As the ELCA pursues the study of the issues on the gay agenda laid before the 2005 Churchwide Assembly, one of the ominous things one hears is talk of a schism of significant proportions. Proponents of the gay agenda have been reported to have said that the ELCA may have to lose a couple of million members in order to pass and implement this agenda. Bishop George Mocko (now retired) took to the floor of the Delaware-Maryland Synod Assembly to warn that pursuing this agenda could cause the ELCA to lose two-fifths of its members and congregations. Bishop Thomas Skrenes of the Northern Great Lakes Synod has made similar predictions of major schism. Given the dynamics of institutional lethargy, I find it difficult to believe that so many members would have the gumption to leave the ELCA. After all, only a few hundred pastors and congregations left the Missouri Synod to form the AELC over some equally important theological and church-political issues twenty-five years ago. But let’s say there is potential for a really sizeable schism. Why is that the case? The ELCA has weathered a lot of controversy in its fifteen-year history. Why would sexuality be the issue that finally breaks up the ELCA? If there is such a crisis, what should we do? I will suggest in this essay that we should avoid schism and stay in place. By “we” I mean not only pastors and congregations opposed to the gay agenda but also those in favor of it, should it not pass. I will also enumerate the benefits of this strategy?
What is the Nature of the Crisis We Face?
No one should minimize the seriousness of the crisis facing this Church. The crisis does not have to do with whether Christian congregations should welcome, accept, and support gay members or reach out to disaffected unchurched gays. Catholic Christianity, into which we assume the ELCA fits, has always found ways of dealing with situations that are abnormal from a theological or church disciplinary perspective in pastorally-realistic ways. We’ve handled rampant divorce among the laity and clergy without the need to issue statements, change standards, or develop rites to solemnize divorces. The crisis in our Church and other Churches is produced by the challenge being mounted to the authority of scripture and tradition. No matter which side of the debate we are on, we should recognize this.
First of all, the extreme novelty of recent revisionist teaching on sexual behavior is unique in the history of Christian thought. More than anything else, it offers up a culturally-driven rejection of scriptural authority. Proponents of the gay agenda should recognize this; the proposal to overturn two thousand years of interpretation of biblical texts would not be occurring now unless it were culturally driven, and here I must specify that it is driven by the information class’ cultural bias. On other issues that have challenged traditional teaching and practices, such as the ordination of women, the assault on Trinitarian language, and the use of quota systems to govern and operate the Church, proponents of change could at least appeal to biblical texts that support the positive role of women in the ministry of Jesus and their leadership in the early church, that provide alternative names of God (e.g. “I AM” in Exodus 3 and in the Gospel of John), and that even exemplify affirmative action (such as the appointment of Hellenistic deacons (Acts 6) to answer the complaints of Hellenistic widows). But there is nothing within the Bible which counters or even softens the strictures against same-sex behavior in the Holiness Code (Leviticus 18-22) and the use of this Code by Jesus and Paul. So the revisionist ethic being proposed to justify blessing same-sex unions and therefore to ordain to Holy Ministry men and women living in such relationships requires endorsing hermeneutics practiced in the so-called “queer reading of the Bible.” Even the advocates of this reading must recognize that in a church that appeals to the authority of Scripture alone, any major change of practice based on contentious hermeneutics is bound to threaten to rupture the fellowship of such a church.
Secondly, the reasons that seem to lie behind the revisionist reading of the Bible (reasons based on controlling definitions of “justice,” “love,” and “inclusion”) are so distant from the particularistic words and actions of Jesus in the gospels that the revealed Christ seems to have become the servant of some greater principle that transcends him. We are being presented with an ideal (even a gnostic) Jesus rather than the actual Christ who meets us in the Gospels, a Christ who did not just accept everybody and anything without the need for transformation (see the parable of the wedding garment in Matthew 22:11-14) and who did lay requirements of self-denial on his disciples.
Thirdly, many Christians around the world, certainly Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, Evangelicals and Pentecostals, but also and especially Christians in the Southern world (the fast-growing part of global Christianity), perceive the threat clearly. Yet many Christians in the Northern Churches (in Europe and North America) seem oblivious to it, or don’t want to have to deal with it head-on because we can’t bring ourselves to risk offending anyone. (I’ve sometimes thought that if the gay agenda passes the Churchwide Assembly, no matter what the Study Commission proposes, it will be because Midwestern Lutherans, who control the majority of the votes, cannot not be nice; that is, we can’t bring ourselves to be judgmental except against people who make judgments.)
So there is a genuine culturally-produced crisis of faith in the Church. As regards the gay agenda, it almost certainly will produce a schism (although I will not hazard the arithmetic). What do we do in the face of a threat of schism, including one that might be perpetrated by ourselves? (Yes, we do write e-mails on discussion lists about where we will go if the ELCA does such-and-such.) The answer, as I see it, is: we remain in place.
Why Should We Remain in Place?
This is going to require a little excursus into an area that is unfamiliar territory for most Lutherans—ecclesiology.
The church exists only where the body of Christ is incarnated in actual flesh-and-blood assemblies for word and sacrament. These local assemblies are connected to one another through area, regional, provincial, and global structures. Ideally, every local assembly should be connected in full communion with every other local assembly around the world. That would testify to the full unity of the body of Christ. But, in fact, the body of Christ has divided over theological and cultural differences. Major seismic fault lines occurred in the fifth century between the Chalcedonian and Non-Chalcedonian Churches, in the eleventh century between the Greek Orthodox East and the Latin Catholic West, in the sixteenth century in the West between Catholics and Protestants, and ever since then within Protestantism whenever someone didn’t like a doctrine or a practice and started his or her own church.
Local assemblies are now grouped into denominational families that, for the most part, are not in full communion with one another. No one denomination can really claim to be “the true church.” A “true church” would have to embody the “notes” of the church listed in the Nicene Creed. The true church must be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” But even the Roman Catholic Church is but one denomination among others; it is not in unity with all Christian assemblies, it does not have a corner on saintliness, it is not so “Catholic” as to embrace in one fellowship all Christians, and it is too “Roman” for many. No church can be the true church, or even “a” true church, if it lacks some quantity or quality of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. So we are not in a true church now in the ELCA, and no church we would form if we left the ELCA could be a true church. Like the ELCA, it would possess some things and lack other things, it would be right about some things and wrong about other things. It would be living in sin because it has contributed to the further rupturing of the unity of the body of Christ.
This may seem like a radical perspective. My own reluctant recognition that this is, lamentably, our present ecclesiological situation was reinforced by Ephraim Radner,The End of the Church. This book is VERY dense reading. It marshalls a massive amount of data and employs a breathtaking interpretation of that data which concludes that the Spirit has abandoned the Church (or at least the Church of the West). I’m not following Radner’s argument here in all its details. But basically, Radner says that a church divided is untenable. The church must be healed of its divisions and that requires repentance. The Holy Spirit has brought us to faith within a divided church, and we must learn to live out our faith using the disciplines of repentance that alone can heal the fractured body of Christ. One of those penitential disciplines is to remain in place and suffer for the sins and errors of others, as well as for our own. He recommends this strategy for his fellow Episcopalians; I recommend it for my fellow Lutherans.
So the first answer to the question of “why stay?” is that we have nowhere better to go, especially not if it is to a church of our own devising. We were brought into a particular church by baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ. While we await our resurrection, we bear the cross of Christ by living in his divided body. This is the biblical model. There are disagreements that are dealt with in various ways in Acts, within Paul’s letters, and in the Johannine literature. In no case is schism recommended, not even for the sake of the truth. On the contrary, the schismatics in 1 John are castigated for their lack of love in departing from the fellowship.
Given the example of 1 John, there might be a possible exception to this counsel to stay in the ELCA. For confessional reasons Lutherans could go to the Roman Catholic Church. Such a transfer would be a personal gesture toward healing the breach of the sixteenth century, such as Pastor Richard John Neuhaus took. Such a transfer would be a way of personally acting on the conviction expressed in the Preface to the Augsburg Confession that “we on our part shall not omit doing anything, in so far as God and conscience allow, that may serve the cause of Christian unity.” This principle is generally true, but the particular unity that was threatened in 1530 was the unity of the Holy Roman Church. The reformers would not of their own volition create schism.
But there are two other equally honorable reasons for staying in place. One reason for pastors staying is to be faithful to their call. In most cases this is a call to a local congregation or assembly for word and sacrament. Congregations need pastors who will faithfully proclaim the word of God in season and out. Congregations need pastors who can sometimes shield them from denominational aberrations that put the faithful in bad faith while also finding every possible way to keep the members connected to their denominational family.
The other reason for staying is to be faithful to one’s ordination vows even if what we promised to do should no longer be supported in the denomination in which we serve. Since the ELCA is only fifteen years old, most of us pastors were ordained in other church bodies that no longer exist. But since those previous church bodies and their traditions were absorbed into the ELCA, our vows and our ordination to the Holy Ministry of the Word and the Sacraments remains in force.
What Are the Benefits of Staying in Place?
First, we would cultivate virtues that produce Christian character. Those virtues include courage, patience, perseverance, long-suffering, mourning, peaceableness, meekness, etc., which merit the blessings of the kingdom of heaven. One of the beatitudes is being persecuted for the cause of righteousness.
Second, we would have opportunities to witness to the truth of the word of God and to the reliability of the traditional Christian teaching. A witness is one who tells what he knows. The biblical word for “witness,” of course, is martyria. Witnessing in both senses might be required of those who cannot accept the church’s gay agenda. We will continue to preach the word of God and teach the catholic tradition, and will probably be able to do so unhindered by church authorities as long as we are “in place” and have the support of our congregations. On the other hand, opportunities for new calls or ways to serve in synods and the ELCA will probably be restricted if the gay agenda becomes the law of this Church. If what is happening elsewhere happens in the ELCA, adherence to gay practices will be enforced much more vigorously than preaching and teaching in conformity with the doctrines of the church. If the gay agenda passes into church policy, there could be martyrs. Just wait until some pastor, as a matter of conscience, refuses to officiate at the blessing of a same-sex union of his or her church members.
Third, by remaining in dialogue with one’s fellow pastors and church members one remains open to the possibility of finding a way through the current impasse to some new insight. While it is hard for me to conceive that there could be new insights into human sexuality that would overturn the church’s traditional teaching, it is possible that we could learn something we did not know before on the matter if we continue to challenge one another with solid data and sound arguments. Of course, this depends on the church remaining a community where real discussion of the issues is still a possibility.
Fourth, by staying in place we may have opportunities to be ministers of reconciliation as we proclaim God’s word and enact God’s mercy. We can go to bat for seminarians who refuse to serve internships under pastors living in committed same-sex relationships. We can provide encouragement to congregations who are in crisis over the calling of a pastor. We can show real compassion to gay church members by counseling them to embrace the life of celibacy in obedience to the call of Jesus to discipleship. This cannot happen unless we remain in place and bind ourselves to pastor even to those who may have hard things to say to us.
In the face of the threat of schism, I recommend staying in place. For reasons I have given, I think entering into schism would be as erroneous as adopting the gay agenda. In the days to come as we continue to deal with these issues before this Church let us “oppose them to their face” as Paul did with Peter (Galatians 2:11), and even confront those at headquarters, as Paul also did; but let us not break fellowship.
. The ELCA came into being with noted sociologist Peter Berger warning of a slide into apostasy. See “American Lutheranism at the Crossroads,” dialog 27 (1988), 90-97 and the responses in this symposium.
. See William J. Webb, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals. Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001).
. For queer theory in biblical interpretation see Ken Stone, ed., Queer Commentary and the Hebrew Bible (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000); Robert Goss, “A Queer Biblical Hermeneutics,” in Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993), 87-111; Robert E. Goss and Mona West, eds. Take Back the Word: A Queer Reading of the Bible (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2000).
. Ephraim Radner, The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998).
. The Book of Concord, ed. Theodore G. Tappert (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 26.