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Is the ELCA a church of Latter Day Lutherans?

by Pastor Neal Snider (Pastor emeritus, Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Marysville, WA)

September 23, 2005

I write in response to a posting by Pastor Paul Andell on July 29 in which a note on a chaplain’s door at Augsburg College, the content of which he could not recall, but which, in his opinion, "was politically correct in its absence of anything identifiably Christian," appalled him. From that posting he concludes, "I fear it represents how diluted and, yes, deluded Augsburg has become as an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America institution. With its strong heritage as a Lutheran Free school in Minneapolis, it once made no apology for its purpose."

I too, along with Pastor Andell, am an alumnus of Augsburg College. My background is in the Lutheran Free Church, and I graduated from Augsburg Theological Seminary. I have been a supporter of the WordAlone movement from its inception and was the first to organize a meeting of congregations in the Pacific Northwest in opposition to the action of the ELCA to adopt Called to Common Mission, a full communion agreement between the ELCA and The Episcopal Church USA. I believe that the WordAlone movement very closely parallels the emphases of the old Lutheran Free Church. I note these facts so that all will know that I am an "insider" offering a criticism of what I consider to be an unwarranted attack on Augsburg College. There have been years since my graduation from college in 1957 when I would not have bothered to write in defense of the school.

Apart from the question whether any institution other than the church can be Christian I offer the following:

  1. The note on the chaplain's door could not be recalled. We do not know the purpose for which the note was posted. Not all notes on professor's or chaplain's doors need be evangelical in nature.
  2. We do not know whether the chaplain is a tenured professor, nor whether, since the note was later removed, he was asked to remove it.
  3. We do not know under what administration the chaplain was hired. I am not willing to make a general and categorical statement of the nature of any institution on the basis of one note that does not have the sanction of the institution.
  4. I quote from "Augsburg 2004: Extending the Vision." "Christianity begins with God's grace. It is made concrete for Lutherans, as for all Christians, through God's saving action in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Thus Christians need not worry about salvation. That is God's free gift to them. Instead of having to justify their lives before God, Christians can live ‘in Christ’ to serve the created world and each other." (page 7). "Augsburg 2004: Extending the Vision" is an official publication of the school. In the Forward, President Bill Frame noted that the publication, ". . . culminates 18 months of community deliberation and dialogue in an articulation of Augsburg College's institutional self definition." I could not be prouder of my alma mater to so publicly identify itself with the "bulls eye" of the Christian faith, and submitting it to the public without apology. I would much prefer to identify an institution by its official publications than by a note on a chaplain’s door, the content of which has been forgotten.
  5. Last January I heard Dr. Frame preach in Phoenix when the Augsburg choir was touring in that area. He preached on I Corinthians 1:21. "For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe." Several days later Judy and I had dinner with Dr. and Mrs. Frame. I told him that there is no way under the sun that he could have preached that sermon when he came to Augsburg about six years ago. I said that I believe that he has had a mini-conversion experience while serving at Augsburg. He concurred with both observations.

There are numerous places where the ELCA can be criticized justly, but I am troubled when criticism becomes nit picky or lacks thoughtful reflection as appears in the posting by Pastor Andell. I can not tell what the future of Augsburg will be when President Frame leaves in the summer of 2006, but if it remains on the course outlined in "Augsburg 2004: Extending the Vision," I would be very pleased to have my grandchildren attend that school.

My response to Neal Snider

by Paul Andell (WordAlone board member; Pastor, St. James Lutheran Church, Philadelphia, PA)

I respect the strong support Pastor Neal Snider feels for Augsburg College written in response to my article. Apparently like him, I will always be grateful for the experience of Augsburg and its foundational direction for my life. I feel, however, he never read beyond the sentiment of my present convictions about the school to the larger issue. It was not about Augsburg.

Having said that, I do not agree at all that my reference to what my Evangelical Lutheran Church in America colleague and I saw posted is nit-picky. And just because I cannot quote it verbatim does not make me less a witness to what I read. Together we represent more than 60 years of Gospel ministry in the Church. We are both in WordAlone precisely for the thoughtful reflection Pastor Snider suggests I have not given to this topic.

If two experienced pastors of the ELCA walk away from the same posting with the same ire; that is not being trivial. Rev. Snider was in Washington and, perhaps, from that distance, assurances in a vision statement and from the school president are enough. I would agree that the vision statement is what it should be, focused on God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ.

But why isn’t that wonderful statement on every door, then, for students to read? Rev. Snider commends Augsburg for not being apologetic in its vision statement. I agree. Yet I feel the college has been as ambivalent about its wonderful evangelical Lutheran and Christian heritage as the ELCA in its witness.

What my friend and I read on the chaplain’s door reinforced the apologetic mainline church rhetoric that is tantamount to being ashamed of the Gospel. It was our experience. I hope Pastor Snider is right and I am wrong. My heart says differently.

Returning to what I wrote earlier, though, my article was not about Augsburg except to illustrate what Neal Snider denies at Augsburg, that is, the drift of the ELCA to some new place beyond Scripture and confession.

Something of a Katrina is blowing our church off its foundation and setting it down where it is not meant to be.