I am reliably informed that there is a Neuhaus’ Law to the effect that, where orthodoxy is optional, it will sooner or later be proscribed. There are, of course, exceptions to all such rules, but this one seems to be confirmed by what is happening in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). The story is not of interest only to Lutherans. With just a little over five million members, the ELCA is the fourth largest Protestant denomination in the country, following the Southern Baptist Convention (15.8 million), the United Meth odist Church (8.3 million), and the Church of God in Christ (5.4 million). Like the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ, the ELCA is part of what many still call the Protestant “mainline.”
It was not always so. The ELCA is a relatively new thing, formed in 1988 by a merger of the Lutheran Church in America (LCA) and the American Lutheran Church (ALC). Both predecessor bodies kept their distance from the more conservative 2.5 million–member Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS), which more than reciprocated their coolness. Fifty and even twenty years ago, historians of American religion commonly referred to Lutheranism as the “sleeping giant” that would one day rouse itself and bring its impressive theological tradition to the rescue of an enervated liberal Protestantism. Perhaps, in ways beyond our capacity to imagine, that will still happen. The experience of the ELCA, however, supplies slight encouragement for that hope. One might even suggest that the ELCA shows every sign of coming down with the disease for which those historians thought Lutheranism might be the cure.
Consider, as a recent piece of evidence, the actions taken by the ELCA’s 2001 Churchwide Assembly last August with regard to its moral assessment of homosexuality and homosexual relations. The assembly decided (899–115) to do a “churchwide study on homosexuality, including matters related to the blessing of same–gender relationships and ordination of gay and lesbian people in committed relationships.” The action also calls for a final report and plan for implementation to be presented to the 2005 Churchwide Assembly.
In a related but separate action, the Assembly voted 624–381 to ask the Church Council, the Conference of Bishops, and the Division of Ministry to “create a specific plan and timeline leading toward a decision concerning the rostering of homosexual persons in committed relationships.” That plan is also to be placed before the Churchwide Assembly in 2005. A third action that asked for the initiation of a process leading to a general statement on human sexuality passed by 581–386.
The momentous part of the first two actions is that they may result in a straightforward decision to ordain gays and lesbians in committed relationships and to bless same–sex unions. While it is widely believed that the church bureaucracy solidly supports both innovations, that bureaucracy certainly didn’t want to be rushed into a real decision in 2005. After all, the ELCA already has plenty of internal organized resistance on its hands from those incensed about the presumed concessions concerning the office of bishop that the ELCA made in order to establish fellowship with the Episcopal Church.
The ELCA bureaucracy would have preferred to muddle along without any precipitating action for a decade or so until the “crabby old guys” died off. After all, it holds all the cards—a self–perpetuating headquarters ethos that, combined with a quota system for church officers, guarantees “enlightened” thinking, control of the official communication instruments of the church, and the capacity to set agendas and frame questions. The ELCA leaders could afford to wait out the opposition on this issue, anticipating that the practice of “irregular ordinations” and blessing of same–sex unions would outrun and finally overturn traditional teaching. These revisionist practices are already doing just that in some synods of the ELCA. When challenged by conservatives, the violators formally have their wrists slapped while informally they are embraced. The juggernaut is moving.
This assessment may sound a bit cynical, but I have personal experience with the workings of the ELCA on this particular issue. After the storm of protest that greeted the first ELCA attempt at a statement on sexuality during the 1990s, I was asked to serve on a select committee to discuss how the ELCA might engage in “moral deliberation” on issues of sexuality, especially homosexuality. (I was giving a lecture at the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s Concordia Seminary in St. Louis when the first ELCA study came out. A local newspaper greeted the study with the banner headline: “Lutherans Endorse Masturbation!” It was more than a bit embarrassing to be ELCA on that day.)
When I attended the task force’s first meeting of about a dozen persons, I quickly found that I was the only one willing to articulate the classical Christian teaching on sexual ethics. Eight or nine of the group were vocal proponents of the homosexual agenda. The other participants—one a bishop—remained silent. After a good deal of fruitless bickering, the group decided that all of us should depart for home grounds to try to develop models for discussion of the issue. We would gather again in several months to see what sort of models we had developed and how they fared.
I held a “Disputation on Homosexuality” at Roanoke College at which I invited Gilbert Meilaender to argue the classic case and Paul Jersild, then of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, to present the revisionist view. We printed up and taped the proceedings. (Interestingly, Meilaender got Jersild to admit that one couldn’t support the revisionist agenda on biblical or confessional grounds; one would have to rely on social science and contemporary experience.)
When we gathered again to report on our experiments in “moral deliberation,” I was appalled. The other “models” were either unchallenged expositions of the revisionist position or, more commonly, tapes of gays and lesbians “telling their stories” to each other and to other Lutheran pastors and laity. Not one decent representation of the classic Lutheran teaching on sexuality was evident. Theological and biblical reflection was nowhere to be found. Indeed, as is often the case in ELCA deliberations, theology was viewed suspiciously as “hegemonic” in nature and therefore to be treated as but one interest among others. The consensus of the group seemed to be: the issue is settled; let’s enlighten the masses who sit in darkness. However, the bureaucrats—leery following the protests over the proposed earlier sexual statement—put something of a brake on that sentiment.
The Meilaender and Jersild essays and tapes got wide exposure in the following ELCA study materials since they were the only theologically articulate pieces the “moral deliberation” models had turned up. Sad to say, though, the study materials that came out of our task force deliberations turned out to be heavily biased toward the revisionist agenda.
