AN ANALYSIS OF RECENT EVENTS
IN THE ELCA’S SIERRA PACIFIC SYNOD
For years I have been writing articles about the ELCA – often with the subtitle, “What Will It Be Next?” The images I have chosen for those articles have often been a car or motorcycle careening out of control, a road with the pavement washed out, a road with a bridge ahead washed out, a road covered by an avalanche of rocks, or a road that goes over a cliff. I have been certain that eventually the ELCA will crash.
That “eventually” could very well be soon. Last December the bishop and synod council of the ELCA’s Sierra Pacific Synod (northern California and northern Nevada) terminated the call of a Latino mission developer, and did so on December 12, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, one of the most special days for many in the Latino community. At first Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton did not follow the recommendations of the “Listening Team” which she had convened, but instead felt that the words and actions of Bishop Megan Rohrer of the Sierra Pacific Synod did not rise to the level of initiating disciplinary procedures. Instead she merely asked Bishop Rohrer to resign because they (Bishop Rohrer’s chosen pronoun) no longer had the trust and confidence of the synod. A resolution proposed at the June 2-4 synod assembly that Bishop Rohrer resign by the end of the assembly and that they be dismissed from their position if they do not resign failed to pass by a vote of about 56% to 44%. A two-thirds majority vote would have been required. The synod assembly ended with Megan Rohrer still serving as bishop, but the fallout continues across the ELCA. Congregations within that synod have said that they will leave the ELCA and at least one other synod has said that they will stop sending financial support to the ELCA as long as Megan Rohrer continues as bishop. In addition I read of plans for demonstrations during the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August.
Here is a link to a website that contains the most complete list that I am aware of to articles and videos related to the crisis.
I have been reading about the situation and watching it unfold for months, but I certainly do not claim to fully understand it. Nor is it my role or my responsibility to make a statement about the rightness and/or wrongness of the actions and words of the people involved. But I would want to make it abundantly clear. Racism is wrong. Abuse of power is wrong. Discrimination and unequal treatment of people are wrong.
In this article I want to explore two things. First, Why has this whole situation been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA? (For shock waves have been reverberating not just in one synod, but throughout the entire church body.) And second, What does this whole situation say about the ELCA?
First, Why has this situation been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA? I can think of six reasons.
First, because the ELCA already was a weakened and injured church body. The ELCA is painfully aware of the fact that it is significantly diminished from what it was when it was formed in 1988. The number of members has decreased from over five million to less than 3.3 million in thirty-four years. The number of congregations has dropped from over 11,000 to under 9,000. And the congregations that remain are significantly diminished. Smaller congregations mean less income to congregations, which means less income to synods, which means less money to churchwide. The ELCA is obsessed with the fact that it has been labelled “the whitest denomination in the United States” (and this in spite of all of its efforts to be inclusive and multi-ethnic). And the ELCA is constantly apologizing for everything and for all of the ways in which it has been complicit in the mistreatment of all disadvantaged peoples. How could any organization – or any person – who is significantly diminished, failing to meet goals, and constantly apologizing be healthy and strong?
Second, the ELCA promotes a culture of victimization. Throughout this whole situation – including at the recent Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly – people have been talking about how victimized they and other people are. Now, I fully agree that it is wrong to victimize people. I do not want to deny, minimize, or disregard the pain of those who have been victimized. But I believe that any organization where such a high percentage of the people see themselves as and will frequently talk about themselves as being victimized will not be healthy and strong.
Third, in the ELCA there is competition for who is the most oppressed, marginalized, abused, and powerless. For the person or group who is the most oppressed, marginalized, abused, and powerless actually has the most power. They are the ones who are most to be listened to because that they are the ones who have the most accurate insight into the way things “really are.”
Fourth, in the ELCA racism and white supremacy are the worst of sins. A synodical bishop, who a few short months ago was the greatest of celebrities, has become the worst of sinners. Even the presiding bishop is now being seen as having committed the unforgiveable sin. Because Bishop Eaton at first did not follow the recommendations of the “Listening Team” and did not see racism as sufficient reason to initiate disciplinary procedures against a synodical bishop, she is being accused of being what she has been speaking most strongly against.
