A Closer Look
The sexuality votes of the August 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly were only the tip of the iceberg.1 Underneath this was the true problem—a crisis of authority of God’s Word.2 The crisis dates back to the birth of the ELCA and results in numerous problems affecting the governance, mission, and core theology of the ELCA. This resource paper seeks to highlight the key issues and offers the open-minded-reader source documents to investigate the matter for themselves.
A few years into the life of the ELCA the Rev. Dr. David Preus (the last president of the American Lutheran Church, one of the three churches that merged in 1987 to form the ELCA) wrote of his concerns with the new church.3 To briefly summarize, Preus made the following statements:
Unfortunately despite such warnings the ELCA ship continued down this course with most of her passengers asleep, completely unaware of any problem. An inevitable collision took place however, when the ELCA voted to change fundamental scriptural teaching at the 2009 Assembly. At least the approved social statement on sexuality was honest enough to admit, “This conclusion differs from the historic Christian tradition and the Lutheran Confessions…”4 The shock of the impact has woken many of the ELCA passengers, including entire congregations, already resulting in the loss of hundreds of churches and well over a quarter of a million members in only a little over a year’s time with associated double digit cuts in churchwide staff and budget.
Looking back, able theologians had already identified the causes behind the disaster. Any conscientious ELCA member should consult two recent book length treatments5 and several key essays.6 In a paper entitled, “Why There Must Be New Beginnings,” Dr. Robert Benne makes a convenient tally of ten key points.7 We summarize his arguments below:
Perhaps the best way to document the crisis of authority of God’s Word in the ELCA is to critically examine the newly published ELCA hymnal, Small Catechism and Study Bible. We proceed with the new hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship (ELW). Matthias Flacius, a 16th century Lutheran reformer commented, “Liturgical changes will be the window through which the wolf will enter the evangelical fold.” Rev. Norman Olsen has prepared a helpful critique of the ELW.9 Below is an abbreviated sampling of some of the main concerns:
Other grievous changes are evidenced through the study of the hymns. Almost two hundred new hymns appear in the ELW. The emphasis on social activism is quite apparent at the expense of more traditional themes. Familiar LBW hymns are either lost (Onward Christian Soldiers, The Son of God Goes Forth to War, Stand up Stand Up for Jesus, God of Our Fathers) or supposedly offensive lines are removed from others (For All the Saints, Lift High the Cross) because militaristic themes are apparently intolerable. My Country Tis of Thee didn’t make it into the ELW. Was it too nationalistic? The emasulination of the hymns that consistently occurs in all but a few cases is best seen when comparing ELW 858 to the revised text offered in ELW 859. Finally, the scriptural theology of several hymns is completely rewritten. Contrast LBW 464 with the unbiblical universalism now taught by the revised version in ELW 758.
Overall the ELW lacks a consistent fidelity to reformation theology and associated worship principles. While there are some fine elements there is sadly much chaff among the wheat. The entire process leading up to the printing of ELW was a rather hasty endeavor and was approved at the 2005 Churchwide assembly with the final product sight unseen. Now generations of Lutherans will sing, speak and pray unbiblical theology into their hearts and minds.
Lutheran families have universally cherished the Small Catechism for centuries as a family devotional and instructional aid. Virtually every confirmand has been instructed with this simple biblical summary prepared by Luther so long ago. It may come as a surprise to know the only version still available in print from Augsburg Fortress is the revised 2008 edition. We shall only mention three of the most glaring changes:
Finally, a few observations on the ELCA Study Bible are in order. When compared to other study Bibles this offering is more popular and devotional with decidedly liberal content in its introductions and notes. Without much exception it consistently takes the popular liberal positions in regards to authorship of the Bible’s 66 books and virtually all of the more controversial scriptural passages. Contrasting moderate or conservative views are seldom, if ever, mentioned yet there is room for quite radical opinions, well outside mainstream scholarship. This has been documented by the Rev. Paul McCain of Concordia Publishing.14 He points out that some of the explanatory notes deny the original intent of the scriptural passages. In other instances commentators seem to intentionally ignore biblical texts, which do not suit new positions. The sad result is the promotion of universalism and the endorsement of homosexuality.
