ELCA: Answer the Question! – Part 2

Once
again the ELCA refuses to be honest, to have integrity, and to allow the way it
is doing things to be challenged.  Instead,
once again it just ignores those challenges as it demonstrates that it hopes
that those who disagree will eventually just give up and go away.

Towards
the end of last November the ELCA declared on its Facebook page, “Before 2009,
our denomination sinfully refused to ordain any of our openly LGBTQIA+
siblings.”  It also said, “We highly
recommend checking out some of ReconcilingWorks’ resources.”

I
have several problems with these statements.

Sinful or Favoritism?

First, the ELCA is calling sinful the traditional position on sexual ethics, even though the traditional view was declared by the 2009 social statement to be one of four acceptable “conscience-bound” positions that would have a place in the ELCA.  I had the same problem in 2018 when ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, speaking at the youth gathering, led thirty thousand young people in renouncing the traditional view as a lie and the ELCA did nothing to distance itself from her as well as from her statements and actions.

If
the ELCA feels that it is free to take any one of the four positions that were
approved in 2009 and state publicly that that is the only acceptable view and
that holding to and advocating for any of the other three positions is a sin, then
it can also be said that the ELCA still teaches that homosexual behavior is a
sin (since that also is one of the four acceptable views) and that the ELCA
still believes that ordaining openly LGBTQIA+ persons is a sin. 

How can the ELCA, who claims to be a champion for justice and fairness, continue to make public statements and continue to take actions that favor any one of the four “ministry perspectives” over the others?  This kind of blatant favoritism is also shown in the Facebook page’s strong recommendation of ReconcilingWorks resources and not also giving equal endorsement to resources that advocate for the traditional view. 

Boundaries

Second,
what the ELCA has declared on its Facebook page goes far beyond the boundaries
of what was actually approved in 2009. 
The 2009 social statement and changes in ministry policies said nothing
about bisexual, transgender, or any of the other letters of the LGBTQIA+
formula.  The decisions in 2009 addressed
only same sex attracted people who are living in publicly accountable,
lifelong, monogamous, same gender relationships.

Demeaning

Third, what the ELCA has declared on its Facebook page denigrates the ministry of same sex attracted people who were serving in the ELCA prior to 2009 while living faithfully according to traditional, Biblical sexual ethics.  To claim that the ELCA did not ordain same sex attracted people prior to 2009 is simply false, to say nothing about its being stunningly demeaning to those faithful servants of God.

Two
times I telephoned the person whom the ELCA contact center said is in charge of
its Facebook page.  Two times I left a
voice mail message, asking that person to call me back so that I could inquire
as to how these statements fit in with what was actually approved in 2009.  But neither time did this person call me
back.  I did not want to be accused of
harassing this person, so I did not call a third time, but I do think that that
is an interesting way to not be held accountable for the accuracy and fairness
of what is posted on the ELCA Facebook page. 
Just do not call the person back. 
Then you do not have to deal with what they have to say.

Many times I have
been asked by people whether I think that what Lutheran CORE is doing will
actually get the ELCA to change.  I
always respond, “No, I do not.  It would
take an intervention by God to accomplish that. 
Rather my goal is three-fold – to try to make the ELCA uncomfortable about
what they are doing, to alert people to what is happening, and then to be there
for people when they become aware.”




Thanks Be to God! Memoirs of a Practical Theologian by Robert Benne

I
was thoroughly blessed through reading the recently published memoirs of Dr.
Robert Benne.  Many thanks to Dr. Benne
for writing them and to the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau for publishing
them.  Reading Dr. Benne’s memoirs
reminded me of when I saw the 1989 movie, “Born on the Fourth of July.”  While watching that movie, and while reading
Dr. Benne’s memoirs, I felt like I was reliving several of the years of my own
life. 

I
was born ten years after Dr. Benne, but like him I grew up in a culture that
supported and encouraged the Christian faith. 
He grew up in a small town in Nebraska. 
I was born in Minneapolis and spent some of the formative years of my
life in a small town in Iowa.  At that time
the world was trustworthy and safe, America was great and good, and right and
wrong were clearly defined (page 77). 
Bob Benne met his first black persons in college.  I had my first Asian friend in seminary. 

I
experienced and was dramatically changed by the same social and cultural
dynamics that strongly affected him, though at an age of ten years
younger.  We were both influenced by the
liberal idealism of the early 60’s.  Like
him, I came to view the church mainly as an instrument of social transformation
(page 83).  I identified with his
self-description, “I tried to swim with the radical tide” (page 88).  I was amused by his comment, “I became a
‘social justice warrior’ before the term had been coined” (page 106).  He mentioned that while teaching at the
Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago he worked with the Ecumenical Institute,
an organization that offered introductory courses to the Christian faith,
workshops on anti-racism, and training in community transformation.  I remember while attending college near
Chicago hearing a presentation by one of the staff members of the
institute.  I was stirred by what he said
and was determined that that is what I wanted to do after graduating from
seminary.

I
could identify with Dr. Benne’s then sharing the story of how he came to
realize the spiritual bankruptcy of that view of the mission and message of the
church.  He described himself as a
“wanna-be radical” who got “mugged by reality” (page 90).  He came to see how, by viewing the church
primarily as a vehicle of social transformation, he had reduced its
transcendent message to merely human efforts (page 89). 

