As the disease of division continues to infect political and religious communities, Professor Robert Benne from Roanoke College encouraged Christians to seek unity in orthodox doctrine while maintaining respect for different political convictions. His teachings contextualize the aphorism, “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.”
During the Two-Day Symposium on Religious and Political Disagreement at St. Olaf College, Benne delivered an autobiographical lecture entitled “Trying to Live as Christian in a Polarized Church and Society.” Using the narrative arc of his live as a backdrop, Benne warned the Church against subordinating doctrine to the secular progressive political agenda which, in his words, “want religious-based moral values, especially religious sexual ethics, to get out of the public life.”
Benne described his deep sadness as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA) began to integrate “the polarizing trends set loose in the 60’s” (e.g. feminism, the LGBTQ movement, black power, anti-imperialism) into its DNA to the detriment of orthodox Church doctrine. The ELCA adopted a “widely disliked quota system” and came within three votes of banning the name of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from the language of worship.
Additionally, in response to the cultural aversion for anything vaguely imperialistic, the ELCA moved to suspend all new mission work and “confined itself to accompaniment.” The ELCA defines accompaniment as “walking together in a solidarity that practices interdependence and mutuality.” In Benne’s estimation, this move was no more than a rollback of the Great Commission to satisfy the ever-growing secular culture’s demands.
Before politicizing their beliefs, Benne argued Christians should maintain religious solidarity on key orthodox beliefs, namely the nature of marriage, the personhood of God, and the proliferation of the Gospel. Without unity on the orthodox front, religious communities will enter the public square as a fractured body.
Benne clearly defined the path from religious conviction to political judgment as a perilous one. Thus in Benne’s estimation, the purpose of religious unity is not political unity, but political tolerance. In the tradition of Luther’s “two kingdoms” theory, Benne posits Christians should not separate their convictions from their politics, nor should they fuse them. Separationism and fusionism in the public square can be as fatal to the Church as any wayward doctrine.
After thirty years of attending an ELCA parish and engaging in internal, formal resistance, Benne and his wife decided to part ways peaceably and join the North American Lutheran Church (NALC), which branched from the ELCA during the summer of 2010.
Even seven years later, Benne said he still endeavors to exercise patience and charity toward those who stayed, and prays for the renewal and reform of the ELCA and the NALC.
Benne, along with Miroslav Volf and other lecturers at the symposium, are strongly in favor of constructive Christian engagement in politics. The key to public engagement as an orthodox Christian is to a) always prioritize the ultimate before the penultimate, b) critically analyze our own political stances, and c) maintain respect and charity toward opposing views. Christians’ goal of public engagement should be to leaven society with the gospel of Christ, remaining firm with essentials, tolerant with non-essentials, and charitable in everything.