ELCA Goes Universalist?

on August 12, 2019

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.


  1. Comment by Didaskalos on August 12, 2019 at 5:49 am

    Syncretism has been an accepted heresy in the ELCA for years:

    The ELCA Presiding Bishop’s 2006 letter to Jews, Muslims, & Christians: ”The one God whom we worship..”

  2. Comment by William on August 12, 2019 at 7:19 am

    “inconsistent with Scripture”. At least there was an acknowledgement here — yet liberals who call themselves Christians plow ahead with their anti-Biblical agendas. What in the world motivates these people other than Satan?

  3. Comment by Greig on August 12, 2019 at 8:35 am

    So, there was no need for Israel to give up it’s idols and false gods? If, as NT Wright claims, Israel’s sin was idolatry, then there was no need for Jesus to suffer and die on the cross (at least according to those who opposed the amendment)

  4. Comment by Eternity Matters on August 12, 2019 at 8:39 am

    “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.””

    When anyone starts with the “our God / my God” bit you can be 99.9999% sure they are talking about a god made in their own image.

    The Bible teaches over 100 times that Jesus is the only way to salvation (it isn’t just John 14:6, though that would be enough). Just scan the NT. Nothing makes sense apart from that truth. Anyone denying that has no business calling himself a Christian leader or even a Christian.

  5. Comment by RickB on January 24, 2020 at 3:11 pm

    While you may know that only through Jesus “is the way, the truth, and the light” but that does not mean nor should it infer that you know everything about God or everything about the Mysteries of His will. God works through the world in mysterious ways. It is why we remember this, too…. “The Peace of God that surpasses all understanding”. We can infer from Jesus but we can not assume to absolutely know God because then the Peace of God would no longer surpass all understanding and this means you either are ALL-KNOWING as God or you are deceiving yourself in thinking you are on the same level or higher than than God in knowing. Which is it?

    We must be careful in assertion of knowing fully God’s will. The truth be there but YOU, a mere human, can not fully grasp or comprehend the will of God. No one can. Not even Martin Luther nor any of the prophets, disciples, and apostles. Nor all the theologians or Christians that follows Jesus. What is God’s will for those who have yet to understand and come to Christ? Why are people being condemned? Is it God or is it us that causes them to be condemned? Do we want to stand in the way of God’s will of salvation or do we want to be part of fulfilling God’s will of salvation? Are we causing people to run from Christ or are we causing them to run to Christ?

  6. Comment by RickB on January 24, 2020 at 3:18 pm

    Please do not assume what I am saying is to justify not proclaiming the Gospel to ALL. That’s part of the territory of the mission of the Great Commission.

  7. Comment by Eternity Matters on August 12, 2019 at 8:56 am

    “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.””

    Yeah, we’ve read the end of Job and all know that there are *some* things we can’t know. But He told us plenty in his word that we can know – but these “Christian” Leftists ignore it. He told us not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers – yet they proudly do that. He told us that sex is reserved for one man/one woman marriages, and they mock that 24×7. See previous comment about Jesus being the only way to salvation. And so on.

  8. Comment by Palamas on August 12, 2019 at 10:13 am

    “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.”

    This makes no sense. Of course we can’t judge another person’s heart, nor are we privy to the “inner workings” of the Triune God. Neither of those truths have anything to do with judging whether another religion is true or false based on the testimony of Scripture (that “Word of God” thing Lutherans used to be so fond of until it became inconvenient). The judgment of God on the religions of the world is plain throughout both Old and New Testaments, and this attempt to evade that reality is embarrassing in its incoherence.

  9. Comment by Bill on August 12, 2019 at 11:38 am

    The ELCA has gone the way of apostasy and is no longer a part of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. The lessons learned from Israel’s past and its embrace of foreign gods are completely ignored.

  10. Comment by Dan on August 12, 2019 at 6:51 pm

    Yes! Gives me pause when one of my fellow LCMS congregation members enthusiastically tells me of the wonderful ELCA church they attend when they are at their Summer home. I’m not quite sure what to say.

  11. Comment by Sue Stone on August 22, 2019 at 7:11 pm

    I might ask why they would settle for blasphemy…

  12. Comment by Jeffrey Crawford on August 12, 2019 at 11:57 am

    While I do believe that God’s grace, in regards to our salvation, extends beyond our feeble capacity to understand, we are given the words of Jesus for this very purpose. John 14:6 makes it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt: “I am the way, the truth and the life. NO ONE comes to the Father EXCEPT THROUGH ME” (emphasis mine).”
    I am not in the judgment seat of Christ, but I can take assurance that I would be, and all of us, dead in my sins for all of eternity with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. There is no doubt and no middle ground there. To say otherwise, to say that there are other paths to salvation makes Jesus out to be a lair and our faith in his promises would then be false.

  13. Comment by Rev. Dr. Lee D Cary (ret) on August 12, 2019 at 12:48 pm

    This suggestion is delivered with genuine respect for the IRD, its mission and its fine writers: Your focus appears to be primarily, though not solely, on the dying “Seven Sisters” of Protestantism. Time to spread wider.

    There is, West of the Beltway, collectively a much wider, diverse and vibrant Church that includes “conservative” (as in not progressively liberal) congregations, plus a growing independent, non-denominational congregational movement that is spreading like wildfire.

    I humbly submit that ELCA and other fading, liberal, protestant denominations are growing, by the month, less worthy of the IRD’s attention.

    As train tracks were laid across the Continent to connect the Old Colonial East to the New American West, interest in the future of the Pony Express declined.

    Best wishes,
    Retired as Conference Council Director, North Texas Conference, United Methodist Church, Doctor of Sacred Theology, Hartmann Fellow, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, Evanston, IL., 1974-1979

  14. Comment by Mark C on August 12, 2019 at 7:12 pm

    Rev. Cary,
    I agree that the fate of the 7 sisters is sealed. I also believe the sun is setting on the current UMC as I cannot imagine how the progressives and their shadows (centrists) will be convinced (or made) to just suddenly relinquish the power they’ve methodically acquired during the past century.

    I do grow weary of waiting for our orthodox Methodist leaders to untangle us, and for a fresh Wesleyan movement to begin. It would suit me for us to just walk away and start over. I’m tired of this brand of fighting. Let’s just get on with whatever will eventually need to be done. Feels like we’re wasting time.

    Maybe I’m a fool for waiting this long and putting my trust in our leaders to fix everything for me. Maybe I’m a whiny child, quick to complain while not willing to take any real action myself.

    Perhaps I should seek an alternative like the ones you point to. But I simply don’t know where to go. At least not here in my hometown.

    And maybe that’s what you meant when you suggested this site shift its focus. So that it might illuminate these new, vibrant expressions of the “old” Christian faith and offer tired Methodists like me a choice beyond this interminable waiting or the regular ol’ fundamentalism that’s always been around.

    I hope any of that made sense. I’m just really frustrated.

  15. Comment by Joan Wesley on August 13, 2019 at 12:42 pm

    I completely relate to what you are saying. Post GC2019 has proved without a shadow of a doubt that the Office of Bishop and those that run the denominational agencies and boards are their own free wheeling seats of power unaccountable to anybody or anything. What I see locally is the conference and the local church being pushed continually in a progressive direction; the local church simply does not have what it would take to resist such a push. I am clueless where to go so I keep my foot in the door by attending Sunday morning worship because there are people there I care about. But I am also living into the realization that when it comes to church and Christianity we have absolutely no common ground from which to have any sort of rational conversation about anything. So I just keep my thoughts to myself and interact with the people. There is a remnant of hope that maybe a door will open for some sort of deeper discussion.

  16. Comment by Mary V. Lazor on August 12, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    More and more I am finding myself close to leaving the ELCA. The church is no longer a sacred body which used to preach Christ as the way.

  17. Comment by Joe on August 12, 2019 at 7:15 pm

    Please remove the “Lutheran” from your church name….you bring discredit on True Lutherans

  18. Comment by Zack on August 12, 2019 at 8:49 pm

    There were actually two of us who planned to speak. The guy standing behind me had a speech prepared, but I think they had a pre planned thing to cut off debate before it got any messier. They, not I, chose to do that debate with all of those people standing on the stage. I wanted to make the point that the ELCA seems to disregard scripture in favor of their dogged pursuit of worldly values. I chose this particular item to highlight the issue, but there were countless other opportunities throughout the assembly.

  19. Comment by Dee on August 13, 2019 at 8:02 pm

    Zack, we watched live as you took on this issue. I actually stood and cheered in my living room that someone was brave enough to speak up for God’s holy word. I found myself saying yes, yes, I agree! I found it interesting that the visiting faith leaders stayed up there, standing and watching at all who voted. Although they clearly already had their minds made up, there you stood. You could do no other. Luther would be proud. Peace to you my brother in Christ.

  20. Comment by Mike on August 14, 2019 at 8:14 pm

    Thank you Zack for your courage. I wanted to send you personal note but there was no identifying info on you in nw synod list of delegates. I am at a “Lutheran university” and it is amazing how the struggle is here to do what you say. I am sad but not surprised opposition to you was 97%. I also am familiar with the old call the question strategy that was used.

  21. Comment by Tom Brock on August 27, 2019 at 9:38 pm

    BIG “thank you”, Zack, for standing for the uniqueness of Christ in the very liberal ELCA! I just taped a TV show commending what you did (it will be posted eventually at pastorsstudy.org)

    Pastor Tom Brock

  22. Comment by Paul Meitner on August 28, 2019 at 11:45 am

    Thanks, Zack, for your courage and your confession. Blessings as you continue to walk according to the Word of the Lord.

  23. Comment by Michelle on September 18, 2019 at 4:17 pm

    Thank you Zach for speaking of the Word and not of the World, as it seems the ELCA is doing more and more of these days. I am debating leaving and watched all the plenary sessions.

  24. Comment by T W Huning on August 12, 2019 at 9:24 pm

    The ELCA is not a confessional orthodox Evangelical Lutheran body. It is not truly Lutheran.

  25. Comment by Kenneth Howes on August 13, 2019 at 8:48 am

    they have bent the knee to Ba’al. It is one thing to recognize that “God judges those without.” It is another to say, “Since I cannot know the inner workings of another’s soul, I will not proclaim the Gospel to him. That is between him and God.” As we view these heretical proceedings that brush aside the handful of orthodox objectors, they will come with their usual “Judge not” quotations. But, as St. Paul wrote right before “God judges those without,” “Is it not those within the church whom ye are to judge?” Fellow Christians, aghast at the abandonment of the Gospel and the henotheism of ELCA, are duty-bound to judge this action of ELCA and other actions of the same sort and to say, “You are not only heretical; you are apostate. You are no longer Christians.”

  26. Comment by Steve on August 13, 2019 at 11:21 am

    The ELCA has taken itself outside of historic, orthodox Christianity. It has done so primarily because it evidently doesn’t understand the concept of special revelation. It has been taught among us that what we know of God is what he reveals of himself. He does this in two ways: general ways and special ways. General revelation is the knowledge he reveals of himself that can be perceived by any and all without the need of an intermediary. The two general revelations are
    (1) creation and (2) the conscience (the law written on the heart). Special revelation is revelation intended for all, but which can only be perceived through an intermediary. The two special revelations are (1) redemption and (2) the law written in stone. Moses brought us the law written on stone. The one and only intermediary of redemption is Christ: There is one intermediary of redemption, the man, Jesus Christ (…for [God’s] purpose is that all men should be saved and come to realise the truth.that there is only one God, and only one intermediary between God and men, Jesus Christ the man. He gave himself as a ransom for us all—an act of redemption which happened once, but which stands for all times as a witness to what he is,” I Timothy 2:4-6 JBP).

    It has also been taught among us that the history of Israel from Abraham until the coming of Christ foretells the coming of the intermediary and that, since that time, the church, the “New Israel,” tells of the witness of the apostles to the intermediary. As the call of Israel was to foretell of the coming of the intermediary through the promise, so the call of the church is to tell the story of his coming through the witness of the apostles.

