Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Robert Benne on the Fall of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Respected Lutheran theologian writes on how his denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, became the first confessional Protestant denomination to abandon the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy for the heresy of liberal Protestantism. Elements of his analysis are very illuminating.

First, Benne explains how the social gospel has replaced the biblical gospel in the ECLA:
"There is nothing but the social gospel," shouted a voting member at the assembly. But that is certainly not Lutheran doctrine. The various programs of social change taken to heart by the church are human works in God's left-hand reign, having to do with the Law, not the gospel. Rather, the real gospel is clear: the grace of God in Jesus Christ is offered to repentant sinners condemned by the Law and then called to amendment of life by the Spirit. Liberating efforts in the realm of social and political change are possibly effects of the gospel, but certainly not the gospel itself.

But the ELCA has accepted the social gospel as its working theology, even though its constitution has a marvelous statement of the classic gospel. The liberating movements fueled by militant feminism, multiculturalism, anti-racism, anti-heterosexism, anti-imperialism, and now ecologism have been moved to the center while the classic gospel and its missional imperatives have been pushed to the periphery."

It is interesting to note that in the first great defection from Evangelicalism during the Fundamentalist-Modernist Conterversy of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the pattern was established in which at first the social gospel was declared to be equal in importance with the classical gospel and then, in a generation or two, the classic gospel began to be downplayed. Then the point is reached where the classical gospel is denied altogether. In the words of the delegate quoted above, "There is nothing but the social gospel." Katherine Jefferts Schori said pretty much the same thing at the Episcopal Church USA General Convention in July when she said that the gospel of personal salvation was a heresy.

The results of this shift from gospel (the good news of sin and salvation through Christ) to law (the social agenda of works derived from left wing secularism) are as follows:
"The policies issuing from these liberationist themes are non-negotiable in the ELCA, which is compelling evidence that they are at the center. No one can dislodge the ELCA's commitment to purge all masculine language about God from
its speech and worship, to demur on the biblically normative status of the nuclear family, to refuse to put limits on abortion in its internal policies or to advocate publicly for pro-life policies, to press for left-wing public domestic and foreign policy, to replace evangelism abroad with dialog, to commit to "full inclusion" of gays and lesbians at the expense of church unity, and to buy in fully to the movement against global warming. Though it is dogmatic on these issues, it is confused about something as important as the assessment of homosexual conduct. Yet, it acts anyway because of the pressure exerted by those who want to liberate church and society from heterosexism."

The combination of rigid dogmatism and clueless permissiveness on various issues is indicative of a mind that has lost its grip on reality and is wandering aimlessly without any sense of tradition. Benne's insights into the process by which this happened in the ECLA are stiking:

"The ELCA has a particular history that has compounded these problems. The mid-1980s planning stage of the ELCA was dramatically affected by a group of radicals who pressed liberationist (feminist, black, multiculturalist, gay) legislative initiatives right into the center of the ELCA structures.

Among them was a quota system that skews every committee, council, task force, synod assembly, and national assembly toward the "progressive" side. (There are quotas for representing specific groups in all the organized activity
of the church. Sixty percent must be lay, 50 percent must be women, 10 percent must be people of color or whose language is other than English. The losers, of course, are white male pastors; our Virginia delegation to the assembly, for example, had only one male pastor among its eight elected members.)

Further, the prescribed structure distanced the 65 bishops from the decision-making of the church. The bishops have only influence, not power. (Aware of their divisiveness, the bishops voted 44-14 to require a two thirds majority for the enactment of the Sexuality Task Force's policy recommendations, but were ignored
by both the church council and the Assembly.) Theologians were given no formal,
ongoing, corporate role in setting the direction of the ELCA. They, too, were kept at a distance and actually viewed as one more competing interest group.

The radicals so decisive in the defining moments of the ELCA intended
to smash the authority of the influential theologians and bishops
who had informally kept both the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America on course. The radicals wanted many voices and perspectives, especially
those of the "marginalized," put forward in the ongoing deliberations of the
ELCA. They were so successful that now, after 20 years, there is no
authoritative biblical or theological guidance in the church. There are only
many voices. The 2009 Assembly legitimated those many voices by adapting a
"bound-conscience" principle, according to which anyone claiming a
sincerely-held conviction about any doctrine must be respected. The truth of the
Bible has been reduced to sincerely-held opinion."

This decision on homosexuality has as its background several decades of determined work by radical activists determined to de-theologize the church and impose a secular, leftist agenda on the church. The theologians and bishops called to defend the faith of the church were marginalized and then out-voted.

It is interesting to note the importance Benne assigns to the quota system that skewed every board, task force or other representative body in favor of the progressives. That makes sense and it would appear that any denomination that wishes to remain orthodox must find a way to avoid such skewing of representative bodies in the liberal direction.

I wonder if this is the real reason why denominations that have embraced the ordination of women, in the name of the secular ideology of power that undergirds feiminism, have all found themselves drifting inexorably in a liberal direction. I wonder if this means that churches have basic choice to make: either reject women's ordination or face an inevitable left-ward drift. Someone should do some empirical investigation of this question. Is is possible that feminism is the great enabler of liberal drift?

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