(Photo credit: Institute on Religion and Democracy)
By Robert Benne
My wife and I marched—or perhaps more accurately, shuffled—in the March for Life in Washington on January 25. I would normally avoid such a march with its massive crowds and congested transportation, but I was invited to be a speaker at the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod Life Ministries Conference that followed the march on January 26. Since we were in Washington and I was speaking on a topic directly relevant to it, why not participate in the march?
We were exhilarated by the experience of joining roughly 500,000 people in a rally on the Mall and a march to the Supreme Court that promoted pro-life legislative initiatives. The rally included speeches by politicians and pro-life leaders, including a tweet from Pope Benedict XVI. The leaders of the movement emphasized youth involvement, and it looked like at least half the marchers were under 25. The massiveness of the crowd meant that the parade was slow. When the shuffling got tiresome amid the twenty-degree, windy and snowy weather, we broke ranks and walked along the side of the march and were able to assess its immensity and variety. What a sight!
Most obvious was the heavy Roman Catholic participation, both among the speakers and the marchers. Hundreds of banners of Catholic parishes as well as of Catholic organizations of exotic nomenclature were evident.No doubt thousands of evangelicals were there, but it was hard to identify them, perhaps because organizations beyond the local congregation are not so numerous among them. And their ecclesiology makes it difficult to bring off a coordinated effort.
The Missouri Synod had gathered several hundred with whom we marched. Lutherans for Life—an umbrella organization—provided an additional banner under which another couple hundred marched. However, a stunning realization came to me: I saw not one mainline Protestant banner or organized group. Of course, I could have missed them amid the immensity of the march, but it is safe to say they were not there in any significant mass. That was true for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which more and more resembles mainline liberal Protestantism.
The absence of any trace of the ELCA was no surprise to me. Though it had issued a moderately pro-life social statement in 1991, it has never acted on its statement. It had never produced pro-life literature, joined any pro-life organizations, encouraged local congregations to observe the annual pro-life Sunday (this past year on January 20, right before the march) , promoted participation in state or national marches, nor advocated for pro-life policies in any of its state or national advocacy offices. As far as the ELCA is concerned, there is dead silence on the matter. With that posture in place it is not hard to understand why so few from the ELCA participated in the march.
Moreover, its health insurance coverage allowed abortion to be covered without any conditions attached, a fact that brought forth some protest among pro-life ELCA pastors and laypersons and added to the general discontent with the ELCA.
Though bashful about pro-life issues, the ELCA speaks copiously on a host of issues, about which Christians of good will and intelligence generally disagree. Its pattern of support corresponds with the policies of the Democratic Party, but departs even from that liberal pattern on issues regarding Israel. It has a program called Peace Not Walls that outrageously lectures the Israelis on how they should defend themselves from suicide bombers. (Lutherans of all people should be quiet about these matters given their ambiguous history with the Jews.) Further, the ELCA’s Presiding Bishop Hanson joined other liberal Protestants in asking Congress to scrutinize Israel military practices and consider withholding military aid from them.
The Missouri Synod could not be more different. First, it rarely ventures into the public sphere as a church. Second, it wisely limits its public witness to two crucial issues: religious freedom and nascent life. Its most consistent public concern over the years has been the need to guard religious freedom. After all, its pioneers came to this country to escape the coerced union of Reformed and Lutheran congregations in Germany. Further, its schools were threatened by a Nativist movement—including the KKK—that attempted to shut down private schools. Only recently it has won (by a unanimous decision) a case before the Supreme Court (Hosanna vs. Tabor) that preserved the right to continue to hire and fire its parochial school teachers on the basis of its own religious convictions without interference from the government. Its President has also testified against the coercive provisions of Obamacare being applied to church-related social service organizations. This concern for the free exercise of religion also distinguishes it sharply from the ELCA, which has said nothing about these religious freedom issues either domestically or internationally.
Before it became more vigorously involved on pro-life issues, it spawned Lutherans for Life through the work of one of its committed laywomen, Jean Garton, who wrote the influential book, Who Broke the Baby? In 1984 it produced a strong pro-life social statement entitled: Abortion in Perspective, which ends with many practical suggestions to further the pro-life agenda in parishes and schools.
Encouraged by its central office, a large portion of its congregations observe Sanctity of Life Sunday, this year on January 20. It has organized an auxiliary called Life Ministries, which planned the conference at which I spoke and disseminates pro-life materials among Missouri Synod congregations. It brought top leadership—including President Matthew Harrison—to the conference and helped everyone who attended participate in the March for Life. Several hundred participated in the march and the conference.