I
greatly appreciate the way in which Dr. Benne shares so personally, openly, and
honestly the story of his own spiritual and ministry journey.  He feels deeply and articulates boldly and
clearly the seriousness of the departure of much of American Lutheranism from
the historic Christian faith.  He feels
the pain, and he can articulate the issues. 

In
the final pages of his memoirs he describes the events of the last twenty
years, including the formation of LCMC (Lutheran Congregations in Mission for
Christ), Lutheran CORE, and the NALC (North American Lutheran Church).  He states wisely and accurately, “Though
church schisms are undoubtedly serious matters that should be undertaken with
trepidation, it has seemed clear to me that the schismatic party was actually
the ELCA.  It simply collapsed before the
‘progressive’ American culture, as did other mainline Protestant denominations.
. . . The ELCA bishops, whose first duty was to defend the orthodox truth,
failed miserably” (page 167).

I am very grateful to Dr. Benne for writing these memoirs and am very thankful for the opportunity to read them.  I also want to thank Dr. Benne for the role he has played in the formation and life of Lutheran CORE and the ministry that he continues to have. 

Dr. Robert Benne currently teaches Christian Ethics at the online Institute for Lutheran Theology. He was Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion and Chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department at Roanoke College in Virginia for eighteen years before he left full-time teaching in 2000.  He founded the Roanoke College Center for Religion and Society in 1982 and directed it until 2012.  He continues at Roanoke College as a research associate in its religion and philosophy department.  A link to the ALPB (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau) website where you can order a copy of his memoirs can be found here.





Reflections on the Augsburg Confession – Part 2

Pr. David Charlton

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word
by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to
wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell
John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight,
the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and
the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is
anyone who takes no offense at me.”
(Matthew 11:2-6 NRSV)

There goes the Son …


Evangelical Lutheran Worship

These days, there are many who are offended by the God revealed in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Scriptures.  The primary offense is caused by the name Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Others take offense at the masculine pronouns that the Bible uses for God.  As a result, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in its hymnal Evangelical Lutheran Worship, worked diligently to reduce the use of masculine pronouns to refer to God. This was particularly true in the translation of the Psalms. In addition, they provided an alternate invocation for the beginning of the liturgy that enabled congregations to avoid saying Father and Son.  Many of the Prayers of the Day and all of the Proper Prefaces, were changed so that prayer was addressed to God in general rather than to the Father.  Over the years, Sundays and Seasons, the electronic worship resource from Augsburg Fortress, has offered a variety of alternatives for those who are so offended. Finally, at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly, a social statement was passed calling for an even greater use of “gender-inclusive and expansive language for God.”

The Trinity

The Augsburg Confession, on the other hand, affirms the doctrine of the Trinity in the strongest terms, saying:

We
unanimously hold and teach, in accordance with the decree of the Council of
Nicaea,’ that there is one divine essence, which is called and which is truly
God, and that there are three persons in this one divine essence, equal in
power and alike eternal: God the Father,
God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.
[1][emphasis mine]

What’s at Stake?

So what is
at stake?  Is this just quibbling over
words?  Are we as Lutherans bound to the
language used in the Augsburg Confession? 
Will it really make a difference if we use expansive language for God?

The answer
is, “Yes!”  What was at stake at the
Council of Nicaea was far more than a quibble over words.  The Council was not engaged in an esoteric
debate about a doctrine that few lay people would ever understand.  What was at stake was the Incarnation
itself.  Is the Son divine, or only the
Father?  Was God truly incarnate in Jesus
of Nazareth, or did it only appear to be the case?  It was the position of the orthodox that the
Gospel and salvation itself were on the line. 
Rejection of the Incarnation was a rejection of the Gospel. The Lutheran
reformers would have agreed. 

The Gospel

Why is the Gospel at stake?  To explain this, let me introduce a couple of terms with which you may not be familiar.  The terms are general revelation and particular revelation.[2]  General revelation refers to the knowledge of God that is available to all people.  Romans 1:20 says:

Ever since the creation of the world his eternal
power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and
seen through the things he has made. (NRSV)

Some knowledge of God is available to all people.  For instance, through the use of reason we can come to know that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.  If we look at nature, at the beauty and precision that it contains, we can catch a glimpse of the Creator.  If we pay attention to the moral law that is written in our hearts, we know that God is holy and righteous.  Some of us have even felt God’s presence in our lives.  Reason, nature, the moral law, and our feelings can give us some idea of what God is like.

