An otherwise predictable Churchwide Assembly for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) took a surprising turn as a newly-adopted inter-faith policy statement asserts there are “limits of our knowing” the way to God the Father. One bold voting member challenged the seemingly Universalist language within the text and called on his fellow Lutherans to “repudiate and repent of any false teachings” from the assembly floor.
“A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment: A policy statement of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America” was introduced during a committee hearing on Tuesday and presented to the assembly on Thursday afternoon.
As a large group of ecumenical and inter-religious guests stood on the assembly stage, Chair of the ad hoc inter-religious task force committee, Bishop Patricia J. Lull of the Saint Paul Area Synod, presented a hearing report to the assembly. She acknowledged a proposed recommendation called a section of the policy statement “inconsistent with Scripture.”
The amendment was submitted by voting member Zachary Johnson of the ELCA’s Northwestern Minnesota Synod. Johnson proposed lines 630-655, titled “Limits on our knowing,” from the policy statement be struck from the declaration. Those lines read:
The Lutheran tradition offers other reasons for caution about our claims to know. Luther said that no human could know another person’s relationship with God. What that person says or does gives us clues, but, ultimately, we cannot see into someone else’s heart (Luther, Bondage of the Will). Similarly, Luther insisted that we cannot know the inner workings of God. God has revealed God’s attitude toward us, overall purpose, and character, but the inner workings of God remain hidden. Hence, we must be careful about claiming to know God’s judgments regarding another religion or the individual human beings who practice it.
There is another reason for caution. As mentioned above, the Lutheran tradition has understood the word “faith” to mean trust rather than affirming beliefs. Hence, we also must be careful not to judge our neighbors only on the basis of their religious beliefs, as they may or may not tell us much about how our neighbors relate to God. There is no substitute for exploring together what matters most to others and to us. The full story of the relationship between our neighbor and God is beyond our knowledge, and even our calling. In the context of inter-religious relations, we do not need answers to these questions in order to treat one another with love and respect, find ways to cooperate for the sake of the larger community, practice hospitality, or witness to the good news of God’s love, forgiveness, and new life in Christ. All we know, and all we need to know, is that our neighbors are made in God’s image and that we are called to love and serve them.
Johnson’s challenge recalled Jesus’ words in John chapter 14 verse 6, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
“We have a clear statement from Jesus, who is fully God and fully man,” Johnson’s proposed amendment read. “We do therefore have a basis to know God’s views on religions that do not require faith in Jesus Christ as God’s son.”
According to Lull, the concerns raised by Johnson were discussed by the ad hoc committee. The committee ultimately declined to forward the amendment to the assembly because, as Lull explained, the policy’s text “undergirds a posture of curiosity and humility” as the ELCA seeks to “learn from and engage” their inter-religious neighbors.
Undeterred, Johnson then made a motion to amend from the floor. “I am here to speak truth to power, even if it is an inconvenient truth,” Johnson said during his address of the motion. “I would urge this assembly to repudiate and repent of any false teachings.”
Pastor Jennifer Chrien (Southwest California Synod) spoke against the amendment, saying, “Frankly I am embarrassed that we are having this conversation right now in front of all of our inter-faith guests.”
She continued, “Our God is big enough for our family to include all of these interfaith siblings. Our God is big enough to admit that we do not know everything there is to know.”
Johnson’s motion to amend was overwhelmingly defeated. The policy statement was adopted with 97.48% voting in favor.
Video of Thursday evening’s plenary is available below. The controversy begins at about 1:19:20.