Schism is a serious matter. Even though the leaders of the congregations that left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to establish the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) in 2010 considered the ELCA to be the schismatic party, having broken from the apostolic tradition, they trembled a bit about leaving. It is a sin wrongly to divide the Body of Christ, and I wondered whether I, as a vigorous participant in the severance, was guilty. Did we leave too early? Was there a chance for the restoration of orthodoxy in the ELCA? Why did so many fine Lutherans—including a number of my best friends—decide to stay in the ELCA? Were the issues over which we divided “second-order” rather than essential doctrines? Did I just engage in petulant actions after a painful defeat?
We left after the cataclysmic ELCA assembly of 2009 accepted the blessing of gay unions (which quickly became the acceptance of gay marriage), the ordination of “married” gays, and a social statement on sexuality that was ambivalent about the institution of marriage and the place of sexual relations within it. (The last item was accompanied by a rogue tornado that knocked off the steeple of a nearby ELCA church!)
Some of the dissenters were surprised and saddened by the results and the inevitable break that would follow. I was neither surprised at the outcome nor unhappy about the break. I had participated in twenty years of rearguard resistance that we knew would not prevent the inevitable embrace of liberal Protestantism by the ELCA. We wagered that once the dike of orthodoxy was broken, a veritable flood of heterodoxy would ensue. Further, after the defeat I was finally able to leave the negative mode of resistance and move to the positive mode of helping to organize a new church that was more faithful to the Lutheran tradition.
Whatever doubts I had were extinguished by recent events in the ELCA. The glaring departure from classic Christian teaching is so stunning it is scarcely believable. At the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering held in Houston in late June, 31,000 youngsters of high school age listened to the most radical speakers the ELCA could possibly put forward. The prime keynoter was Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed and feisty founding pastor of an ELCA congregation called House for All Sinners and Saints. She has risen to become the featured celebrity of the ELCA and darling of progressive elites from NPR to the BBC.
She had been featured at an earlier Youth Gathering and stuck pretty much to her story of being rescued by grace (not much mention of Christ) from a life of drug and alcohol addiction—and from the fundamentalist Christianity she often blamed for her bad choices. But she inserted promotions for the “full acceptance and inclusion” of gays and transgender people.
This year, concluding her speech, she employed a blasphemous parody of the set of renunciations that parents or godparents are expected to answer at a baptism: “Do you renounce the devil and all his empty promises?” One renunciation went: “Do you renounce the lie that Queerness is anything other than beauty?” And the youths dutifully chanted back: “I renounce them.” So the crowd was led to reject Christian teaching that homosexual orientation is “objectively disordered” and that acting upon it is sinful. Those who held classic Christian views became purveyors of the devil’s lies. That judgment fell upon those in the ELCA who, previously, were guaranteed a place in the church if their “bound conscience” held them to traditional Christian teaching. That promise, we see now, was bogus. It merely allowed local pastors and congregations of a traditional bent to persist in their retrograde beliefs, while all agencies and institutions of the church beyond the local level enforced the progressive verdicts of the 2009 assembly. No public dissenter could get a position or keep one at the higher level.
Bolz-Weber’s message was a grace-centered address to teenagers she thought had a low self-image. It said nothing to those who needed a good dose of the law, which was absent from her talk. Absent, too, was Jesus as the bearer of God’s grace, who calls to repentance and discipleship in addition to conveying forgiveness and healing. The message that “few are chosen” was transmuted into a universal love that rescues everyone—including an unrepentant Harvey Weinstein and a “racist cop”—simply because they are created in the image of God. The grace she announced to 31,000 teenagers is a cheap grace without repentance or amendment of life. Love wins—without the cross.
A second keynoter was Tuhina Verma Rasche, described in an ELCA introduction as someone who “lives a hyphenated life as an Indian-American raised in a devout Hindu household. She sometimes wonders how she became a pastor in the ELCA and often wrestles with God’s call. Yet, through God’s persistence, she tries to answer the call to work for the representation of God’s full diversity within the church.” Her polished ten-minute presentation narrated how she was drawn to Christianity through the hospitality of a campus Lutheran group. Though she met God through the Holy Spirit, she, too, avoided any emphasis on Christ as the bearer of God’s grace. In her presentation the avoidance was complete. This is probably not accidental; radical feminists have a hard time preaching that Christ died for our sins. Such affirmations border on “divine child abuse.” So much for the ELCA’s Christocentric witness, which is supposed to be one of the treasures of Lutheranism. Grace without Christ.
Rasche has notoriety as a blogger and networker of #DecolonizeLutheranism. Her blog is a bit hard to believe; it features two Advent devotionals entitled “F*** This S**t” and “#ShuttheHellup.” Her blogs carry wonderful messages such as “The ‘American Dream’ is code to hold on to white supremacy” and “Whiteness is such a hell of a drug, white people are willing to blow up the entire f***ing world in order to maintain white supremacy.” Those remarks are clues as to what #DecolonizeLutheranism is all about. Here is an exhortation from its webpage: “The time has come for marginalized communities to lead our church into the 21st century—people of color, the disabled, all genders (women, trans, and non-conforming), sexualities, ages, incarceration or immigration or citizenship status, and others.” This liberation from the church’s Eurocentric whiteness must be engineered by a task force that is 100 percent people of color or people who speak a language other than English.
