The ELCA changed last August in more fundamental ways than perhaps we generally realize. We didn’t only adopt a social statement and two policy changes. Those actions brought about something much more momentous: they altered the very character of the Christian fellowship embodied in the ELCA and its institutions and practices.Read it all here at the Lutherans Persisting blog. Hat tip to Pr. Paul Knudson over at ALPB Forum Online.
To be blunt: since August, the ELCA is internally in a state of impaired communion. Let me be clear what that means. I am not taking the Jeremiah 51 view of the ELCA, as though the word of the Lord to us was: "Flee out of the midst of Babylon, and deliver every man his soul: be not cut off in her iniquity…" (v. 6). Impaired does not mean abolished but diminished, weakened, damaged. There is significant space between full communion and no communion; the result of the CWA actions is that there is no longer full communion, full visible Christian unity, within the ELCA.
Some years ago, in an important essay in ecumenical theology (1. notes at end), my colleague Michael Root proposed a sort of practical definition of a church-dividing difference. A difference among Christians is church-dividing, he suggested, when it prevents them from carrying out the mission of the gospel together without violation of conscience on someone’s part (2). When you and I cannot practically do the gospel-business of the church together without one of us yielding on a matter of conscience, then our differences are, in the nature of the case, "church-dividing." In this light, I think we simply have to admit that in August, the ELCA welcomed a church-dividing difference into its own common life, and is now struggling with how to contain it.
This wasn’t of course what was supposed to happen. The "official" view was that our differences over sexual morality would be non-divisive, if everyone would just be reasonable and remember that our true unity is "in Christ" and not in moral teaching. Everyone’s "bound conscience" would be respected, the sexuality issues would go away, and the ELCA could march off into a glorious future to a rousing chorus of "Lift High the Cross."
But this was never going to work. The official assessment implies that unity "in Christ" is located in some ideal realm, and need never be lived out down on the messy terrain of this world, where people live and make choices and seek for love and affection and identity, where pastors counsel anguished people and children are taught the Ten Commandments. It assumed that we could pursue the mission of the gospel without ever getting involved with questions about what constitutes a good life, without bothering with the way people live beyond, perhaps, exhorting them to have a loving attitude.
In the real world, pastors and other Christians do counsel anguished people wrestling with desire and emotional need, and doing so is not external to the mission of the gospel. In the real world, children are taught what sort of life is good and pleasing to God, and what the meaning of His commandments is. In the real world, preaching the gospel involves proclaiming in public and private what grace it is that God has given us in Christ, what strength God promises us in the struggle with the world, the flesh, and the devil. And since last August, with respect to a very significant dimension of human life, the ELCA no longer has agreement on how to do such things together. Instead we have acknowledged the legitimacy of several mutually incompatible words that might be spoken to the anguished person seeking counsel, to the child awaiting instruction in the commandments of God, to the inquirer asking what goods God gives us strength in Christ to pursue and what temptations help to resist.
As a traditionalist (3.), I have to realize that significant elements of what traditionalists would say about sexuality in those settings is regarded in good faith by other Christians in the ELCA as cruel and destructive. They could not say "Amen" to my counsel and proclamation concerning the matters at issue any more than I could say it to theirs. The ELCA has now said that these differences are to co-exist within our shared institutional framework. And to that extent, which is not at all trivial, we do not have full communion any longer, we can no longer pursue the mission of the gospel together without violating someone’s conscience.
Saturday, February 13, 2010
Last Saturday some 700 Lutherans of the South Carolina Synod gathered at Newberry College for a “Day of Holy Conversation.” There Professor David S. Yeago of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary began his presentation, "Facing Reality in the ELCA," saying: