The following article appeared on The Layman Online website and was reposted with permission.
Dr. Robert Benne offered his audience words of wisdom and admonition. (Photo credit: Luther College/ Kraabel)
“We want to engage in politics but we don’t want them to replace or distort the Gospel mission of the Church.” This was the message that political scientist Robert Benne brought to fellow Lutherans leaving the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to form a new denomination. Benne spoke to an August 11 theological conference in Hilliard, Ohio, preceding the inaugural convocation of the North American Lutheran Church (NALC).
The Roanoke College professor gave an account of how “Lutherans turned their backs on solid Lutheran theology” and the ELCA became “a church without a theological rudder.” He sketched his vision for how the new NALC, with more than 100,000 members in more than 250 churches, might re-establish “Biblically grounded Lutheran confessional theology … as the guidance system of the Lutheran churches.” Benne gave advice for how churches and Christians might avoid the ELCA’s mistake of fusing faith and politics, while also avoiding the opposite mistake of separating one’s faith from one’s politics. Presbyterian Church (USA) members who have parallel complaints about their denomination, and who are similarly preparing to launch a “new Reformed body,” might do well to consider Benne’s words to their Lutheran counterparts.
Benne and his audience were very conscious of the event that impelled the NALC’s formation: the vote of the 2009 ELCA Churchwide Assembly to let churches bless “lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships” and to ordain persons in such relationships. He referred to that decision as “the debacle of 2009 when the church’s core teachings on a number of sexuality issues were changed without compelling Biblical or theological warrant.”
“What caused this strange turn of events in which Lutherans turned their backs on solid Lutheran teaching?” Benne asked. He traced the problem back to the ELCA’s 1989 founding as a merger of three denominations. The ELCA, he said, fell victim to a process by which “input from worldly political sources distorted the very nature of the church.” This in turn produced a “politicization of the mission [or ‘output’] of the church.”
A church losing its guidance system
In the Lutheran tradition, according to Benne, “The guidance for [church] actions would be given by a confessional interpretation of the Bible presided over by competent, faithful theologians and bishops.” But from the start the ELCA adopted measures “that helped keep confessional theology at arm’s length.” Benne recalled his early objections to “quotas as an importation from the politics of the Democratic Party.”
Under the ELCA quota system, persons were placed in church leadership to represent various interest groups. “The church wanted many voices,” Benne remembered, “and it got them in spades. The problem was, there were few authoritative voices to provide theological guidance for the new behemoth that was being created.” Bishops “were given only influence, not formal power.” Theologians had only sporadic input into ELCA decision-making.
“Instead of Biblically based confessional theology guiding the church,” Benne lamented, “the predilections of the quota-ized, ‘progressive,’ and unelected bureaucracy have guided the church…. It would finally have its way on the sexuality issues, aided and abetted by bishops and theologians who had gradually moved away from the orthodox consensus on these issues.”
Underlying these developments, Benne explained, was “the importation into the life of the church of the skepticism toward all institutions and traditions that emerged in the 60s.” There was a “hermeneutic of suspicion” that cast doubt upon traditional theology, worship and church structures. All these were dismissed as “the product of white, heterosexual, privileged, bourgeois males.”
This kind of skepticism was deadly when combined with the rise of “hyper-individualism” in America. “Just when it was becoming increasingly difficult to pass on a religious tradition to the next generation,” Benne observed, “the [mainline Christian] religious traditions themselves were throwing the acids of skepticism on their own core affirmations.”
The Lutheran scholar told of being “a token conservative” on an ELCA committee in the early 1990s that was supposed to study issues of sexuality. “[A]s the first meeting unfolded,” he recalled, “I discovered I was the only one who was willing to speak publicly for the traditional teachings.” At the end “[w]e agreed to disperse and hold honest debates back home on the sexuality issues, but when we re-assembled some months later, I was the only one who actually held a ‘Disputation on Homosexuality’ in which the tradition was honestly represented. The rest reported their sessions, which universally amounted to gays and lesbians ‘telling their stories.’ No theology allowed.”
Proposals for a ‘better way’
“There must be a better way,” Benne declared. He challenged the North American Lutheran Church leaders: “We in this room must resolve to re-establish Biblically grounded Lutheran theology – ‘critical dogmatics’ – as the guidance system of the Lutheran churches. We must drink from our own Biblical and theological wells and not let them be contaminated by the politically correct nostrums of our surrounding political culture, dominated as it is by secular elite thinking.”
