Saturday, August 15, 2009

Whither the ELCA (Sunday Reflections for August 16, 2009)

(This is a follow-up to last Monday’s “Circular firing squad” post.)

As Carl Braaten’s letter indicates, the opposition to the sexuality task force proposals is about more than homosexuality. The signers of the CORE letter see this as but one more step in the ELCA’s march away from its Lutheran heritage. As Braaten says to Bishop Chilstrom: “All of your criticisms of the CORE Letter are at the same time objections to doctrinal positions I have taught as a Lutheran theologian for over half a century.” I don’t know that that is actually true but it indicates how Braaten perceives the issue.

The key concern of Braaten and the CORE letter is that the task force recommendations are a departure from church tradition. Chilstrom’s response is that, especially in the modern era, the church has changed course on a number of issues. For example, the decision to allow women clergy was made, Chilstrom says, because the church realized that such issues could not be

decided exclusively on the basis of a few biblical texts or our long-standing tradition. . . . We believed there were deeper streams in the Holy Scriptures that we needed to listen to.

Similarly, decisions were made to endorse democracy over the previously assumed “divine right of kings,” to oppose slavery though it is clearly presumed in the Bible (and where Paul tells a runaway slave to return to his master), to reject all notions of a God-ordained authority of men over women, to accept the Copernican solar system though the Bible obviously assumes the sun orbits the earth, and so on.

Some of these decisions were made because the church listened, as Chilstrom puts it, to a “deeper stream” in the Bible. Others were made because the church decided the Bible was simply wrong about an issue not essential to the gospel. Often, as with the church’s changing view of homosexuality, it was some combination of both factors.

In a world and a time of rapid and unsettling change, it is understandable to want to hang on to an anchor of past tradition, as Braaten and CORE urge the church to do. Yet the ancient image of the church as a ship reminds us that its purpose is not to ride at anchor but to set sail and move, sometimes on stormy seas. Indeed, as any sailor knows, the worst place for a ship to be in a major storm is in port. It’s much better to ride it out in open water.

This controversy has once again highlighted an ancient divide in the church. Some view it as a refuge in a “fallen” world that is slowly but surely headed to judgment and destruction. Others view the church as a source of grace in a world where the future is open and where God’s loving, creating activity continues.

Over the centuries there have been many periods of fear and pessimism. Often some part of the church has joined in, predicting God’s final judgment was just around the corner. Two thousand years after Jesus, the world—much changed—is still here. And, for the vast majority of people, it is much improved. If the church is to have any hope of regaining relevancy in contemporary culture, it would seem the wiser path is to assume the world has a real future and that God’s Spirit is yet at work changing attitudes, removing barriers, giving hope, and setting people free—in other words, continuing the life and work of Jesus.


Anonymous said...

Thanks Doug, for your continued thoughtful posts. I love the metaphor about ships at anchor vs sailing at sea. It's right on.

I'll head into Minneapolis tomorrow morning to get registered as an assembly guest and as volunteer for Goodsoil doing "graceful engagement" in the hallways. I'm excited and optimistic.

Doug said...

Thanks Obie for your comment and for your willingness to work for a positive outcome at the CWA. Let's hope for the best.