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Lutheran Core Lecture —Where Are We and Where Do We Go From Here?

by Robert Benne (American Lutheran Publicity Bureau board member)

September 28, 2007

I stand before you with a mixture of honor and disappointment……….

photo of Dr. Benne —Honor— to be asked to reflect on this topic…layperson outside the circles of power in Lutheranism and yet asked to engage in a very important process of reflection; I receive many calls and e-mails telling me how much they appreciate my “witness” and to keep writing. So I am honored to be asked to share my ruminations.

—Disappointment— that someone younger than I, more learned in theology and savvy in ecclesial matters than I, and someone who has a more important churchly position than I—is not up here addressing the group…it is perhaps a measure of the success of the ELCA’s marginalization of dissent that almost all of us are on the outside looking in. But it is dangerous to dissent from the inside (You will become a pariah), so perhaps this is as it should be. Perhaps the time will come when lines will be drawn and those on the inside will have to stand up or be completely absorbed by the liberal Protestantism of the ELCA. At least, I hope for such a time of clarification, as you will see later.

Two Parts…Analytical and Prescriptive (Where are We and What Next?)


On sexuality issues…

CWA 2007 — intentional ambiguity, consistent with the CWA of 2005 — the Episcopal way

—2005—Bishops’ proscription and pastoral loophole

—2007—referrals, no change in official teaching, but no discipline

This is all legitimated as Lutheran “paradox,” or “journeying together faithfully in spite of our differences.”

—Meanwhile, all the revisionist forces continue their pressure:

  • Well-organized and well-funded groups like Lutherans Concerned and Goodsoil
  • Headquarters agencies … now they do not propagandize directly, but work quietly to further the revisionist agenda among all the constituencies of the ELCA
  • Seminaries, where nearly no one is willing to stand up for traditional Christian teachings on sexual morality
  • Revisionist Bishops who contemptuously reject their agreement with their fellow bishops to wait until 2009 to see what the Task Force does, while they use every devious instrument to get their way … this is hardly journeying together faithfully

Barring a near miracle, it is only a matter of time before the revisionists get their way, first by heteropraxis and then by heterodoxy. I believe that in 2009 the Sexuality Task Force will either have a majority report for revision with a minority report for orthodoxy; or it will be a hoeless muddle of temporizing and obfuscation, similar to the resolutions of the CWAs of 2005 and 2007. By, say, 2013 the process will be complete … our teachings will have been changed and we will join our liberal Protestant companions in departing from biblical and historic moral teachings.

Two great phrases help me to understand where we are at and where we will be going.

Alexander Pope said that when we see an abhorrent vice too much, we first endure it, then tolerate it, and finally embrace it. (Think of all the sexual practices that were once not endured or tolerated in film or in real life, but now are commonplace and accepted.)

In our society the process is pretty well complete, especially at the elite levels of education, the print and visual media, the publishing houses, and among intellectuals. The change has been breathtakingly swift. Homosexual conduct has been embraced.

It is almost as swift in the church. When the first agitation for legitimating homosexual conduct emerged in the elite circles of the church in the early 70s, I had little inkling that it would have so much traction in the church. But neither did I think quotas and de-genderized language about God would have a chance. We endured these agitations.

But then they gained momentum and I thought we would only have to tolerate them. It could be a live and let live situation while we maintained orthodox teaching but practiced a gentle hypocrisy. But we have moved beyond the stage of toleration to embracing the teaching that homosexual conduct is on a par with heterosexual, if both are exercised with commitment and fidelity. That is not yet in our official teachings nor does it hold everywhere in the church. But as far as I can tell, no Christian ethicist in our seminaries is willing to run the risk of violating this embrace. Of course, it could be that all of them have embraced the revisionist notions themselves, which is then even a more serious situation. But let’s face it: the battle is pretty much over in many elite sectors—headquarters, the Metro Synods, seminaries (with perhaps two exceptions), colleges, publishing house, in-house production of education materials. And I see no signs of bishops breaking ranks, though there is not yet a full embrace of the revisionist position.

The other great gem of wisdom is Richard Neuhaus’ Law: Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed. As I have suggested above with regard to orthodox Christian teaching on homosexuality, that has already been pretty much proscribed in the ELCA and its institutions. People pay dearly if they publicly affirm orthodoxy on these matters in elite circles. For the most part it is only aged, semi-retired, semi-hysterical professors like me, who have nothing much to lose, who are willing to take a stand for such teaching. (My experience in the first Task Force gathered after the debacle of 1992 to consider how we might talk about this issue together.) We do find pockets of public resistance in independent journals (The Lutheran Forum and Forum Newsletter, maybe in the Lutheran Quarterly) and in independent Lutheran organizations—WordAlone, Lutheran CORE, ALPB, Society of the Holy Trinity, and many regional and local associations.

