Words Fail Me: Questioning the Newspeak of My “Progressive” Education

In my office hangs my ordination certificate.  Across it is emblazoned the name of the ordaining body, the body whose confessional commitments I pledged to uphold on the day I knelt and made my vows.  An adult convert to the Christian faith who settled in Lutheranism as the place where I would live out my “mere Christianity” after reading a church library copy of the Augsburg Confession, in the spring of 2016 I had served that denomination in various roles for twenty years.

This spring marks the eighth year since I called my bishop and informed him that I would be serving in a new church body.  Even as an adult convert, I know how painful the process is of leaving a church body you have called home; to cause further fracture to the Body of Christ, to disappoint My Lord by ensuring that His prayer that all His disciples might be one as I will become yet one more piece of living evidence of how little the truth of the gospel seems to change the lives of those who believe it, to serve at least in part as another stumbling block for people who—as did I at one point—hold the Christian faith in contempt, was an exquisite pain… I can only imagine how hard it is for a cradle member of a communion to make a similar choice.

In his classic study of what causes massive shifts in a mindset, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn details how it takes a superabundance of contrary evidence to get people to rethink their fundamental commitments, coining the terms paradigm and paradigm shift.  A paradigm shift, when it occurs, is more than a reordering of the furniture in one’s mental office or even changing offices due to corporate restructuring; it amounts to moving out of the building, watching that edifice be razed, and having a new foundation poured upon which you must tentatively build a new place from which to conduct your business.

It is for this reason that I am uncertain whether my decision to leave the ELCA represents a true paradigm shift or not.  In the words of a Roman Catholic mentor whose specialty was ecumenical theology, with whom I shared the pain of my process, “You aren’t leaving your church; your church is leaving you.”  Though hopefully my thinking has become more refined and nuanced, my fundamental commitments in some ways have not changed since I first knew myself to be a Christian in 1995 and a conscientious son of the Lutheran reformation by early 1996.

Yet once such a choice is made—the choice to leave the home that has nurtured you during your most formative years—once the evidence piles up so high that you cannot ignore it, you begin to rethink many things.  Aspects of your identity you thought unassailable become things you question.  Commitments you thought unshakable bedrock you begin to recognize as issues of secondary and sometimes tertiary importance… sometimes you come to know them as even detrimental to keeping the most fundamental commitments of all.

Such for me has been the issue of inclusive language in ministry, whether for God or people.  The sine qua non of both my undergraduate and graduate education, I have come to question not just its utility, but its very ability to communicate the Word of God, which in turn means its very ability to foster human flourishing… especially for women.

By the time I was being formed in seminary, the use of inclusive language for human beings was a matter of basic politeness and the use of such language for God became mandated as a “justice issue” while I was away from campus on internship.  My early training conditioned me to be okay with the former; indeed I had chosen to pursue ordination in the ELCA over the LCMS because of a precommitment to women’s ordination, a commitment I still hold but should not have then, before I could possibly know the Biblical or theological issues at stake.

My conviction in Christianity as a revealed religion prevented me from embracing inclusive language for God.  Because of an encounter with a cult in my early twenties, I have a sensitivity to when I am only being told one side of an argument, so the aggressive insistence on the agenda second-cum-third wave feminism and the lack of critical presentation of any other perspective set off a voice in my head: “Danger, Will Robinson… Danger!”  The special prominence of this in my liturgics class, where we failed to learn the rudiments of using The Minister’s Desk Edition, made me begin researching the best arguments on the other side.

I was surprised to often find these arguments to be robust rather than reactionary.  An honest reader could disagree with these arguments, but not accuse the writer of bad faith or barely disguised animus against women.  Particularly compelling was an article by Jesuit Paul Mankowski (who often wrote under the pen name Diogenes) entitled Jesus, Son of Humankind? The Necessary Failure of Inclusive-Language Translations, which I found in a now out-of-print journal.  (It is still available on the Touchstone magazine website for subscribers.[1])

There is one issue central to our salvation that inclusive language translations of the Bible obscure—even those translations that only use inclusive language for human beings, like the NRSV—that I have never seen referenced in any scholarly work, so I would like to address it briefly here.

“No one comes to the Father but by me,” says Jesus in one of our most beloved funeral readings (John 14:6), but how exactly does Jesus get us to the Father?  “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,” joyously declares St. Paul. (Galatians 3:27)  Elsewhere he adds, “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” (Romans 6:5)  We have been united with Jesus.

A robust Sacramental theology teaches us that as regards our eternal inheritance, this means that when the Father regards us, He sees Christ, with whom we have been united, and whom we have donned like a mantle.  In other words, He sees not Joe or Sally, merely created in the image of God however pious or penitent, but Jesus, His Son, God Himself, for Whom the entire realm of created reality and uncreated glory is the rightful inheritance.

