New Bishop, Old Problems: First Female Presiding Bishop Unlikely to Stem Lutheran Denomination Decline

on August 16, 2013

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) elected Elizabeth Eaton, ELCA’s bishop for the Northeastern Ohio Synod, as the denomination’s first female presiding bishop on August 14, 2013.  Despite Eaton’s professed desire to unite Lutherans divided over contentious issues such as homosexuality, however, analysis and evidence indicate that her historic election has little chance of altering the “liberal-leaning” ELCA’s ongoing woes.

Eaton paid homage to the first women ordained in the ELCA after her election during the first part of Plenary Session Five (video here) during the 2013 Churchwide Assembly in Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center.  She recounted how, as a lone female pastor amidst male clergy, she often received the comment that “you don’t seem to be strident like the other women.”  She would respond, “I don’t have to be because they were the pioneers who made it possible for me.”

Looking forwards during her convention statements before the final ballot, Eaton had worried about losing a “distinctive Lutheran voice” amidst America’s “sometimes cacophonous culture.”  In particular, a “good ecumenical partner” needed to be “absolutely clear” about its “denominational identity and heritage.”  For the ELCA, Eaton sought a “coherent and cohesive way” of church existence.

Eaton emphasized ELCA unity in light of ongoing membership loss, particularly after a half million conservative exodus following 2009 decisions on case-by-case congregational approval of homosexual unions and clergy.  “We are stronger together than we are apart,” Eaton stated.  Despite deep divides over human sexuality, Eaton wanted wide-ranging “inclusion for everyone, because we all agree on the cross.”  Recurring to these recent divisions during her acceptance speech, Eaton thanked her predecessor, Mark Hanson, for his leadership during “12 of the most tumultuous years of our history” in the ELCA.

Further analyzing ELCA membership during her acceptance speech, Eaton worried that her fellow Lutherans “do not reflect the vision and revelation of all nations and tribes and tongues streaming to the throne of the Lamb.”  “We are an overwhelming European, American church in a culture that is increasingly becoming more pluralistic.”  Yet Christianity had an important message that a “cruciform shape of service and suffering…is actually the only way to true joy.”

Eaton elaborated on many of these themes during a press conference shortly after her election (video here).  She described her election as a “huge change” and something that seemed to be “all a dream.”  Eaton credited much of her success to Hanson, with her at the press conference, because “it has been his passion and his work that makes this an inclusive church.”

Eaton described Lutherans believing in a “theology of the cross which flies in the face of the theology of glory” at times exhibited by an “almost deist culture” in America.  This culture presented a “siren song” of “name and claim it, health and wealth, you believe in Jesus, your life is going to be perfect.”  In contrast, Eaton discerned “true joy and freedom…in obedience to the Gospel and in suffering shown to us by our Lord on the cross.”

Questions kept returning to ongoing controversies concerning ELCA’s recent 2009 affirmations of homosexuality.  Discussing the ELCA breakaway congregations that formed the North American Lutheran Church (NALC) and the Lutheran Church in Mission to Christ (LCMC), Eaton described the “manner in which these denominations were formed” as “extremely painful to our church.”  Nonetheless, “in baptism we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we do claim the same Lutheran heritage.”  With a “lot of work” mutually from ELCA, NALC, and LCMC, they could “come to a place” of “open and civil dialogue.”  Speaking again of Hanson, Eaton likewise praised that “you kept us together” with “12 courageous years of leadership” during “one of the most tumultuous” periods “in our brief 25 year history.”

Withstanding disagreements was for Eaton “one of the geniuses of the Lutheran movement.”  The Lutheran Church “not only lives in paradox, but also thrives on paradox…as long as we agree on the cross of Christ.”  Defining controversies over human sexuality in Lutheran terms as “part of God’s left hand kingdom” of secular matters as opposed to the “right hand” realm of spiritual affairs, Eaton argued that Lutherans are “not defined by that one single issue.”

Conservatives could and would stay in the ELCA so long as “they believe they are being heard and there is a place for them.”  “We will stick together to have this conversation.”  “What’s important, I think,” Eaton stated in contemplating ELCA’s future, “for all of us is to be flexible.”

In response to my question about tension between Eaton’s desire to reach out to non-white groups and sexual controversies, Eaton felt that the ELCA had “weathered that very well.”  While “some communities…are conservative, politically and theologically, on that issue,” people “want a place where they hear the Gospel…where they hear that they are valued,” and “they have been made new in Jesus Christ.”  Eaton reported “strong growth” of the ELCA among African-American and other minority communities.

Eaton’s emphasis on inclusion appeared earlier in her August 25, 2009, letter written while she was Northeastern Ohio Synod bishop days after the ELCA approved its new homosexuality policies in the 2009 Churchwide Assembly.  These policies “were a shock to the system no matter” if people were “completely opposed to” or “completely in favor of” the policies.  Eaton had “strongly encourage[d]…a breathing period” with “no action to leave the ELCA.”  Eaton had emphasized that opponents of these homosexuality policies “will not be regarded as anything less than faithful, valuable partners in the gospel.”

At the Churchwide Assembly, ELCA pastor Rev. W. Stevens Shipman was “very encouraged” by Eaton’s statements “to reach out to dissenters” within ELCA.  As executive director of the evangelical Lutheran revival movement Lutheran CORE, Shipman stood ready to “offer the resources of Lutheran CORE to help” Eaton.

Like the Episcopal Church, ELCA now has its first female presiding bishop and also its first non-celibate homosexual bishop in the form of Guy Erwin, elected bishop of ELCA’s Southwest California Synod on June 1, 2013.  Indeed, the similarly declining Episcopal Church in which Eaton’s husband, Rev. Conrad Selnick, serves, has a full communion agreement with ELCA allowing for joint ministry and shared clergy.

Addressing the assembly during part one of Plenary Session Seven (video here) the day following Eaton’s election, though, Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori seemed to show little of Eaton’s conciliation or worries.  For Schori, the “inclusion of all human beings” by the Episcopal Church’s policies on homosexuality “reminded us that God is always at work.”  While “some have passed judgment on our smaller numbers as faithlessness,” Schori thought that this might “actually be the way the Spirit prunes us for greater fruitfulness.”  “If we can see ourselves standing at the foot of the cross,” Schori summarized, “judgment will be far less important than our response.”  Schori nonetheless looked forward to “further growth as we seek to serve God’s mission…particularly in new contexts and populations.”

Doubtless there are many in ELCA who, like Schori, think that embracing homosexuality and other liberal innovations are the work of the Lord, something to be pursued no matter the opposition.  Yet even Eaton’s conciliatory desires cannot overcome fundamental divisions of Biblical and moral principles.  Despite the difference in Eaton’s tone from Schori’s, substantially similar policies under both female bishops will effect the same diminishment of their denominations.

  1. Comment by Bethany Kilcrease on August 16, 2013 at 10:57 am

    FYI – Lutheran Church in Mission to Christ is abbreviated LCMC, not LCMS. LCMS is the abbreviation of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, a totally separate denomination that pre-existed the founding of the ELCA.

  2. Comment by Dr. Jack Kilcrease on August 16, 2013 at 11:04 am

    You made a small mistake. You don’t mean “LCMS” (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod), you mean “LCMC.”

  3. Comment by Rev. Miller on August 16, 2013 at 11:39 am

    One of the breakaway groups is misidentified. It’s Lutheran Congregations in Mission FOR Christ (LCMC).

  4. Comment by Ben Welliver on August 16, 2013 at 12:19 pm

    Give them ten years and the ELCA and Episcopagans will probably merge, then brag about what a large denomination they are. Give them another ten years and the new denomination will be shrunk by half. They’ll still be mouthing the word “inclusion” and still clueless about why no one wants to be included.

    I’m truly amazed that this woman would praise Bishop Hanson with “you kept us together.” Is she delusional?

  5. Comment by Didaskalos on August 16, 2013 at 1:00 pm

    Epitaph for an apostate denomination:

    According to statistics compiled by the ELCA Office of the Secretary and available on the church’s website [ ], ELCA congregations lost 483,252 members in 2010 and 2011 (the most recent year for which such figures are available**). Also in those two years, the number of ELCA congregations dropped by 710.

    **[UPDATE August 2013] Membership losses for 2012 have finally been posted and can now be found in the Secretary’s Report within the Pre-Assembly Report that is available on the ELCA website. Page 22 of that report shows the baptized membership of the ELCA at the close of 2012 to be 3,964,474 in 9,540 congregations, a loss of 95,311 members and 98 congregations for the year.

    The ELCA in 1987: 5,288,048 members and 11,133 congregations.

    The ELCA today: fewer than 4 million members and fewer than 10,000 congregations. More than 25 percent of ELCA members have bailed out.

  6. Comment by Didaskalos on August 16, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    W. Steven Shipman is ready to “offer the resources of Lutheran CORE to help” Eaton? Magnanimous, but misguided.

    Here’s what Eaton and the ELCA hierarchy will offer Shipman: exactly what they’ve been offering Bible-honoring dissenters for decades.

    Eaton’s message to Shipman is, “Steve, can’t we all get along? All you dissenters have to do — and do it for the sake of inclusivity, the consummate good — is agree to disregard the fact that the ELCA still puts its denominational blessing on a sin that the Bible says will cause the unrepentant sinner to forfeit the kingdom of God [ ]. Oh, and please also disregard our previous presiding bishop’s preaching of universalism [ ] and our self-funded health care plan’s coverage of abortion for any reason — sex selection included — up to 20 weeks, all subsidized by your offering dollars [ ]. We in the ELCA majority won’t change our abrogations of the Bible, of course; we’ll never pass any of your Bible-honoring resolutions at our national convention. In fact, we’ll vote ’em all down at the regional synod conventions. But you’re still welcome to be minority stockholders and shore up our rapidly shrinking numbers and our alarmingly flagging revenues.”

  7. Comment by Pastor David on August 16, 2013 at 2:15 pm

    If the “big bishop” reaches out to LutheranCORE as representative of many of us in the elca, she will gain some traction in her call for reconciliation. She needs to approach CORE in the same manner her predecessor approached “Lutherans Concerned” and other groups who were pushing sexually active homosexual ordination. She must insist, for example, that The Lutheran accept CORE advertisements and reports, just as they did for the homosexual lobby in the pre-Minneapolis magazine. She also must not act in a punitive way toward those congregations who have Confessional Concerns about the direction the elca is taking. I am patient, but if she does not strike some sort of middle ground, this is one pastor who is out of the denomination with his congregation.

  8. Comment by Didaskalos on August 17, 2013 at 7:29 am

    In all likelihood, Eaton and the ELCA hierarchy will take the same tack with CORE that they’ve been taking with confessional Lutherans for the last two decades.

    This is the deal the new bishop will offer CORE: “”Can’t we all get along? All you dissenters have to do — and do it for the sake of inclusivity, the consummate good — is agree to disregard the fact that the ELCA still puts its denominational blessing on a sin that the Bible says will cause the unrepentant sinner to forfeit the kingdom of God. Oh, and please also disregard our previous presiding bishop’s preaching of universalism [ ] and our self-funded health care plan’s coverage of abortion for any reason — sex selection included — up to 20 weeks, all subsidized by your offering dollars [ ]. We in the ELCA majority won’t change our abrogations of the Bible, of course; we’ll never pass any of your Bible-honoring resolutions at our national convention. In fact, we’ll vote them all down at the regional synod conventions. But you’re still welcome to be minority stockholders and shore up our rapidly shrinking numbers and our alarmingly flagging revenues.”

  9. Comment by J on August 16, 2013 at 3:10 pm

    Quote: Nonetheless, “in baptism we are brothers and sisters in Christ and we do claim the same Lutheran heritage.” With a “lot of work” mutually from ELCA, NALC, and LCMS, they could “come to a place” of “open and civil dialogue.”