Fifth, in the ELCA there is an absence of grace. Oh, the ELCA talks about grace. But it is the grace of being inclusive. According to the ELCA, God is inclusive; therefore I need to be inclusive. And anyone who is not as inclusive as God and me has committed the worst of sins. If grace is all about being inclusive, then there is no grace for anyone who is not inclusive. Not being inclusive is the unforgiveable sin.
I wrote about this in my article, “Did Jesus Die for Our Sins?” which appeared in the May issue of our newsletter, CORE Voice. A link to that article can be found here. For many within the ELCA the reason Jesus died on the cross was not to pay the price for our sins (for if He needed to do that, then God the Father would be a Cosmic Child Abuser). Instead Jesus was killed because His being inclusive was a threat to the Roman empire. But the problem with that view is that without the blood of Jesus the only resource I have to deal with my own sins and the sins of those who sin against me is my being inclusive and following the example of Jesus who was inclusive and who resisted oppressive, non-inclusive power structures.
Towards the end of the second day of the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly there was talk about wanting to be able to find reconciliation and healing. But without the blood of Jesus to cover over sin – without grace – how would you ever hope to be able to find reconciliation and healing when someone has committed the worst of sins?
Sixth, there is a real zeal for works righteousness within the whole “woke” movement. People need to show that they are just as woke as, if not more woke than, everyone else. Therefore, if someone has committed the worst of sins, I must jump in and show myself to be totally woke.
Those are six reasons why I believe the whole situation has been so explosive within and damaging to the entire ELCA.
Now I would like to turn our attention to my second question – What does this whole situation say about the ELCA? I can think of eight things.
First, just being part of a so-called “marginalized” people group does not qualify someone to be bishop. Enough said.
Second, Bishop Eaton has a habit of being very quick to issue statements and make judgments regarding issues outside the ELCA. And yet she was very slow – it took her three weeks – to make a statement about and to become involved in this issue within her areas of responsibility. She has plenty to deal with within her own arena of oversight. She needs to focus her energy and attention on her areas of responsibility.
Third, at the Sierra Pacific Synod Assembly Bishop Eaton made a very strong statement against racism and white supremacy. A similarly strong statement was made by the interim vice president of the ELCA, Carlos Pena, who presided over much of the proceedings. I wonder whether Bishop Eaton will ever be able to regain full credibility.
Fourth, the vote on the resolution to call for Bishop Rohrer’s resignation or dismissal if they do not resign failed by a margin of 56% to 44%. (A two-thirds majority vote would have been required.) A majority voted to dismiss, but not a two-thirds majority. That alone is a recipe for a disaster. I think of congregations where the vote to leave the ELCA failed. A majority voted to leave, but not a two-thirds majority. There are many tragic examples of what happened next.
Fifth, before the formation of the ELCA, I was a part of the ALC (American Lutheran Church). The ALC was much more congregational, much less hierarchical, than the ELCA was designed to be. In the ELCA synodical bishops have been given a great deal of power and authority.
But recently there has been much discussion that there needs to be a curbing of the power and authority of synodical bishops and synod councils, because the bishop and synod council of the Sierra Pacific Synod are seen as abusing that power and authority. I wonder how many synod assemblies will be working to have that issue come to the floor of the Churchwide Assembly.
Sixth, another dynamic that I have heard mentioned is what has been called the “Purple Code” – the at least unwritten agreement that the Conference of Bishops will circle the wagons whenever there is controversy and no synodical bishop will ever speak against another synodical bishop. But several synodical bishops have been calling for the need to bring charges against Bishop Rohrer. The wagons are no longer circled. Will they ever circle again? The Purple Code has been broken. Will it ever be intact again?
Seventh, I have heard that there has been much discussion the last few months that such things as parliamentary procedures and Roberts Rules are all rooted in systemic racism and all promote and maintain white supremacy. They disadvantage ethnic minorities, people whose primary language is other than English, and people of color. Therefore, they must all be dismantled. Again, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly in August should be interesting.
Eighth, for months Bishop Eaton has been talking about Future Church and her goal to reach one million “new, young, and diverse people” by the end of this decade. If people in the ELCA are already calling for a dismantling of everything in the ELCA that fosters racism and white supremacy, what will it be like when one million “new, young, and diverse people” become a part of the equation? I assume that most of these one million “new, young, and diverse people” will not have a history with the ELCA, will not value the ELCA, and will not have experience in being a part of church life. Is the ELCA really ready for what it says it wants?