What this means in contradiction to the polite niceties of post-Christian American cultural religion, each of us is, properly speaking, a child of God only when we share in the sonship of Jesus Christ through Baptism.  It is for this reason—not the misogynistic cultural baggage assumed by feminists of whatever wave—that St. Paul in his letters addresses both the male and female objects of his correspondence as “brothers.”  We are all brothers because we all through Holy Baptism share in the sonship of Jesus Christ.

Inclusive language translations that render St. Paul’s address as “brothers and sisters” obscure this important salvific truth, esteeming the demands of feminist-defined justice as greater than the actual Biblically depicted mechanism of salvation.  Further, it propagates its own fundamentally irreconcilable war between the sexes into the very “beloved community” that is to be the home of “the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18), fomenting disunity in the Body of Christ. Under such conditions, the uniqueness of Christ as the way to God is necessarily veiled and universalism will proliferate to the loss of the evangelistic impulse.

I count this as a very serious way that the very inclusive language that is purported to be a justice issue for women actually does worse than underserve them; it may fail to call them to Christ and so be positively opposed to their ultimate interests.

[1] https://touchstonemag.com/archives//article.php?id=14-08-033-f

Churches Without Pastors

In the September CORE Voice, I reflected on my time as the pastor of a mission congregation.  My question was whether the Lutheran Church is prepared for a time when many, if not most, congregations do not own property.  This month, I want to ask a similar question:  What are we prepared to do to help congregations without pastors?

For at least the last decade, the Lutheran Church has been facing a double crisis.  The first part of that crisis is that there are fewer pastors to fill the needs of congregations.  The second part is that more and more congregations are too small to afford to call a pastor.  What can be done about this crisis?

Two proposals have been discussed in CORE Voice in recent months.  One is to train lay ministers to fill the need.  The other is to change the path to ordination.  Requiring a person to receive a four year master’s degree, as well as acquiring tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the process, is impractical.  Rather than training lay-ministers to serve in congregations, it is argued, we should train people who will be ordained upon receiving a call from a congregation.

That is an important debate, but I don’t want us to be distracted from an option that can be implemented in the meantime.  My proposal is simple, but often overlooked.  That is to encourage lay people in small congregations, or people hoping to form a congregation, to do what lay people are already permitted to do.  Namely, we should encourage them to pray together, gather for Bible study, read the Catechism, visit the sick, care for the hungry, and so forth.

In particular, one question is what to do when there is no pastor to lead corporate worship.  The solution, in my opinion, is found in the hymnal.  Let’s take the venerable Lutheran Book of Worship as an example.  There are at least six services in that hymnal that do not need to be led by an ordained pastor.  They are the Service of the Word, Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, Compline, Responsive Prayer 1 and Responsive Prayer 2.  All of these may be led by a lay person.  (The Lutheran Service Book has even more options.)

In addition, the three settings for Holy Communion can be altered in such a way that they can be led by one or more lay persons.  First of all, each setting offers an option of omitting the second half of the service, Holy Communion.  The Service of the Word is what remains.  The Greeting and Benediction also need to be altered, but apart from that, the rest of the service remains. 

Since the focus would be on the Word and prayer, full use of the Sunday and the Daily Lectionaries would be ideal.  Congregations would be encouraged to take time to meditate on the lessons, as the hymnal suggests.  Too often, in our rush to finish worship in one hour, we fail to allow enough time for people to do this.  In this case, however, there would be an opportunity to renew that practice.

The next question would have to do with the sermon.  There are so many resources that I cannot name them all.  Instead, I will focus on just two at this time.  The first resource is For All the Saints, published by the American Lutheran Publicity Bureau.  The second is the Treasury of Daily Prayer, published by Concordia Publishing House.  For All the Saints follows the two-year daily lectionary found in the Lutheran Book of Worship.  In four volumes, it contains a prayer of the day, an Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel for each day, plus all 150 Psalms.  In addition, however, there is a Writing for each day that relates to and helps interpret the lessons for the day.  In a prayer service, this Writing could serve as a sermon. 

Finally, what could we do to help?  Imagine a group of de-churched Lutherans wanting to form a congregation.  We could gather used LBWs, or other hymnals, and ship them to the congregation.  Then, through donations, we could purchase a set of For All the Saints, or a copy of Treasury of Daily Prayer, for their use.  Individuals could be encouraged to follow the daily lectionary at home, even purchasing a copy of For All the Saints or Treasury of Daily Prayer if they choose.  (Online and digital resources are also available.)  What would it be like for a group of people to worship together or alone for a year using these wonderful resources?

ELCA Support for the Equality Act: What Does it Mean?