What none of them can do, however, is enable us to know that God is a gracious God.  Knowing that God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent doesn’t tell me whether God cares about me.  What nature reveals about God is too ambiguous to tell me whether he is good.  For every beautiful sunset, perfect snowflake and cuddly puppy, there is a hurricane, earthquake or an incurable disease.  The moral law tells me that God is holy, but it doesn’t tell me whether God is merciful to sinners like me.  My feelings about God are ambiguous as well.  One minute I may have a sense of God’s love and peace, but another moment I feel abandoned or condemned by God.  General revelation can take us no further.  Luther says:

I
answer that there are two ways of knowing God. One is general, the other
particular. Everyone has a general knowledge—that is, that there is a God that
created heaven and earth, that He is righteous, and that He punishes the
wicked. However, regarding what God thinks about us (His will toward us), what
He will give or do to deliver us from sin and death, and how to be saved (for
certain, this is the true knowledge of God), they don’t know any of this. In
the same way, I may know someone by sight but not thoroughly because I don’t
fully understand that person’s feelings toward me; that is how people by nature
know there is a God. But what is His will and what is not His will, they have
no idea![3]

The God We Meet in Jesus Christ

Particular
revelation, on the other hand, which refers to God incarnate, Jesus Christ,
does.  When we encounter God in the baby
in the manger and the man on the Cross, then we do know that we have a gracious
God.  It is the God we meet in Jesus Christ
who enables us to have faith, to trust that we are loved and forgiven.  Again, Luther says:

Christ
is the only means, and as you might say, the mirror in which we can see God and
by whom we can also know His will, for in Christ, we see that God is no cruel
and demanding judge but a Father of extremely goodwill, loving and merciful. In
order to bless us—that is, to deliver us from the law, sin, death, all evil,
and to grant us grace, righteousness, and eternal life—He “did not spare his
own Son, but gave him up for us all.” This is the true knowledge of God, the
divine persuasion that does not deceive us but paints us a trustworthy picture
of God, other than this there is no God.[4]

Offended by the Incarnation

This is
why traditional Lutherans are alarmed by the call for more “gender-inclusive
and expansive language for God.”  It is
not because we oppose inclusive language in general, as is often alleged, or
that we want to subordinate women to men. 
Something more is at stake.  When
we are offended by the very words that Jesus used to name God, when we are
offended by his masculinity, as in the past some were offended by his
Jewishness, when we are offended by the claim that Jesus is the way, the truth
and the life, we are offended by the Incarnation itself.  In that case, we are offended by the only
thing that makes it possible for us to know and trust that we have a gracious
God.  The Gospel, justification by faith,
and salvation itself, are at stake.  Instead
of being offended, we give thanks, as we do in the proper preface for
Christmas:

In the wonder and mystery of the Word made flesh you have opened the eyes of faith to a new and radiant vision of your glory: that beholding the God made visible, we may be drawn to love the God whom we cannot see.[5]


[1] Theodore G. Tappert. Augsburg
Confession (Kindle Locations 58-59). Kindle Edition.  

[2] Luther,
Martin. Martin Luther’s Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians
(1535): Lecture Notes Transcribed by Students and Presented in Today’s English
(p. 350). 1517 Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[3] Ibid., p. 350.

[4] Ibid., pp. 346-347.

[5]
Lutheran Book of Worship: Ministers Desk Edition.  1978 Augsburg Fortress, p. 209.




New Year Reflections on Our Future as a Church

There are at least two significant and alarming trends confronting American church bodies in general, and mainline Protestants in particular.

One is the developing clergy supply crisis, and the second is the aging and upcoming precipitous decline of most of our congregations.

Both of these trends are related, to some degree, to the generational issue of aging Boomers. The single most eye-opening statistic—reported on repeatedly by PEW Research—is that less than half as many Millennials are attending church than was the case for their Boomer parents back in the 1980’s and 1990’s. I still remember a particular cover story of Time Magazine back in 1993. It was the April 5th issue. (I just Googled it.) The quote on the cover of that issue was “The Baby Boom Goes Back to Church.” Needless to say, there has been no story, in the last decade, reporting a similar trend among Millennials.

Of course the decline of mainline Protestant churches is also due, in large part, to the on-going and accelerating secularization of American culture. And that reality is taking a toll on all national church bodies. But the more generational realities of our future are not simply about an inflated view of my own generation’s importance. This is about demographic realities helping us to see and clarify the urgency of what is before us as the Body of Christ. And to put it bluntly, the reason why the clergy supply crisis will be upon us sooner than the dramatic, precipitous decline in overall church membership is this: Most Boomers will, like me, have the good fortune to be retiring before they make the transition to assisted living and/or death.

Clergy Supply Crisis

What’s going on in the ELCA gives us a convenient window into what the LCMC and NALC will be facing. As I shared in previous articles, the ELCA is facing a major crisis with both clergy supply and their projected membership decline in the very near future. And aggravating these largely demographic realities is the rapid secularization of ELCA organizational culture. The ELCA’s Department of Research and Evaluation projects —based on the aging of their membership and the decline in baptisms — that by 2041 there will be less than 16,000 members worshiping — nationally —on a typical Sunday! That compares to 864,000 worshiping as of the end of 2018. And the issue of clergy supply for the ELCA? That crisis has already arrived. As of June of 2019 there were 2,776 empty pulpits out of a total of approximately 9,000 congregations.

Two Strategies

With Lutheran CORE’s Congregations in Transition (CiT) ministry we are focused on both a short-term and long-term strategy to help LCMC, NALC and orthodox ELCA congregations address both of these daunting challenges. And let’s not deceive ourselves. Our commitment—as orthodox clergy and congregations—to a Scripture-focused and more evangelistic worldview does not make us immune to the challenges the ELCA is facing. Somewhat more insulated perhaps, but not immune.

1st Century Model for Ministry

The CiT approach to congregational ministry is, overall, the empowerment of the laity. First, because it is the biblical, 1st century model for ministry and outreach; and second, because an unhealthy dependence on the availability of ordained, full-time clergy will not even be a future option for many of our congregations.