However, if the trajectory of the church continues, there will come a day in the foreseeable future when it will be officially proscribed to teach traditional Christian sexual ethics publicly.

Other subversions of orthodoxy—resistance to Trinitarian language about God, doubt about the decisiveness and exclusiveness of the revelation of God in Christ, a diminishment of the full Trinitarian Faith by a Gospel reductionism, and its attendant creeping antinomianism are on the way but still at the level of toleration rather than embrace.

It is a great shame that the struggle over the soul of the church has had to focus on homosexuality issues, because they are not the essence of the problem, but rather a glaring symptom. But the real problem is more difficult to understand and then to resist.

The real problem is the movement of the ELCA toward the liberal Protestant temptation to substitute a debatable Social Gospel for the Gospel itself. The liberal Protestant temptation is to be unexcited, lethargic, unclear, and squishy about the core claims of the Gospel (taken as the whole Trinitarian faith) while zealous, dogmatic, and utterly confident about the social and political ethics that presumably follow from those core claims. So they spend their best attention and energies at fighting the oppressive ideologies, institutions, and policies that allegedly enslave people in church and society. They fight sexism, racism, heterosexism, monoculturalism, and imperialism with all their might, while the central functions of the church take on secondary importance. One can detect these firm commitments by how non-negotiable they are. Is there any chance of a snowball in hell that the ELCA will give up: quotas, the guarantee of access to abortion whatever the reason, the relentless drive to prune all male references to God from our worship and literature, the persisting self-hatred that we are basically white people of Northern European heritage coupled with a forced posturing about our diversity, liberal politics in our advocacy centers, and “anti-imperialist” agitation with regard to Israel and Iraq.

Such an agenda is a formula for division and decline, and the liberal Protestant denominations are playing this out. But that isn’t the worst part: the worst part is that we neglect our central mission: the proclamation of the Gospel and the building up of the Body of Christ.

Prescription--What do we do next?????

The preceding analysis and the resistance that it can elicit is much more difficult for people in the church to understand and act upon. That is why we probably must focus on sexuality issues in the next two to four years, hoping that that will awaken clergy and lay people to the transition to liberal Protestantism that is going on. It seems to be our main entry to the larger problem.

How are we going to get the word out and stir up those who want to resist the revisionists and re-center on the essentials? What do we do next?

Since this is a CORE gathering, it is important for me to say that for the next two years we should give our best shot at organizing resistance to the revisionist movement of the ELCA, mostly likely focusing on sexuality issues. That is, we need to concentrate on getting orthodox people to Synod assemblies and educating them about what is at stake. Then we need to concentrate on electing “with-it” orthodox people to the Church Wide Assembly of 2009.

Meanwhile, we encourage clergy and laity to respond to the sexuality studies and proposed social statement as they unfold. These documents, if carefully critiqued, will also awaken a lot of orthodox people to what may in fact be happening. If the Task Force gets enough orthodox response, it may sober people at Higgins Road and among the Bishops to inhibit them from pressing hard for change in our teachings.

But more than “winning” what will be a prolonged struggle at best, I would hope that we would be able to get the ELCA to come clean on its public teachings. I want to head off more fudging and obfuscation, more phony “journeying together faithfully.” I want to see a clear line drawn soon so that people know where we are going. (I envy the Episcopalians who finally had some lines drawn, and orthodox Episcopalians now have some hope that they can live in churches and dioceses that hold to the Great Tradition as it has been passed down to us. I have noticed that many Lutherans (including retired clergy) now go to orthodox Episcopal parishes.) If we don’t get some lines drawn soon, we will lose by default. The church will drift into embracing revisionist teaching and those who intensely disagree will leave or be totally disheartened.

Perhaps even more important than organizing for formal resistance is to nurture, strengthen, and start more regional and local groups and associations committed to the orthodox faith--those who are intent on focusing on the main thing and who wish to de-sacralize the sacred social ethics—the non-negotiables—of the ELCA. The organizations that are national—the Society of the Holy Trinity, the ALPB and its journals, WordAlone, CORE—need support for their ability to gather, educate, and mobilize large numbers across many jurisdictions. The regional and local ones are also important because they can offer personal support and encouragement to those who are often isolated and marginalized by some ELCA Synods. Further, they are important because they are the ones most likely to awaken orthodox laity and get them involved. Pastors will know what laity are likely to be interested and can invite them. As key leaders get more deeply involved, the local congregations they belong to will also be awaked to the issues at hand.

