In its August 2009 Churchwide Assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church decided formally to leave the Great Tradition of orthodox Christianity for a declining and desiccated liberal Protestantism. The decisions it made—accepting a weak and confused social statement on sexuality, allowing blessings of gay unions, ordaining gays and lesbians in partnered relationships, and requiring Lutherans to respect each other’s “bound conscience” on these issues—crossed the “line in the sand” that separates revisionist Christians from orthodox.
That result was a foregone conclusion for critical observers who had been watching the ELCA carefully since its inception in the late eighties. (Among them, of course, was Richard John Neuhaus, who saw clearly the trajectory yet to unfold.) What had been the promise of a renewed and robust Lutheranism in the merger of the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America was aborted before its birth, in 1988. The planners of the new Lutheran church saw to it that those who provided theological guidance to predecessor churches—then almost exclusively white and male—were marginalized from the real decision-making centers of church life.
One of their instruments was a quota system that insured that the more “progressive” elements of the church would be overrepresented. Every committee, task force, and voting body must be comprised of 60 percent laypeople of whom half must be female and 40 percent of clergy of whom half must be female. 10 percent must be people of color or people whose first language is other than English, of whom half must be female. This scheme dramatically reduced the role of white, male pastors in the church.
Other instruments were: making the Bishops merely advisory; categorizing theologians as only one interest group among others; and locating final authority in lay-dominated, semiannual assemblies that could vote even on doctrinal matters, as one fatefully did in August 2009. These bodies made sure there would be “many voices” in the life of the ELCA, and we now have “many voices,” but no authoritative ones. What is left of classical Lutheranism in the ELCA is a mere “aroma in the bottle.”
But church organizations abhor a vacuum. In the absence of a genuine confessional teaching authority, the ELCA has followed liberal Protestantism in adopting a working theology sharply different from its classical confessions. It has substituted the “Gospel of inclusion” for the classic “Gospel of redemption” that emphasizes repentance, forgiveness, and amendment of life. The former diminishes the importance of the Law as the source of both repentance and guidance for Christians. The god of self-esteem promises everyone acceptance just the way they are.
But the ELCA is far more interested in pressing forward the liberationist themes issuing from feminism, multiculturalism, anti-imperialism, and environmentalism. These themes constitute the non-negotiables in ELCA church life. The ELCA bishops recently participated in a workshop that featured a presentation titled “Power, Privilege, and Difference.” Being therefore educated about their propensities to be oppressive, the worthy bishops resolved to have “observers” at all their meetings to monitor for “PP&D” thinking. One might note that they employed no monitors for confessional theology, perhaps because there was nothing of significance to monitor.
The decision to allow the blessing and ordination of gays and lesbians in partnered relationships was the flash point for those who had observed these deep-running liberationalist trends operating in the church for many years. That flash point, however, illuminated the deeper problem of authority in the church. Scripture and its Lutheran confessional interpretation seemed to have been cast aside for the voting process of a Churchwide Assembly that was shaped more by contemporary experience, highly-organized interest groups, and the scarcely veiled agenda of ELCA headquarters.
The ELCA’s proclamation that it held no clear teachings on homosexual conduct, yet allowed the blessing and ordination of partnered homosexuals, individualized and congregationalized the church in one fell swoop. Each individual and congregation has to exercise their own “bound conscience” on these matters. Some individuals may simply leave for other churches or press their congregations to leave the ELCA, while some divert their offerings to purely local causes or participate in organized efforts to renew the church. Most members, however, try to act as if nothing has happened.
Some congregations have left the ELCA for other Lutheran bodies, while others have publicly proclaimed orthodox beliefs and practices and allowed their members to divert their offerings into “bound conscience” funds that cannot be sent on to the ELCA. Most try to avoid these controversies like the plague. Pastors know the tension will cost them membership and support no matter what direction they go.
The national church has a budget far less than the one it began with in 1988, even if one does not account for inflation. Sixty-four of the sixty-five synods have diminished their giving to the national church. All the synods have less to work with.
However, the most interesting fall-out is the organizational changes. The two organizations formed to resist the direction of the ELCA—the Word Alone Network and Lutheran CORE—have redefined themselves. Neither desires to continue organized resistance within the ELCA, which they regard as futile. Both have turned their attention to building new organizations independent of the ELCA, as they seek to provide harbors for those in search of a church beyond their congregations.
The Word Alone Network has become Word Alone Ministries, which provides educational and worship materials, mission opportunities, and theological education for the church that it founded earlier. That church, or better, that “association of congregations,” is the Lutheran Congregations in Ministry for Christ. The LCMC was formed during the fracas over an agreement, between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, Called to Common Mission, which required ordination to the historic episcopacy for Lutheran pastors and bishops. That requirement was anathema to the mostly Midwestern, low church Lutherans. The LCMC now lists 410 member congregations, with 191 having joined since last August. Among them are some of the largest Lutheran churches in America.
Representing the “evangelical catholic” or high church wing of the church, Lutheran CORE redefined itself after the fiasco of August 2009 as a coalition for the renewal and reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America. Though it had no initial desire to start yet another Lutheran church, CORE responded to the wave of churches wanting to leave the ELCA for a more “churchly” organization than Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, and hopes to facilitate the birth of the new North American Lutheran Church next August. It is uncertain just how many congregations will be on board at its founding.
Both CORE and the NALC see themselves as instruments of a reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America—CORE as an ongoing convocation of Lutheran teaching theologians, and the NALC as an ecclesia embodying those teachings.
Whatever comes of these ventures remains to be seen. If the Holy Spirit blesses them they will flourish and provide new beginnings for Lutheranism in America. For many they are the last, great efforts to live out the promise of Lutheranism as a church on this continent. If they fail, the only remaining option may be a bracing swim across the Tiber.
Robert Benne is Director of the Center for Religion and Society and Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus at Roanoke College. His Good and Bad Ways to Think About Religion and Politics will appear this summer.
Word Alone Ministries
Lutheran Congregations in Ministry for Christ
American Lutheran Publicity Bureau