    It is the case that even we who are entrusted with spreading the Good News do not know the extent of the the grace of God. We do not know the limits of his infinite mercy. But, we do know its source: the blood shed at Calvary. We are called to bear witness to that act of redemption.

    It appears that the ELCA has decided that bearing witness to that “once for all” sacrifice on the cross is not its mission, its joy or its burden. If the church does not stand for the unique and specially revealed sacrifice of Christ, it stands for nothing. As one saint of the last century put it, “The church exists by mission as fire exists by burning. Without mission there is really no church.”

    It may be that we do not know who will be seated at the heavenly banquet. Many surprises await the Master’s guests. But, we do know that whoever is there will be there only because of the blood of Jesus Christ. That message and the special revelation which is that message cannot be put on par with any other understanding of the divine.

    The ELCA has evidently decided there is nothing special about its message and that other messages, not necessarily grounded in creation ex nihilo, in the self awareness and responsibility that comes only from humanity’s being created in the image of God, in the Holy Spirit’s constant judging presence in the world and in the only antidote to that judgment, the consequences of which are separation and death, is the Father’s love through which he gave his only son as a sacrifice for sin and the son’s obedience to the Father’s will on account of which act of obedience at the name of Jesus “every knee shall bow”, whether in Heaven or earth or under the earth. And that is why, in the end, “every tongue shall confess” that Jesus Christ” is the Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11).

    Implicit, if not blatantly explicit, in the ELCA’s stance is that such a message cannot be true. There is nothing unique about the special revelation of God among us. As a result, it has no unique message to share with the world. It may think it has much to learn from other teachings about God. Ironically, none of those other teachings and the adherents of them will believe that they have anything, let alone anything special or unique, to learn from the ELCA.

    It will soon be indistinguishable from them formally as well as spiritually. The ELCA may be neither evangelical nor Lutheran, but as the reformer whose name they bear said, “Everyone must do his own believing, just as everyone must do his own dying.” We were called to give everyone a faith to believe in, a faith grounded in history, that accepts God’s revelation in space and time in both its general and its special aspects. The ELCA has evidently decided to forego that call.

  27. Comment by Eric LeFevre on August 13, 2019 at 12:26 pm

    Lord, keep us steadfast in your Word.
    Curb those who by deceit or sword,
    who’d wrest the kingdom from your Son
    and bring to naught all He hath Done.

    Lord Jesus Christ your pow’r make known.
    For you are Lord of lords alone.
    Defend your holy church that we
    may sing your praise eternally.

    O’ Comforter of priceless worth
    Send peace and unity to all the earth
    Support us in our final strife,
    and lead us out of death
    and into life.

    Martin Luther, written shortly before his death, bracing for the inevitable day when the imperial armies of Charles V would come barreling down on Wittenburg. Lament for the once faithful church bodies who traded their theological birthright for a bowl of post modern porridge.

  28. Comment by Lutheran Library on August 30, 2019 at 9:53 am

    Amen, brother.
    To all “Book of Concord” Lutherans out there, who know that it is an accurate explanation of Scripture, let’s pray for the day when we connect with each other and form “casual congregations” that believe the Word.
    It’s happened before. With God’s help it can happen today. None of us should have to attend a church where God is openly mocked. Let’s not partake of their sins.

  29. Comment by Loren J Golden on August 13, 2019 at 10:29 pm

    “The policy’s text ‘undergirds a posture of curiosity and humility’ as the ELCA seeks to “learn from and engage” their inter-religious neighbors.”
    This “humility” was sadly lacking in the manner in which they dismissed Johnson’s amendment out-of-hand.  Rather, the policy’s text undergirds a posture of hubristic unbelief.
    “Frankly I am embarrassed that we are having this conversation right now in front of all of our inter-faith guests.”
    “For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mk. 8.38, Lk. 9.26)
    Post Tenebras Lux.  “After darkness light.”  This was the motto of the Protestant Reformation, of which Martin Luther was the first Reformer.  If he could see what has become of the formerly mainline Protestant denomination that still bears his name today, he might well say, “Post Lux Tenebras.”

  30. Comment by Joel Smeby on August 15, 2019 at 7:33 am

    Continue on preaching Christ crucified, the weapon He has given us to contend with sin, death, the power of the devil. “Support us in our final strife, and lead us out of death to life.”

