Nadia Bolz-Weber

September 21, 2016

The Appealing Paradox of Nadia Bolz-Weber

Editor’s note: This post was originally published on Patheos Evangelical’s “Faith & Chelsen: Tackling the Tough Topics in Church & Culture” blog. It is reposted here with permission.

As a compelling speaker and New York Times best-selling author, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber is a force within progressive Christian circles. Ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), she has been profiled by The Washington Post, CNN, NPR and, most recently, an enjoyable Religion and Ethics Newsweekly segment for PBS. The tattooed, foul-mouthed Lutheran “Pastrix” has accelerated her popularity with the publication of her second book Accidental Saints and continues with a 2016 European book tour. Quite the popularity for an ELCA pastor.

If you didn’t know any better, you might suspect the media attention is because Bolz-Weber pastors a hip evangelical mega-church on the outskirts of Portland or Seattle. But, no. Bolz-Weber is the founding pastor of Denver’s ELCA House for All Sinners and Saints, with an average Sunday attendance of 190. So what exactly makes Bolz-Weber’s preaching so alluring to mainstream culture?

Well, some media attention might be attributed to Bolz-Weber’s public relations savvy. She is a fervent Twitter enthusiast, hardly missing a day to tweet about playing Pokémon Go with her two kids or boasting of baptizing adorable babies. But as much as her insightful, sarcastic musings on God make me want to be her best friend, I can’t overlook the tweets affirming problematic moral theology. (For example, Bolz-Weber has tweeted endorsements for Planned Parenthood on more than one occasion.)

Sure it could be partly social media savvy. But I think the Washington Post’s Michelle Boorstein touched on the root of Bolz-Weber’s allure by attributing her popularity to edgy packaging mixed with a strong message that leaves both the religious left and religious right uncomfortable. Boorstein writes, “She’s a tatted-up, foul-mouthed champion to people sick of being belittled as not Christian enough for the right or too Jesus-y for the left.”

Bolz-Weber is simultaneously fascinating and puzzling to Christians of various stripes. Religious progressives and some conservatives want to claim her as their own, though neither side can quite figure her out.

Bolz-Weber’s “former fundamentalist” upbringing in the Church of Christ in notoriously evangelical Colorado Springs appeals to liberal Christians. When it comes to social policy she is no card-carrying conservative. Nor does she hold back from broad-brush chiding conservative Christians for marginalizing the vulnerable. “The thing that’s so puzzling to me about conservative Christianity in America. Is that what I read from Jesus are things like that, ‘the first shall be last, the last shall be first,’” she told PBS. “Look who he hung out with. He befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes and he kissed lepers.”

Even so, Bolz-Weber doesn’t toe all the liberal Christian theological lines either. “I’m actually a very orthodox Lutheran theologian,” said Bolz-Weber in the Religion and Ethics Newsweekly segment for PBS. In her sermons (published on here on her Patheos blog), she acknowledges humanity’s innate brokenness and need for confession, the Gospel, and affirmation of the Divinity of Jesus Christ, and the very present evil force (not Republicans) at work in this world. Bolz-Weber actually discusses sin. How often do you hear these types of message in a Mainline Protestant church?

Never will I forget one of my first assignments for the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). I was sent to report on a seminar featuring Bolz-Weber at Washington, D.C.’s Calvary Baptist Church. The topic was the “decline of institutional churches.” I was surprised Bolz-Weber started off by discussing pitfalls of liberal Christianity. “If a community has a more ‘progressive’ ethos and is open and affirming, then they start to sort of soften the edges,” said Bolz-Weber. “We should get t-shirts that say ‘don’t turn down the Jesus.’” After raffling off a ham and tattoo gift-certificate for charity, the “punk” Pastrix told the largely liberal audience to beware of deemphasizing “the proclamation of the Gospel.”

I’ll admit that I was still learning during that first year at the IRD and made a few hasty presumptions about Bolz-Weber’s theology in my report. Compared to several other seriously-problematic liberal leaders within Mainline Protestantism that I’ve become acquainted with, Nadia Bolz-Weber isn’t so bad. If she and I sat down for coffee, we would probably agree as much, if not more, as we’d disagree (though I would buy her a muffin as I insist she have a change of heart when it comes to the marginalizing of the unborn and Planned Parenthood support).

Over and over again Bolz-Weber insists she doesn’t possess a clever strategy to reinvent Christianity. Her goal is to simply reveal the “rough edges” of herself that ultimately reveal the necessity of Jesus Christ. “I do admit some fairly ineloquent things about myself in my preaching and in my books, but for me there’s a purpose in it. It’s to create a space around me that other people can step into to maybe safely consider that thing for themselves.” I believe her.

