Though the ink has barely dried, my excitement over the ELCA’s newly-minted Full Communion agreement with the United Methodist Church took a serious hit in recent days. I grudgingly admit that I cheered this agreement when it was passed and happily returned home, eager to share the Eucharist with my Methodist friends. As someone who has liked to fashion himself a “progressive” Christian, I saw this and many other actions of the Churchwide Assembly 2009 as the ELCA making progress towards a better Christianity which I (and others like me, of course) saw on the horizon, as if through a mirror, darkly.
A Radical View of Progress
The Beatitudes Society touts itself as a network of progressive Christians.
While I would not say that I have ceased to share in the joy of the recent changes to the ELCA, I have learned that all that glitters is not gold. This realization came when I read an article written by a UMC pastor that upset me greatly. The article in question was posted to the website of a social justice organization, The Beatitudes Society, which touts itself as a network of progressive Christians and of which I am a member. I will not reveal the author of the article, as concerns have arisen within The Beatitudes Society for the privacy of things their members choose to post on the Internet. But I will reprint portions of the article so as to contextualize my new-founded ire with what some are willing to call progress. The author writes:
I have left behind original sin and blood atonement. To the surprise of some and the chagrin of others, I often eschew theology when phenomenology will do just fine. I prefer a hopeful anthropology to a despairing and sin-riddled one. I love Jesus, the prophet and sage and wise teacher, much more than I care for “the Son of God” I grew up with. I want a Christianity that will make me and others more open and expansive, not narrower and more sectarian. I want a religion that joins with all people in advocating just action and in getting over our need for right belief. Whoever God is and whatever God does, I do not think that God controls anything.
[ . . . ]
What about Baptism, for example? Some in my church have noticed that I long ago ceased to pray over the water asking God to “wash away the sin” of the one being baptized. What’s a pastor to do? I made up some of my own words for baptism. I think of baptism as the planting of a lovely and tender plant in the good and rich soil of loving human community. And, new plants always need abundant water and light. Thus, images for baptism can and should include water and light and soil and blooming and growing and unfolding. These are images any rite of initiation can live with. But, you start messing with “The Service” in “The Book,” and you can raise the dander of some.
[ . . . ]
What about Communion? I know that I’m not the only person who thinks of Jesus’ death not as sacrificial gift ordained by God but as a tragic end to a precious and profound life — an end engineered by those more attached to political and ecclesiastical Empire than to the burgeoning Reign of God. So, what about Communion’s meaning in light of this? I don’t think of the bread of Communion as Jesus’ body as much as I think of the bread as strength for our journey in living as Jesus’ body! Yet, how “down with” a liturgy that includes such insights will people really be when my Director of Music and Worship Arts, who is a noted composer, writes a new service for Communion and rolls it out some Sunday morning?
What is ‘Progressive’?
As I read this, I saw for the first time what people speak of when they describe a fear of a “slippery slope”, and I was instantly filled with anger and rage at this pastor defining himself as a progressive Christian in this way. “This isn’t me, and this isn’t what it means to be progressive,” I bemoaned to my friend, who is the head of University of Chicago’s chapter of The Beatitudes Society. She agreed, asking me candidly why it was that, as a young member of the church, things kept cropping up which made her feel more traditional and conservative. I nodded in agreement. I’m in my early 20’s, studying to become a pastor/professor/chaplain — something — and though I feel I’m the new person at the table who should be bringing ideas which change the church for the better, I find myself looking at many whom we have now welcomed fully into our communion and asking how they could call heresy progress. “If this is progressive,” I told my friend, “then that’s not what I am.”
It is with that mindset that I sat down to write for Let’s Talk my reflections on how the church is changing and in what ways it should change. I returned once more to this catalytic article to figure out how I could define myself as a Christian with ideas that I could call “progressive” yet distinguish as separate from this fallen idea of “progress”. One paragraph into the article and the answer became clear. The author writes:
I live each day in the tension between the bright and fresh reality of progressive Christianity and the reality of the tired and empty and perhaps even contaminated brands of orthodox Christianity that pervade the planet. [ . . . ] [A] brave new world has emerged, and all of us in any way connected to The Beatitudes Society recognize the profound need for people like you and me to articulate a Christianity that really makes sense and really works in this post-modern, post-theistic, small village-of-a-world.
I had feared the word for a long time, but it stared me straight in the face: orthodox.
I had feared the word for a long time, but it stared me straight in the face: orthodox. I knew enough Greek to know what it means and has stood for historically, but the modern connotation associated with ‘orthodoxy’ is one that anyone of my age would quickly eschew for “friendlier” terminology that doesn’t direct the mind towards fundamentalism, which is certainly no more orthodox than is the progress proclaimed by The Beatitudes Society.
What is ‘Orthodox’?
So what does it mean to use the term ‘orthodox’, or rather, what should it mean for those in the church? As a member of the (quickly) rising generation of ecclesial leaders, I find myself often torn between increasingly polarized camps vying for young members so that they can have a claim on the church. There are some within the ELCA who wish to convince me that the future of the church lies in “non-geographical” confessing synods, or who want to convince me that the new way of being “church” is to espouse a Christian faith that is not grounded in a shared devotion to the Holy Trinity or in a common adherence to the creeds and confessions of our forebears. Then there are those whom the aforementioned UMC author represents who would have me believe the new way of being “church” is to concede that this “post-modern, post-theistic” world has judged God and found Him wanting, that there is no sin in a world where we are fed and yet our neighbors are unable to provide food for their children, in a society where many are well and yet children go without healthcare, in a country where our taxes are used for bombs instead of books. Both of these presentations are not the church of the generation that is to come. It is not the church of my classmates and colleagues.
The new way of being church is to understand what it means to change and to be bold. The way of doing church is not to do what other denominations have done — dividing themselves on political issues or αδιάφορα [adiaphora]. To forgo “bound conscience” and turn the church into a non-geographical synod of what are essentially political parties is no future for a church that wishes to espouse unity in the Holy Trinity. As St. Paul states,
“Sisters and brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly — mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere humans?”
I Corinthians 3:1-4
If we are to be church, our way of being church must be being united, not by breaking down synods, withholding mission support, or breaking ourselves away. These are the actions of mere humans, not of those incorporated into Christ.
Our new way of being church means never settling for cheap grace or cheap progress.
At the same time, it is the future of the church to progress. Yet our new way of being church means never settling for cheap grace or cheap progress. What I have found most laughable — and which has caused my departure from that label — is that progressives are all too willing to call social justice progressive, as if American fundamentalism has been the Christian norm for thousands of years. They look at politically progressive beliefs and think that qualifies as religiously progressive views, yet fail to recognize that Christianity has been cornering the market on social justice since its inception. Worst of all, they consider religious “progress” to include changing our creeds and understanding of God to fall in lock step with society-at-large, forgetting that our faith grew not by comforting people in their world but by challenging that world. We must understand that the new way of being church is to hold fast to the boldness that St. Paul admonishes — that we proclaim Christ crucified, which is scandal to the Jew and foolishness to the rest, yet to those God has called, Jew and Gentile, Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. In the Eucharist, we remember that we are bold to pray as Jesus taught us, and to lift high the cross.
A New Way of Being Church
Christianity was founded as the new way of “being” church — Christ came and threw open the door to the Holiest of Holies, bringing all into the full light of God’s grace. St. Paul proclaimed to us that no longer is there Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, man and woman: for all are one in Christ Jesus. St. Augustine welcomed those persons called not to celibacy but to marriage into God’s kingdom. Martin Luther opened the doors of marriage to the clergy and the table to all Christians, refusing the power of others to excommunicate a person from God’s feast. Our Christian forebears, abolitionists and freed slaves alike, fought for the equal participation of all races and ethnicities in our world and in our churches, gaining their right to intermarry. Our Lutheran ancestors resisted Nazi oppression, forming the Confessing Church to keep alive a Gospel of human worth and value.
And today, along with many others, the ELCA continues in that rich, Christian tradition of progress by honoring the love of one man for another and one woman for another. This is the progress of Christ’s church, to invite all to the table but never to change what coming to that table means. Our new way of “being” church is never to forget that we have been the Church, progressing God’s merciful love and grace, never forgetting that such mercies came to us on a cross and with a commendation to do the work of God.
Therefore I declare myself orthodox and that this is our new way of “being” church: we do not change our creeds, we do not change our Eucharist, we do not change the call of Christ, but rather we work tirelessly to progress the Gospel to all peoples in all places and at all times, as is our right, our duty, and our joy. The table has been here for thousands of years. All that has changed is who is in attendance, not what is served.