A Damaged Steeple, a Polarized Church, and the End of Sola Scriptura 

About a week and a half ago, three significant votes were taken at the biennial Churchwide Assembly of the ELCA, held in Minneapolis from August 17-23, 2009. MANY things were voted on, of course, and there was significance to all of it on some level, but I wanted to draw your attention to the issue that made the news (front page of many papers, including the LA Times).

A Simple Policy Change
The first vote was regarding “policy changes.” The Council of Bishops recommended that, instead of requiring  a 2/3rds super majority vote for policy changes, as was done at previous Churchwide Assemblies  on this issue, only a simple majority vote would be required. This was a necessary step in what was to come, because the final goal of the assembly, the approval of openly gay, non-celibate clergy, would never achieve a 67% vote. It had never made it in the past, and those pushing the agenda were weary of the battle (as is everyone in the church), so all the stops were being pulled out. If this simple voting change was approved, then everything would fall into place. It was approved by a vote of 584-436, so the stage was set.

Scripture vs. Reason and Experience... Scripture lost
The second vote had to do with the most recent version of the Study on Human Sexuality.  This study, in the opinion of many conservative Lutheran pastors, lay people and scholars, gives modern culture and personal opinion, filtered through our own reason and experience, priority above the clear language of scripture in matters of human sexuality. 

A 2/3rds, “supermajority” vote was required to pass this document, as is required for such statements of the church. It passed with exactly the number of votes required (676-338), coming in at 66.67%. Interesting number...  During a Bible study and during some of the debate on the study, a tornado struck “out of nowhere,” damaging the steeple of Central Lutheran Church (right next door to where the ELCA was meeting) – twisting the cross and turning it upside down. Also interesting...

Now, I’m not saying that the tornado was a sign of anything – after all, God NEVER works through signs and wonders, or wind... does he? I’m just saying that it’s an interesting, and some are finding it, meaningful commentary on the action that took place. Some just saw a storm; some saw something else. (Some have spontaneously burst into song with the old hymn, “Built on a rock the church shall stand, even when steeples are falling.” I’m just sayin’...)

Rev. Carl E. Braaten, a truly well known  and well-respected Lutheran theologian and teacher, in his address to the Lutheran Coalition for Reform (CORE) conference in October of 2008, even likens this statement to the ancient heresies of Gnosticism (“The word Gnosticism comes from the Greek word ‘gnosis,’ which means ‘knowledge.’ The knowledge in question concerns the secret mystery of life that arises from within the self. The God of Gnosticism is the experiential God identical with what seems most authentic and real in each individual soul”) and Marcionism (“Marcion... was the second century heretic who threw out the Old Testament because it contains the story of God’s creation and the giving of his law – the Ten Commandments. He wanted to keep only a few New Testament books and the sweet honey of the gospel and the love of God. He was a Gnostic. The ELCA draft statement follows in Marcion’s line. It ignores the Old Testament, the doctrine of creation, the Ten Commandments and appeals only to the New Testament gospel of the incarnation and justification by faith. It is so wrong”).  http://www.lutherancore.org/pdf/Braaten-critique-of-ELCA.pdf

Elsewhere, Braaten quotes H. Richard Neibuhr’s assessment of the kind of liberal Protestantism that the ELCA is embracing: “A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministry of a Christ without a cross.”

Sola Scriptura, Latin for “Only Scripture,” was one of Luther’s foundational teachings. That teaching set him apart from culture and the church of his day, which had co-opted faith and religion, turning the church into little more than a means to control people and extort money from them by means of fear and intimidation. His rediscovery of scripture as the ONLY source of understanding faith and life literally changed the course of the church and of history. Without the scriptures, we would know nothing  of the other Solas that Luther discovered: Sola Christus (Christ alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), and Sola Fide (Faith Alone).

Our own church constitution, taken from the ELCA’s Model Constitution, says, “This congregation accepts the canonical Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as the inspired Word of God and the authoritative source and norm of its proclamation, faith, and life.” And so we do. But the new Sexuality Study deliberately limits the authority of scripture, minimizes and virtually eliminates the concept of Sola Scriptura, and subordinates what the Bible teaches to human reason and experience. Once that was accomplished, the stage was further set for what was inevitably to come next. Nothing could really stop it.

A Twenty-Year Special Interest Agenda Finally Achieved
With the requirement of a supermajority eliminated and the authority of Scripture over matters of faith and life in the church all but eliminated, the vote was finally taken: Adopted by a vote of 559-451: “Resolved, that the ELCA commit itself to finding a way for people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.” Fearing a backlash by pastors and churches that disagree with this decision, this was put into an accompanying resolution (it’s a common tactic in the ELCA – if there is resistance, exempt those who might vote against whatever is up for a vote, or simply refuse to define something that is in dispute until another “study” is done, so that it will pass and eventually become policy):

      “This resolution called upon members to respect the bound consciences of
      those with whom they disagree; declared the intent to allow structured flexibility in
      decision-making about candidacy and the call process; eliminated the prohibition
      of rostered service by members in publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous
      same-gender relationships; recognized and committed to respect the conviction of
      members who believe that the ELCA should not call or roster people in committed
      same-gender relationships; called for development of accountability guidelines;
      directed that appropriate amendments to ministry policy documents be drafted and
      approved by the Church Council; and urged that this church continue to trust
      congregations, bishops, synods and others responsible for determining who
      should be called into public ministry.”

So... churches would be allowed to decide on an individual basis whether or not to call someone in a “publicly accountable, livelong, monogamous, same-gender relationship to serve as pastor... We’ll see...  Already those who support that agenda are chaffing because there might be churches that refuse to call them based on their newly approved sexuality.

“Bound consciences” is an interesting phrase. What does it mean? I wish I were joking, but there’s going to be another study to determine what that means... I THINK it attempts to echo Luther, standing before the Diet at Worms, refusing to recant because his conscience was bound... But his was bound to the scriptures, not to personal bias or preference, and certainly not to special interest groups or political agendas. “Unless I can be instructed and convinced with evidence from the Holy Scriptures or with open, clear and distinct grounds and reasoning – and my conscience is captive to the Word of God – then I cannot and will not recant, because it is neither safe nor wise to act against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God Help me! Amen.”

Again, this is all about Scripture and our understanding of it as it relates to the church. Attempts to interpret what conservative pastors and lay people say on this as being anti-gay people is spurious, duplicitous, and, well, doesn’t respect our “bound consciences.”  All are welcome, all receive ministry, forgiveness is proclaimed to all who repent. Changing approved practice and ignoring clear scripture to accommodate ANYONE’s lifestyle who is offended by scripture is not right. What if this had been done throughout history? What would be left of scripture? What has happened to the church and the gospel when this does happen?

I am here trying to give you my take on the events that have recently transpired in the church. I have followed them closely for literally decades. While I’m neither a Luther scholar nor professional theologian, I am a conservative pastor who understands and respects the Scriptures as the basis for how Christians are to live and how the church conducts itself in the world. This statement and the resultant resolutions approving “publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous same-gender relationships” literally changes everything, fundamentally altering church custom and practice for clergy, changing the way the church understands and reads scripture, and will radically alter our ecumenical connections with most other churches throughout the world. This is in no way an overstatement...

With Conscience firmly bound and captive,

Pastor Lawrence Becker