Monday, May 31, 2010

The Descent Into Liberalism and Women's Ordination

Robert Benne, at First Things, has a lucid and concise account of what happened to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America over the past 30 years after its creation out of the union of two previously existing Luther denominations: the American Lutheran Church and the Lutheran Church in America.
In its August 2009 Churchwide Assembly, the Evangelical Lutheran Church decided formally to leave the Great Tradition of orthodox Christianity for a declining and desiccated liberal Protestantism. The decisions it made—accepting a weak and confused social statement on sexuality, allowing blessings of gay unions, ordaining gays and lesbians in partnered relationships, and requiring Lutherans to respect each other’s “bound conscience” on these issues—crossed the “line in the sand” that separates revisionist Christians from orthodox.
So how did a once confessionally-orthodox Church slip into heresy and confusion?
That result was a foregone conclusion for critical observers who had been watching the ELCA carefully since its inception in the late eighties. . . . The planners of the new Lutheran church saw to it that those who provided theological guidance to predecessor churches—then almost exclusively white and male—were marginalized from the real decision-making centers of church life.

One of their instruments was a quota system that insured that the more “progressive” elements of the church would be overrepresented. Every committee, task force, and voting body must be comprised of 60 percent laypeople of whom half must be female and 40 percent of clergy of whom half must be female. 10 percent must be people of color or people whose first language is other than English, of whom half must be female. This scheme dramatically reduced the role of white, male pastors in the church.

Other instruments were: making the Bishops merely advisory; categorizing theologians as only one interest group among others; and locating final authority in lay-dominated, semiannual assemblies that could vote even on doctrinal matters, as one fatefully did in August 2009. These bodies made sure there would be “many voices” in the life of the ELCA, and we now have “many voices,” but no authoritative ones. What is left of classical Lutheranism in the ELCA is a mere “aroma in the bottle.”
The multi-cultural, politically-correct, voting quota system ensured that the theologically trained pastors could not function as shepherds of the flock. Thus confusion reigned in the same way that it would have reigned in the New Testament Church if the apostles had not exercised their God-given ministry.

Benne then discusses the decision of two organizations within the ECLA to form some sort of new denominational structure to ensure the continuing of Gospel ministry.
The two organizations formed to resist the direction of the ELCA—the Word Alone Network and Lutheran CORE—have redefined themselves. Neither desires to continue organized resistance within the ELCA, which they regard as futile. Both have turned their attention to building new organizations independent of the ELCA, as they seek to provide harbors for those in search of a church beyond their congregations.

The Word Alone Network has become Word Alone Ministries, which provides educational and worship materials, mission opportunities, and theological education for the church that it founded earlier. That church, or better, that “association of congregations,” is the Lutheran Congregations in Ministry for Christ. The LCMC was formed during the fracas over an agreement, between the ELCA and the Episcopal Church, Called to Common Mission, which required ordination to the historic episcopacy for Lutheran pastors and bishops. That requirement was anathema to the mostly Midwestern, low church Lutherans. The LCMC now lists 410 member congregations, with 191 having joined since last August. Among them are some of the largest Lutheran churches in America.

Representing the “evangelical catholic” or high church wing of the church, Lutheran CORE redefined itself after the fiasco of August 2009 as a coalition for the renewal and reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America. Though it had no initial desire to start yet another Lutheran church, CORE responded to the wave of churches wanting to leave the ELCA for a more “churchly” organization than Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ, and hopes to facilitate the birth of the new North American Lutheran Church next August. It is uncertain just how many congregations will be on board at its founding.

