have for the mission of the NALC?” he wrote, “As a Christ Centered church body my hope is that we will continue to grow in our relationship with Jesus as our Savior and Lord. I hope each member of the NALC will become stronger in their own personal faith-walk with Christ. I hope our preaching and teaching will lift up the name of Jesus. . . . My hope is that Christ will be seen in us because we have fallen in love with Him and we have no greater purpose in life than to live for Him. . . . Because ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,’ we must be tireless in our efforts to increase the number of people who come to know Him as Lord.”
I AM DEEPLY DISTURBED AND CONCERNED
I am deeply disturbed by the actions taken, the resolutions approved, and the memorials adopted by the 2019 ELCA Churchwide Assembly. I am even more concerned when I consider the percentages of the votes.
The “Declaration of Inter-religious Commitment,” which we discussed above, was approved by a vote of over 97%. The social statement, “Faith, Sexism, and Justice,” was approved by a vote of 97%. Elizabeth Eaton was re-elected on the first ballot by a vote of over 81%. She is the first ELCA presiding bishop to win re-election on the first ballot. How could we expect her to view her re-election as anything other than a clear mandate to continue leading the church in the direction in which she has been leading it?
What is the significance of all of these nearly unanimous or high percentage votes? (Every photo I saw of voting members’ voting by ballot showed everyone holding up their green cards.) I can think of several probable outcomes from the ELCA’s leadership and chief decision-making body becoming almost completely of one mind.
- An increasingly intolerant attitude towards and eventual suppression of any dissenting position. They are well on their way to eliminating anything other than the preferred view. If they are already at 97%, and there were about nine hundred voting members, they only have to eliminate twenty-seven people in order to be at 100%. Why would they even bother to pretend to honor bound conscience and listen to and give a place for traditional views if the prevalence of revisionist views is so strong? Even though the ELCA leadership and makeup of the churchwide assemblies will be increasingly out of synch with the majority of congregation members sitting in the pews and supporting the work of the church, those in power will fully be able to implement their agenda and priorities.
- An even stronger trend to promote only the official ELCA values and views at the ELCA seminaries. While we are very thankful for every orthodox ELCA pastor serving in an ELCA congregation and as Lutheran CORE want to do everything we can to support them, it is only a matter of time until every ELCA rostered leader will have attended and graduated from seminary post 2009. Orthodox churches who are blessed to have an orthodox pastor and who believe that all of this cannot and will not affect them are in for a rude awakening.
- An even easier path for positions that a few years ago would have been unthinkable to become acceptable, mainstream, and even preferred. For example, there is a video in which Bishop Elect Leila Ortiz of the ELCA’s Metro Washington D. C. Synod speaks favorably of polyamory (a relationship in which there are three or more partners). A link to that video can be found here. With the churchwide assembly being so strongly of one mind, what is to prevent an even further erosion of Biblical views and values from taking place?
In the July 2019 issue of CORE Voice we wrote about the document, “Trustworthy Servants of the People of God,” which was written in order to express what the ELCA expects of its rostered leaders. A link to that article can be found here. As we mentioned, the document was recommended to the ELCA Church Council by the ELCA Conference of Bishops. But after hearing from many who objected to it, the ELCA Church Council declined to consider it and instead referred it back to the Domestic Mission Unit, who had originally written it, for review and revision. In our opinion it was rejected because it was just too traditional and conservative. We believe that the review and rewriting process will continue until it is exactly what the LGBTQIA+ agenda and community want it to be.
There was a very interesting email that was sent out to some ELCA rostered leaders on August 3, in which Pastor Phil Hirsch, executive director of the ELCA’s Domestic Mission Unit, asked for input. He said that the review and rewriting committee wanted to hear from “various communities,” including “the confessionally conservative” and “those from all four convictions identified in the social statement ‘Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust.’”
On the one hand, we are encouraged by the possibility that an ELCA task force might actually want to hear from “the confessionally conservative” and those who hold to more traditional views. But then we wonder whether traditional views will actually be taken seriously and whether this is only a way so that they will be able to say, “We heard from all sides.” We are reminded of how strongly some people objected even to Lutheran CORE’s presence at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly. Some people said that even our presence made them feel unsafe, to say nothing about the willingness on the part of the leadership of the assembly to announce our evening hospitality gathering twice. One person asked, “Who will they allow to be here next? The Taliban?”
If even our presence at the 2016 Churchwide Assembly was so strongly objected to, how much more of an outcry will there be against the review and rewriting committee’s wanting to hear from “the confessionally conservative” and from those who hold to positions one and two as identified in the human sexuality social statement? And will it be even easier for the objecting voices to prevail given that the votes at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly were so close to being unanimous?
Still, if you have received one of those emails from the Domestic Mission Unit, asking for your input, we urge you to respond.
IS THERE ANY HOPE?
Many times I have been asked by people, “Is there any hope that the ELCA will turn around?” I always tell them, “It would take a major intervention on the part of God. It would take a powerful working of the Holy Spirit.” Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! . . . . Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!”
We pray for a sending of the power and fire of the Holy Spirit, to convict us of error and to bring us back to Biblical truth. We pray that we will not be comfortable and at peace until the church returns to recognizing Jesus rather than a social activist agenda as its Lord. We pray that the church will be united under the authority of God’s Word, which is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Hebrews 4: 12), and able to pierce and divide truth from error, true worship from idolatry, true values from misplaced priorities.
Jesus said, “I came to bring fire to the earth.” Jesus, we need Your fire. We need Your fire to reform, renew, reorient, and redirect Your church. Please, Lord, bring Your fire. How we wish it were already kindled!
Pastor Dennis D. Nelson
Executive Director of Lutheran CORE