“The Model Constitution is how we have agreed to live together,” she said. “No,” I thought to myself, “the Augsburg Confession is how we have agreed to live together.” The conversation arose because the synod office had asked me to update my congregation’s constitution. I began work on it, but had a concern about a part of the Model Constitution that seemed to require me to violate the Augsburg Confession. When I shared concern with the synod office, that was the reply.
One of my greatest frustrations serving as a pastor in the ELCA is the feeling that the Augsburg Confession has been eclipsed as the standard for how we will live together. A perfect example of this is a video greeting given by Bishop Guy Erwin for the Southwest California Synod at the beginning of the 2019 Pride Month. He said, “Lutherans believe that God’s love and mercy accepts us as we are, with no prior conditions, and then teaches us to love each other in return. This is what we call the Gospel.”
Now why get worked up about a message of acceptance to those who often feel unwelcome and condemned? It is not the idea of acceptance or the audience that causes me concern, but the message. I only mention Bishop Erwin’s summary of the Gospel, because I have been hearing the same message for several years and in multiple contexts. I have heard it from bishops, teaching theologians, and churchwide staff. You might say that it has become the official definition of the Gospel in the ELCA.
Article IV Defines the Gospel
What is the problem? There is no mention of sin and forgiveness. Article II of the Augsburg Confession defines our problem as sin. This sin separates us from God and one another and leads to eternal death. Article IV defines the Gospel as the message of forgiveness of sins for Jesus sake that is received by faith. Article III connects Articles II and IV by speaking of what God has done in Christ to reconcile us to himself and save us from our sins. A message of welcome and acceptance is surely appropriate, but it is not the Gospel. The Gospel is about redemption through Jesus Christ from sin, death and the devil.
I can remember a time in my life when I was acutely aware of my sinfulness. I would be horrified by the dishonesty, selfishness, self-righteousness and ill will of others, only to realize again and again that it was my own sin that I saw reflected in others. If you had told me at that time that God accepted me the way I was, it would have been of little comfort. I wanted forgiveness, reconciliation and a new beginning. That is what the Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel and the Sacraments gives.
Later on, in the same message, Bishop Erwin says, “We oppose all efforts to use our ancient scriptures to condemn others or separate them from us.” I certainly have no desire to use the Scriptures to condemn others or separate them from us. There is only one qualification for those who would seek God. That is to be a sinner in need of forgiveness. If the Church took a page from Alcoholics Anonymous, it might look something like this: “Hi, my name is David. I’m a sinner.” “Welcome, David.”
However, the statement that we do not use the Law to condemn others sounds strange coming from a leader of the ELCA. First of all, while we do not use Scripture to condemn others, we are to use the Scriptures to proclaim the Law. This Law reveals our sin and makes us aware of our need for Christ. It is the business of the Church to proclaim the Law and the Gospel.
Condemned by the ELCA
What makes that statement stranger still is that the ELCA has become quite good at condemning others and making people feel unwelcome. If you happen to be a person who isn’t convinced about Global Warming, doesn’t believe Scripture sanctions same sex marriage, is a police officer, a member of the armed forces, is a supporter of Israel, supports enforcement of immigration laws, or who opposes abortion, you are quite likely to feel condemned by the ELCA. Although I myself am more of a political moderate than a conservative, I am quite aware of how it must feel for a conservative member of my congregation to listen to what is said at synod assemblies, in print and in various messages from this church. When I raise these concerns, I do not always get a sympathetic ear.
What is most disappointing about all of this, is that in all the condemnation of those with wrong political and theological views forgiveness is seldom offered. The strange, and I assume unintended result, is the loss of the central mission of the Church. In the midst of talk about acceptance, we are a church that is quite good at condemnation. What we fail to offer to either those we accept or those we condemn is the forgiveness and new life that come through Jesus Christ. The Augsburg Confession, which for Lutherans is “how we have agreed to live together,” points us to a better way.