(Do we stay or do we leave the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)? It is a question that more and more people are asking. In addition to this question, a related conversation is emerging in the church . . . should a non-geographic conference or synod be formed? Here, we will consider the “exit” question and in Part 2 we will look at some of the questions regarding formation of a non-geographic conference or synod and some possibilities of what it might look like.)
A few weeks ago I had a very difficult and painful conversation with an “old friend.”
This was a person I knew two decades ago at Luther Seminary when we were students. Our paths had not crossed since our graduation almost 20 years ago. We enjoyed sharing stories about our growing families and the calls we had served. All was warm and welcoming and then “my friend” became aware of why I was at the same place he was. I was there representing the WordAlone Network and displaying our materials.
He was visibly shocked that I was “associated with such a group.”
I asked if he was aware of the Network’s commitment to renewal, reform and deeper theological reflection within the ELCA. He commented that he reads all our “stuff.”
I resisted the temptation to question how carefully he actually was reading the materials because he should not have been shocked that I am “associated” with this “stuff” but would repeatedly have seen that I presently serve as the president and have for more than two years.
I also resisted the temptation to talk a lot (unusual indeed for me!) and mostly listened for the next hour during what became an intense “conversation.” I must tell you it was disheartening, disturbing, demoralizing and educational. To hear how he regards the Network, or more accurately “disregards” who we are and what we believe, were an eye and ear opener for me.
He pointed out that he is tired of being told by us that he is wrong in everything he believes and teaches. He said he could never be associated with something that is church dividing, judgmental and full of name-callers. When we confirmed that is exactly how he perceives us, I asked him if he agreed with the direction the ELCA was going with its social statements, its ecumenical agreements and the sexuality issues before us now. He said he affirmed and actively supported them.
I asked if he thought the ELCA was doing well in its mission, was confessionally solid and prospering because I, personally, felt the statistics read like an obituary of a church that was terminally ill.
He then admitted that the church was having troubles but said it was because of me and my gang. “As soon as you and your little group just leave, then the church will begin to take off and grow and move ahead with its mission.”
So we are the problem, as you see it, I asked.
“Definitely!” he replied.
And the answer is that we should just leave, I said.
“The sooner you leave the better it will be for all of us,” was his reply.
“We can’t agree to disagree and move forward together,” I proffered.
So you propose we divide the church, I asked.
“Yeah, go start your own new church so you can sit around and live in the past.”
It is ironic, isn’t it?
We had begun the conversation with his describing the Network as being church dividing, judgmental and a bunch of name-callers and here he was telling me with great confidence and visibly high levels of stress and passion that you “need to leave. You are wrong on just about everything regarding the Confessions and the Bible.”
Then he called me a “homophobe.”
To which I replied, “I think that is name calling? Isn’t it?”
Everything that WordAlone had been unfairly stereotyped as being he had just subjected me to. It was ironic but it was also very, very sad. I reminded him of the solid teachers of theology under whom we had studied who were now working with the Network.
He only commented that they were all “washed up.”
They (we) don’t understand that it is a new world and everything has changed, he intimated.
God was doing a “new thing. . . ,” he asserted.
I reminded him that change itself is neither inherently good or bad but its virtue or vice depends on what, if anything, is identified as steadfast and authoritative. I recalled for him the changes made by issuance of social statements that are foreign to our Lutheran understanding of being informed by the Word as law and Gospel, statements that have divided this church.
I reminded him that our confessional understanding and history do not divide Republicans from Democrats from Independents in congregations. Rather they allow for great political diversity because we gather in our local churches to preach and teach Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior and not to serve particular social or political agendas. I reminded him that ecumenically we were not the ones who introduced changes that imposed an imaginary human tradition—a historic episcopacy—as a mandatory practice and thus sacrificed the freedom that has been ours in the Gospel.
I assured him that many of us are not ready to depart from the biblical and historical understanding of marriage and family.
If we were not the ones who imported all of this non-scriptural nor confessional “change” into the ELCA, I wondered “why should we have to leave?”
But to him the truth was clear: the world has moved on and so must the church.
“So just leave . . . the sooner the better,” he told me!
Well, I hope my “old friend” is reading our “stuff” here as I publicly confess that I still do not hear a reason or call “to just leave.” I’m still preaching and teaching in accordance with the scriptures and confessions of the Lutheran church, I just am not willing to live in accord with the constitution of the institutional church if it deviates from their authority.
Perhaps my friend is right, that there isn’t “room” for any of us in this church as it becomes more and more “new worldly.” I am comforted in remembering that there wasn’t even “room” for Jesus when he was a wee little baby. There may not be “room” for us, but is leaving our only option? Really?
How about “staying in a new way?” What if I told you that the constitution of the ELCA allows for the formation of non-geographic conferences or synods that find common voice across geographic synodical lines?
What if I said to you our faithful readers: “Just stay in new and exciting ways?”
While I, as WordAlone president, experienced a very painful conversation, I am not the only one being told to leave the ELCA. People who have never been members of WordAlone, have not been active in our movement and who may support the full-communion agreement, Called to Common Mission, are also being told they ought to leave and that there is no place for them in the ELCA.
The WordAlone staff, board members, Network members and seminary professors and I have been told personally that in some synods, potential candidates for ministry are rejected by candidacy committees because they are too biblical, too evangelical and too conservative.
We know candidates for ministry who are being rejected because they are unwilling to support some of the ELCA's social agendas. Pastors are told by some bishops and their assistants that they are not welcome in their synods for the same reasons. Some pastors' names are not passed along for consideration by call committees. We know this type of screening began in some synods before WordAlone was formed. We can’t name names because those who tell us of such situations fear retribution.