The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Comments on a Failed Merger
Pastor Mark D. Menacher, PhD St. Luke’s Lutheran Church La Mesa, California
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) often seeks to grab the headlines. When it does so, the secular media often tend to report the ways in which the ELCA has not only made the news but has also
departed from the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ. Exemplifying this well, recent headlines widely report the decisions of the ELCA’s 2009 churchwide assembly to sanction and bless practically all aspects of the lives of those in homosexual relationships. Whereas these recent headlines are perceived by many as a radical departure from historical tenets of the Christian faith, in reality such headlines are only symptomatic of a much deeper problem in the ELCA. Simply put, the ELCA has not departed from the tenets of the Christian faith because it never really stood on them in the first place. As an institution founded on the ideals of religious humanism, from its inception the ELCA has been a failed merger waiting to unravel. What does this mean? To answer that question a little review of history is needed. The ELCA resulted from a merger of the American Lutheran Church (ALC), the Lutheran Church in America (LCA), and the Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches (AELC), which split from the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. Incorporated in 1986, constituted in 1987, formed in 1988, and made operational in 1989, the ELCA was proclaimed to be a “New Lutheran Church.” This new Lutheran church was to have “three expressions,” a national expression, a synodical expression, and a congregational expression. In this structure, the power flows top-down, and the money and resources are drawn from the bottom up.
Notably, the ELCA’s eighth article of incorporation states that “the Church shall have no members with voting rights.” Thus, despite all the voting that transpires in the ELCA, none of it resembles representative democracy. So-called “voting members” at synod or churchwide assemblies represent no one but themselves and are accountable to no one.
When sinners, well-intentioned or not, assemble and become a law unto themselves, the situation is at best precarious. Unfortunately, even well intentioned sinners can be misled. This is unfortunately a real phenomenon in the ELCA. The central problem of the ELCA, however, resides not in its hierarchical structure but rests rather at its foundation. The ELCA is a failed merger because it was conceived and built
upon a humanistic ideology which may be aptly dubbed the “gospel of inclusivity.” Adoption of this false gospel means not only abandoning biblical and Lutheran confessional theology, but it chiefly means abandoning the gospel of Jesus Christ itself. Where the gospel of inclusivity supersedes the gospel of Jesus Christ, sin is necessarily redefined as any form of exclusiveness contrary to this ideology.
The consequences for Lutheran theology and church are thus profound. In the gospel of inclusivity, law supersedes the gospel of Christ. Churchwide assemblies have more authority than Scripture. Constitutions trump the Lutheran confessions. Religious humanism supplants sound theology. Political “human rights” overshadow the justification of sinners by faith alone. Finally, the gospel of inclusivity necessitates incorporating both sinners and the practicing of their sins.
With all its hopes and aspirations, this “new Lutheran church” quickly became a non-Lutheran church. Paradoxically and pathologically, the ELCA’s false gospel of inclusivity regularly manifests itself as an
incurable form of institutional narcissism (incurvatus in se) from which it is unlikely ever to recover.
As emotive and as newsworthy as the ELCA’s recent decisions on homosexuality may be, viewed through the lens of Lutheran theology, such decisions are again only symptomatic of the ELCA’s deeper problem.
The ELCA’s propensity to prefer a false gospel to Christ’s true gospel stems from its inability to differentiate the law from the gospel. This inability to distinguish between law and gospel arises from the ELCA’s refusal to observe the Bible as the source and norm of its ecclesial life. Most telling in this regard is the ELCA’s current Bible promotional program called “The Book of Faith Initiative.” As the title denotes, the Bible is not primarily the Word of God but is rather a “book of faith,” containing stories by and of people who once believed in God. As a result, the Bible is at best authoritatively on par with the lives and stories of believers today. Regarding human sexuality, biblical figures of faith are often deemed irrelevant to modern people. In fact, the inviolability of individual faith today means that deviating from the Bible is not only permissible but at times preferable. Therefore, an ELCA churchwide assembly accountable to no one, whose actions are open to orchestrated manipulation, can thus be persuaded in the name of inclusivity to adopt legislation both contrary to Scripture and contradicting God’s Word in law and gospel. If Scripture is passé in the ELCA, then the Bible’s central message regarding the justification of sinners through faith alone is likewise open to neglect and abuse. This is most evidently seen by the ELCA’s reception of the so-called Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) at its 1997 churchwide assembly. Almost unanimously, the ELCA gleefully adopted this Lutheran World Federation – Vatican document despite the fact that JDDJ did not accurately represent a Reformation understanding of justification. When this controversial document later became impossible to sign, the ELCA helped rescue JDDJ with another document called the Official Common Statement (OCS), which was signed on Reformation Day 1999 in Augsburg, Germany. Although the OCS contains a Roman Catholic understanding of justification and although it was signed instead of JDDJ, the ELCA consistently and mendaciously proclaims that JDDJ was signed and that the theological differences regarding justification at the time of the Reformation are thus resolved. Notably, since 1999 the Vatican has issued no fewer than nine indulgences, all the while incurring no objections from the ELCA.
At present, the ELCA is busy preparing to observe the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017. So, how will a “non-Lutheran” church mark this occasion? How will the ELCA celebrate Luther’s 95 Theses
denouncing indulgences when it cannot muster a faint objection today? How will the ELCA proclaim the gospel of justification by faith alone (sola fide) when it basically agrees with a Roman Catholic understanding of justification? How will the ELCA heed the Reformers’ call to the Word alone (solo verbo) when the Bible has become primarily a book about believers?
When the merger became operational, the ELCA had 5.3 million members. According to a recent ELCA News Service report, that membership now stands at 4.6 million. By its own statistics, the ELCA is failing. This numerical failure reflects the theological and ethical failure of the false gospel of inclusivity.
The Reformation tenets of Word alone, faith alone, and Scripture alone are all predicated on the one man, Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus). In contrast to the Reformation, the ELCA has left Christ alone, and thus it has also left the Word alone and faith alone in order to become a self-possessed institution of sinful
human religiosity. It will be interesting to review the membership statistics of this failed merger on Reformation Day 2017.