Our mission, with CiT, is inspired by texts like 1st Peter, chapter two, verses 4-5. Writing to the laity of his generation, Peter declares:

…You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

Gifted Transition Teams

The three congregations (all LCMC) I am currently coaching are all facing the retirement of their only pastor. While each of these rural/small-town churches are just large enough to still afford a future full-time pastor, they are all rapidly aging worship communities who are very aware of their significant membership decline over the last twenty years. But here’s the good news: Their three transition teams are comprised of incredibly gifted and committed lay leaders. And these lay leaders are very invested in the current and future ministries of their congregations. My role is to insure that these members (of the priesthood we all share in Christ Jesus) will be motivated to step forward and lead their congregations even if the search for their next pastor takes longer than anticipated.

I had many short-comings in my 40 years of ministry as a parish pastor. However, being a gatekeeper was not one of them. In fact my greatest joy in ministry was enlisting, equipping and motivating members to use their God-given gifts and abilities to serve their congregations and surrounding communities. This is now, more than ever, the best hope for the Body of Christ: to facilitate the ministry of the laity in the face of significant challenges faced by today’s church. This will require both faith and creativity on our part. But let us never underestimate what God can accomplish, despite any and all obstacles, through the incredible gifts of our (non-ordained) brothers and sisters in Christ.




Lutheran Renewal and the Absolution

Whoever said it, said it well:
without the absolution—“I forgive you all your sins for Jesus’
sake”—Lutheranism has no particular reason to exist.  Every issue of the Reformation, from
preaching and the sacraments to papal authority, revolved around the bedrock
confession that sinners receive mercy through Christ alone.  Luther put it clearly in the Large Catechism:
“Everything, therefore, in the Christian Church is ordered to the end that we
shall daily obtain there nothing but the forgiveness of sin” (Large Catechism,
The Creed).  Forgiveness is God’s
mission, and there is no clearer statement of it than the absolution.   If we want to talk renewal, both in the
Church and in society, it must begin with that justifying word.

For Jesus’ Sake

I see a video of prisoners in
Madagascar crowding around a Lutheran pastor for worship.  What brings them?  I imagine, perhaps wrongly, that they are
like the incarcerated men and women to whom my congregation has
ministered.  Some of them come because
they want a good word, while others are there to look good or because it’s a
break from the cell.  Despite such mixed motives,
they also come knowing something basic about the faith: it’s supposed to be
good for people with problems.  It’s
supposed to welcome people like them.  Why
do they think so?  Where could such a
rumor have started?  “I forgive you all
your sins for Jesus’ sake.”  The Holy
Spirit has fitted those words like a virus to the mixed up ideas and motives of
men.  It seeps through the cracks of all
our walls as a day-long conference on dismantling patriarchy never could.

But now I come to a church near you, the one that promises to welcome everyone.  I spend 65 minutes there trying to be invisible, as I’m on vacation and don’t feel social.  Yet where I usually fail at being invisible, something else succeeds at doing so perfectly well: “I forgive you.”  Where did it go?  Is it still around here somewhere?  Why, yes, it’s buried between two hard covers the color of a Thanksgiving relish, and it stayed there, too.  There was a lot of splashing about at the font — it’s the “Thanksgiving for Baptism,” the bulletin says — but no one ever heard what it’s all about.  Is renewal possible here? 

The absolution is the renewal, for both church and society, for several reasons.  First, it renews the church because it puts the church back where it belongs: in front of the empty tomb, facing the wide-open future that shines in the face of Christ.  Like the empty tomb, forgiveness doesn’t erase the past.  To the contrary, it carries the past forward — He’s still the man who died on the cross, wounds and all — but in such a way that this person with such a past may yet live, love, be worthy, and even rule.   What excitement!  What release! 

Lost in Jesus

So if we want to renew the church’s mind on the matter of sexual ethics, for example, then we need to start talking forgiveness into that subject.   That is, we must show more than how the New-Old Lies, with all their denial of family and creation, drift from the Biblical prescriptions.   We must also carry those prescriptions to their end and show how the New-Old Lies corrupt the proclamation of forgiveness.   Did Jesus die for this or that behavior?  If so, then He died to forgive it, and we must contend for such — Christ’s honor demands it.  “I cannot say it isn’t a sin, for then I would be stealing Christ’s glory from Him.  He died to forgive it, you see.  It’s in His hands, not yours or mine.”  The sin must get lost in Jesus somewhere between Gabbatha and the grave, preached as sunken into His flesh and buried with Him, so that it’s no longer God’s to condemn nor ours to practice.  It’s all on Jesus now—you can’t have it back! 

That kind of absolution-thinking keeps opening a new future to the same old past.  It disarms those who would make our debates a matter of old vs. new, letter vs. spirit, Pharisees vs. Jesus People (the binary couplings that even revisionists can’t kick, apparently), and turns our controverted subjects towards God’s mission, the speaking of the Gospel into every sin and circumstance.  Most importantly, it passes on the rumor that first spread like fire among the apostles: God’s in love with you, and isn’t counting sins against you.  This faith is good for us people with problems. It gives us a future with God and with each other and all of creation—“for wherever forgiveness is, there also are life and salvation” (Small Catechism, The Sacrament of the Altar).

