Orthodox Christian moral and theological teaching is still present among America’s Lutherans, contrary to possible impressions from my previous largely gloomy reporting on the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and its 2013 Churchwide Assembly (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). Yet I discovered a remnant of committed Christians at the assembly in Pittsburgh’s David L. Lawrence Convention Center concerned about preaching Christ “in season and out of season” (2 Timothy 4:2) amidst an increasingly fractured church and secularized culture.
My conversation partners on August 14, 2013, had their assembly displays in a room hosted by Lutheran CORE, a cross-denominational Lutheran group for “evangelical renewal.” Given the culture war divisions that have also not spared the ELCA in recent years, much of my conversation with Lutheran CORE’s director, Pastor W. Stephens Shipman, Jr. concerned human sexuality. Shipman, in particular, had the “most horrible feeling” after ELCA’s 2009 decisions to allow congregational autonomy concerning same-sex unions and clergy in such unions. “For the first time I was embarrassed to be a pastor,” he said.
Shipman in particular stated that ELCA’s homosexuality-affirming decisions had “very much alienated and devastated” American minority communities. The May 31, 2013, election of Guy Erwin as ELCA’s first openly gay bishop appeared to some as “highly offensive” given an “in your face” treatment. A press conference followed the day after the election and Erwin later attended a gay pride event at the White House.
Shipman discussed the homosexual movement within the sexual revolution’s view that “sex is just recreation.” This belief is “so radically different from the Biblical viewpoint” of “one flesh union” between man and woman, the “closest we come to expressing the reality of God.” Shipman described Genesis’ understanding of humanity as having an “absolute necessity” of male and female reflecting the fact that “God is a community.” In the human community men and women had complementary roles, with Shipman citing theologian Robert Gagnon’s understanding of the original Hebraic description of woman in Genesis 2:18 as a corrective “helper over against” the man. “What we are really undermining,” concluded Shipman concerning the sexual revolution, “is our basic humanity.”
Shipman complained that modern society had “sexualized everything” such that “in the process we have lost the meaning of sex” and made “friendship almost impossible.” Shipman discussed how today many might interpret a train trip by him with a fellow male train aficionado in a romantic manner. Lutherans for Life (LL) executive director Dr. James I. Lamb compared Shipman’s example with various attempts to present the deep friendship between David and Jonathan in the Old Testament as homosexual in nature. “We have exchanged the benefit of friends for friends with benefits,” Shipman concluded. “What we have lost is so much more important than what we have gained.”
Abortion was another serious concern for the pro-life leader Lamb and Shipman. Shipman actually expressed more respect for Old Testament child sacrifice than modern abortion, as those “sacrificing to Moloch were sacrificing to something more than personal convenience.” Shipman cited reading a newspaper article about a high school girl who had an abortion because she did not want to hamper her volleyball playing. Such personal identification with individual gratification and sexual behavior obscured that “my identity is that I am a child of God.” “It is so sad when someone is willing to reduce themselves to a bunch of hormones,” said Shipman. Christianity, Lamb agreed, teaches that “your value comes from what God has done for you.”
Lamb sometimes encountered criticism that his “life-affirming” pro-life work was merely “political.” This criticism betrayed the erroneous view that “issues of life and death have nothing to with the Gospel.” Yet pro-life work offered Lamb “opportunities to proclaim Christ” to hurting people.
Speaking of politics, Shipman saw a “real issue with the ELCA” in that “worldly political agendas” had replaced a “lost confidence in the power of the Gospel to transform people.” Referencing Lutheran teaching on the “two-fold rule of God,” Shipman criticized the ELCA for having “focused on the lefthand kingdom” of the secular world “to the exclusion of the righthand kingdom” of Gospel preaching. ELCA’s slogan of “God’s work, our hands” reflected this good works emphasis. Yet the latter kingdom was actually the more important of the two and “God’s proper work”
ELCA pastor Jeremiah Sassaman “absolutely” concurred with Shipman that the ELCA labels a “leftwing social Gospel” God’s message. Sassaman, meanwhile, has “seen the ELCA do absolutely zilch” on taking guidance from the Bible as opposed to popular culture. While the ELCA veers left, Sassaman is “getting more and more conservative every day.” Yet Sassaman warns that “we can absolutely create the same danger when we go too far to the right of God.”
These political differences became manifest, for example, when Sassaman walked out on one discussion by ELCA secretary David Swartling on President Barack Obama and progressive politics. “Bringing racism into every debate” also bothered Sassaman, such as when prison population disparities appear without further explanation to claim bias. Sassaman concedes, though, that with his belief in universal human equality in his homogenous Pennsylvania Dutch upbringing he “never understood racism.” Sassaman also believed that church authorities should reject the “excuse ‘I am poor, therefore I am not guilty of the crime.’”
“I admire the passion and fervor in the ELCA” to create social statement papers, Sassaman said, yet often “when I hear social statement, I shut down.” In developing countries such as in Africa, moreover, there was a “hungering and thirsting for the Gospel of Jesus Christ” but not much interest in, say, discussions over genetically-modified food. Sassaman did “not believe that the role of the church is to create social statements,” with politics best left to individual Christians, but rather “to equip the saints.” “Imagine if the focus were on increasing Biblical literacy,” Sassaman asked, “how much more powerful” would be any political witness.
William A. Oehlschlager III, outreach director for Lutheran Lay Renewal of America but actually an Anglican by background, lamented that “people have not been trained” to “share the Gospel,” a basic Christian obligation. Other Christians had actually come to believe in “all roads lead to God” universalism. Describing his ministry “to transform one life and one congregation at a time,” Oehlschlager confidently predicted that “if every Christian is filled with the Holy Spirit and committed to following Jesus as Lord and Savior…all of the divisive issues will eventually go away.”
Oehlschlager, however, stated that “conversion is a lifelong process” involving true personal “transformation” and not the “half-truth” in the “theology of affirmation” prevalent in many mainline churches. This “transformation always involves repentance.” “If sin is not called sin and not seen as sin,” Lamb qualified, “then there can be no repentance.” Sassaman as well noted that many like to quote Martin Luther saying “sin boldly.” This quotation in the original, though, has “no period,” but goes on to call for repentance.
Although “everybody thinks I am not,” Shipman has remained an ELCA pastor. “I like to get that out,” he said. Shipman’s stands for life and marriage do not make him popular among liberals in the ELCA and elsewhere. These people often think that “what they are saying is so obvious that it is beyond argument.” Accordingly they see Shipman as an “evil person” whose views are “illegitimate.” In response, Shipman does not “personalize” matters and remembers that an opponent “is someone for whom Jesus died” while Shipman is a “terrible sinner who deserves to burn in Hell forever.” “You must be happy for and love people regardless of your disagreements with them,” Sassaman, a recovering, repenting alcoholic, likewise said of a same-sex couple in his church.
For Shipman the “biggest spiritual war is the one that goes in my heart” is whether it is best to remain fighting in the ELCA for orthodox positions. Either leaving, something the ELCA has condemned as “schismatic” according to Shipman, or staying in the ELCA “can be faithful decisions.” Lutheran CORE “will honor both,” observed Shipman, and tries “to continue the relationships that preexist” ELCA breaks among Lutheran individuals and congregations. He himself is still at least free “to proclaim the word of God” from the pulpit.
To arguments that he is in a lost battle in the ELCA, Shipman responds that his situation is “about as hopeless” as Jesus’ crucified. One particularly despairing example noted by Shipman is Ebenezer Lutheran Church in San Francisco, where pagan practices such as Asherah worship have appeared without any ELCA disciplinary response. Lamb calls this “telling.”
Lutheran CORE member Sassaman also has a “struggle…almost daily” over leaving the ELCA. “I consider myself to be very orthodox,” Sassaman declared, and is “proud” of traditionalists in both the ELCA and the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), formed with Lutheran CORE assistance as breakaway from the ELCA after its 2009 homosexuality decisions. Yet Sassaman does “not always consider splitting to be the answer” and believes that “sometimes division is more destructive than dialogue.” Of the ELCA, Sassaman said “I love the church and I don’t want to see the church split any further.” “We all need to come together.”
“Kind of proud” to be a conservative “rebel” in the ELCA, Sassaman expressed the hope of disagreements in the ELCA not hindering a denominational “one accord with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” “Authority of Scripture” was highly significant for Sassaman. “Depending on where you stand on that” determined many other issues.
Such invocation of Holy Writ raised the question of women’s ordination, something that divides the ELCA from Lamb’s more conservative Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS). Sassaman recognized that the Bible text is “usually the good old kicker” on this question, but Sassaman does “not have a good answer” on this “tough” issue, although he has simply grown up in an era of female clergy. As of yet he has “not delved deeply” into the question and has “just been in the last five years rediscovering who I am.” “I do not see clearly in the mirror yet,” he confessed, and will probably not do so entirely until meeting God.
Lamb for his part emphasized as well that “so much of the erosion that happens” comes “when you discard the word of God” as not being “inerrant.” Lamb even “received negative criticism” from pro-life pastors when he “used the word inerrant once in an article.” Talking with female ELCA pastors in particular revealed to Lamb a “feminist movement that has infiltrated the church.” This movement’s understanding of women’s rights denied the “equality we have in Christ” even as “everyone has a vocation” with “no difference in service to God.”
In contrast to women’s ordination, Sassaman viewed human sexuality as “more of a behavior.” Sassaman had “strong convictions” against the 2009 ELCA decisions, although he has known “amazing pastors” with same-sex attractions yet abstinent. God defined marriage as an “order of creation” as a heterosexual institution. The 2009 policy, meanwhile, “divided the church” and is “like the United Nations, it has no teeth,” given the decisions acceptance of congregational autonomy. Similar to Shipman, Sassaman found that opponents “actually get rude” and “talk in circles around me.”
Provided Sassaman could retain his dissent, he could remain in the ELCA. In particular, Sassaman recounted that recently elected ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton “brought tears to my eyes” when she spoke of dissenters having a “voice too” amidst disputes. “That is hope,” expressed Sassaman. If, though, the ELCA adopts a “‘you must do this, you must do that’…mentality,” then “my future is uncertain.”
Facing all of my interlocutors was the problem of evangelizing in the face of growing secularization. While the ELCA has suffered significant membership loss, Lamb noted that the LCMS had struggled as well. Sassaman saw growth in certain congregations, but also worried that some denominations had grown through “offering cheap grace.”
Despite a “good message,” Lamb felt that Christians are “not doing a good job of communicating…to young people” and “making this message relevant.” A young individual recently hired by LL brought this point home to Lamb. The new employee determined that a 4½ minute video was too long for some college students.
Such are the often familiar stories today of American Christians facing doctrinal schism within their denominations and growing secular skepticism in the larger society without. Irrespective of difficulties and decisions, they have no choice in a time (2 Timothy 4) “when people will not put up with sound doctrine” but to emulate the apostle Paul: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”