When the tension is lost, both sides will be poorer
As we enter 2009, I am saddened as I watch Scandinavian-American
Lutheranism come apart. We are about to lose our wonderful, powerful,
chaotic, life-giving tension. As we entered the 20th century, the newly-
merged Norwegian Lutheran Church and the Swedish-American Augustana
Synod both displayed a wide spectrum of piety, theology, and praxis. The
spectrum ran from evangelical pietists to gnesio-confessionalists, all in two
broad church bodies. And it was good.
After World War II, a third voice, the modern political left, began to be heard
as the military draft drove thousands of young men with particular political
views to our seminaries, seeking the desirable “divinity deferment.” The year
the draft ended, Luther Seminary’s incoming class was cut in half. In the
same era, young men could avoid the draft only by attending accredited
colleges. This greatly hurt the mission of the various (unaccredited) Lutheran
Bible Institutes, which had nurtured the pietistic wing for a couple
generations. The tension began to be lost.
Forty years later, as we head toward a win-lose 51 percent vote over
homosexual and lesbian ordination in the ELCA this summer, we are watching
this broad coalition come apart. The tension of theology and praxis created a
lively synthesis in the antecedent bodies of the ELCA. Because of it, worship,
evangelism, and our sense of mission had many voices, even if tensions were
endemic. When that tension is lost, both sides will be poorer for the lack of
Why is this coalition coming apart? Over the last century, theological tensions,
particularly over the role of Scripture in the predecessor bodies of the ELCA,
have been largely ignored. Hermeneutics, the study of how Scripture
functions as Scripture, has been largely abandoned for the past couple of
generations. (Was it because it was too divisive?) This has been horribly
costly, and is at the root of our current problem. But it has been exacerbated
by our inability to talk about our conflict; how Scandinavian of us! We have
become a very dysfunctional family.
In the past 20 years, when we should have been sitting down and patiently
talking about the role, function, and interpretation of Scripture, we haven’t.
We have instead seen the few opportunities to address the issue dissolve into
tactics and activism. Added to this has been the influence of alien
philosophies such as Liberation Theology, which calls the law (“justice”)
“gospel.” Lutherans, of all people, should never have fallen for that.
I believe on each side there are honestly decent people, trying to do what they
believe is right. The right wing believes God loves homosexual and lesbian
people, but differs from the left on how that love is best lived out in the
church. The left wing wants to make sure all people have civil rights and
believe they pursue “justice.” These desires are not diametrically opposed,
however, they have no intersection, so we talk past each other.
For us conservatives, “justice” is based on God’s revealed will according to
what the Lutheran Confessions consistently call “divine law,” as revealed in
Scripture. Conservatives would reject broad strokes of “justice” based on what
our culture or philosophies teach. No “justice” can contradict God’s loving,
Scripture-revealed purpose for humankind. Justice is not abstract; it’s
revealed by a loving God as we wrestle with Scripture.
A second question then appears: How enmeshed in the values of a culture
can a church become and still remain faithful? How much of culture can a
church absorb and still remain faithful to Scripture and its Confessions? We
have not been given the chance to discuss these things. Or we have not taken
the chance. Now, having not been able to work through our differences, we
are about to vote it up or down, and then many will leave.
The result will be the loss of our wonderful, powerful, chaotic, life-giving
tension. We will lose the chance to listen to each other. And our Lord is
Rev. Roland J. Wells, Jr., is senior pastor of St. Paul’s Evangelical Lutheran
Church, 1901 Portland Avenue