Bolz-Weber’s message is provoking because it is convicting—one which both conservatives and progressives need to hear. But being human, she isn’t perfect. Just like each one of us sinners and saints.

8 Responses to The Appealing Paradox of Nadia Bolz-Weber

  1. Gregg says:

    There are things about Nadia Bolz-Weber I admire, but I think she does the Gospel message a disservice by her appearance and her foul mouth. It automatically puts up walls where there needn’t be any. It’s no different, to me, than if she was known to be a drunkard or a drug taker or living a promiscuous lifestyle. Such reputations would tarnish the message.

  2. What It Is says:

    The familiar EX-evangelical phenomenon. Funny, the secular media love this type (e.g., Rachel Evans), but there’s no record of any secular turning to Christianity because of these faux-Christians. I think the secular left likes them because it’s amusing to see “Christians” working to destroy the faith from the inside. “Useful idiots.”

    Glad you mentioned the size of her church. There are no megachurches on the left.

  3. Dan Skogen says:

    I would recommend looking more intently into Nadia’s theology. Just because she claims to be a “orthodox Lutheran theologian” does not mean she is. Nadia is a “Christo-centric universalist,” does not view homosexual sex as sin, has a drag queen perform at church functions, presided over an transgener renaming ceremony, views the Wiccan goddess as an aspect of God, views some of Scripture as just the writer’s opinion and called some of Paul’s writings “wretched,” doesn’t believe every line of the Apostles creed, doesn’t believe in substitutionary atonement.” I could go on.

  4. Carl I says:

    “The church, like most institutions of our society, is scared, and is anxious to ingratiate itself with
    people rather than to tell them the truth.”
    Malcolm Muggeridge

  5. M Didaskalos says:

    An “orthodox Lutheran theologian” is probably the farthest-from-the-truth phrase one could use to describe Nadia Bolz-Weber (and her ELCA, for that matter). Bolz-Weber and the ELCA diverge from the Bible and Martin Luther (an actual orthodox Lutheran theologian) in countless ways.

    Luther, for example, condemned the Bible-proscribed sins of homosexual sex and abortion, on both of which Bolz-Weber and the ELCA put their imprimatur. The ELCA even pays for abortions for any reason whatsoever up to 20 weeks in its self-funded employee health plan.

    On a theological issue of critical importance to our salvation, namely Jesus Christ’s substitutionary atonement for our sins, hear what Martin Luther and Bolz-Weber have to say:

    1. Martin Luther
    “But now, if God’s wrath is to be taken away from me and I am to obtain grace and forgiveness, some one must merit this; for God cannot be a friend of sin nor gracious to it, nor can he remit the punishment and wrath, unless payment and satisfaction be made.

    “Now, no one, not even an angel of heaven, could make restitution for the infinite and irreparable injury and appease the eternal wrath of God which we had merited by our sins; except that eternal person, the Son of God himself, and he could do it only by taking our place, assuming our sins, and answering for them as though he himself were guilty of them.

    “This our dear Lord and only Saviour and Mediator before God, Jesus Christ, did for us by his blood and death, in which he became a sacrifice for us; and with his purity, innocence, and righteousness, which was divine and eternal, he outweighed all sin and wrath he was compelled to bear on our account; yea, he entirely engulfed and swallowed it up, and his merit is so great that God is now satisfied and says, ‘If he wills thereby to save, then there will be a salvation.'” (Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 2, p. 344)

    2. Nadia Bolz-Weber (sermon on Christ the King Sunday)
    “And just to be clear: The cross is not about God as divine child abuser sadly sending his little boy off to be killed because we were bad and well, somebody had to pay.”

  6. Puddleglumm says:

    I personally don’t trust anyone in the ELCA but I would agree with both Dan and Gregg below as well.

  7. DJC says:

    Many of the comments above are spoken with the same attitude as this. . .

    “And it happened that He was reclining at the table in his house, and many tax collectors and sinners were dining with Jesus and His disciples; for there were many of them, and they were following Him. When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that He was eating with the sinners and tax collectors, they said to His disciples, “Why is He eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners?”

    As the Preacher said in Ecclesiastes, “There is nothing new under the sun…”

  8. St. Reformed says:

    “He [Jesus] befriended tax-collectors and prostitutes and he kissed lepers.”
    Sure, Nadia. But He also healed those folks of whatever afflicted them. He did not endorse their sins or illnesses.
    Jesus in fact magnified the Ten Commandments to the point that ALL of us are guilty of adultery (in lust) and murder (in hatred). Might that also include the suicide of the ELCA?

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