Earlier this year, I noticed that ELCA Advocacy had given the Equality Act its full and unqualified endorsement.   It also encouraged members of the ELCA to write their Senators, calling upon them to support the legislation.  In doing so, the ELCA made reference to the social statement Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust (HSGT). 

I wrote to Presiding Bishop Eaton, saying:

The ELCA has declared its support of the Equality Act.  It is also urging its members to write to their Senators in support of the Equality Act. What I am wondering is whether the ELCA has given any thought to how the Equality Act will affect those congregations who choose not to call partnered homosexual pastors, or who choose not to perform same-sex weddings.  

As you know, there is debate about whether the act will remove religious freedom protections from congregations and pastors.  Has the ELCA considered this question?  Is the ELCA prepared to defend the right of its congregations and pastors to act in accordance with their “bound consciences” as was promised in 2009

The response came not from Presiding Bishop Eaton, but from Rev. Amy Reumann, Senior Director, Witnessing in Society, ELCA.  She assured me that the ELCA is aware of the “implications with respect to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”  She further stated that the ELCA is “reviewing that language in consultation with a number of our full communion partners and ELCA legal staff.”  Finally, she said that the ELCA hopes “to work with these Senate offices in discerning legislative language that achieves a bi-partisan and fair bill for protecting equal rights and religious integrity.”

I was very pleased to hear this and I had only two requests.  I asked if the ELCA would be willing to reiterate what Rev. Reumann told me in a public statement to ELCA congregations and whether I could share her reply.  She said yes to the latter.  In regard to the former, she asked what kind of public message would be helpful in my context.

It is at this point that our conversation began to go awry.  I gave her a fairly detailed response, clearly stating what I would like the ELCA to reaffirm.  Essentially, I asked that the ELCA publicly restate that choosing not to call a partnered homosexual and not to perform same sex weddings, and teaching in accord with positions 1, 2, or 3 of HSGT are still permitted and encouraged by this church.  Secondly, I asked that the ELCA publicly state its opposition to any language in the Equality Act that would or might punish ELCA congregations for these approved practices.

From that point forward, I received several replies reiterating ELCA policy, along with historical documents that detailed the Ministry Policy Resolutions adopted in 2009.  However, the question about whether the ELCA would publicly reiterate its commitment to those documents and to religious freedom protections for its congregations was not answered.  Finally, after a full week and another e-mail to Presiding Bishop Eaton, I received an e-mail telling me that my concerns would be addressed in ELCA Advocacy materials that would come out in April.

In April, ELCA Advocacy did in fact include the following words in its message:

Some U.S Senators support the intent of the Equality Act but have broader concerns about religious exemptions. There may be amendments proposed responding to these concerns.

As in the Senate, in the ELCA there is a diversity of beliefs and debates about possible impacts of this legislation on religious exemptions.

In an April 13 “guest blog” on ELCA Advocacy Blog, ELCA General Counsel, Thomas Cunniff, wrote:

We urge the adoption of legislation that ensures the full rights of LGBTQ+ persons without infringing on religious liberty or permitting improper government interference in the ecclesiastical activities of religious organizations. Blanket exemptions for anyone claiming a religious motive are too broad and would eviscerate necessary civil rights protections for historically marginalized groups. Not providing space in which dissenting religious groups can practice their beliefs free from government interference, however, would gravely damage freedom of conscience. Moreover, fully exempting statutes from RFRA sets a dangerous precedent of permitting the government to forcibly impose the views of the majority on minority religions, a precedent which could easily be weaponized by a future Congress and President. For these reasons, the ELCA is committed to continue working with others, including full communion partners, to find a solution that fully protects the civil rights of our LGBTQ+ siblings while at the same time protecting the free exercise and conscience rights of religious objectors.

That was not the last word on the matter, however.  On April 16, ELCA Advocacy sent an Action Alert with the following apology:

Issuance of the Action Alert related to the Equality Act on April 13 elicited strong reaction communicated through social media and other channels. Anger, deception, confusion, and contribution to a deepening of harm already part of the lives of many LGBTQIA+ members and other siblings surfaced, along with questioning advocacy process and accountability in the ELCA. For presenting a lack of care on these deep-felt issues, we apologize.  [alert]

It further stated that:

The blog post, “Equal Rights and Religious Freedom,” remains public on our ELCA advocacy blog not for prescriptive purposes but as background on “a false choice between equal rights and religious freedom.” Anticipated is a guest blog post that will provide further perspectives.

This seems to indicate that Mr. Cunniff’s blog post does not express the opinion of the ELCA and in no way indicates how the ELCA will proceed in relation to the Equality Act.  So we are left with a deeply ambiguous and equivocal statement of ELCA policy regarding “bound conscience” and religious freedom.  

Sadly, this leaves us where we began.  Any congregation with a commitment to traditional views on marriage and ordination is left uncertain about the future.