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Ears to hear?

Mark C. Chavez, vice president, WordAlone Network

September 15, 2009

photo of Pastor ChavezThe 2009 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Churchwide Assembly made grievous decisions that will not help the denomination in the years ahead. Those decisions were the adoption of a social statement on sexuality and four resolutions that approve of sexual relationships outside of marriage and direct a change in the ELCA’s ministry standards to allow for practicing homosexuals to serve as ordained pastors and lay ministers.

One biblical phrase kept coming to mind in the weeks leading up to the ELCA churchwide assembly and very often during the August assembly—“ears to hear.” The phrase occurs repeatedly in the Old and New Testaments, including this one by our Lord, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” (Mark 4:9)

Several things happened around and during the assembly that raise the question, are there “ears to hear” in the ELCA, particularly in the churchwide “expression”? Are there ears to hear God’s Word? Are there ears to hear most Christians and most church leaders in the world? Are there ears to hear the very ELCA members that ELCA leaders say they most want to include in the life of the ELCA?

No scriptural argument?

This was in an Associated Press report on Aug. 14:

Bishop Peter Rogness, leader of the church's St. Paul, Minn., synod, said differences over homosexuality are "driven more by the hysteria in the culture" than by what Scripture says. "If someone tries to argue this is going to be the test as to whether we are scripturally faithful or not, that's a hard argument to make because Scripture says so little about homosexuality," Rogness said. (“Lutherans prepare for big decision on gay clergy” by Patrick Condon)

In fact the Bible says more about homosexual behavior than many other forms of sexual immorality. Just as breathtaking is Rogness’ complete dismissal of the basis of 2,000 years of Christian teaching. Has Rogness never heard that Christians have taught homosexual behavior is immoral precisely because of the Bible’s consistent, clear proscription of the behavior? Christians have done so in cultures that approved and disapproved of homosexual behavior. Does Rogness really believe that 2,000 years of Christian witness was driven by “hysteria in the culture”?

There is a half-truth in Bishop Rogness’ assertion, though I doubt he meant it in this way. North American culture, which sets very few sexual boundaries, clearly has been driving the movement in the ELCA and other churches to disobey the clear Scriptural norms.

Jesus would be passing out condoms?

An ELCA pastor informed the churchwide assembly in a discussion of the ELCA’s HIV and AIDS strategy that his congregation hands out condoms “to anyone who asks for them, young or old.” He had emailed his bishop and asked if he could pass out condoms, and the bishop responded, “Jesus would be passing out condoms.”

Churches that pass out condoms are all but saying to their members, “When you have sex outside marriage, make sure you use a condom.” Do ELCA leaders really hear Jesus saying that he would pass out condoms in a church or anywhere to people who are having sex outside marriage?

Church growth or decline?

Several times during the assembly, voting members in favor of the sexuality proposals asserted that approving of sex outside of marriage would help the ELCA grow and attract members. Pastor Paul Tidemann, former pastor of St Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church in St. Paul, Minn., said not to fear losing members by approving the proposals. When his church became a Reconciling in Christ (RIC) congregation, he said they grew. (RIC churches are those that publicly welcome gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered people and approve of their behavior and relationships.)

I don’t know when Tidemann’s church became an RIC church, but from 2001 to 2008 St. Paul-Reformation’s baptized membership was down 10.4 percent and average worship attendance was down 12 percent. An analysis of statistics from the ELCA website shows that the average decline of RIC congregations in the ELCA exceeds the overall average decline:

Average baptized membership 2001 2008 % change
RIC ELCA churches 424 376 -11.3%
All ELCA churches 476 449 -5.7%
Average worship attendance 2001 2008 % change
RIC ELCA churches 148 127 -14.2%
All ELCA churches 146 128 -12.3%

Sacrificing ecumenical relationships

One of the ELCA’s highest priorities has been ecumenical relationships. The churchwide assembly majority decided that sex was a higher priority. Almost 50 years of ecumenical work were seriously undermined by the assembly. Lutheran World Federation church leaders warned the ELCA not to approve of sex outside marriage. Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President Gerald Kieschnick warned that the assembly’s decision risked creating a “chasm” between the ELCA and LCMS. Roman Catholic Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory said in his videotaped greeting to the assembly that the ELCA’s decisions

. . . may have weighty consequences for the unity of your own church and for its relationships with the Catholic Church and other Christian bodies. At stake are the teachings of Scripture and Tradition that safeguard the noble purposes of human sexuality and the fundamental meaning of marriage, which is a reflection of God’s covenant with us in Christ. Our prayer for you, as brothers and sisters who journey with you in hope, is that you remain open to the Holy Spirit who binds our consciences to truth, biblical truth that echoes through the ages. At the ecumenical service in New York City on April 18, 2008, Pope Benedict XVI asserted that without this adherence to Holy Scripture, “our communion with the Church in every age is lost—just at the time when the world is losing its bearings and needs a persuasive common witness to the saving power of the Gospel (cf. Rom 1:18-23).”

How ironic that a 21st century Roman Catholic pope and an archbishop can better articulate confessional Lutheran teaching than the ELCA churchwide organization. Does the ELCA have ears to any of its ecumenical partners other than the United Church of Christ and The Episcopal Church, the other two churches that have clearly disobeyed God’s Word by approving of sex outside of marriage?