Infectious Rumor of Mercy

Yet this absolution, coming from God, may renew things well beyond the church, because God’s goodness always seems to spill over its borders.  The absolution carries in itself more than a new future and a happy Lord.  It carries also the stamp of that Lord’s virtue and wholesome way.  To trust forgiveness is to trust patience and compassion—who can forgive a sinner without taking the time to sympathize with him?  And for Christians to trust and preach forgiveness is to trust and preach Christ crucified, the very picture of God “counting others better” than Himself (Philippians 2:3).  When that image and rumor of mercy start permeating Christians, and Christians start seeping into society and infecting it, they take that virtue and ethic with them.

I read a poll recently that said
most people think America stands on the brink of a civil war.  The sexes, too, are increasingly estranged,
as young people avoid dating either because they fear relationships or just
getting arrested and sued.  What we do as
children becomes national news and a cause for mockery or hate.  How can it be otherwise in a land that has
mostly stopped hearing absolution?  Roman
Catholics find they can commune just as well without it, and Protestants are
busy casting new visions for ministry or splashing at the font or running a
stewardship drive.  With the gradual
disappearance of absolution and its attendant preaching, so also fades the best
image we have of patience, compassion, humility, and the thirst for reconciliation—and
if absolution fades, can Lutheranism shine?

Renewal in Absolution

I include this latter reflection about
societal renewal because I know that cultural as well as churchly issues lie
heavy on the hearts of Lutheran CORE folk. 
I commend to you the thought that both society and church will find
their renewal in the absolution that we alone may speak: “I forgive you all
your sins for Jesus’ sake.”   Lose that absolution, and you lose the point
of being Lutheran.    Lutheranism is simply being God’s church, and
God’s church exists to preach and believe forgiveness.  Speaking, preaching, and believing it, for
sure, remain the priority.  Consider also
what the absolution teaches about God’s will for His creation and who you are
and what life really is, or how it delivers both righteousness and holiness of
living.  Any Christian or church could
benefit from such reflection on God’s most important word. 

And a good place to start might be,
you know, actually going to confession and hearing it.




Obsessed with Diversity

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?

Not Equal

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”? 




Recap of Encuentro 2019

“Build Yourselves Up in Your Most Holy Faith” Jude 20

“…Mantenganse en el amor de Dios, edificandose sobre la base de su santisima fe…”   Judas 20

On Holy Cross Day, Saturday September 14th over seventy lay leaders, pastors and neighbors gathered at St. Timothy Lutheran Church in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood for the inter-Lutheran “Encuentro” for Hispanic Latino Ministries, sponsored annually by Lutheran CORE.

Mariachi Tamazula Juvenil

Encuentro — “encounter”– is an apt name for this event. In coming together, participants convene in the name of the Triune God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — and encounter one another through a full day of fellowship, prayer, learning, reflection and conversation. Some who attend have little or no experience in Spanish language or bilingual Parish Ministry but they come to encounter… to listen to and dialogue with those who have served in such contexts. All who participate meet one another in a hospitable atmosphere which provides for joyful exchange of culturally contextual, Christ-centered ministries and resources. Consider for example the spirited celebration of the Misa Panamericana, led by Mariachi Tamazula Juvenil, in a sanctuary built by Lutheran’s of Norwegian heritage.

Lutherans of various denominational bodies ELCA, LCMS, NALC and LCMC have taken part in the Encuentro over the years, defying a prevailing pattern of denominational separation. Lutheran cousins come together around the power of Christ’s Great Commission (Matthew 28). In Chicago, this pattern of inter-relational ministry in Hispanic Latino neighborhoods actually reflects the tone of cooperation shown by earlier Lutheran generations in the 1960s and 70s when the first Lutheran Latino Ministries were being planted in the city.


Dr. Maxwell Johnson

Dr. Maxwell Johnson, an ELCA pastor and professor at the University of Notre Dame, presented “Baptism: Walking Wet in the Via Crucis.” That topic coupled wonderfully with the rededication of a long out-of-use baptismal font, now placed in St Timothy’s sanctuary for sacramental use. 

 
Participating in that rededication was the Rev. Yehiel Curry, Bishop of the Metropolitan Chicago Synod ELCA, who expressed delight at being able to attend a portion of the gathering –even if it was at the end of a very busy day. “I represent the entire Synod,” he noted, adding that congregations should anticipate visitation by him and his staff on the Lord’s Day. “I will tell my staff that Sunday is a work day for us.”

“The Virgin of Guadalupe: Not Just for Roman Catholics Anymore” was Dr. Johnson’s afternoon address. At the heart of this Mexican apparition’s legacy is the story of “the God who cares for the lowly.” The Biblical touchstone for this tradition is the Magnificat: Mary’s song which exalts the Lord God and highlights His “casting down the mighty from their thrones and raising up those of low degree.”

This Encuentro, hosted by an ELCA / Lutheran CORE member parish in a neighborhood called “beautiful” (“Hermosa“) welcomes Lutheran believers by the power of the Holy Spirit to envision and experience church with an expanded embrace of racial diversity. This is a humbling privilege for those who are involved as it plays out against the trend of mainline churches like the ELCA which has shifted in membership from 92% white to 94% white in just three years from 2015 to 2018 according to the Rev. Chris Boerger, outgoing ELCA Secretary (see his 2019 Churchwide Assembly Report reference in “Living Lutheran,” September / October ’19).

