The ELCA held its Churchwide Assembly August 8-12 in Columbus, Ohio. The gathering sent a strong message to confessional Lutherans with traditional views – You are not welcome. In this article I will list several ways in which the decisions that were made and the events that took place communicate that message loud and clear.
First, the resolution concerning human sexuality that came from the Memorials Committee early on in the gathering was bad enough. The assembly voted overwhelmingly, without discussion, and with no concerns expressed “to authorize a social statement reconsideration to revise Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (2009) so that its wording reflects current church understanding, church policy, civil law, and public acceptance of marriage of same-gender and gender non-confirming couples.” It was obvious where this was headed, and it took only two days to get there. Towards the end of the week a resolution came through the Reference and Counsel Committee “to authorize a possible revision of the social statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” which “reconsiders the church’s current concept of the four positions of bound conscience.” At least there were a few people who spoke against this resolution, and 12% voted against it, but still the days of the ELCA’s claiming to honor bound conscience and to provide a place for those who hold traditional views are over.
I am certain that the ELCA never intended to honor traditional views. The language regarding bound conscience and the four positions was placed within the 2009 social statement only to obtain enough votes to get the social statement approved. One needs to look no further than the ELCA’s total embrace of ReconcilingWorks and its choice of keynote speakers for the 2018 youth gathering to realize that confessional Lutherans with traditional views are not welcome.
David Charlton, vice president of our board, has done a powerful analysis of the possible (even probable) implications of this action.
- Candidacy committees and seminaries will no longer need to pretend to work with traditional candidates. They can reject them outright.
- Seminaries will be able to openly purge any traditional professors who remain, in the name of ELCA policy.
- Synods will no longer need to work with congregations who do not want to call LGBTQIA+ pastors. These congregations can be told, “Either call an LGBTQIA+ person or you will get no pastor at all.”
- It will be difficult for a pastor who holds traditional views to move to a new synod or a new call. A bishop will be able to refuse to recommend a pastor for a new call if that pastor is unwilling to do same sex weddings.
- It will be easier to sue congregations for not doing same sex weddings.
Second, during the days leading up to the assembly there was much conversation about calling for a restructure of the governance of the ELCA. I read comments from many people who believed that the Memorials Committee’s original recommendation to refer the memorials from synods to the Church Council was an act of deliberately stonewalling their efforts. Some even talked about a showdown at the assembly. By the time of the assembly the Memorials Committee had changed its recommendation – to one which directed “the Church Council to establish a Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church” which would be “particularly attentive to our shared commitment to dismantle racism” and would “present its findings and recommendations to the 2025 Churchwide Assembly in preparation for a possible reconstituting convention.”
One could hope, when this new church is reconstituted, that congregations will be given an opportunity for an “easy exit” because the new church will not be what they had signed up for in 1988. There is even talk about removing the word Evangelical from the name of this new church. The claim is that the word evangelical is associated in the minds of many people with right-wing, racist, white-supremacy fundamentalists.
Prior to the assembly I read much criticism of Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton – some of it even very severe. Some were calling for her resignation or a vote of no confidence because of the way she initially handled the situation with Meghan Rohrer and Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina. Bishop Eaton survived the assembly (though she did test positive for COVID on the morning of the final day – we pray for her quick and full recovery) and she demonstrated throughout the week her great giftedness for presiding over a large and complex gathering. But I definitely got the impression that she was not setting the course. The relentless revisionists were, and they have completely taken over.
Third, the whole assembly was a powerful example of the amount of damage that can be done to and the depth of embarrassment that can be created for a large organization by the foolish and self-centered actions of just one person. It felt like the specter of former bishop Meghan Rohrer and their termination of Nelson Rabell on the Feast Day of our Lady of Guadalupe hung over the entire week.
Fourth, Bishop Eaton’s apology to Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina was deep and thorough, and the response of the representatives of the congregation was incredibly gracious, but it should be noted that Bishop Eaton apologized only on behalf of the ELCA. She did not apologize for herself. It is a whole lot easier – and a whole lot less painful – to apologize on behalf of a large group of people rather than on behalf of yourself.
During the apology she said, “Part of the body was disconnected; the body was not whole.” She also promised to be “committed to listen to voices that have traditionally been marginalized.” But what about another part of the body that is disconnected? What about other voices that are being marginalized – the voices of those who hold traditional views? During and after the 2009 Churchwide Assembly Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson reached out to those who were feeling alienated by the actions that were taken (even if it was only for the self-serving reason to preserve the organization). I have not heard of any effort – nor do I expect to hear of any effort – to reach out to those who feel disconnected and marginalized, even more so now because of the vote on the human sexuality resolution. We are just too few in number and we are seen as insignificant. Unlike Pastor Rabell and Iglesia Luterana Santa Maria Peregrina, pastors and congregations who hold traditional views do not have well-positioned, powerful, and credible people to advocate for them – and to do so relentlessly – until finally something is done.
Fifth, the overwhelmingly positive vote on the Land Back Memorial is another example of ELCA inconsistency and hypocrisy. The assembly fully supported a resolution which, among other things, called upon the ELCA to “support creative programs of restorative justice in partnership with Indigenous people, including, but not limited to, whenever considering a transfer or sale of real property, including returning land (and any structures built on it) after satisfying any financial obligations, to the appropriate Native nations, and when direct return is not feasible or not desired by the Indigenous people, to return the proceeds from the sale of the land to the ELCA Native American Ministry Fund or other local Indigenous led ministries or organizations.”
