During its August 17–23 national church convention in Minneapolis, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America seems poised to approve same-sex relations and the ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships. The history behind this move, which will be decided by a majority vote, is too tedious to repeat. Just call to mind the similar success of churnings within the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church and you’ll have an adequate understanding of it. Presbyterians and United Methodists have so far held off the radical assaults from the Christian left. But since ELCA Lutherans are now firmly part of the Christian left, few resources exist to turn back this latest attempt.
It isn’t about homosexuality. That in the moment is merely the presenting issue following a long, long line of revisionist propositions that have found a home with the Christian left. The authority of Scripture, the reality of sin, the name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all these and other critical expositions on God’s revelation to humanity have been under sustained attack. When these go, well, only sex is left and here we are, about to bless what Scripture, natural law, and common sense itself condemns.
This will not pass without notice, of course. The only question is how much self-inflicted damage will be sustained by a denomination already seriously damaged. The ELCA has steadily lost membership and congregations every year since 1987, the year the ELCA was formed by a merger of three Lutheran bodies. Adoption of the proposed change in standards for ordination and approval of same-sex relationships seems a sure way to accelerate the losses. One of the ELCA’s largest congregations—Community of Joy in Arizona—withdrew from the ELCA a few months ago, anticipating the August convention. Others are just waiting it out.
There are further stirrings going on. A confessional outfit called Lutheran Coalition for Reform (CORE) is planning a congregational convocation in Indianapolis a month after the ELCA self-destructs in Minneapolis. (Self-disclosure moment: I am a member of CORE’s advisory panel.)
But what exactly CORE will do remains murky. Possible reactions range from a wimpy “gee, we wish you hadn’t done that” sort of declaration to formation of yet another Lutheran church body, much as disaffected Episcopalians have done. I say “yet another” because there are already at last count twenty-two Lutheran synodical bodies in North America: The two big ones—the ELCA and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod—and twenty others, most of which could hold their “national” church gatherings comfortably in a New York efficiency apartment and still have space for any news reporters that bothered showing up. There is a sort of sour gloominess at the prospect of organizing still one more micro-church body for Lutherans in America. Somehow I just don’t think this is what the world has been awaiting.
A middle position talked about would be to organize a Lutheran order of pastors and congregations—a ministerium as Lutherans would call it—“in, but not of” the ELCA. This has but limited prospects because it has already been tried. Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ (now one of the micro-synods) a bit less than a decade ago attempted to create a dual-membership arrangement for congregations. The ELCA responded by removing them from the congregational roster. This didn’t get much press mostly because the congregations being removed had no real objection, there were few of them to begin with, and because Lutheran congregations own their own property, everyone avoided unseemly judicial brouhahas that have marked Episcopal expulsions. Besides, the media believe Episcopal scuffles are ever so much sexier than anything contrived by a bunch of Lake Woebegonians.
Frankly, the creation of one more Lutheran church body in America is a dauntingly depressive possibility. I’m not entirely certain I want anything to do with it . . . unless we’re talking about a ministerium organized to open dialogue on becoming a Roman Catholic affiliate, congregations, pastors, the whole caboodle, eventually seeking full communion with the bishop of Rome. If Rome cooperates, this ought to be pretty easy. Just think of us as inactive members seeking reinstatement. In my congregation, an officially inactive member is welcomed back to full fellowship by making a contribution and receiving Holy Communion, and sometimes we’ve been known to even skip the contribution part. Couldn’t the Church of Rome handle that? There might be a few subsidiary issues to settle, but get us inside first and everything else becomes manageable. What is needed here is a brave archbishop or two, together taking cognizance of what is about to happen to the ELCA, and stepping forward as potential shepherds. Can’t really call it stealing sheep if the previous shepherd has run off, can you?
No, I’m not being facetious. Not altogether. The original intent of the sixteenth century Reformers wasn’t to start a new church but to be a witness for evangelical reform within the one church. Our Lutheran confessional documents—notably the Augsburg Confession of 1530—forcefully argues that nothing Lutherans taught was contrary to the faith of the church catholic, nor even contrary to that faith held by the Church of Rome. As it has happened, much to our Lutheran chagrin, late twentieth century Rome itself become a better witness to an evangelical gospel than early twenty-first century Lutherans have proved capable of being. And for all the radical Lutheran polemic coming after Augsburg—you know, about the pope being the latest anti-Christ sitting on the throne of the whore of Babylon—truth is, these days, I get far less trouble from the bishop of Rome than I get from my own bishop.
Some time in the mid-1980s Richard John Neuhaus told me—with no little optimism, I might add—that fifty Lutheran pastors and their congregations seeking fellowship with Rome would become an ecumenical moment. After he himself became Roman Catholic following formation of the ELCA he lowered the number to a more modest twenty-five. Facing the August convention of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and its inevitable aftermath, I’m wondering, how about one?
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri.