After watching these recent proofs that the ELCA is pretty much both “in the world” and “of the world,” however, I want to write this as a warning. First, to those orthodox souls who remain in “evolving” churches. They belong to and support churches that increasingly depart from right teaching. Indeed, those churches suppress it. And it will get worse in the future…Second, I want to alert those churches that have not “evolved” to the dangers of doing just that. Once orthodoxy is breached on these issues, the process won’t stop there. It will lead to sharper denials of the apostolic faith. The revolution will eat its own children. There really is a slippery slope.
Schism is a serious matter. Even though the leaders of the congregations that left the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to establish the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) in 2010 considered the ELCA to be the schismatic party, having broken from the apostolic tradition, they trembled a bit about leaving. It is a sin wrongly to divide the Body of Christ, and I wondered whether I, as a vigorous participant in the severance, was guilty. Did we leave too early? Was there a chance for the restoration of orthodoxy in the ELCA? Why did so many fine Lutherans—including a number of my best friends—decide to stay in the ELCA? Were the issues over which we divided “second-order” rather than essential doctrines? Did I just engage in petulant actions after a painful defeat?
We left after the cataclysmic ELCA assembly of 2009 accepted the blessing of gay unions (which quickly became the acceptance of gay marriage), the ordination of “married” gays, and a social statement on sexuality that was ambivalent about the institution of marriage and the place of sexual relations within it. (The last item was accompanied by a rogue tornado that knocked off the steeple of a nearby ELCA church!)
Some of the dissenters were surprised and saddened by the results and the inevitable break that would follow. I was neither surprised at the outcome nor unhappy about the break. I had participated in twenty years of rearguard resistance that we knew would not prevent the inevitable embrace of liberal Protestantism by the ELCA. We wagered that once the dike of orthodoxy was broken, a veritable flood of heterodoxy would ensue. Further, after the defeat I was finally able to leave the negative mode of resistance and move to the positive mode of helping to organize a new church that was more faithful to the Lutheran tradition.
Whatever doubts I had were extinguished by recent events in the ELCA. The glaring departure from classic Christian teaching is so stunning it is scarcely believable. At the 2018 ELCA Youth Gathering held in Houston in late June, 31,000 youngsters of high school age listened to the most radical speakers the ELCA could possibly put forward. The prime keynoter was Nadia Bolz-Weber, the tattooed and feisty founding pastor of an ELCA congregation called House for All Sinners and Saints. She has risen to become the featured celebrity of the ELCA and darling of progressive elites from NPR to the BBC.
She had been featured at an earlier Youth Gathering and stuck pretty much to her story of being rescued by grace (not much mention of Christ) from a life of drug and alcohol addiction—and from the fundamentalist Christianity she often blamed for her bad choices. But she inserted promotions for the “full acceptance and inclusion” of gays and transgender people.
This year, concluding her speech, she employed a blasphemous parody of the set of renunciations that parents or godparents are expected to answer at a baptism: “Do you renounce the devil and all his empty promises?” One renunciation went: “Do you renounce the lie that Queerness is anything other than beauty?” And the youths dutifully chanted back: “I renounce them.” So the crowd was led to reject Christian teaching that homosexual orientation is “objectively disordered” and that acting upon it is sinful. Those who held classic Christian views became purveyors of the devil’s lies. That judgment fell upon those in the ELCA who, previously, were guaranteed a place in the church if their “bound conscience” held them to traditional Christian teaching. That promise, we see now, was bogus. It merely allowed local pastors and congregations of a traditional bent to persist in their retrograde beliefs, while all agencies and institutions of the church beyond the local level enforced the progressive verdicts of the 2009 assembly. No public dissenter could get a position or keep one at the higher level.
Bolz-Weber’s message was a grace-centered address to teenagers she thought had a low self-image. It said nothing to those who needed a good dose of the law, which was absent from her talk. Absent, too, was Jesus as the bearer of God’s grace, who calls to repentance and discipleship in addition to conveying forgiveness and healing. The message that “few are chosen” was transmuted into a universal love that rescues everyone—including an unrepentant Harvey Weinstein and a “racist cop”—simply because they are created in the image of God. The grace she announced to 31,000 teenagers is a cheap grace without repentance or amendment of life. Love wins—without the cross.