Encuentros…. meetings… in culturally diverse neighborhood parishes can fortify the Church’s passion for her Lord’s Great Commission. Secretary Boerger has noted: “If there is to be a future for this denomination, we must pay attention to who is living in our neighborhood and our community.”

Just so, when encuentros with neighbors multiply and relationships within and beyond church walls grow, breakthrough moments can occur. 

At the conclusion of Dr. Johnson’s presentation, one such neighbor, Genoveva, stood up and, in her native Spanish and surrounded by her family, invited all at the Encuentro to come to her home (just around the corner from St. Timothy) on December 11th for Advent songs, prayers, traditional tamales and champurado (a hot beverage) on the eve of the commemoration day for the Virgin of Guadalupe.

That’s an encuentro that is eagerly anticipated!




ELCA: Answer the Question!

There
is a question I have asked several times, but I have been unable to get an
answer.  The question is this –

How can the ELCA say that 2019 is the tenth anniversary of LGBTQIA+ persons’ being able to serve freely in the church when what was actually voted on and approved at the 2009 Churchwide Assembly was only the ordination of persons in publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous same gender relationships?

Recently
I was sitting at a table during lunch with several pastors from the synod in
which I have been rostered since retiring. 
When I realized that one of the persons at the table was a member of the
synod council, I figured this was an opportunity to ask my question.  So I did. 
His reply was, “I am new to the synod council.”  He then added, “That sounds like a question
for the bishop.”  To which I responded,
“I have asked the bishop, but I did not get an answer.” 

I
then asked another person at the table, who told me, “I was hoping that you
could answer that question.”

I asked a third person.  His immediate response was, “Cognitive dissonance!”  I answered, “I do not see how this could be cognitive dissonance, and who are you saying is having cognitive dissonance?  The ELCA in its making a claim about a tenth anniversary?  L, G, B, T, Q, I, A, or plus persons, who are now able to serve freely?  Or people like me who are asking the question?”

He
never replied.  Instead he said, “The
world has changed since 2009.”  I said
that I agreed that the world has changed since 2009, but that does not change
what was voted on and approved in 2009. 
He then argued, “Same sex marriage has become legal across the country
since 2009.”  Again, I said that I agreed
that that has happened, but, again, I made the point that that did not change
what was actually voted on and approved in 2009.

He then said, “LGBTQIA+ persons’ being able to serve freely is the logical next step to what was approved in 2009.”  To which I replied, “There were many back in 2009 who were concerned – and who were belittled for being concerned – that if the ordination of people in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same gender relationships was approved, then that would lead to the approval of the ordination of other persons who were not eligible for ordination prior to 2009.”  I then added, “There are many who believe that they were deceived.  The vote was purposefully defined as being only about persons in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same gender relationships in order to get enough votes to get the resolution approved.  And then once the resolution was approved, then the description of who would now be eligible for ordination would be expanded.”  He replied, “That would be an example of the hermeneutics of suspicion.”  To which I agreed that, yes, many people were suspicious about what was being said back in 2009 versus what was intended for the future.

I
then asked him, “If the ELCA is now allowing LGBTQIA+ persons to serve freely
in the church, what is the standard by which the ELCA will decide what new
sexual identities, expressions, and behaviors – now identified by the “+” part
of LGBTQIA+ – would be approved and what would not be approved for ordination?”  He did not have an answer, nor did he even seem
to feel that there was a reason to be concerned about and ask such a question.  Rather what he said next was, “Where are you
from?”  I was perceptive enough to
realize that the conversation was over.




Not Here to Be Boiled

On August 25, 2010, at a meeting of Lutheran CORE that would at its close give birth to the separate organization of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), I wrote this in my blog:

What the upcoming internet broadcasts and book are sure to fail to convey, however, is the sense of hopeful expectancy that characterizes these proceedings. The Spirit is definitely doing something amazing, as seemingly just the right people with just the precise expertise needed to tackle the issues before us as a church have been assembled from the disparate corners of North American Lutheranism. Not only has this been an immensely satisfying—though extremely challenging—couple of days intellectually, it has also been so emotionally and spiritually. … Simply put, it is humbling to be here.

Because
I had just taken a call at an ELCA church whose statement of faith aligned with
that of Lutheran CORE but who needed to yet have the conversation about whether
they could maintain that position within the ELCA, I would not join the ranks of
the NALC for another 5 years.  When I
finally did become a pastor of the NALC, it felt nice to simply breathe easily
for a while; to not feel like I was fighting every aspect of the institution
that was supposed to help me proclaim the gospel just for the
opportunity to do so.

No More Easy Breathing

Nine years into the NALC’s
life, the time for breathing easy is over.

Oh, we seem to be handling
our inevitable disagreements healthfully, without a trace of the Politburo-style
ecclesiastical maneuvering we all experienced within the ELCA, where, to paraphrase
Orwell, it was clear that “some Christians are more equal than others.”  There is also no hint of doctrinal departure
from Great Tradition Christianity or the revisionist hermeneutics that breed
the same—yet.

