This summer the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) held their biennial Churchwide Assembly. As is so often the case with American Christianity, the headline grabbing issue was sex. The Assembly didn’t exactly affirm or endorse homosexuality, but, after agreeing to disagree about the moral significance of homosexual relationships, it opened up the possibility for same-sex blessings and homosexual clergy.
In a recent reflection posted on the new website Lutherans Persisting, David S. Yeago provides some insightful observations about how a faithful Lutheran should think about this (and other) bad decisions. They just strike me as right.
Yeago foregoes arguments against the permissive actions of the Churchwide Assembly. It’s not that the arguments are unimportant, but, by Yeago’s reckoning, a person committed to traditional Christian sexual morality faces a more immediate challenge. There is a pressing spiritual question, “a question,” as he puts it, “about how we are to live in a fallen and erring church.” What is the vocation of the faithful amidst a great deal of confusion and some outright false teaching?
The main thrust of Yeago’s answer comes by way of Martin Luther’s 1519 commentary on St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. The Letter to the Galatians is full of heated rhetoric. St. Paul is keen to counter the influence of those who “want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (1:7), and he gives no quarter in his brief against what he regards as a betrayal of the gospel. Needless to say, Luther himself needed little encouragement in this regard. Yet, when he came to some of the final portions of the Letter, Luther turns (as does St. Paul) to counsels of patience and forbearance.
The passage Yeago draws attention to concerns Luther’s comments on Galatians 6:1-2. In those verses, St. Paul writes, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken by any trespass, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Look to yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” Luther’s interpretation is straightforward. Our zeal for truth must be animated by a spirit of love. As Gregory the Great observed (and Luther quotes in his commentary), “True righteousness has compassion, false righteousness is indignant.”
Yeago points out that the St. Paul’s guidance had real consequences for Luther. He had already embarked on his polemics against the “heresies and crimes” of Rome, but even as tensions were rising in 1519, Luther denounced separation and self-justifications that fall back onto (as Yeago puts it) easy slogans. Luther does not counsel “Get thee out of Babylon.” On the contrary, he criticizes the followers of Jan Hus, and he urges his growing party of would-be reformers to draw ever closer to “wicked priests and bishops.” “Even if you were at the ends of the ocean,” Luther writes with his characteristically vivid urgency, if you were to follow St. Paul’s teaching, “you would come running to them and weep, warn, reprove, and do absolutely everything.” And then, with direct reference to his own situation, Luther exhorts himself and his followers to be true to the law of Christ: “We, who are bearing the burdens and truly intolerable abominations of the Roman Curia-are we too fleeing and seceding on this account? Perish the thought! Perish the thought!”
Of course, events overtook Luther’s vision-excommunication, military conflicts, and separation. Perhaps, as Yeago allows, Luther and the other Reformers failed to live up to the Pauline ideal. In any event, the fact of denominationalism certainly prevents any easy analogy between Luther in 1519 and an American Christian today. Yet, as Yeago insists, Luther’s youthful exhortation to remain within the bounds of communion has a permanent ring of scriptural truth.
As Yeago makes clear, the Pauline exhortation to bear another’s burdens blocks a simplistic way of thinking (not at all unique to Lutherans I might add), one that imagines false teaching a clear and sufficient reason for leaving for more orthodox pastures. We cannot sit back with a checklist of essential doctrines and coolly judge our churches apostate. The baptized are always already incorporated into a fellowship that makes a claim on our love. Each of us has a vocation of Christian service in our communities, and we should not imagine that doctrinal or moral decisions by church bureaucracies and various assemblies, however misguided, suspend our call to serve each other in faith.
Needless to say, Yeago also knows that St. Paul worries about the corruptive effect of false teaching and immorality. In 1 Corinthians 5, for example, we find sharply worded advice: “Do not associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality” (5:11). There are plenty of other passages in the bible that encourage rigorous standards for communal purity.
Here Yeago makes two observations. First, we need to avoid fixing all of our attention on denominational decisions. Faithful Lutherans pastors need to ask: Does the stupid decision this summer prevent me from preaching the gospel and raising up saints to serve the Lord? Ordinary men and women in the pews need to ask a similar question: Does the decision corrupt my role in the communion of saints? There is no single answer to these questions. But in the main, Yeago is right to observe that-at least today and tomorrow-a faithful synod or local church might be embarrassed or even scandalized, but it can largely continue in the good work it has been doing in the past.
This may change. We should not underestimate the totalitarian trajectory of heterodoxy. As Richard John Neuhaus famously said, “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.” But Yeago is right to put the focus on the present. As Jesus once said: “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day” (Matt. 6:34).
The second observation concerns the deeply personal nature of our responses to the burdens of ecclesial failure. As Yeago puts it, we all have different breaking-points. For some in the ELCA, the decisions this summer will push them to make a move that they have been contemplating for a long time. For others, a sense of anger or betrayal or just plain exhaustion over the seemingly endless trench warfare in the advance of the cause of gay rights in mainline Christianity will simply become too much. “No one,” Yeago writes, “should sit in judgment of the decisions faithful people make under these circumstances.”
I once wrote a book defending the spiritual vocation of loyalty to a declining mainline denomination-and I eventually left when I recognized that my own spiritual mediocrity left me unable to live up to St. Paul’s vision of a Christ-like sacrifice. So readers should not be surprised that I have sympathy for David Yeago’s Pauline admonitions-and that I am consoled by his generous concessions the opaque and uncertain and sin-weakened condition of each person.
But I am more than consoled. Since my entrance into the Catholic Church, I have become more and more aware of the importance of personal discernment, which Yeago rightly emphasizes. It is a perversion of our age-one shared I might add by both Protestants and Catholics-that we think ourselves capable of coolly judging or assessing or somehow weighing the orthodoxy of our churches by what we imagine to be objective criteria.
This approach is wrongheaded. Yes, we have the scriptures, and we have a patrimony of theological wisdom. But it is important to recognize that the church is not created by confessions. She is not a theological artifact, nor is she a catechism or set of doctrines. The church is body of Christ, a primal fact that guides the reading of scripture, supports confessions, and gives birth to doctrines. Events may force us to make a fundamental decision about our ecclesial community. But to act independently, to step outside the fellowship of faith and navigate forward on our own-this circumstance brings more blindness than clarity of vision, and it requires far more prayer than theological analysis. So, yes, the decisions made by the ELCA last summer are wayward. The future is not rosy for Lutherans or other mainline Protestants who care about orthodoxy. But no wavering Protestant should step back and tote up the apostasies of the UCC or Episcopal Church or ELCA. The truth of Christ comes clearest when one is closest, and this requires drawing near rather than stepping back. As a former mainline Protestant who hovered at a distance for longer than I care to admit, I can report that, without an abiding loyalty to a church (however debilitated, however removed for its true source), there is no reliable list of essential doctrines, no confident navigation by biblical principles.
Yeago helps his readers see their options. He and others cannot hover on the edges of the ELCA, denouncing its drift and regretting its decline. One either recommits oneself to the troubled world of mainline Protestantism with articulate criticisms, but also with a spirit of sacrifice, as he so powerfully evokes. Or one stumbles forward-who can see in advance by what uncertain steps?-and abandons oneself, not to “orthodoxy” or “true doctrine” or “good theology,” but to the tender care of Mother Church.
R.R. Reno, features editor at First Things, is a professor of theology at Creighton University.