There are some very important and potentially divisive issues facing our church in convention this July. The more information that delegates can have in front of them before making decisions, the better it is for the delegates, for us and for the ELCIC. And so, in the interest of church unity and a more informed dialogue, here are some reflections on the theology and implications of the motions on same sex blessings put forward by the NCC.
There are several problems with the motions as they exist. The most serious one is the theology. In downplaying “disagreement over moral issues,” point #1 of the NCC motions, the motion concerning the Unity of the Church downplays the importance that Luther placed on the preaching of the Law and its role in preparing us to receive the gospel.
Lutherans are required to preach both Law and Gospel. And there is good reason for this. Luther states that although the Law does not on its own justify, but because the Law prepares us to receive grace, we cannot be saved unless it is properly preached! If we wish to call ourselves Lutherans, we cannot dismiss the preaching of the Law as motion #1 of the NCC motions does.
In brief, here are some of Luther’s statements about the Law’s importance for justification: “For as long as the presumption of righteousness remains in a [person], there remains immense pride, self-trust, smugness, hate of God, contempt of grace and mercy, ignorance of the promises and of Christ. The proclamation of free grace and the forgiveness of sins does not enter [that person’s] heart and understanding, because that huge rock and solid wall, namely, the presumption of righteousness by which the heart itself is surrounded, prevents this from happening. . . . To break and crush it, God needs a large and powerful hammer, that is, the Law . . .”(Luther’s Works Vol. 26 p. 310).
“To the question, If the Law does not justify, what is its purpose? Paul therefore, replies: Although the Law does not justify, it is nevertheless extremely useful and necessary. . . . It has this value, that grace can have access to us. Therefore the Law is a minister and a preparation for grace (Luther’s Works Vol. 26 p. 314).
Therefore we do not abolish the Law; but we show its true function and use, namely, that it is a most useful servant impelling us to Christ. . . . When the Law drives you this way, so that you despair of everything that is your own and seek help and solace from Christ, then it is being used correctly; and so, through the Gospel, it serves the cause of justification” (Luther’s Works Vol. 26 pp. 315-316).
This is the absolute heart of the issue which is at stake here—the correct preaching of Lutheran doctrine so that people can be saved. Obviously then, given how different the NCC motion is from Luther’s own perspectives on the Law’s importance, with all respect to those who have proposed it, it would be difficult if not impossible to pass this motion through our national convention and still call ourselves Lutherans.
The second difficulty with this motion is that it is almost certainly schismatic and will provoke a large-scale split within the ELCIC. Similar motions passed through the ELCA national assembly in 2009 provoked a large-scale split there. Over 1000 congregations have already left the ELCA and still more are considering leaving.
Furthermore, the NCC cannot attempt to push through a motion with questionable doctrine and then use the argument for national church unity to avoid the consequences of its actions. Luther himself criticized the Pope for the same tactic. “In our time, whenever the pope does not have the authority of the Scriptures on his side, he always uses this same single argument against us: The church, the church!” (Luther’s Works Vol. 26 p. 15).
For Luther and Lutherans, the basis for church unity is not adherence to a certain church body, like it is with the Roman Catholics. For Lutherans, correct doctrine is the basis for church unity. That was the reason the Reformation happened in the first place.
Third, this divisive motion hurts the world’s poor. We do more as a church than merely exist. Through our gifts to CLWR we help the poorest of the poor. Some of the world’s poor need our aid even to remain alive. But if we split our denomination by passing the NCC motion, then we will have fewer resources available to help those in the world who most need it. If we truly care about justice, then those with the greatest needs have to be foremost among our concerns. The poor have to be considered first!
Fourth, the ELCIC is bound by its constitution to follow the Scriptures. In the case of women’s ordination, there are many and very good passages from Scripture that support it, (Deborah, leading the Israelites, Priscilla, together with her husband Aquilla leading churches, just to name a few.) But with respect to homosexuality, there is no place in the Scriptures that speaks about it positively. Raymond E. Brown has been hailed by many other New Testament scholars as being North America’s foremost New Testament scholar, noted as being neither liberal nor conservative. Yet even a mainstream scholar like Brown strongly states that the Scriptures critique homosexual practice (See Brown’s: An Introduction to the New Testament pp. 528-531). If we pass this motion we violate the ELCIC constitution and its statements about Scriptural primacy.
For all these reasons: preservation of Lutheran doctrine, church unity, concern for the lives of the poor, not betraying the trust of ELCIC members past and present, adherence to the ELCIC constitution and it statements of Scriptural primacy, I urge all delegates to defeat the NCC motions.
ELCIC Pastor Bart Eriksson, MDiv., ThM. (New Testament).