How all of this will play out I do not know. Major new developments have occurred between the time when I started writing and when I finished writing this article. Bishop Eaton announced that she would bring charges against and would initiate a disciplinary process against Bishop Rohrer and Bishop Rohrer has resigned. I assume that there will be further developments by the time that you read this article. Part of the reality of writing an article like this is knowing that it will always be out of date.
Please join with me in praying for all those within the ELCA. No matter how far they have strayed, Jesus still loves them and He shed His blood for them.
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ANALYSIS OF BISHOP EATON’S “A PASTORAL MESSAGE ON ABORTION”
On May 17, a couple weeks after the news broke of a leak of a draft opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton released “A Pastoral Message on Abortion.” A link to her letter can be found here.
Please find below my analysis of what she has written.
It is very typical of Bishop Eaton to say a few words to make it sound like there is room for traditional views within the ELCA, but then she always comes down solidly on the revisionist side.
In the third paragraph of her communication she refers to the ELCA’s 1991 social statement on abortion and says, “This church holds both women and ‘developing life in the womb’ (page 2) as neighbors.” She acknowledges “life in the womb” as life and seems to give the impression that that life will be valued, considered, and cherished. She goes even further in the third paragraph when she adds, “This church longs for a future with fewer abortions every year.”
So far it sounds good. But in the seventh paragraph, after advocating for a “more just society that cherishes and guarantees the dignity of all,” she expresses no concern for cherishing and guaranteeing the dignity (or even life) of the “developing life in the womb.” She acknowledges the “developing life in the womb” as life, but then totally ignores any concern for the rights, preservation, and cherishing of that life.
Lack of clarification
In the third paragraph she states that the ELCA opposes “the total lack of regulation of abortion” (page 9 of the 1991 social statement) but does not state or affirm what kind of “regulation of abortion” the ELCA would and does support. As is typical, Bishop Eaton is very careful to make sure that she does not say anything that would lead to her being “blasted” by liberals and progressives. I understand that that is what happened when she said after the death of George Floyd that rioting was not peaceful protesting.
In the fourth paragraph she says, “Abortion must be legal, regulated, and accessible,” but she says nothing about how abortion should be “regulated.” Again, if she were to do so, she probably would be “blasted” by liberals and progressives.
She says nothing specific and definitive about whether there are situations where abortion would not be a morally defensible decision. She says nothing about the kinds, timing, and/or circumstances of abortions that the ELCA would not or might not support. She says nothing about the difference between situations where abortion may be deemed “medically necessary” for the life, health, and well-being of the mother, and situations where abortion is an easy way to get rid of an inconvenience.
Her concern for protection is totally one-sided.
In the fourth paragraph she says, “People who choose to have legal abortions should not be harassed,” but she shows no concern regarding –
- The vandalizing of church buildings or the disruption of worship services for congregations with traditional views.
- The picketing and protesting outside the homes of SCOTUS Justices with the intent to harass and intimidate.
- The long-term effects of allowing people who need to make difficult decisions to be harassed and intimidated – whether at the federal or local level, or even in the church.
Here is one more example of Bishop Eaton’s being very careful to make sure that she does not say anything that would result in her being “blasted” by liberals and progressives.
She also does not address the whole issue of the leak of a SCOTUS document and how that kind of betrayal of trust undermines the integrity of our institutions.
She engages in the same kind of fearmongering that has been running rampant in this situation.
In the sixth paragraph she says, “Any Supreme Court decision similar to the leaked draft. . . . has the potential to foster communities of conflict and moral policing rather than complex moral discernment. It will likely endanger or cause the deaths of people who need an abortion. And the legal bases (sic) established by any such decision threaten people’s access to birth control, same-sex marriage, voting rights and their right to privacy.”
Bishop Eaton makes these statements even though the draft opinion clearly states that the right to have an abortion is “fundamentally different” from “rights recognized in past decisions involving matters such as intimate sexual relations, contraception, and marriage.” (page 5)
She makes strong statements but then gives no evidence for how a change in one area (abortion) would threaten all these other areas.
