On the troubles within the ELCA

I attended a Lutheran (ELCA) college, where I majored in theology and philosophy. Much of my junior and senior year, however, were spent engaged in study of Catholic teaching (thanks to the fortunate discovery of Dorothy Day and Cardinal Ratzinger), culminating in my conversion.

In much the same manner as my familial background leads me, even as a convert, to take an interest in Mennonite affairs, I try to stay abreast of Lutheran matters and Lutheran-Catholic relations.

News of late has made for rather grim reading.

This past week, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) affirmed major policy recommendations to bless same-sex unions and give formal recognition to gay and lesbian pastors in partnered relationships.

Robert Beene appraises the decision in “How the ELCA Left the Great Tradition for Liberal Protestantism” (Christianity Today September 2, 2009).

On the ELCA and the future of Lutheranism, I would recommend the recently-established blog “Lutherans Persisting”, which publishes the response of Carl Braaten, The Aroma of an Empty Bottle.

The reaction to such a crisis will be varied — for some, it will be a last straw compelling their journey across the Tiber. Others will choose to stay and fight, a remnant of the faithful against the tide. A number of them have in this case decided to “work together for positive reform” within the ELCA — a number of familiar names among their ranks — former classmates, teachers, friends.

My prayers are with them.

* * *

What is interesting, at least from this Catholic perspective, is the extent to which the critics of recent decisions recognize the seeds of their present troubles woven into the very fabric of their tradition. Robert Benne remarks:

What was truly chilling about the assembly’s debates was that the revisionists seemed to quote Jesus and the Bible as knowledgeably and persuasively as the orthodox. Passages reinforcing their respective agendas were selected and then brilliantly woven into their arguments. Both sides seemed to have the Bible on their side. The revisionists “contextualized” and relativized the relevant texts. The orthodox claimed a plain sense reading of Scripture. The Lutheran confessions were utilized effectively by both sides. There was no authoritative interpretation conveyed by any agent or agency in the church. The church was, and is, rudderless.

Sola Scriptura, a Lutheran principle adopted by evangelicals, did not seem to be sufficient in such circumstances. An authoritative tradition of interpretation of the Bible seemed to be essential. More was needed than the Bible alone. Protestants seem to lack such an authoritative tradition, so they fight and split. In this situation, the option of swimming the Tiber seems all the more tempting.

and Carl Braaten:

Lutheranism may contain within its origins the seeds of its own instability. When the first Lutherans lost the magisterial authority of the Roman Catholic Church, it had no sure authority to put in its place. The solas sounded good in theory, but it finally comes down to who who has the authority to interpret and apply them in changing times.

Which is not to say the Catholic Church doesn’t have its share of dissenters, troubles and scandals — but there is something to be said for the authority and definitive teaching of the Magisterium.

12 Responses to On the troubles within the ELCA

  • Tito Edwards says:

    I really feel for many Lutherans of the ELCA. I’ve met and known a few that would almost be indistinguishable from Catholics, yet seem embedded with their respective churches within the ELCA.

    It will be interesting to see the fall-out of this.

    You may be able to answer this for me, but isn’t the Missouri Synod the more orthodox of all the branches of Lutheranism in the United States?

  • Daniel C. says:

    I guess that would depend on who you asked! I’d give the distinction of being the most ‘orthodox’ Lutheran denomination to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Church (WELS). I’m sure someone from the LCMS would have a different opinion.

  • Tim Young says:

    I was born and raised in the LCMS, and converted to the Catholic Church 6 yrs ago for all the reasons you talk about in your post. The LCMS has no more intrinsic resources to resist these issues than any other branch of Lutheranism, and will eventually succumb. As you point out, all this is a result of the very nature of protestantism.
    “The Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age”–G. K. Chesterton

  • Thomas says:

    Speaking of Lutherans, as someone posted on Free Republic:

    The formation of the ELCA is what nudged Fr. Richard John Neuhaus into the Catholic Church. At the time, he said that the merger was not based on theological principle or belief, but was merely a material merger for material reasons—like a merger of Wal-Mart and K-Mart.

    Neuhaus said he had always viewed the Lutheran “Church” as the Lutheran “Movement” within the universal Church. After the formation of the ELCA, he could not maintain that view—of Lutheranism as a principle-based movement within the Church.

    While the characterization of “communion” or, better, “movement” can be useful, I find it more productive to use the phrase “separated religious order” for such ecclesial structures.

  • Daniel – I see we share a similar concern. Welcome, and thank you for commenting. (Thank you everybody else as well).

    Carl Braaten is among those who emphasize the ‘catholicity’ of the Reformation (see The Catholicity of the Reformation) and what we have in common. My former teachers were of the same mind; one of them, Bishop Michael McDaniel (RIP) founded the ongoing Aquinas-Luther conference. He was also a good friend of Fr. Neuhaus. His memoirs — “ELCA Journeys: Personal Reflections on the Last Forty Years” — is a chronicle of the organization’s decline. I expect if McDaniel were alive today he’d have a few choice words for what was happening. ;-)

    As Carl Braaten also observed in 2005, the ELCA has experienced something of a ‘brain drain’ with the sheer number of distinguished Lutheran scholars moving either to Eastern Orthodoxy or the Catholic Church. His anguished ‘open letter’ to Bishop Mark Hanson on the current state of the ELCA in 2005 is heart-breaking:

    … All of these colleagues have given candid explanations of their decisions to their families, colleagues, and friends. While the individuals involved have provided a variety of reasons, there is one thread that runs throughout the stories they tell. It is not merely the pull of Orthodoxy or Catholicism that enchants them, but also the push from the ELCA, as they witness with alarm the drift of their church into the morass of what some have called Liberal Protestantism. They are convinced that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has become just another liberal protestant denomination. Hence, they have decided that they can no longer be a part of that. Especially, they say, they are not willing to raise their children in a church that they believe has lost its moorings in the great tradition of evangelical (small e) and catholic (small c) orthodoxy (small o), which was at the heart of Luther’s reformatory teaching and the Lutheran Confessional Writings. They are saying that the Roman Catholic Church is now more hospitable to confessional Lutheran teaching than the church in which they were baptized and confirmed. Can this possibly be true?

    As Bratten acknowledges, a number of theologians have answered that question in the affirmative.

  • MacGregor says:

    This is truly one of those issues of where the theological and institutional rubber meets the road. As a lifelong Catholic, I have always seen the wisdom of not merely relying on one’s own interpretation of the Bible as the sole compass for moral decisions. As the author says, “it finally comes down to who who has the authority to interpret and apply them in changing times.”

    However there is also the other side of the coin. The opposite of relativism is absolutism. Truth is not always best served by only one end of the spectrum. The opposite of libertarianism is authoritarianism. Authority is not always best served if it is concentrated at either extreme. We may revel in the elegance found in the authority of the Magisterium, but that authority, I believe, has been corrupted at times in history. Lutherans lost the good, but they also lost some of the bad (paying indulgences) and I don’t think the Magisterium was very helpful to Galileo or moral when killing heretics, so we need to be honest. As much as it pains me to say this, I think our constitution might not have been nearly as revolutionary or democratic if it had been more influenced by the Magisterium of the day.

    I may be wrong about this, but modern capitalism and limited government comes more from Protestant than Catholic traditions.

    That said I see the limitations of the solas, moral relativism and I look forward to learning more from the links that Christopher supplied, thank you!

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