There is little doubt where the LCMS stands on these issues. At the conference President Harrison announced plans to establish the church’s own advocacy office in Washington, an advocacy office with a difference. The office would first offer pastoral care to the church’s Washington politicians and staff. It would also provide information to them about the church’s thinking on the two matters discussed above: religious freedom and the protection of nascent life. When offered the chance it would advocate directly for the church’s stance on those two issues.
What to make of this wide divergence between two churches who ostensibly proceed from the same basic interpretation of the Christian faith, the Lutheran Confessions? Both churches claim to be confessional Lutherans. Could it be that the differences can be accounted for by their starkly different political cultures, which then bend their theological-ethical stance according to their underlying cultures? Such an explanation would no doubt be partly true. The leadership and clergy of the ELCA are liberal theologically and politically while their counterparts in the LCMS are conservative.
But it cannot account for everything. After all, the ELCA developed a fairly strong pro-life social statement. But it has never acted on it. Indeed, it is difficult to find it on the church’s website. My hunch is that the “representational principles” adopted by the church at its very foundation doomed any prophetic action on this matter, as well guaranteed that traditional Christian teaching on sexuality issues would sooner or later be vitiated. The foundation of the ELCA was powerfully conditioned by liberationist themes of the sixties flowing through a set of radicals who were part of the committee selected to set in motion the new church. Fueled by suspicion of all inherited teachings, they quickly installed quotas so that “new voices” could challenge past teachings, as they were articulated and no doubt distorted by white, heterosexual males. So women pastors—especially activist women pastors—were represented way out of proportion to their real numbers of the clergy. Half of all clergy representation on all the committees, boards, staff positions, etc., had to be women.
This of course interjected a strong feminist presence in the church, one that has perhaps made more difference in the life of the ELCA than any other factor in the new church. Aggressive feminism has changed theology and church practice. It has changed the language of the Bible and worship. It was instrumental in striking down the prohibitions against the blessing of gay unions and the ordination of partnered gays. It has helped to bend the ELCA toward liberal Protestantism. And it has vetoed any actions, programs, or efforts to implement a pro-life agenda in the ELCA. This accounts for the silence of ELCA.
What about the LCMS? The traditionalists who prevailed in the great divisions of the late 60s and early 70s in the LCMS, chronicled dramatically by James Burkee in his Power, Politics, and the Missouri Synod, purged the LCMS of theological and political liberals. The purging was done on the basis of the “doctrinal position” of official Missouri, elaborated in The Brief Statement of 1932 and the Statement on Scriptural and Confessional Principles of 1973. These statements affirm a literalist interpretation of the Bible (complete with seven-day creation), strict and narrow doctrinal requirements, and the prohibition of “unionism” with any church that does not concur with them. They deny Eucharistic fellowship to any who do conform to these narrow limits. My wife and I were refused communion at the very conference at which I was invited to speak.
These doctrinal statements unfortunately can be used even now to intimidate anyone who might strain them by creative theological reflection. So they insure that officials and leaders of the LCMS follow Scripture literally on issues concerning the protection of nascent life as well as those concerning sexuality in general. And Missouri’s history dictates its ongoing concern for religious freedom.
So we have an ELCA moving rapidly toward liberal Protestantism with its revisionism on all matters having to do with sexual ethics, including those relating to abortion. The only doctrinal pressure in the church is put on those who adamantly and publicly defend traditional teachings on these matters. A church devoted to inclusivity excludes those who hold to positions it held only a decade ago. On the other hand, we have a church on the right side of these issues but which is gravely injured by a sectarian strand in its guiding documents, prompting it to exclude those who cannot abide by the narrow dictates of that strand.
Enter the third church in the tale of three Lutheran bodies. The new North American Lutheran Church, whose Bishop and ecumenical officer were introduced at the Life Ministries Conference, is a church that hopes to avoid the revisionism of the ELCA—with its attendant biased witness in the public sphere—as well as the narrowness of the Missouri Synod in doctrinal matters. The NALC organized soon after the 2009 decisions of the ELCA to jettison traditional Christian sexual ethics. It is trying to be a centrist Lutheran church, perhaps the last hope for such a church in North America. Though it is building cordial relationships with the LCMS, there will be distinct limits as to how far they can proceed. But in the realm of public witness by the church and its laity and associations, the LCMS has it right. The NALC might well emulate its commitment to form its laity and witness publicly on two issues: the protection of nascent life and the exercise of religious freedom. Those are two issues that ought to occupy any serious Christian church.
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