Disappearing Theology

The CWA 2009 set the tone for a ground swell of debate as congregations and synods try to discern the path each will follow.  Last weekend here in South Carolina our synod took part in what our bishop called “A Day of Holy Conversation.”  This day was set aside for South Carolina Synod Lutherans to gather and respectfully discuss our differences as we acknowledge one another as fellow members of the body of Christ on earth.

Hundreds gathered together, listened together, ate together and worshipped together as if it were any other day in our synod’s history.  Friends on opposite sides of one issue or another remained friends, hugs were exchanged in lieu of handshakes, and our synod family had all the appearances of one still knit closely together in the bonds of Christian love.  For this I am glad and give thanks to the one who calls us to live in community through our baptism into Christ.

During the morning session, seminary professors Dr. David Yeago and Dr. Susan McArver gave presentations with regards to their thoughts concerning the decisions of CWA 2009.  Dr. Yeago spoke to the lack of biblical, traditional and theological support for these resolutions, describing the ELCA as a church of “impaired communion” with itself.  Dr. McArver provided historical perspective as to how the church has handled divisions in the past and advocated for the CWA 2009 changes through the lens of history and personal reflection.

Following a brief luncheon and then worship with Holy Communion, the body discussed possible resolutions for our upcoming synod assembly in June.  As with the morning session a format was followed to allow voices from either side of the debate to be heard.  The debate (I can’t call it conversation) was respectful, and each resolution was discussed in polite manner.  As I listened to each person, a common theme became evident; one that I have noticed so many times before in such debates.  The ELCA seems to be suffering from a disappearing theology.

Since August there have been many meetings and forums on the schedule, and most allow a time for people to voice their views.  As people from either side of the disagreement speak, the refrain of “I am not a theologian or a pastor, and I’ve had no theological instruction, but I feel in my heart…”  Another oft heard remark seems to be, “I haven’t read Leviticus or Romans, but I believe…”

Now please hear this, I am not saying one side is biblically uninformed as compared to the other.  The truth is, I hear these remarks coming from both sides of the issue and this concerns me.  Our church is in the midst of a great struggle with one side claiming biblical authority and the other claiming the scriptural authors’ lack of knowledge concerning sexual orientation, yet we have many willing to speak out who have not read or studied the disputed texts in their context.  Many others do not take the time to read the essays published by our church’s theologians or enter into focused Bible studies.  Understanding this, I fear we are becoming a church that makes decisions based on our experience and emotions rather than on biblical study and theological reflection.  We ask, “Where is God in all this?” but we largely answer the question without studying God’s Word, hearing the teaching of our theologians, and listening to the witness of the saints.

I am convinced that the debate surrounding CWA 2009 is going to be long and painstakingly exhausting.  I am also convinced that those who enter and remain in the discussion will do so out of their love for God, the church and their neighbor.  It is my prayer that as we go forward in this “Holy Conversation” the church rediscovers it’s rich tradition of teaching and learning, while we strive to love God with all our heart, mind soul and strength.

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6 Responses to Disappearing Theology

  1. Very nice reflection. I’m glad your synod is having a discussion. I think that the things you are seeing are rampant in society at large. People aren’t taking the time to look at the background and the various viewpoints of most things. News people ask questions as if the answer will fall into Either This or That, but that isn’t real life. We want issues resolved in the space of time it takes to watch a half hour sitcom, not even a half hour because there are so many commercials.

    I have taken the time to read a ton of on-line stuff on The Vote, et al. Most people don’t have that amount of time, and quite frankly, I’ve neglected some other things I value because of spending this time.

    When we really read the Bible, we are convicted of a lot of sins and neglect of our neighbors. Just look at the Advent texts…but we usually just think about the coming of the Christ Child. I’m not sure that most people really want to read about all their sins of omission.

    Some time ago at an annual meeting at our church, one guy got up, addressing the Gay issue, and said, “Well, if you just read the Bible, then it is clear.” He is a divorced man, so my first thought was, “what about divorce.” I challenged myself to read those passages in the Bible, which, of course, takes a Bible with a subject index, because a concordance doesn’t bring up the words we use now days. In the Romans passage, actually in the same paragraph as statements about sexuality, I saw listed many other sins, including the biggest sin that I’ve committed all my life, one most people commit quite a bit if they are honest. Hmmmm. Who can quote a passage, the whole passage, and still point fingers?

    Now I’m doing a read through the entire Bible and since I’m reading in context instead of passages here and there, I’ve learned somethings that have been glossed over by me before. There IS a lot of harsh stuff in there and there IS a lot of stuff that can justify just about anything. And I’m still trying to figure out what people mean by the “Biblical view of marriage” (said tongue in cheek.) I don’t think that is singular.

  2. Pr. Lance Henderson says:

    Good post, Dave. I wondered that Saturday, “what if we all gathered here to actually study Leviticus even if we disputed certain parts of it? Would we learn something about Christ’s sacrifice? Or God’s desire for holiness?”

  3. Jonathan Trost says:

    My primary concern about CWA 2009 (or any CWA decision) is not about the content of a particular decision. Rather, it is about process. Inherently and basically, the issues concerning sexuality as they relate to the church were, and are, theological ones. Why, then, do our church’s by-laws require that the majority (60%) of those who vote on and decide answers to such theological questions be laypeople? The other 40% can be pastors but, even as to them, how many are, by self-definition, theologians?

    I think it’s a mistake to have the “official statement” of the entire denomination determined by how a body of voting members, mostly laypeolpe, “feels” about the theological question(s) presented on a given day. Particularly so, when so many of the laity elected by synod assemblies to attend and vote have, as a primary qualification for doing so, merely the time, resources, and willingness to do so.

    I believe the whole built in process is a “slap in the face” to our church’s theologians. I don’t know that we (quite) need a “Magisterium” to decide such issues but …. a majority of (self-confessed) theologically untutored laypeople?

    It’s not surprising that, following CWA votes, many in our pews simply “yawn” as an alternative to becoming angry or pleased.

    • Bill Gable says:

      I can see both sides of this question. You are right that any person should have at least read Leviticus and Romans, and should not justify such a pivotal vote with “but in my heart…”. Biblical and theological smarts are very necessary to this process.

      But, not all church theologians seem to be able to deal with this properly and not all laypeople are without these abilities. The Lutheran CORE letter sent to delegates ahead of the vote was devoid of theogical accumen and solid biblical insight, in my opinion. Yet it was signed by many esteemed church theologians— many my professors at LSTC in the late 1960s. That was very disillusioning. On the other hand one of my nephews was a delegate and spent hours reading all the background material (and the CORE letter), reflecting on it all, and taking time he didn’t have with a job and two small children to do that and attend the CWA. He is a veteran church person with great insight. I think he had the credentials to make this kind of a decision. I’m not so sure about the theologians, from what I saw. They dealt with possible inter-communion difficulties (with the Orthodox, for instance), possible cutlural upset to the effect of “but we’ve always done it that way”, and a vague allusion to the Word without any real insight. That was about it.

      I have seen little actual theological handling of this issue from anywhere, to tell the truth. I’d love to be directed to it.

  4. revdw1 says:

    Couldn’t agree more Jonathon.

  5. Pr. Barichivich says:


    Very good post and I too have heard these same words uttered here in Southeastern Synod. Yes, I too feel that the storm surge of CWA 2009 is just picking up wind and wave so to speak and it will be long painstaking journey for us all. Pr. Henderson I could not agree more with your wondering as well.

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