    I believe you mean LCMC when you wrote LCMS. Understandable error – even us Lutherans make mistakes with the letters sometimes.

  10. Comment by Sandra Jenner on August 16, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    I wish I could offer some encouragement to conservatives within the ELCA, and I give this woman credit for trying to sound conciliatory, but she alone can’t turn this ship around on a dime, it’s going to continue tilting leftward. Years ago we were members of a very conservative United Church of Christ (yes, they did exist!) that, after a period of watchful waiting and hoping, made the break from the UCC, then afterward wished we had done it much sooner. Liberalism is like an addiction, a habit that the bureaucrats won’t break (in fact, they don’t even make the effort). People stay with trouble spouses out of love, and I know some people feel that way about denominations. But, face it, you aren’t married to a denomination and there’s no shame in leaving. (Consider the example set by Martin Luther himself). Explore the other options, such the new NALC, or try some nondenominational churches. You don’t waste your physical life, so don’t waste your spiritual life either. Commit your time and money to a church you can believe in wholeheartedly. This denomination’s time has come and gone.

  11. Comment by David Metzger on January 2, 2014 at 8:34 pm

    Sandra, what a wonderfully Christian attitude you have towards those afflicted by the addiction of Liberalism. I’m sure that Jesus is very proud of you.

  12. Comment by Tony Metze on August 17, 2013 at 4:19 am

    I too am a Lutheran Core pastor in the ELCA. And sadly, I no longer care who is elected bishop or what they say. My trust for this denomination is gone! I wish otherwise, but the double talk i.e. we are united in the gospel, when we do not agree on the gospel is more than I can take. 25 years of this stuff is enough.

  13. Comment by ChrisG on August 18, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Why not join The Lutheran Church Missouri Synod? Also check out the radio program to get some great Biblical teaching

  14. Comment by cynthia curran on August 18, 2013 at 5:12 pm

    Well, the ELCA Church I use to attended in Fountain Valley Ca, I looked up their website and now they have a Vietnamese congregation as well as the white one I remember years ago. Maybe, people here are eagerly waiting for their demise but they are some good churches in the ELCA, its the leadership that’s bad. Some people don’t like the growing evangelical mega church modern style of Christianity either, so there must be some alternatives.

  15. Comment by Tony on August 18, 2013 at 8:42 pm

    Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) (not S) is a 13-year old associstion that formed in response to the imposition of the mythical “historic episcopate”.

  16. Comment by Josh on August 19, 2013 at 3:08 am

    Just a correction to the article above–the newly formed splinter bodies, from the ELCA are the NALC and the LCMC (Lutheran Church in Mission to Christ). The article incorrectly abbreviated it the LCMS–an acronymn already belonging to the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, of which I am a member. The distinctions between the various Lutheran denominations often get lost in the news, and can be confusing to outsiders. The LCMS, founded in the 1840s, still holds to its Biblical and confessional roots, and upholds the scriptural teaching on sexuality. It is the second largest Lutheran body in America, behind the rapidly declining/fracturing ELCA. The LCMC, on the other hand, is newly minted out of congregations that have left the ELCA behind. I know very little about that body, but wanted to make the correction to the acronyms. Alphabet soup! Go figure 🙂

  17. Comment by Andrew E. Harrod on August 19, 2013 at 2:10 pm

    I just noticed this, that the LCMS acronym does not agree with the name of Lutheran Church in Mission to Christ (LCMC). Yes, I must have gotten my wires crossed thinking of all these bodies.

  18. Comment by plumber1 on August 19, 2013 at 2:18 pm

    Ms. Eaton says we Confessing Lutherans will be heard. She fails to mention that we will be ignored.

