A Necessary Post

I suppose it would be remiss of me not to make comment on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s (ELCA) decisions this past week to allow monogamous homosexuals to be ordained as clergy.  But it’s not a post I wanted to make.

So let’s get the pedantic stuff out of the way up front.  No, there isn’t a Biblical leg to stand on for this decision.  No, the ELCA document which formed the basis for the voting at their Church wide Assembly doesn’t bother to even deal with Scripture, preferring instead to base all of it’s rationale on a slippery, unBiblical definition of the term “trust”.  I talked about this when the document, Human Sexuality: Gift and Trust was released back in February of 2009.  Yes, I am deeply saddened and worried by this official shift in ELCA theology – even though it was a long time in coming.

The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod (LCMS) is understandably wracked with sadness and worry about this decision as well, as most any LCMS minister will be likely to tell you even if you’d rather not know.  Tragically, none of this expressed worry and sorrow is going to change anything.  The ELCA wasn’t able to prevent this theological shift from becoming official policy, so I doubt any amount of LCMS hand-wringing is going to come to much.

But what interests me is why the LCMS is so upset about all of this – beyond the obvious this-isn’t-Biblical-and-you’re-leading-people-theologically-astray issue.  Which is a huge freakin’ issue, to be sure.

Here are my initial takes on it, and I’d be interested in hearing back from folks who have additional perspectives to add.

1.  That Could Have Been Us –  Almost 40 years ago the LCMS suffered a devastating schism within itself.  I’m not going to go into whether or not the schism was warranted, accurate, or anything else.  It simply was.  Or should I say, is.  It continues to be the defining moment of the LCMS for any LCMS clergy who was old enough to be conscious of it at the time.  Broadly speaking, the schism centered over the fear that the exegetical faculty of Concordia Seminary St. Louis were teaching the historical-critical method, thereby putting at risk the LCMS’ confessional stance of sola Scriptura and the inerrancy of Scripture.  Both a political and theological schism within the LCMS, the result was the formation of a rival seminary known as Seminex.

The assumption is that in going through this hugely damaging shift (whether real or imagined) towards more intentional theological methodology, the LCMS averted the errors that the historical-critical method can foster in terms of how people treat and receive the Bible.  By acting -however brashly – to state that such methodologies are not appropriate, the LCMS ensured that it remained as faithful as possible to the principles of sola Scriptura and the inerrancy of Scripture.  Watching as the ELCA – which was seen as having embraced historical-critical methodologies – moved down a progressively more liberal theological path, I’m sure that many LCMS-ers who were veterans of the Seminex era are recognizing just how dangerous these methodologies can be.  I’m sure there’s a certain level of shock in recognizing that if very intentional and painful moves had not been made 40 years ago, the LCMS might have found itself in a similar theological quagmire to the one that the ELCA is now floundering in. 

Thus, the vote this week in the ELCA is seen as a very real reality that the LCMS could have found itself in.  There’s the relief in knowing that a bullet has been dodged, as well as the shock of realizing that someone is shooting at you

2.  Lutheranism as a Whole is Affected – If there was ever a time when the population at large was clear about the distinctions between the various branches of Lutheranism in America and the world, that time is no more.  People see the word Lutheran and assume that all Lutheran churches are pretty much the same.  While this isn’t even true within a given Lutheran denomination, it’s certainly not true between denominations.  As the largest Lutheran denomination in America, the coverage of the ELCA’s Assembly this past week is going to likely lead to a lot of people assuming – for better or worse – that all Lutherans believe that homosexuality is not expressly forbidden by the Bible. 

3.  We Didn’t Believe it Would Come to This – As I try to frequently argue around here, people are basically flawed.  Which in my book means that more often than not, the wrong stuff is going to happen.  It may take it a while to be accepted, but eventually it will be accepted.  Whether we’re talking about redefining the social, cultural, biological, historical, and ethical foundations of human sexuality and the family unit, or whether we’re talking about the legitimization of obviously Biblically condemned behaviors, crap is continually hitting and preparing to hit the proverbial theological fan. 

But a lot of people live in the hope and assumption that it won’t.  Or that if it does, the spray isn’t going to be very bad.  I don’t assume that.  And I assume that there does not exist a theological equivalent of a giant trash bag at a Gallagher concert.  The decision of the ELCA – as well as the decision of the Episcopal Church a few months ago – are likely to not be the last such decisions. And this is going to trickle down to all of us in ways that we can’t even envision just yet. 

