Shortly after the ELCA’s vote to change the sexual standards for ordained ministers in 2009, a strong and unexpected wind knocked over the bell tower of Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, which was helping to host the churchwide assembly. Many conservatives interpreted this stormy event as an act of God, expressing His displeasure with the vote. Revisionists responded in kind, saying it was God unleashing divine joy at seeing an oppressive structure of yesteryear finally knocked over. The whole thing was a good lesson in why Lutherans generally avoid seeking the clear will of God in natural occurrences. The Word suffices.
Now fast forward to the ELCA’s triennial churchwide assembly this past August in Milwaukee. No tornado struck the Wisconsin Center where the voting members gathered, leaving the question of whether God approved or disapproved in serious doubt for theological interpreters of the jet stream. In the end, though, no gust of wind was needed: the churchwide organization of the ELCA just may succeed in knocking over its own steeple.
“We Are Church” was the assembly’s theme, as though the ELCA were trying to assure itself. Probably, the theme developed under Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s influence, part of her Sisyphean effort to remind the ELCA what sort of thing it actually is. She almost elicited a crowd gasp when she asserted, in her report, that social concerns were “peripheral” to the Gospel and the preaching of Christ crucified and risen. The assembly swallowed its gasp, though, having just overwhelmingly re-elected Eaton a bit earlier. Is she being kept as a token sort-of-traditionalist? If not, the rest of the assembly’s decisions would suggest that its voting members did not especially share her Christ-and-Gospel-centered vision.
You can read a summary of those decisions here. I’m not going to re-hash them, as I only attended the assembly for a few days as Lutheran CORE’s observer, being pulled away for parish matters later in the week. Suffice it to say, the decisions generally represent a socially-conscious array of All the Right (Left?) Things, with condemnations of patriarchy and white supremacy leading the charge. A few celebrations were sprinkled here and there, a couple new and heresy-ish-sounding strategies, and one change in polity (the ordination of the diaconal office) that would have split the ELCA once upon a time but that barely received notice today. All those things have already received a host of criticism, online and around the church. But, in the end, they may not be a breeze that tips the campanile.
Not Much from Churchwide to ELCA Congregations
Through it all, one set of questions kept emerging for me: What is “churchwide ELCA” doing for the rest of the ELCA? How is it positively affecting congregations? Don’t read in those questions some sort of anti-institutional bent. I tend to think that conservatives can be hampered in mission by their anti-institutionalism. Institutions are dirt: good in some places, bad in others. Use as necessary. So of course a church should have some kind of office tending to lists and rosters and things. But looking over the resolutions and memorials, and listening to the Presiding Bishop’s report, I was struck with how much of the direction was from the congregations to churchwide—please memorialize this, please authorize that–and so little flowed from churchwide back to the congregations.
To be sure, there were likely many congregations, pastors, and lay members who rejoiced at the ELCA’s decisions. But beyond their rejoicing, how were even the supporters of the assembly’s “actions” seriously affected by them? Many of the resolutions or memorials seemed simply to affirm things that were already happening locally. Would any of them have stopped had the churchwide ELCA yawned at their affirmation? In his rather interesting report, Secretary Boerger noted that less than 6% of the ELCA’s total offerings are headed towards the synods and churchwide offices. Why, particularly, should there be more? Does that dearth of offerings signal a sense in the ELCA generally that its synodical and churchwide expressions are—what? Less than inspiring?
God Has A Way of Sorting His Church
My point is this: as bad as doctrinal revision may be, it may not be the only reason why a denominational superstructure ends up shuttering its doors (or even the most significant reason). Recent studies have suggested that conservative and liberal Lutherans in America are both shrinking despite their doctrinal differences). A different kind of decay, the natural mold of bureaucracy and vainglory, may prove equally if not more effective in toppling a tower once considered mighty by men. For God has a way of sorting His Church, does He not? He dispenses with what isn’t helping, though He may keep it around longer than we would suppose, simply to heap up glory for Himself on the last day.
In the meantime, the ELCA’s churchwide actions, as outrageous as some have been, sparked about as much reaction from me as hearing that my fourth child has just shoved a green bean up his nose. After a few rounds at that rodeo, every parent knows to pinch the opposite nostril and blow out the bean, the tiny action figure, the bead from a broken bracelet. It’s a problem, but not one that will long endure. Keep preaching, resisting, and directing the sheep to green pastures; tend the table faithfully; and then pinch your nostrils, carry on, and remember that the Holy Spirit is a wind who blows where He pleases.
Photos of the 2009 CWA are courtesy of Pr. Steve Shipman. Pr. Steven Gjerde took the photo of the 2019 CWA.