  31. Comment by Rev. Paul T. McCain on August 17, 2019 at 11:29 am

    It was a stunning moment that I watched live via the Assembly streaming video. Kudos to Zach for his bold witness and confession to the truth of God’s Word.

  32. Comment by Michael J Wagner on August 24, 2019 at 5:08 pm

    I’m not sure the leadership of the ELCA even believe in Jesus Christ, or God generally speaking. I think the book of Jude was written for believers faced with such deceivers.

  33. Comment by Dave on August 27, 2019 at 5:27 pm

    This entire episode was as if the entire ELCA churchwide assembly was being led to the top of the temple and being urged to “jump,” secure in the belief in a [bigger] God who’d go beyond Scripture’s clear teachings . . .Evidently, this God of the ELCA’s imagination takes no offense, even when His Son is thrown under the bus!

  34. Comment by Doug Hansen on August 27, 2019 at 6:41 pm

    Frankly no surprise at all. Once Inerrancy of Scripture is off the table, all bets are off and just “love conquers all”. Goes back to Seminex and to the jettisoned merger with Episcopal Church. The best construction I can put on it is if your going there unless your going to some church and “contending with God”. But, sadly that is even less true now. Conforming to The World at an alarming rate. Dark stuff indeed. Doug Hansen, LCMS

  35. Comment by Arnold on September 2, 2019 at 9:25 pm

    I move that the ELCA remove the word Lutheran from their title.
    To go against the word of God is not what Luther intended.
    They are misguided, to say the least. God forgive them.

  36. Comment by Timothy Roesler on September 7, 2019 at 8:47 pm

    Clearly an ultra conservative blog with an agenda. This is why I read a varied number of different views of news. If I only read this, I would have missed most of the facts.

  37. Comment by MM on September 11, 2019 at 6:19 pm

    When did it become ultra conservative for Christians to proclaim Christ alone?

  38. Comment by Pastor Les LCMC ex ELCA on September 12, 2019 at 12:55 pm

    Zack, you are a brave man! The ELCA leaders are leading their flock over the cliff. I would not be surprised that the ELCA breaks tradition and endorses a liberal presidential candidate next year saying the welfare of the nation is at stake. Moderates, Republicans, and conservatives or people that just believe the bible might want to look else where.

  39. Comment by Robert on September 16, 2019 at 2:46 pm

    As a former clergyman of the ELCA, I’ve wondered for quite a while in precisely what sense it is “Evangelical,” in what sense “Lutheran,” and- especially since it has now departed from Scripture on what Luther called “the article by which the Church stands or falls- in what sense it can be called “church,” even though I do not doubt that the church is still to be found in its midst.

    We should be clear, however, on the point that whatever else may be said, the ***A is most assuredly in America.

  40. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on September 17, 2019 at 9:35 am

    This is a good question: I’m sometimes asked by non-Lutherans why it is that the most liberal U.S. Lutheran denomination calls itself “evangelical”. This derives from the European meaning of the word, which basically serves as a synonym for Protestant. It does not imply belief in, for example, the Bebbington quadrilateral, as most U.S. evangelicals understand it.

  41. Comment by Pastor Les LCMC on September 20, 2019 at 10:43 am

    Within the ELCA’s newly adopted inter-faith policy statement I discovered that it is almost a mirror image of the recently Encyclical written by Ioannes Paulus PP. 11
    The current Pope.
    Half way into the Encyclical, he writes:
    “For this reason the Council, after affirming the centrality of the Paschal Mystery, went on to the declare that “this applies not only to Christians but to all people of good will in whose hearts grace is secretly at work. Since Christ died for everyone, and since the ultimate calling of each of us comes from God and is therefore a universal one, we are obliged to hold that the Holy Spirit offers EVERYONE the possibility of sharing in the Paschal Mystery in a manner know to God. My emphases on everyone. Appears we are following the Pope more than Luther.

  42. Comment by gary on December 29, 2019 at 2:25 pm

    Here is the best method to convert an atheist to faith in Jesus Christ:


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