Reflections on the ELCA Decision

Yesterday’s vote at the ELCA Churchwide Assembly giving approval to pastors in homosexual relationships, like earlier votes this week which also blessed homosexuality, should have surprised no one. The ELCA has been headed in this direction since it was created in 1987 from a merger of the LCA, ALC, and AELC. The ink was hardly dry on the merger documents before the ELCA offices starting churning out documents like Human Sexuality and the Christian Faith (1991). As I wrote of that document in 1992:

The goal of its circuitous reasoning is unmistakable, and if the statement which the ELCA adopts at the 1993 Churchwide Assembly follows the same logic, the ELCA will no longer be able to oppose either the ordination or “marriage” of sexually active homosexuals. The document dismisses the relevant Biblical tests as based on faulty assumptions. It accepts as normative the notion that homosexuals are such by nature, and cannot change. If this is so, it suggests, we cannot consider homosexuality as such immoral; consequently, the only factor which can determine the morality of a given relationship is its quality. And since celibacy cannot justly be demanded of all, the church may need to provide for the blessing of homosexual unions (see especially pages 45-46).

The ELCA was founded on a hermeneutic of distrust of scripture, rooted in acceptance of the historical critical method. This was the issue that led liberals disgruntled with the Missouri Synod to form the AELC, and it was these ex-Missourians who pushed for a merger between the liberal Lutheran denominations. This hermeneutic has been apparent at each stage of the “discussion” over sexuality.

While claiming to be “faithful to Scripture” (1), the document, in actual practice, has no sense of Scripture as a unified tradition. It is able to operate only on the level of such hypothetical sources as J, E, D, and P. It can place each of these in its proper context, and extrapolate the factors which influenced each author, but it can do no more. It fails to see Scripture as the product of an ongoing community of faith seeking to be faithful to its calling. And by so separating the Biblical documents from their canonical and communal setting, and appraising them only at the earliest phase of their conjectured history, the Task Force reduces them to mere archaeological curiosities which testify solely to assumptions which modern science has disproved. They are dry bones, with no animating Spirit. There is no sense of revelation, nor of inspiration — and certainly no real authority. The document’s Scripture consists merely of scattered grains of sand, gathered together or cast aside according to the “radical” assumptions and agenda of the study’s authors.

The ELCA has also shown itself to be thoroughly antinomian. As I wrote in 1992,

Lutheranism has typically defended itself from the Marcionite charge by maintaining the necessity of a continual tension between law and gospel. Thus Lutheran Orthodoxy warned of the dangers of both legalism and antinomianism. The current study document on human sexuality, however, tends toward the latter by declaring that the sole message of the Church is “grace.” The only purpose of law is to expose the prevalence of sin in a very general and universal fashion, thus negating finger-pointing at any particular individual.

This outcome was clear to me back in 1992. I was an ELCA pastor at the time. I’d only been ordained three years. I had become a Lutheran while in college. I attended Gettysburg Seminary, where I received my MA and MDiv. I was called by Thompsontown Lutheran Parish in Pennsylvania and ordained on June 11, 1989, by the Upper Susquehanna Synod. And less than three years later I was wondering what I had done–and what I was going to do. At that point I was too proud to go back to the Seventh-day Adventist Church in which I had been raised, and I was drawn into the Roman Catholic Church. I went from the arms of a denomination without law into the arms of one with a muddled Gospel; one which defended parts of God’s law, especially on issues like abortion and homosexuality, but which also added its own laws, and taught disobedience to other divine laws.

To those ELCA members and pastors who may be tempted, as I was, to embrace Rome, I’d caution against it. Don’t give up the gospel–remember that God’s word is both Law and Gospel. Distrust all human philosophies and rationalizations–ground yourself in Scripture alone.

John’s apocalypse warns of a time when God’s judgment will fall on all who misuse and abuse his word and his gifts; doom is pronounced upon Babylon, the great city, and her daughters, who have led men astray with deceit. “Babylon is fallen,” is the decree of the angel, “and has become the habitation of every unclean thing. Come out of her my people!”

And so I issue that invitation: come out! Come out of the confusion of the oldline churches that substitute their own judgment for that of God. Build on the foundation of God’s word alone. Follow it where it leads.