True Unity: Reflections on the Augsburg Confession, Part 3

For it is sufficient for the true unity of the Christian church that the Gospel be preached in conformity with a pure understanding of it and that the sacraments be administered in accordance with the divine Word.

(Augsburg Confession, Article VII)[1]

Maintain Unity

One of the most difficult and important tasks of pastors and
leaders in any congregation is to maintain unity. It is no easy thing to keep a
group of several hundred people united around a common vision of mission and
ministry. Many of you have experienced how painful and destructive conflict
within a congregation can be. Friendships are broken, people become
disillusioned with the Church and therefore with the Gospel itself. Some just
drift away and stop going to church altogether. Even when things seem to be
resolved, distrust can continue to simmer below the surface.

Politics are Divisive

One of the things that seems almost certain to cause
division and distrust in 2020 is politics. The division between Red State and
Blue State, conservative and progressive, Democrat and Republican is as wide
and deep as it has been in a long time. Just begin to discuss immigration, LGBT
rights, war, abortion, gun control, religious freedom, Israel/Palestine, global
warming, and a host of other issues, and the conversation will quickly become
heated. Express the wrong opinion and you might be shunned, or unfriended on
Facebook. In some cases, you may even lose your job or be sued. This is as true
in the family and the church as it is in the workplace or social media.

As a pastor, I have always worked carefully and diligently
to make sure that people of all political stripes feel welcome in my congregation.
I encourage each person to live out his/her vocation as citizen by voting,
volunteering and advocating for those causes that he/she believes are in accord
with God’s will. However, I have made it clear that the congregation and its
ministries cannot be used as a platform to advance partisan causes. For
instance, the congregation does not pass out voting guides or endorse amendments
to the state constitution.

And yet at the Synod Level

You can understand my dismay then, when I have seen the
annual assembly of my synod used as such a political platform. Several years
ago, members of St. Paul were shocked when they listened to a report given by
our synodical VP. They expected to hear about how the synod planned to proclaim
the Gospel. Instead, they heard a laundry list of political tasks the VP
insisted the Church must undertake. To add insult to injury, the VP suggested
that those who were skeptical of or opposed to her agenda were in the same
moral category as Nazis and White Supremacists. This same pattern of behavior
has continued for at least four years, if not longer. I can imagine the voting
members to the synod assembly thinking to themselves, “But pastor said that the
Church is not to be used as a political platform for one’s favorite political
causes. Was he being untruthful when he said that?”

Where Does the ELCA Leadership Stand?

The bottom line on all of this is that it is no longer clear
whether the leadership of the ELCA agrees with what the Augsburg Confession
(AC), Article VII, says about the true unity of the Church. It seems that many
believe that the true unity of the Church is found in a common socio/political
agenda. Those who do not share or will not support this agenda are anathematized.

A further problem arises when we consider what the AC,
Article V, says about the Ministry:

To obtain such faith God instituted the office of the ministry, that is, provided the Gospel and the sacraments. Through these, as through means, he gives the Holy Spirit, who works faith, when and where he pleases, in those who hear the Gospel.


The Holy Spirit Gives Faith in Jesus Christ

The primary calling of the pastor and the primary mission of
the congregation is to preach the Word of God, in Law and Gospel, and to
administer the Sacraments.  The Lutheran
Church confesses that it is through these means that God gives the Holy Spirit.
It is this Holy Spirit that gives the gift of justifying faith in Jesus Christ.
In turn, it is faith that becomes active in good works for the neighbor. (See
Article VI on the New Obedience.) You might say that through the faithful
ministry of the pastor and congregation, God brings about true change in persons,
communities and the world.

Lost Confidence in the Gospel?

One of my primary concerns with the current emphasis on
political advocacy and engagement in the ELCA is that it suggests we have lost
confidence in the power of the Gospel to change the world. It is often
suggested that the mission of the Church is to be transformative. It is our
calling to change the world. And it is through engagement in the issues of the
day and in the promotion of certain political causes that the Church truly
makes a difference. This turns the Augsburg Confession on its head.

Political Advocacy Is ELCA Pastoral Duty?

Of more concern is the notion that, within the ELCA, it is the
duty of pastors to promote the political causes and agendas endorsed by the
larger denomination. Wording in the standard letter of call in ELCA synods says
that a pastor shall “impart
knowledge of this church and its wider ministry though distribution of its
communications and publications.” When the focus of the ELCA was primarily on
Word and Sacrament ministry, this was not problematic. When the majority of the
communications and publications of the ELCA focus on political advocacy,
however, it turns the pastor into a political operative or press agent.

Unity via the Gospel and the Sacraments

The current
direction of the ELCA in regard to political engagement and advocacy presents a
serious challenge to the ministry of pastors and congregations as outlined in
the Augsburg Confession. It encourages and sometimes insists that we welcome a
major cause of division into our congregations at a time when the political
divide is at its worst. It would prevent us from finding the only unity that is
necessary, namely unity through the Gospel and the Sacraments.

Theodore G. Tappert. Augsburg Confession (Kindle Locations 88-89). Kindle

Theodore G. Tappert. Augsburg Confession (Kindle Locations 79-81). Kindle

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.