Observations on the ELCA Churchwide Assembly
Note: A short commentary on this topic will also be published in Reporter. Here I offer some more extensive observations and reflections. HCM.
At the invitation of Rev. Dr. Mark Hanson, presiding bishop, I attended the second half of the 12th Churchwide Assembly of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), Aug. 15-19, in Orlando, Florida, to represent The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). Everyone was very cordial and gracious, repeating several times how glad they were I was there, so I’m very thankful to Dr. Hanson and his staff. No opportunity was given me to speak to the delegates, but I was introduced along with about 20 leaders from other church bodies, including the following: Grady Parsons, Presbyterian Church USA, who brought greetings on behalf of the ELCA’s full communion partners; the Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, National Council of Churches general secretary; plus representatives from other groups such as the Reformed Churches of America; Christian Church Together in the U.S.A.; Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada; the World Council of Churches; the Episcopal Church; the Mennonite Church; the Disciples of Christ; the United Church of Christ; the Moravian Church; and Rev. Martin Junge, the general secretary of the Lutheran World Federation. Interestingly, after we had left the stage, a representative from the Islamic Society of North America, with whom the ELCA has had discussions, spoke and brought greetings of peace.
Though the ELCA is about twice our size, fewer voting delegates (about 1,000 compared to our 1,200-plus) made up their assembly. They debated a shrinking budget (their assembly adopts an overall budget for two years) and reductions in funding campus and youth ministries. It adopted a social statement on genetics and the church body’s own anti-malaria campaign, separate from the Lutheran Malaria Initiative.
Our Synod has always recognized many other Lutherans in North America and works toward greater doctrinal concord, seeking deeper relationships on the basis of the Word of God. We have our long-time partners in the Lutheran Church – Canada (whose congregations historically were members of the LCMS in Canada). We are also growing into our relationship of altar and pulpit fellowship with the Association of American Lutheran Churches declared several years ago after thorough theological discussion. In addition, we have our many partners around the world in the International Lutheran Council. We also have ongoing conversations with a number of others, and of course, we continue to meet twice a year with the leadership of the ELCA in the Committee on Lutheran Cooperation.
What gave me a persistent melancholy feeling observing this Churchwide Assembly, however, is the sense that the ELCA is simply on a different course than the LCMS, particularly with regard to the authority of Scripture. In 2009 the ELCA, rejecting the prohibitions of God’s Word, recognized “life-long monogamous same-gender relationships” and allowed non-celibate homosexual ministers to serve as pastors.
In essence, some members of the ELCA still hold the position that such homosexual activity is sinful. Other members of the ELCA hold the position that such activity is acceptable to God. Officially, both positions are allowed by the national body, but in effect, the latter position has become the norm. There was no sign at this assembly of any move to reconsider these actions.
As a Synod, we believe these decisions represent a clear contradiction of the Word of God. Most of us in the LCMS are deeply grieved by this because we believe the ELCA, in effect, has allowed, contrary to Scripture, the pernicious idea that homosexual activity is just as pleasing to God as sexual activity within Holy Marriage.
What makes this discussion even more painful is that, in the recent memory of many of us, we were much closer to parts of the ELCA. The American Lutheran Church (ALC), one of the predecessor bodies of the ELCA, and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod lived in altar and pulpit fellowship for 12 years. I remember well the close relationship enjoyed thereby between St. James – ALC and Holy Ghost – LCMS, two blocks apart in Bergholz, New York, when I served my vicarage at Holy Ghost. The two congregations jointly supported a parish school. During the year I was there, on Ascension Day 1978, the congregations celebrated their first joint Communion service, and there was not a dry eye in the house. Personally, I have close family members who belong to ELCA congregations. Many more folk in both church bodies are able to tell of countless long-standing connections of family and friendship. Yet now, tragically, the LCMS and the ELCA are traveling roads that diverge rather than converge.
What does this widening gap mean for cooperative relationships between our churches? The 2010 Convention of the LCMS asked the leadership of our Synod to prepare theological criteria for evaluating these cooperative ventures, mostly in the area of social ministry and the care of hurting people. These criteria have been prepared, and we have begun an extended process of examining carefully these ventures. Where we conclude we can in good conscience continue without compromising God’s Word, we will do so. However, where we conclude the differences make cooperation impossible, there will, in time, be a careful and orderly disengagement. As a confessional Synod we simply cannot participate in efforts that imply any agreement with the positions taken by the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly.
Why is this necessary? Our Synod maintains the position that God Himself has reserved the act of sexual union for marriage between one man and one woman. On the basis of God’s Word and evidenced by 2000 years of Christian teaching, we believe that fornication, adultery, and homosexual activity are all sin before God1, sins which need to be confessed as such, so that they can be forgiven, as the Scripture says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”2 Some may dismiss our position as biblicism or legalism. Yet the Word of God remains true. In the wider context of this verse we can see how these issues DO affect the Gospel:
This is the message we have heard from Him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us. My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.3
This is the only way any of us are able stand before God. We claim nothing of our own, but can only plead the merits of Jesus Christ. All else is darkness and leads away from the truth, for if we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His Word is not in us. Only Jesus can save us, for only Jesus is the sacrifice that bears in our place the full wrath of God on account of our sin.
This is why we cannot call good what God has called sin. Accepting homosexual activity as good (which is the effect of the ELCA’s 2009 action) promotes a false security about behavior God has forbidden and from which He longs to redeem us. It leads to self-justification rather than that justification God has promised all who trust His forgiving mercy through the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord.
This is not a happy situation. We humbly recognize we in The Lutheran Church––Missouri Synod have many faults, many of which are often more visible to those outside than to us insiders. But we are also bound to the Word of God. We pray that the Lord would enable us to love every sinner enough to be honest with them about the Word of God regarding both repentance and forgiveness. We pray that by His Spirit we drink deeply of His Word and joyfully keep the Gospel of forgiveness central to our life together. We pray for our brothers and sisters in the ELCA, and for all of us, that the Lord would preserve us and that we may both humbly seek and boldly confess Christ and His Word before the world.
Peace in Christ,
+ Herbert Mueller
1 See 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, et al. Yet we have much work to do to improve our ministry in these areas. Discussion is under way to develop helps for pastors and congregations to serve folks in these situations.
2 1 John 1:9
3 1 John 1:5-2:2
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