There were several things in the October 10 News Story about the September 26-30 meeting of the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops that I found to be most interesting, significant, and troubling. A link to that news release can be found here.
First, I assume that the ELCA Conference of Bishops’ highest value and greatest joy must be the dynamic that was highlighted in the title for the news story as well as what is emphasized in the second paragraph. The title is “ELCA Conference of Bishops welcomes greater diversity.” The Rev. William O. Gafkjen, chairperson, described the conference as “more diverse in more ways than it has ever been.” He also referred to the ELCA as “a church unaccustomed to such blessed diversity.”
Evidently the ELCA Conference of Bishops’ highest value and greatest joy is not the joy of heaven, which is described in Luke 15 as being like the rejoicing of a shepherd who finds the lost sheep, the woman who finds the lost coin, and the father whose son has returned home. Instead their highest value and greatest joy is diversity.
ELCA and the Diversity of Opinion
Second, considering the recent ELCA Churchwide Assembly, I wonder how much diversity actually exists in the ELCA. Sure, the Conference of Bishops might now have more racial and ethnic diversity in their membership than ever before, but is there also a diversity of opinion? Is a diversity of opinion even welcome in the ELCA? Because orthodox students at ELCA seminaries tell me about being bullied and even silenced, I would say, “No.” Two resolutions that were voted on at the Churchwide Assembly – to approve the social statement on “Faith, Sexism, and Justice” and the “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment” – received a resounding “Yes” from at least 97% of the voting members. Reading that, I wonder, is there really any diversity of opinion in the ELCA? Would a diversity of opinion be welcome? Would it be tolerated? I would say, “No.” An amendment was proposed to the “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment,” which would have removed the statement, “We must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion.” That proposed amendment was based upon the clear words of Jesus in John 14: 6 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except through me.” When I read about how discussion of that amendment was almost immediately cut off and the amendment was soundly defeated, I say, “A diversity of opinion is not welcome in the ELCA.”
Diversity Among ELCA Bishops?
The 2009 social statement, “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” described four different views on same sex relationships and stated that all four views would be honored and treated with respect within “this church.” We now have a bishop – Bishop Leila Ortiz of the Metro Washington D. C. Synod – who accepts polyamory (three or more partners). A link to a video where she speaks in an accepting way about that kind of a relationship can be found here. That certainly is a kind of diversity. But is there also a diversity among the Conference of Bishops so that at least one bishop holds to and advocates for traditional views? If there is, why do we never hear from that bishop? Is that kind of diversity either not present, not allowed, or not allowed to be expressed?
Third, Bishop Gafkjen describes the results of this “blessed diversity” in this way. “It uncovers assumptions, challenges disparities and inequities, and calls for repentance and transformation” in the church. What in the world does that mean? Whatever it means, I am certain it does not refer to the “disparities and inequities” of the way in which the last ten years the ELCA has only supported and promoted the most revisionist views of human sexuality. It has not shown equal “profound respect for the conscience-bound belief” (“Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust,” page 21) of those who hold to traditional views, even though those who hold to traditional views were led to expect such “profound respect,” based upon the language of the 2009 social statement.
No Mention of Report
Fourth, I find it absolutely astounding that there is no mention at all that the Conference of Bishops discussed at all the recent report from the ELCA’s Office of Research and Evaluation, and the article by Dr. Dwight Zscheile of Luther Seminary, that was based upon that report. Dr. Zscheile’s article is entitled “Will the ELCA Be Gone in 30 Years?” Those documents reveal some rather shocking numbers based upon current trends in the ELCA. A link to Dr. Zscheile’s article can be found here. Is it really possible that membership in the ELCA could drop from just under 3.5 million in 2017 to just over 66,500 in the year 2050? Is it really possible that average Sunday morning attendance across the entirety of the ELCA could actually drop from 899,000 in 2017 to less than 16,000 in 2041? Could the ELCA basically cease to exist within one generation? Dr. Zscheile writes, “For all the energy spent on trying to turn things around over the past 40 years, there is little to show.”
I understand that this study came out last spring, so I find it absolutely astounding that there is no mention that either the Churchwide Assembly or the Conference of Bishops even brought up the report. Rather what are they doing? Celebrating their “blessed diversity.” Reminds me of the definition of insanity – thinking that you can get different and/or better results just continuing to do the same thing. It would be like the crew of the Titanic celebrating their “blessed diversity” even after the ship ran into an iceberg.
Fifth, I find the comment from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton in the third paragraph to be very revealing. She said, “I am convinced that the decisions we took were . . . not a flash-in-the-pan, reflexive attempt to seem ‘relevant.’” Why would she make a statement like that unless she was concerned that that is exactly what the decisions were or that is an accusation that she heard?
Sixth, I find it astounding what she says next. She quotes from Acts 15: 28, which is part of the letter from the Conference in Jerusalem to the “believers of Gentile origin.” “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.” How in the world could she make a claim like that – that the Holy Spirit agrees with the ELCA?
Go and Make Disciples
Compare the book of Acts and the letters of Paul, which are full of references to Jesus and to God, with the summary of actions from the ELCA Churchwide Assembly, where there is no mention of Jesus and only one mention of God. A link to that summary can be found here. Compare the clear message of the Bible that it does matter whether people know, love, believe in, and put their trust in Jesus with the words of the “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment.” That document says, “We must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion.” The final words of Jesus to his followers were, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” According to the “Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment,” our main role is not to do that, but only to love and serve our neighbor.
Cause of the Decline
How can someone say that the Holy Spirit agrees with the ELCA when the ELCA is saying that the Christian faith has nothing unique that is important and essential to offer to the world? Again I would like to quote from Dr. Zscheile’s article mentioned above. Dwight Zscheile and his colleague, Michael Binder, give as one of the ways of naming the root cause of the ELCA’s precipitous decline, “We aren’t clear about what’s distinctive about being Christian.” If the ELCA believes that it has nothing unique that is important and essential to offer to the world and if the ELCA is not clear about what is distinctive about being Christian, then how could the ELCA hope to experience the power of God and how could the ELCA say that the Holy Spirit agrees?
No Presentations on Traditional Views
Finally, the news story mentions that the Conference of Bishops received a training session by the executive director of Reconciling Works, that focused on sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. Just as there was no representation of traditional views at the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering, where a transgender advocate and two members of the “Naked and Unashamed” movement were among the keynote speakers and one of the most prominent voices in the ELCA led 30,000 young people in a chant rejecting traditional views as a lie, so the Conference of Bishops once again receives no presentation from those who hold to traditional views. If they were to do so, would that be just too much “blessed diversity”?