I add the “yet” in that last sentence not because I see it happening now but can foresee it happening before my funeral liturgy.  I foresee this as I teach my confirmation class full of 7th and 8th graders and my Tuesday morning Bible study full of 70 and 80 year olds, because I see the vast distance between the experiential, intellectual, and imaginative worlds they inhabit.  The older group are largely unaware of how different the world the young live in is from the one they grew up in and they are shocked when I acquaint them with some of its contours.  The young are being trained by their schools, entertainment, and constant diet of technology to view the older as at best hopelessly out of touch with the self-evidently true and even scientifically “proven” categories of the new (liberal) orthodoxy.  At worst, they are being trained to view them as oppressors to be forcefully sidelined, re-educated—and if necessary, silenced.

Oh, the latter, rage-filled
part of that progression will largely not come until their thorough catechesis
into the new civic religion at the collegiate level, but the foundations are being
laid far earlier.  Six years ago, I had a
youth group member inform me that she was an “LGBT ally,” and many more former
youth group members have done the same. 
Some of these had attended the local evangelical Christian high
school.  Others were attending an
evangelical fellowship in college and were even engaged in active Christian
outreach on campus.

Billboard in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch Country

Could I have imagined such a reality, coming of age in the 1980’s?  Could my Bible study participants, doing the same in Eisenhower’s America, have imagined it?  Could the founders of the NALC imagine, less than a decade ago, that a local fire company would raise money by offering as bingo prizes not homemade jams and pies but sex toys or the billboard pictured with this article, planted in the heart of historically Pennsylvania Dutch country?  Could they imagine that people could be publicly shamed and careers summarily ended for even questioning whether a person’s experience of being in the wrong body could be anything other than an absolute and legitimate expression of identity?

It is a brave new world.

The Authority of Holy Scripture

I focus on the sexuality issues not because of any inherent interest in them, but because as Dr. Robert Gagnon noted so many years ago, you cannot espouse the new, affirming positions on these issues without evacuating the Bible of its authority as Holy Scripture and the Word of God.  You cannot affirm the authority of Genesis while espousing a “non-binary” (Trans) view of human sexuality.  As the ELCA has recently confirmed, without a high view of Biblical authority, you cannot assert the uniqueness and necessity of Jesus Christ for human salvation.  It was by reflection upon the books that we know as the canonical New Testament that the Council of Nicaea shifted from being predominantly Arian in its view of Christ to articulating the doctrine we know as the Hypostatic Union with near uniformity.  (Not surprisingly, Arius and a close personal friend held out for their own view against the assembly.)  It was fifteen years ago that an ELCA pastor brazenly asserted to me as a seminarian at a regional youth gathering that, “we only know about the Trinity from the Bible; God could easily be more like the Hindu idea of Brahmin, having countless avatar pseudopods to minister to the ‘endlessly diverse people’ s/he has created.’”

Without a high view of Biblical
authority, we can glean from its pages the sorts of vaguely inspiring ideas
about God that are largely our projections in the first place, but we cannot receive
revelations about God—or about God’s will for us, His creatures. 

Danger of Theological Revisionism

And that is exactly what theological
revisionism is all about; it is about recasting God’s revelations as human
conceptions, and once everything is a human conception, all is mere politics,
the rules of which we know well from Plato, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and
Foucault… not to mention Marx, Lenin, Mao, and Alinsky.  In such a world, it is perfectly legitimate
for the philosopher-kings-and-queens to determine which views are “more equal
than others” and to eliminate cross-examination in the interest of “justice.” 

And this is exactly what is
happening.  Consider this letter sent by
‘We, few of the Black students here at Pomona College and the Claremont
Colleges’ to the administration of Claremont McKenna College, who had dared to
permit conservative scholar Heather Mac Donald to speak on campus:

Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth – ‘the Truth’ – is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples.[1]

Unlikely Ally

Douglas Murray recounts the
incident in his recent book The Madness of Crowds.  If a gay intellectual from Great Britain
seems an unlikely ally of a Christianity that is both evangelical and catholic,
read the way he goes on to analyze this letter:

“‘The Truth’ is a construct of the Euro-West. It is hard to think of a phrase which can at one and the same time be so wildly misguided and so dangerous in its implications. If ‘the Truth’ (in scare quotes) is a white thing, then what is everyone else meant to live in and strive towards?” 

Stalin pithily noted, “Ideas
are far more powerful than guns. We don’t let our people have guns. Why should
we let them have ideas?”  Our young
people are being deprived of the most important idea ever, an idea that is not
white or black, gay or straight, Christian or otherwise; they are being
systematically deprived of the idea of truth.  Furthermore, they are being taught that the
pursuit of it is disloyal, bigoted, and dangerous.

Future Outlook of the NALC

As a fellow NALC clergyman noted to me recently, “The NALC was formed at the last possible moment it could have been, historically-speaking.”  This undoubtedly displays an admirable ecclesiological instinct, for it is indeed part of Great Tradition Christianity that the Church of Jesus Christ is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.”  It also sets forth the challenge clearly before us, as it was founded by people I would categorize as the last well-catechized generations.  Here I refer to their catechesis not only with the Church, but their cultural catechesis as well.  Most of us on the clergy roster of the NALC are still here because we underwent a migration made necessary by counter-cultural convictions.  What will become of the NALC as its first native-born daughters and sons rise to offices of prominence within the church?  Philosophy was once described as the handmaiden to theology because it provided categories of meaning that helped people do the very difficult work of theology.  What will happen to the church’s proclamation when its young pastors have not been formed in the fundamental categories of meaning that make clear thinking about the Bible possible?  What will happen to it if they are convinced by their primer school training that to even consider certain ideas makes them the moral equivalent of a Nazi?