Several months ago I wrote a letter to the bishop of the synod in which I was rostered before I retired. In that letter I said that if that synod truly believes that the land now occupied by the synod offices and all of the congregations of that synod is stolen land, then they are morally obligated – whenever they close a congregation and sell the property – to return at least the value of the land to indigenous persons, and if they do not do so, then they would be complicit in the stealing of land. The problem is that the number of congregations in that synod and the size and vitality of the remaining congregations are so diminished. Therefore, that synod needs considerable funds from the sale of buildings and land of closed congregations to balance the budget.
Will the ELCA truly want to return land and structures to Native nations if the ELCA is struggling financially, or is virtue signaling something the ELCA does only when it does not cost too much? Also, will the ELCA be willing to return the land and structures of congregations that had to pay a very high price to leave the ELCA? And if those congregations no longer exist, will the ELCA be willing to give the land and structures (or the value of that land and those structures) to other church bodies which better reflect the beliefs and values of those congregations that paid a very high price to leave and/or were decimated by the persons whom the synod sent in?
Sixth, those who hold a pro-life position should be deeply disturbed by the action that was taken to archive a number of social policy resolutions. In the ELCA social statements cover broad frameworks and are intended to help God’s people think about their faith in the context of social life. Social policy resolutions are a much narrower and more focused category of social teaching.
The idea behind archiving a social policy resolution or social statement is to say that that document is no longer relevant to the ELCA’s mission, does not have continued significance for society, and is no longer congruent with ELCA social teaching. The ELCA’s abortion social policy resolution states essentially the same thing as the ELCA’s 1991 abortion social statement, and it has now been archived. It has been ruled as not relevant, not still significant, and not still congruent with ELCA social teaching. It is only a matter of time – perhaps at the 2025 churchwide assembly – until the ELCA’s abortion social statement also will be ruled as not relevant, not still significant, and not still congruent. After all, as one person said recently, “The ELCA’s abortion social statement was written in the 1900’s.” I do not remember any explanation of the meaning and significance of archiving prior to the vote to archive. If anyone who holds a pro-life position happened to be present, there is a good chance that that person would not have understood what just happened.
Seventh, there was a lot of strange spirituality and even the worship of other gods during the assembly. The opening focused more on the original inhabitants of the land than on Jesus, and the welcome from the bishop of the host synod focused more on the rivers that flow through that synod than on Jesus. And the prayer from a member of the prayer team during the vote on the human sexuality resolution was particularly strange. First, Bishop Eaton needed to be reminded of the importance of having a prayer even though voting had already begun. And the wording of the prayer was completely irrelevant. A member of the assembly prayer team read from her i-phone an invocation to Mother Earth and Father Sky, concern for all the creatures of the earth, and repentance for our not recycling enough. The only possibly relevant phrase was, “Help us to dance together,” but even considering that phrase relevant is a stretch. The thinking seems to be that if we pray prior to a vote, then the outcome of the vote must be within the will of God.
Eighth, one might wonder how so much groveling, repenting, and apologizing by the assembly could possibly be uplifting for the voting members. The reason is that they were groveling over, repenting of, and apologizing for what other people have done and not for anything that they have done or ever would do. A definite characteristic of the whole Woke Movement is an arrogant self-righteousness.
Ninth, in an article entitled “Major Disaster on Its Way,” published prior to the assembly, I wrote of my concern regarding two constitutional amendments that would be considered. A link to that article can be found here. The first amendment, which removed proclaiming God’s love for the world from the role of rostered leaders and essentially made them social justice advocates, was originally voted on in 2019. This amendment was part of a block of amendments that were ratified overwhelmingly. A motion to ratify previously approved amendments is not open to debate. ELCA parishioners should not be surprised if their pastors do not preach about Jesus, but instead are only social justice warriors.
I was glad to hear considerable concern expressed regarding the role of the ELCA’s colleges and universities as described in the other amendment. Many felt that the deletion of a certain paragraph from the constitution weakened the church’s connection with those institutions and diminished their Christian witness. A slight majority voted to approve, but it did not receive the required 2/3rds, so the amendment failed.
Tenth, it was good to see certain issues addressed – such as the evils of racism and abuse of power, the need for fair and adequate compensation for all rostered leaders, and the issue of seminarian debt. And there were four times when the proceedings made me chuckle.
- When Bishop Matthew Riegel of the West Virginia-Western Maryland Synod responded in the words of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to a motion to eliminate the breaks in order to give more time to the consideration of the memorials. He said, “If we do not satisfy the lower level needs, we will never be able to self-actualize.”
- When a voting member who made a motion to table the Land Back Resolution was told that a better way to go would be a motion to postpone debate until a fixed time or when certain conditions have been met. His response was, “I have no idea how these rules of whatever work.”
- When Bishop Eaton said to Bishop Riegel, “I have learned not to doubt you.”
- When a voting member spoke to a certain resolution, using all the right woke phrases but not making any sense. Bishop Eaton had a very pained and confused look on her face as the voting member was speaking and then said, “Thank you.”
The “Embody the Word” Bible studies prior to the assembly culminated on the second day with a theological presentation by Anthony Bateza, associate professor of religion at St. Olaf College. He talked about the importance of trust, the lack of trust today, and the question of how do and can we become people who can be trusted. He told of his having to undergo surgery and physical therapy after tearing his ACL in a skiing accident. He said that he needed to learn to trust his own body again.
Even more so than ever before – with the motion “to authorize a possible revision of the social statement on Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and reconsider “the church’s current concept of the four positions of bound conscience” – the ELCA has totally obliterated any reason why anyone with traditional views would ever trust the ELCA. The damage to the body is irreparable. Far more than an ACL has been torn.