The old Protestant denominations in America are at a crossroads. There can be no "peace" within their bounds until they decide to fully and openly embrace the Christian faith without dissimulation.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) faced a major crossroads this past week. This came after three years of deliberation. The vote was right but the leaders flinched big time! Time will tell if the results are catastrophic but the prognosis is not good unless the Lord intervenes in ways that we cannot see on the near horizon.
Yesterday, the national assembly of the ELCA rejected a proposal to allow non-celibate gays and lesbians, in committed relationships, to be ordained as ministers. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the vote was only 51% to 49% against the measure. Another measure to "bless" same-sex marriages was also narrowly defeated.
The reports coming from Orlando in today’s news suggest that both sides saw the vote as inconclusive. Small wonder since the assembly also overwhelming approved a resolution on unity in hopes of preventing further defections. The ELCA clearly wishes to continue to speak with a tragically divided voice. Let me demonstrate the point.
Bishop Stephen P. Bouman, of the metro New York synod, summarized all this quite well when he said the Lutheran church "is going to have a communal spirituality, not an issue-driven one." This is double speak which means that theology, and historic orthodoxy don’t really matter a great deal. In case you think I am too quick, or too reactionary, to draw this conclusion about a long anticipated decision, the New York bishop confirms my point when he adds that, "most regions of the country" already perform same-sex marriages thus this decision merely "allowed us to continue to have pastoral space in local situations for people to offer sensitive and graceful ministry to gay and lesbian people and their relations." Folks, that is certifiable double-speak!
I confess that it is not every day that I agree with a radical gay and lesbian advocacy group. In this case I do. The group Goodsoil said the ELCA’s decision was "sacrificing gay men and women on the altar of a false and ephemeral sense of unity." I agree, except that I think the ELCA sacrificed the gospel of Jesus Christ for a "false and ephemeral sense of unity."
The Presbyterian Church (USA) is facing the same issue. Certain presbyteries are currently seeking to go around the will of the denomination that has been expressed repeatedly through proper presbyterian methods for change in the past seven years. It is interesting that the PCUSA Constitution has a statement that speaks directly to this whole matter. The Constitution says: " . . . no opinion can be either more pernicious or more absurd than that which brings truth and falsehod upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s opinions are." Very good.
The sad truth is that by promoting, for at least two or three decades, the idea of inclusiveness and diversity these denominations have made unity their highest goal. It is well known that I have a very high view of unity. Indeed, I believe the disunity of most evangelical groups is a travesty. But the unity these old line groups promote has trumped theological and ethical clarity and thus real Christian conviction. The end result will be death. The evidence for my observation abounds. The PCUSA alone is currently losing over 40,000 members per year.
In all of these struggles it is the clergy who first get things wrong. Influenced by their seminaries, and by routine appeals to the social sciences that in themselves are inconclusive, these clergy are like the leaders of old who were questioned by Elijah when he asked, "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him. But the people said nothing" (1 Kings 18:21). The answer Ahab gave to Elijah is like that I fear was given by most leaders in the ELCA this week—accommodation. It will never work.
In my partnership with renewal leaders in the mainline I find again and again that it is the people in the pew who get the basic issues right. This week a Lutheran layman from South Dakota summarized it well when he said: "I am wondering if the song, ‘Anything Goes’ is going to be included in the new revised hymnal.’"