Those who hold traditional views were belittled and ridiculed for their concerns leading up to 2009 regarding the slippery slope – that changing the ELCA’s position regarding same sex marriage would lead to other changes. Here we see “the other side” having a major concern for the slippery slope.
In the seventh paragraph she adds, “Any ruling similar to the leaked draft will . . . damage the health and well-being of many. The prospect is daunting.” Again, she is fearmongering.
In the fifth paragraph Bishop Eaton says, “This church teaches that abortion and reproductive health care, including contraception, must be legal and accessible.” By combining contraception with abortion within this sentence Bishop Eaton is again engaged in fearmongering – implying that if the Supreme Court takes away your right to an abortion, it may next take away your access to contraception.
What the draft opinion actually says
A link to the draft opinion can be found here.
Please note these three significant sentences –
- “The constitution makes no mention of abortion.” (page 1)
- “No such right is implicitly protected by any constitution provision.” (page 5)
- Therefore, the draft would “return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” (page 6)
Progressives/liberals say that the Supreme Court would make abortions illegal. In actuality, the draft opinion would overturn Roe v. Wade’s holding of a federal constitutional right to an abortion.
The draft opinion would not make abortions illegal. Instead it affirms that the constitution does not provide a basis for the right to an abortion. The right to have an abortion – or the limitations to the right – should be based upon the action of individual states.
In the sixth paragraph Bishop Eaton makes the statement, “I urge you to work locally to moderate any Supreme Court decision similar to the leaked draft.” In making that statement she seems to be acknowledging what the draft opinion is actually doing – returning the decision to the states.
Bishop Eaton’s “Pastoral Message on Abortion” makes one wonder whether she actually read the draft opinion before writing a letter about it.
She needs to be far more careful if she wishes to help contribute to “complex moral discernment” rather than “conflict and moral policing” (sixth paragraph). Instead of helping to avoid conflict, she has created conflict by releasing a statement that is highly critical of a position held by many within the ELCA. She is not serving well as presiding bishop of the whole church when she makes such strong statements that do not respect the diversity of viewpoint within the ELCA.
Once again the ELCA communicates that in spite of all of its talk about diversity and inclusivity, traditional views and those who hold them are not welcome.
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VIDEO BOOK REVIEWS
“WHEN HARRY BECAME SALLY” AND “STRANGE NEW WORLD”
Many thanks to NALC pastor Brett Jenkins for his review of two books which give a Biblical response to transgender ideology, a movement that is gaining predominance in our culture. Brett writes –
Since the advent of the Renaissance, Christian orthodoxy has faced increasing challenges to its beliefs, primarily in the form of alternative spiritualities and, as the Renaissance became the Enlightenment, materialism in its various manifestations, including the Darwinian account of human origins. The rise of transgenderism allied with postmodern assumptions presents a challenge on a new front, a front for which the Church is ill-prepared: human nature itself. This fact makes these books worth reviewing.
When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment by Ryan T. Anderson
This book details the cut-and-thrust of academic and the politics it has influenced in bringing about a historical moment when the first question asked by new parents since the dawn of time, “Is it a boy or girl?” has become impossible—and in some cases, illegal—to answer. It does so with evident compassion for those suffering from gender dysphoria while making clear that Christians and others sharing the conviction that culturally conditioned notions of gender have their roots in the objective fact of biological sex need to prepare themselves to be cultural pariahs. They need to take self-consciously active steps to educate their communities in a narrative different from that being imposed by cultural elites.
Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution by Carl R. Trueman
In this book Carl Trueman provides a succinct, easy-to-read history of the ideas and thinkers that have led to the “transgender moment.” This book was produced at the request of a thinktank for a resource for non-specialist teachers, leaders, and political staffers encapsulating the key insights of his 2020 book The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self: Cultural Amnesia, Expressive Individualism, and the Road to Sexual Revolution. The book ends with some helpful suggestions for ways church leaders could contribute to the cultural conversation as well as provide pastoral responses and care for congregation members.
This review, as well as nineteen others, have been posted on our YouTube channel. A link to the channel can be found here.
Thank you for your partnership in the Gospel.
Dennis D. Nelson
Executive Director of Lutheran CORE