Saturday, September 19, 2009

Not New and Not Alone

I'm thankful that I don't need to get ready to preach tomorrow morning. It's been a beautiful day and I've managed to get some minor chores done outdoors. We had men's Bible study this morning at church and I was over there once to get some things ready for the new member class, but otherwise I've been here at the parsonage. I've also been doing a bit of reading in preparation for tomorrow night's open forum on denominational issues.

Ever since the end of the churchwide assembly many people have stopped in to talk with me about their concerns. At least 125 questionnaires* on denominational issues were filled out and returned, many with lengthy comments.

As I have listened to people's concerns and read the questionnaire comments, it has become clear that some of our church members feel rushed or pushed.
  • Some have said that they think that the questionnaire itself was premature.
  • Some felt that the questions about the ELCA were misleading and/or loaded.
  • Others were offended by my letter to our church council president, recommending that our local church sign the Common Confession and join an organization called "Lutheran CORE."
  • Some think that joining CORE would mean automatically leaving the ELCA. (I tried to answer that question in a comment that you can read by clicking here.)
Some feeling rushed or pushed are pleased with the ELCA's new openness to same-sex unions. Others are ambivalent or opposed to same-sex unions but still feel rushed and pushed because it all feels so new. Why does one churchwide assembly cause such furor? How can things have changed so quickly?

Those of us who have been watching denominational issues for awhile know what happened in Minneapolis this summer was not "new." I tried to address that in my letter to the president of our congregation. In that letter I mentioned that I have been a part of WordAlone for ten years.** But it's not just people associated with that "network" that have been concerned, and the concern goes back much longer than 10 years.

One of the things I've been reading in preparation for tomorrow is the latest newsletter from the Fellowship of Confessional Lutherans (FOCL). I plan to make that newsletter available at tomorrow's forum. If you want, you can download it as a PDF (8 pages) by clicking here.

In one of the FOCL newsletter articles George Muendeking refers to Bishop Hanns Lilje, a "renowned church supporter of the resistance movement against Adolph Hitler." Dr. Muendeking remembers Lilje as "one of our noblest heroes of faith" and remembers hearing Lilje give an address at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary about five years after World War II.

Here's a quote from Muendeking's article (emphasis mine):
In his seminary address, [Lilje] discussed reasons why the Christians of Germany dropped so easily into Hitler's lap. He felt it was because the Church had abandoned its basic faith in the reliability of the Bible. Losing that foundational Lutheran heritage of 'Scripture Alone", church members were side open to the blandishments of any alien mythology or religion, in this case, the religion of Nazism.
I am not a fundamentalist when it comes to the interpretation of scripture. For example, I think many Old Testament stories are not meant to be taken as scientific truth. I am very comfortable with the notion that God speaks to us through poetry and "story." We'll be looking at the creation stories in our Youth Discipleship Training class this week--I do not insist that the youth believe that God created the world in six literal days about 6,000 years ago.

But I do believe, with the ELCA's official confession of faith,*** that the scriptures are inspired by God and that God wants them to be as they are. I believe that truth is found there--and though we may debate interpretations of scripture passages, we are called by God to use scripture as it is written to inform our decisions.

Lutherans use scripture to interpret scripture, and look at Jesus Christ as the center and main interpreter of the Bible. When in doubt, I will say tomorrow morning and when I teach our youth, look to Jesus, the center and pioneer of our faith. But the Bible needs to be at the center of our discussion at all times.

It's my opinion that we ELCA Lutherans, along with many other Christians, have been in danger of sliding away, for quite some time, from the foundation of our faith. The Summer 2009 FOCL newsletter includes articles reprinted from the 1990s. One by Pastor Gordon Selbo from the Fall of 1990 shares a concern that "tolerance" as expanded into "an unacceptable relativism." Another, written by former ALC president Dr. David Preus, who once preached the sermon that called me to consider being a pastor, says this specifically about the Bible and sexual ethics:
That the sanctity of sexual consummation is limited to marriage is a clear teaching of Scripture... Outside of marriage it is wrong. While we have always had trouble living up to it, most generations have not had trouble agreeing to the rightness of sexual life within marriage and the wrongness of sexual life (taken to the point of intercourse) outside heterosexual marriage.
Preus continues--this is in 1991:
It is now suggested we must rewrite our sexual codes of ethics. I believe it is imperative that those of us who believe there is a clear decisive word from God on this subject consistent with Christ, the Scriptures and our confessional heritage, must speak the fact openly, as lovingly as we are capable of doing while attempting to listen to those who are of a contrary mind.

This issue must be dealt with along with all other ethical questions to which a biblical address is made. All must be determined on the basis of faithfulness to the Word of God and not on the basis of cultural whimsy.

The Word of God can accomodate to a wide variation of cultural lifestyles. Think of music, folk-ways or food. But that which any culture suggests as right or wrong must be judged by Christ in the Scriptures and our Lutheran Confessions.
In all my years of serving as a pastor, I have tried my best to stand for what is right while at the same time not being too loud about my concerns or worries about what is wrong in my denomination. I have always tried to believe the best about those who have different opinions than I. Perhaps that's why for some this is so new. Perhaps I should have been more consistent in speaking up on issues that have concerned me. But I've always wanted to "major" in teaching and preaching the good news of forgiveness and mercy given in Jesus. I've never wanted to set myself up as a holier-than-thou wise guy who always thinks he's smarter than everyone else. I know I can get pretty preachy about my convictions. I've wanted to stay away from that as much as I could.

That has been true for a long time. But one thing is new now. My church denomination, the ELCA, has put some language into an official document of our church that seems to intentionally dilute what Dr. Preus said in 1991 -- that there is a clear sexual ethic in the scriptures that lifts up "the rightness of sexual life within marriage and the wrongness of sexual [intercourse] outside heterosexual marriage." This puts into question many, many things about family life, the raising and education of children, and the relevance of what the Bible says about personal morals.

I'm not alone in thinking all of this is very important. And many have been saying so for years. If I have not been forthright in informing you in the past, please talk with me so I can apologize face to face.

If you are in the Dassel-Cokato area, I hope will be able to come tomorrow evening from 6:30-8:30 -- the forum will give members of our church a chance to express themselves and ask questions on issues related to the ELCA and its recent decisions.**** And please pray that we will be kind as we speak and listen. Pray that the Lord's love would be present among us and that we will be patient with each other. As patient as you have been with me.


*See What's Being Done at ELC.

**For some my association with WordAlone is a problem. Members of our local church have had less than pleasant experiences with some folks associated with WordAlone. At times, people who are upset with the long term direction of the ELCA have not been the kindest folk you'd ever want to meet. In Crabby Christians I alluded to that.

***See toward the end of yesterday's post.

****Read Beyond Cokato ELC for more about why denominational decisions are important for our local church.


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