I read with great pause and concern an article written by former ELCA Presiding Bishop Herbert Chilstrom. It is an article addressed to pastors, congregations and other individuals asking them why they are leaving the ELCA. The issue of most concern for me is that in asking his three questions, Bp. Chilstrom also provides the answers, which he must presume are uniform for all who are opting out. Dare I say, Bishop Chilstrom’s answers fall very short in explaining the difficulty so many confessional Lutherans have with the current direction of the ELCA. I do not agree with the resolutions on human sexuality adopted by the ELCA in August 2009; however, I have not opted to leave the ELCA either. Regardless, I know many who have. Having attended the recent NALC constituting convocation, and speaking only for myself, I will answer Bp. Chilstrom’s questions based on my experiences.
1. “What is it about sex that pushed you over the edge?”
Bishop Chilstrom’s insistence that the main issue is human sexuality clearly shows that he out of touch with the issue. It isn’t a question about human sexuality, it is a question concerning the authority of Holy Scripture. God clearly reveals to us in Genesis his model for human intimacy and sexual relationships (Genesis 2:21-24). This model is later affirmed by Jesus in the tenth chapter of Mark. Citing this, I know some will quickly bring up issues of divorce and adultery, but I will not go there with this post as the issue for Bp. Chilstrom’s question is in regards to sexual relationships.
Jesus affirms God’s model for sexual relationships between males and females in Genesis, yet nowhere in Scripture is there affirmation for same gendered sexual relationships. Rather, through Scripture God declares such relationships sinful. Understanding this, current ELCA policy according to the social statement “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” places human knowledge and experience ahead of biblical teaching, stating that the biblical authors did not have sufficient understanding of human sexual orientation. Such statements speak of teaching other than what has been handed down throughout the great tradition of the Church in an attempt to conform Scripture to our society, rather than society to Scripture.
2. “Why are you organizing new churches?”
Yes, there are many Lutheran bodies within the United States, and some might welcome persons or congregations who decide to leave the ELCA. But why hasn’t there been any question as to why these “existing other” Lutheran churches came into being? It goes without saying that the ordination of women is one issue that keeps ELCA members from joining LCMS or WELS. Other Lutheran bodies in the U.S. are just as staunch in their doctrine and may prohibit former ELCA Lutherans from joining. Several other Lutheran bodies (AFLC for instance) also do not recognize the ordination of women, others have loose congregational structures that do not fit the model of the three expressions of the Church (Congregation, Synod, Churchwide) as currently practiced by the ELCA. So for many people, a new Lutheran church, confessional in its doctrine, congregationally focused and mission driven appears to be the answer.
3. “Third, what will you say to your sons and daughters, sisters and brothers and others in your churches when they tell you they are homosexual?”
First of all, I am dismayed that Bp. Chilstrom would ask such a question. Given that many whom he addresses with this article are ordained pastors, I would expect a little more professionalism and discretion. Speaking again only for myself, the answer I must give to Bp. Chilstrom’s question is; “I don’t know.” I could supply several hypothetical answers, but they serve no real purpose, which neither by the way does this hypothetical question asked by our former bishop. Questions such as these only become argumentative in nature and pit one side against another. I can say, however, until I am faced with such a dilemma, or asked to provide pastoral care for another in such a situation, I can’t imagine what I would say, but it wouldn’t change the fact that I love my children, siblings, family and friends deeply.
In concluding his article, Bp. Chilstrom says [in forming the ELCA] “We believed we could be a church where we held to the essentials and allowed for differences on non-essentials.” What is at the heart of the matter for those leaving the ELCA is that the authority of Holy Scripture IS essential. The Bible is not simply a book about Jesus. Lutherans confess that Scripture is “the authoritative source and norm for our faith, life and proclamation.” Christians cannot and must not allow human experience and idealism to assume such authority, which is what the passage and adoption of “Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust” and its four associated ministry policies accomplishes.
I fear I have lost friends due to my position on these matters, and that grieves my heart more than anyone will know. I also understand that many whom I love do not share the same confession of faith as I, nor do they embrace the great tradition and orthodoxy of the Church as do I. Many are choosing to leave the ELCA, but I do not speak for them. I have not decided to leave and I speak only for myself. Yes, I believe the ELCA to be a church in grievous error, and I pray that God will deliver us from this false teaching. But I love my church; I love its members, and because I love God with all my heart, mind and strength these I do to the best of my ability and I ask God to help and guide me.
David, Very well said. Your thoughts were pastoral and faithful. I am severly disappointed that Bishop Chilstrom would make such comments to individuals and congregations that are trying to be faithful to God through His Word.
As for the churches which are leaving, may God bless and guide them in their ventures unknown. To the churches who remain, may God grant them the strength and wisdom to prevail against heresy and popular culture; grant them courage to stand on the Word. May the world not suffer due to our unrest and spitefulness.
All churches are human institutions and therefore subject to human error and distractions, and frailty, as well as hubris. Whatever new churches emerge from this will still be human. Although I’ve been a life long Lutheran and I appreciate the Lutheran perspective on scripture, the acceptance of the tensions that Lutherans see in the Life of Faith, and our emphasis on being saved by Grace, I’ve also been troubled by the Lutheran tendency to think that we have it a little (or a lot) more right than other Christian groups. I noticed this in my confirmation book (which I still have), way back in 1965, and I see it now on some blogs, especially on blogs I’ve read by people in other Lutheran groups who pronounce judgment on the ELCA. I appreciate your statements that show your concern for the church and your pronouncements of what you think are problems, but this is expressed with love and concern. We all know that we will be saved by Grace, not by the specifics of our doctrine. In the meantime, may we try to show that grace to others.