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Is ELCA a church of Latter Day Lutherans?

by Pastor Paul Andell (WordAlone board member, St. James Lutheran Church, Philadelphia, PA)

Date Unknown

Touring Augsburg College, my alma mater, last fall with a friend, we pulled on the doors of its imposing chapel entry. As we did, two messages were prominent on the glass. One read, “No Firearms Allowed” and the other, ‘this is an institution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.”

Once inside my friend called me over to read a notice to students posted on the chaplain’s office door. I don’t remember exactly what it said but both of us were appalled. Addressed as an invitation to religious activities, it was politically correct in its absence of anything identifiably Christian. I returned to the chapel in April and the notice was gone. But not the memory of what we’d read. I fear it represents how diluted and, yes, deluded Augsburg has become as an ELCA institution. With its strong heritage as a Lutheran Free school in Minneapolis, it once made no apology for its purpose.

Some notices of theological drift and academic license in the ELCA are posted on doors. Others are written in resolutions like the one I read at the May assembly of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod. It was from the synod council, in response to the ELCA Sexual Task Force, recommending that the ELCA Church Council craft resolutions, for presentation to the August Churchwide Assembly, “that represent the voices of the people, along with the authority of scripture, advancements in medicine and an understanding of the church’s role in society, so that the church will be a prophetic voice for the Kingdom of God….in the 21st Century.” Isn’t this the antithesis of what we used to say?

Didn’t we used to say, categorically, as Lutherans, that whenever we sought clarity and weighed scripture, tradition or our contextual situation, the final word in faith and life, always belonged to scripture? And wasn’t that claim central to both our identity and to our credibility among other Christians? I was nurtured, as a Lutheran, to believe this was an accurate posture. I entered into Lutheran ministry commending this confessional witness to all prospective seekers. What has happened to that?

In the open discussion of the ELCA Sexuality Task Force’s Recommendation, one delegate at the May assembly asked, “Can we live with this for a time?” Then, he answered himself by stating “I think we can, as we wait on the Holy Spirit.” As I listened to him and others like Bishop Robert Rimbo, of Detroit, representing the ELCA, tell the delegates, “Sexuality is not a core value” in our tradition, I asked myself, “Who are these people? I hardly recognize them. They must be Latter Day Lutherans.”

Bill Easum, an independent church strategist and consultant, has written my answer. In one of numerous articles, this one in the February 2004 issue of Net Results he writes his “theory of the Munching Sheep.” In it he compares mainline denominations to sheep who have wandered beyond their pastures into unfamiliar territory without knowing it. As a result, “what were once our bedrock beliefs are now only memories.” And, Easum adds, “few in these churches seem to notice or care.” He concludes, “We can’t change bedrock beliefs and have the same faith.”

It seems to me that Jesus Christ is invoked all over the place in the ELCA and like-minded churches, but not expected. Can it be that He, as Lord, isn’t their working faith or agenda? Their church appears to be a work in progress, redefined and prophetic like someone who has retrieved new golden tablets. If so, heresy is in and orthodoxy is out