These two keynoters not only reject traditional Christian notions of sexual identity; they also challenge classic teachings on sexual morality. Both signed a petition that was concocted by an organization called “Naked and Unashamed” (I’m not making this up) based at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, where I (blushingly) taught for seventeen years. The petition calls for the ELCA to stop “privileging marriage as the only acceptable form of sexual relationality” and to start “editing out language that perpetuates heteronormativity and sexual oppression” from its guiding documents. Fortunately, neither spoke about their notions of sexual morality to the hormone-driven teenagers who cheered them on. Needless to say, both support Planned Parenthood and a woman’s “right to choose.”
A third set of keynoters was a mother and her eleven-year-old child, the latter having “transitioned” from boy to girl. The mother, an ELCA pastor’s wife, opined that her child, though biologically a boy, “deeply knows herself to be a girl.” “She wasn’t a boy; we just didn’t know that yet.” The child’s congregation had a renaming ceremony on the tenth anniversary of “her” baptism, bestowing the name “Rebekah.”
Then Rebekah spoke to the teens: “Being transgender is about being who God made me to be. God does not make mistakes. . . . I hope that the church is a place where everyone can bravely be themselves in all their uniqueness. . . . Paint a giant rainbow flag out front. That’s what I want my church to do.”
The full embrace of the transgender agenda is not without precedent in the ELCA; a number of pastors have “transitioned” from their “assigned sex” to something different. But celebrating the “transition” of an eleven-year-old—who must have started the process even earlier—is not only against Christian teaching but tantamount to child abuse. Even teenagers seem too young to take such drastic action. I wonder if any of those 31,000 teenagers are now confronting their parents with the desire to become another “gender.”
This full press for the sexual revolution is not new in the ELCA’s youth ministry. From the beginning of the ELCA in the late 1980s, youth ministry has been in the forefront of pushing the cause. As one might expect, the cause migrated to the seminaries early on and is now in full bloom. After all, yesterday’s teenagers are today’s seminarians. A particularly vivid example of this full bloom was the fiasco that accompanied the merger of two venerable Lutheran seminaries—one in Gettysburg and one in Philadelphia—into the United Lutheran Seminary in 2017.
The board of the new Lutheran seminary called a Presbyterian Church (USA) pastor to head it. She was Theresa Latini, who had been associate dean of diversity and cultural competency at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. Her “pastoral letter” of acceptance pledged to promote everything—healing, justice, reconciliation, peace, nonviolence, “cultural competency,” and a cruciform life—except the traditional preaching and teaching of the Christian faith. (“Cultural competency,” by the way, is the commitment to “unlearning racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other forms of bias.”)
She seemed the ideal “social justice warrior,” except that—get ready for this—she once was director of an organization in the PCUSA, OnebyOne, that resisted the movement to legitimate homosexual conduct. Having herself overcome same-sex attractions earlier, Latini believed that they could be overcome by others. By 2017 she obviously had “evolved” on these issues and become a passionate advocate for “full inclusion” and “diversity.” But she had the indelible stain: She had once believed in traditional Christian sexual morality.
Though she had divulged her wicked past, as well as her turnaround, to the head of the search committee, the chair chose not to make that public to the seminary board and the seminary’s constituency. Big mistake. The new president’s guilty past surfaced, and all hell broke loose. The seminarians—no doubt the product of earlier ELCA Youth Gatherings—rose up in protest, led by students who were “devastated” by the knowledge that Latini bore that stain.
The chair of the search committee was forced to resign. Half the members of the board of trustees resigned in protest that Latini’s past had not been divulged to them. The faculty groveled. Latini did, too, but she was also fired. The seminary continues in disarray.
This sad episode illustrates several things. The promise made by the ELCA in 2009 that it would honor the “bound conscience” of traditional believers was proven false. To have sinned against progressive orthodoxy is fatal (who says the modern world has no taboos?). There simply is no going back to Christian orthodoxy once churches have become liberal Protestant. And the forces unleashed in those first steps to heterodoxy will be pressed onward to unforeseen extremities.
These stunning examples of headlong accommodation to the progressive sexual agenda are not the worst case of ELCA perfidy. In the 1990s, the ELCA slowly gave up “pioneer” missionary work—bringing the gospel to those who had never heard it. The church-wide assembly of 1999 formalized its disobedience to Jesus’s Great Commission by officially advocating “accompaniment”—helping those churches that had already been planted and that asked for help. This was done to combat the inevitable colonialism that distorted pioneer evangelism. So now there is virtually no pioneer missionary work done in the ELCA, though few are aware of this sin of omission.
I had struggles with my conscience about writing this article. After all, I had left the ELCA years ago; a sharp critique of my former church seemed vindictive. After watching these recent proofs that the ELCA is pretty much both “in the world” and “of the world,” however, I want to write this as a warning. First, to those orthodox souls who remain in “evolving” churches. They belong to and support churches that increasingly depart from right teaching. Indeed, those churches suppress it. And it will get worse in the future. Today’s United Lutheran Seminary seminarians will be tomorrow’s pastors. Remember Timothy: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear” (2 Tim. 4:3) Second, I want to alert those churches that have not “evolved” to the dangers of doing just that. Once orthodoxy is breached on these issues, the process won’t stop there. It will lead to sharper denials of the apostolic faith. The revolution will eat its own children. There really is a slippery slope.
Robert Benne is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus and research associate at Roanoke College.