  19. Comment by Jaynan Clark on August 19, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    Read and reread the article, comments and quotes and it is all about the sexuality issue throwing in the multi-racial to make the discussion more ‘inclusive’ . It ignores the fact that the “misnamed” Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC) didn’t form on the sexuality issue but was born out of the Lutheran Confessional movement, WordAlone Network, that had the single driving issue of the authority of God’s Word over us as ‘our’ interpreter. Inspired by God, the Word is what the Word does. It educates, confronts, invades, condemns, forgives, resurrects repentant sinners through both uses of the Law and the only Gospel that is not about inclusion but rather the exclusive claim of Jesus Christ to be Lord over all, in Heaven and on Earth and under the Earth. The cross is not a place that we gather at the foot of in order to introduce another gospel, not that there is another gospel, that relegates Jesus to a secondary, supportive, cheerleading role while we take our social, cultural, political stands in His name. Christ’s cross is the place we are found on our knees, confronted with our sin that separates us from our Father. That now unpopular concept of “sin” is just lost sheep, children of God who want to do it “my way” and satisfy all my selfish desires, live “my” life and make both the church and the state put their stamp of approval on it; then demand not only acceptance and approval but blessing. “My” life not “thine”, rewarding the flesh not denying myself and taking up my cross to follow is the opposite of Jesus’ call and Gospel. Rewind and you can see the serpent in the tree and the apple in hand with a bite mark and the sound of chewing. It reveals who we listen to ie. the deceiver who tells us what we ‘want’ to hear not what faithful ears ‘need’ to hear. LCMC was designed in 2000 by a group of disciples and followers who wanted structure for good order and not bureacracy, who wanted the church to be only what is true church–where the Word is preached and the sacraments administered rightly–and all else to be rightly considered support staff to the fishers on the lakeshore. We opposed becoming in practice Episcopalians and accepting the non-Biblical practice of the historic episcopacy in order to sign full communion documents that sold our birthright as Lutherans who from the time of the Reformation had none of that baggage. We opposed the language changes that diminished the Biblical, relational understanding of God the Father and Jesus the Son throughout the scriptures, hymns and liturgies. We wouldn’t accept that the primary mission of the church globally should be reduced to secondary service and accompaniment rather than evangelism and naming the name of Jesus. We opposed a visible institutional structure that was unrepresentative of the church claiming to be “the church and the wider church” while straying from the Word and passing this rejection of the Word’s authority over all of faith and life as merely a different hermeneutic, a difference in interpretation. Those in charge over the years of the 90’s and beyond conducted themselves as anything but support staff to the churches but rather as political leaders not faithful servants and followers of the Crucified One. This article reveals that they missed the entire impact of the confessional Lutheran reform movement that grew up out of the post-merger days of the 90’s. It wasn’t about sex or Episcopalians but only the voice of those who wanted “elected leaders” to realize that as a denominational institution you can’t have “your way” with the Word and then call yourselves, Christians, Lutherans and “the church.” Frank Sinatra and Burger King as they sing on about “my way” reflect not only original sin but the mentality of the sinking, sideline denominations who now want to say their decrease is because of their faithfulness, forgetting that faithfulness is not to your convictions and selfish desires but to an external Word that kills and raises up, day by day. Faithfulness is following a Savior who forgives and saves sinners and isn’t in the business of embracing,accepting and blessing sin. The Word of God is named Jesus, the eternally “Crucified One”, who is alive and doing His Will, His Way. He is truth. He is life and even the gates of Hell cannot and will not prevail against His true and hidden church.

  20. Comment by Robert Swanson on August 19, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    In today’s news, new Captain selected to re-arrange the chairs on the Titanic.

  21. Comment by Don Moldstad on August 20, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    Let’s see… for decades they have allowed people to teach about anything they want, including the worship of the goddess Sophia. They no longer stand for anything… I wonder why people are leaving their church body?

  22. Comment by David L. Webb on August 22, 2013 at 6:24 pm

    I guess it’s all been said. I recommend a merger of ELCA, the Episcopagans, the Unitarian/Universalists, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, and the UCC. Call it the Megapagan Church in the USA, and be done with it!

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