Sacrificing multiculturalism

One of the other high priorities for the ELCA has been to become a more multicultural church. Bishop Craig Johnson of Minneapolis and Bishop Mark Hanson boasted early in the assembly how multicultural the ELCA is, mentioning by name Our Redeemer Oromo Evangelical Church in Minneapolis, an Ethiopian immigrant church that is the fastest growing church in the synod. Did the bishops hear that 200 members of the Oromo church had been praying in the weeks before the assembly and during the assembly that the ELCA would not disobey God’s Word? Did they listen to the church’s leaders and members who came to the Minneapolis convention center to plead with voting members not to adopt the sexuality task force proposals?

The assembly majority, with the support of most of the churchwide staff, decided that sex is more important than multiculturalism. The ELCA churchwide organization did not listen to the ethnic leaders in the ELCA who had warned how difficult evangelism will be in their communities when people learn that the ELCA approves of homosexual behavior. Some Hispanic ELCA pastors were quick to issue a renunciation of the assembly’s decisions. Does the ELCA have ears to hear people of African, Asian, Middle Eastern and Hispanic descent?

New foundational premises

Bishop Mark Hanson appointed an ad hoc committee at the churchwide assembly to deal with proposed amendments to the social statement. One amendment proposed adding clear and strong language about marriage from the last social statements on marriage by the American Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church in America (two of the three churches that merged to form the ELCA in 1988), including:

Marriage is a structure of human life built into the creation by the Creator. It builds upon our creation as male and female (Genesis 1:27). Sexual differences are of God’s good design, intended to bring joy and enrichment to human life as well as to provide for procreation. The essence of marriage is that in the act and relationships of marriage two persons become one flesh (Genesis 2:24).

The ad hoc committee recommended the amendment not be adopted “because the proposed substitution does not incorporate or build upon the foundational premises which are important for the coherence and consistency of the document [2009 social statement].” The assembly agreed with the committee—the ELCA cannot teach about marriage as the predecessor churches did because of its new foundational premises.

What are the new foundational premises? The committee cited “God’s unfailing trustworthiness in our relationships and in our social institutions (emphasis added)” and marriage is “a social structure . . . that best supports trust.” Note how the committee focused on the human side, not the Divine, in its use of “our.” Note also how different its language (and the language of the social statement) is from a sentence in the earlier social statements rejected by the assembly: “Marriage is ordained by God as a structure of the created order.”

The assembly majority made it clear that it didn’t have ears to hear the witness of the two main churches that formed the ELCA, not to mention Scripture’s clear Word.

The individual is the ultimate authority

In a press conference on Aug. 21 following all the sexuality votes, Bishop Mark Hanson clearly identified the “authoritative source and norm” in the ELCA for sexuality. He used “personal morality” at least three times when talking about the disagreements over sexual behavior.

Until that press conference I had never heard or seen anyone pair those two words as he did. Morality by definition involves some other person, so it can never be personal.

Surely Hanson and the ELCA churchwide organization would never say that racism, sexism, militarism and greed are matters of “personal morality” upon which Christians may disagree. Yet when it comes to sexuality, Hanson and the churchwide organization turn out to be radical proponents of individualism.

Radical individualism is embedded in the new definition of the “bound conscience” in the ELCA social statement on sexuality. The statement asserts in footnote 26 that “salvation is not at stake” in questions about morality (try squaring that assertion with 1 Corinthians 6:9ff or many other biblical passages) and says:

We understand that, in this discernment about ethics and church practice, faithful people can and will come to different conclusions about the meaning of Scripture and about what constitutes responsible action. We further believe that this church, on the basis of “the bound conscience,” will include these different understandings and practices within its life as it seeks to live out its mission and ministry in the world. (p. 11)

The social statement quotes Luther’s reply at the Diet of Worms when he said, “my conscience is captive to the words of God.” The ELCA social statement shifts from consciences captive to God’s external Word to consciences bound to human internal words – what each believer concludes “about the meaning of Scripture.”

The ELCA will now teach contrary to its own confession of faith, which states that the Old and New Testaments are “the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” Instead the ELCA will be teaching that the “authoritative source and norm” for morality in the ELCA churchwide organization is each individual sinner.

Who has moved to the periphery?

Bishop Mark Hanson told the assembly on Friday afternoon that he wanted to reach out to those who were opposed to the sexuality proposals. In the press conference immediately following, he repeated it saying, “We tend to our relationships.”

Tellingly, here is how he described those who opposed the approval of sex outside marriage—as “those who once were at the center, but now find themselves at the periphery. . .”

Some ELCA members remain standing firm at the center—the center of the Lutheran confession of the Christian faith. They are the minority of the voting members at the 2009 churchwide assembly along with many ELCA members who still believe and practice what the ELCA confession of faith states—Scripture is “the authoritative source and norm.” These ELCA members stand with most of the Christian Church on earth.

Some ELCA members have indeed moved themselves to the periphery—the periphery of the whole Christian church. They are the majority of the churchwide assembly voting members that rejected God’s clear words in Scripture that forbid all sex outside of marriage and the ELCA leaders and members who will follow them to the periphery.