Benne spoke of the NALC’s establishment of a Commission on Theology and Doctrine that will play a strong role in the new denomination’s life. This commission “should be the tuning fork that sets the proper vibrations for the whole,” he said. In complementary fashion, the NALC-allied Lutheran Coalition for Renewal will hold theological conferences like the one in Ohio to bring together confessional Lutheran theologians from the ELCA, the NALC and other Lutheran bodies in North America and worldwide. They would attempt to “speak to all orthodox Lutherans, scattered as they may be throughout many bodies.” The NALC and Lutheran CORE will also emphasize theological education and the cultivation of “younger orthodox Lutheran theologians who will replenish the store of theologians at our disposal,” according to Benne.
Benne aimed to pursue a better way in politics too. He noted that the ELCA and other mainline Protestant denominations highlighted political advocacy on their websites. They thus convey “the clear assumption that every Christian should take up the cause that is promoted.” And since those causes are invariably liberal, there is the further assumption “that Christianity leads inexorably to liberal policies.”
Church leaders practice what Benne called “fusion, in this case the unintentional or unconscious melding of central Christian moral convictions with partisan political ideology and policy.” He worried that “putting social and political issues up front and center runs the risk of replacing or displacing the central mission of the church – the bearing of the Gospel – for a mess of political pottage.”
“The ELCA has not totally succumbed to this temptation,” the Roanoke professor said, “but it certainly seems that the Presiding Bishop spends more time commenting on every social and political issue under the sun than on the central mission of the church. What’s more, the church’s position on some issues – say, saving the world from global warming and telling the Israelis how they ought not defend themselves – is firmer than its commitment to classical Christian sexual ethics or to the Great Commission.”
Benne confessed that in the late 1960s he had fell under the temptation of fusing his faith and his politics. “As an activist myself,” he said, “I was intent on getting the church off its duff and into the political battles that were emerging. Indeed, I remember arguing forcefully that the church’s mission was to join in the liberating work that God was doing in society. The world sets the agenda for the church.” He rued the fact that “I took a lot of students down that path before it became clear to me that it was the wrong path.”
Neither fusion nor separation
There is an opposite danger, according to Benne. Instead of fusing Christian faith and partisan ideology, “Many lay people separate their religious convictions and their politics, which constricts the scope of Christian responsibility and deprives the public sphere of Christian input.” This kind of abdication of responsibility plays into the hands of secularists, especially in the judiciary, “who believe that Christian-based moral values – such as those governing marriage – are irrational and bigoted and should be ruled out of order.”
Benne proposed a middle approach in which “engagement with politics by the church should be mostly indirect.” Christians, he maintained, should “recognize that on most political issues – ideological and policy questions – our core religious values have an indirect relation to political outcomes.” Thus, “when we move from core religious values – the sacrality of each individual life, for example – we traverse a number of step before we get to policy. With each step Christians of good will and intelligence may well disagree.”
Benne warned against “straight-line thinking” by either liberals or conservatives. Both groups move too quickly from proclaiming Christian teaching to endorsing legislation. Christians and churches should be “more circumspect in their political judgments,” he counseled.
The Lutheran academic also argued that “the church as an institution best engages politics indirectly through its laity and through the voluntary associations that its laity organize.” He reasoned: “If the church is really the church, it forms people deeply – their hearts, souls, and minds. These people bring their deeply formed convictions into all of life, including politics.” Benne cited Michele Bachmann as an individual, and Bread for the World as an organization, that with their varying viewpoints exemplified how convictions formed under Lutheran influence could be exercised in public life. “Give me one Christian senator for a score of church statements,” he exclaimed.
Nevertheless, Benne acknowledged that “there are times when the church as church must speak, and even act, directly.” Some policies “are so wicked the church must say a clear ‘no’ to them and resist them.” He named Nazi demands for German church obeisance, legally enforced segregation in the United States, and abortion-on-demand as examples. In addressing such moral challenges, Benne urged the church “to speak with as much moral fervor as it can muster, and not spend its moral capital on recommending specific policies.”
Benne summarized his theme: “While indeed Christians and their churches should be vigorously involved in politics, they can avoid the politicization of the church’s mission by keeping their eyes on the main thing – the proclamation of the Word of God – as Word and Sacrament – to a world that so badly needs it. If it seeks that first of all, then it can move on to the formation of Christians who can make an impact on a political world that badly needs Christian input.”