For example, in commenting on Matthew 28:16-20 the ELCA Study Bible says, “Jesus includes in salvation people who do not believe in him or ever know about him.” That is the exact opposite of clear scriptural teaching from the mouth of Christ and his disciples (compare John 14:6 and Acts 4:12). Thankfully some of these obvious problems were corrected in a second printing but thousands of uncorrected copies of the study Bible are now in perpetual circulation to the spiritual peril of their users, especially our teens and children. Much more orthodox understanding of scripture is advocated by other ELCA theologians.15 Their voice, though present, is significantly downplayed in this ELCA offering. While there are some particularly excellent contributions and features in this Bible it proves to be quite an uneven patchwork of mostly liberal theological opinion.
In conclusion, if your eyes were opened by the controversy surrounding the 2009 assembly you are not alone.16 Many from within the ELCA as well as Lutherans from without are in protest.17 The Rev. Dr. James Crumley (the last bishop of the Lutheran Church in America, one of the three churches that merged in 1987 to form the ELCA) recently commented, “I conclude that there is no evidence based on the text of scripture which permits or mandates the change as stated in the new policy adapted at the assembly. The action was unconstitutional and violated a part of the Confession of Faith. On that basis, the appropriate question is whether the ELCA is still without question a faithful and confessing church.”18 Even the Roman Catholic Church warned the ELCA of the potential consequence of changing its biblical understanding of sexuality and marriage.19 We can only gasp in light of the position we find ourselves in. Luther’s conscience was not bound to itself but instead the Word of God.20
This paper has attempted to point the open-minded reader to a volume of literature seldom referenced by official ELCA publications. After carefully reviewing this evidence you are invited to make a prayerful consideration as to your personal stance. Is the ELCA ship taking on water or should we relax in our deck chairs? Some congregations are relaxing with great enthusiasm. You should visit some of their websites to judge for yourself.21 Also, pay close attention to the developing situation at ELCA colleges and seminaries.22 Here is where our future congregational leaders and pastors are found.
Wherever God leads you please do not write off this serious matter as a mere difference of opinion on homosexuality. If anything, the debates surrounding such are quite minor compared to the long list of ills plaguing the ELCA. And please also know that one does not have to be a “bigot” or “unloving” to hold fast to biblical teachings concerning sexuality.23 There was also a lot more going on than an in-house theological debate.24 If you should reject the new direction of the ELCA you won’t find many friends among the Bishops, so do be careful.25 Simply remember two things. First, we didn’t leave the ELCA, the ELCA left us. And secondly, if you don’t stand for something, you fall for everything.
Let’s stand on the solid rock – the Word of God. All other ground is sinking sand (or ship).
5 Is the ELCA Lutheran? by C. Goble and By What Authority?: Confronting Churches Who No Longer Believe Their Own Message by the WordAlone Network. Back
6 http://wordalone.org/newsletters/2007/MarApr07.pdf (see “Two Opposing Theologies in the ELCA” pages 5-8), http://wordalone.org/newsletters/2007/JulAug07.pdf (see “Replacing the Center with the Periphery pages 5-8), http://www.lutherancore.org/pdf/Braaten-critique-of-ELCA.pdf, http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/septemberweb-only/46-31.0.html. Back
11 This serious problem is further discussed in the recent book, Reclaiming the Lutheran Liturgical Heritage by Rev. Dr. O. Olson. Back
17 http://www.lcms.org/pages/rpage.asp?NavID=10377, http://www.eecmy.org/?page=!news&article=39, http://www.elct.org/news/2010.04.004.html, http://www.eelk.ee/eelk_uudised/news.php?id=310, http://www.lutherancore.org/papers/ELCA-Chinese-leaders-response.shtml, http://www.lutherancore.org/papers/hispanic-response.shtml Back
22 http://www.wartburg.edu/orgs/alliance/dragshow.html, http://gustavus.campusreform.org/group/blog/freshman-orientation-caught-on-tape, http://churchresources.weebly.com/2/category/elca%20seminaries/1.html Back
24 http://www.lutherancore.org/pdf/Connection-Nov-09.pdf (see page 4) Back