These local and regional associations can offer some of the religious gravitas and fervor that conferences and Synods try to offer but often fail. As the headquarters and some synods continue to decline, these associations could be very important in the long run. But they will have to be lean and focused, giving people the best of the Lutheran tradition.

The strategy here is to gather the intensely orthodox among us who know the Lutheran vision, engage wholeheartedly in its practices, and are willing to stand up and fight. That is a very small minority in the ELCA but it is the portion we would like to invite into these associations and into our movement. There is another intense minority in the church that is pressing the revisionist project. I suspect they are even smaller but they have money and they occupy the some of the elite sectors of our church. Then there is the other third of the intense that believe we can remain an orthodox Lutheran body and yet disagree on these basic sexuality issues. They are either not alarmed by the movement of the ELCA into the liberal Protestant mainstream, or they deny that we are really headed that way. And we must honestly admit that there are such people. They really believe we can journey together faithfully and yet disagree on a whole range of items, starting with those on homosexuality.

(I think that the intense segment of Lutheran membership is only about 15-20%. The middle segment—40-45%?—is what I call” supporters,” and they will likely follow the church’s trajectory because they do not care all that much about the specifics of Christian faith or life. Some of them may move to the intense level if they are appalled by what will happen if we jettison classical teachings on sexuality, but most will just leave. But a large share of the supporters will accommodate to the liberal Protestant tendencies of the ELCA, which in turn will have accommodated to elite liberal secular opinion. The last segment are those on the periphery of church life who have little loyalty to the faith or to the church, but consider that religion plays a nicely sequestered role in their lives. (Those folks have to be ministered to, also, of course.)

The point of the national, regional, and local associations is to identify, gather, and cultivate the intensely orthodox among the clergy and laity.

An enormously important instrument in gathering, educating, supporting, organizing, and mobilizing that intense set of orthodox people is something we have not been very good at: an internet blog by some brilliant writer or writers who catch the attention of a wide readership. We need a young Richard Neuhaus or Russell Saltzmann who can analyze and write so well that everyone—even the revisionists—will want to know what he or she has to say. That person would have to be “in the know” about all things ELCA, feisty, sharp-tongued, a fine writer, and above all a vigorous and positive proponent of the orthodox Lutheran construal of Christianity. (The Missouri Synod has a number of these types—Speckard, Keating, Sauer, young Meilaender, and we have a Sarah Hinlicky Wilson, but she is busy with a family, parish, and being the new editor of Lutheran Forum.)

There have to be talented young people out there who are willing and eager to step forward. Once identified, our associations ought to support such a website and writers in order to make it a prime vehicle for our cause. If done correctly with the right people, such an instrument could have an effect on Lutheran church life similar to MoveOn.org’s effect on the Democrat Party. But in the opposite direction, I hasten to add.

If things go badly in the CWA of 2009, such associations and the congregations belonging to them can begin to redirect their loyalty and benevolence to these associations and other missional opportunities. The ELCA will have proved itself to be something less than an orthodox Christian church and then can be viewed as one association in the left-hand kingdom, one to which we give some formal bows and some minimal money, but one which we no longer recognize as our primary ecclesial reality. (Loyalty to Synods has to be determined on a case-by-case approach. If clear lines are drawn, perhaps some Bishops and Synods may stand up for orthodoxy and then we and our associations can rally around them.)

It is not time now to think of new Lutheran churches. Such churches will be mere splinters, more fracturing in the Body of Christ. Those pastors and parishes that cannot stand to be part of the strategy I have proposed can move into Lutheran Churches in Mission for Christ or other small fellowships, or perhaps even the Missouri Synod.

But for the near future I propose that we organize to resist the growing tendency in the ELCA to revise the classic Christian teachings on sexuality, and to surface leaders who could possibly alter our more general direction toward liberal Protestantism. We do the same in Synods, where we especially need to elect Bishops who will stand clearly for orthodox teachings. At the congregational level, pastors need gradually to awaken their laity to the struggle ahead, and to gain support for the cause of orthodoxy. Perhaps they need to vote that the current Visions and Expectations provide their requirements for the ordained ministry. In the meantime, we keep our national and regional associations going and growing, along with their journalistic companions. A new initiative should be begun on the Internet front. We need to find that brilliant writer to pull together the whole movement.

In ten or twenty years we may find that the associations will become more important than the ELCA. But we can’t predict that now. We can only build for the future as we see best, and pray that the Spirit bless our efforts.

Robert Benne, American Lutheran Publicity Bureau board member