August 28, 2010Thank you, Pastor Jenkins.
An Open Letter to Colleagues in the ELCA:
I did not read Bp. Hanson’s pastoral letter until after my return from the Conference and the subsequent Convention of Lutheran CORE. The bishop’s letter was timed for the opening day of the conference, August 24, and expressed his opposition to the formation of the Lutheran denomination, the North American Lutheran Church (NALC). “As yet another Lutheran church body forms, we must ask how this separation in the body of Christ will serve the ministry and message of reconciliation entrusted to us by God.”
This is a good question, and I would like to offer an answer. I am a pastor of the ELCA, and I attended both the conference and the convention (which were distinguished by being held in separate locations.) I wish to respond to the bishop by reporting something of what I saw and heard in Ohio.
CIVILITY AND CHRISTIAN PATIENCE
To begin with, Bishop Hanson’s letter reminds us, “We live in a world that is plagued by incivility, willful misunderstanding and hurtful caricatures of those with whom one disagrees. Let us declare that such behaviors will stop with us.” I am happy to report that a serious effort was made to do so, in Columbus.
THE ISSUE IS NOT SEX; IT’S THE WORD OF GOD.
Here is the issue: the ELCA is teaching its members to disobey the Word of God. Bishop Hanson does not seem to realize that the issue is not sexuality: “Throughout the ELCA I hear people asking, ‘Is my voice heard? Will my voice be respected as we seek together to discern God's purpose for us?’ The answer is yes. Nevertheless, people of deep faith and a desire to be part of this church wonder: Do we mean it when we say we can preach, teach and hold divergent views on sexuality and be full participants in the ELCA's life and witness? Again, the answer is yes.”
With respect, the issue is not “my” voice: it is the voice of the Lord.
The idea that the ELCA is permitted by the Lord to preach, teach, and hold two contrary views of sexual fidelity is an opinion ungrounded in Scripture and the Lutheran Confessions. There is no clear word of support for this innovation from the very norms to which we are obliged to submit ourselves and our teaching, according to the ELCA Constitution.
Another pastor’s statement in similar circumstances measures the gravity of the decision of CWA2009: “Taken in its context, it falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.”
But most ELCA pastors are tired of hearing about it. They believe that “love” and “freedom” and “conscience” are norms with greater authority than words of Scripture (Genesis 1 & 2, the Ten Commandments, Mark 10:2-16, Romans 1:22-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, etc.). These words do not need to be considered, some believe, because they just don’t speak the Word of God any more. I do not doubt the sincerity of those who say such things, but I question their understanding of Lutheranism.
Perhaps “separation in the body of Christ” might “serve the ministry and message of reconciliation entrusted to us by God.” Because we do not speak the same message as it is conveyed to people today by the Spirit who speaks the Word of God in Scripture.
IT’S THE NAME OF THE FATHER.
There are and will be other issues, too, as the ELCA trusts in experience to interpret the Bible, rather than the other way around.
The new hymnal is an obstacle to reconciliation. We are baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. The saving power of this name is emphasized everywhere in the New Testament. For example, in John 17:11, the prayer of the Son, in the Spirit is: “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me.” However, the name of the Father is routinely avoided in the new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship. The language of ELW is not modelled upon or disciplined by biblical ways of speaking to and for God.
Another issue is the goal of the ministry of reconciliation in a global context. Conversion is no longer the aim of global mission, accompaniment is. The ELCA Global Mission unit defines accompaniment as “walking together in solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality” with non-Christian peoples. Traditionally, the overriding goal of the missionary was to proclaim the Gospel so that the hearers may become Christians, but that is not the stated purpose of the ELCA.
IT’S THE JUDGMENT OF GOD.
How can any of us be unmoved by Bishop Hanson’s passionate appeal to 2 Corinthians 5:14-21? “We celebrate the reconciliation from God that breaks down every dividing wall of hostility and unites humankind in the bonds of Christ. We delight in the promise of the new creation that God is bringing to life in Christ. We joyfully embrace the world and all its inhabitants in love and service. What a cause for rejoicing!” Amen!
But do we overlook verses 10 and 11? “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others…” Isn’t Christ, finally, to quote the bishop, in “the sin-accounting business”? He will come again “to judge the living and the dead.”
What has happened to the preaching of the Law as an essential aspect of preaching the Gospel? For example, sexual sins (including heterosexual sins) are violations of the 1st, 4th, 6th, and 10th commandments. Is it in the interest of sinners to suggest that these are not sins that God will punish? Isn’t Christ locked out of the church, if absolution in his name is insulting to certain sinners?
God’s way of reconciling us to himself involves the preaching of the Law and the Gospel. However, Dr. H. Richard Niebuhr’s ironical analysis of preaching in the 1930’s comes too close for comfort: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
A BETTER WAY?
“Standing together, we are known as a church that rolls up its sleeves and solves problems, the church that is catalyst, convener and bridge builder,” writes Bp. Hanson. We are having a hard time living up to such a flattering self-image. It’s clear that ELCA seminaries, assemblies, missions, educational materials, and ordinations will follow the new policies. We do not, institutionally, have space in the ELCA for two different interpretations of Scripture. If traditional Lutheranism is to have a future, it is necessary to organize new seminaries, assemblies, missions, and publishers, as well as control of ordinations.
What if Bp. Hanson could say something like the following on behalf of the ELCA? “We have to admit, we are going out on a limb. We recognize that we’ve made decisions that are contrary to the way the church has historically interpreted Scripture, and we have departed from practices of the universal church. We believe, but cannot prove, that these changes are necessary for the sake of faithfulness to Christ. We ask you to have patience with us and to remain in full communion with us; but we will respect your decision to part company and will not impede it. We will do everything we possible to work with you as an ecumenical partner.”
A statement along those lines would be the best response to the bishop’s question: “As yet another Lutheran church body forms, we must ask how this separation in the body of Christ will serve the ministry and message of reconciliation entrusted to us by God.” An honorable separation would keep the wounds, deep as they are, from getting still deeper and further infected with bitterness of spirit. In this fallen and divided world, an amicable separation would be a not insignificant witness to reconciliation in Christ.
Pastor Jonathan Jenkins
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church,
Monday, August 30, 2010
ELCA Pastor Jonathan Jenkins has written the following in response to ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson's latest pastoral letter, which was posted (among other places) on ALPB Forum Online.