Students of Christian history
can broadly trace the theological revisionism of our day back through the
social gospel movement of the early 20th century to the “higher
critics” of the Enlightenment.  It is a
history of more than ideas; it is a history of people, of champions of ideas
who viewed themselves as the saviors of a movement with some social utility
(Christianity) whose convictions were hopelessly backwards and out of touch
with the “obvious truths” of the modern world. 
For all orthodox Lutherans, the NALC included, the challenge is to catechize
a new generation of theologians from elementary school age on up in an
intentionally countercultural way. 
We will need to be aware of the prevailing ideas and neologisms that are
being introduced in a deliberate ploy to undermine a worldview congruent with
that of orthodox Biblical Christianity. 
As Christians, we have no stake in Western culture qua Western
culture, but to the degree that what we know as Western culture is the product
of Christian theology, including its emphasis on truth as a fundamental
category of meaning, we need to advocate for what is in imminent danger of
being lost.

Written nearly thirty years
ago, in his classic book The Once and Future Church, Loren Mead noted
that the West was becoming the Church’s new mission field and that state church
traditions like Lutheranism, used as they were to cultural underwriting of
their religious project, were likely to have the most difficulty adapting to this
new reality.  It remains for us to
determine whether his words were merely cautionary… or prophetic.

We Must Teach All Our People

Most importantly of all, we need to communicate to our people from the oldest to the youngest how the orthodox Biblical teachings on creation and fall, judgment and grace, repentance and forgiveness, faith and obedience, spiritual bondage and true freedom are more compelling and truly loving than the secular narratives with which they are being daily indoctrinated.  We must teach them who God is and who we are meant to be as creatures made in His image but defaced by sin almost to the point of being unrecognizable.  We must teach them that because of that reality, no matter the strength of our emotions, our own narratives about our inner lives are not the most reliable story about ourselves, but rather God’s story about us, recounted in the Bible, holds primacy of place.

We must do this knowing
that our work is being undermined both by determined ideologues and
well-meaning people engaged in herd behavior, what Murray accurately deems “the
madness of crowds.”  We must be clear
with them that this dynamic is going to be part of their experience as
Christians in this culture without becoming reactionary or uncharitable toward
those who hate us. 

In one of the responses to my Postmodernism articles, I was accused of being a “reactionary theologian.”  I confess that I have never heard the term before, but it sounds like the sort of jingoistic turn of phrase intended to make the hard work of thinking through complex issues unnecessary—a word like “anti-revolutionary.”  On the August day in 2010 recounted earlier, Dr. Steven D. Paulson reminded the gathered assembly that Martin Luther had noted that “it is a characteristic of love to be easily deceived.”  We must highlight this reality and remind them that their love—especially their love of friends and the consequent alliances they make with them—like the rest of themselves, is fallen, disordered, and so, unreliable until it is conformed to the revealed Word of God.

The Frog

We all know the old saw.  How do you boil a frog?  If you put him in hot water he will jump out
before he gets too injured, but if you put him in cold water and turn up the
heat slowly, he will be boiled before he knows what happened to him.

Most reading this article have spent our lives watching the Lutheran frog being boiled.  Some of us felt the need to “go out and be separate.”  If we hope to not see our frogs boiled in the way other communions have unfortunately experienced, we will need to be intentionally countercultural.  Our catechesis and our sermons will need to be apologetic in tone, whether we are apologists by vocation or not.  We will need to listen carefully to a world that hates us so we may build bridges to their linguistics worlds of meaning and so that we can dismantle Trojan Horses meant to destroy Christianity and its necessarily attendant, coherent worldview from within.

In 1809, biographer Thomas
Charlton popularized the phrase, “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” in
our newly-birthed republic.  The bloody
reign of terror had just recently ended in France, a cautionary tale for those
who might have complacently believed that the new order was enough to insure
against future tyranny. 

We ought to take a lesson from this page of history.  The price of the liberty that the true gospel of Jesus Christ alone can bring is free, but the price of preaching that gospel fully and faithfully is eternal vigilance.

Vigilance Required

On August 26, 2010, as the
theological conference transitioned to the constituting convocation of a
re-visioned Lutheran CORE, I reflected in my blog that “it was time to see if
this dog would hunt.”  Could the ideas we
had bandied about for two days now become incarnate, take on flesh in a living
institution that actually facilitated the living proclamation of “the eternal
gospel” in the ways God has ordained that it should?

As I reflect on the state of the Church and the
nature of its current mission in the wake of Reformation Sunday, I give thanks
that it could happen, but I note that we are sitting in water that seems to be
already getting warm.  Vigilance is
required.


[1]
Murray, Douglas. The Madness of Crowds . Bloomsbury Publishing. Kindle Edition.




Reflections on the Augsburg Confession

Life Together?

“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.