Both CORE and the NALC see themselves as instruments of a reconfiguration of Lutheranism in North America—CORE as an ongoing convocation of Lutheran teaching theologians, and the NALC as an ecclesia embodying those teachings.
He ends with this prophecy:
Whatever comes of these ventures remains to be seen. If the Holy Spirit blesses them they will flourish and provide new beginnings for Lutheranism in America. For many they are the last, great efforts to live out the promise of Lutheranism as a church on this continent. If they fail, the only remaining option may be a bracing swim across the Tiber.
Several of those who commented on this post expressed astonishment that Benne didn't even mention the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod as a hope for future expression of orthodox Lutheranism. In reply, Benne wrote:
Thanks to you--most of you--for the engaging remarks about my assessment of where we are in American Lutheranism. I think I do owe a couple of clarifications to my article. . . . Now to a difficult topic...why not the Missouri Synod as "one of the last best hopes for Lutheranism in North America." Missouri certainly hasn't gone off the tracks like the ELCA has and perhaps can become that vital expression of Lutheranism in America we had hoped for in the ELCA. I hope it does precisely that and wish it well. I should have spoken more personally about hopes for such a Lutheran renewal. While I have great respect and even fondness for many expressions of Missouri and would join some of its parishes in a hearbeat, I could probably not find a home there for two reasons. One is women's ordination. I know of too many fine ELCA women pastors to deny the validity of their ordination. One of my own pastors is a fine woman pastor. Second, the quasi-fundamentalism of some of the Missouri guiding documents would probably guarantee that I would not last long as a theological ethicist in the Missouri Synod. Some suspicious someone could ask me if I believed in the seven-day creation and with my answer I would be meshed in a controversy that I certainly would not want at this stage of my life. I need more intellectual freedom than would be available, I fear.
So, in the name of being Catholic and Evangelical, Benne holds up the recent innovation of women's ordination as the sine qua non of the Biblical and historically orthodox Church. Is this not strange in the extreme? Missouri Synod Lutheran Paul T. McCain replies:
A friend pointed out to me today that Robert Benne has offered a brief response to some of the comments on this thread. It is a shame he did not apologize for the sweeping statements he makes about the "last best hope" for Lutheranism being in those splinter organizations from the ELCA he is now involved in, statements that seemed to go out of their way to ignore and snub The LCMS.

The friend who pointed me to Benne's most recent comments noted the following:

I see that Robert Benne has "replied" to his responders. Frankly, the disappointment of his remarks are only superseded by their sheer inanity. Could not go to the LCMS because of his fear that the literal interpretation of the Scriptures would cause him controversy, and, of course, we do not ordain women. He knows too many good women pastors not to recognize the validity of their ordinations.

It remains too true that for these people the mark of the church is an enthusiasm from the 60's. "True" Lutheranism ordains women. Well, so much for "evangelical catholicism." Why the deconstruction of Trinitarian language was not sufficient for them to leave ELCA is a mystery. It took the deviance of sexual ethics to move them off the block. And they don't get it.

When everything is said and done, the LCMS remains closer to Rome and the rest of the catholic tradtion than these self-styled "catholics."
I find this exchange highly revealing. Benne seems caught in an impossible situation. On the one hand, he lays out clearly how the Marxist-feminist ideology of power was used to destroy the ECLA, but, on the other hand, he cannot really extricate himself from that ideology long enough to consider the possibility that the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod had perhaps been right all along in not accepting women's ordination as the foot in the door for numerous other heresies that followed along behind.

His fear of fundamentalism seems a bit over-wrought. I too function in a denomination in which young earth creationism is widespread, but it is not a test of fellowship. The final sentence in McCain's reply is consistent with my experience as well; the high church pretensions of liberal Protestants in the Lutheran and Anglican traditions are a superficial kind of catholicism. The tough-minded orthodoxy of the Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist Convention is a lot closer to Rome than all the smells and bells of pomp and ceremony.

In the end, the most significant division in the Church today may be between those who do and those who don't ordain women and those Evangelicals and catholics who do ordain women may find themselves occupying a space that they find more and more uncomfortable.


Anonymous said...

I have critiqued Benne's recent and past comments on my own blog.

I would like to respond to two of your comments near the end of your article.

First,I think you wrongly minimize the difficulties wrought by fundamentalist thinking, which is somewhat an oxymoron. It is impossible to participate in an intellectual discussion with those whose basic attitude is anti-intellectual. The patch of common assumptions is too small to grow a meaningful discussion.

Secondly, although you and I probably disagree on the merits of female ordination, I think you are correct in recognizing the inherant difficulties of the Lutheran CORE/NALC types who tepidly allow female ordination while vehemently opposing gay ordination. Holding these two views is difficult from a scriptural interpretive standpoint and also on the more visceral level as there appears to a relationship between distrust of the feminine and distrust of the gay.

Craig Carter said...

I think your definition of "Fundamentalist" must be different from mine. For you it seems to mean "irrational." Historically, the word was used to refer to the conservative party in the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversies of the early 20th centuries. Most Fundamentalists were well-educated and stood clearly within the tradition of the Church.

Because of the cultural Marxism of the political class, the term "Fundamentalist" has been turned into a emoticon, a slang term of opprobrium used by the media and other under-educated types to dismiss a conservative position without thought or logic. A person who uses it this way is thus a person who rejects without understanding.

Hence, you are being ironic without knowing it.