4. There are Other Issues at Stake – While the issue of ordaining homosexual clergy is what makes all the headlines, that’s in part due to the homosexuality issue being front and center in our society as a whole right now.  But for LCMS-ers, another trend that has been continued at the ELCA CW Assembly this week is the ecumenical ties with other groups with different theological heritages and understandings.  The ELCA is in communion and pulpit fellowship with several other major denominations such as:

  • Episcopal Church USA

  • United Methodist Church

  • Presbyterian Church USA

  • Moravian Church

  • United Church of Christ

  • Reformed Church of America
The concept of altar & pulpit fellowship may seem rather bizarre.  But essentially, it means that a Presbyterian congregation could call an  ELCA-trained pastor.  Or that an ELCA congregation could call a Methodist-trained pastor.  It means that the ELCA has decided that the theological differences between themselves and these various other denominations are essentially non-essential.  And if there’s one thing that Lutherans treasure, it’s separatism. 

The LCMS views these fellowship arrangements as essentially a denial of Lutheran confessional documents, and a form of syncretism that is every bit as theologically dangerous as ignoring the Bible as your authoritative norm for Scriptural behavior and belief.  While these issues aren’t going to garner much press attention, they pose huge theological questions and challenges.

5.  It’s a Slippery Slope – It can (and is) argued that the issue of ordaining homosexuals is not a matter of salvation.  It’s not as though they are any more sinful than the rest of us.  And this is true.  We are all sinful, we all fall short of the lives we are called to live by God’s law, and are therefore all entirely dependent on the freely given grace of God the Father through the atoning life, death, and resurrection of God the Son, all of which requires God the Holy Spirit for someone to be able to accept this as real and salvific.  Homosexuals are no more sinful than the rest of us. 

However, in addition to identifying homosexuality as sin, the Bible has some pretty strong words for how the shepherds of God’s people are supposed to behave.  They are held to some very strict standards.  While it’s understood that they are not – and cannot be  – perfect, it is at the same time asserted that they are to be held to stricter standards of behavior than others.  Why?  Because they function in a very public manner.  Someone who publicly lives a life inconsistent with the Biblical message is someone who obstructs the Biblical message.  How can someone hear the law at work in their own life, when it seems clear that the law is not functioning adequately in the life of their pastor? 

This isn’t just an issue of sexuality – although it’s clear in the Bible that sexual sins are incredibly serious.  Ask the Roman Catholic church how important sexual behavior can be – not just to the individual but to the faith and church they represent.

The Bible holds out some strong examples of how religious leaders are going to be held to stricter standards.  Let’s talk about the arena of family life.  Let’s look at Eli and his sons in 1 Samuel 2 and 1 Samuel 4.  Eli was held accountable for the actions of his sons.  As members of the priestly class, Eli’s sons were abusing their privilege and rank in egregious ways.  Eli was held accountable in part for this.  We see this idea reinforced in 1 Timothy 3.  While the injunctions given for the type of life a leader should live are not peculiar to the leader, the leader is held to the standard more closely, since his life is going to be on display for others.

Does this sound unrealistic?  Perhaps it is.  But it’s something that we expect.  We lift our leaders up, whether they are political or spiritual or entertainment leaders.  We put them on pedestals.  We know that they’re sinful, but we lift them up and idolize them all the same.  And so when they fall, when their private sins are made public, the fall is far and painful – not just to those leaders, but to everyone who put their faith and trust in them.  This is our nature as creatures.  We want to put our trust in someone.  It’s how we were designed, and as such, the Designer holds those who lead His people to higher accountability.

By tossing this consideration to the side and ignoring not only Biblical injunctions against homosexuality but also Biblical injunctions about how leaders of the church are supposed to conduct themselves, the ELCA is setting out on a slippery slope.  Why bother talking seriously about sexual sin of any kind, if one form of sexual sin is not only legitimized, it is held up for admiration and adulation?  How can we talk seriously about gossip, or drunkenness, or theft, or any other issue the Bible makes mention of, if we’re going to ignore *this* area.  For all the talk in the ELCA’s sexuality document on trust, trust is exactly what is being sacrificed for the sake of greater cultural acceptance.  Trust that God can be trusted to give us good instructions – even if they’re difficult to hear.  Trust that the Bible speaks cohesively not only in judgment but also in grace.  Trust that when God outlines the problems of our lives, He knows what He’s talking about, and is capable of seeing us through them.  Trust that the grace of God is even necessary, if we can simply wave our hands and convey our own grace on behaviors that God has explicitly forbidden.  It’s a slippery slope indeed that the ELCA has taken yet another step down on. 

Hopefully this is helpful in some respect for trying to make sense of everything that has happened this week – which is really just a capstone for  what has been happening for some time in various limbs of the Body of Christ.

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