There are good reasons to suspect that the study process leading up to 2005 will resemble what I have just described. After all, that first venture took place under a presiding Bishop, George Anderson, who believed in the Lutheran moral tradition on these matters, but whose influence on the latitudinarian draft statement was not much in evidence. The new Bishop, Mark Hanson, from the notably liberal St. Paul Area Synod of the ELCA, has already shown tacit support both for ordaining gays and lesbians in committed relationships and for blessing same–sex unions. The governing Church Council maintains a thoroughly “progressive” posture, as witnessed by its elimination of a reference to the normative status of marriage in a recent Church and Society statement on sexual exploitation. Furthermore, most of the same ELCA executives hold sway now as then, and they will attempt to direct the four–year process in their preferred direction.
The ELCA in general acts as if it has no normative tradition on Christian sexual ethics. Since its creation in 1988, it has been confused about whether the statements on sexual ethics of its predecessor bodies have any real authority. Detached from its history, it tends to view the various perspectives on sexual ethics as equally valid. We just have to find out where the majority of the 2005 Churchwide Assembly comes down, and voila!—we have a new teaching on sexual ethics. Furthermore, it is argued that these revisionist changes are not very important because they are peripheral to the Christian gospel: “Don’t we have something more important to argue about?” liberals dismissively argue.
These blithe attitudes are oblivious to the gravity of treating the classic tradition as optional and of viewing the issue itself as one of relative insignificance in Christian life and teaching. These items are peripheral only to Lutherans who want the acceptance of the gospel without the commands of the law. To many within the church the sober warning of Wolfhart Pannenberg sums up their own posture:
If a church were to let itself be pushed to the point where it ceased to treat homosexual activity as a departure from the biblical norm, and recognized homosexual unions as a personal partnership of love equivalent to marriage, such a church would stand no longer on biblical ground but against the unequivocal witness of Scripture. A church that took this step would cease to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.
An acceptance of the revisionist agenda by the ELCA in 2005 would be the last straw for many in a church that has gradually joined the Protestant mainstream and accommodated itself to liberal secular culture. The commitment to “inclusivity” is the only new impulse in the ELCA. Unlike its surface meaning, “inclusivity” has not meant the vigorous evangelization of many sorts of people at home and abroad. Rather, it has meant an interest group liberalism that has led to quotas, identity politics, and factionalism, just as it has in secular society itself. The ELCA has more or less followed the culture on issues of abortion, divorce, and the acceptance of premarital sex and cohabitation. Factionalism, or more precisely an aggressive feminism, has prevented it from clearly affirming traditional teachings on any of these issues. “True love waits,” the simple slogan of the evangelicals concerning premarital sex, would be far too uncomplicated for the ELCA.
What, then, will happen in 2005 and what will the “losers” do thereafter? As I have already indicated, I believe the ELCA will capitulate to the revisionists, who have momentum and bureaucratic power on their side. Moreover, the militant gay and lesbian lobby has shown itself to be willing to push an agenda that may lead to the loss of one to two million members of the church. Chances are very good that both items—the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships and the blessing of same–sex unions—will pass.
It is possible that an organized resistance could emerge that would awaken the ordinary laity to what is going on and prevent the revisionists from gaining the two–thirds majority vote they will need in 2005. There is already one organized resistance movement in the ELCA—the WordAlone Network—but that group seems fixated on its rejection of hierarchical authority in the church. It might well fracture if it were to focus on anything else. Perhaps another group will step forward, but that would take leadership that as yet is nowhere in sight.
If the revisionist agenda triumphs in 2005, what will the “losers” do? A small number of clergy will, as one of my Greek Orthodox friends invited me to do, “swim the Bosporus.” A larger number—but still fairly small—will go to Rome. A significant number of laity are likely to migrate to evangelical or conservative churches, including the more conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. Perhaps the estimate of one to two million persons leaving is too high, at least in the short run. As in most church fractures, those electing to leave are always fewer than predicted. People focus on their local parish and try to ignore what is going on at higher levels of the church.
If the revisionists win in 2005, however, ordinary laity will have a hard time ignoring what will be going on above them. If the ELCA’s record on “inclusivity” is a reliable sign of what will happen on homosexual issues, no one will be able to hide. The ELCA has driven “inclusivity” into the ground. Every featured picture in the Lutheran, every worship team at every Assembly, every text, every committee, every Sunday School lesson now has to reflect the “official” inclusivity of the ELCA.
I can visualize the future. Three weeks after the 2005 Churchwide Assembly votes in the revisionist agenda, the Lutheran will have a cover picture of the blessing of a gay union before a Lutheran church altar. Sunday school materials will depict two mommies or two daddies who are in idyllic committed relationships. Quotas will include required places for gays and lesbians. Seminaries will have a growing homosexual population, as will Lutheran pulpits.
When these changes become widely visible, defections will begin to take place on a massive scale. Much of the laity will simply not tolerate their children being taught what the ELCA will try to teach them. Since many congregations can take their property with them as they withdraw, they will do so.
However, instead of leaving the ELCA (who wants yet another denomination?), a significant group of pastors and congregations will withdraw their benevolence to and cooperation with the ELCA and their synods. They will treat those “higher” expressions of the church as “mere associations in the left–hand Kingdom, not the Church,” as one Lutheran theologian put it. In other words, the ELCA as a unified church will come to an end. Traditional Lutheran clergy and laity will seek out congregations that adhere to classical teaching and will refuse to support the ELCA or synods supportive of the ELCA. Revisionist clergy and laity will gather in the congregations that support the ELCA and in synods that move with the ELCA. The ELCA will resemble the Episcopal Church that it has courted so ardently. In due time it may even merge fully with the Episcopal Church—and dwindle further with it into the peripheral irrelevance that liberal Protestantism has made of itself.
Robert Benne is Director of the Center for Religion and Society at Roanoke College, Salem, Virginia, and author most recently of Quality with Soul (Eerdmans).