National Lutheran News

Sex and sin, grace and peace

Does the Lutheran diaspora constitute some kind of unity after all?

History shows that Christians have long been harsh with one another. This 1607 woodcut by a Jesuit, Christoph Andreas Fischer, “The Hutterite Anabaptist Pigeon Coop,” accuses that Protestant sect of witchcraft with its symbols — bats, brooms and more. Historian Adam Darlage described the symbolism at the 16th Century Society conference in Montreal in October.

Has 2010 left Lutherans more divided than ever? As united as ever? Both?

Christians have disputed vigorously ever since the first generation (Acts 15). And Protestants have been huffily hiving off ever since the Reformation in the 16th century.

So recent departures from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) are nothing new — right? Or does history suggest that something different is going on as congregations painfully parse?

It’s hard to say. Church historians are reluctant to talk about it. Few will go on the record — perhaps because they just don’t know where Lutheran flocks might wander. Yet how will we learn if not from history?

A few historians do speak up. One is the Rev. William Russell, an ELCA pastor who finds a call to duty in the difficulties Lutherans face.

Bitter divisions among Lutherans mean, he says, “that we teachers in the church need to redouble our efforts to teach.” The prevailing rancor, he says, stems “from competing definitions of the nature of the church.”

Yet all the while, the drawn-out dustup reflects abiding Lutheran unity, claims Russell, who is resident scholar with the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota. In that capacity he works to promote dialogue among Lutherans — while based at a Roman Catholic university.

From that vantage, the historical distinction between Lutherans and Catholics is clear. “The Augsburg Confession claims that pure preaching of the gospel and right administration of the sacraments are sufficient for the unity of the church,” says Pastor Russell. The Augsburg Confession, a vital Lutheran document from 1530, means that as Lutherans “we are free to disagree — even vehemently — without excommunicating one another over non-gospel issues,” he says.

Lutherans and the Hutterites

Lutherans have been through division and debate for five centuries. Today the presenting issue may be gay clergy, but the difficulties go well beyond that flashpoint — to scriptural authority, priority of mission, and who runs the parish.

In fact, another historian willing to speak up wished the ELCA had moved more quickly on the gay-clergy issue. After years of deliberation and study, “it reached a point when I just wanted a decision, so at least we all knew where the ELCA stood,” says Adam Darlage, who teaches at Oakton Community College, with campuses in Skokie and Des Plaines, Illinois.

Darlage, who like Russell holds a doctoral degree, studies how Christians have been less than kind to one another. For example, Darlage analyzed the meaning of a 1607 woodcut depicting Hutterites as pigeons, witches, and bigamists, and presented his findings at the 16th Century Society conference in Montreal in October. Bigamists? In those days, Hutterite leaders let members of their flock abandon spouses who wouldn’t convert, he says, and thereafter allowed remarriage. Hence the accusation.

Such long-ago vitriol informs our own century, says Darlage. Negative Christian attitudes and violence among Christians in the past, he says, “were, ironically, grounded in the enduring belief that only ‘true’ Christians are saved.” Grasping that point helps us understand why churchmen of the 16th century had little tolerance for heretics — yet they still wished to save these lost sheep, converting them by force if necessary.

Adam Darlage presents paper about Lutherans in history at 16th Century Society conference.

“We are free to disagree — even vehemently — without excommunicating one another.”

That long-ago coercion — worst, perhaps, the threat of burning at the stake — today is out of the question. Yet, says Darlage, “the persuasive rhetoric of salvation and damnation still persists among many Christian groups.”

He sees the 21st century working itself out in much the same way as the 20th. “Both schisms and ecumenical efforts at reconciliation will continue,” he predicts. “New alliances will form and old ones will dissolve, primarily on the basis of whether one group believes another is sufficiently Christian to warrant fellowship or not.”

In short, be ready for some doctrinal dipsy-doodle. Scripture-quoting breakaway congregations oppose gay clergy but allow women pastors. Other significant Lutheran synods, including Missouri and Wisconsin, quote Scripture in allowing neither.

A witness to the world

Does this mean people are cherry-picking the Bible? If so, it would carry on a grand old Lutheran tradition. Luther himself preferred some books of the Bible to others, notes Darlage. (Remember James, the “epistle of straw” — Luther’s putdown stemming from his judgment that the author seemed to give priority to works over faith?)

So if we’re slicing and dicing Scripture, it’s nothing new. Historically, says Darlage, “it would be unfair to say that either side is doing anything that Luther or other Lutherans have not already done in the name of Lutheran identity.”

Where’s the silver lining? It’s this: If the world is watching while Lutherans go ahead and fight it out even as they treat one another with decency and respect — if they stay united on the key point of salvation by faith — that makes them still all good Lutherans, right?

“In fact,” says Pastor Russell, “we could present a valuable witness to the world if we would debate and disagree openly, while still living in our gospel-given unity”

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